Archive for April, 2013

Oblivion

Posted: April 24, 2013 in Film reviews
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Directed by Joseph Kosinski. Starring Tom Cruise, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough and Morgan Freeman.

A big budget sci-fi film starring Tom Cruise and directed by the man who made Tron Legacy, but is it a stellar success or should it be cast into the nearest black hole?

The year is 2077 and the Earth is a wasteland. In 2017 aliens called Scavs arrived in the solar system. They blew up Earth’s moon and then invaded the planet. Humanity fought back but the battle became so desperate that mankind had to utilise nukes, which meant though they won the war, there wasn’t much of Earth left. The survivors have left, most to Saturn’s moon, Titan, the rest to the Tet, a giant space station where they’re preparing for the trip to Titan.

Down on Earth giant processing machines are sucking up the planet’s remaining water to use as fuel for the journey to Saturn. Trouble is some Scavs remain on the planet, and they’re determined to destroy the processing plants. Automated drones fight the Scavs off, but when they’re damaged Jack Harper (Cruise) repairs them, ably assisted by his partner Vicca (Riseborough) and Sally, their supervisor on the Tet, seen only via a video link.

Things are going well and it’s only two weeks till Jack (just for once I’d like a hero who wasn’t called Jack!) and Vicca will leave Earth to join their fellow survivors on the Tet. Jack has doubts, he doesn’t really want to leave Earth, he’s got a secret hideaway where he’s gathered a bunch of artefacts (records, books etc.) plus he’s haunted by dreams of a woman he’s never met.

Then one day an escape pod crashes on Earth, and inside in a statis pod is Julia (Kurylenko) who happens to be the girl Jack’s been dreaming about…

I saw Oblivion in Imax, and the visuals are truly stunning. It’s a beautiful film, full of sleek minimalist future technology. It was filmed in Iceland, and the scenery is gorgeous, and quite different from many things you’ll have seen before; in fact I think better use of the Icelandic locations is made than it was in Prometheus.

Oblivion is a film very aware of its roots, some might say too aware, and it’s filled with call outs to other films, from Planet of the Apes to The Matrix, Independence Day to Wall-E, but whilst some reviewers have focused on its unoriginality, I actually found the familiarity a boon. To be honest it resembles so many other films that, though you think you know what’s going on, you might just be being misdirected, and though some reviewers have called it predictable it actually managed to surprise me in places.

It’s a film of three parts; a sterile, mysterious opening third focusing almost exclusively on Jack and Vicca, a slightly limp middle section once Julia’s awake that feels a little like Mad Max, and a final third where any pretence of mystery is cast aside in favour of dogfights, machine guns and explosions…lots of explosions. I actually liked each bit, even if I did find the middle section the weakest of the three, and I certainly didn’t find the shift from cerebral sci-fi to action film too jarring.

Despite a two hour running time (which isn’t that long these days) this is a film that still takes its time to set the mood and introduce the characters, and isn’t afraid to spend time doing nothing except staring at the desolate landscape, or the tears rolling down Andrea Riseborough’s cheeks.

Cruise is excellent in the lead, and I say that as someone who isn’t always his biggest fan, and though his star persona does overshadow things, he’s a good actor and he gives it his all. Morgan Freeman isn’t asked to do a lot, but his role is at least more of a stretch than the one in Olympus and Fallen. Kurylenko’s beauty adds to the sheen of the film, and whilst not the greatest actress in the world she’s far better than most models who turn to thespianism. The stand out is Andrea Riseborough though, imbuing Vicca with far more depth than most actresses would have, and turning what could have been an unsympathetic, two dimensional character into one we can empathise with. She manages to be cold and fragile yet warm and strong at the same time, an almost haunted look in her eyes as if, on some level, she knows what’s really going on, and hers is probably the most tragic role in the film. She also manages to distract your eye away from Kurylenko in the scenes they share, which is no mean feat. She has a sleek, alien beauty that fits so perfectly within the world Kosinski has created that you almost imagine she was a cgi effect, specially designed just for this film.

Oblivion won’t please everyone. Some will find the opening section tedious, some will be annoyed when the gunfire starts, and some will focus on the DNA the film shares with so many others without considering that, given it isn’t a remake, reboot or sequel, this is actually quite a rare beast, an original, for wont of a better phrase, proper old school sci-fi film, albeit one that isn’t afraid to throw off the cloak of 70’s dystopia in favour of flashy effects and some serious gunplay.

It probably isn’t as clever as it thinks it is, but it’s still better thought out than most films you’ll see this year. Who knew cerebral sci-fi and dumb action could make an effective team.

Olympus has Fallen

Posted: April 19, 2013 in Film reviews

Directed by Antoine Fuqua. Starring Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, and Morgan Freeman

It’s hard to believe that prior to the late 1980s there was no such genre as Die Hard on a…’insert building/form of transport here’. Although Die Hard wasn’t the first film about someone fighting back against a hostile takeover (take the 1977 adaptation of Alistair MacLean’s Golden Rendezvous for example) it quickly created a shorthand all of its own, prompting numerous follow ups such as Under Siege (Die Hard on a boat) and Passenger 57 (Die Hard on a plane)
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A lesser known trope is the President in Peril, Americans love to see their Commander in Chief in trouble, see; Escape from New York, Independence Day and, of course, Airforce One (which is also Die Hard on a plane, again). Now Antoine Fuqua, director of the fantastic Training Day, gives us Die Hard in the White House.

Mike Banning (Butler) is a member of the Presidential Security Detail and also, oddly, the President’s sparring partner. During a snow storm near Camp David at the start of the film he makes a judgement call that, whilst probably right, sees him removed from the security detail and transferred to a desk job in the Treasury.

Flash forward 18 months and, at a time of heightened tension in Korea (spooky eh) President Asher (Eckhart) receives a delegation from South Korea. Unfortunately not all of them are what they seem, and when a spectre gunship launches an attack on the White House the President and his guests are ushered into the safety of an underground bunker, which becomes less that safe when and Kang (Rick Yune) is reveals he’s not a South Korean diplomat after all, he’s a North Korean (although handily not officially sanctioned) terrorist.

With the President a hostage and the White House overrun with terrorists, it’s up to Banning (luckily working next door so he avoids being massacred) to sneak in and…and well do the whole Bruce Willis thang.

Where to start… I heard an interview with Butler a few weeks ago where he made it clear that they’d been very careful to tone down the flag waving, and for this not to be overly jingoistic. All I can say is, if they toned it down what was it like before! From the Stars and Stripes being riddled with bullet holes to Old Glory being tossed off the roof in sickeningly cgi’d slow motion, this is a film that wears its patriotism on its sleeve. Actually that’s not strictly true. This is a film that punches you in the face with its patriotism…then probably stabs you through the brain with it.

Tonally the film never seems quite sure where it stands. On the one hand its brutal violence and harsh language makes for a refreshing change after the watered down A Good Day to Die Hard, but any impact is diluted by the utterly preposterousness of its plot. That the White House could be seized is silly enough (relying on everyone and their uncle being incompetent fools, from fighter pilots to highly trained presidential security personnel) but this is compounded by the revelation of Kang’s true agenda, compromising the Cerebus system, an idea so daft it belongs in a Bond pastiche.

Silly is fine, some of my favourite films have preposterous plots, but if you do it you have to acknowledge what you’re doing, even if it’s just a sly wink to the audience. Olympus has Fallen, by contrast, plays it completely straight, in fact it’s so po-faced that at (quite a lot of) times it strays perilously close to comedic, with cringe worthy dialogue tumbling from character’s lips with alarming regularity.

Butler is an effective one man army, though I’ve never quite understood how he keeps getting lead roles because he’s hardly the most charismatic actor out there. Aside from his actions at the start of the film he’s portrayed as a man who’s always right, a man who never really seems in any actual danger, so much so that his wiping out of the terrorists almost becomes mundane at times. It still amazes me that Hollywood just doesn’t seem to get what is so seminal about Die Hard (and it’s a fair comparison to make given this film SO wants to be Die Hard). John McClane isn’t a superman, he isn’t a one man army. Mike Banning is exactly the guy you’d want to be on the inside during a situation like this, which sadly makes him far less interesting than the John McClanes of this world, and Butler’s lucky if he has half the charisma of Willis.

Not that there’s anything wrong per se with super human action heroes, but again if this were an Arnie or a Steven Seagal film there’d be the odd knowing wink. Olympus has Fallen feels like someone tried to remake Moonraker in the style of Casino Royale. Case in point, at one stage Banning kills a man with a bust of Abraham Lincoln…it’s a moment crying out for a one liner, not necessarily “Emancipate this!” but at the very least a “Sorry, Mr President.” There’s nothing.

Eckhart is an actor I like a lot, but he’s miscast here, all jutting chin and bulging eyed frustration, and his speech at the end, if nothing else, serves to remind us what a great movie president Bill Pullman actually was in Independence Day.

Morgan Freeman slips into gravitas mode as the Speaker of the House who becomes acting president. Frankly Freeman can do this in his sleep, and he’s wasted in the role. Rick Yune recycles his North Korean bad guy from Die Another Day (I’m sure he must be able to do something else) and, whilst lacking the charisma of a Rickman or an Irons, he is at least genuinely threatening, even if the script’s idea of depth is to have him occasionally talk about starving millions. Robert Forster as an army general constantly on Banning’s back and Angela Bassett as Butler’s former boss round out the cast, but only Bassett really comes out with any credit.

It’s not all bad, I never felt the need to check my watch which suggests I was never bored, and I’ve certainly seen duller action films and, if nothing else, it did make me giggle (even if it was usually for all the wrong reasons) it’s just a shame that a film with such a great premise, made by a very good director, should misfire quite as much.

Olympus has Fallen…about laughing probably…

An ugly metaphor

Posted: April 16, 2013 in Regarding writing

I’ve decided that being a writer is a bit like being Rocky…

Being a writer is like going 15 rounds with an unstoppable leviathan; when you’re a writer, particularly when you’re unpublished, but even when you have some credits under your belt, you seem to be engaged in combat against an opponent who, let’s face it, is faster, stronger, fitter and more experienced than you.

We’ll call that opponent The Establishment rather than Apollo Creed though.

As a writer you’re outclassed, and somewhere deep inside you know you don’t really deserve to be in the same ring as The Establishment, of course just as prevalent is the feeling in your gut that you do, a curious dichotomy that I suspect most writers can relate to. I’m great yet I’m terrible. There is no in-between.

So one day you decide you’re going to embark on your writing career, you’re going to step into the ring with The Establishment.

It doesn’t go well.

You start off with a lot of confidence, with a spring in your step; you throw a lot of punches confident that you’ll soon have your opponent flat on his back.

Only The Establishment ducks and weaves, he dances like a butterfly and those punches—those stories—that you thought were winners, well it turns out they were poor, ill thought out, badly formatted, not nearly good enough, or just plain unlucky, not what publishers were looking for, the 25th best story when they were only looking for 24….
So you haven’t laid a glove on The Establishment but now it’s his turn, and no amount of evasive manoeuvres can prevent you taking hit after hit, rejection after rejection, punch after punch.

You stagger back; hurt, humiliated, yet somehow still on your feet. Now all your grand dreams of landing a knockout blow in the first round evaporate, and you realise the truth. The Establishment is better than you, and so, like Rocky, you understand that there’s only one strategy open to you. Stay on your feet and slog it out.

Round after round, punch after punch, rejection after rejection. You write story after story, submission after submission, flailing around like a fool, throwing jab after jab in the wild hope of getting lucky, and all the while The Establishment keeps punching you, connecting every time, and every hit makes you waver just a little bit more, but every hit also makes you more stubborn into the bargain, makes you all the more determined to stay on your feet.
And occasionally, just occasionally, you manage to land a jab on your opponent. A story accepted by an indie publisher, a rejection that comes along with really positive feedback, and though they’re minor victories, little more than glancing blows, they give you hope.

So you stay on your feet, bloodied but unbowed, you hurt, and sometimes you don’t know if you can go on, sometimes you think it would just be easier to give up, call it quits and stagger out of the ring whilst you still can.

And probably a lot of writers do throw in the towel, and I don’t think anyone can criticise them for this, because it’s really hard to keep taking the punches.

But the rest keep going. A crafty jab, a left hook, a right uppercut; a flash fiction, a short story, a novel, enduring the pummelling you get in return because you know, you know, that if you can just stay on your feet, if you can just keep swinging, one of these days, be it through skill or just plain dumb luck, one of these days you’ll really connect, and not a glancing blow, ones of these days you’ll make The Establishment stagger, you’ll make them bleed, and if you can do it once you can do it twice, and if you can do it twice you can do it three times.

And maybe you’ll deliver a knockout blow, and maybe you won’t, but at the very least, like Rocky, win lose or draw, when you walk out of that ring you’ll do so with your head held high.

It is a shame about the cauliflower ears though…