Archive for June, 2014

Oculus

Posted: June 25, 2014 in Film reviews
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Directed by Mike Flanagan. Starring Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane.

Tim (Thwaites) has just been released from the mental institute where he’s been for eleven years since he shot and killed his father (who had tortured and murdered his mother.) He’s spent that time accepting the reality of the events that transpired on that final evening in the family home, and that no supernatural forces were at play, it was simply a case that his father went insane and killed his mother.

He’s met by his older sister, Kaylie (Gillan). Whilst physiatrists have spent years dismantling Tim’s apparent delusions about a possessed mirror, and rebuilding his psyche to accept a rational explanation for the events that occurred eleven years ago, Kaylie has spent the time obsessively researching the dark history of the antique mirror that she still firmly believes was responsible for the death of their parents.

Now she’s used her position working at an auction house to gain temporary possession of the said mirror. She’s planning to take it back to the family home where she hopes to prove that her father was not insane, and that it was supernatural forces that drove him to acts of violence against his family. Reluctantly Tim accompanies her to discover she has set up cameras, temperature gauges and motion sensors inside the house. Kaylie thinks she’s fully prepared for whatever might happen. Tim thinks she’s delusional.

On the surface Oculus seems fairly familiar fare. A family tragedy in the past- check; psychologically damaged survivors of said tragedy- check; an evil object capable of possessing the living- check; an abandoned house- check; violence and blood- check.

That Oculus is better than many of the generic horror films it appears to riff off of is testament to a decent script, inventive direction and a good cast.

Although it relies on the odd jump scare, for the most part Oculus takes the more difficult, but more rewarding route of creating an unsettling atmosphere, which means when things do occur they’re all the scarier for it. It’s a creepy film and, whilst it doesn’t bear much relation to it, I couldn’t help thinking of John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness whilst watching it. Like Carpenter Flanagan creates an air of dread, and the Carpenter’eque pared back electronic score further cements the comparison.

The film also eschews a linear narrative to flit back and forth between the present and the past, and the scenes of the family’s disintegration are as compelling as the scenes in the present day, in fact often they’re more harrowing given that we see Tim and Kaylie as children. As the film progresses past and future appear to become intertwined, to the point where, at times, the older Tim talks to the younger Kaylie and the older Kaylie talks to the younger Tim without any awareness that they’re separated by time. It’s a neat technique for further confusing the issue of just what is going on. What’s clear from the off in Oculus is that what you think you see often isn’t what’s really going on.

Her American accent is a trifle odd, and yes I did keep expecting Matt Smith to pop out at any moment, but Karen Gillan puts in a good central performance as the driven and obsessive Kaylie. As her brother Thwaites conveys his character’s sense of confusion admirably as he goes from disbelief back to acceptance once he understands that Kaylie may have a point. It should be noted that Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan do sterling work as the younger Tim and Kaylie as well.

Rory Cochrane as the dad plays unhinged well, and manages to portray both a loving father and a homicidal maniac equally well. The star of the show, however, for me is Katee Sackhoff who takes her character through a gamut of emotions; At first she’s a happy, loving wife and mother, before becoming increasingly paranoid, disgusted with herself and eventually manic, and by the end she’s scarier than the dad is.

The twisty non-linear nature of the story does mean that, by the end, things become a little too confused, and if you can’t see the end coming a mile away you probably weren’t paying attention. The ending is also a little sudden. In addition the more you see of the ‘ghosts’ the less creepy they become, although these are common problems amongst a lot of horror films, and Oculus manages to go further than most before derailing somewhat.

Despite its flaws Oculus is still more inventive than most modern horror films, and whilst it does shout “Boo!” at you at times, and it does show blood and gore, these are never its central selling points. This is a film that wants to creep you out more than it wants to make you jump, or make you wince, and it succeeds more times than it fails.

Mirror Mirror on the wall, what’s the best horror film I’m seen in a while? (Yes I know that doesn’t rhyme, give me a break!)

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X-Men: Days of Future Past

Posted: June 15, 2014 in Film reviews

Directed by Bryan Singer. Starring Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence.

In the future mutants are an endangered species, and are being hunted down and exterminated by robots called sentinels that can adapt themselves to counter any defence the mutants can deploy. On the verge of extinction, and with no other hope, the remnants of the X-Men led by Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) hatch a last desperate plan, determining that one of them needs to go back in time to 1973 and prevent Raven/Mystique (Lawrence) from killing the brains behind the Sentinel programme Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) which, far from halting the program, will actually accelerate it.

The only mutant who can survive the journey is Wolverine (Jackman if you’re the 1% of people who didn’t know that) so before you can say “huh?” Wolverine has awoken in his body back in 1973 to a world of lava lamps, questionable fashion, and where he has bone claws rather than his more famous adamantium versions. In order to stop Mystique he’ll need the help of both Xavier (McAvoy in 1973) and Magneto (Fassbender). The trouble is not only do they hate each other, but Xavier is a broken man who’s traded his psychic powers for the ability to walk, and Magneto is imprisoned deep beneath the Pentagon, and even if Wolverine can persuade them both to help, can they convince Mystique to find another way, or is the dark future inescapable?

To say the X-Men films have had their ups and downs is putting it mildly. After a solid debut under Singer came a second, bolder outing (possibly still the best) also directed by Singer. Sadly at this point Singer departed the franchise to helm Superman Returns and was replaced by Brett Ratner on X-Men: Last Stand. To be honest nobody benefited from this. Singer turned in a dull Superman film and Ratner turned in, at best, a workmanlike X-Men film. Worse was to follow with the dire first Wolverine film (and though I haven’t seen it I hear the second one isn’t much better.)

Thankfully the franchise was reinvigorated by the wonderful X-Men: First Class, which traded the modern day for the 1960s, and swapped Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen for James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender. It was directed by Matthew Vaughn who, ironically, had been in line to direct Last Stand.

And now we have Days of Future Past, Singer is back, and Vaughn is gone (although he did have a hand in the story) and rather than make a choice between the old and new casts, the decision was made to mix things up through the use of time travel.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of it all is just how enjoyable the film is despite the huge cast (seriously pretty much every X-Man ever seen on screen shows up, if only for a few seconds) and the convoluted plotline.

After some really poor films it seems Bryan Singer has remembered how to direct. He’s helped by a script that, despite being exposition heavy in places, provides enough for the actors to stretch themselves, whilst also providing a lot of fun dialogue for all concerned.

He’s also helped by a cast at the top of its game. I’m not talking about Stewart and McKellen—who can play those roles in their sleep—and in fact most of the future scenes are when the film is at its weakest, although there are some nice fight scenes later on. When the film really scores is with the 1973 bits, and this is down in no small part to Jackman, McAvoy, Fassbender and Lawrence.

Jackman always turns in a great performance as the taciturn Wolverine, even when the material he has to work with his suspect, when the material is this good he can’t help but dominate many of the scenes he’s in, and in particular it’s nice to see a subtle change of pace, where once it was Xavier who had to save Wolverine, now the roles are reversed.

Fassbender is good, and even though you can’t quite shake the feeling that his heart might not be fully in it…well Fassbender with his heart not 100% in it is still better than most actors out there, and he and McAvoy work well together.

It’s really hard to believe that Lawrence is only 23, especially after seeing her playing characters far older as she does here and in American Hustle (I’m also wondering if she only makes films set in the far future or the 1970s now?). She plays the conflicted Mystique perfectly here, and you can see the struggle in her eyes in almost every scene she’s in. Like Fassbender she plays particularly well against McAvoy.

Which brings us to James McAvoy who, for my money, is the pick of a very good bunch and who’s rapidly turning into one of my favourite actors. His portrayal of both the broken, and the newly hopeful again Xavier is wonderful, on par with his character in Filth (in fact particularly early on he seems to be channelling Bruce.). The range of his performance is just great.

The supporting cast is too big to really talk about, so I’ll just make a few mentions. Nicholas Hoult is great reprising Beast and providing Xavier with someone to lean on. Evan Peter doesn’t get to be on screen for very long as Quicksilver but he almost steals the film and it’ll be a shame if we don’t see him play the part again. Dinklage I was disappointed in, but that might be down to my own high expectations given how utterly fantastic he is on Game of Thrones. Unfortunately here he isn’t given much to get his teeth into, so Trask remains a tame villain, which is a shame.

The effects are variable. The future battle scenes are intense but the time travel get out means you never quite feel people are in danger, and the sentinels themselves are pretty generic in both time zones, but especially in the future. Set aside this there’s some great trickery as Magneto demolishes a baseball stadium to encircle the White House, and a wonderful scene where we get to see things from Quicksilver’s perspective which is almost worth the price of admission alone.

Yes its convoluted, and the future scenes are a trifle grim, but once the film relocates to 1973 it becomes a joy to watch, with a great cast bouncing off one another in a hugely entertaining manner, big budget actions scenes balanced with a lot of character, and as I’ve said, in other hands juggling a cast of characters this huge might have made the film seem bloated, but Singer keeps most of the balls in the air most of the time almost as effortlessly as Magneto.

I think it’s time to retire the old X-Men crew and I hope the next film focuses again on McAvoy, Lawrence and co. If they do I think the franchise has a very rosy future.

By Dr Stephen Kershaw

I enjoy history, always have, it was my favourite subject at school and the subject I studied at University. However, to paraphrase Douglas Adams here, History is big, really big, so there are quite a few eras that I really haven’t the slightest clue about, and the Roman Empire is one of these so I picked this book up a couple of months ago thinking it would give me a good grounding in the subject, and to a point it has.

It should be said that the book itself isn’t brief, it’s over 400 pages long, but given it covers the period between 27 BC and 476 AD one imagines it’s as brief as you could get away with.

Kershaw is an erudite writer, he clearly knows his stuff and can impart much of it without the need to use dry academic language. There are a lot of interesting facts on display…and some are pretty lurid it has to be said, Kershaw doesn’t pull many punches when it comes to the sexual and violent aspects of the Empire and the emperors.

What problems I had with the book were less to do with Kershaw’s writing than the nature of the material at hand. Firstly, however accessible Kershaw’s writing is, he does have to rely on a lot of Latin terms/Roman acronyms etc. And whilst Kershaw does do his best to keep reminding you what things are, or referring you back to where it’d discussed things previously, sometimes it does become a little confusing. For example I kept having to check what SPQR meant, even though it’s fairly obvious once you know. Linked in with this people had similar names, and everyone seemed to have four or five names and a number added Caesar or Julius or Augustus to their names upon becoming Emperor.

This feeds into the second problem, which is the confused nature of the Empire itself, particularly in later centuries. At first it’s easy to keep track of what’s going on. The Emperors are well known: Caesar, Nero, Tiberius, Caligula etc. And they stay in power for years, decades even. Over time the proliferation of emperors becomes ever more confusing. There are years where five or more men serve as emperor, and towards the end you start to wonder why anyone would have wanted to be Emperor given the average life expectancy seemed to be about three weeks! Keeping track of the emperors is hard, and this is even before you factor in co-emperors, wives, military officers, eunuchs, barbarians, bishops, heirs, pretenders etc. etc. etc…argh!

And this is also before the Empire splits into East and West, before the invasion of the barbarian hordes; Goths, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Huns, Vandals and so on and so forth…

The result of all this was that, whilst I enjoyed the first half of the book, it increasingly became a chore to keep reading, in the end I was desperate to finish reading it just so I could pick up something more interesting.

As I say though, the problems are more down to the subject matter than the author, and even in the later chapters Kershaw peppers the text with enough interesting facts to stop you from nodding off. As an introduction to a wide swathe of history I thought it was good, and hopefully it’ll serve as a handy reference book to dip in and out of from now on.

Directed by Doug Liman. Starring Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt.

It is the near future, and Earth has been invaded by alien creatures nicknamed ‘Mimics’ due to their ability to adapt to any tactics used against them. Most of Western Europe is in Mimic hands but a fight back is planned, a huge invasion of France is to be undertaken by the United Defence Force, a multinational army. Major William Cage (Cruise) is a cowardly PR specialist whose broadcasts have helped sign up thousands to the UDF, although he’s stayed as far away from the actual fighting as he can.

Before the invasion however, General Brigham (Brendon Gleeson) orders Cage to take a camera crew and join with the invading forces. Cage protests but Brigham insists. In a last desperate act, Cage tries blackmailing the General. Brigham responds by having Cage tasered.

When he wakes Cage discovers he’s been busted to private and assigned to a rag tag unit named J-Squad, led by the surly Sergeant Farrell. He has no training, and isn’t even shown how to properly use the armoured exo-suit (nicknamed jackets) that all soldiers wear. He isn’t expected to last very long, and in the assault on the beach he is indeed killed, as is everyone else, because it was a trap. Before he dies however he takes out a Mimic slightly different from the others.

Cage wakes up 24 hours earlier to discover that the day has been reset. He tries to warn Farrell but he’s ignored and the attack goes ahead as planned. Once again the Mimics are waiting and once again Cage and the others are killed. After a few more loops however, Cage discovers an ally in the shape of battlefield legend Rita Vrataski (Blunt) known as the Angel of Verdun (and also known as the Full Metal Bitch.) Rita is one of only two people who will believe Cage, because she’s been through the same thing, and now, with Cage’s help, she thinks they can use his talent to win the war…

Based on a Japanese novel (All I Need is Kill) Edge of Tomorrow hits our screens as something of a refreshing change. Not a reboot or a remake, not part of a franchise, it instead stands somewhat alone. Which isn’t to say it’s original (time loops can be found in myriad episodes of Star Trek, and famously Bill Murray lived the same day over and over again in Groundhog Day) but its original enough to give it added cachet.

It’s Japanese origins are obvious, the battle suits and tentacled aliens have a very Manga feel to them, although the action has been transferred to Europe, designed to parallel D-Day, and if the assault on the beach by a multinational force wasn’t obvious enough, the fact that it came out in the UK the week before D-Day’s 70th anniversary, and is actually released in the US on June 6th, should leave no doubt about the correlation the filmmakers are going for.

Cruse is excellent, not for the first time subverting his all American hero persona to give us Cage, a smug coward who’ll do anything to get out of fighting but who finds he can be more of a man, more of a warrior than he ever might have imagined.

In Emily Blunt he is given a co-star not only his equal but, certainly early in the film, his superior in every way. Lord knows how much training she did before filming but she really does look like she could tear a Mimic apart with her bare hands, and despite the burgeoning romance between the two her character’s integrity is never compromised. It’s rare to find such a strong female character in a blockbuster, but this year has seen three so far in Blunt, Emma Stone and Scarlett Johansson. Are they eye candy as well, yes clearly, but it isn’t like Cruise, Evans and Garfield aren’t as well. It just goes to show, hire a woman who can act and give her a role to get her teeth into and that’s preferable to any number of Megan Fox –a-likes.

The direction is rarely exemplary, but Liman keeps the pace high and does a good job of retelling the same scenes without making it boring (although the film does come close to the line at times). The effects are good, and the battle scenes suitably visceral, and if they’re more Starship Troopers than Saving Private Ryan this isn’t a bad thing. The supporting cast do good things with fairly thin roles, and in particular Bill Paxton almost steals the show as Sgt Farrell, effectively showing us what might have happened to Hudson from Aliens if he hadn’t been killed!

Yes the final act is a little bland and, yes, the pat ending is kind of annoying, and the aliens themselves somewhat undercooked to say the least, and perhaps there was a story to be told around how psychologically damaging being killed over and over again might be, but this hardly seems to matter when the film is such fun.

It’s exciting, and very funny, and seeing Cruise get killed in innumerable different ways is more amusing than you might think. In other hands the Fight-Die-Learn- repeat trope might have led to an uninteresting computer game of a film, but Liman never gives you much time to consider the plot holes, and Cruise and Blunt give it their all, meaning the film is a tribute to the fun of computer games rather than a listless imitation.

It’ll take repeat viewings to see whether it holds up as a classic, but if I woke up yesterday and had to see it all over again I certainly wouldn’t be unhappy at the prospect.