NEVER GETS OUT OF ORBIT

jupiter_ascending_movie_poster_2

First came Bound and then there was The Matrix. The Wachowski Brothers had made a splash in modern Hollywood. But then we had The Matrix: Reloaded and Revolutions, two horribly messy sequels which squandered the brilliance of the first film. Speed Racer was a garish love letter to the original material and Cloud Atlas was bloated and self-important. So now we have Jupiter Ascending, the Wachowksi siblings’  latest effort. It was supposed to come out last year but it was pulled from the schedule and put back to this year. Milan Kunis plays Jupiter Jones, a girl seemingly of Russian descent who discovers that her lineage is far more impressive than she first thought and she is part of an intergalactic royal family. She gets embroiled in a war to stop the tyrant in the family from taking control. Jupiter Ascending is intended as a grand sci fi epic with many of tropes that they entail and it is a frustrating film. Channing Tatum plays Caine Wise, the genetically engineered warrior whose role is to protect Jupiter Jones, and he looks the part. Kunis is decent enough but there isn’t really much here to work with anyway. Eddie Redmayne plays tyrant Balem Abrasax while Sean Bean is fellow warrior Stinger Apini. Redmayne makes for a suitably entertaining pantomime villain and Bean does what he always does. But while there are some visually interesting ideas on screen here, the CGI is muddled, making many of the battles hard to follow, the script is awful and the film suffers from the worst excesses of the Wachowskis’ past efforts. Restraint is not a word that comes to mind when watching it and there is just too much of everything thrown at the wall here. Like Star Wars directed by Liberace or The Fifth Element with the brakes taken off, Jupiter Ascending is a cliched, muddled and annoying mess of a film. It is as if the Wachowskis have forgotten how to rein themselves in and perhaps what could have been an intriguing sci fi movie is just another bloated monstrosity…

NOT AN INTERSTELLAR EFFORT

interstellar3

SPOILER WARNING

Very few films warrant long running times. Epics like Lawrence of Arabia or The Godfather justify breaking the two-hour mark. Director Christopher Nolan seems to have made a career out of very long films but he has managed thanks to the commercial success of the three Batman films to put himself in an envied position in modern Hollywood. Interstellar is a film that has been eagerly awaited, looking like an intelligent sci fi film with an impressive cast and the sort of visual flourishes that Nolan has become associated with. The world has been hit by a terrible disaster, wiping out the crops and obliterating technology. Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, a former engineer who has turned his hand to farming. His life changes when he encounters Professor Brand (Michael Caine), a scientist with a plan to save Earth by sending a team in a rocket through a wormhole to find a new planet for us to colonise. But of course, nothing is what it seems and Cooper discovers that the professor’s plan has some major flaws. Anne Hathaway plays Brand’s daughter Amelia, who accompanies Cooper on the mission. Interstellar is a fairly ambitious film and some of it looks stunning. The cinematography by Hoyt Van Hoytema is spectacular and Nathan Crowley’s production design, with its nods to classics like 2001 and Alien, is superb but there are some serious problems with Interstellar. Clocking in at just shy of three hours, the film drags in several places and what begins as an intriguing concept becomes quite tiresome in places. It would have been a better film if it had a tighter running time. The other problem, which is arguably a more major one, is that the plot is filled with holes and you get a mcguffin that is foreshadowed but just doesn’t really make any sense. Just like Inception, or perhaps more so, Nolan and his brother love the idea they have created here but they don’t really know how to wrap it all up. McConaughey is very good here, Caine is wasted and Hathaway is bland and annoying. It does have its moments but these mostly occur in the first half of the film. John Lithgow appears but is also wasted because he disappears early on in the film. There is also a sizeable Matt Damon cameo in the film. The brothers have set up an interesting premise about a world riven by a blight but the cause is not explained satisfactorily for the viewers. Interstellar feels like a three hour EC or Twilight Zone story with a poorly executed pay off. It will be interesting to see just how well it does. Nolan is a talented director but here he has been given too much freedom and so we end up with a film that wants to be groundbreaking and seminal but is just a very frustrating failure. A shame really…

ARTFULLY DONE

GregSpalenkaCover

Hyperluminal_coverTitan Books have been a part of British comics for decades now and at one point, they were best known as bringing DC’s output to the UK. When Titan lost that DC content, it wasn’t certain how they would continue. But the company has reinvented itself, generated new comic content and also bringing out an increasing line of Art Of books. The two latest titles are The Art of Jim Burns: Hyperluminal and The Art of Greg Spalenka: Visions From The Mind’s Eye. Both books are lavish hardcovers but the two artists couldn’t be more different in terms of their style. The Art of Jim Burns takes a look at the impressive career of British science fiction genius Burns, whose work has graced book covers by the likes of sci fi and fantasy giants like George R R Martin, Anne McCaffrey, Joe Haldeman and Robert Silverberg, to name but a few. The book has a commentary running through it, which does help to contextualise Burns’ work and gives the readers an idea of which point in his career we are talking about. Reproduction here is magnificent and it really shows off just what a master of science fiction art Burns is, able to create new worlds of imagination with his  brush strokes. His work on fantasy covers is slightly less accomplished as he seems to be a little less comfortable in the fantasy world. But this is a very minor quibble. Burns is a uniquely talented artist and it is great to see a book that celebrates that…

Greg Spalenka is a very different artist indeed to Burns. He is an American illustrator who is more in the painterly traditions of the Old Masters, the Pre-Raphaelites and also the hordes of talented 20th century American illustrators and artists. His work follows the lineage of the Wyeths, Dean Cornwell and the British Victorian painters. The Art  of Greg Spalenka shows off the versatility of this man, who is as comfortable drawing Mike Tyson as he is working on Narnia film The Voyage of The Dawn Treader. There is a beautiful elegant simplicity to Spalenka’s work and this format, a slightly oversized hardcover, does do his magnificent paintings full justice. There is a little commentary here but perhaps the work speaks for itself a little more here. The design here manages to reflect Spalenka’s approach as an artist and it does give you a feel of the way he works.

So while I am reviewing both books together, I am in no way comparing the works of the two artists. They are both exceptional practitioners in their own fields and both of these books are welcome additions to the library of anyone who is an aficionado of modern illustrative art…

Just doesn’t Add Up

the-zero-theorem-poster-403x600

Every time Terry Gilliam releases a new film, there is an initial burst of interest. He is a very inconsistent director and out of the 19 films he has helmed, only a few can be called classics. The Zero Theorem, his first film since 2009’s Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus, which was overshadowed by the death of its star Heath Ledger, is another sci-fi film. Qohen Leth (played by a shaven-headed Christoph Waltz) is a computer programmer looking for the meaning of life, living in a dystopian city. His bosses meanwhile are bent on distracting his quest by sending the gorgeous Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry) and annoying teenager Bob (played by Lucas Hedges) to divert his attention. Matt Damon has a small part as his boss, Management. The Zero Theorem does throw up a few interesting questions for the audience and Waltz is excellent as the befuddled Leth but like most of Gilliam’s films, it is frustrating with themes mentioned but not sufficiently explored. It bows under the weight of its own ambition and while there are some admirable moments, it is ultimately a very unsatisfying film. He is working on The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a project he has already tried to make before and it would be nice to think that he could rein in his more indulgent foibles to make something that is cohesive and dramatically satisfying. If you like Terry Gilliam, then you should see The Zero Theorem but it’s not going to win over any new fans for him…

elysium_ver2_xlg

SCIENCE FRICTION
Four years ago, Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 showed that you could make an intelligent modern sci fi film outside of America. Fast forward four years and we have Elyisum, Blomkamp’s second effort. Matt Damon plays Max, an orphan who lives on a future Earth which is overcrowded and polluted. The macguffin here is that all of the planet’s wealthiest citizens scarpered when the Earth got too dirty and now live in palatial luxury on an orbiting round space station which is filled with houses that look like they’ve been lifted straight from Beverly Hills. Max ekes out a living but he finds himself taking on a mission for dodgy facilitator Spider (Wagner Moura) which would take him up to Elysium and could change the balance of power forever. Of course, nothing is ever simple and deputy president of Elysium Delacourt (Jodie Foster) retains mercenary Kruger (Sharlo Copley) to hinder Max’s mission and gain control of Elysium for herself. After the bloated infantilised drivel we have been made to suffer this summer, Elysium comes as a little bit of a breath of fresh air. Damon has carved out a niche for himself as one of the most likeable contemporary modern leading men and he brings a lot to the film and Copley as the psychotic Kruger is good value. Visually, it is also spectacular: Blomkamp and kiwi production designer Philip Ivey (Lord of The Rings) do a fantastic job of bringing this world to life. We are also spared the tedium of 3D here. It’s not all perfect: Jodie Foster as the manipulative Delacourt is pretty weak and there are moments when the script does feel overly familiar. But Elysium feels like an adaptation of a 2000AD strip, mostly offering a slice of hard science fiction that carries the viewer along. It has a suitably downbeat ending as well, while offering a kernel of hope. It does feel more like a mainstream Hollywood film than District 9 but it still offers enough to stay with you after the credits have rolled that there is still the sense that Blomkamp comes to things from a different perspective to your Emmerichs and Bays. It will be interesting to see where the director goes next but Elysium is worth checking out…

star-trek-into-darkness-teaser-poster1-610x903

SPOILERS ALERT

ENTERPRISING SEQUEL?
JJ Abrams has become one of the most powerful people in mainstream Hollywood. He is now at the helm of the revamped Star Wars and Star Trek on the big screen, the two biggest modern genre franchises. When Star Trek came out in 2009, it split audiences. It made $386m worldwide but fans of the original cast criticised it for not being a Star Trek film and for a number of plot holes you could drive a fleet of lorries through. We move forward to 2013 and Star Trek Into Darkness hits the cinemas.    We have already been introduced to Chris Pine as the hotheaded Kirk, Zachary Quinto as Spock, Karl Urban as Doctor McCoy and the rest of the regulars so Abrams can throw us straight into the action. The film opens with Kirk and Bones on an alien planet fleeing a group of dangerous natives. Kirk disobeys the prime directive to save the planet and Spock and so he is disciplined and demoted to commander, serving with his old mentor Pike (Bruce Greenwood). The crew of the Enterprise find themselves thrown into a conspiracy that threatens to destroy the whole of Starfleet with mysterious Federation spy John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) at its heart. There have been rumours about Harrison’s true identity online and his real name is even listed on IMDB so I am not spoiling anything by confirming that they are indeed true. I saw Star Trek Into Darkness in 3D and often I find 3D dark, murky and rather annoying but here Abrams has used it cannily. The regular cast are likeable as they were in the first film and Cumberbatch brings a sense of the theatrical to his villainous role here. Sometimes you do wish for a little more character development and less action set pieces but Star Trek Into Darkness is a very enjoyable early summer blockbuster, an immersive experience on the big screen. Simon Pegg as Scotty stays just the right side of infuriating as he did in the first film and Pine and Quinto have a well-handled chemistry, just like they did in the 2009 film. Is it Star Trek? I think that some of Gene Roddenberry’s original vision survives here as the main cast do channel Shatner, Nimoy et al. It is unlikely that Abrams will direct the third film since he will have his hands full with Star Wars VII but despite a few misgivings, I think that again he has managed to create a film that stays true to its origins while offering something that will appeal to a new audience…

robot-and-frank-poster

FESTIVE BEHAVIOUR 2012 PART ONE
It’s that time of year again when London Film Festival hits town. The amount of films I see each year depends on what else I am doing at the time and this year, fortunately or unfortunately, I have had a week without freelance subbing, so I could catch a few of the films on offer.
The first thing I saw was Robot & Frank, a science fiction movie set in the near future starring Frank Langella as Frank, an elderly former cat burglar who has an estranged son Hunter (James Marsden) and a flaky daughter Madison (Liv Tyler). Frank’s son is worried about his well-being and so he gets him a robot companion to assist him (the voice of Peter Sarsgaard), something the old man initially resents. But of course, before too long, Frank gets attached to the robot and begins to see him as his only friend. Langella is excellent as is Susan Sarandon as librarian Jennifer. Sarsgaard also displays vocal dexterity as the voice of the robot and considering that this is director Jake Schreier’s feature debut, it’s a pretty assured work. Robot & Frank is a film that makes you think, that stays with you after you leave and is exactly the sort of film that the London Film Festival should be showcasing…
Beware of Mr Baker is a documentary about former Cream drummer Ginger Baker. Made by Rolling Stone journalist Jay Bulger, which shows just what a headcase Baker is. The musician was interviewed down in South Africa by Bulger, who gives us a chronological chart of the subject’s life, from his teen years obsessed with jazz to meeting Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce in the Sixties. He is definitely a larger-than-life character and this helps to make Beware of Mr Baker an entertaining watch. Rock stars should be scary mavericks and Ginger Baker certainly falls into this category. Bulger has assembled an interesting biographical documentary although sometimes the use of animation to illustrate points in Baker’s life can be a little grating at times and you aren’t sure how much of the doc is staged…
Grassroots is an American indie film directed by American TV staple Stephen Gyllenhaal and starring Jason Biggs and Joel David Moore about a local council election in Seattle. Biggs is journalist Phil Campbell, who gets sacked from his job on the Seattle Stranger, and so decides to help his friend, Grant Cogswell, (Moore), run for office. You get to see the usual political cliches here (sleeping with political allies, betraying your girlfriend, doing unethical things to get noticed) but it’s pleasant enough, if extremely lightweight. Biggs works well on screen and Moore stays just the right side of annoying. Support from Lauren Ambrose as Campbell’s put-upon girlfriend Emily Bowen is likeable enough. Grassroots tries to make some serious socio-political points but Gyllenhaal doesn’t have the weight and gravitas as a writer/director to pull it off…

DreddBurningFinalStancePosterfull4

SENSE OF DREDD?
I went to see Dredd 3D way back in July but it has been unofficially embargoed until around its UK release. It has been out in the UK since last Friday and it hits the US this week. It has taken a long tome to bring Dredd back to the big screen since the Sly Stallone Judge Dredd, which was  released way back in 1995. Dredd 3D is a very different beast though: apparently it is the most expensive British independent film made to date with an estimated budget of $45m and guided by comics aficionado novelist Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later), it couldn’t be further away from a bloated Hollywood studio picture if it tried. Karl Urban plays the eponymous hero/ anti-hero, who is given a new rookie partner female Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) to pass a final test on the mean streets of Mega City One, to see if she’s up to scratch. So Dredd and Anderson get embroiled in the shenanigans that are taking place in the drug-fuelled tower block controlled by former prostitute Ma-Ma (Lena (Game of Thrones) Headey). Dredd 3D is one of the most violent films released to a nominal mainstream audience and it certainly warrants its 18 certificate over here, as the viewer is unlikely to see this much viscera in any other wide release movie. It is refreshing that the take here is so different to Stallone’s Dredd, as the production team have utilised the South Africa settings, where it was shot, to fantastic effect, creating a Mega City One that has the feel of a contemporary metropolis taken to its ultimate conclusion and its brief running time means that you are introduced to Dredd’s world, he goes in and does his thing and they wrap up proceedings. Urban does look good as Dredd and the filmmakers have done a great job bringing the world of the Judges to life. But it is unremittingly nihilistic, the 3D doesn’t always work and Thirlby’s Anderson doesn’t have enough to do to gain the empathy of the audience, as Dredd is simply a force of nature and so impossible to empathise with. For all of its flaws, and its similarities to The Raid, it is heartening to see that Dredd 3D has hit the very top of the UK box office and there are positive noises that there will be a sequel. Garland and his fellow filmmakers have certainly wiped the bad taste of Sylvester Stallone from the mouths and minds of filmgoers and hopefully they will have their opportunity to correct some of the problems in a followup. If you’re a comics fan or a Dredd and 2000AD fan, then you need to see Dredd 3D.

john-carter-poster


LIFE IN MARS?

This year, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ creation John Carter Warlord of Mars celebrates its centenary and after decades of waiting, audiences get to see this on the big screen. John Carter, directed by Andrew Stanton (Wall-E, Finding Nemo) is Disney’s adaptation of Burroughs’ pulp creation. Taylor Kitsch plays the eponymous hero, a former Confederate soldier who finds himself on Mars via a mysterious cave in the south of the USA. He is transported to Mars (or Barsoom as the natives call it) and thrown into a planetwide conflagration. He is found initially by the Tharks, giant four-armed warlike creatures, but soon comes into contact with the humans from the city of Helium, led by Tardos Mors (Ciaran Hinds), who are under siege by Sab Than and his flying ships and mystical weapons. The story of John Carter Warlord of Mars is a classic pulp tale, one that reflects all of the obsessions and fascinations of the day and Stanton and co could have updated it to make it seem more relevant to a modern-day audience. But this would have betrayed the source material, making arbitrary decisions for pure box-office reasons. The makers have thrown in a bit of intertextual plot that involves the author Burroughs himself for a modern audience, which works pretty well. The film isn’t perfect by any means: sometimes the script is a bit dodgy and the dialogue isn’t always spot on. But John Carter mostly works as a Saturday afternoon serial movie, a fun and enjoyable bit of undemanding fluff with some impressive visuals. Stanton and Weta excel here with their creation of the Tharks and the scenes where Carter is captured and eventually freed by them are among the strongest here. Willem Dafoe as the chief of the Tharks, Tars Tarkas, has such a powerful and distinctive voice (the Tharks are computer-generated) that he lends the role real emotion. Taylor Kitsch as Carter does work as an action hero, coming across as a very likeable central character and Lynn Collins as the gorgeous princess Dejah Thoris comes close to bringing Burroughs’ image to life on screen. Mark Strong as the villain of the piece (there’s a surprise) chews the scenery with suitable aplomb and the rest of the mainly British cast acquit themselves decently. John Carter is reminiscent of 1980’s Flash Gordon, which isn’t surprising considering that Gordon and Buck Rogers were influenced by Burroughs and Carter. Despite its flaws, John Carter is an entertaining sci fi yarn with heart and feels faithful to the original material. Hopefully it will do well enough at the tills to ensure a return visit…

paul_poster-535x792



FROM OUTER SPACE TO THE OLD WEST
January was a quiet month for movies but I did go to see two films at press screenings at the end of the month. First we have True Grit, the Coen Brothers’ ‘remake’ of the much-loved John Wayne western, sticking more closely to the book that it was based on. Now the Coen Brothers are amongst my favourite directors and I have loved them since I saw Barton Fink at the cinema (I came to them a little late) but they have this strange tendency to follow a great film with a competent but pointless one. A Serious Man (2009) was a very good film indeed so unfortunately True Grit follows this pattern. Jeff Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn, the irascible Marshall retained by young Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) to bring the killer of her father to justice. Matt Damon is Texas Ranger Laboeuf here, who falls in with Cogburn and Ross on the trail of killer Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). The problem with 2010’s version of True Grit is not that it’s badly made or poorly acted. Bridges is very capable as Cogburn, Steinfeld acquits herself very admirably on screen and Damon is excellent almost as usual and the cinematography by Roger Deakins is wonderful but it doesn’t add anything really: the John Wayne version still holds up pretty well over four decades after it was released. The fact that lots of praise has been lavished on it is a little bit of a mystery as it is a competent and well-made but ultimately pointless exercise. Let’s hope that their next film comes out of left-field a bit more. True Grit is a decent, 3-star film but it doesn’t leave you with anything and so will be forgotten very quickly by posterity…
Paul, directed by Greg Mottola, is the latest Simon Pegg/ Nick Frost collaboration. With Edgar Wright off to the US, it’s the first of their movies not with him. Paul deals with two English geeks taking a roadtrip pilgrimage to all of the weird places in the West and Southwest of the USA, places where UFOs and strange happenings have been reported over the years. Kicking off in the nerd mecca of San Diego Comic Con, Graeme Willy (Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Frost) get more than they bargained for when they meet a real-life extra-terrestrial in the shape of Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen). Paul won’t appeal to everyone and it’s not perfect by any means. Frost is annoying but Pegg is likeable on screen and Rogen’s ET-with-attitude is entertaining. Jason Bateman as the FBI agent with the humourous name (I won’t stick it in here) is suitably hard-bitten and Sigourney Weaver as the evil US government agency head looks like she’s having fun here. Kristen Wiig stays the right side of annoying as a one-eyed Christian girl who takes a shine to Willy. For the people who dream of things like going to San Diego Comic-Con and writing their own science fiction or fantasy novels, Paul
is an enjoyable slice of knowing nonsense which, while it won’t change the world, will pass an hour and a half pleasantly enough…