Ghost in the Shell: in a future where people are ‘more cyborgs than human’ a criminal virus-entity known as ‘The Puppet Master’ is trying to find the perfect humanoid host to hijack. Watching this now, after experiencing +20 years of Sci-Fi it’s amazing to see how much influence this movie has had on the genre’s modern landscape: you’re continually reminded of things like The Matrix (pretty much just one big homage), Metal Gear Solid, Inception. A.I., Lucy, Ex Machina… The storyline is complex, and feels way ahead of its time – talking about computing, A.I. and robotics in ways that we’re not even doing yet, over twenty years on. Technically, the film is visually astounding; the way it captures light / reflections / textures, and blends 3D rendering with cell animation is truly mesmerizing. There are however a lot of ‘filler’ or stretched out scenes in order to hit the ‘feature length’ mark: very long credits; pointless (and long) montages; and even irrelevant scenes. The root of the film is the question “what makes us human?” Unfortunately, this leads to a lot of waffle between the characters about the ‘ghosts’ (souls), ‘self’, and brain/body connections… overlong and over-wordy scene after scene brings this up in a “Philosophy 101” manner; but ultimately, the question is never really answered. Peppered with brief and intense action set pieces, but primarily pop-philosophy; Ghost in the Shell is a film that looks fantastic and is easy to admire or respect, but it’s not particularly entertaining, and feels intellectually inferior compared to the ideas it’s struggling to wrestling with.
Jean-Claude Van Johnson: what if the ‘rubbish’ straight to DVD movies JCVD made in the between the bigger films were just cover for his super-agent alter ego to carry out real black ops missions? That’s the premise for the Amazon pilot Jean-Claude Van Johnson. The episode has a lot of great action genre and movie business digs and jokes; although some of the more general jokes fall a bit flatter, focusing on easy targets like hipsters, pop-up restaurants, vaping etc. The scrip is littered with witty LOL moments like an entire Looper / Timecop debate, and lines like “I’m real retired, not like Nicolas Cage retired“. While the love interest angle doesn’t quite work with the meager time assigned to it; it has potential to grow through a full season. The Van Johnson pilot is handled beautifully, and clearly made with affection for JCVD’s career and filmography… It’s also great that a star of his stature can poke this much fun at himself; making this an absolute must-watch for any JCVD or action B-movie fans.
Safety Not Guaranteed: a journalist and two interns head off to investigate a classified ad about a man who’s about to go time-travelling. Inoffensive Indie soundtrack, check. Strong indie cast, check. Mumble-core indie dialogue, check. Welcome to 2012’s feel-good quirky, low-key, shoe-gazing, Sundance-bait movie of the year. The director (Colin Trevorrow) puts a big bet on you fawning over Aubrey Plaza and finding her hilarious & irresistible: she’s in most scenes/shots and feels like the absolute focus – I personally don’t dig her that much, which pulled the film down a little for me. There’s also a fairly substantial side story with college ex-girlfriend, which is obviously filler, and I would have preferred to have spent more time with the funnier characters (like Karan Soni riffing off Napoleon Dynamite). But hey, the director went on to do Jurassic World, and a Star Wars film so he probably knows more than me! The acting’s good, script’s funny, characters are well-drawn, but the film itself feels like it’s trying three or four different half-assed angles (comedy, conspiracy, heartbreak…) and not sticking to one in particular. It would have been good if the ending had been explored further too. Although greatness isn’t guaranteed, this is actually way better than I thought it would be, for an entire film based on a single picture as old as the internet. It’s got highs, lows, and is a bit deeper and more engaging than most indie films – showing that quirky can still be funny and entertaining.
Starbuck: a middle-aged slacker gets the wake-up call of his life when a lawyer informs him that he has fathered 533 children through a series of sperm donations from 20 years ago. First off, this is one of the few genuinely feel-good, heartwarming, upbeat films I can remember watching – the majority of films in this genre suffer from being far too sickly or cheesy. Director Ken Scott gets the tone absolutely perfect, as it juggles ‘happy viewing’ with enough drama and comedy to keep it interesting and varied. The film looks fantastic for the duration, great use of colour, imagery, locations, that lead to a pop-art, borderline dreamy effect. It’s a ballsy and unique directorial style, but complements the film perfectly. Patrick Huard, as the lead, is a solid screen presence that – no matter what he’s doing – manages to stay entertaining. The film’s kept fairly safe in that it’s never portrayed as creepy that the guy is unknowingly interfering in the kid’s lives, and that ethical / acceptance issues are glossed over, it also gets a little sappy as the ending approaches. The vibe of the film reminds me of ‘Love Me if you Dare‘, both colourful, artistic, upbeat and undeniably French. Starbuck wasn’t much of a hit in the cinemas in the UK, but it is an absolutely top-drawer feel-good comedy film, and a European gem.
Note: naturally, with this being such a good film, Hollywood has decided to give this the Vince Vaughn treatment – renamed ‘The Delivery Man’. I’d love for him to prove me wrong, but I don’t think that Mr Vaughn has anywhere near the amount of charm or magnetism to match Patrick Huard’s performance.
The Fly: when a teleporter accidentally fuses his DNA with that of a housefly, brilliant scientist Seth Brundle slowly begins a dramatic transformation into a man-fly! It’s a great testament to Cronenberg that he can have such an obvious directorial stamp on a film, yet keep it feeling like an old-fashioned monster movie; as the plot could have easily been an old Corman B-movie. The SFX department are on fire, with some of the greatest physical, in-camera effects that no amount of CGI could begin to replicate – the fingernails, puss, blood, guts, limbs, and transformations are all so visceral that it makes you feel sick in the pits of your stomach. There’s some other neat technical tricks such as the ‘how did they do that’ camera trickery for wall-crawling antics. Last, but not least, the small cast are all great, particularly Goldblum, who delivers a riotous performance as an increasingly peculiar and demented Brundlefly – but remains believable throughout. Top top it off, the telepods are a great feature for both extremes (fusion/blood/guts) and dramatics (noise, smoke, strobe), and there’s some classic ’80s programming’ going on. A bit of patience is required as the film takes its time to build toward a conclusion that – even after knowing the story – exceeds anything you could imagine. The Fly is one of those films where everything’s just right, and is easily still on of the best horror sci-fi movies around.
Seth Brundle’s nerdy clothes reminded me of someone… MR BEAN!!! (at least when it wasn’t one of the 200 shirtless scenes)
Sex and Lucia (Lucía y el sexo): when she gets a call from the police about her partner being in a fatal accident, Lucia flees to an island and tries to find herself. If you’ve ever scoured a ‘World Cinema’ section, you’ve probably seen the picture below of a windswept Paz Vega + red dress + bike + penis-shaped lighthouse? Guess what? That iconic image isn’t even in the film! FAIL! Back to the movie though: unsurprisingly, there’s random nudity and sexual acts throughout, which feel there for no other reason that to ‘kink’ up the film, and make the “tortured writer and other young, attractive people in personal crises” storyline a bit more interesting. It peaks in a bizarre porno side-story in the middle act. The visuals are striking (unique, bold, washed-out, faded etc) and often beautiful, but continual emphasis on sun, moon and sea feel a smidgen on the ridiculous and end up blurring the boundaries between which scenes is dreams/fantasies, flashbacks, or scenes from the writer’s story. Paz Vega (Lucia) is great – and lets face it, who WOULDN’T want a stalker like her!?!? The cast in general are all good, and pull off some (melo)dramatic scenes when required. All of the artsy-rich visuals, vague symbolism and explicit scenes means that the film overstays its welcome by the end, and when you cut them all out, you’re left with a half-decent melodramatic story and some dramatic suckerpunches – it’s definitely destined to stay out in the ‘arthouse’. Sex and Lucia is unsurprisingly less of a cinematic classic, and more of a piece of smutty art.
Heat: a professional robber and homicide detective go head to head in a battle of wits, guns and getting the job done. The film is laden with superb moments & set-pieces: action, suspense and climaxes, which means that the film is gripping, explosive and unpredictable for the most part. You couldn’t hand-pick a greater cast of actors at their peak – right down to the extras (including Henry Rollin’s neck!!). Both leads are fantastic, equally volatile yet in-control men, despite the contrast between Pacino’s shouting / flailing and De Niro’s calm / focused anti-hero. Both portrayals are physical, entertaining, and career-tipping performances, so much so that by the end, you don’t really want either to snuff it. The biggest problem is that, by wanting to keep the film believable and give it more clout, almost every character gets some back-story, which means that the film spends some time opening lots of minor tangents, many of which are never resolved or revisited – or related to the plot. There’s no question about it, Heat is an outstanding film, and I’d love to give it 9, or 10, but I’d have been much happier watching a three-hour film focused almost exclusively on the two central performances, than have them share the runtime with a multitude of smaller, less relevant characters.
“Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.”
Black Rain: a NYPD officer escorts a known Yakuza back to Japan; when the criminal escapes the mulleted cop must find him to prove his innocence, and serve up some justice-flavoured sushi! First off, this is a visual fantasy / offensively stereotypical Japan; there’s neon signs, neon trucks, neon clubs, neon everything (in Osaka there’s only a handful of streets lit like this), doesn’t matter though, it looks great. I’m also sure that not everyone in Japan is efficient with a katana, is a gangster, writes Kanji, wears traditional robes, or sings karaoke… but I’ll let that slide too. For the sake of equality Garcia plays a dumb, loud New York schmuck stereotype. Being a Ridley Scott flick, there’s a lot of manliness in every frame; motorbike races, fighting, broody man hero, all culminating in a laughable / ludicrous fight at the end. The one woman in the film is there purely to be lured at. Technically it’s good to watch, poppy/distracting visuals, despite ageing quite badly, but there are a few ill-judged scenes like the Garcia karaoke debacle. If you want a Japanese culture on steroids, ‘man film’, with motorbikes and a whole lotta mullet – this is the film for you! For being so highly regarded Black Rain is just feels like another terminally cheesy, typical 1980s, cop-out-of-water action flick – with a bit more budget than most.
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale – something very Christmassy is buried under a mountain at the Russia/Finland border; when it’s dug up, everyone will believe in a very different Santa! The story is quite basic, but is laced with just enough crazy and black humour to keep you interested and watching. Nothing’s rushed and the story slowly plods along with plenty build up but not much action, until quite an absurd final 20 minutes, but hey – this is fiction! The setting, timeline and snow make the film quite Festive, but with the impending cluster-fudge and gritty Santa figures, you’d do well to keep away from the kids (something not right about hundreds of naked old men running towards a kid!!) There are also some strong Finnish political views and attitudes woven through the duration, but stick out a bit. Overall, it’s a good idea, and admirable execution but definitely hampered by the budget – especially the ending. While it’s another good twist on old tales, for me, this year’s winner of obscure Scandinavian folklore-based films goes to Troll Hunter! Rare Exports is a decent enough B-Movie, much like the secret cargo in the film, this will do better to remain underground.
20th Century Boys: a normal guy has to save the world from a certain doomsday. For the most part the plot doesn’t make a lot of sense because there’s a lot of childhood memories, which are impossible to figure out until those events / characters are revealed in the ‘present’. There’s the usual hammy overacting associated with Manga but some cool nods toward films like Wild Zero / Electric Dragon with the weird guitar semi-climax. It looks and feels quite slick in parts, yet some pretty cheap CGI crops up towards the end. Because it’s part of a trilogy, the film feels slow and bloated, with no attempt to make it remotely ‘stand alone’ – it’s also left wide open, ending on a bum note. While it may be one of the most successful films in Japan; to a non-fanboy cinephile, it just goes on my list of not-very-memorable Manga adaptations, and I won’t be watching the other two parts.
Submarine: Oliver Tate just got his first girlfriend, right as his parents marriage begins to crumble – so he tries to give them a hand… For being a one-boy show, the central character’s great; despite being a little clichéd he’s good fun to watch, and his monologues / voiceovers are a solid way of pushing the story forward. The scriptwriting scores in two ways: the dialogue is offbeat yet manages to stay below the annoying radar; and the humour is so dry, deadpan and dark that the two elements really complement each other. For being his first time behind a camera, it’s strongly directed, and has some surprisingly cinematic moments – given that it is intentionally an indie-feeling film. The casting’s spot on and despite each character having a hint of the absurd, you can still buy in to them as they’re all very human. What’s best about this coming-of-age tale is that it captures the awkwardness of youth like you rarely see; even though these exact events didn’t happen, it’s all too easy to relate to the story, and Oliver. Despite bring painfully indie Submarine remains very watchable and entertaining for the duration.
NEDS: follows a catholic kid in Glasgow circa in the 1970s at the teenage crossroads between continuing education or joining gang life. With a no-holds barred approach to the story and filmmaking, this is gritty, raw and violent for the entire duration; the mentality of the characters is particularly shocking – but as a Scot, I can (sadly) vouch for the realism. The language is coarse and very broad Scottish, so will be pretty difficult for anyone outwith the country to fully understand it. The central character is also one of the meanest pieces of work I can remember, with a likability score of zero, even as the school SWAT. Put this all together and you’ve got a moderately depressing story that in parts makes Trainspotting look like a sitcom – but there’s a few saving graces. There’s a lot of great performances, especially from a cast made primarily of non-actors; most notably the father and both the young & teenage Johns (esp Conor McCarron). Secondly, although it gets to some pretty dark places, the story arc is fantastic, proving to be very powerful and surprisingly effective as a whole. I’m glad I saw NEDS, at first I wasn’t impressed but as the story continued I was slowly drawn in and engaged through to the last 5 minutes. Even though it’s pretty dismal, this film won me over in the end.
MacGruber: Silver screen spoof of TV’s most resourceful hero McGyver. For a Brit that has never seen McGyver or the SNL skits it comes across as an American equivalent of Austin Powers?? The range of humour isn’t very wide; all jokes are either gross-out or something built up then made to look stupid… which starts to wear a little thin by the end. It’s also potty, very potty, with constant sexual references and a couple of back-to-back romance scenes that rival the Team America one. Some gags – like the villain’s name ‘Cunth’ being repeated – get boring pretty fast. The cast all hit the right buttons with their humour & delivery, and the WWE cameos were pretty sweet, especially the Big Show, who was good game. Val Kilmer (ate all the pies!) plays a Seegal-looking villain, and while he’s alright, he doesn’t seem to care much. The whole retro spoof has been done before but this more watchable because it’s done with conviction – the clichéd dialogue/script in particular was my favourite aspect, executed brilliantly for the most part. The soundtrack’s fairly bland, just song after song but with no real purpose other than just being from the 1980s. While it’s not the most polished or sophisticated film in the world it is funny for the duration, totally quotable and has ‘cult comedy’ written all over it. One of the better comedies so far this year.
Eastbound and Down: six episode comedy series about a former baseball superstar as he tries to get re-signed to the major-league and win back his old girl. The single biggest reason to watch this is the brilliant Kenny Powers; mark my words, he’ll go down as one of the greatest comedy characters of all-time. Not dissimilar to Cartman, he’s an incredibly self-centred and brutally honest, loud-mouthed, redneck. The script, and in particular Kenny’s lines, are consistently golden, and totally quotable. The other characters are all pretty generic (in a good & watchable way), but McBride absolutely steals the show. Despite all the laughs there’s some alright dramatic moments, and the finale is very well done. It looks nice – not unlike My Name Is Earl – and the story’s interesting enough to keep you watching. I am absolutely lusting over the prospect of a second season. Although it’s aimed more at guys over girls this should be mandatory viewing for all. Comedy of the year?
They Live: Everyone’s favourite Canadian-American pseudo-Scot “Rowdy” Roddy Piper uncovers a conspiracy bigger than his 1980s Hair-do. The idea’s great but everything else seems to have been lost during film-making. The script is forgettable, barring one “bubblegum” line, and the acting & action are underneath below-par. The look, feel and themes aren’t dissimilar to a 1950s anti-Soviet or propaganda film, with a barrage of social commentary and messages being forced upon the viewer. The soundtrack’s atmospheric, but only has one song! There’s an infamous five-minute fight scene that feels so ridiculously out of place, and it takes about 40 minutes for anything substantial to occur. After Carpenter’s string of original and amazing sci-fi / horror films this seems like a major let down and is – to all intents and purposes – a proper “B” movie. Corny socio-political ‘thriller’ with too many messages.