Review Roundup - System shock


The promise of a return to slower moving but thought provoking science fiction offered by Wally Pfister's directorial debut was something that easily got my attention. As a fan of the idea of A.I. and the blurring line between the human the synthetic, I was hoping to get an older style movie where sci-fi would be used to tell a good story or offer some kind of parable instead of just having being an excuse to blow up some cars and buildings (not that I don't have time for pyrotechnics). The cinematographer had been a long time collaborator with Christopher Nolan and so the chance to see him taking what had been learned working on the likes of Memento and The Prestige and using that on a project of his own. But does this plot of artificial intelligence have any brains, and is there more to it than stylish photography?

Straight away you can see that this has the slick visual look of the Dark Knight series. It's a great looking film, but the issues come across with just about all of the other aspects of the story. Shots are beautifully constructed but often linger for far too long and there is never any urgency to any of the proceedings - it really drags it's feet even as things spiral out of control. The premise of a man considering death and using himself as a test subject to forward his own ambition and that of his partner is a great setup and the dangers of creating an intelligence that far outmatches it's creators is of course a well worn plot device. But how this plays out lacks any serious drama considering the amount of existential dilemma which could have been mined from the subject and the kinds of every day fears it might have played up. It's surprisingly flat and emotionless, and the idea that these characters are scientific minds is odd when so many strange choices are being made.

It's also strange to see a story which lacks any real central character. Considering that Johnny Depp is plastered all over the marketing, it's an odd thing to find that he isn't a focal point for the plot. His partner (Rebecca Hall) is used as the irrational heart of the film and his colleague (Paul Bettany) is the concerned brain of it, but they are never really used as an anchor to tie all of this together. Which isn't to say that the cast aren't doing a good job - a positive aspect when the material is so clunky at times. I like Bettany but along with everyone else he feels under used. When things finally come to pieces and everyone realises what kinds of problems they might have been a part of, it never picks up the pace and the nano-technology elements just come across as silly as science jargon about computer viruses and internet connections get thrown about. Nothing seems to work here and it's a big shame.



This is a film with three writers. Which I suppose might explain what a mess they made of it. With the dull re-hashing of the origin story out of the way, there was room to go almost anywhere with this material; after all they had a huge amount of comics to draw from. Unfortunately they decided to throw in all kinds of random ideas and see what would stick, and none of it does. Recycling the Harry Osbourne plot from the Sam Raimi films but condensing it all into one plot would be bad enough, but adding to that a story about Jamie Foxx becoming the villain Electro in another laboratory accident means that any kind of real focus gets thrown out the window. This only gets worse as these elements collide with tangents about Spider-man's missing parents and his love life. Scenes come across as random and often feel like they have been stitched together from different films, quirky romantic moments and trashy super villain material clash with coming of age drama. None of the casting works, the big set pieces are overblown and have unconvincing effects and it's impossible to care about any of it - even as the story aims to heighten the drama in the finale.


Review Roundup - Attack the Block

THE RAID (2011) 

With sequel now here I took a fresh look at what was touted by some as the "best action movie of the last ten years" at the time, having never given it a proper write up. While this hyperbolic quote is a little absurd and there have been many greats in martial arts cinema during this period from the likes of Tony Jaa and Donnie Yen, it does sum up the kind of impact it must have had on general audiences on release. Having seen Warrior King (The Protector) and Ip Man amongst many others, a new entry in the genre was never going to blow me away like this, but it has to be said this is a solid piece of work that should sate all but the most sadistic action fans. (Side note - did that "Redemption" part of the title get dropped or was it never on screen in the film itself? Anyway, it was a terrible idea).

Gareth Evan's ultra no frills drug bust movie is a dark, dirty, bloody, brutal affair. It's certainly a nastier experience than you'd normally expect in this kind of picture. In sharp contrast to the dance like movements of the fighting, there's an excess of stabbing, gouging and point blank shooting to the head. But in a way, a film about violence should not hold back from showing the results, and censoring everything detracts from the reality that guns and weapons have unpleasant outcomes. I mentioned this in our Winter Soldier review but of course Steven Rogers never brutally murders anyone with pieces of glass - the content suits the genres. I find it hard to believe anyone in Hollywood is considering a remake of this, I don't think they have the stomach for it. Even hearing this had been directed by a Western film maker at the time I almost expected fight obscuring shaking cam to appear, but there is no such thing as backs break, blood spurts and sharp objects go through their victims to scrape against nearby walls. It's an eye watering experience.

This contributes a strange horror atmosphere to it all, along with the decaying urban setting and a number of moments where the police unit becomes trapped without weapons in the dark and dirty corridors - there's a constant level of tension through most of the film. It some how has a John Carpenter vibe in places, almost like Precinct 13 but with the siege indoors. Everyone looks so unhealthy, both the cops and the thugs hunting them are pale and sweaty. The colour grading of the film itself adds to this with a heavily desaturated look to everything; it's a grimy film. I have to mention that amongst all this grit the soundtrack is surprisingly nice in a number of quieter moments, and of course it's used  to amplifies the parts where the rhythm picks up to match the choreography.

One of my only real problems with this is that it probably peaks too early. The initial raid itself is so explosive with a shoot out and a kitchen siege scene, it takes time for the later sequences to regain momentum. There's also a night stick versus knives fight in the first half, and I found that to be one of the most memorable set pieces. It's an almost exhausting experience by the end that the final showdown feels a little small in scale. But these are small issues. It might not have any real character depth and the bits of development that do take place are clich├ęd but it's at least full on in the parts that matter. Despite holding no surprises it delivers where it counts.


Review Roundup - Master of Puppets


Recently I got around to seeing Paul Thomas Anderson's western epic come oil drama There Will Be Blood. It was a real treat; an impressive piece of work all round, full of historical details and amazing photography. It was slow burning (with of course some bursts of fire from the characters and their drilling operation itself) but at the same time it was incredibly engrossing;  the soundtrack was strange and sinister, and best of all the human drama was extremely intense. A dark and blackly humorous look at ambition and greed but at the same time simply a well crafted story. So looking at The Master and seeing many similarities, I have to report that unfortunately it's a let down. After coming to anticipate something more it wasn't engaging in the same way. But comparing the two the pieces all seem to be here. What is it that creates such a lack of satisfaction?

This is certainly another acting master class, and again it all looks and sounds amazing, but beyond the quality of the players and how it's all staged their journey is oddly inadequate in comparison. It never comes to any apparent conclusions about the nature of the subjects at hand, which is a shame since it has a number of fascinating ideas to explore. Is it a study of the weak under pressure or those who are easily led in tough times? Is it a look at ego and ambition? Is it a look at post Second World War culture clashes and the negative effects of fledgling pseudo sciences? All of these ideas are touched upon but in surface detail only and this lack of narrative focus undermines the experience. Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman) is a charismatic but twitchy writer and figurehead, who beams under flattery but crumbles and devolves into anger when questioned. This alone could have made for a great character study. In a darker turn Amy Adams plays his wife, perhaps the puppet master behind the scenes pushing him along and directing their followers, but their aims and ideals are vague and never explored. Is it a simple fraud case or are these real believers? The claims that Dodd is a nuclear physicist and his hypnosis methods could cure leukemia are very disturbing, but whether this is fantasy or actual faith isn't explained. The plot meanders and offers a lot of good character moments but never moves towards any real arcs or a solid outcome.

The story itself follows Joaquin Phoenix as Pacific War veteran Freddie as he comes across this nefarious couple and their group, The Cause. At the centre of the film it's an amazing creation, someone who is visibly broken by wartime experiences having fallen into alcoholism and can no longer function within normal social standards. Perhaps he never could as flashbacks suggest he didn't quite fit into military life. He's a twisted and slowly unraveling wreck of a man - but to what end? What he feels The Cause can offer him is never really explained and what he offers them in return besides a test subject for their persuasion techniques or the occasional hired help is unclear. There's certainly a friendship between him and Dodd, who perhaps means to exploit his weaknesses or is just interested in seeing his own less acceptable desires being expressed without inhibition. What exactly makes Freddie so actively violent towards the naysayers in the group or those speaking out against his new found club is not obvious since he never fully accepts their ideas. How he comes to a point that makes it acceptable to move on in his life is also unclear, though he has developed by the end in some ways. The cult itself moves from house hold meetings and court room scandal into book publishing and more worryingly school openings, yet it's uncertain if this is a real success for it's leaders and how these things are actually moving along, or if this is temporary and the damage they are doing through the "self help" being offered is going to come back and bite them later on. There are a lot of cryptic moments and unexplored ideas here. Whether this is worthy of further exploration or is just as vapid and hollow as the cult itself; that remains to be seen.



What happened Park Chan-Wook? From the teeth pulling nastiness of the Vengeance trilogy and the human drama of JSA, things seem to be going well. But for whatever reason things haven't quite panned out and much like Thirst, here there are plenty of wacky scenes but the real ideas are never developed into a story that works. This suffers more for it, and the gravity of a plot containing elements about psychological trauma and the treatment of mental illness should really have been dealt with in a manner which allows for some serious depth. Instead the tone doesn't ever work as the occasional somber moments collide with the more frequent comedy sequences. They showcase a lot of problem people but never explore their issues in a meaningful way, opting instead for crazy special effects and oddball humour rather than actual therapy. The abrupt ending just serves to amplify this feeling of confusion in what is a wasted opportunity overall.