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CHILDREN OF MEN

This year marks the tenth anniversary of Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men. At the time the film didn’t break any box office records, but it was lauded for its eerily prescient take at what society might look like on the brink of collapse. Never flashy or over the top, it was a classy, understated achievement. Only now is its influence apparent.

Set in London in 2027, after a global flu pandemic and years of human infertility, journalist Theo Faron (played by Clive Owen in a career best role) is contacted by his ex-wife, Julian, to aid her and her group of radicals smuggle a woman named Kee to the coast. He enlists help from his government-appointed cousin Nigel (who has largely disconnected his feelings from the world), and his old friend Jasper, a retired political cartoonist caring for his paralyzed wife.

Very odd, what happens in a world without children’s voices.

It’s a essentially a chase movie in structure, as Theo and Kee run from their pursuers, stumbling into the crossfire of an almighty battle to regain control of an immigration camp on the way. It’s a desperately human struggle, with lives hung on to by a thread. Very tense stuff.

The backdrop to all this is important. We see the final moments of a society burdened by challenges it cannot cope with. Overwhelming migration, political unrest, disease pandemics, terrorism.

These all looked fairly sci-fi ten years ago, but are numbingly regular occurrences today, leaving us with entire countries lurching towards the right in response. It’s food for thought, and Children of Men doesn’t paint a very rosy picture of how we deal with such big issues.

Visually, Children of Men ushered in a new set of tools that hadn’t been deployed like this before. The now famous unbroken shot of the attack on Julian’s car was so novel, people didn’t notice how impossible it was the first time they saw it. The big battle inside (and outside) the abandoned building at the end is also a high watermark. As with the rest of the film, it’s not designed to call attention to itself, more to put you inside the scene. It does that brilliantly.

Oddly, a scene that sticks with me is one that doesn’t often get talked about; Theo escaping from the farmhouse at dawn. It’s done in such a way that you can totally put yourself in his shoes. It’s minimal. There’s no music score. Barely any sound at all. It plays out in what feels like real time. The threat is life and death, and it all comes down to whether he can walk on gravel lightly, and open a car door without noise. The shot of him rolling the car down the hill, silently, with a group chasing on foot is so real and so tense it’s almost unbearable, and the relief when he escapes is palpable.

From the first blast of chaos in the opening scene, to the ambiguous ending filled with hope and uncertainty, Children of Men is a mature attempt to look at humanity’s future. It’s freaky that it turned out to be such an accurate one in some respects, but all good sci-fi hits the bullseye, whether it be good or bad (think of HG Wells predicting mass evacuations of British cities 50 years before it happened).

It’s a bleak film, but there’s beauty here too. Beauty in the truth of sorrow, survival, grief and hope. For me, one of the best movies of the 2000s.

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Passengers

Passengers is a script by Jon Spaihts that’s been floating around for a while (I believe it got him the chance to pitch Prometheus to Ridley Scott), and finally it’s being made with Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. I read the script a long time ago and really liked it.

There’s an air of familiarity about the concept. The person-isolated-in-space story has been done so many times it’s practically a genre, but it’s one I like a lot. This is reminiscent of stories like WALL-E, Silent Running and Solaris, but with a distinctly touristy vibe. Imagine being the only person stuck on a luxury cruise ship – not the worst situation in the world, but one that would eventually send you as mad as a window. The top half of the script has the main character Jim dealing with his loneliness and boredom in a variety of ways, until he can take no more. Without spoiling too much, eventually a woman called Aurora, played by Lawrence, joins him and the two have to find a way to live together.

The tone is surprisingly light, so I can see why they cast who they did. The only thing that concerns me is how they will keep it visually interesting for the duration of the movie. The script flags a little in the middle, and with only a handful of characters and locations to support it, it might get a little repetitive. The ending was somewhat soft as well, but maybe they’ve changed it.

Overall, it’s great to see an original sci-fi movie get made in the current climate. There’s an opportunity for some excellent acting here to go along with the robots and spaceship repair scenes, and I happen to love spaceship repair scenes, so it’s a double win.

Passengers is set for release on 21 December 2016.

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Thoughts on the Rogue One teaser

circle_rogueThe trailer dropped today, so now everyone can see how great this is shaping up. It’s definitely in the same Star Wars universe people are familiar with, but with a slightly different tone. More war, less hero’s journey.

That’s one of the great things about Star Wars. It’s so rich and so vibrant, just a different angle is all it needs to become interesting again.

Here’s five things I noticed:

This Star Destroyer has extra shit on it. Look on top of the bridge tower between the two ball things. What is that? Also the Star Destroyer looks very white, which makes me think it’s a new class. Maybe a specialized ship used for construction.

The Death Star getting it’s super laser installed. Okay, that’s a cool shot, but that thing is 22km wide. They are shoving it right in there pretty quick, like 1km per second. I guess it’s all done with tractor beams and such, but still.  Take your time guys.

This guy looks like a Grand Admiral. He’s posing pretty hard to make himself look evil, which I actually don’t love. Apart from the Sith, the Empire is run by a bunch of bureaucrats, but not out-and-out villains.  Still, that cape is wonderful.

I love this shot. You might think it’s on the Death Star, but it’s actually Canary Wharf tube station. Those desert scout troopers look great, and there are a ton more trooper types yet to be revealed. If one thing is certain, we’re going to get really good look at the Empire’s military in this.

Emperor’s Royal Guards! This is probably the best shot in the teaser. Who’s the guy in the foreground? Is it Palpatine? Is it Vader? What’s the tube in the middle of the room? And what’s in it? Probably nothing.

The teaser insinuates that Jyn turns into an Imperial or is drawn to the enemy, but that’s just trailer misdirection, I think. She’s sneaking on the the Death Star to steal the plans. Maybe she gets a chance to defect though, which would be a nice moment.

Overall, a tiny glimpse, but a good one. We didn’t see any of the new aliens and droids that are in this, except for a few snippets. I really like Felicity Jones already. My only fear is that Star Wars iconography is getting so familiar it feels a bit normal, but that could be because I look at it every day. My word, I love this stuff.

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Thoughts on The Force Awakens

I saw The Force Awakens three times on opening day. First at Grauman’s Chinese Theater at 2am, secondly on the Disney lot at 10am and thirdly at the Arclight Hollywood in the evening. I don’t know how JJ and the crew does it, I was wreck after 24 hours of this stuff.

Nothing can repeat that seismic moment of pop culture history that was the release of the first Star Wars movie. It was so complete, so far ahead of its time, and delivered on every level, that a repeat of something so unique was unlikely. One aspect that the Star Wars saga has been able to maintain is surprise. They are all highly unusual films, filled with things you’ve never seen before, wrapped in a very solid, archetypal story. That’s where I thought The Force Awakens failed. It had a lack of surprise.

It does so much right. Daisy Ridley and John Boyega were superb, arguably more comfortable than even the returning veteran Star Wars actors. There’s a subtle leap in visual effects that brings the CG work up to the level of the original trilogy, and can finally match the ambitions of the creators’ imaginations. Kylo Ren is a welcome addition, as are Maz Kanata and Poe Dameron.

Apart from the general retread of the story from A New Hope, one thing that stuck out as false (and likely won’t hold up to repeat viewings) were the blatant callouts to the original trilogy. The holochess set, the training remote, Han firing Chewie’s bowcaster, were all played for nostalgia. At that moment, the actors knew they were in a movie and were communicating to the audience directly to say ‘remember this?’ One of Lucas’ tenets for the world of Star Wars was that nothing should call attention to itself (something even he failed to stick to), but it’s a shame it went that way here. We also got the same ships, and stock Star Wars locations, so there was a heavy dose of familiarity, too. Minor nitpicks, and only bothersome if you’ve absorbed the universe over hundreds of hours of viewing.

The new aliens seen in Maz’s castle, Jakku and the Eruvana were pretty weak. The scene with the Scottish guy, the little freaks of Kanjiklub, and the godawful rathtars will have people scratching their heads for years to come once all the hype has died down. Or maybe it’ll end up people’s favourite scene in the movie. It’s moofmilking at its best.

What they did do, they got absolutely right. The filmmakers just didn’t get overly ambitious. In fact, looking through the Art of The Force Awakens book, there’s a much more interesting and maybe more original movie that didn’t get made.

They chose the safest route, and the balancing act of ‘I can’t believe what I’m seeing’ and ‘this shouldn’t even work’ was lost. That is a ridiculously high bar to judge something against. Maybe it’s more sensible to look at where it ended, which has potential to make for an absolutely mind-blowing sequel.

If they dare to do it.

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Movie recommendations part 2

Black Orpheus

This is one of the most beautiful films ever made. Shot in Rio De Janeiro during the Carnival of 1959, it’s a retelling of the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice.

It’s so colorful and vibrant and filled with energy. It’s like being on an amazing holiday, but one that is marred by an epic love tragedy from which you will never recover. The leads, especially Marpessa Dawn, are hard to take your eyes away from, and if it feels like they are dancing their way through the whole thing, that’s because they are.

Black Dynamite

A parody of blaxplotation movies almost on par with Airplane in the accuracy of its subject matter and sheer density of gags.

Like Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, it’s expertly poorly made on purpose, with actors looking at the camera and booms getting into shot. Michael Jai White definitely knows how to play an action lead, but I didn’t know he was so funny. His timing and delivery are impeccable. Definitely underrated.

The Black Hole

Disney’s famous attempt to cash in on the success of Star Wars. This is a truly weird film. It’s aiming to join the wave of spectacular blockbusters that defined the late Seventies and Eighties, but it’s stuck firmly in the old way of doing things.

It has the odd pace of something like The Forbidden Planet or Fantastic Voyage, too ponderous and formal after the breakneck pace of Star Wars, and the naturalism of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The music is good, the robots are good, the cast is good, the concept is good. It doesn’t quite add up to the sum of its parts, but is still worth watching, especially for the freaky ending.

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This should be a movie: POWER PACK

I love Power Pack. Compared to X-Men or Spider-Man, it’s a lesser known Marvel comic, but it sits alongside those characters (hell, they even interact with them) as one of the great titles of the 80s.

It’s about a group of four kids, all brothers and sisters in the Power family, who are granted superpowers by an alien horse that crashlands on Earth. They each have different abilities, hide their identities from their parents, avoid bullies, do their homework, and fight aliens intent on stealing their father’s research on anti-matter.

If that doesn’t sound great, I don’t know what to tell you.

What makes this comic so interesting to me is two-fold. First, the kids are really young, but the stories keep the full-on action tone of a regular comic book. The team find themselves in serious danger, go up against huge threats and find themselves under extreme pressure. These events are not fun for them, they’re downright frightening. Their fragility makes you feel things that would normally wash over you unnoticed in a regular superhero story. Responsibility put on a person’s shoulders before they’re ready is extremely compelling.

Secondly, it’s about kids, but it’s not aimed at kids. It’s aged up to an older audience. Think of something like E.T. or The Sixth Sense, where the story is taken with a level of seriousness that makes it satisfying. That is the way to do it, and they got it right.

The kid’s powers, and their personalities, don’t just play well off one another, they kind of fit together like a puzzle. The eldest, Alex, can control gravity. He feels the most responsibility and assumes the role of leader. Julie can fly at unlimited speeds, and tends to take care of everyone. Jack is able to change his mass and size. He is the quickest to get upset, not ready to deal with pressure yet. Katie, the youngest, can turn objects into energy, and discharge it as a weapon. She’s the most powerful, and a complete innocent, which is a great combination. She’s still learning right from wrong, and needs protecting from some of the situations she finds herself in, emotionally and physically.

The stories are pretty out there, forming the science fiction part of the universe that the Fantastic Four and Doctor Strange live in. The balance and interplay between the kids is extremely well constructed. They learn as they go, absolutely need each other to succeed, and barely scrape by even when working as a team. Plus their powers are cool as shit.

Would that work in a movie? It could.

If it was taken seriously as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that is. The tone would have to be aged up and aggressively protected. It would need to be communicated that this is not a kid’s movie, it’s a superhero movie that happens to have kids in it. Then it would need some child actors behaving like real, intelligent, believable kids. Finally, it would need to aim high with regards to spectacle and action.

Tough sell, but then everything a tough sell until it’s a success. But it would be so unique. And if they can make Guardians of the Galaxy work, they can definitely do Power Pack. Personally, I would kill the last Kymellian to see it.

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THE FORCE AWAKENS TRAILER

ball_droidIt’s been seven days since the trailer came out. We’ve had Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Terminator Thursday since then. The world has changed and it’s taken me this long to catch up. So here goes.

I saw it on Friday morning at the El Capitan theater in LA. The theater is owned by Disney so it makes sense they’d have a ball with it there. It wasn’t exactly a packed house, and I doubt many of the audience were there specifically for the teaser, but it was ideal conditions to get some new Star Wars into my eyes. While the organist was busy bashing out some Frozen tunes on his organ, I starting thinking about what I was going to see. What exactly would the trailer show? Would we see Han, Luke and Leia? The Falcon? Tatooine? Would I be able to keep my shit together? All this and more swirled around my head as I was waiting. Eventually the organ dude sank into the ground and an usher came out to let us know the program. Here’s the rundown: we were going to see three regular Disney trailers first, and the fourth would be The Force Awakens teaser in 2D. Then it will run again, this time in 3D.  Then – a laser show with a live-action Baymax, followed by a short called Feast, then Big Hero 6, THEN, the teaser in 3D again. If you think this took a long time to explain, that’s what I was thinking while the usher was going through the list. I was never going to get out of there. With the scene set and the audience primed, the lights dimmed. Never have the trailers for Into the Woods, some Kevin Costner coach drama and Cinderella looked so- Oh shit, here we go.

THOUGHTS

It’s always surreal to watch a new Star Wars thing. I seem to have some powerful, almost out-of-body experience like I can’t believe it’s even happening, and then get tunnel vision on the screen. I need to get over that (in case someone tries to attack me from the side). Anyway, here’s what I thought: the teaser was interestingly paced, but there’s exactly zero to get worried about, in fact, everything to look forward to. I love that John Boyega in a stormtrooper suit is the first thing you see. The ball droid is a wtf moment, which I’m hoping we get more of. Daisy Ridley’s character looks like she popped straight out of the Original Trilogy and the X-Wings and cross-shaped lightsaber guy were awesome to behold. Then there’s that shot of the Falcon. A little bit pre-vizzed for my liking, with both the camera and the ship looping upside down, but I’ll take it. Word on a Grantland article was that that was in fact a practical effect shot with a motion-controlled Falcon, which if true makes my mind explode with joy. THE GODDAMN FALCON, PEOPLE. Everything’s gonna be OK.

I FELT IT

I’m glad it was dark and I had 3D glasses on because I was a mess up in the theater. And we didn’t even see any of the other characters, meaning there are clearly more freakouts like this to come. So this is The Force Awakens. I immediately tried piece the clues together about what I saw and the little I know about the plot and it all added up nicely. I’m excited, and the best thing about it for me it that I already like the new folks, especially Boyega who I’m a big fan of. The teaser contained more surprising things (to me) than I thought it would, but was 100% set in the Star Wars universe we’ve visited before. When I got home I watched it all again on iTunes, and while it had a different vibe to the big screen, it still got me hyped up for next December. Great way to spend a Friday morning.

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MOVIE RECOMMENDATIONS

Timecrimes

Timecrimes is an insanely clever time travel/horror thriller from Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo. The major difference between this and other time travel movies is that the protagonist only goes back in time one hour. What could go wrong? A lot as it turns out, and the problems and paradoxes pile up on each other.

I know firsthand how hard these things are to write, so to be able to keep events straightforward to follow, while still head-hurtingly complex is an amazing achievement. It’s also creepy as hell, and has a distinct ‘Lost’ vibe, which are all good things in my opinion.

Time Bandits

This is arguably Terry Gilliam’s most complete film. Sometimes an idea with broad appeal can be overwhelmed by a idiosyncratic director, but here his particular vision is fully realized. Obviously it’s still a little bonkers: a bunch of dwarves on the run from God, who they stole a time map from, gatecrash into the bedroom of a young boy called Kevin, who gets dragged through time and space, until some evil dude catches up with them and turns into a carousel.

It makes complete sense to your child brain. The effects and production design are pulled off perfectly, and there’s excellent cameos from lots of Monty Python people and a ton of famous stars.

Time Masters

A very intense French animated movie about a boy being stranded on an alien planet, and a crew attempting to rescue him. It is way out there in terms of sci-fi, with concepts such as a sentient planet of faceless angels, “water-lily like organisms blooming into dozens of empathic, sentient, primary coloured homunculi” and a big egg that you talk into.

The majority of the movie was designed and storyboarded by Moebius, so it benefits from his vast imagination. The co-produced French/Hungarian animation is great (especially the two cute flying dudes). It’s fairly violent and unnerving, and the ending blew my tiny mind as a kid.

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Guided by Forces

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Cats in Movies

jonesyA few days ago I was trying to think of movies with cats in them (real ones, not some giant CG Garfield monstrosity), because (I think you’ll agree) cats are awesome. I could watch those cute little guys all day. But sadly, after ten minutes of deep thinking, all I could come up with was ALIEN, MILO & OTIS (which is in fact a horrible Japanese pet torture movie) and five seconds of TO CATCH A THIEF. This is not enough cat content. Seriously.

Luckily, my wife heard my call for help. A rapid Google search lead her to a great site with about a million cat movies – http://catsonfilm.wordpress.com. Now my to-watch list is filled with the likes of THAT DARN CAT, HARRY & TONTO and THE THREE LIVES OF THOMASINA. Oh god.

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