Wednesday 29 June 2011

VHS Quest #9. Zero Effect (Jake Kasdan, 1998)

Watching the detectives... Bill Pullman stars in Zero Effect (1998)

At some point in life, no matter how diverse our paths may be, we've all shared one experience: we've lost our keys. Many of us, after an exhaustive search, would be heard to mutter, "They're always in the last place you look." Of course, to keep on looking for your keys after you've found them would be a futile exercise, so they're inevitably in the last place you look.

Daryl Zero (Bill Pullman) is the guy who knows exactly where to look. He can read people; they express details in their posture, movement and vocal tone that most of us take for granted, misunderstand or ignore. He can reel off your name, profession and home address within seconds of meeting you. And he finds Mr. Stark's (Ryan O'Neal) keys, which unlock a safety deposit box, lodged down the side of an office sofa. Makes sense, when you think about it. Mr. Stark, under the impression that somebody had stole the keys, simply never thought to look there. Life can often be like this...

Jake Kasdan, son of Lawrence, who wrote and directed The Big Chill (1983), has just released the atrocious Bad Teacher (2011) into cinemas. He's fallen a long way from this unappreciated gem, which is one of the quirkiest movies of the 90's, but nowhere near as annoying as that sounds. Kook is now associated with the likes of Wes Anderson and Miranda July, and their specific brand of incisive eccentricity can send a shiver down certain viewers spines. Indeed, modest intellectualism, colour-coded decor and emotional set-pieces involving the immediate danger faced by a bagged goldfish aren't easy sells, but Zero Effect's brand of quirk is toned down and attached to solid genre convention. It's a detective movie through and through; just unlike any you've ever seen.

Daryl is a dysfunctional recluse, scared of the world which exists outside his four walls and emotionally guarded from everyone he knows; that is if he even knows anybody other than his personal assistant Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller). We are introduced to Daryl while, gruff and unshaven, he rocks out in a pair of red pajama shorts and a Hawaiian T-Shirt. He's awkward and fumbling, yet sharp as a tack, and his reservations ("I have mastered the fine art of detachment") allow him to see through people. Emotion is a hinderance to him, yet it remains the gaping hole in his life. This is the only fact which he can't deduct for himself. I dare not estimate Daryl Zero's IQ. It's higher than yours or mine.

Pullman, an eternally underrated actor whose CV is packed with undervalued films, turns in a career best performance here, and remains magnetically watchable. He has a kind of monotone deadpan charm, and that sounds like a string of criticisms, but it's a quality which no other actor but him possesses. His screen presence is unique, and no film has exhibited it quite as well as Zero Effect. Every tick, every deduction, every failed attempt at conversation, not to mention his one outburst of true anger, all lead up to a movingly bare telephone conversation, where he plays all his cards straight. It's a nuanced and powerful turn, but its subtleties have been ignored.

Stiller is also great in an early performance, while O'Neal and Kim Dickens, as a suspect and love interest, provide ample support. But what I really love about Zero Effect is the affection it has for these characters, and the honesty with which it portrays them. Kasdan proves himself a masterful writer in the opening scenes, which provide a hilarious juxtaposition between Arlo's pitch to Mr. Stark, wherein he paints Daryl as an impeccably confident, impossibly intellectual and well travelled super sleuth, and his too-many-drinks-down-the-line confession in a bar, wherein Daryl becomes a hopeless freak ("Tactless and inept. Rude, too. Just an asshole."), who's never even kissed a girl. The truth is that both are pitches, neither can be trusted, and Daryl remains impenetrable - likely he is a combination of the two. We never really know him, but we get to like him, despite the frustrations he causes Arlo, and frequently awkward social interactions. There's never any sense that Kasdan is trying to make us like Daryl, but we do, because his persistence and smarts are endearing. He believes himself to be one of the good guys. I believe him.

Frequently funny, Zero Effect isn't the most stylish of films, and despite Kasdan's confidence behind the camera this is not a director's showcase. The writing and performances are spot-on, and it's a pretty unique little flick, so while it's no lost masterpiece it certainly doesn't deserve to be lost... dig this one up. You won't regret it.

Yogi Bear (Eric Brevig, 2010) DVD Review

"Look Boo Boo, a cash cow just around the corner!" Yogi Bear (2010)...

Brad Copeland, lead writer on Yogi Bear, has penned six episodes of TV's Arrested Development (2003 - 2005), one of the smartest and funniest network shows of the last twenty years (naturally it was canceled). His screenplay has landed in the hands of Eric Brevig, two-time Academy award nominated visual effects supervisor, now directing his second film after 2008's Journey To The Center Of The Earth. Throw in Dan Aykroyd as the voice of Yogi and this adaptation of the classic Hanna-Barbera cartoon shouldn't be half bad. I mean, Aykroyd co-wrote Ghostbusters (Reitman, 1984), so he knows funny. It should be... y'know... at least decent, right? No. In fact, Grizzly Man (Herzog, 2005) was funnier, and that was about the chaotic, unforgiving nature of the wilderness and how one fractured man became ensnared in its beautiful lie. This is gonna be rough...

The film shows signs of its cheapness early on, parodying March Of The Penguins (Jacquet, 2005) with a faux-Freeman voiceover, delivered by Josh Robert Thompson. We then establish ourselves in the famous Jellystone Park, which is actually quite beautiful, and I must give credit to the location scouts. With a surrounding lake, dense greenwood and mountainous panorama, the film certainly looks a treat. Well, it would if not for the glossy, over-lit aesthetic and infestation of green-screened CGI bears. Damn, does Yogi look scary. I mean he looks full-on serial killer scary. Does anyone remember John Frankenheimer's sci-fi bear flick Prophecy (1979)? The grotesque beast in that film looks like Yogi's normal cousin, and I suspect they'd enjoy a quiet pickernick together chomping on the charred remains of innocent campers.

Of course, Yogi is in fact quite innocent, and Brevig's film (a mercifully short 79 minutes) has such doe-eyed naivety that you won't find anything to offend the little ones. The U certificate plants us firmly into the territory of slapstick and sentiment, and the narrative (pah!) flits between them pretty evenly. One minute Ranger Smith (Tom Cavanagh; so wooden you can't tell him from the trees) is wooing Rachel (Anna Faris; seemingly suffering a 7-day stroke), and the next Yogi and Boo Boo (Justin Timberlake; surprisingly effective) are diving off cliffs with high-wire contraptions to secure cake and donuts. In fact, donuts also lead to the film's most eye-rolling pop culture reference, in the form of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Kids won't get it and adults will be snoozing by the time it arrives. It's a shame that this is such routine formula for kid's movies these days: silly pratfalls for the under-5's and references to Superman (Donner, 1978) for the parents. Both are lazy, and the filmmakers even find time for a 'Baby Got Back' dancing gag, which is outdated by about a decade.

Everything in this film is underdeveloped, and there are patches of deeply awkward silence as gags fall flat and scuttle off in shame of ever having been conceived. The film has three credited writers so there's no excuse for it appearing in such bad shape. It's such a lifeless affair too, as Brevig's direction has no flair or individuality, instead plodding through the set-pieces with minimal effort. The CGI is godawful too. I've already mentioned the bears, but their biggest problem is a lack of texture, with none of the character models having any weight, shape or presence. Remember when Monsters, Inc. (Docter, Silverman, 2001) came out and you could count the individual hairs on Sulley's body? You could only dream of that kind of detail here. Yogi remains flat, giving off a pixelated sheen that would suggest technology has moved backwards in the last ten years. That, or nobody gave a shit.

The performances are all terrible, with T.J. Miller in particular confirming himself as an actor in need of permanent hibernation, for the audience's sake if nothing else. But really it's the laziness that kills Yogi Bear. The plot is actually pretty solid, and there's probably a good half-hour cartoon somewhere in here, but it's been dragged out into a painfully overproduced studio cash cow, and it shows in every frame. It's not funny (the best line, "I wonder if he noticed the pie", raises a smile), the clichéd romance stings like a field of bee-infested nettles, and I'll say it again - Yogi just looks damn scary! Seriously. It's like Prophecy Part II, except I'd have paid to see that movie.

The Disc/Extras
Standard presentation and a vanilla disc, boasting two shockingly condescending 'Jellystone Park Jewels' features in which Ranger Jones (Miller) instructs us on how to pick up littler and trail Yogi (oddly, this second feature finds him littering). There's also a 'Yogi Bear Mashup', mixing footage of the film with the classic cartoon. I like the cartoon.

Yogi Bear is out on DVD now. This review can originally be found at Flickfeast.

Monday 27 June 2011

New York Ripper (Lucio Fulci, 1982) Blu-Ray Review

The murderous, neon-lit landscape of New York Ripper (1982) looks better than ever on Blu...

Lucio Fulci's classic 80's slasher has rode a wave of controversy in the UK ever since it was rejected by the BBFC in 1984, when chief censor James Ferman ordered all existing prints to be deported from the country. Despite never liking Fulci's work, Ferman's anger may have been raised due to current social concerns, especially with the recent conviction of Peter Sutcliffe, aka The Yorkshire Ripper. But even now the film remains cut, and the infamous scene where prostitute Kitty (Daniela Doria) has her breasts sliced by a razor blade is almost non-existent in this re-mastered print. Indeed, the scene remains butchered beyond recognition, save for the eye-dicing finale, and it's a crying shame that we're still not allowed to choose for ourselves what we can and cannot see. But let's not linger on decades-old debate; New York Ripper has much to offer even in incomplete form, and I think it's about time all charges of misogyny were dropped...

It's true that Fulci always shot female murders in a more explicit and visceral fashion, and on a Blu-Ray extra writer Dardano Sacchetti expresses discomfort in the way the director always made those murders about sex. Filmmakers have a choice, he says, in scenes where a knife rips a blouse, to show or not show the flesh underneath. And yes, Fulci always lingered on the event, his victims were always nude, and much of New York Ripper's tone is lurid; the 25¢ sex show is followed by a particularly nasty (but effective) set-piece where the killer assaults his victim by stabbing her in the crotch with a broken bottle. Later in the film a woman is fingered against her will, and the aforemntioned set-piece involving a razor blade has obviously troubled censors for years. It's also true that when men are murdered in his films, Fulci shows noticeably less interest, and frames the set-pieces in a much more uninspired fashion. But on the same extra Fulci's daughter Antonela says that the killer does not hate women, just their beauty. The final twist of the film informs us as to why, and therefore the murders are executed with motive and psychological reason. Perhaps Fulci lingers on them for too long, but there isn't much more excess here than in any other giallo, and studying the works of Bava, Deodato and Argento will prove as such. Perhaps Fulci was more brutal, and his worldview more nihilistic, but these are not criticisms, simply auteurist traits.

What New York Ripper does succeed in is style, and there's plenty of it. Antonela Fulci describes the film as a "horror-melodrama" and certainly its colour scheme would attest to that fact (as would the ripe dialogue and overacting). The aforemntioned bottle set-piece is a masterpiece of style, whatever your reservations about the content. The sex show itself is a vidid slice of erotica, with the soundtrack and lighting giving the fleapit theatre a sleazy appearance, and the saturated close-ups on mouths, eyes and self-pleasure are captivating. Corridors are draped in red light, directly juxtaposing with the neutral green of the performer's (Zora Kerowa) dressing room. Soon that red light begins to creep under the door of the green room, and fear sets in. The sound design amps up a little; there's somebody else there. Once the (gruesome) murder is complete a red light once again drapes itself over the corpse, denoting the savagery that has been committed. The killers quack (yes, you read that right) can still be heard in the mind of the viewer, echoing, and I've always seen this as a reference to the whistling child killer of Fritz Lang's M (1931). It's an exceptional set-piece, beautifully rendered on Blu-Ray, and is worth the price tag alone...

A similar pattern recurs through most of the movie; a claustrophobic corridor book-ended by red 'EXIT' signs, and the slow ascent of a flight of stairs by a character who will be met by a red door, holding all manner of secrets (a murder also happens here), stand out. Fulci's colour-coding may be a little obvious, but his understanding of lighting ensures that we never feel condescended, and his technical proficiency and developed style elicits as much tension and excitement from the scenes as possible. They also look stunningly beautiful, like much of his work from this era. The dialogue may be atrocious ("Fred, have you flipped out or are you trying to give me an ulcer? A smart-ass coroner comes out with a little verbal diarrhea and you immediately go around declaring there's a maniac loose in the city!") and the acting wooden (Howard Ross is effectively creepy), but there's a lot more to New York Ripper than many would care to admit.

Personally I also see some subtext in the way surrounding is used to inform character; the South Bronx stands in for 42nd Street where neon signs hang over the dirty streets advertising Slavers (Jürgen Goslar, 1978) and The Unseen (Danny Steinmann, 1980). They remind us of the perverts, prostitutes and sickos who inhabit the region, especially the duck-voiced antagonist of Fulci's piece, based on Disney's Donald, who the director deemed an "anarchist." Through casual camerawork (it's frenetic in the set-pieces) Fulci lures us deeper into his world, subconsciously building the fear with posters, colours and shadows. It's not quite a masterpiece, but New York Ripper still comes highly recommend, and even in cut form remains one of the best giallos on the market.

The Disc/Extras
Of course, the film looks incredible. DP Luigi Kuveiller has been well served by this transfer, and I struggle to find any fault with it. An accompanying booklet by Stephen Thrower, taken from his book 'Beyond Terror, The Films Of Lucio Fulci', is hugely entertaining and informative. The extras are brief but solid. The original theatrical trailer is excellent, but the second feature, an 18-minute interview with Antonela Fulci and Dardano Sacchetti, is excellent, and fans of New York Ripper will find much to enjoy, especially the anecdote about Ross checking out of his hotel room. I wish there were more extras (some kind of commentary would have been welcome) but this is still an essential purchase; the film just looks too good to miss.

Saturday 25 June 2011

The Shortlist: 8 Movie Sequels Better Than The Originals

You can read the full feature at MultiMediaMouth: 8 Movie Sequels Better Than The Originals

Bridesmaids (Paul Feig, 2011) Review

The descent of comedy continues... a strong cast can't save a weak script in Bridesmaids (2011)

So here's the thing to say about Bridesmaids. It's long. Unforgivably and unnecessarily long. But for a comedy lasting 125 minutes you'd expect to at least get your money's worth, right? Well I laughed twice during Bridesmaids, and it could have been out of desperation. The film tells the story of best friends Annie (Kristen Wiig) and Lillian (Maya Rudolph), as the latter gets engaged and the former is positioned the task of maid of honour. Familiar territory, familiar execution. But it's peculiar that, given the length, Bridesmaids is a film which feels remarkably choppy, as if it's been dismembered out of all proportion in the editing suite. Several scenarios, especially those involving Annie's roommates, feel like the setup for a joke, but then they just end. It feels like several improv sessions were left on the cutting room floor, but consequently the film has no rhythm, and certain characters lose continuity. Worse still is the fact that the jokes which are in severe need of cutting down - notably a set-piece in which Annie and the over-controlling Helen (Rose Byrne) try to upstage each other at an engagement party - seem to go on forever. That scene could have been rounded off nicely in 30 seconds, but it takes up about 4 minutes of the running time. Narrative is disjointed, tone entirely scattershot, and an admittedly well executed bodily functions gag feels awkwardly out of place amongst some of the warmer and wittier moments. If Wiig was attempting to write herself a showcase with Bridesmaids, she's failed.

But the problems continue. Many critics have been comparing this film to The Hangover (Phillips, 2009) in the fact that it's a wedding-centered buddy movie, filled with OTT, 15-rated shenanigans. My biggest problem with The Hangover is its attitudes towards women, i.e. that they fall into two distinct groups - stay at home moms, and strippers. The former are whiny, underdeveloped bitches for the most part, but they're assigned the task of looking after the kids while the puerile-minded assholes *ahem* protagonists go off to Vegas to ogle even less underdeveloped 'women'. It's nasty, which certainly isn't something that can be said for Bridesmaids, an overall cheery comedy, but it does suffer the same unforgivable ignorance of the opposite of sex, save for some cringing stereotypes. Jon Hamm plays the uncredited role of Ted, a sleazy commitment-phobe who only uses Annie for sex. He's not a character, but rather the personification of what some women think many men are, and he slowly slips from a one-note joke into a blunt instrument of torture; his final appearance on screen is deeply uncomfortable, and not in the right way. Chris O'Dowd's underdeveloped Irish cop also suffers a similar fate, acting as more of a plot device than anything else. We don't even get the clichéd story of why he became a cop, which would have been strangely welcome. It's an empty role, and he can't do anything with it.

I don't get all the praise for Bridesmaids, which seems to be the latest step on a slippery descent for mainstream American comedy. I like Kristen Wiig. She's a pretty charming screen presence and she alone holds the film together, saving it from being entirely terrible. But that's not enough. Even the female supporting cast feel underdeveloped, with at least two of the ensemble having no detectable personality whatsoever. Through contrivances and tumbleweed Bridesmaids is a failure. Not as awful as Bad Teacher (Kasdan, 2011), which went on general release last week, but then that film was a mind-numbing trainwreck, and should not be used as a barometer for good taste or, indeed, good comedy...

Tuesday 21 June 2011

Rabbit Hole (John Cameron Mitchell, 2010) DVD Review

You can read my full review at Flickfeast: Rabbit Hole

Forbidden Planet (Fred M. Wilcox, 1956)

Forbidden Planet (1956) presents brave new worlds, but there may be danger beneath the surface...

Forbidden Planet, the sci-fi classic now celebrating its 55th anniversary, is one of those rare instances where the film came first, and the novelization followed. Many of cinema's great science-fiction works have been based on books; 2001 (Kubrick, 1968) by Arthur C. Clarke, Blade Runner (Scott, 1982) by Philip K. Dick, and the list goes on. Star Wars (Lucas, 1977), despite being a loose re-imagining of Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress (1958), is another classic reverse example - influences are evident throughout the design of Lucas' famed franchise, but the original story came long before the potential for a decade-spanning extravaganza that would take in TV spin-offs, videogames and LEGO sets. Forbidden Planet - originally titled Fatal Planet - never achieved that kind of blockbusting success (although it may of, had the picture been released in the late 70's) but it has become an enduring classic in the minds of cineastes, and a staple of the genre. You can draw parallels to Shakespeare's The Tempest (quite profound ones actually) but the original idea sprung from the minds of Irvin Block and Allen Adler, later transformed into a screenplay by Cyril Hume (who wrote Bigger Than Life the same year, directed by Nicolas Ray). Could they, or even the young Leslie Nielsen, who makes a dashing and well scrubbed hero, have ever predicted the longevity of this ambitious picture? Probably not, but it looks just as bold today as it ever did; its gorgeous landscapes, equally lush and barren, providing a marvel for the eyes on Warner Bros. Special Edition Blu-Ray...

It's the 23rd Century and Commander J.J. Adams (Nielsen) is commanding the United Planets Cruiser C57-D to the planet Altair 4, on a routine mission to establish contact with and provide assistance to any inhabitants. The ship is radioed by Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) who tells them to stay away, yet the crew insist on landing. After receiving coordinates they touch down on the cold, mountainous landscape, only to be met by Robby The Robot, an impeccably designed machine who acts as servant and companion to Morbius and his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis), whose naivety and openness is a result of her never having made contact with the Earth. Soon Morbius begins acting strangely, raising Adams' suspicions with the revelation of the "Krell" species, an advanced civilization who mysteriously died on the dawn of their grandest achievement. After the ship is broken into by a supposedly invisible creature, the stakes raise even further. It's pretty complex stuff, but the basics of the relationships - Adams and Altaira falling in love, Morbius confronting his megalomanic hunger etc. - will be recognizable to most film fans, and pretty predictable too. After all, when sci-fi presents an educated man in an isolated state of ego, what usually happens?

The film more than deserves its classic status, but it's not perfect. The biggest problem is Altaira, an underdeveloped female character who is also wildly inconsistent in her decisions. I understand that her exposure to men must be confusing and exciting, and she will be susceptible to lies and charm in equal measure, but her flitting attentions and changing priorities, as well as the mixed message of her strong-will and sexualization, is an unsettled element of the film, and Francis' performance is nowhere near confident enough to pull it off. The screenplay essentially uses her as a tool, and we never buy into the flowering relationship between her and Adams - by the end of the film she's seemingly head-over-heels in love with him, but where and how this developed remains as much a mystery as the Krell themselves. The rest of the crew are underdeveloped too, especially the cook (Earl Holliman), who gets quite a lot of screen-time acting out a gag which never quite works. Perhaps the problem is that the humour has dated, but his subplot seems unnecessary, and almost brings the film to a halt.

But let it never be said that the film is bad; it's anything but. The special effects still look absolutely astonishing, especially in the action set-piece with the Id Monster, whose hulking, carnivorous form wreaks animated havoc when caught in an electrical forcefield, and the entire battle has incredible visual continuity - the presence and weight of the beast, the overpowering use of the colour red and the stream of the crews lasers. It's a magnificent sequence, and one which perfectly complements the world created by the set designers and art directors. From the far regions of outer space to the lush gardens of Morbius' house, populated by monkeys and tigers, the film is a visual masterpiece. The environments have a soft, pastel-shaded aesthetic, equally exotic and dangerous, and their painterly futurism is captivating. In fact, especially during the scenes exhibiting the Krell's advanced constructions, it doesn't seem to have aged a day.

An almost perfect vision of adventure in the 23rd Century, Forbidden Planet comes highly recommended - outside of a few basic niggles, sci-fi simply doesn't come any better...

Forbidden Planet is part of the Aurum Sci-Fi Quest.

Monday 20 June 2011

Friday 17 June 2011

Bad Teacher (Jake Kasdan, 2011) Review

Laughing their way to the bank... the cast of Jake Kasdan's Bad Teacher (2011)

If you want to know the fundamental problem with Bad Teacher you need only look at its protagonist, Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz), a venal, foul-mouthed, narcissistic headcase who you'd move continents to avoid. Her maxim? Best foot forward as long as it's in somebody else's face. At no point did I like her. At no point did I root for her, despite the films best efforts to shoehorn us into the clichéd 'redemption' arc, wherein Elizabeth gains a heart and learns to love the schlubby gym teacher. In fact, those moments made me hate her even more. The film is sold as a comedy, but it's closer to a cinematic hate crime...

Bad Teacher is about seven years late to the Bad Santa (Zwigoff, 2003) cash-in party, and during that time screenwriters Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg (who have scribed Ghostbusters 3, god help us) have completely forgotten the core reason why that film worked. Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) was a mean-spirited and piggish character, and he hated the world, but he also hated himself. There was no misplaced sense that this grumpy alcoholic conman had a sense of self-worth or had the potential to do better, and the people around him provided light relief as they observed his descent into a darkly comic (and it has to be said, quite edgy) pit of self-destruction. It was funny not just because of how shockingly inappropriate his behavior was, but also because of his all-round hopelessness. Yet Kasdan and co. actually want us to like Elizabeth. She hates the world but loves herself, and sees in her reflection some greater substance and inner beauty which simply doesn't exist. She's a cruel personality vacuum who actually bullies people, and enjoys doing so. The lump of coal where her heart should be is not endearing, and how anybody involved in this desperately unfunny mess of a film thought it could be is frankly worrying.

The laugh count is firmly on zero, mainly because Elizabeth is such a detestable bitch throughout. The central gag is basically that this drunken, drug addled attention whore is allowed to be put in charge of a group of children, but because of how awful she is that gag never works. There are no jokes worked within that one either; the concept is all they have, and it runs out of steam early on. The only likable character in the movie is the perkily adorable Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch; just wonderful), but she reaches such spirited highs that you come to think of her as more of a cartoon than a person. Credit where credit is due though, as Punch is brilliant in the role and actually attempts to create a fully rounded character. Her performance has nuances and a sense of comic timing; it is likable, and we feel bad when Elizabeth hurts her. But she's overwritten to the Nth degree and when surrounded with the heightened scenarios of the 'narrative' she comes off as just too animated for her own good. It's a shame that this gem is lost amid so much shit.

The rest of the supporting cast, including Jason Segel (usual schtick), Justin Timberlake (phoning it in) and Phyllis Smith (one-note) do little to help matters either, treading a careful comedy line in order to allow Elizabeth's outrageousness center stage. Ironically, Bad Teacher would have been a better film without her. From concept to execution (the plot holes are rampaging) this is a stain on the world of comedy and most notably the CV of Jake Kasdan (son of Lawrence) who previously made the excellent Zero Effect (1998) and Orange County (2002). He's a talented filmmaker but here he's let the ball drop to all new lows. Maybe in 2004 we could have laughed this one off as the cash-in it is, but it's too late in the day to care now and the film just acts as further evidence of how deep into the gutter mainstream American comedy has sunk...

The Shortlist: Best Movie Swearing

You can read the complete list at MultiMediaMouth: Best Movie Swearing

Green Lantern (Martin Campbell, 2011) Review

Peter Sarsgaard plays infected scientist Hector in Martin Campbell's Green Lantern (2011)

Green Lantern is such a scatty, disjointed and messy film that reviewing it is an almost impossible process; how do you make sense of the senseless, or derive logic from the illogical? In every stage - from scripting to special effects - the film is a failure, and it has only one positive. So let's get that out of the way first. Peter Sarsgaard, playing infected scientist Hector Hammond, is absolutely terrific, and magnetically watchable. He's one of my favorite actors, and a performer of such depth and range that he can turn trash into art for the seconds he's onscreen, and he does exactly that with an underdeveloped but interesting role in Campbell's film. It's a slimy, power-hungry performance which made me deeply uncomfortable, but the actor is clearly relishing the role, and therefore watching him also becomes fun. Every flicker of the eyes, extension of the neck, slurring of the speech... and those screams. They'll stick in your mind for a long time. It's a glorious performance, and despite how awful the film is - and by god is it awful - Sarsgaard fans owe it to themselves to endure the pain. Because for his mere appearance there are equal moments of pleasure, and I can't sing his praises highly enough. His performance elicits sympathy and sadness, which is an extraordinary feat given the script he's working from. Now we have that out of the way it's time to assess the actual film...

And let's start with that script. It manages to pack in every superhero cliché (denial of power, fear of responsibility, training montage, doubt from peers and the chance to prove his strength, and therefore win the girl) but with such crushingly lazy dialogue that the experience of watching often becomes deeply uncomfortable; actually, it's often embarrassing. This script should have got the red light on its first pass, but it feels like the studio just wanted to rush into production with whatever haphazard material they had so far. The jokes fall cringe-inducingly flat and Hal (Ryan Reynolds) is such a 2D machismo vehicle (complete with daddy issues and repressed love for his co-pilot) that it's impossible to care about him at any moment. Speaking of that co-pilot, the lovely Blake Lively turns in one of the most obvious paycheck-grabbing performances in a long time here. She looks not so much bored as entirely vacant for most of the running time, delivering her lines with zero conviction. She struggles to stand out from the furniture. The design of the film is also glossy and incomplete, and the alien council look more like characters from scrapped Ben 10 concept art, and the giant energy-sucking cloud monster actually elicited laughter in my screening, and its bobbing little alien head certainly secured a smirk from me too. Green Lantern's universe is so rich and diverse, but it doesn't lend itself well to cheap CGI effects; it belongs in a comic book, and to give the filmmakers credit, an adaptation is something of an impossible task. But they could have at least tried, y'know? Despite the money chucked at this project it still looks cheap and badly rendered, as well as overly-bright. Not that I'd really know, because the pointless 3D darkens the image, and it looks bloody awful. There are a few action scenes where the 3D is noticeable, but it'll be the least of your problems because their choreography is so incoherent.

So, we have an ugly, inane and badly conceived film which only made me laugh in the moments it was trying to be serious. It feels well over two hours long but actually clocks in at a neat 100 minutes, so that speaks for one thing: piss poor production. The length of a film doesn't really matter so long as it's interesting or exciting, but Green Lantern is so cobbled together, so overfamiliar and childish that it fails to engage on any level. If you're not engaged, it's bound to feel protracted. After a while my eyes began to hurt and a headache reared its head; probably from the deafening sound design, which amplifies everything to the Nth degree. I just can't believe how dazzlingly bad this film is, on every level, except for Sarsgaard's performance of course. It's not quite the worst film of the summer, because Sucker Punch (Snyder, 2011) is pretty reprehensible, but it's certainly not far behind. Everyone involved should be pretty ashamed of themselves for putting this slick, narratively stodgy and just plain dumb film in cinemas. It looks like the unfiltered fantasy of an 8-year-old hyped up on too many sweets, and has the same narrative coherency as an afternoon with his Action Man playset would have; and yes, is just as infuriating as that sounds. Avoid. At all costs. Oh, and just for the hell of it...

In brightest day, In blackest night,
Zero effort makes Green Lantern shite.

Tuesday 14 June 2011

Love Life (Reinout Oerlemans, 2009) DVD Review

Love shines a light through the darkest of times... Carice van Houten stars in Love Life (2009)

Also known as Stricken, the direct translation of Love Life's Dutch title, Komt een vrouw bij de dokter, is: A Woman Goes To The Doctor. That sounds like the opening to a bad joke (the sort usually found in Christmas crackers), but you'd have to forgive Oerlemans' film if it lacked a funny bone, or any sort of jovial spirit. After all, its primary themes are infidelity, repression, anger and death. Yet somehow, against all odds, a comedy is exactly what Oerlemans has made, albeit an unintentional one. Indeed, the opening meet-cute-to-marriage montage will have you rolling in fits of laughter, that is if you're not drowning in its prepackaged sentiment. Love Life, how I loathe thee...

Based on the autobiographical novel by Ray Kluun (I haven't read it, but if it's anything like the adaptation then we have a plentiful supply of flammable materials should the firewood ever run out), Love Life tells the story of Carmen (Carice van Houten) and Stijn (Barry Atsma) as they fall in and out of love over the course of a turbulent marriage, which also births them a daughter named Luna. Soon Carmen develops breast cancer and Stjin must learn to support his wife, despite his frequent casual affairs. One of the biggest problems with the film is the fact that Stijn is such an obnoxious, philandering cock who deserves no sympathy, only loneliness and the bottom of a whiskey bottle. He's a repugnant pig of a character, and the fact that Carmen vows to stay with him, writing off his affairs as a habit (like "nose picking"), even through her chemotherapy, shines a damningly bad light over her. Despite her determined fight against the cancer Carmen is ultimately portrayed as weak, especially in the way she deals with her husband. A late scene sees her challenging him with divorce, but one bout of drunk sex later and she's forgiven all his trespasses, which are played out in needlessly explicit fashion as regularly as possible. Indeed, the amount of gratuitous nudity in the film is degrading, especially for an actress of van Houten's talents. She tries her hardest here, but the uneven alteration between saccharine gloss and try-hard marital bleakness ultimately crushes her efforts, and she comes off like the victim of a particularly ugly car crash. Oerlemans is an awful director, and he should be thoroughly ashamed with himself for wasting such a bright and interesting actress.

And yes, ugly is the word for this garbage. Love Life is a staggeringly misjudged film in terms of tone, and is sometimes just plain offensive. The juxtaposition between Carmen's radiation therapy and Stjin scouting nightclubs for no-strings sex would be bad enough (especially when we consider their 5-year-old daughter Luna, who is seemingly home alone), but then the film pulls off an amazing coup de grâce with a nightmarish sequence in which Stjin imagines himself in a strip club, faced by a buxom blonde dancing away to a techno soundtrack (the score is also wildly inconsistent), and the woman - after removing her bra and jiggling at the camera for a few seconds - proceeds to rip off her own breast, with a gruesome prosthetic effect that would make the Nightmare On Elm Street series blush. I recoiled in shock, but not in a good way. It's a horrid moment in a wretched film, and we're only about 30 minutes in when this happens. I mean, how tasteless does a film need to be before it becomes an active atrocity? It also frequently condescends the audience, introducing us to the chemo segment of the film with a big title which says 'CHEMO', like those bits in globe-trotting thrillers where the location pops up in the bottom of the screen (Paris, France etc.), except even more patronizing and unwelcome. There's no sense of time, continuity, empathy or good parenting in Love Life. These people, bar Carmen, are horrible, and you won't want to spend any more than five minutes in their company, especially when they're engaging in sub-Last Tango In Paris (Bertolucci, 1972) sex games, this time involving purple paint.

Boring, manipulative, ill-judged and far into the bowels of montage hell, Love Life is like a soap opera with flesh-ripping horror, and confirms itself as one of the worst films of the year so far. The fact that it was a box office smash in Holland baffles and worries me. No matter where you're from Oerlemans film has staggering problems that, on a moral and filmmaking level, can't possibly be overlooked. It's depressingly bad, and I regret having seen it.

Monday 13 June 2011

Saturday 11 June 2011

Mother's Day (Darren Lynn Bousman, 2010) Review

Motherly love reaches dangerous levels in the surprisingly effective Mother's Day (2010)

A remake of the 1980 Troma movie, Darren Lynn Bousman's Mother's Day is one of the most surprising films of the year so far. A veteran of the Saw series (he directed parts II - IV), Bousman's fondness for decapitation is remarkably subdued here, at least until the nailguns ahoy finale, leaving plenty of time for atmospherics and character development, and allowing Rebecca De Mornay a platform on which to deliver her best performance in years. The film begins with a series of quick-cut tracking shots, draped in shadow and dread. A John Carpenter-esque score (paced, eerie piano lines) plays over the kidnapping of a baby by a character cloaked in darkness, but the tone is quickly disrupted by a frenzied burst of violence; volatile and foul-mouthed, it's like a shot of vodka before a soothing glass of whiskey, which is the tone the film eventually settles into upon the arrival of Mother (De Mornay). The violence is caused by her three sons. After a robbery gone wrong (they were double-crossed) the youngest brother has been shot and the trio make their way to Mother's house. What they don't know is that Mother has been evicted and the house has new residents, currently enjoying a basement party (pool and disco; who are these people?). One of them is a doctor (duh!), and so we find ourselves in the middle of a typical horror/thriller setup, albeit one with a genuine sense of danger. Bousman defines the claustrophobic spaces of the house without giving us a guided tour, relying on camerawork and editing to create a sense of the characters' entrapment. It's all chugging along rather nicely, if unremarkably, and then Mother pops in for a visit...

I've never seen De Mornay this good. It's an incredibly controlled performance, and a disturbingly likable one. She's like your typical TV mom; doting, kind, softly spoken and a dab hand at baking. The stern look she gives her sons speaks louder than any words, because it's a look we all recognize. She reassures the hostages downstairs, asking them to sit in a comfortable position and relax. She says this in whispered, friendly tones, and one considers how, if she weren't capable of psychotic levels of violence, she'd be the perfect mother. Her performance slowly becomes more and more unnerved, except that every detail exists behind her eyes, and is not flagged up by writing. Bousman ratchets up the tension, slowly turning the screw - or more aptly, the knife - to unbearable levels, but his anchor is always De Mornay. Whenever the tone seems to be slipping she wanders into the frame and everything is rectified; she's magnetic, warm and terrifying. But the scenes without her hold power as well, especially a deeply uncomfortable set-piece in which two innocent girls are presented with a knife and the option of choosing who lives and who dies. Whichever girl kills the other will go free. If that sounds too much like Saw then fear not. The scene relies on manipulating audience expectations and the psychology of that moment: what would you do?

Mother's Day isn't perfect, and towards the end it becomes everything you feared it might be in the first place: a soulless torture flick. It's a genuinely nasty little film, except that I say that in regards to tone for the first two thirds, and in-your-face slasher silliness for the final movement. Subtlety and sense are abandoned, and the film becomes tedious - a fact not helped by the 112 minute running time, desperately in need of an editor. But it's probably better to have ideas for abandoning than to have none at all, and for a long time Mother's Day is better than we had any right to expect; dark, feisty and exciting. Even for jaded horror fans, I heartily recommend it...

The Shortlist: 6 Worst Oscar Winning Performances

You can read the complete list at MultiMediaMouth: 6 Worst Oscar Winning Performances

Friday 10 June 2011

Point Blank (Fred Cavayé, 2010) Review

There are twists n' turns aplenty in Point Blank (2010), but you've seen them all before...

Despite its rampant stupidity, Fred Cavayé's Anything For Her (2008) was given an easy ride to acclaim by critics with a predilection for subtitles. There is a snobbish fantasy, present in most film academics, which dictates that all Hollywood movies must be loud and stupid, yet cinema from France is introspective, artful and inherently interesting. Bollocks to that, I say, and seemingly so does Cavayé, who has turned out yet another dizzyingly silly and formulaic genre exercise which is getting rave reviews from every direction. I can't see why. The lazy plotting (coincidence is not a narrative device), formulaic design and bland cinematography puts it only a few notches above the likes of Taken (Morel, 2008), which at least embraced its lobotomized premise and injected it with high-octane, no-holds-barred thrills. It's claptrap, sure, but it didn't feel the need to dress itself up and pretend to be anything else. Point Blank ends with a police station siege involving against-the-clock safecracking and a fistfight between an armed cop and a pregnant woman. The city has unexplainably gone mad with crime, the camera spins out of control and trainee nurse Samuel (Gilles Lellouche) searches for his loved one. Do you reckon he finds her just in the nick of time, when merely seconds later he'd have been mopping up after a corpse? Of course he does... but who cares? After all, it all happens in French!

The fact remains that if Point Blank were an English language Liam Neeson vehicle it'd be getting a critical bashing, and that's unfair. You could map out the entire plot from minute one, especially the villain revelations and realignment of loyalties, which switch every five minutes, leaving the audience grasping for any sense of logic or continuity. This would all be fine if the execution was creative, but it's not. Cavayé, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Guillame Lemans, struggles with narrative progression in baffling ways, given that the strongest elements of Anything For Her were its tightly composed structure, methodical foresight and economic use of time - basically, its understanding of rhythm and tension. Point Blank scrambles through conventional scenarios, mainly chase sequences, which, while shot with a degree of kinetic energy, lack any emotional weight or original choreography. An on-foot chase through a train station may be set to a pumping score, but it's tediously derivative and I just found myself bored. Common sense is abandoned in the hope of creating an exciting rollercoaster ride, but the required leap of faith cannot be taken when we have no human connection or story to hang onto, and the action, amped up to eleven seemingly at the hope of international release, fails to impress.

The simpler answer, however, is that Point Blank is a plain bad film. Not terrible per se, because there are some decent performances on display and the editing is quite proficient, but absolutely every other element is boringly by-the-numbers, thematically insubstantial and won't leave any kind of mark on the genre. It's wholly forgettable, but critics will blow smoke up Point Blank's arse for its dialect alone, assuring it'll be labeled as a better film than it actually is, and as long as Cavayé is listening he'll become less and less interesting, falling for the persona of himself created by snobby academics with a predilection for subtitles...

The Screening Room: Episode 13

You can listen to my appearance on the official MultiMediaMouth film podcast here: The Screening Room: Episode 13

Wednesday 8 June 2011

VHS Quest #8. Gummo (Harmony Korine, 1997)

It's a disturbing existence for the citizens of Xenia... Gummo (1997)

Perhaps the oddest - and therefore most important - quote, in reference to Harmony Korine's directorial debut, comes from Bavarian auteur Werner Herzog, who once declared: "When I saw a piece of fried bacon fixed to the bathroom wall in 'Gummo', it knocked me off my chair." The film was met with rapturous applause by auteurs such as Jean-Luc Godard and Gus Van Sant, who celebrated its avant-garde portrait of desolation-in-extremis; the story of Xenia, Ohio, wounded by a tornado in the mid-1970's. Its inhabitants are adrift in hyperreal limbo, neither alive nor dead, and captured through an omnipresent lens. Korine employs fluorescent lights to imbue the film with a haunted aesthetic; alternating shades of yellow which lend the footage a muddied feel - almost as if the stock had been urinated on. Some may find that an apt metaphor for the film itself, a genuine cult sensation which has been dividing audiences for the last decade. Me? I'm somewhere in the middle...

I loathed Kids (Clark, 1995) with a passion, yet Julien Donkey-Boy (Korine, 1999) struck me with its deformed beauty; its rebellion felt sharp, yet thematically rounded and matured. Gummo, epileptic in structure and mean-spirited in tone, feels much more like the experiment of a penniless student - surprising when we learn that Korine was allowed unprecedented freedom to make the picture, on an allowance of $1.3 million. Shot on video, many may call the director's vision ugly, but I don't agree. The aesthetic is aggressively unconventional and sometimes obscured, but to call the film ugly for this reason is to misunderstand its purpose. Actually, I found that watching the film on VHS actually enhanced the visual quality, for it is rougher and more immediate. Indeed, the uglier side of the film is perhaps its underneath; the characters who inhabit this nihilistic wasteland.

Xenia probably looked like the world of Gummo in its fallout, but the hermetic landscape of freaks that Korine has created within is entirely self-imagined, but unaccompanied by an idea which gives their existence meaning. I got the same impression from Kids, which was an interesting setup spun out of control by an unchecked mind full of adolescent angst and searching provocation. Gummo, for all of its audacity and occasional poetry, is best represented by one of its final shots, where Bunny Boy (Jacob Sewell) holds up a dead cat to the screen. Korine wants to shock us, but the tactic is aimless, and so he evokes nothing more than tedium. His characters feel somewhat like trauma vessels; victims turned into sideshows for your viewing pleasure. Korine doesn't care about them, so why should I? His intention is merely to pluck the surreal from the real, but without the maturity required to pull it off to a point.

Yet the film - a series of Godless vignettes equally infuriating and engrossing - isn't without merit. Korine's startling vision is organic and uncompromised, and any filmmaker who can polarize like he does deserves to be applauded. Exasperating, undefinable and the source of endless debate, its cult following is well earned, but I have one question: where's all the love for Julien Donkey-Boy?

Tuesday 7 June 2011

World Without Sun (Jacques Cousteau, 1964) Blu-Ray Review

The undersea adventure continues for Jacques Cousteau in World Without Sun (1964)

920ft under the rippling waves of the ocean surface, ecologist and explorer Jacques Cousteau finds a "new zone of life." In my review of The Silent World (Cousteau, Malle, 1956) I described the film as "an alien voyage, recalling classic science-fiction" and certainly its adventurous spirit conjured to mind the works of Jules Verne; like 20,000 Leagues come to life. World Without Sun is an undistorted fusion of documentary and sci-fi; the depths are like an alien planet, yet Cousteau frequently makes comparison with the world we know, describing the descent through caverns and seabeds as a "vertical desert." But his diving vessel looks like an early prototype for the Millennium Falcon, and some of the invertebrate creatures found in the recesses of submerged grottos would feel equally at home in Jabba's palace of excess - like a dancing bush, for example, with no heart or brain, but which moves in a disconcerting creep across jagged rocks. I'd be fascinated to know the conditions of this life form; how it sources energy and survives in the harsh environment. But as in Cousteau's first Palme d'Or winning feature, World Without Sun is as much a portrait of the ecologist as the ocean, and sometimes facts can get lost at the expense of narrative and 'character'.

The Conshelf Two (a man-made undersea HQ; like the lair for a Bond villain) is incredible to behold, again recalling the design of a space station, and for a while it holds our attention. It's important to know how Cousteau's crew maintain a lifestyle under the ocean for weeks on end - seeing the quality and innovation of their living conditions is vital in providing a rounded picture of their marine exploration unit. It's also interesting to see their mini one-man structures positioned further down the seabed, where volunteers live for a week to test if that depth would be sustainable for an entire crew; they wish to go deeper, and explore the strangest regions of our unimaginably vast oceans. But soon I became weary of this routine, where we were allowed to 'observe' the crew in their daily lives. I had the same problem as in The Silent World, where some of it felt set-up, and I think that Cousteau's films would be better served with him as subject rather than director. But soon we are allowed to dive into the alien land and descend ever-deeper into the dark waters, and the last twenty minutes of the film hold some breathtaking sights...

This final third was exactly what I'd been waiting for from Cousteau, and it's a thoroughly enjoyable ride. I won't explain too much, because some of the sights captured (beautifully lensed by DP Pierre Goupil) defy words. I was struck by a scene involving a shark monster, at least 20ft in length, as it ducks and weaves in front of the camera, hunting for easy prey. As we go deeper and deeper the sights get stranger and stranger, but also more nightmarish. For these scenes alone I would recommend the film; it's a true adventure, and as thrilling as any Jules Verne...

L'age d'Or (Luis Buñuel, 1930) Blu-Ray Review

What, you think I could describe this with words? L'age d'Or (1930)

Banned in Spain for 50 years following a riot by the fascist group League Of Patriots, Luis Buñuel's surrealist masterwork L'age d'Or, described by American novelist Henry Miller as "a divine orgy", finally arrives on Blu-Ray this month, courtesy of the BFI. It (sort of) tells the story of The Man (Gaston Modot) and The Young Girl (Lya Lys) as they attempt to consummate their burgeoning sexual desire against the backdrop of a stiff bourgeoisie value system. Satirical, subversive and bitingly silly, there's not really much left for me to say about a film which has had every important article written about it over the 81 years since its release. I won't bore you with yet another analytical theory piece, as understanding the film is a trivial objective anyway - it's not supposed to make sense, and you won't succeed. Un Chien Andalou (1929) existed because Dalí and Buñuel had dreams which they sought to put on film; those images come from subconscious and imagination, and have the free-form structure of an art form entirely non-narrative: the dream itself. L'age d'Or exists by largely the same principles, which is not to say that there aren't valid readings or sociopolitical agendas (indeed, Dalí disowned the project due to Buñuel's obsession with politics), and therefore metaphorical interpretations normally lie more prevalently in the mind of the viewer than the text of the film itself. Some people read a message about barbarity and violence into the scorpion prologue. The truth is simply that Buñuel had an obsession with insects; they reappear throughout his work due to a childhood fascination, when his walls were adorned with cabinets of butterflies, beetles and arachnids.

One thing that did surprise me about L'age d'Or was its relative narrative simplicity; not that there is a through-line per se, but that it's always clear what is happening in the story, characters are clearly defined and time and place is adequately informed. Un Chien Andalou is an extraordinary assault on the senses and, as aforemntioned, free-form; you can't get a hold on the story because there isn't really one. In L'age d'Or there is not only a story, but also conscious character arcs and an end goal. This probably helps the film, which runs at 63 minutes, as we are engaged by a dramatic focus as well as the Surrealist agenda. So, what is there left for me to say about the film now? I suppose I must do what all critics do, and simply give my opinion. I think L'age d'Or is a masterpiece, but not as good as Un Chien Andalou, which is a braver, bolder piece of work, yet that statement mustn't deter you from picking up this release. Surrealist cinema is in short supply, as the form was mostly interpreted through painting and literature (influences on Buñuel include Francisco Goya and Valle Inclán), so we should celebrate when films such as this appear. It's an inventive, beautiful and often funny film, packed with stunning images and ideas, yet we should not flounder in futile academia; L'age d'Or is a film to be enjoyed, reveled in and surprised by. It's a treat for all cinema fans, and I urge you to see it.

The Disc/Extras
The Blu-Ray transfer is typically beautiful, and the film is presented in its original 1.19:1 aspect ratio and mono 2.0 sound. I was actually amazed by the clarity of the picture, considering the age of the piece. Extras are typically abundant, although the accompanying booklet, including mini-essays and biographies, is slimmer than usual. Un Chien Andalou (1929) is present in remastered form and will be reviewed separately. An introduction to the film by Robert Short is interesting, as is his selected scene commentary on L'age d'Or and full commentary on Un Chien Andalou. The most exciting extra though is a feature length documentary from 2000, A propósito de Buñuel, reviewed below...

A propósito de Buñuel (José Luis López-Linares, Javier Rioyo, 2000)
This decent talking heads doc charts Buñuel from the Residencia de Estudiantes University, where he befriended Federico García Lorca and Salvador Dalí, through his early surrealist days with Un Chien Andalou (1929) and L'age d'Or (1930), right up to his deeply saddening death on July 29th 1983. This is clearly a loving record of Buñuel, packed with anecdotes about his personal life and working method, balancing his beliefs, habits and humour with skill, and giving us a fair and informative portrait of the man, but on the whole it's insubstantial, and never scratches beneath the surface. It's a light hearted portrait, quite a repetitive one and, while entertaining, no more revealing than the 1982 biography My Last Sigh, from which Pepe Sancho reads excerpts for this film. It's nice to see friends talk about Buñuel with passion and reverence, but hardcore fans will have seen all of this before, and likely need something more than kooky trivia.

Monday 6 June 2011

The Brothers (David MacDonald, 1947) DVD Review

You can read my full review at Flickfeast: The Brothers

Colossus: The Forbin Project (Joseph Sargent, 1970)

The fear is real... a supercomputer decides our fate in Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970)

Although he is better known for directing the classic The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three (1974), Joseph Sargent actually made some of the strangest films of the 1970's, including Goldengirl (1979), a sci-fi drama about a neo-Nazi Doctor who uses his adopted daughter as the guinea pig for a super-drug, engineered to advance physical human strength. Bizarre, I know, yet the film was well recieved in its day. But Colossus is Sargent's best picture, and a minor cult classic which deserves to break into the semi-mainstream in the same way as, say, Soylent Green (Fleischer, 1973) has.

Best described as a situation room sci-fi, Sargent's fascinating thriller is driven entirely by dialogue, but conversation is handled with the aplomb of an action sequence, making a set-piece out of two supercomputers swapping complex mathematics; and if that sounds exciting to you, then Colossus will be a sure-fire pulse-pounder. There are some lame moments too, however, which prove how much the film has dated - notably a scene where Forbin teaches Colossus how to make the perfect martini, even ending on a shot of Forbin holding the glass up to Colossus' probing camera with a cheesy marketing smile that just screams 70's. Plot holes are naturally in abundance, most notably in the fact that, despite his ability to reconfigure missile trajectory and assassinate traitors, Colossus cannot access the Control Room where US forces seek to destroy him. Of all the rooms he would wish to access, would this not be top priority? Still, the film - produced on a shoestring budget - is a compelling slice of sci-fi; calm, composed and with a thought-provoking denouement steeped in fevered paranoia.

One thing that impressed me about the film is how contemporary it feels in terms of theme; its concerns are still prevalent, still important and debated, and I don't think it would appear odd to find Colossus in cinemas now, especially after the atrociously stupid Eagle Eye (D.J. Caruso, 2008), which spurs from the same basic idea but at the expense of mega-budget chase sequences. Its aesthetic is dated, sure, and the size of the machine - blinking stat screens, spool tapes, dials, knobs and all - is obviously rooted in the 70s, but the ideas in the film were prescient for their time, and remain thought provoking in our current climate. The NORAD system (North American Aerospace Defense Command) was a primary influence on Colossus, and that real-life machine, developed in 1958, was active during the Cold War also, and controlled America's national defense systems. There's a very prominent air of mistrust hanging over Colossus, which can also be found at the end of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) when HAL conspires against the humans on Discovery. Can a machine conceivably overpower its creator, assume control and assert power, without the advantage of emotion, rationality and judgement? Does a computer understand the world, or just view it? Does it translate compassion or empathy and have feelings of its own? These are questions at the heart of Colossus, and they seem more vital than ever in the technology dependent century we now live in.

There's an ingeniously contrived scene in the final third which seeks to accomplish two things; 1) bring love interests Forbin (Eric Braeden) and Cleo (Susan Clark) closer together, and 2) allow them to exchange information in privacy without the watchful gaze of Colossus. See, the machine has requested to surveil Forbin at all times. Orwell's 1984 finds itself even closer to the home here; it's actually inside, watching us eat, drink and undress, with a camera positioned in every corner. Forbin has convinced Colossus that he needs female company four times a week, and lies about Cleo (a fellow scientist) being his mistress. They wine and dine together, and then retire to the bedroom, bashfully, to exchange information to the CIA. Naturally attraction has its way but there are deeper ideas running through these scenes - the idea of home surveillance stripping the individual of any right to their own life, under the suspicion that they may do something spontaneous, as human nature wishes and allows us to do. It would seem, in these scenes, that the machine can only define and not feel, yet by the end that line is not so defined. Cleo refers to Colossus as "the first electronic peeping tom", but Forbin comes to think of it as something decidedly more monstrous; "I think Frankenstein ought to be required reading for all scientists" he says, after witnessing a double-murder instructed by his creation.

For all the sociopolitical context - and there's more to be considered than what I have discussed here - Colossus is perhaps best enjoyed as a straightforward cerebral thriller, and an essay on the dangers of leaving humankind to the whim of a computer. The machine in Sargent's film has flaws instrumental to the 1970's and bad movie plotting, such as sealing off the impenetrable computer in a bunker wherein there must also, surely, be an off-switch - yet if you forgive these minor details Colossus is a picture of great importance. I don't think it's quite the masterpiece that some claim but there's definitely reason to celebrate something this intelligent and exciting; a film which elicits tension from people talking in rooms about technological jargon that nobody understands, and thinks so far ahead of the time in which it was made. In fact, it was thinking to a time beyond where we are living in now, where fantasy is becoming reality at an ever-quickening rate. Let it never be said that we weren't warned...

Colossus: The Forbin Project is part of the Aurum Sci-Fi Quest.