Serenity Review (2005)

The low-key feature film debut from Writer-Director Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Alien Resurrection, The Avengers) Serenity serves as a continuation of his cancelled Sci-Fi TV Series Firefly (although it is largely accessible as a standalone film to viewers unfamiliar with its predecessor), and despite the increase in budget and length is made in a very similar vein. Concurrently fans are likely to be satisfied (to an extent at least), and get the most from this film, although other viewers may have a little trouble adjusting to a somewhat offbeat tone, and the tongue in cheek ‘used future’ setting.

In any case the film’s genesis as a TV project is perhaps a little too obvious, and doesn’t always prove a blessing, whilst the film brings flaws of its own into play. But that’s not to say the film hasn’t got things to like about it…

Firefly and its sequel take place Five Hundred Years in the future. In a fast paced opening montage we learn: ‘Earth-that-was’ could no longer sustain human numbers, so colonist vessels were sent out to find new worlds fit for human colonisation, dozens of planets were terraformed ‘a process taking decades’ and made fit for human life, the central planets ruled with an iron fist by the Interplanetary Parliament of the Alliance (Whedon’s liking of Star Wars is quickly noticeable in the film).

But some planets resisted, albeit temporarily. The Independents raised an Army of ‘Browncoats’ and fought gallantly for several years, but victory was ultimately something beyond their grasp. The war eventually lost, the surviving ‘Brown Coats’ scattered to the four corners of the Galaxy.

This where Serenity’s story picks up. Malcolm ‘Mal’ Reynolds (Nathan Fillon), a former officer in the Browncoat Army, serves as the (slightly arrogant) Captain of the smuggling ship going by the same name, his small crew (with varying degrees of enthusiasm), helping him as he weaves between Alliance patrols, dodgy deals, the semi human ‘Reavers’ and annoyingly predictable bad guys.

Reynolds’s already risky life takes a turn for the strange when he agrees to shelter the brother-sister pair Sam (Sean Maher) and River Tam (Summer Glau), on the run from the Alliance. Gradually the reasons why are revealed, and Reynolds’ loyalty to friends, both old and new is put to the test, as a secret at the very edge of the Galaxy is revealed…

It’s a simple, straight forward story that could be covered in half the time the film takes to pan out, and for seasoned fans of Firefly is very much covering familiar ground. But, the film maintains a unified (and generally fast) pace for much of the film, and despite its similarities to Star Wars (And Battlestar Gallactica) immediately the film marks itself as different to your standard Hollywood film.

New Audiences and fans alike will have little trouble following the plot even if not everyone will enjoy it. The film is noticeably low on the confusing technical jargon that often plagues Sci-Fi films, the backstory plays a smaller role than you may think, and although the film certainly has serious undertones and plot points, it predominately follows a ‘bright and breezy’ tone.

But this simplicity also demonstrates the biggest issue with Serenity, whilst being different to its competitors is certainly something to be proud of, it never entirely shakes off its TV Origins. The plot is a mere continuation of the one featured in the series and never feels as ‘cinematic’ as it could have been (Considering this was a project 3 years in development, and was based on a cancelled TV show it does seem a little lazy and strange Whedon didn’t stray far from the formula), the small cast aren’t always given a lot to do- unlike in a 14 episode TV series there is little room for subplots or ‘character scenes’ to develop, whilst Chitwetel Eijofor is essentially a stock character as the chief bad guy, little different to those that had preceded him. On the one hand it doesn’t stand on its own two feet well enough, on the other it only answers some of the questions posed by Firefly.

Many of these issues may be further hindered for some viewers, by the smallish $40 million budget. The Alliance costumes are recycled costumes from Starship Troopers, the extras and sets often look very similar (that’s not to say they aren’t good designs…just a little repetitive), whilst the location scouts clearly didn’t stray far from Hollywood, some viewers may find such things an annoyance or a ‘breaking of the illusion’, although others may find they add to the charm and tone. It certainly has issues but in many ways the film also succeeds.

Whedon is generally quite impressive in both his roles; introducing the Title ship via a boggling tracking shot he soon places his unique stamp on the film, whilst demonstrating his capabilities as a filmmaker. Working with veteran cinematographer Jack N Green, the film is far more cinematic than its predecessor, with precise tracking shots, and dizzying handheld camerawork replacing the somewhat predictable setup of its predecessor.

Whilst the action sequences in the film are relatively bloodless and sporadic, they are well staged and very entertaining- in a way the limited budget improves them, the forced reliance on practical effects, not CGI making them more raw and believable.  CGI when used is very hit and miss- the design of Serenity for example, is Slicker and sharper than ever before, but still all too obviously an illusion.

The cast give nicely modulated performances, and don’t bring the baggage a more famous cast would, a nice chemistry is shared and adds to the film’s fun tone. Whedon has built up a reputation as one of the sharpest screenwriters in the business, whilst that may be an overstatement, the film contains his trademark sense of humour, a lot of memorable one liners, and is very successful at sketching characters- ‘You want to run this ship?’ Mal Asks a crew member during a heated argument ‘Yes’ is the answer, a staggered Mal replies ‘Well…You can’t!’ before an awkward silence descends.

The fates of two central characters from Firefly are dealt with in a surprising, and probably very divisive manor- coming out of the blue they are very brave and certainly shocking decisions, but for some viewers may prove upsetting or unnecessary (the limited screen time of one of them in particular is certainly annoying, as it closes the book on a mysterious, barely explored past)

The universe in which Serenity is set is a mixture of ‘used future’ Sci-Fi and Western settlement, and as such is both familiar and completely alien. This decision gives room for some very inventive set and costume designs (although as mentioned all are somewhat let down by the budget), and a few interesting themes to infiltrate the plot: the facts that all the main characters speak Mandarin as well as Chinese and are proficient with many weapons, will probably go unnoticed by many viewers, whilst the not too subtle message about the dangers of bureaucracy may come across as preachy to some, but all are interesting ideas all the same, which could have easily been developed further.

Admittedly by the same token, the overly familiar setting may not be cinematic enough for some viewers, whilst the first proper look at ‘Reavers’ paints them as far less threatening characters than they always appeared to be.

Where Whedon really lets the side down is pace. The film slacks noticeably on the middle- as mentioned the film is overlong, and lacking in serious character development, whilst the ending fight is suitably staged it is brought to a rather awkward conclusion, and in retrospect isn’t perhaps the final send-off Firefly deserved.

In Conclusion Serenity is a flawed but fun resolution to Firefly’s story, but doesn’t completely succeed as a standalone film. Story, budget and pacing issues detract from its fun, offbeat nature, whilst the setting and manner in which it unfolds may not be to all tastes, but overall its issues are overwritten by its strengths, and for the right viewer this should be a fun watch.

7/10 Paul Ashwell

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Quigley Down Under Review (1990)

“Why should I tell you?” A badly injured ranch hand asks, as the man who shot him enquires for directions. “Because if you don’t I’ll let you live” is the blunt, disarming reply. It’s an odd (if witty) exchange, yet somehow feels very appropriate to the Western Genre, and as such serves as the perfect introduction to the unusual, uneven but enjoyable mishmash that is Quigley Down Under.

One of a comparatively small number of Australia set westerns; the film puts its $20 million budget to good, if not great effect, whilst the Likeable leads, simple story and well-staged (if sporadic) gunfights work in the film’s favour. Despite its setting, this is in most respects a very formulaic western, and as such will prove enjoyable, and accessible for easy-going fans of the genre.

By the same token, this film unfortunately does come across as clichéd, and arguably, a wasted opportunity.  The script by John Hill was drafted and redrafted from the mid 70’s through to the late 80’s, and it shows, whilst the dialogue often indicates signs of fresh inspiration (there are a few sharp one liners), the central plot veers between predictability (the ending can be guessed 20 minutes in) and surprising at regular intervals, plot holes are few, but even at this length (119 minutes) the film feels padded.

The Australian scenery, whilst interesting (the film was shot entirely in Australia) rarely looks massively different to American landscapes (scrubland is replaced by sandier scrubland), and isn’t utilised as well as it could have been, at points in the film it’s hard to see why the filmmakers bothered filming down under, if they wanted endless desert, and jagged rocks there’s always Texas…

The subplot about the plight of Aborigine people often feels shoehorned into the film, and may make uncomfortable or annoying viewing for some audiences (Why would An American Cowboy known to track and kill ‘Indians’ feel any differently about Australia’s native race than the ‘evil’ British?), whilst the constant references to the US and American westerns do not always justify inclusion (Would a wealthy British Landowner really be obsessed, and know that much about the American Frontier?), and draw attention away from the central plot.

Put simply the film doesn’t quite work, it’s enjoyable when it sticks to the western formula-but also becomes very predictable and slightly annoying, and when it tries to be ‘clever’ or different it can come across as confused or indulgent.  It’s not hard to see why the film flopped on release, as a memorable, whole film it doesn’t succeed…but then again, its separate ‘parts’ almost always entertain, and the film is never really as ‘boring’ or bad as it threatens to be.

The film launches almost immediately into the easy to follow plot.  Tom Selleck (not perhaps an obvious choice for a western) portrays American Cowboy and Sharpshooter Matthew Quigley. Responding to an newspaper advert asking for men with a special talent for long distance shooting (with the words ‘Matthew Quigley 900 Yards’ and a few carefully placed bullet holes illustrating his reply), he boards a ship to Australia, taking his prized, heavily modified rifle (and strong accent) with him.

Arriving in the Continent he is driven to the home of Cold Hearted, Frontier obsessed British Cattle Baron Elliott Marston (Alan Rickman on typically sneering form in one of his characteristic ‘bad guy’ roles), and receives his assignment- to track down and kill the increasingly hard to find Aborigines residing upon Marston’s estate

Appalled by the suggestion Marston refuses; knocked unconscious he is unceremoniously dumped in the outback with fellow (how convenient!) American, and love interest ‘Crazy Cora’ (An appropriate nickname) (Laura San Giacomo). Quickly recovering his wits Marston puts his rifle (luckily that was brought along as well) to its first major use in a taut (if one sided) gunfight with several of Marston’s generic (and apparently quite disposable) henchmen. Cora is gushing with her thanks to the man she calls ‘Roy’ (the reasons why she addresses him as such are explained later in the film, but don’t make it any less annoying).

The duo is forced to fight back against his former employer, friends are made along the way, associates are killed and clichés are featured prominently before the film builds to a final, exciting showdown.

As this brief synopsis illustrates it’s a simple straightforward story, with little room to spare for character development or sub plots, it’s largely obvious where the story is headed, and only a small cast is used to get there.

The two leads work well together, sharing a convincing chemistry and putting in good performances (Giacomo is particularly good); their scenes together are fun to watch even if the ‘love story’ unravels a little quickly. Rickman is decent as usual in his role, though the character and somewhat limited screen time hardly stretch his acting muscles, the sparse interaction between Quigley and Marston is enjoyable to watch, though there isn’t enough to care about massively, and it arguably makes the ending devoid of much impact.

‘No animals were killed or injured during the making of this film’ it states during the closing credits, it’s unnecessary, but understandable why some viewers could think so, the chase and stunt sequences in the film, whilst not overly prevalent are staged and shot convincingly and bring a lot of excitement to the film. A combination of practical effects, camera trickery and stunt performers are utilised, as they are with the gunfights.

In Quigley down under they are relatively spare and a little one sided (Quigley’s skill with a rifle reportedly led Army Snipers to refer to the act of killing two targets with one bullet as a ‘Quigley’), but paced, shot and edited well- with the exception of one cheesy, unnecessary montage. Although slapped with a 15 Certificate in the UK, the film is relatively low or gore or coarse language, so shouldn’t be too much of a gruesome watch for most viewers.

A functional, but hardly ground-breaking musical score is utilised, and the film is mercifully low on ‘goofs’.

In conclusion Quigley Down Under is a bit of a mixed bag; it works well in parts, but falls flat on its face in others. It is never as clever as it thinks it is, the pace and storyline could have been tightened, but it maintains a fun tone throughout, and technically and visually the film is quite impressive. In short Quigley Down under is a flawed, fun film, that genre fans will probably have a lot of enjoyment in watching, and it remains a film that most audiences can appreciate as straightforward entertainment.

Not a classic, but far from forgettable this merits a 6/10 Paul Ashwell

 

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Soldier (1998)

In the near future a middle aged, heavily scarred, largely mute solider Sergeant Todd (Kurt Russel) is declared obsolete, and left for dead on a desolate scrapheap of a world by his predictably ‘evil’ superior officers (Led by a sneering Jason Issacs, and surprisingly withdrawn Gary Busey). Forming an uneasy bond with the survivors of a twelve years before spaceship crash, he is soon forced back into (bloody) action when his old comrades (rather conveniently) appear…

Operating from a surprisingly muddled script by sporadic (and normally more reliable) screenwriter David Webb Peoples (Blade Runner, Unforgiven), Director Paul Anderson (No, not that one!) turns in a dumb, derivative, and often boring film, but one that nonetheless provides a small amount of silly entertainment, for undemanding viewers.

Soldier is from start to finish an entirely predictable motion picture- it does exactly what you’d expect, adequately (and very little else) and for that reason alone may endear itself to some viewers.

But it is precisely this which is also Soldier’s biggest flaw, sure some of the action sequences are well staged and exciting, but there is a definite lack of tension in the film, and snappy one liners are few and far between. An overabundance of clichés do the film no favours (‘I Know lets have him bond with a small kid!’’ Hey? Why don’t we have him shed real tears!)-the ending can be guessed half an hour into the film, and the ‘bad guys’ have less personality than the junkyard ruins where Sgt Todd sets up home, it’s not only predictable, for such a silly plot the film takes itself far too seriously.

Already looking surprisingly dated, the film gained notoriety in the UK for being one of the most expensive direct to DVD films ever released, whether or not it was entirely worthy of such a fate is open to debate, although there are certainly more things wrong than right with this film (though there are a few more positives to be discussed), and at no point does it feel like a classic blockbuster.

Put simply its formulaic and predictable, but sadly doesn’t follow the strongest formula it could have.

The film opens with a generic, overlong opening montage that soon sets the tone of the film, whilst appropriately introducing the plot. We follow child soldier Todd through brutal training (where he is conditioned to the point of being almost sociopathic), encounters with confused extras, and several bloody campaigns before his promotion to Sergeant in the early 21st century (More attentive viewers and fans of Blade Runner may have fun reading Todd’s service record…), and his subsequent betrayal.

This opening sequence contains the first few of the film’s sporadic action sequences, they at least, go some way to justifying the film’s surprising budget. Flash cuts, sudden zooms, and protracted, over the top deaths are utilised against a backdrop of noisy gunfights, and loud explosions. It’s stupid, senseless, and very formulaic… yet surprisingly enjoyable (all viewers should bear in mind the film doesn’t shirk on gore or coarse language). Fans of action films or those looking for meaningless violence will probably enjoy this sequence…although action soon takes a backseat to poor (and often annoying) attempts at characterisation.

After crashing in the junkyard Todd is taken in by a small group of lost colonists (just in time for a Christmas party!) and struggles to shake off his military routine and memories. Pacing the metallic ruins they have made their home, Todd receives hostile glances, strange requests…and dumb dialogue from the script, before saving the lives of several inhabitants.

This middle section is by far the films weakest, predictable, and annoying in equal measure, it feels and unfolds as just a stepping stone between the action sequences, a bland supporting cast is given little to do, the monotonous environment, and dreary dialogue wear after a while. The film is barely 90 minutes long, but due to this mid-section feels a lot longer.

Even the charismatic screen presence of Kurt Russell goes little way to saving the film, most of the attempts at connecting with his character fall flat, Todd may be able to shoot straight, but with this character Webb Peoples has shot himself in the foot.

Todd’s inability to communicate or understand his fellow characters may well suit his character to an extent, but his quiet, robotic mannerisms are often annoying and give Russell little to work with, for such a skilled warrior he comes across as a little too childlike. The films one real strong point- the action sequences, are further hampered by this decision, there is little pleasure involved in even the most over the top action scenes, when the protagonist is just as violent and flat as those he is despatching.

The film is almost saved by its finale, an overdrawn, often illogical, but very well staged combat scene. Utilising several dozen extras, good (ish) CGI affects, a variety of vicious weapons, and a clear understanding of technical direction, Anderson pulls the film towards its finale, in a very gory, action packed, and admittedly quite entertaining manner (although the over prevalent slow-motion, and frankly terrible musical score are immediately noticeable). Despatching soldier after soldier, throwing in a fist fight and a couple of humorous one liners for good measure, he comes close to salvaging the film for a wider audience…but it’s too little too late.

Solider is essentially a dumb action film set in a sci-fi setting, and as such has all the flaws common to such films- uneven pace, bland bad guys, and hit and miss dialogue. On the other hand, it occasionally fulfils an Action Film’s primary goal- to blow things up in style.

In conclusion fans of the action genre, or viewers with very low expectations will be able to look past the film’s flaws and spend a passable 99 minutes. For other viewers the film’s dour tone, dumb story, and numerous other issues will prove fatal.

4/10 Paul Ashwell

 

 

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Logan’s Run Review (1976)

Logan’s Run…is dated, forgettable fun. Adapted from the Novel by William F Nolan and George Clayton it is a short, formulaic and often predictable film, but a reasonably enjoyable none nonetheless. Some interesting background ideas, well written dialogue and the skill of its crew, balance, but far from cancel out its flaws.

Just one of a mid-70’s Cycle of Dystopian Sci-Fi films (Westworld, Rollerball, and Soylent Green being other examples), Logan’s Run deals with an interesting central concept, but never really makes itself standout from its associate’s.

In The Year 2274, the human race survives sealed in an unnamed city (strangely reminiscent of an American Shopping Mall), ignorant of the outside world, unknowing of a decades previous disaster that lay waste to the lands outside, and for such an isolated community, sporting surprisingly diverse accents.

In this sealed paradise (of sorts), the remnants of humanity eak out a content, if routine existence…but there’s a catch, all must die when they reach the age of 30 (for reasons never made entirely clear). Whether through a ‘renewal’ ceremony or at the (apparently quite inaccurate) hands of the security force of ‘Sandmen’, it’s a fate largely accepted by all residents.

But a small minority don’t, known (rather unoriginally) as ‘runners’, said persons periodically flee their duties looking for the mysterious ‘Sanctuary’ said to lay beyond the city’s boundaries, pursued at every step by the Sandmen.

One such Sandman-Logan 5 (Robert York), a man able to ‘have any woman he wants’ finds himself drawn reluctantly into the Runners cause, and it forced on a dangerous journey to find ‘Sanctuary’… accompanied by the conveniently up for it random love interest Jessica 2 (Jenny Agutter- yes, her from An American Werewolf in London). The journey is not only dangerous, surprising events await the reluctant heroes as the film progresses…

Viewed from a present day perspective it isn’t quite as ground-breaking (The Man on the run in a dystopian future plot contributes to everything from The Running Man to The Hunger Games), and its plot holes may be more obvious (hang on…if no-one has escaped how did they hear about the ‘sanctuary’?), but in the 70’s it was quite a bold move basing a film’s plot around such a future.

Whilst its central plot may well be a little predictable, the opening ark does lend itself to some interesting ideas, both visually and narrative driven. The renewal ceremony or ‘carousel’ is a visually interesting event which kicks in soon into the film, a strange mixture of light show, and trapeze act, it certainly shows the film’s age but immediately and strongly sets the tone of the film which follows. Other ideas- glowing crystals embedded in each resident’s hand to show their ages, and the faint message about the evils of technology come across as more conventional, but they work well in the film nonetheless.

The film is strongly directed (at least visually) and edited, with a few standout shots, and a tightly paced narrative. The sporadic action scenes may be missing the shaky cam (not a bad thing) and finesse of modern action films, but they are entertaining and well-staged nonetheless. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is fitting as usual, although it doesn’t rank amongst his best work.

In contrast to many examples of the genre, the ‘dystopian future’ portrayed isn’t overtly dark or grim, at first glance everything appears surprisingly normal- the people look and speak pretty much the same as their modern day associates, and the city depicted (apart from the central plot device) comes across as a minor paradise. Whilst such a setting makes for an interesting break from the usually forbidding locations featured in the genre, and certainly makes the film easier to relate to, it does make the runners decision to flee seem a little odd-How exactly is probable death in a supposed outside wasteland supposed to be better?.

Odd decisions figure strongly in the script- important plot points and questions find themselves skipped over, Characters frequently ask questions, without receiving without receiving answers (i.e. ‘Why Is it Wrong to Run?’ ‘What do you suppose become of them?’), and for such a short film there is a surprisingly large amount of plot holes. On the other hand, the dialogue is sharply written, there are few characters to remember, and the film is well paced throughout.

The 70s realism driven undertones feature in the film- sporadic bursts of violence, conformist camerawork, and a lack of silly humour, largely to positive effect, it makes the film easier to follow, and its setting easier to accept. Admittedly the overtly serious tone of the film may sit unsteadily for some viewers used to more playful or visually interesting sci-fi films, and it certainly seems out of touch with the annoyingly predictable climax.

Other flaws surface as the film progresses, although most will affect audiences to varying effect. The relatively thankless roles of women in the narrative (Right lady-your job is to run down corridors with me) and the dated fashions on display (Even after an apocalyptic disaster it seems doubtful humanity would resort to spandex as a way of clothing itself…) may be causes of annoyance or hilarity in some viewers.  In 1977 the film scooped an Academy Award for its visual effects sequences (quite sparse in the film), it’s not hard to see why- in 1977 they probably were quite impressive: well directed and edited, they still work well in the context of the film, although the obvious Model Work, and often poor back projection show the films age quite clearly.

Such flaws don’t always prove fatal to sci-fi films- The First Star Wars film was a massive success, despite its often shoddy effects, and variable performances. Unfortunately Logan’s Run’s contains both, and its strengths don’t always prove a massive improvement.

The leads aren’t out of this world characters, or jaded anti-heroes, they are portrayed throughout as normal people making the most of a strange situation; it makes it very easy to follow the film, having such relatable protagonists, but gives the actors very little to work with. The leads share a clear chemistry, but neither is particularly memorable in their roles, the small supporting cast succeeds a little more, even if few characters are given much of a purpose in the film.

Although the first ark of the storyline certainly has its flaws, it is at least a great deal less clichéd than the story which follows. After escaping the duo lead the film through an extended, and overstuffed chase sequence- gunfights, floods and feral pick pockets all feature, it’s quite exciting stuff…but gets a little repetitive, more predictable events unfold, and the film gradually morphs into a love story. Individually these events could be interesting, but put together the film becomes confused, and frankly a little boring.

A memorable appearance by the great Peter Ustinov adds a badly needed twist to the film, before the narrative surrenders to an exciting, if oddly out of place ending. Both are fun to watch but come too late to solve major issues.

In conclusion Logan’s Run is a moderately entertaining film, let down by its age, and confused execution. Its strong direction, interesting visual and narrative ideas, and good pace can’t disguise the predictable nature of the plot, or make up for the absence of any truly memorable moments. Some Viewers may find it easier to accept its age and clichéd nature, indeed some may find both elements an attraction, but for everyone else this is a forgettable, though not unwatchable way to spend two hours.

5/10 Paul Ashwell

 

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Escape from LA (1996)

The tacky poster, confusing theatrical trailer and the countless negative reviews can’t quite prepare you for this tiresome mess of a film. Very Bloated, often boring and frankly pretty B*******, Escape from LA is a poor follow up to Escape from New York, and a middling  film in its own right.

Continuing his downward slide into Mediocrity Cult Director John Carpenter reunited with regular cohorts- Producer Debra Hill and star Kurt Russell 15 years after the previous instalment in the-not quite franchise. Perhaps recognising his fall in stature Carpenter makes the mistake of playing it safe, the film is more or less a re-tread of its predecessor, although it may please die hard fan’s, this instalment is often so poorly thought out that, that decision accounts for little, and the similarity only ends up being annoying.

Though he displays an experienced technical eye- the film is generally suitably shot and edited, and some of the casting is inspired, it’s hard to believe the man who directed The Thing is at the helm. None of the tension of his earlier works is present, visual wit is lacking, and the numerous action sequences are often mishandled, it’s not exactly awful direction, but a far cry from what he is capable of. The confused direction is only one of many flaws in the film.

Russell once against stars as One Eyed outlaw Snake Plissken incarcerated in a futuristic USA, and once again he is sent on a rescue mission. Although it follows the formula of its predecessor, and features the same creative team, this film doesn’t come close to the teams previous effort, the limited budget, the way it appears compared to competing films, and the nagging feeling that essentially the plot has been done before (but better) are all contributing factors to the film’s middling impact… to date Russell hasn’t made another film with Carpenter, and it’s not hard to see why. Admittedly there are certainly a few things about the film you can appreciate, even if they don’t lead to an enjoyable way to spend your Friday night.

The opening few minutes set the tone of the film well (though sadly not in a positive way) a repetitive musical score accompanies the rather bland title sequence before we cut to a talky opening montage (Oddly reminiscent of the Videogame Warzone 2100).

1998 In an increasingly violent, Divided USA a national Police Force is formed to protect the countries citizens, and a presidential candidate predicts a ‘millennium’ earthquake will strike Los Angelos in Divine retribution for the countries crimes (Ooh look a religious nutcase, haven’t seen that one before!)

Said earthquake happens in the year 2000 (it’s illustrated on screen by some tacky CGI, and to a greater extent the camera shaking….) and Los Angelos is cut off from mainland USA. The Newly elected president of the US orders the newly created island to serve as a penal colony for the US’s undesirables and criminals.

Fifteen years later in the year 2013 it still serves that function, and the US is still in quite a mess. Enter Snake Plissken.

We hear his journey on the radio, and see a news reporter list his crimes and reference the events of the previous film, before the slightly unsettling protagonist makes his entrance, it’s a clichéd, slow opening and demonstrates the unfortunate fact that a 15 year gap between films goes a long way to killing a series fan base. Some audience members may scratch their heads at such references, whilst others will have a feeling of Déjà vu. In any case Russell, whilst still likeable (as always), is noticeably older, and his gruff, grizzled antihero doesn’t quite work as well as it did in the 80’s, in contrast to the Loud-mouthed John McLane, and the zany Martin Riggs, his quiet character may be a little too wooden for some viewers.

Exchanging grimaces and whispered insult’s with military personal Plissken is escorted reluctantly to a meeting with the President.

The president’s daughter has gone AWOL in Los Angelos Island with a top secret Doomsday Device seeking to meet up with a crazed terrorist, and it’s up to Plissken to stop her. (‘I’ve got a great Idea Guys! Why don’t we get a well-known criminal who doesn’t trust us to do this dangerous extraction job he’ll probably run out on?’ ‘I like that idea! But he should only have a couple of hours and a tiny amount of information to go on…’).

Unswayed by an offer to pardon his crimes he is poisoned by the government, and unless he returns with the device within a few hours, they won’t administer the antidote. Given a small (Dated CGI) submersible he sets sail for Los Angelos, dodging underwater ruins, and a weak reference to Jaws in the process.

It’s a pretty predictable, though laden opening that follows the first film quite closely, fans of the genre, or Carpenters will recognise his approach to laying out a story and accept the slow pace, though other viewers may be annoyed its nearly a third of the way into the film before any action happens, and lose interest with the somewhat complicated storyline. Such viewers do have more action to look forward to, although it’s often poorly staged and little more entertaining.

The opening 20 minutes is not only slow paced, its often annoying, little effort is made to connect with the character’s – the government officials are flat, scenery chewing creations who soon get on nerves, and the opening isn’t exactly dramatic either (though that’s often the case with similar films). A few references to the wider situation in America will probably go over many viewers heads (Genetically engineered Viruses and inter American conflict for instance), but there interesting ideas all the same, even if most are barely sketched and badly worked into the script.

This sums up the film quite well, interesting ideas but confusingly, and all too often, badly put together.

Finally arriving on the island Plissken comes across the film’s first fight scene…one of the slowest car chases in recent cinema history. Crawling along at the speed of snails and exchanging gunfire less accurate than a typical edition of The Sun newspaper, the perpetrators quickly disappear, but not before Russell displays an expression of surprise and disappointment, that may not have been entirely scripted. It’s not only boring, its poorly staged, most of the films later action sequences are admittedly far more interesting (well there’s more going on at least), though a good proportion are just as badly put together.

Following the slow opening the film picks up pace a little (Its only 97 minutes long) and Plissken Soon makes contact with potential allies in the city (Amongst them Steve Buscemi and Stacy Keach), some of these are interesting characters, and most serve a purpose in the story. The cast is somewhat of a mixed bag; Buscemi and Cliff Robertson have fun in their underdeveloped roles, on the other hand many of the supporting cast are more stilted, left with less meaningful, generic roles, and the problematic script.

Always adequate, but rarely more the script packs a few good one liners, and a well-structured narrative, but is stuffed with cheesy dialogue, uninventive pauses, and more than a few plot holes.  The dialogue veers between good and bad with alarming regularity, and the already far-fetched plot finds room for DIY Body alteration, transsexual gunfighters, and a surf ride down Wilshire Boulevard, the film gets increasingly confused as it moves along, and its pace and credibility suffers as a result.

Eventually Plissken is drawn into a final showdown with the terrorist leaders, and an action packed, explosive battle unfolds. Dozens of extras are involved, dodging explosions and gunfire as the film reaches its climax. It’s a fitting end to the film, and is probably its highpoint, more coherent than much of the film (though by no means perfect), and actually quite entertaining it will certainly please action fans. Some impressive practical effects and well-rehearsed stunts are showcased in this scene …but it’s still too little too late.

For all its (many) flaws this is a film that sticks to its guns, it keeps the same tone throughout, and some may accept it as pure, silly entertainment. Many of the flaws listed above aren’t entirely fatal to the film, its budget and target audience should be taken into account by the viewer, and yes there are a few good points which elevate the film from total failure. But all the same, as a complete, intelligent film it doesn’t really work, the convoluted script, often stupid plot and general feeling of laziness that pervades in the film are all contributing factors to its final, middling impact. And as a worthy sequel it fails entirely.

4/10 Paul Ashwell

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Youth Without Youth (2007)

Youth Without Youth marked Francis Ford Coppola’s return to the director’s chair for the first time in a decade, Critics and fans were interested to say the least, to see what he had cooked up during his self-imposed exile from filmmaking. As he often promised in his career (though he rarely fulfilled such promises) this was to be a personal film, made outside the studios with a largely unknown cast.

Though he fulfilled said promise, the results were hardly worth the effort, Youth Without Youth is best described as a curious misfire, not terrible… but not particularly good either. It’s ironic really, throughout his career Coppola always maintained he was a personal filmmaker constrained by the studios, yet in this film, with far more freedom at his disposable, he gives the impression that the studio is the place where he actually works best.

Traces of the old Coppola are still visible- in the strong (if bold) casting (his skill with actors at least hasn’t faded much), unusual setting, and classical storytelling decisions (these existing techniques are responsible for most of the film’s strengths), but largely this marks a fresh start for the Director. That may well have been his goal, but it doesn’t really work.

Loosely adapted from the novella of the same name by Mircea Eliade Youth Without Youth poses an interesting central concept. What would you do if you were involved in a freak accident and woke up decades younger? Would you rethink your career? Live out Childhood Fantasises? Or perhaps let loose on the town for a few nights? The answer is apparently none of these things.

Following a confusing, overlong  (and possibly pointless) opening montage the film starts properly on the eve of World War 2, its 1938 Romania and 70 year old Linguistics Professor Dominic Matei (Tim Roth) is struggling to deal with his advancing years, and the knowledge of what he has done with those that have proceeded. Pining after his former love, Laura, and regretful that his research into the origins of human language has remained uncompleted he decides to travel to Bucharest with the intention of committing suicide.

Following this conventional (if somewhat grim) opening things take a turn for the strange. Shortly after arrival in the city Matei is struck by a lightning bolt, taken to hospital he hovers precariously on the point of death, before miraculously recovering, and regenerating into a younger version of himself.  Let out of hospital by the astonished staff he arrives back in the city as it is occupied by Nazi troops. Narrowly avoiding questioning Matei is drawn into a complex web of wartime espionage, made more dangerous by a series of bizarre visions and dreams which now plague his day to day life.

As the years advance once more Matei finds himself with a second chance at completing his research. But things aren’t quite that simple, his visions grow in intensity and a chance meeting with a girl known as Veronica changes his life even more dramatically…

It’s certainly an unusual plot, which had the chance to be as interesting as it is different, but when the most memorable thing about the opening few minutes is the title design, you know your film’s in trouble. The opening titles, whilst unusual set the time period and tone of the film quite well, and for a few short moments it seems the film is going somewhere stimulating …then the plot starts.

The confusing nature of the opening montage is sadly matched all too often in the film. The plot is not only intricate it’s often hard to follow, the film flashes backwards and forwards several times in the course of the narrative, whilst many secondary characters appear erratically and feature seemingly randomly, with the unfortunate result, that in his quest to make the film more memorable, Coppola makes it more forgettable, at points it feels like even he’s unsure of where the film’s heading.

Having not read the novella it’s hard to comment on how the setting and plot are balanced in the original story, but in the film at least it doesn’t quite work. The unlikely fantastical catalyst for the plot (the lightning bolt) and the imaginative dream sequences, sit very unsteadily with the inclusion of Nazi Soldiers, as does the shadow of Nuclear War which hangs over the later stages of the film. These different plot elements would work well by themselves in a film (or at least be easier to utilise in a plot) but when they are put together they cancel each other out- tension is removed and the film becomes less believable. If this film were a dessert, then Coppola could be accused of over egging the pudding.

Admittedly some viewers may enjoy unravelling such a puzzling narrative, and the manner in which it is told, for those that don’t, rest assured (most of) the plot is tied together by the film’s resolution (even if it’s still not entirely clear why Matei is hit by a lightning bolt…). Even so Coppola never quite justifies why the narrative needed to be so complex, it is likely that many viewers will simply become bored trying to figure out where the story is going before it gets there.

Coppola described the film as a venture into ‘Experimental’ film making, and like all experiments only parts work as well as they could have. The plot is certainly very different from standard Hollywood fare (and for that reason alone may endear itself to some viewers), and a few scenes stay in the memory, but due to its confusing structure, and often self-indulgent nature, this experiment largely fails to get exciting results.

Although such a complex plot merited a substantial length to play out, the film is over long, its 124 minutes feel much lengthier, many scenes come across as irrelevant to the central plot, and in some cases accidental. It bloats the film unnecessarily and removes even more dramatic tension from the film, sadly the film isn’t just confusing, for such a distinctive plot, it’s often surprisingly boring. A tighter edit, and less deviations from the central plot would have done this film many favours.

This is a film with many flaws, but as already stated, there are things, that whilst not exactly recommending it, play to Coppola’s strengths and make elements of the film enjoyable to watch. Tim Roth, not perhaps the obvious choice for a Romanian Professor, is very believable as the protagonist, charismatic, but suitably underplaying the central role he has a significant amount of screen time in the film, and a very emotional storyline to draw from, many of his scenes are enjoyable to watch for his performance alone (few other actors could play a scene swathed entirely in bandages so convincingly), and he has fun with the rest of the cast.

The cast is rounded out by a variety of largely unfamiliar European actors, who don’t bring Roth’s baggage with them, but match him with their performances: likeable, well directed and believable in equal measure. Although some of the cast aren’t given very much to do in the narrative, the believable performances, and convincing chemistry between the cast go a good way to make the film more accessible. A certain Middle Aged friend of Ben Affleck pops up for a surprise cameo as well…

Though working with a far smaller budget than he is used to Coppola directs the film with a great deal of care and skill, the film is well shot and lit all through (there are some very imaginative visual decisions to keep a look out for), whilst his regular editor Walter Murch proves far from rusty in his capacity. Admittedly, it’s never really ‘cinematic’ but that doesn’t appear to be Coppola’s intention.

Coppola isn’t quite as successful with the script, as mentioned there is a lot of plot to cram in, and the film does take its time unfolding. The script often relies on voiceover or long pauses for characters to give across or absorb information, and more than a few scenes are overly talky. On the other hand the dialogue is sharply written, and the few main characters well defined.

The film was largely shot on real European Locations, and it shows, the production design and location work is convincing and quite impressive for the budget, the film builds on these things for mood and dramatic effect. Even if the plots a little hard to follow and somewhat slow paced, the film is visually and technically quite well made, and in these respects at least, rarely boring. An unusual but appropriate musical score by Osvaldo Golijov is underused in the film.

The film builds to a rather sudden, very divisive ending.

In conclusion Youth Without Youth is certainly a bold comeback from Coppola, and not an entirely unwelcome one, but his technical skill and inventive ideas can’t disguise the bloated, confused narrative, nor the uneven way it is constructed, and for such a complex story such issues are lethal.

In the end this film will remain annoying, mediocre or just plain boring for a great percentage of the audience, although there will certainly be viewers who will look at the film’s flaws from a different angle, and find its strange nature easier to deal with, or actually a positive.

By all means watch this film and get your own opinions, but do your research beforehand and come in with an open mind.

As for the purpose? As one character says in the film ‘What Exactly…we still don’t know’

4/10 Paul Ashwell

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Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Loosely adapted from Gustav Hasford’s Autobiographical novel The Short Timers, Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket remains as engrossing, and as flawed as the day it was released. His second to last film (and last commercial success) it was released in the midst of a late 80’s Vietnam War Film Cycle (Platoon, Causalities of War, Hamburger Hill being examples), and quickly gained a reputation as one of the boldest (if most controversial) anti-war films of the decade. 

Putting a classic (if episodic) structure to good use, the film follows a small Group of Enlisted Marines, through the brutality of Boot Camp, to vicious frontline duty in Vietnam, focussing in particular on the protagonist ,the aptly Nicknamed Private Joker (A wise cracking, arrogant Matthew Modine).  

Although it arrived in the midst of a cycle of Vietnam War films, and follows a similar narrative to many of its competitors, Full Metal Jacket isn’t quite your standard war film. Filmed entirely in the UK with a largely unknown cast, the film balances humour and not too subtle satire with shocking (and relatively sparse) action sequences, before surrendering to an unnervingly ironic ending.

That’s not to say all the expected characters, and clichés of the genre are absent, the truth is far from it. Full Metal Jacket is a film that strives to be ‘clever’ and ‘different’, whilst still following a template of more conventional war films; the results are very distinctive, often engrossing, and undeniably uneven.

Whilst it’s not entirely conventional, and certainly has a lot of flaws, Full Metal Jacket is a film that will be compelling viewing, for an appropriate audience of course. Although released in 1987 it is worth noting that the brutal violence, sexual content and coarse language (some very colourful examples are featured) which feature (heavily) in the film’s 116 minute runtime, haven’t dated much, this remains an adult film, and not for the fainthearted.

Most war films either show training or Warfare, not both. In this film Kubrick attempts to show both parts within the confines of one story, he succeeds to an extent- each halve is quite strong in its own right, but the two halves never quite gel together, with the result  that one film often feels like two. It’s not exactly a fatal issue, as some viewers will find one half more compelling than the other anyway, but the sudden switch in tone and location could prove a little disconcerting, and it is only one flaw in a somewhat muddled script.

The opening montage sets the scene well, and showcases a strong soundtrack (music makes relatively sparse, but well thought out appearances in the film). A group of young, spoilt American males face the terror of the Marine Corp barber- shorn of their hair, and therefore shorn of their identity,  before we are introduced to the plot properly, their training on Paris Island.

 ‘You are nothing but unorganised, grabastic pieces of amphibian shit!’ screams the ferocious, maniacal and slightly disturbing Drill Sergeant Hartman (R Lee Ermey) at the ‘maggots’ who have the misfortune to be under his control as he paces their dormitory. It’s just one of a string of memorable insults featured in this opening sequence, but sets the tone perfectly (Ermey a real life former Marine Drill Instructor was apparently given free rein to improvise insults by notorious perfectionist Kubrick), Ermey is astonishing in his film debut, anchoring the first ‘half’ of the film, and making a repugnant character surprisingly likeable. (Ermey would Later Voice ‘Sarge’ in the Toy Story films!)

Under Hartman’s watchful eyes the men are broken down into killing machines. Running the paths of Paris Island, singing coarse songs, and firing outdated rifles, they gradually bond, before his relentless abuse leads to tragic consequences. The surviving ‘scumbags’ are split up, and shipped out to Vietnam.

This opening section, (about 40 minutes in length) is an appropriate but inconsistent start to the film, which will make or break the viewing experience for a great proportion of viewers. Admittedly it’s a bold way to start a war film (for that reason alone some viewers may be pulled in), and it largely succeeds in getting Kubrick’s points across. The Dialogue is sharply written and gives the more prominent members of the cast a lot to work with, and immediately you know in what direction the film is headed.

But, on the other hand it is slow paced (although the pace certainly quickens as the film progresses), and heavily reliant on generic clichés (i.e. firing rifles at the firing ranch, forced marches, fingernail inspection) to move the plot along.

Other problems with the script (co-written by Michael Herr (Author of Dispatches and Apocalypse Now’s voiceover), Hasford and Director Stanley Kubrick) surface as the film progresses, ‘gap filler’ dialogue is annoyingly prominent (for such a short film) in the latter ‘half’ of the story, there are more than a few military acronyms which could cause confusion, and the sporadic voiceover by Modine is intrusive, and often irrelevant. But these issues are balanced by a string of memorable one liners, a well-structured narrative, and an easy to follow storyline.

Many marines are little more than extras, and only a few have a purposeful role in the narrative, admittedly this may not prove an issue to all viewers, as fewer main characters certainly makes the film easier to follow, on the other hand some may get tired of the few core characters, especially since many are mere generic caricatures (cocky young kid, tough black guy, Arrogant Officer etc.).

Generic clichés are perhaps to be expected, and they will prove a problem to varying extent depending on the viewer, but all the same, it’s a shame the film is often forced to be as dumb as the films it seems to be ridiculing.

Whilst the supporting cast aren’t utilised as well as they could have been, and the script less than perfect, the performances of the central characters in the film are excellent. Modine, a somewhat surprising choice for the lead role is charismatic and convincing, (although the character may be a little too cocky for some viewers) Ermey is frankly underused, whilst Adam Baldwin (Independence Day, Firefly) is excellent as usual as a slightly unhinged machine gunner.

As well as his skill with actors Kubrick brings a distinct visual style (quickly apparent in the film), and a great deal of technical expertise to the film. Superbly shot and skilfully edited throughout, the film packs boggling tracking shots, meticulous frame composition, and uncomfortable close ups into its running time, but it is the underlying sense of unease that truly impresses. Long before the first shots are fired, we feel Jokers inner turmoil, and get a glance at the dehumanising consequences of war.

Kubrick’s strengths as a filmmaker certainly benefit the film, and help to lessen the blow of its flaws, but all the same (as with his other films) visually it may feel a little too well made for some viewers. Indeed, at points the film feels almost as mechanical as the Military it is lampooning, such coldness is rarely a good thing in the emotion driven war genre.

Several Months pass and Joker finds himself stationed at a US army base. Quick witted, and slightly arrogant his sense of humour has won him several friends including Private Rafterman  (Kevyn Major-Howard), as well as the increasing annoyance of his commanding officer. Eager for action the duo finds themselves transferred to a combat unit, and on the journey north the films is at its most satirical and daring.

Attempts at satire and irony are prevalent throughout the film, they don’t always work, and don’t always serve a clear purpose (some are in your face self-indulgent), but many make for striking viewing: The first Vietnamese seen in the film are a prostitute and thief respectably, one US trooper keeps a dead VC as a war trophy, and when asked how he can kill women and children a helicopter gunner replies ‘It’s easy, don’t lead them so much’, these are just a few examples. Such diversions from the central plot may annoy or unease viewers, but they certainly showcase Kubrick’s input on the film, and make watching the film a more memorable experience.

Eventually an increasingly unnerved Joker reaches the frontline, and the film draws to its action packed conclusion. It is during the last half an hour that the film most closely matches its peers, whilst still retaining a distinctly ‘Kubrickian’ flavour. Whilst the ‘action’ scenes in the film are few, and far between, all are well staged, graphic and sure to entertain (if it can be called entertainment) fans of the genre.

Sucked into a lethal street battle, Joker’s platoon struggles through the unnamed backstreets of a ruined city, gunfire is exchanged with unseen enemies, insults are traded with comrades, and several prominent characters meet violent ends, it’s a well shot, tension wracked and fitting climax. Playing out against a very impressive and thoroughly convincing set (built on a disused London Industrial site) the climax makes extensive use of practical effects, and is arguably the film’s highlight. The film ends with a surprising, but very uncomfortable resolution that is sure to cause fierce debate amongst viewers.

Full Metal Jacket is a well-made, but unusual and curiously uneven war film. A strong cast and impressive technical aspects are let down by the self-indulgent irony prevalent in the film, and more than a few clichéd plot developments, Kubrick’s techniques intermittently work against the film instead of helping it, and it never really comes across as the masterpiece it is often claimed to be.

Despite these aspects, the film certainly has many strong points, which in the end outweigh the negatives. It’s extremely well-acted and directed, impressively put together for its budget, and a great deal more memorable than many examples from the genre. Whether it’s too clever for its own good, and whether its featured clichés are that big a deal is left to the viewer’s discretion, but fans of the genre, Kubrick or people looking for diverting drama are likely to enjoy this film, although other viewers may struggle to connect with the extreme subject matter.

7/10

Paul Ashwell

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