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Mass Effect

Bioware's space-opera in RPG form is, on the whole, a magnificent piece of storytelling and a thoroughly absorbing, playable and re-playable game that goes out of its way to accommodate newcomers to the genre but doesn't lack depth. Here I'll concentrate on the more 'filmic' qualities of Mass Effect, on the assumption that if you want a review that focuses on gameplay you'll go to a gaming website. Suffice to say I've enjoyed playing it through multiple times (on the PC); one could pick holes in various bits of the implementation, such as the AI in combat and the inventory system, but the strengths far outweigh the weaknesses in gameplay terms.

Mass Effect is, up to a point, what you make it. Commander Shepherd, the protagonist, can be selfless, principled even to the point of being holier-than-thou, or unsentimentally pragmatic; he/she can explore the blurry boundary between patriotism and xenophobia, or hold out for species-blindness; there are politicians to be mollified, tolerated or deliberately alienated, as well as a crew representing five different species, none of them straightforward quasi-racial caricatures, whose inner lives Shepherd can discover (or not), sympathize with or mock. He/she may find herself falling for one or two of them, but there are also sacrifices to be made. It's testimony to the quality of the writing, character design and animation and (not least) voice acting, that most of this feels supremely persuasive. One can feel really guilty about some of the choices one's forced into.

Technically, the game is often miraculous. Something it manages really well is the focus on nuances of character, helped along by a magnificent facial animation system, and some first-rate voice acting in most of the primary roles. Special nods go to the always excellent but never better Jennifer Hale as the female Shepherd; lovely, characterful work from Raphael Sbarge (Alenko), Kimberly Brooks (Ashley) and Brandon Keener (Garrus), and a fine performance from Fred Tatasciore as Saren, no one-dimensional villain. Not all the squad-mates are as well-written or performed, and neither Tali nor Liara quite comes to life as a character; their line readings tend to sound less spontaneous, but the actresses really do have much less to work with. (Edit: but Liz Sroka is quite wonderful in Mass Effect 2, given much better material and delivering it with terrific dramatic power.)

There are limits and compromises to the game's self-conscious feminism: when the female characters aren't tough soldiers they tend to be a bit feeble, and the exploitative character design for Matriarch Benezia should have been sent back to the drawing board (she's voiced by an uncomfortable-sounding Marina Sirtis). On the plus side, supremely solid support comes from the likes of Keith David as the compassionate, experienced Captain Anderson, and the unmistakable voice of Seth Green is very well cast as Joker. He gives a subtle, variegated performance that steals a few scenes without ever seeming to be doing so on purpose.

There are two fundamental tensions which Mass Effect has to disguise, if we're to suspend disbelief. The first and less important is pacing. In a race against time to save all civilization from an ancient foe, there's always time for a long chat, a side quest, a shopping trip. I'm happy to accept that as a necessary fudge; it's the price you pay for replayability. More serious is the tension between choice and linearity. For all the nuance with which you can create and develop 'your' Commander Shepherd, you gradually discover on multiple playthroughs that most of your choices are less meaningful than you think. Whatever you choose, the consequences are much the same in terms of plotting, and have only limited ramifications at the level of personal relationships.

This is one of those moments where a technical necessity starts to become a philosophical tenet by accident. Mass Effect presents itself as a morality, a story about choices and their consequences, but the more you play the game, the more you become aware that those consequences are locked down in advance. Of course they are: just imagine the inefficiency otherwise - the amount of dialogue, cut-scenes, character relations and plot developments that would branch off. Mass Effect simultaneously flatters and explodes the heroic illusion that every choice one makes changes the universe. That at least is a provisional conclusion: it'll be very interesting to see how, and how far, the sequels work out the consequences of choices made in the first game. And I for one will certainly be playing.

Doctor Who: The Waters of Mars

Sorry, but no
I wanted to like this, I really did. The BBC were trailing it as just the kind of episode I wanted to see - taut, scary, grown-up, sombre, intelligent sf. And if you'd cut it by about half, re-edited the remainder, and come up with some new stuff, you'd hit the jackpot. I like David Tennant's Doctor more and more, and will miss him in the role - he has a near-perfect combination of gravitas and impatience, and can shift in a moment from excessively cheerful to deadly serious to alarmingly peculiar, like no-one since Tom Baker. And I like any episode that doesn't turn on conventional sexual tension imported from Buffy. Trouble is, the script just wasn't good enough. Scenes went on and on, with diminishing returns. Doomy, adolescent self-indulgence got substituted for seriousness. Scary gave way to vaguely embarrassing. I started feeling sorry for Lindsay Duncan without even being sure whether she was feeling sorry for herself or had got sucked into the corporate self-regard of a show that badly needs to be stripped back to basics. I prefer to be optimistic that Steven Moffat is the man for the job, given the very high quality of the eps he's written. Lots of hard work went into 'The Waters of Mars', but the writing is hollow.


very well made, but curiously stupid
"Unbreakable" is an extremely well-crafted film. The acting is mostly terrific, with Bruce Willis cementing his position as almost the only actor who can convincingly fill a certain kind of role: an unpretentious, quiet, blue-collar man, no intellectual but also no fool, well-meaning but no saint. As in "The Sixth Sense", he is on quiet, controlled form here, but in this film he's more regularly the centre of attention, and he's sufficiently magnetic to carry it off. Samuel L. Jackson, the perfect Tarantino actor, also excels in a completely different, much more restrained aesthetic.

The production is in many ways as good as the performances: measured, pretty dour and unvarnished. Within individual scenes the writing is usually fine, and some of the staging is memorably done - although the director's obsession with precise storyboarding does yield a certain inertia, making this largely a film of fluent compositions rather than dramatic scenes. The trouble is that all this sophisticated film-making can't disguise the fundamental lack of intelligence behind it. It's not that the plot is silly or the idea self-evidently implausible -- that is very rarely a problem so long as the film is made with conviction -- it's just that the idea isn't illuminating, it doesn't tell us much about anyone or anything. Its impression of seriousness is bogus.

The family drama which occupies the foreground most of the time is in fact incredibly ordinary: if you imagine this story shorn of its fantastical elements, it would barely pass muster as a TV movie of the week; and (more damagingly) that family story is in no way enriched or even much affected by the journeys taken by Willis's and Jackson's characters. And I don't even think that this film tells us much about comic books or superhero origin stories -- certainly little that isn't squeezed into the opening couple of minutes of Ang Lee's "The Ice Storm" (itself no masterpiece). It's very strange to see so much professionalism and care in all departments lavished on such a thin, underwhelming, half-baked idea for a movie.

Tod für fünf Stimmen

preposterous and hugely enjoyable
At a pinch, I suppose I'd accept that some of the lurid carryings-on and local legends that have gathered around the figure of the composer Gesualdo, and are retailed here with a gleeful lack of critical scrutiny, might actually be true. Perhaps quite a lot of them are, but it doesn't really matter, because Herzog seems at least as interested in the way that people create, exploit and enjoy the legends, as in the composer himself or his music. Some sequences are very obviously staged for the camera, and Herzog seems almost to be daring us to believe that we really are talking to, say, a mad ex-opera singer who believes herself to be the reincarnation of Gesualdo's murdered first wife. The results are certainly very, very funny -- but everything pales before the irrepressible wife of a local chef, who disrupts his efforts to tell us about Gesualdo's extravagant menus with a torrent of abuse dedicated at the composer, whom she regards as the devil incarnate.

But then, for all its contrivances, the whole film has a deadpan, dishevelled feel about it. No effort is made to disguise that the resident expert Gerald Place is talking from notes or keeps developing a nasty frog in his throat: as one of the few people in the documentary who seems basically sensible, he has to be quietly sent up some other way! Only the intelligent and rather sympathetic Principe d'Avalos seems to escape with his dignity intact -- perhaps because he's aristocracy.

Musical duties are divided between two groups of singers. The Gesualdo Consort of London mostly sing in tune, the Complesso Barocco mostly don't -- the avant-garde quality is certainly exaggerated by the problems with intonation in what is very difficult music. As with the interviews with Gerald Place I get the impression Herzog didn't want to do retakes if things went slightly wrong, and the singing certainly has plenty of enthusiasm. Only he can be blamed for the way the audio and visual get out of sync by a couple of seconds in close-ups of the director in one of the musical performances; but somehow it all seems to add to the effect of cheerful bizarrerie. How a specialist in Renaissance music would react to this documentary I dread to think (I'm sure there'd be some swearing and gesticulation) but as social comedy it's priceless.


one of a kind, and often rather wonderful
For the first half hour at least, this is a real joy: there's so much visual splendour, sly wit and ingenuity on show in the Elizabethan and Jacobean sections that I'm inclined to forgive the longeurs and lapses later in the film. But then, how could any film live up to the casting coup of Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth I? He is quite wonderful: this isn't just a stunt, but an utterly convincing portrayal of the ageing queen, that helps us suspend disbelief and enjoy the gender-bending high jinks of England circa 1600, with its distinctly unshaven Desdemona (in a glimpse of a quite startlingly terrible production of "Othello"), and of course Tilda Swinton's Orlando. She's never particularly androgynous, though she does catch the body language of awkward male post-adolescence, and is well paired with the *very* feminine Charlotte Valandrey in the second segment. Throughout these sequences the look of the film is remarkable considering the tight budget, and the script is sharp, subtle and funny.

Things do go a bit flat for a time, both in the script and the execution: Heathcote Williams' poet on the make isn't terribly interesting, and the caricatures of various 18th-century literary luminaries are too crude for their feminist point to register very convincingly (it can't be said that the script is always subtle). The limits of the budget and shooting time mean that the supposedly traumatic sight of a man shot dead in battle ("he's not a man, he's the enemy!") doesn't have enough impact to motivate the central transformation of Orlando from man to woman. Luckily the film revives in time for the Victorians and a delicious, fairly preposterous modern coda. The final impression is of a movie that got slightly compromised, mostly because it was so hard to persuade investors to sink their cash into something so eccentric, but it's still a unique and gleeful highbrow entertainment -- even if it doesn't really say anything all that deep about gender or identity.

Felicia's Journey

Underlying script and story problems undermine fine work from director and cast
A slow burner that ultimately fizzles out, Felicia's Journey offers things to admire along the way, but at its core it's not intelligent enough, substantial enough or interesting enough - it doesn't tell us anything new, or even anything altogether credible. The best reason for seeing it is Elaine Cassidy as Felicia, the innocent abroad, who's very natural and credible (and very pretty). Bob Hoskins gets a chance to do something different as Hilditch, and - especially by contrast with that natural quality Cassidy has - seems studied. It's a technically excellent performance and there are some fine, subtle bits, but - perhaps because of his sheer familiarity as an actor - I was always conscious of his accent as put on; I admired but wasn't drawn in.

Much the same is true of the rest of the movie, with its adroit control of narrative structure, trademark flashbacks aplenty, and its handsome cinematography. (Ironically its saturated colours often make industrial Birmingham look as beautiful in its way as the conventionally picturesque Ireland; I'm not sure if that was the plan.) The music tends to alienate one too: there are some very oddly scored scenes that struck me as over-wrought and intrusive; perhaps they were meant to evoke the disorder inside the mind of Hilditch, but if so I think that was a misjudgment.

So, worth seeing, especially for its often mesmerizing early scenes; it's just a pity that the pay-off doesn't pay (I can't say too much more about why that is without going into spoiler territory, but the problems are with the conception of the Bob Hoskins character). A pity, after Egoyan's fine "The Sweet Hereafter", that the material here just wasn't strong enough.

Blood: The Last Vampire

potentially fascinating, but creatively botched and already dated technically
Oh dear. I suppose I must have heard good things about "Blood", or I wouldn't have picked up the DVD, but if so, someone out there has extraordinary taste. This mini-feature, which feels like an underwritten, half-thought-out pilot for a rather promising series, has borrowed a few good ideas, and shoved them together to make the most frightful mess I've seen in a good while.

For me the biggest problem is the element that seems to have won the most praise: the technique of animation. It attempts to fuse traditional hand-drawn and computer-animated methodologies, and the problem is that they simply don't fit together properly - never has a film looked more like the product of a committee of egoists. The near-photo-realistic environmental textures and 3D environments only serve to exaggerate the flat, cartoonish quality of the drawn characters (who are perfectly well designed *as* cartoonish characters, and indeed the heroine is beautifully drawn and animated). Though a lot of care has evidently been spent on composition and lighting, and a couple of individual sequences have an efficient, kinetic power, I'm afraid to my eye the end product is just a mishmash of incompatible aesthetics. Plus, some of the computer animation already looks terribly dated, with some glitches in the animation, and at least one scene that looks like a rather old 3D console game.

Then there's the voice acting, which ranges from the acceptable to the execrable - not that the dialogue deserves any better. The modern conviction that a film really doesn't need anyone on the team who can write doesn't strike me as a high point in the evolution of cinema. Now that its geek value as a tech demo has frankly been superseded already, there's not much left to enjoy - except for a rather good soundtrack.

And it's a shame, because there was genuine promise here: though they haven't been properly developed or brought into any kind of focus, there's an intriguing protagonist and a thought-provoking cultural moment here: I'm sure that lurking behind this is some sort of allegory of Japan's historical identity and relationship with the United States. I may well be missing some things, but I fear it's not subtly suggestive, just confused and half-hearted.


One to convert the sceptics, a rich, thoughtful and charming animation
If, like me, your heart sinks at the prospect of another pious, sanctimonious, tub-thumping eco-fable, give "Mononoke Hime" a chance all the same. It does have a distinct, and far from subtle, ecological message, of the "can't we just live together?" variety, but on the other hand it's far from clear that the answer the film suggests is "yes", and there are plenty of nuances and subtleties along the way. More to the point, there's a proper story, well-conceived and well told, there's a memorable, beautiful and violent world, credible characters and a good deal of charm.

The animation is mostly very fluent and careful, though not flashy in the way we're getting used to in this CG age. ("Mononoke" uses cgi, but subtly and with restraint, so that the feel remains that of a group of traditional craftsmen under one guiding hand). Quite often one finds that there are more static elements in a tableaux than you'd expect in a Disney animated feature, but I think this is an aesthetic choice rather than a mere economy: it stylizes and formalizes, while focussing attention on the important elements in the frame. But there is occasional jerkiness, though not enough to detract seriously, and perhaps it wouldn't trouble audiences whose frame of reference isn't so western as mine - I'm not sure.

Talking of the western and eastern sensibilities, the Region 2 DVD which I'm reviewing gives you a choice of English and Japanese dialogue, and though I watched the American dub first, I'd generally prefer the Japanese version, for the key roles of Ashitaka and San. Billy Crudup is appealing but too low-key, and Clare Danes strikes me as badly miscast: she sounds a bit too old, and altogether too urban to bring out the core of wildness or the steely sense of loyalty to her world. Like other reviewers, I have trouble with the Texas drawl of Billy Bob Thornton, which is just too regionally specific to match the look of the character (please understand that I'm not suggesting the cast should all have done fake Japanese accents!). On the other hand, it's pretty much a toss-up between Yuko Tanaka and Minnie Driver (who's very closely attuned to the aesthetic of the original) as Eboshi, and Gillian Anderson and Jada Pinkett Smith are just right. Still, overall you get more vividness and conviction from the original voice cast. Oddly, the lip-sync seems more approximate in the Japanese version, perhaps a fault in the synchronization on the R2 DVD. The subtitles unfortunately but understandably come from Neil Gaiman's adaptation of the screenplay rather than re-translating the Japanese - one's aware, for example, that Gaiman has added bits of extra, explanatory dialogue.

With all that out of the way, let's concentrate on what makes the film work: it delineates a world that's at once mythological and believable, and refuses to sentimentalize or simplify (even if it occasionally allows itself to preach). There are feuds and failures of trust not just between the humans and the animals, but within each world - and the animals seem as ready as the humans to exclude the other from their world. Indeed the conceit of the film seems to be that language, rather than being a product of distinctly human evolution, was originally shared among mammals at least, and it's as the war with the humans goes on that the animal kingdom becomes more brutish and less coherent. For all the prince's idealism and the delicate rapprochement some of the characters inch towards, one gets the impression that the logic of conflict will be hard to resist.

Perhaps the most appealing and intriguing element in this world is the kodoma: the little, voiceless tree-spirits seem to be a cross-between a mushroom, a toddler and a rattle, and I defy anyone not to be captivated by them.

La cité des enfants perdus

a feast for the imagination
I can't help myself: I adore this film. I freely accept that it's not going to be everyone's cup of tea; if pushed, I might even accept that it's not perfect. But there's no film I love more, or more enjoy re-watching. One caveat though: I've seen both the subtitled and the dubbed print, and the English dubbing frankly comes close to ruining the movie. Ron Perlman dubs himself and is fine, and some of the other adult English actors are perfectly OK, though they tend to be blander than the French originals. But most of the children are terrible, and with her own voice it's Judith Vittet's extraordinary performance (all the more extraordinary considering she was nine at the time) that helps give "La Cité" the genuine emotional centre that some viewers don't feel it has.

But I'll come back to that. In any version, at least Jeunet and Caro's astonishing visual flair and artistry come over. I can't think of a film that has such a concentration of memorable shots - time and again, especially watching on DVD with a freeze-frame facility, you realize how many beautiful compositions Jean-Pierre Jeunet gives us: though the cast of characters could easily fill a freak show, and the sets are dark and quite unglamorous in themselves, the cinematography is gorgeous and the mise-en-scène often strangely elegant. It has a look all of its own, perfect for a modern, urban fairy-tale. The music too is gorgeous, one of the finest scores by David Lynch's regular musical collaborator, Angelo Badalamenti.

"Fairy tale" is I think the best generic starting-point for this film, so long as you think Grimm rather than Disney. (Unlike "Delicatessen", it isn't really a comedy, though it has comic elements). And the plot works according to its own logic, even if the progression from scene to scene is occasionally a bit lumpy or obscure. Krank (the astonishing Daniel Emilfork), grown prematurely old because he cannot dream, uses a cult of blind, messianic preachers to abduct children from a decaying industrial port and steal their dreams - but they have only nightmares, and Krank falls ever deeper into despair and evil. It's up to the orphan pickpocket Miette and a none-too-brainy circus strongman, One, to put a stop to him. This rich idea is elaborated with all sorts of visual conceits and eccentric characters - Jeunet mounts, for example, a couple of astonishing sequences in which chains of unlikely effects proceed from the smallest of causes - but never at the expense of the central relationship of One and Miette.

In a sense Miette, like Krank, has grown old too fast: the orphaned street-children of this city are savvy and unsentimental, and never seem to have had a childhood; meanwhile there's something deeply childish, in various ways, about most of the adults. Sensitively directed and never overacting, Judith Vittet's Miette gradually thaws, and Ron Perlman brings a lot of sympathy and pathos to what could have been an oafish, cartoonish role: Jeunet gives plenty of space and subtlety to their gradually-developing friendship, and dares to do what I suspect no English director would dare to do at the moment, which is to make their relationship innocently sexualized. Neither of them is really a grown-up, but it's still an extremely risky move, exploring the first stirrings of pre-pubescent sexuality while trying not to be exploitative or prurient. I do think the film pulls it off, though I can imagine some viewers feeling distinctly uncomfortable with it. For me it's one of the most convincingly unsentimental and nuanced (if mannered) portrayals of childhood I've ever seen on the screen, and there is real compassion and tenderness along the way, as well as some darker twists and turns.

It's a film that rewards analysis if you're prepared to surrender to its strange world with its strange rules. But it rewards the senses and the emotions too - and it radiates love of cinema as the perfect medium for sophisticated fantasy. One elderly actress who appears towards the end (Nane Germon) acted - as Jeunet's DVD commentary points out - in Jean Cocteau's "La Belle et la Bête" about fifty years earlier (there are, by the way, distinct references to the Beauty and the Beast story here), and "La Cité des enfants perdus" deserves to join that film as one of the classic cinematic fairy-tales. Pity about Marianne Faithfull over the closing credits, though!

Twelfth Night or What You Will

handsome, poignant, a bit joyless
Though filmed for the most part in picturesque, sun-drenched Cornish exteriors, this is a rather sombre, steady account of Shakespeare's great, complex play. At times it's genuinely touching, but very rarely funny: Trevor Nunn's direction pitches it rather more as a BBC-esque costume drama than a comedy. Ben Kingsley can't sing but is nonetheless a charismatic, intriguing Feste; Nigel Hawthorne is particularly effective in Malvolio's final scenes, somewhere close to Madness of King George territory, while Imogen Stubbs is an engaging Viola (and reasonably credible Cesario) throughout. Imelda Staunton's Maria stands out too: she gives the impression of being the only remotely level-headed person in Illyria, and her understated distancing of herself from the plot against Malvolio as it becomes crueller is nicely observed. Nunn's direction could do with more subtle touches like that - and it could also do with rather more wit and lightness to offset the prevailing melancholy.

Cinema is rather cruel to the Renaissance stage conceit that identical twins really do appear identical. And perhaps there are other, specifically theatrical artificialities about "Twelfth Night" that don't translate naturally to the screen - like its whole plot, for example. Overall, a serious, honourable but not inspired attempt.

Mars Attacks!

daft but fun
Disarmingly, gleefully pointless: this is a film that it would be silly to criticize for being an undisciplined mess, seeing as it never intends to be anything different. It's not a satire - there's no trace of animus towards any of the objects of its spoofing - and it redefines shallowness for all ages to come. But for the most part it's genuinely funny.

One caveat. It's quite hard to imagine a worse performance, by any normal standards, than Jack Nicholson's as the US President. Maybe the sheer shamelessness with which he manages to sink below the level of the material is appropriate - but it gets pretty tiresome, and seems self-serving. Almost everyone else plays it straight, to advantage; one can't help but wonder how much better the film would have been without Nicholson.

The quieter performances (among the humans, that is) tend to score: Natalie Portman and Lukas Haas are both appealingly ordinary, Haas's character's grandmother (Silvia Sidney) superb. The way to get this sort of thing to work is to carry on as though you've no idea that everything going on around you is ludicrous beyond imagining. That's the only way you can sustain a film in which the downbeat, rather realistic family headed by Pam Grier can share screen-space with Tom Jones and a romance played out between disembodied heads. One of the things the film wants to parody is the effort of ID4-style blockbusters to dovetail grandiose alien-invasion stories with the everyday lives of the ensemble cast, and the more incongruous the ingredients, the better.

There are really too many strands for the film to feel like more than a succession of interwoven sketches, not all of them anything like funny enough: some characters, such as the Las Vegas entrepreneur also played by Nicholson, barely raise a smile from start to finish. The Martians, however, are a fine creation - not villainous aliens bent on world domination, just naughty kids enjoying high jinks with some noisy toys - and their final come-uppance is splendidly inventive (if a bit protracted). A good score from Elfman, and it's nice to see that, even though he shows not the smallest interest in the craft of storytelling, Tim Burton's directorial skills have improved a lot since Batman in the staging of action sequences. Overall, a lot more fun than Independence Day, so long as you've no quarrel with its shambolic inconsequentiality.

Titan A.E.

probably not as bad as I think it is
I keep revising my draft of this review to tone down the negative, but I can't get away from my impatience with Titan AE. Still, the sheer straightforwardness of this animated derivative of far too many pulp-sf models may make it an enjoyable primer on the genre for boys under about twelve; anyone else, even genre addicts, will need to make allowances for its unusually colossal stupidity and unoriginality, and be young at brain as well as heart.

The screenplay is barely adequate, and the production as a whole only fitfully enlivens it with any visual invention. Part of the trouble is the apparent lack of faith in the animator's imagination itself: there seems little point in going for animation rather than live-action if your style is going to be so resolutely naturalistic; time and again the use of motion-capture source material for the drawing of the figures is obvious, and the special effects are in familiar Industrial Light and Magic style, nothing one doesn't see done (and done better) in many a live-action sf film-after all, your average FX-driven movie these days is essentially a hybrid live-action/animation form. The innovation (more apparent than real) of doing it in animated form seems to have left the filmmakers feeling absolved from innovating in any other aspect of the film.

The one memorable sequence is a game of cat-and-mouse played out in a field of giant, free-floating ice shards-an obvious homage to the asteroid field of The Empire Strikes Back, but in visual flair it comes close to eclipsing its model. A pity that there's so little elsewhere that even lives up to genre expectations let alone transcends them. Some of the roles are very fuzzily characterised, something that's made necessary by the arbitrary, bolted-on feel of the plotting, whose contrivances require people to behave in thoroughly irrational fashions. To say that the plot has holes in would be to give the flattering notion that there's something solid in which to make the holes.

In the cinema, the compensations of a grand visual scale, and a naïve, old-fashioned storyline that recalls the original Star Wars, probably drew attention away from the debilitating weaknesses, and make it a basically enjoyable, leave-the-brain-at-home popcorner. On the small screen it's well worth avoiding except for genre afficionados and possibly even for them.

Buffalo '66

if post-adolescent solipsism is your thing, you may love this. I detested it.
It's films like this one - and the astonishingly mixed reviews it's garnered - that remind me how completely subjective this business is. I don't think I've ever enjoyed a film as little as Buffalo 66; I found it a perpetual struggle to watch, and only stayed to the end out of stubbornness, and a hope that there might be some sort of moment of revelation somewhere along the line. Yet I can't really say that this is a BAD film, much as I loathed it: it's well directed, has a terrific cast, Billy's dialogue has a certain compelling, desperate rhythm to it at times, and its grimy, downtrodden locations are extremely well chosen. My dislike of it was, I think, dislike of Vincent Gallo himself in an oddly personal way: here is a protagonist who is not just without a redeeming feature (that I can cope with) but without a single interesting feature, and Gallo seems convinced that he's a full-blown hero of romantic alienation. Perhaps the film is more ironic than I think - but I don't think so, it seems completely self-absorbed and solipsistic, yet the self into which it's absorbed simply isn't one with whom I want to spent five minutes.

It doesn't surprise me that Gallo originally completed a screenplay for this film a full decade before he made it, because this strikes me as fundamentally adolescent posturing, which is going to be appreciated primarily by young men who are in the adolescent-posturing stage themselves - aged eighteen it's possible I'd have found this a thrilling exercise in self-justification. Now I'm a few years past that (reader, condolences are welcome) I simply found myself infuriated by his self-importance. In particular, the way the film exploits its meaningless, nugatory fantasy woman, Layla, is pretty revolting. I can sort of see why Christina Ricci was tempted to play it, because the sheer absence of a character in the character she was playing is both a challenge and a sort of liberation for an actor, but it's still an absolute dog's breakfast of a role. Ricci herself is always worth watching, and there are flashes of brilliance from her and the rest of the cast. But the mind-numbingly unsubtle, egotistical, banal, clichéd, uninvolving and fundamentally stupid nature of Billy's progress puts this film absolutely beyond redemption for me.

Alien: Resurrection

Frankenstein Created Aliens - and almost got away with it
Joss Whedon, who has sole writer's credit for Alien: Resurrection, is famously unhappy with the end result ("a crappy-ass movie") and it's certainly a bit of a mess in narrative terms: after a thoroughly effective first half hour, the film doesn't manage to graft on to its very basic escape-from-alien-infested-ship storyline the more meditative and fantastical elements that are its real raison d'être. Pacing goes haywire, and some sequences so strain credibility as to turn the film towards campy self-parody. When you look both at Whedon's best writing (for Buffy on TV) and director Jean-Pierre Jeunet's earlier French fantasy films, control of plotting isn't really either's strong suit, and there's a nagging feeling of imperfect coherence here, a film that never quite came together. All the same, the actual ingredients are astonishingly inventive (perhaps unprecedentedly so for a third sequel to what was a very straightforward, if brilliantly executed, original).

The story follows on from Alien 3, but its themes dovetail mainly with Cameron's first sequel, Aliens, especially the obsession with motherhood and family. Cameron's script for Aliens centered on the bizarre pairing of Ripley and the Alien queen as maternal figures, and that idea becomes the theme for a set of grand guignol variations here, as Whedon, Jeunet and the effects designers probe at the definition of what makes one human, what makes one a monster, and the strange fluidity between those categories. In many ways the end product less resembles the earlier Alien films than it does a classic Universal horror film, which (like all good monster movies) gives most of its sympathy to the monsters.

I hardly need to add that Sigourney Weaver's dazzling and unsettling reinvention of Ripley as something that both is and is not human is what holds everything together - if only barely (some of the supporting players are less well cast, notably Dominique Pinon who's so great in Jeunet's earlier films, though I confess I do like Winona Ryder in a role that's awkwardly written at times). This is one of those films that gets more interesting and more annoying on repeated viewing - its weaknesses become ever more glaring, its complexities and innovations ever more intriguing.

Le pacte des loups

a right old mish-mash
Director Gans, we were told, was still re-editing Le Pacte des loups for its UK release at the time of its premiere, and perhaps some of the loose ends and rough edges will be ironed out, but I think there are some pretty fundamental weaknesses along with a number of basically superficial attractions. Essentially it's trying to be far too many films rolled out into one, and only one of them is any good.

Buried somewhere in this is a good idea for a screenplay (maybe even a good first draft?): a fantasy replay of the end of the ancien régime and the birth of a highly ambiguous liberty, in which monarchy and demagoguery, New World and Old, men and women, play out conflicts that are somehow running along together (though it's none too clear how), all wound together in the form of the inexplicably ravaging Beast. In the early stages there are some terrific, virtuoso shots evoking the menace of the unseen beast and a really adroit fusion of visceral nastiness and eighteenth-century politesse.

For about the first third, then, it persuades you that it's an effective crowd-pleaser with a coherent idea as its backbone. But it gradually falls apart, not helped at all by the importation of slow-mo, derivative martial arts sequences - complete with imported guest star - that are already looking desperately weary. There's nothing we haven't seen done better at least twice before, and the fight sequences were, I thought, truly dreadful: monotonous, implausible in the setting the film establishes, badly paced, and profoundly uninteresting because we're not interested in the participants. The film is overpopulated and overplotted, compensating for its narrative inconsequences with increasingly random bursts of visual style, and the performances are blandly efficient at best (excepting Emilie Dequenne's confident, sexy turn before her part in the plot fizzles out). A major disappointment, unless you just want a dumb, commercial night out and don't object to its coming with subtitles.


an ideas movie without the ideas, partly salvaged by its star
Jodie Foster can almost persuade you that this great flat slab of a film has some real weight. She's a master of the art not of rising above her material but appearing to raise the material itself, and she's terrific here, giving a concentrated and beautifully controlled performance as someone who has built toughness around herself like a metal sphere, who's pathologically driven, emotionally not so much fragile as seemingly broken beyond repair. Contact works best on its psychological level, as a portrait of the scientist as a young orphan, and it's worth seeing for Foster's performance, as well as for a couple of bravura effects sequences.

Overall, though, it does not work either as philosophy or as drama, something that becomes painfully obvious when almost anyone but Foster is on screen. Contact wants to persuade you that it's a counterblast to the pulping and Hollywooding of science fiction, that it's a film of ideas. It's just that when you look closely, there are no ideas, no insights, just a set of stagy confrontations between crude and unconvincingly-depicted representations of certain types - the will to power, the will to faith, the will to knowledge. They argue at each other for a bit (quite a bit, actually), there's a fantastic voyage, quite beautifully rendered, to a destination which comes straight out of TV movie land, and then we're back to the arguing at each other again. This is a film that believes it can attain profundity by having its characters make statements a lot; it's addicted to the obvious, unimaginatively directed, slackly edited and with damaging plot holes, and has nothing whatever to say to anyone about anything that you couldn't get from the back of a cereal packet.

With a couple of honourable exceptions the supporting cast do the opposite of supporting, mostly because their roles are so banal that there really wasn't anything to be done with them. McConnaughey is unspeakably dreadful as the token lurve interest, while, more surprisingly, John Hurt is just embarrassing in a small but dramatically pivotal role. The honourable mentions go to Jena Malone as Jodie in flashbacks - an excellent match for the star - and William Fichtner as the likeable Kent (one of the film's few concessions to subtlety is its not labouring the character's blindness, where lots of nudges about Vision would have been more characteristic), while Tom Skerritt as the opportunist Drumlin - not a good role - has a couple of good moments. But this is Foster's show, and if you watch it to see her, plus a few belated minutes of visual grandeur that really do convey the sense of wonder for which the dialogue thrashes about so feebly, you'll find things to admire here, if not much to enjoy or excite.

The Sixth Sense

Shallower than it looks, and some irritating slips, but still well worth seeing
My big problem with this film is the ending. No, not *that* ending (everybody knows this is a film with a twist, though I certainly mean to respect the tradition of not revealing it for the sake of first-time viewers). It's the gooey, feelgood sentimentality of it. What possessed Shyamalan, who's written a literate, well-paced, thoughtful and heartfelt screenplay, to tack on this gloopy, over-optimistic, neatly resolved conclusion for the young hero Cole? Very disappointing. I also think it was a bad mistake to cut the originally-shot final scene (available as an extra on DVD and at least one VHS release), which rounds out all the sequences we see on video - left feeling rather redundant in the final cut - and provides a more emotionally complex ending. Maybe one day he'll see the error of his ways (and the studio will see an opportunity for more big bucks) and issue a revised Director's Cut restoring his superior first thoughts.

Those are the reservations, which I put first because this film was praised rather beyond its real merits by a somewhat hysterical community of reviewers delighted to find signs of intelligent life in blockbuster film-making. Make no mistake, this IS an intelligent, finely-crafted, almost fully satisfying film, developing a premise that has to be one of the best ideas in modern cinema. (There are some minor slips in consistency, however much the film makers may pretend otherwise.) Its biggest attractions are the beautiful cinematography, and Haley Joel Osment in the difficult central role; he's a real actor, a bit of a prodigy really, and gives a strikingly mature performance. Bruce Willis rightly plays second fiddle.


Homo Ludens: terrific, typically cerebral and visceral Cronenberg
Cronenberg's films tend to set up a direct link between the most abstrusely intellectual faculty and the literally visceral guts of the cinematic imagination. They mostly bypass whatever lies in between - both rational and emotional - to bring you metaphysical speculation and physical disgust in pure, raw forms. eXistenZ is a foray into the nature of reality and how we disguise it from ourselves; as ever, it's the reality of the disgusting things that go on in (and between) our own bodies - sex, childbirth, food, disease, anything that requires or affects our innards - as much as the more abstract external reality that he's scrutinizing.

The other point I want to make can't be made without a general, vague sort of SPOILER which is at the end of this paragraph. (See the movie, then come back here!) I'm writing this a couple of weeks after the release of Peter Molyneux's "Black and White" (2001), a computer game that offers more than the traditional pleasures of the 'God game' genre: it promises to reveal who you really are through the choices you make; a sort of ethical simulator. Rather than there being a clear dichotomy between game worlds and real worlds, the implication is, our realities are all games, and the worlds of our imagination are real. Responsibility is as real (or as nugatory) whatever realm you're operating in. This isn't really news - it's over half a century since Huizinga redefined Homo sapiens as Homo ludens. And the most interesting feature of the plot of eXistenZ (THIS IS THE SPOILER!), is that the people who are most radically opposed to the reality-warping power of the game are precisely the people who are best at playing it.

The Longest Journey

something of a milestone for the form
The Longest Journey is a cross between a traditional point-and-click adventure game and a computer-animated novel. Story, character and environment are much more important than you'd expect, and it's here that most of the innovation is to be found - the puzzles are quite old-fashioned and occasionally a bit silly, and the technology doesn't push any envelopes.

Ragnar Tornquist's script, though, is hugely ambitious, and mostly successful; it has a superb premise - essentially a pair of worlds, one futuristic, the other a place of post-Tolkeinish fantasy, and with a heroine (April Ryan) who finds herself shifting, at first unwillingly, between the two. There are some problems - a few too many genre clichés, and the script is needlessly verbose in places where less would have been more. Most of the vocal performances are excellent, however, especially from the lead characters, and visually the design, especially of the environments through which April moves, is superbly evocative. This gives TLJ a narrative range and emotional resonance that's very rarely found in games - if you have the patience to operate at its meditative pace. Even if there'll never be a mass market for this kind of thing, I hope it is another step along the way to the development of the computer game as a genuine art form.

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Just marvellous
Unlike some reviewers, I think this may be my favourite of the Coen brothers' films. It gets everything right - it's unassuming but by no means inconsequential, another masterpiece of comic mythmaking that builds on "The Big Lebowski" and goes further and higher. It's certainly not plot-driven - Homer's Odyssey primarily provides a rationale for the hanging-together of episodes on motifs, as well as helping to create a fantastical atmosphere in which the everyday and the supernatural mingle. The Coens get away with scenes that would be disastrous in most films (how they manage it I don't know, but they can work the Klan into a comedy without trivialising the organisation); they contrive to be sentimental and disabused, romantic and down-to-earth at the same time.

George Clooney anchors the film with a fairly relaxed, straight performance that builds on his "Out of Sight" persona, and this enables many of the supporting performances to go for baroque. Turturro proves his versatility yet again. In many ways, though, the musicians are the stars of the show; I'm utterly ignorant of bluegrass, but I think I'm going to have to buy the soundtrack album.


history as myth, and a good thing too
It's curious that "Elizabeth" has attracted so much flak for its screenplay's tendency to reinvent and mythologize the early history of Elizabeth I's reign, since treachery and fidelity, history and myth-making, are precisely what the film is about. As only becomes clear in the last few minutes (sort of spoiler alert!), the film is the history of an image - the famous public image of Gloriana, the virgin queen, powdered white and with a fright wig that makes her look halfway between a clown and a corpse, locked into a costume that restricts her movements to the ritualistic and barely human. How could any human being become reduced, or inflated, to that iconic status?

Kapur's film has a good deal of insight into the nature of the Tudor court, but its primary interest is less historically specific, more about the relationship between personality, celebrity and power. But the broad lines of the history are quite rich. There's an alternative myth of origins for English protestantism here, rather convincingly locating the psychological appeal of Elizabeth's church within, rather than outside, English Catholicism, by substituting the Virgin Queen for the Virgin Mary. And its analysis of the relationship between Tudor politics and Tudor sex, private and public lives, is subtle and pointed, rather in tune with contemporary academic approaches. There's little scholars need scorn, for all that a good deal of the details, the events, are as fictive as most of what you find in Tudor chronicles or the plays of Shakespeare based on them.

So as a knowingly contemporary work of historical imagination, it's more sophisticated than anything since Sally Potter's glorious, if drastically uneven, "Orlando" (1993). Unfortunately, like "Orlando", "Elizabeth" is patchy, sometimes cringe-worthy. Some of the contemporary nudges are unsubtle (a weakness shared by "The Madness of King George" (1994), where the anxiety to make past and present dance to the same tune can leave the film historically adrift, risking relevance to nobody living or dead). The soundtrack's late lurch from Elizabethan music into Elgar and Mozart's Requiem doesn't work at all, though you can see why director Kapur wanted to broaden the scope, to underscore (literally) how Elizabeth invents an English mythology - hence the Elgar. The acting is a mixed bag: while Cate Blanchett and Geoffrey Rush are pillars of strength, there are some distractingly odd casting decisions, and Richard Attenborough is no better than usual. But anyone interested in the ongoing history of how film deals with history, and indeed how history gets made in the first place, should put this on their to-see list. Nice frocks, too.

Babylon 5: A Call to Arms

Good sign-off for Boxleitner, and decent overall
Nicely plotted, and working a good transition from B5 to the ill-fated Crusade spin-off not just in narrative but in mood - there's a general shift from politics towards mysticism (also adumbrated in Thirdspace, where the dream sequences were rather more powerful, even if they ultimately had nowhere much to go). This change of mood is underlined by Evan Chen's controversial scoring; personally I like his work for Crusade, but found his dry run here deeply mediocre.

It's a measure of how Bruce Boxleitner's stature as Sheridan has grown over four seasons of B5 that he effortlessly and charismatically takes centre-stage here. Jerry Doyle's Garibaldi is equally assured but doesn't in the end have that much to do. Of the newcomers, Carrie Dobro is probably the only one who can match up to the old timers, though Tony Todd is his usual professional self. Opinion is divided about Galen. Specifically it's divided between me and other sensible people who think Peter Woodward should have been drowned at birth, and people who aren't as sensible as me. To be fair, he's not as dreadful here as in the early episodes of Crusade. Be thankful for small mercies.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

When a film that's had such a bad press as "Buffy" still manages to disappoint you, that's one bad film. For much of its running time it manages to be no worse than mediocre - a sort of sub-"Clueless" (which, to be fair, it predates by three years), with Kristy Swanson doing well enough as a sub-Alicia Silverstone. It also has much the same agenda as "Clueless" of taking a gentle poke at affluent society's rigid class system and wafer-thin "caring about the environment" values. Presumably Joss Whedon's script originally had rather more in this direction; it seems to be set up that Buffy and her class are vampires too, but nothing is done with this idea.

"Clueless" had the advantage of a plot by Jane Austen. As soon as "Buffy"'s plot starts, things rapidly collapse. Disaster is staved off for a while by Swanson's energy, Donald Sutherland's ability to keep a straight face, and Paul Reuben's touching conviction that he's in a funny film. But never has Rutger Hauer's natural screen presence been so totally neutralized by poor direction, unfocused character design and a story that's not only increasingly incomprehensible but not even worth trying to follow. Again, there is an idea here: Whedon seems to want to posit a sort of eternal attraction between vampires and those who slay them, so that being the slayer according to the traditional rules simply confirms and strengthens the vampires' power. But it all goes for nothing.

The fact that the themes and characters are so far removed from that of the spin-off series means that the movie doesn't actually suffer from comparisons with it. It just suffers from being rubbish. Kudos to Fox for being talked into taking on this botched project for a remarkable series, and, for that matter, for suggesting Sarah Michelle Gellar should play Buffy rather than Cordelia. Execs get a bad press, let's give them a moment's appreciation.

The Last Emperor

For all its limitations, an absorbing study of a paradoxical history
A resplendent and often illuminating historical pageant that's also resolutely undramatic and, until the final (somewhat rushed) segment, astonishingly apolitical considering its subject matter and its director's career. Its subject is broader than politics, perhaps: the shape of history, personal and public, and how those two shapes interact.

Pu Yi, played by three actors and followed over six decades, is an emblem of historical change, a fulcrum between tradition and modernity (as well as between east and west) who always contrives to be ill-suited to his imperial role and perhaps his citizen's role too, until the moment when that role has definitively become mere history, vanished into museum culture. Pu Yi's radical lack of an identity may be a dramatic liability, but it's a central and necessary preoccupation for the film; its more serious weaknesses lie in the screenplay's tendency towards banality at the verbal level, and some decidedly mixed performances in the supporting cast. The principals are pretty much beyond reproach in what was never going to be an actors' film, and both Peter O'Toole and (in particular) Joan Chen find some substance in roles that are quite superficially written. Only the surfaces of things and people are accessible here, and the emperor himself is a man who is nothing but surface. He has no hidden depths, only hidden shallows.

Perhaps the energy that really drives this film is the tension between its lush cinematography and its broadly left-wing sympathies. Storaro's photography is lavish and celebratory; it adores material luxury of whatever kind - traditional Chinese or 1920s faux-Parisian or whatever - without reservation. Bertolucci's camerawork meanwhile is austere, as restrained as the performances, and the emotional and intellectual temperatures are much cooler than the colour scheme. Not surprisingly, given China's official approval of the project, it is largely anodyne in its account of the People's Republic, but the closing segment is sufficiently barbed. The snapshot of the continuing revolution, with its Maoist quasi-imperial cult, presents a country that has not changed at all, whilst the final glimpse of contemporary Beijing presents a country that has changed everything, surrendered to the westernisation which Pu Yi championed (the very existence of Forbidden City footage is testament to this). China emerges as a country in which revolution and stasis are twins, and in the present century everything and nothing has changed.


the dead hand (and other assorted body parts) of the past
I'll take it everyone knows that this film is (a) very funny and (b) very messy. So I'll discuss a couple of things that don't seem to get observed. "Braindead" is an anti-imperialist, Freudian, social splatter comedy dreamt up by writer Stephen Sinclair and co-writer/director Peter Jackson - a horror film where, for much of the running time, the hero's problem is not so much staying alive as keeping up appearances. It's this that lends a distinctive comic power to what could have been just another zombie-flick spoof.

Lionel Cosgrove is enslaved by his insanely possessive mother, the pillar of a small-town New Zealand society of the 1950s that regards respectability as the imitation of all things English. The former colonial master is presented as itself undead, and it's when Lionel strikes up a romance with new blood - a Spanish immigrant shop worker - that he unwittingly sets the carnage in motion. What follows is gleefully cathartic, a piece of hate-mail to postwar New Zealand in which all pretensions to respectability gradually crumble, and zombification brings out the brutal selfishness that was latent all along.

If that makes Jackson's film sound all worthy and serious, don't worry: it never loses sight of its primary objective, which is to make the audience laugh and feel queasy in roughly equal measure. But the movie itself is by no means braindead; it's just not for the weak of stomach or the right of wing.

Footnote for UK readers: the 18-certificated video version here runs to 100 minutes, so is presumably not the bowdlerised cut many US reviewers complain about.

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