Skyline (2010)

I first saw the Skyline trailer last year, and it looked impressive in a post-pub sort of way, so I was looking forward to its release despite it being from the Strause brothers, makers of the much-maligned AVP: Aliens vs. Predator – Requiem. However I’m now coming late to this on DVD, and in the meantime it’s picked up negative word of mouth to almost rival its antecedent.

It’s your basic alien invasion plot, and pitches you into the drama immediately as bright lights descend from the sky. I was relieved that there wasn’t going to be any of the ‘getting to know annoying characters’ stuff that scuppered Cloverfield, but before I had time to blink, the dreaded ’15 hours earlier’ card appeared.  (I don’t know about you, but I hate this sort of thing; unless there’s some clever reason for messing about with time lines, I just want to be told the story)

The characters turn out to be exactly the sort of people who deserve to be crushed under giant alien feet: the central couple (played by Eric Balfour and Scottie Thompson) spend all their time arguing about being offered a job with lots of money, which is not an endearing trait in a recession. TV veteran David Zayas comes across a bit better as the building superintendent, but the yuppie friends are cannon fodder.  Some of the criticism is correct but it’s fish in a barrel stuff. Of course Eric Balfour is better suited to quirky supporting roles than leading man roles, and most of the supporting cast don’t approach his level of professionalism.

What? Behind me?

Thankfully it doesn’t take long before the aliens bring some much-needed action to the scenario, and this is where the movie delivers.  Some surprisingly expensive-looking damage is wrought to the area outside the central apartment, and it’s not limited to shadows and badly-lit model shots. Once the dawn breaks on the morning after the invasion, we get to see some huge scaly ships and beasts decimate the cast. The effects shots are as impressive as the earlier scenes were tedious, and I expect that most of the potential audience will be happy with the balance this way round.

Dramatically it’s a bit hard to defend, but I have to admit that the action scenes put to shame movies with ten times the budget of Skyline. I would have given it a qualified recommendation if it wasn’t for the bizarre  finale, where Balfour and Thompson rediscover their love for each other and the movie goes into space and completely loses its marbles. It’s certainly memorable and I suspect the movie will be looked on more kindly in a few years time.

[rating: 2.9]

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Cowboys and Aliens (2011)

Redeye, barman

If ever a title was guaranteed to get me in a cinema, it’s Cowboys and Aliens (although the strategy didn’t work for Zombie Strippers). When I was a kid, my dad was a big cowboy fan, and I couldn’t understand why he’d watch a formulaic dusty shoot-out in a one-horse town when all the universe beckoned, along with an infinite variety of scaly enemies. Forty years later, and it’s true that you  turn into your parents…

So I went into Cowboys and Aliens hoping for a 80/20 mix in that order, and this is just one of the things that Jon Favreau and the various writers get exactly right. Some reviews have criticised the movie for not subverting the genre, or doing anything to surprise the audience;  I’d argue that there are some things that you not only expect but demand from a movie like this, and deep political statements are not one of them. There’s plenty of room elsewhere for profundity.

This is not to say that it’s a deliberately stupid movie;  the tone is pitched perfectly with a slight wink but never resorting to broad comedy, and the cliches are ticked off without being hammered home. And there are plenty of in-jokes for fans of both genres. Some irony-free critics have called it humourless, and it’s their loss.

Daniel Craig is perfect as the monotone hero determined to make up for his past life and do the right thing. He looks like he’s made out of cowhide, and I found myself wishing that this was a genuine 100% western so we could see him in more punch-ups and shootouts. For the first third of the movie, the only concession to SF is the mysterious bracelet on Craig’s wrist, and the movie ambles along pleasingly, introducing a strong supporting cast: Olivia Wilde as the love interest, Clancy Brown as the local preacher/doctor with a nice line in wisecracks, Sam Rockwell as the bespectacled big city boy who can’t shoot, and Harrison Ford as the Gene Hackman character who rules the area despite the efforts of the honest sheriff Keith Carradine.

When the aliens actually appear, their technology seems to be aligned to the time, full of gears and mechanical parts – of course this makes no sense but it looks nice. The aliens themselves owe a lot to Giger’s Alien design, except when they run, adopting a crab-like stance suited to fighting men on horseback.  Thankfully the aliens are not the limp glowing Spielberg type, and want nothing else but to engage in a fight to the death, and the locals are equally glad to reciprocate. This idea seems to have offended a few critics, who seem determined to view this movie through their own preconceptions.

They kidnap a bunch of townspeople and the stage is set (sorry) for the big showdown. Along the way, Craig remembers his past, Harrison Ford learns to be a better father and to respect the native American, and Rockwell learns to shoot at the exact moment it becomes necessary. And Walton Goggins turns up, always a plus.

While none of this will surprise you, it’s beautifully made and so good-natured that you’d have to be in a bad mood not to enjoy it. It treats the goofy idea with an admirably straight face and Craig has never been this good. I expect that most people would prefer less Cowboys and more Aliens, but wait till they get older…


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Shalako (1968)

Largely forgotten Europudding of a western, uniting Connery and Bardot, two of the biggest stars of the time.  It’s based on a story by Western veteran Louis L’Amour, although it also bears a strong resemblance to Elmore Leonard’s story Hombre, filmed a couple of years earlier with Paul Newman in the title role.

It’s your basic fishes out of water story, with smug patronising Europeans finding their years of culture and civilisation to be useless in the face of the harsher elements of the new world. (Of course this assumption is also a bit patronising in itself;  the British Empire wasn’t built on polite language).  Their hunting party moves on to Apache land and is soon under threat from understandably miffed natives, including Chato played here by Woody Strode.  Presumably this is based on the same character to be played a few years later by Charles Bronson in Chato’s Land, with equal disregard for ethnic authenticity.

Is this thing on?

Among the supporting cast you’ve got Stephen Boyd as a leering villain and assorted fine European actors, including Jack Hawkins who had undergone throat surgery a few years earlier; as a result he wears a series of unlikely high collars and cravats, as well as being dubbed by Charles Gray. Even more unlikely is the presence of English comic actor Eric Sykes as a butler called Mako – no idea what to make of that. Honor Blackman plays Hawkins’ hideous wife, who is clearly destined for an unpleasant end at the hands of the Apaches – or she would be if the censor didn’t usually intervene with no concern for continuity.

But it’s Connery and Bardot who are the star attraction – the tag-line says  ‘Sean Connery is Shalako! Shalako means action! Action means Bardot!‘ which can’t be logically possible unless Sean Connery is Bardot…  Connery’s wig and accent are a bit disconcerting, but that’s nothing new; Bardot pouts and flutters her eyelids without doing anything approaching acting, although she does fire a gun at one point. Both stars look good throughout the action and manage the inevitable clinch when the plot starts to flag.

Edward Dmytryk directs adequately but doesn’t seem to have the stomach to deliver the violence that the story more or less demands to make its point (and which had become the norm in movies filmed in Almeria like this one).  This is especially the case if you compare Shalako with its contemporaries like Don Medford’s spectacularly harsh The Hunting Party, or even Valdez Is Coming, which leave this movie looking like the compromised star vehicle it undoubtedly is.

[rating: 2.8]

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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009)

“Martin Vanger, Kobayashi, Redfoot, Henrik Vanger…”

Excellent Swedish adaptation of the first in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. Michael Nyqvist stars as crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist, recruited to investigate the death of a young girl 30 years previously in a remote part of Sweden. Noomi Rapace plays emo bisexual computer hacker Lisbeth Salander who ends up on Blomkvist’s side in the battle against assorted evil authority figures.

Both actors (when did actresses become actors?) fit very well into the Larsson descriptions, although maybe maybe Nyqvist takes ‘grimly determined’ to unnecessary levels. Rapace is also shorn of any softer edges, which is a bit of a mistake in that she takes on an air of invincibility as a result.

postit However the biggest problem of the movie, when compared to the novel, is the running time. Now you might think that 152 minutes is long enough to tell any story, and it is, but one of the pleasures of Larsson’s novel is the leisurely unravelling of a vast number of  suspects and plot turns, when you’re not sure where the plot is going. Niels Arden Oplev’s adaptation, aided by Jacob Groth’s impressive orchestral score, develops a headlong rush to the finish despite its running time. Individual scenes slam into the next with hardly time to breathe, which is a shame as the locations are perfect and Oplev’s direction is otherwise classy and reserved in the style of recent Scandinavian crime adaptations.

Speaking of which, Nyqvist appeared in both Beck and Wallander; from the latter he’s brought along Lena Endre who plays Millennium magazine’s editor here, and from the former Peter Haber and Ingvar Hirdvall. Both of these play against their established type, and Haber’s terrific performance adds some much-needed flair to the general understatement going on all around him. The only other familiar face to me is Sven Bertil Taube, star of Puppet on a Chain and The Eagle Has Landed in a previous life.

Overall it’s a fine version of the novel, and probably works better if you haven’t any preconceptions. Even if you have, the faults are nitpicking and you’ll be entertained without being bored.


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Seraphim Falls (2006)

Brosnan and Neeson

I love a good western; hell, I love a bad western. Unfortunately we don’t get many these days, but here’s one and it’s 95% good.

Liam Neeson chases Pierce Brosnan across some startling scenery at the end of the civil war, from snowy mountains to desert plains, and there’s a fair bit of gory violence along the  way, as well as a fine supporting cast of villains (Michael Wincott, Ed Lauter and Xander Berkeley among them). Thematically it’s similar to The Outlaw Josey Wales in its view on the  pointlessness of living for revenge; I wondered if the casting of two actors born on the opposite sides of the Irish conflict was just coincidence.

Seraphim Falls is beautifully made by TV director David Von Ancken and photographed by John Toll. However, it all gets a bit mystical at the end, when various characters turn up representing the Devil and Greed, and leaving the viewer uncertain as to which bits really happened. Given the harsh reality of the first 2 hours, it’s a bit of a let-down,  at least for me, even if the title should have given it away.

Well worth watching, if only to see Brosnan acting rather then looking like a mannequin.

[rating: 3.6]

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Deja Vu (2006)

Reunited with director Tony Scott for the third time, Denzel Washington plays a New Orleans ATF agent brought in to investigate the bombing of a car ferry. A shadowy FBI agent  played by Val Kilmer introduces him to the latest surveillance technology, which can look in detail at the events of exactly four and a half days ago (no, don’t ask me).

The movie then becomes a combination of romance, police procedural and time/space paradox story, all filmed with Scott’s usual over-cranked style. As with Man On Fire, there’s a terrific score by Harry Gregson-Williams and inventive visuals courtesy of Scott and DP Paul Cameron, and Washington, Kilmer and Jim Caveziel do their best to give it some roots in reality. It’s the sort of movie that works well on  second viewing (there must be a joke here somewhere), even if you don’t fall for the ‘science’ involved.

The DVD is well presented but only contains some short extra features. Otherwise, it’s a very entertaining movie.

[rating: 3.9]

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Perfume : The Story of a Murderer (2006)

Long-time readers will know that I’m a big fan of German director Tom Tykwer, who has previously given us such gems as Run Lola Run and The Princess and the Warrior. I’m less of a fan of Patrick Suskind’s gimmicky scent-based novel, which strikes me as a strange choice for  Tykwer’s first big-budget movie, especially given that previous attempts by more established directors like Scorsese, Kubrick, Ridley Scott and Tim Burton have all floundered.

Undeterred by this, and by the lack of smell-o-vision cinemas in which to present this experience, Tykwer goes for  loads of close-ups of nostrils, which isn’t the most enticing prospect to the average moviegoer. Added to that, the movie spends the first hour in the grimy and disease-ridden back streets of 18th century Paris, and it’s only when it opens up and lets some daylight in that we start to enjoy it. It’s the most expensive German movie ever, and the money is right up  there on screen in the astonishing historical detail, not to mention the climactic scenes which I believe are the world’s first CGI orgy.

There are fine performances all round, from newcomer Ben Whishaw as the eponymous killer, as well as more established stars like Dustin Hoffman and Alan Rickman. It’s a strange mix of ugly and beautiful, of sordid and moving,  and is  certainly not for everyone, but Tykwer’s eye for an image (with regular DP Frank Griebe) and his score (written with his regular band) make it all worthwhile.

I can’t think of  another director working today who is as consistently brilliant. However, as the American censor advice says, this one is ‘rated R for aberrant behaviour involving nudity, violence, sexuality, and  disturbing images’. So don’t blame me.

[rating: 3.2]

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Paradise Lost (2006)

Originally titled Turistas, this was retitled Paradise Lost for its UK cinema release.

It’s the cautionary tale of a group of young and under-dressed backpackers who end up marooned in the Brazilian jungle. After a bit of wandering around in nice scenery, it all gets nasty  enough to make you cancel that trip to Rio and go to Skegness instead, as it turns into a cross between Wish You Were Here and a ‘70s Philippino mad doctor slasher movie (come on, I know you’ve seen a few). I suspect that some scenes, and one in particular, have been added in to up the ante and compete with the recent ‘torture porn’ trend.

Surprisingly, director John Stockwell is the same guy who starred in Christine all those years ago – he seemed like such a pleasant bloke. To sum up, it’s well made, the girls and scenery look great, and one scene will put you right off your spaghetti Bolognese.

Available now in R1 in both rated and unrated versions; I watched the latter, I hope you appreciate the sacrifice.

[rating: 2.5]

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Apocalypto (2006)

I’m not a big fan of Mel Gibson the director, and half an hour into Apocalypto I was shaking my head and looking for the remote control.

The movie looks good but gets initially bogged down in a load of slapstick and bodily function jokes, like a sort of Carry On Up the Jungle. Eventually the plot starts, and there’s a lot of expensive CGI, shouting, and some nasty human sacrifice, before our hero ends up in a fight to the death with the enemy soldiers.

While there’s no denying the excitement of the action scenes (and Gibson has the sense to focus on these), the movie dies on its feet when anything resembling dialogue turns up, and all the characters end up as cardboard cutouts despite the best efforts of the unknown cast. It’s not quite as simple-minded as Braveheart, and the ending is strangely graceful, so we’ll give  Mel another chance, although I can’t help thinking he should be a second-unit director.

[rating: 2.7]

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Smokin’ Aces (2006)

Joe Carnahan made a bit of a splash with Narc a few years back, and has been rewarded here with a bigger budget and cast. He’s also chosen to make a more adventurous movie  stylistically, coming across like a US Guy Ritchie at times, except not quite as annoying.

Jeremy Piven plays a gangster turned FBI witness, who becomes the target of myriad hitmen of all shapes, sizes and genders. It’s definitely a blokes movie, featuring snappy dialogue, huge guns and lots of ‘unnecessary’ sex and violence. It didn’t do that well at the box office but apparently is selling in huge numbers on DVD; I suspect it’s being watched just after closing time, when I’m sure it will appear nearly perfect.



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