Monday, 28 July 2014

Apocalypse Week 5: Optimism

The end of the world has been predicted, feared, predicted, mocked, and predicted again for all of time. The world of cinema has attempted to portray the fate of the earth time and time again. For decades film makers have considered the ways in which doom day may come. The 90s was a strange time for the apocalyptic film. It seems that, suddenly, humanity is stronger than we previously thought! Do you not believe me? Here is 1996's Independence Day.

On July 2nd, a strange signal from space is picked up on Earth. It soon becomes clear that we are not alone in this universe and that there is life more advanced than us out there. Huge ships begin to descend on he Earth with an even bigger mother ship lurking out in space on the edge of the planet's atmosphere. David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) analyses the signal to find a code and upon discovering the Earth is about to be under attack, with the help of his ex-wife, he warns the President Tomas J. Whitmore (Bill Pullman) of the incoming danger and they manage to escape before the alien ships lay waste to Washington D.C. with a giant laser weapon. The army attempt to launch a counter attack, but their weapons cannot penetrate the ship's external shields and the majority of the Black Knights flight squadron are killed except for Captain Steven Hiller (Will Smith) who evades attack, forces the alien ship following him to crash, and knocks his attacker unconscious. He delivers the unconscious invader to Area 51 where he meets the President and David and along with help from Dr. Okun's (Brent Spiner) research, they beginning plans on ways to save the Earth. But can they manage it?

Extremely detailed drawings there, Jeff. 
The central trio of the film need to be strong enough both on their own, and with one another on screen, and fortunately they are. Will Smith plays the macho, trash-taking, Hiller in true Smith-style. He is cool and everything every man wishes they were. Whilst one could criticise it for being too 'Will Smith' (not an ivalid argument, perhaps), if the main purpose of films is entertainment, then Smith nails it. He is funny, suave, badass, and completely likeable - something that is often missed with macho armed forces characters. Pullman's President is essentially the ideal leader of the United States of America. With authority and an air of calm, he commands his way through unknown threats with visitors from another world. Not only is he smart, he is sacrificial throwing himself into the firing line like a true leader should. Goldblum plays delightful, if not cynical, ex-scientist Levinson. Essentially the lead of the film, he holds his own with gravitas and a brilliant performance, linking all of the different aspects of the plot together. He seamlessly progresses the plot and is hugely entertaining while he does it.

Will Smith is pretty hot.

The only real criticism of Independence Day is its runtime at almost two and half hours with plenty of scenes being dragged out just that little bit too long. Aside from this minor flaw, Independence Day is a great example of the alien invasion genre. Huge, ominous spaceships looming over the once great cities and landmarks of our world, silently mocking their pettiness in comparison. The visually imposing nature of the spacecraft on its own its terrifying, but the combination of it with its seemingly unstoppable strength makes it more than scary; it is any person's worst nightmare. 

Independence Day is a wonderful genre film, combining sci-fi and action like few others have managed. It is unsurprising that many consider it a 'must-see' film.

Best Bit? The air-force have almost all been wiped out and so anyone with any flight experience is recruited to fight the ships, including the president. But with only small window of time to win the fight, an ultimate sacrifice must be made.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Apocalypse Week 4: A Librarian's Dream

The end of the world has been predicted, feared, predicted, mocked, and predicted again for all of time. The world of cinema has attempted to portray the fate of the earth time and time again. For decades film makers have considered the ways in which doom day may come. Aliens, bombs, planetary collisions. But is the end of life as we know it really going to be so obvious? Or is it going to sneak up on us, unannounced and unexplained. This is 1985's The Quiet Earth.

New Zealand scientist Zac (Bruno Lawrence) simply wakes up and goes about his day. One thing he does notice, however, is that no one seems to be doing their jobs - not because they are not working, but because they are simply not there. Soon Zac realises that the world is void of any human life, possibly linked to a project that he was involved in. After declaring himself 'President of the Quiet Earth', he goes on a small rampage, doing whatever he likes, whenever he likes. That is until he meets Joanne (Alison Routledge), another survivor of 'The Effect' and they go on together to search for any other life. Zac stumbles across someone else called Api (Pete Smith), a gun wielding macho man but despite first appearances, he fits in with the trio and they carry on travelling together to try and find some answers.

No caption here... I'll really nail the next one, I swear.

With only three characters in the film you would believe that you could find three fine actors to portray them, even in a country as small as New Zealand. Well, there will not be any Oscars thrown in the direction of Lawrence, Routledge, or Smith any time soon for these roles. With a lack of conviction from all three leads in any dialogue with each other, particularly between Routledge and Smith, a lot  of the emotions they attempt to portray often fall flat. Lawrence's Zac, however, does hold half of the film on his own with strength and power. The first act of the film is simple in many ways. One man finds he is alone in the world and so he goes a little mad. Shooting statues of Jesus, running down empty prams, setting up camp in luxury houses - the things we would all do if we could.

'Don't make me cross, Jesus!'

Despite weak performances, it is clear why The Quiet Earth is a cult film. The first half makes you wonder what you would do if you were in the same situation, the second drives the film with plot and point. There are some genuinely entertaining moments throughout the film such as Zac's speech to cardboard cut-outs of Hitler, The Queen, Nixon, and Pope John Paul II, proclaiming that he now rules the world. The film also does not forget to include the human emotions that are associated with loneliness, but more importantly, the happiness of human contact after an excessive amount of time alone. A truly touching moment involves nothing more than a smile and an extremely sincere hug between Zac and Joanne when they first meet. It is almost enough to make you well up. Slightly ominous writing prevails with excellent glimpses of technical mastery like walking up the walls of a spinning corridor (perhaps Inception was not as original as we thought) and a final scene that is an iconic image on its own.

The Quiet Earth is one of those films that is highly enjoyable despite its less than average performances. It has earned its status as a cult film and is worth watching if only for the stronger first half.

Best Bit? Zac's presidency speech is probably the most entertaining moment in the film, but, actually, his hug with Joanne tugs at a heart string that we often ignore in our social world. Everyone can relate to the notion of wanting company on some scale, and the hug just hits that need more than anything in the film.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Apocalypse Week 3: Identity Theft

The end of the world has been predicted, feared, predicted, mocked, and predicted again for all of time. The world of cinema has attempted to portray the fate of the earth time and time again. For decades film makers have considered the ways in which doom day may come. We have looked at both nature and mankind's effects on the Earth and how they could cause its destruction, Today's film is a remake of a 1956 film that was originally adapted from a novel, and is considered one of the most successful remakes of all time. This is 1978's Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

In San Francisco, something peculiar is happening. Weird flowers are blooming around the city that do not seem to be a recorded species. Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) takes an interest in the strange plants, but soon her attention is drawn to the odd behaviour of her boyfriend who is not acting like himself. Soon enough Matthew Bennell  (Donald Sutherland) begins to hear claims from many friends that people close to them are behaving strangely too, including Elizabeth. Together, and with the help of friends, Nancy and Jack (Veronica Cartwright and Jeff Goldblum), they begin to try and understand what is happening to their loved ones, despite opposition from Dr. David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy). One thing becomes clear, if they are not careful, they will soon be joining the unemotional masses that now roam the streets, bursting forth from huge flower buds. 

The really strange thing here is those funky trees. 

A fantastic lead performance from Sutherland, who younger readers will know as President Snow from The Hunger Games franchise. Capturing the paranoia that the film presents perfectly, he strays wonderfully between calm leader, and manic victim. His big hair and moustache add to the crazy look, as well as his long trench coat, but his power play is the strength in his facial expressions. Wide eyed in fear, he strives to protect Adams' Elizabeth. Adams, herself, is a delightful leading lady. The first to be thrust into the world of fearful paranoia, she portrays Elizabeth with the right amount of terror, confusion, but also composure. A strong female character in the face of disaster. Goldblum's Jack is a wonderfully exasperated writer that sees the world around him in a cynical light which provides a neat amount of comic relief, without ever straying from the overall feel of suspense. 

The film is drop dead exciting. 

The achievements of this film lie not just in its performers, but equally in its production. Philip Kaufman's direction builds suspense in the background. A police siren here, a scream there, a person staring soullessly into the distance pretty much everywhere, he knows how to draw the audience and question what they are seeing - what is going on. The minimal score consists of uncomfortable twitches on the violin and juxtaposing silence, jarring beautifully with the piercing, horrible screeching sound that the pod-people manage to produce. W.D. Richter's screenplay, too, is full of captivating dialogue, twist after unpleasant twist, and plenty of surprises (like a dog with a tramps face due to a malfunction with a pod). Together, Kaufman's direction and Richter's writing manage to create a uneasy atmosphere that climaxes in a spine chilling finale that will linger on the memory.  

An alarming and subtle wipe-out of humankind. Entertaining and captivating with more memorable moments than you can shake a stick at. A remake that almost manages to single-handedly remove the negative connotations that come with that word. 

Best Bit? Many will tell you that the ending is up there with Some Like It Hot and The Departed. An ending that you want to tell everyone about because of how strong it was. No spoilers here, though. You will have to go watch it.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Apocalypse Week 2: Earth Egg

The end of the world has been predicted, feared, predicted, mocked, and predicted again for all of time. The world of cinema has attempted to portray the fate of the earth time and time again. For decades film makers have considered the ways in which doom day may come. Yesterday we looked at nature destroying the Earth. Today we look at mankind and the things they would do for knowledge. This is 1965's Crack in the World.

Dr Stephen Sorenson (Dana Andrews) and his wife Maggie (Janette Scott) are on the verge of something incredible. They are drilling a hole through the Earth's crust to allow them to harness the vast amount of energy at the Earth's core. They want to use an atomic warhead to break through the last layer to the magma core. However, Dr. Ted Rampion's (Kieron Moore) research shows that the explosion could cause shattering devastation to the Earth, literally. As Sorenson explains, if Rampion's theory is correct, the effect on the Earth's crust will be much like a hammer hitting a window. But Sorenson gets the approval for his missile and goes ahead with the project, with what seems to be excellent results. That is until earthquakes start happening across a particular fault line and causing a crack in the world that could end life as we know it. Can the scientists stop the destruction?

Smashing demonstration Doctor!

There are a lot of words beginning with P that could describe Andrews' Sorenson: persistent, power hungry, peculiar. On their own, none are quite correct, but together they form a reasonable summary of Andrews' portrayal. His thought process, often down the lines of 'How many men get the chance to turn the page of history?', shows his ego, and explains his depressive mood towards the end of the film as his dream shatters. Otherwise, the acting has little to praise. Scott's Maggie seems at first to be a strong female character, describing herself as a scientist to an elevator full of men, but as the film progresses, Scott adds little personality to Maggie that is not influenced by her fondness of Ted or Stephen. There is nothing particularly memorable about any performance given.

This is why crack is bad, kids!

Like When Worlds Collide, Crack in the World has not aged well. The special effects towards the end of the film as the destruction reaches its climax is visually exciting, though not overly convincing. A train being thrown from its tracks is a little too obviously a model train and the scene the precedes the accident is tedious to say the least. As the train heads towards disaster, Maggie and Ted try to warn the driver of the crack by driving alongside the train and yelling. The driver merrily waves back for far too long, like a robot stuck on a waving function. It is simply one example of ridiculous and questionable elements of the film designed to attempt to make the film more alarming with the loss of human life but in completely unrealistic scenarios. The dialogue never really hits any form of stride after the strong opening. Once the disaster is actually under way, most characters become two-dimensional and the leads become dull with the exception of Sorenson, who locks himself away underground to finish his work.

A weak film. As a summary, the plot is simple enough to work, but the there are too many moments of weakness scattered around many elements of the film, from the dialogue, to the acting, to the overly cheesy score underneath lengthy shots of dramatic faces of worried scientists.

Best Bit? The opening of the film. Sorenson demonstrates the effect his weapon will have on the Earth's crust be slamming a hammer through a glass pane, and then burning through a separate pane with a burning poker to calm the concerns of the men in the room.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Apocalypse Week 1: Planet Pinball

The end of the world has been predicted, feared, predicted, mocked, and predicted again for all of time. The world of cinema has attempted to portray the fate of the earth time and time again. For decades film makers have considered the ways in which doom day may come. Our first film, from 1951, is one of the few from the era not based around the extinction of humanity through nuclear war. This is When Worlds Collide.

A star called Bellus is on a collision course with Earth. Orbiting that star is a planet named Zyra and upon confirming the awful truth of the collision course, Dr Hendron (Larry Keating) decides there is only one solution. They must build a ship to fly some members of the human race to Zyra before the destruction of Earth. A rich wheel-chair bound man called Stanton (John Hoyt) puts the money forward for Hendron's plans in return for a space on the ship and so the deal is done and Hendron and Dr Tony Drake (Peter Hanson) begin to plan their species survival. The ship, having only enough room for necessities and forty people or so, is under construction and the workers enter a lottery to see who will be allowed on the ship with the already chosen few including a morally conflicted pilot named David Randall (Richard Derr) who does not believe he has earned a spot on the flight. Bellus passes close to Earth causing natural disasters to happen over the whole Earth and the race to finish the ship is on.

Water a way for New York to go...

Rudolph Maté's disaster film rattles along with a focus on his characters leading up to the end of the world rather than the Earth's destruction. Keating's Hendron is focused on carrying on human kind after Bellus hits Earth, and perfectly so. He is powerful, stern, and overwhelmingly caring at the same time. Next to Hoyt's angry Stanton, he seems like a saint, if not a little obsessive. He is the star of the film. Much like the rest of the film, the acting style from the other performers is a bit dated. Women lacking much personality, men arguing quickly and with little reasoning. Perhaps it is more a script based error, or the 89 minute runtime cutting out important character thought processes, but the film occasionally seems to jump wildly from one conclusion to another. However, there are some charming scenes with wonderful sections of dialogue, nearly all of them involving Keating's arguments with Stanton.

The new Thorpe Park ride is out of this world.

Whilst the film is dated, it never stops being enjoyable. There is a glorious feeling that comes from the merry optimism from a pre-moon landing America. Spaceships can be shot into space off of a roller coaster track and stars will not burn the atmosphere of Earth until very very close. As Bellus becomes close to Earth, the audience are treated to a montage of disasters (mostly pinched from other films) that show the oncoming end off the world and it is the only scene that really shows any destruction or effect of the star's passing, but it does it effectively. Waves ripping through a New York street, fires over an oil field, the normal. And in the closing stages of the film, a more powerful message becomes evident. The men who have not been selected for the flight riot and the question is raised: who decides who lives and dies? How would we, the audience, react? A minor moral underlying to an otherwise straight forward plot.

A nice, if not dated, view of the end of the world at nature's hand. Scientifically dreadful, but enjoyable none-the-less. The short runtime ensures it never drags, even if does sometime make large leaps forward.

Best Bit? The montage of the disasters followed by a the touching rescue of a boy stuck on a roof  in a flood (and the dishing out of supplies to survivors, though they won't survive for long, will they?)

Friday, 11 July 2014

Coming Soon: Apocalypse Week

Some of you may remember Vietnam Week - A week in which I reviewed seven Vietnam war films in seven days. Well I wanted to do it again, so hang on to your hats folks! Monday will mark the beginning of my second set of themed reviews. Vietnam Week, move over. Welcome, Apocalypse Week.

I will be reviewing one film that depicts the end of our world as we know it every day next week. But this time there is another layer. Unlike the Vietnam war, the end of the world has been presented in film since before the 1950s. In order to do a good scope of films, I will be picking one film from every decade from the 1950s onwards.

Any apocalyptic films I have already reviewed will be linked on the main Apocalypse Week page along with the films reviewed next week as they come.

Any suggestions? Recommendations? A particular apocalyptic film from the last 60 years that you feel should be included? Let me know and I will check it out and possible include it.

Enjoy next week! It could be our last.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Ghost Mirror, Ghost Mirror on the Wall

Horror is a constantly slammed genre in the universe of film. Famous for blood, gore, cheap effects, you name it. So why do people still attempt to make horror films? Is it even possible any more to make a good horror film? Today's film will try. This is Oculus.

A young woman, Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillan), wants to clear her little brother Tim's (Brenton Thwaites) name from the murder of their father, Rory (Rory Cochrane), when they were kids. Kaylie is insistent that there is a dark supernatural force attached to the mirror their father had in his office and eleven years later, when Tim is released from the mental institution he has been in, she sets up an experiment to prove that the mirror is evil, her father is innocent of the murder of her mother, Marie (Katee Sackhoff), and Tim is innocent of the murder of their father. As the past collides with the present within the house in the form of flashbacks and hallucinations, we see the events surrounding the murders eleven years earlier with a young Kaylie and Tim (Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan respectively) struggling with the strange events in the house. But how strong truly is the mirror and Kaylie's plans to expose the truth really work?

No, guys, you have to face the front.

With a huge television star gracing the big screen several times in the upcoming year, there will always be a nagging fear that Karen Gillan, looking much the same as her famous Amy Pond, will make her films seem more like extended episodes of Doctor Who. It is a nagging fear, but a completely ungrounded one. Gillan holds her own with a strong American accent, a darkly entertaining, yet brutal, way of talking about the mirror, and an obsessive personality, completely focused on proving the mirror's evil. Thwaites is a powerful companion too, crossing so brilliantly between fear, bravery, and confusion of his reality. His uncertainty as to what is real is the film's strength in a nutshell; as the protagonist, if he cannot tell what is reality, how are the audience ever expected to. Cochrane and Sackoff also put in solid turns as the parents who are falling under the mirror's evil control. There is something endlessly ominous about loving parents having a terrifyingly strong and quiet presence in the fit of a murderous rampage. 

Does no one in this film know how to use a mirror?

The first real gem of Oculus is the child actors. Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan are simply incredible. Often occupying the screen alone, the pair do not just fill the space, they control it. They are also giving plenty of chances to prove their acting abilities curtsey of a fantastic script by Jeff Howard and Mike Flanagan, the latter of which also directed the horror. Oculus' second gem is the ingenuity of the plot. There is nothing overly original about a ghost mirror, or possessive spirits, or even vengeful young adults, and yet Flanagan has come up with something fresh and exciting. Perhaps it is the ambiguity of the ending, forcing the audience to question and make up their own minds on the extent of the mirror's power, or maybe it is the way the past and present dance with each other, darting in and out of rooms, interlinking together to create a fluid and exciting narrative. Either way, Oculus has people talking, arguing, and debating about all aspects of the film from the mirror's powers, to how they as individuals would beat it. A true achievement. 

Flanagan's direction is confident and dark. There is a morbidity about it and yet there is still plenty of lighter entertainment too. Most successfully though, it causes the audience to question what they see. This is not one of those horrors that just wants to shock its viewers with cheap scares, it wants to engage them, make them uncomfortable, and creep them out. Oculus has weight that a lot of modern horrors lack and has thrown Flanagan into the horror spotlight. A frightful joy. 

Best Bit? Kaylie and Tim are outside the house looking in at themselves preparing to kill themselves with one of Kaylie's self-timed 'precautions'. Are they outside or inside? Is the mirror trying to draw them back in or keep them exactly where they are - at death's door? The moment sums up how the mirror plays with the mind and leaves the audience with an unsolvable dilemma.