Saturday, 21 May 2011

Flying Spaghetti Monsters [Review: Rango]

The greatest mystery of all time: why do good ol' Spaghetti Westerns suck so much, while tributes to the very same Westerns are awesome? I'm thinking of Blazing Saddles for instance, a spoof from the pre-Scary Movie era when spoofs were still allowed to be well-written movies in their own right. Mel Brooks was a large figure in this genre - you can't say he wasn't - and Blazing Saddles one of the best comedy movies ever.

Then there's Firefly. It's unbelievably cool to watch bar-room brawls, cattle rustling and train robberies in space - why, when the same plots out West leave me cold? Blame the sci-fi gene deficiency again... on the other hand, some things about the earliest Westerns are off-putting, including the unthinking racism of the cowboy and injun roles. The constant send-ups of racism in Blazing Saddles prove that the older filmmakers had no excuse (although admittedly, along with the greatness there are some misfires in there too.) I'm wondering exactly how Cowboys and Aliens will work this one out.

The animated movie Rango stars Johnny Depp as a thespian chameleon who finds himself an unwelcome stranger in Dirt, a tumbleweed town populated by lizards and other desert-dwelling animals. The animation: realistic is the wrong word, for example, if you're describing the animation of a rattlesnake with an automatic pistol for a tail. Or a Mexican guitar-playing owl. Or for that matter a chameleon wearing a bright red shirt. A better word for the animation would be "awesome" and it serves the tone of the story very well.

Like the best Westerns* there is action, tragedy, comedy, romance and gratuitous riding across sunsets. Unlike the best Westerns, there is also a village of inbred water-rustlers who ride on bats, setting the stage for a Star Wars-style canyon chase.

I raised the ghost of Blazing Saddles for a reason: Rango is as much a tribute to this movie as to the real Westerns, from the themes of reality vs fiction to the heroine, a lizard cowgirl named "Beans."

* I will admit to liking High Noon if you ply me with enough cactus juice.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Only Fools And No Space Horses [Review: Trading In Danger]

Trying to explain the appeal of 8-bit phenomenon Elite to non-players, I sometimes describe it as a little like Only Fools And Horses, set in a future where the single-handed wheelin' dealin' interstellar trader is king.

Trading In Danger, a really enjoyable novel and first in the Vatta's War series, describes a similar future that is more commercial than naval. You may be familiar with Elizabeth Moon's track record: I am pleased to report that while polo is mentioned in passing, she has reined in her hippophilia and written a space opera almost devoid of horses, repairing what is arguably the Serrano Legacy's mane failing.

Kylara is a Vatta heiress - a member of both the Vatta family and their space logistics company. She chose the military over the family business but has been kicked out before completing training. To escape the paparazzi but also, we suspect, as a family punishment, she is sent on what should be a boring trade run saddled with a worn-out starship and her aunt's extremely dodgy fruitcakes.

The plot moves forward at a fast canter. Kylara herself is made of the Right Stuff and packs a decent right hook - her dismissal does not reflect a lack of fighting spirit but her tendency to fall for a good sob story, a likeable but potentially fatal Achilles' heel. While I'm not sure she'd be a match for Honor Harrington or Bet Yeager at close range, I think she'd at least make them work for their victory.

What gives Kylara's dilemmas, and this book, the upper hand in a photo finish, is that Honor too often has the upper hand - surprise, experimental weapons or disguised warships, extra intelligence and sneaky telepathic cats. Especially the cats. Kylara has to face up to mercenaries and other threats in a trading ship with literally no weapons - outgunning them is never an option and she has to stay calm, use the resources she has and know when to wait and when to raise the whip.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

King Of The Wild Front Tyre

His papa was a rolling stone
His mama was a rubber tree
He rolled into town
Laid some skidmarks down
And embarked on a killing spree

Affectionately known as Robert
An unbalanced worn down tyre
Named in the credits Robert
He don't need a getaway car

He came looking for trouble
He found it in a scrapheap yard
And he watched through the wire
As the tyre pyre fire grew higher
And he hungered for vengeance hard

Apparently his name was Robert
An unbranded black rubber tyre
He doesn't sign his name Robert
He's the king of the wild front tyre

He's the star of a film called Rubber
It's some kind of weird metaphor
About cinema exploitation
And the search for sensation
Continued in Rubber 2, 3 and 4.

The Boulevard star will say Robert
A telekinetic killer tyre
The premiere fans will scream Robert
He's the king of the wild front tyre.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

It's Grimm Up North [Review: Hanna]

Some films entice you in with awesome sequel promises, then disappoint with boring originality. Catfish is not the sequel to Sharktopus. The same goes for Donkey Punch and Sucker Punch, or Tron:Legacy and Tron. Miley Cyrus fans may experience similar disappointment at the opening of Joe Wright's film Hanna: is this tale of an albino child being raised by a rogue CIA agent as a warrior in the Arctic Circle as distant from Disney's popstar-alter-ego fairytale as you can get?

Maybe not quite so distant. Hanna's training leaves her unfulfilled and lonely: she wants to know what music feels like and, it turns out, her long-deceased mother was a talented singer. After her recapture and escape from a CIA base she befriends another tweenager and before the abandoned theme-park finale (all films should end in an abandoned theme-park) there are plenty of familiar pre-teen angst moments: awkward friendships, trust and secrets, almost killing boys who try to kiss you, skinning rabbits for breakfast and so on.

The deer's heart of this film is ripped from European fairytale, and of course this is a Grimm rather than Disney retelling with plenty of grue. Hanna (Saoirse, pronounced "K-ai-t," Ronan) is by turns Snow White, the Ugly Duckling or Red Riding Hood, while CIA handler Marissa Vigler (Cate Blanchett) is the wicked stepmother and Erik Heller (Eric Bana) the kind-hearted huntsman. It is this fairytale layer that turns Hanna from just another spy vs spy thriller into something much more captivating.

However there are other influences too. Hanna has a tendency to spout definitions like a walking Wikipedia: this was a central theme of my 2009 Sci-Fi London short Too Much Too Soon and I'm big hearted enough to take this as a tribute rather than any kind of plagiarism. Thanks Joe!*

Erik and Hanna reminded me of Kick-Ass superheroes Big Daddy and Hit Girl. While the question is the same - is there a scared child inside the trained killer? But Hanna's identity is defined by her origins, training and mission - she is the bullet.

The film relies heavily on national stereotyping - the Brit tourists that Hanna befriends will be familiar if you've ever come across the Modern Parents strip in Viz and are the funniest Brit stereotype I've seen for a long time, even including The King's Speech. The German stereotyping of the agents on Hanna's trail is more painful, although in dramatic terms they are portrayed as efficient and emotionless team players rather than bungling or argumentative crooks - so at least make a credible threat. Vigler's accent? American reviewers should drawl their own conclusions.

*this paragraph flagged for irony moderation

Saturday, 7 May 2011

One Silent Leap For Mankind [Reviews: The Impossible Astronaut and Day Of The Moon]

"So we're in a box that's bigger on the inside than the outside and travels in time and space."
"Basically, yes."
"So how long have Scotland Yard had this?"

Doctor Who returns: and a central character did indeed die as promised. I don't quite believe they have the guts to completely follow through with this decision - but if they do... before tonight's pirate-based entertainment begins, a look back on the series 6 opening episodes.

The Impossible Astronaut and Day Of The Moon reunite the Doctor, Amy, Rory and River Song in Utah, and from there it's one small step back to 1969, Nixon's America and the lead up to the historic Apollo 11 flight. The Silence make their appearance - a new, Munch-inspired alien horde who have "owned" the Earth since the dawn of mankind, controlling us through hypnotic suggestion and disappearing from our memory as soon as we turn away. The Silence were a silent presence throughout series 5, and their influence may explain some of the series 5 mysteries including the gaps in Amy's memory.

Why the long face?

River Song and the Doctor also make their relationship clearer - travelling in opposite directions relative to each other, they are lovers in the Doctor's future and River's past. A timeline can be seen here - expect updates to this chart as series 6 progresses. This is exactly the kind of pretzel-twisted timeline Moffat seems to like, and does best.

Steven Moffat's writing always generates more questions than it answers. Why are the Doctor and River fated to always travel in opposite directions? The Silence have gained complete control over the human race through millenia of hypnotic programming - but why is the Doctor, an alien from a much older civilization, just as heavily affected? What about the countless other hostile takeovers of Earth (in Doctor Who continuity) - did the Daleks, Yeti or Autons not see them either, and were the Silence worried by the incursions into their territory?

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Keepin' It Unreal [Reviews: The Game and The Joneses]

Who can you trust? Are the people around you who they say they are, or are you surrounded by actors playing their part? I present two films that prove you don't need Matrix or Source Code high-tech wizardry to take a hammer to your perception of reality.

The Game - a David Fincher classic from 1997 - stars Michael Douglas as Nicholas, a successful, bored superbanker drawn into a mysterious real-life roleplaying game. The Game is often quoted as a precursor to Alternate Reality Gaming but this is misleading: unlike The Game's premise which is tailored to the individual, ARGs seek to draw groups of players together to cooperate in real life or online; also, unlike poor brain-frazzled Nicholas, ARG players (I generalize) like to be in on the joke. The Game re-writes the rules of reality every few scenes, upping the stakes each time.

Steve and Kate Jones (David Duchovny and Demi Moore) are The Joneses, the perfect new neighbours moving in next door with their two perfect kids: everyone they meet falls in love with the charm act. Thing is, they're actually a "stealth marketing unit" - four unrelated salespeople masquerading as a family, enticing jealous neighbours to buy into their consumer lifestyle. It's a great conspiracy theory, at most two steps away from real-world celebrity endorsement.

Cleverly, the Joneses' immediate neighbours are old-school beauty product salesfolk themselves: they are the past, defenceless and blown away by this new style of aggressive marketing. Duchovny's character, despite being a smoothly successful car salesman is new to stealth marketing and the masquerade takes its toll on all four "family" members even as the locals fall over themselves to get into ever-increasing debt. This is an intelligent film that asks the right questions of advertising: just how powerful is it? is it truly harmless? is it ethical? and, where is it going?