Tag Archives: a dark adapted eye

The Vampire Lovers (1970)

I... think I saw a different movie from the one that this poster is talking about.
I… think I saw a different movie from the one that this poster is talking about.

“IF YOU DARE… taste the bloody passion of the BLOOD NYMPHS!”

Directed by Roy Ward Baker
Starring Ingrid Pitt, George Cole, Kate O’Mara, Peter Cushing and Dawn Addams

A young aristocrat, Baron Hartog, decapitates a beautiful vampire, one of the last of the Karnsteins. Years later, a mysterious countess (Addams, in an unnamed role with a handful of speaking lines) leaves her daughter Marcilla (Pitt) in the care of General von Spielsdorf (Cushing) and his daughter, Laura (Pippa Steel). Laura becomes consumed by her friendship with Marcilla and her fear of a great cat that smothers her in her dreams. Then she dies and Marcilla vanishes.

Soon after, Laura’s friend Emma (Madeline Smith) and her father, Mr Norton (Cole) meet a mysterious countess, who entrusts to their care her niece, Carmilla (Pitt). Emma falls into the same fears and fascinations as Laura, and when her father is away Carmilla seduces and then murders the Governess (O’Mara) and the butler, as well as killing the doctor (who gets no action first).

At last, the now aged Hartog leads Morton, the General, and Laura’s fiance to Karnstein Castle to uncover the tomb of the last Karnstein, Mircalla, and destroy her. Continue reading The Vampire Lovers (1970)

Beautiful Creatures (2013)

Alice Englert is a pretty young woman with a wonderfully wry turn of expression; why every poster for the film picked a selfie duckface shot, I do not know.
Alice Englert is a pretty young woman with a wonderfully wry turn of expression; why every poster for the film picked a selfie duckface shot, I do not know.

“Dark Secrets Will Come to Light”

Directed by Richard LaGravenese
Starring Alden Ehrenreich, Alice Englert, Jeremy Irons, Viola Davis, Emmy Rossum, Thomas Mann, and Emma Thompson

Ethan (Ehrenreich) is that small town boy, too cerebral to feel comfortable with the popular crowd, but too popular to be a proper nerd, and yearning to break out of Gatlin, South Carolina (not to be confused with Gatlin, Nebraska, where they have their own troubles).  When he meets new girl Lena Duchannes (Englert), he realises that she is the girl he has been dreaming about for months, and he is slowly drawn into the world of her family, who are ‘Casters’, magicians who follow either the Light – becoming minor league American character actors – or the Dark – causing them to evolve into A-list British thespians with dodgy accents (Irons and Thompson); I can only assume that Emmy Rossum’s Ridley will morph into Lena Headey on her thirtieth.

On her sixteenth birthday, Lena will be claimed for the Dark or the Light, and there is a curse to be reckoned with that says Dark is the way. Ethan might be her salvation, but Casters aren’t supposed to love mortals, and the price may be more than Lena is willing to pay. Continue reading Beautiful Creatures (2013)

300 (2006)

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“Prepare for glory”

 

Directed by Zack Snyder
Starring Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, Dominic West and David Wenham

In 480 BC a small Greek force, lead by 300 Spartans under King Leonidas, held off a far larger Persian force at Thermopylae for seven days, while getting off a variety of good lines while under pressure; when King Leonidas was told that the Persian archers were shooting arrows in such vast quantities that they were blotting out the sun, he allegedly replied ‘won’t it be nice that we have shade to fight in’. In the end they were nearly all killed, but their epic bravery was well recorded by the Greek historians, with accounts in both Plutarch and Herodotus.

Then, probably because Frank Miller loves nothing like he loves testosterone, it was made into a comic in 1998, only with added homophobia, but some very nice artwork. As is the way with Frank Miller.

After that, a film version was almost inevitable. The plot of the film is, by the way, basically, the same as the synopsis I gave of the battle of Thermopylae. It’s a bit like a very well oiled and slightly more homoerotic version of Herodotus.

What’s wrong with it?

OK. There is technically an awful lot wrong with 300. I mean, you start with the history (Spartan soldiers did actually wear more than leather speedos to fight in, King Xerxes of Persia probably wasn’t that into gold body paint, and I’m sure history would have remembered had he, or any classical ruler, actually had their own battle rhino), continue with the racism (brave Americans Greeks yell about democracy before slaughtering deformed foreigners who look like orcs but are apparently Persians), perhaps pause to examine the sexism (no matter how powerful or plot important a female character, it doesn’t mean she can’t be sexually abused at least once), and then amble on through the gratuitous violence, tripping over a plot hole every now and then (why did Theron take bribes in Persian gold he couldn’t spend? Unless there was a secret Spartan bureau de change somewhere…) before finally coming to rest, overwhelmed by the sheer macho nonsensicality of it all.

And yet…

What’s right with it?

 

…Leonidas would have loved it!

No, really. Every time I see this film I can’t help but imagine Leonidas sitting there, in the Elysian Fields, gleaming with pride. Every time he gets off a snappy line (and to be fair, if they were invented, they were invented by enthusiastic ancient Greeks, not enthusiastic Hollywood script writers) I can see him nodding smugly. Every time his enemies flinch, he probably flexes some undead muscles and I am totally and utterly convinced that if you were to show him this film and ask him about the battle rhino he would swear blind that he killed that thing with his own two hands and if you doubted him, well, you weren’t there, man.

In general, one of the hardest things about historical drama is that we, as a society, are not very good at empathizing with people who’s basic understanding of the world and who’s concept of right and wrong was very different to ours. We find it especially hard when it comes to popcorn flicks, where we don’t want to see women who couldn’t leave the house unaccompanied or cheer for heroes who believed absolutely in the divine right of kings, so most film makers tend to end up making their historical heroines feisty and their heroes pro-democracy, and everyone learns to believe in themselves until it’s all OK in the end. But 300 actually doesn’t do that. OK, so I’m not saying Dick Cheney’s fantasy life doesn’t look like this too (well, maybe not quite as many heavily oiled and scantily clad young men, although I don’t want to judge) but I am also pretty certain that this is closer in spirit to the Spartan perspective than any earnest young man with plumes on his helmet, questioning whether the helots really needed to be kept as slaves, before facing a number of conflicted and three dimensional Persian enemies would have been.

Also, Frank Miller’s idea on history is way more like Herodotus than Eric Hobsbawm. I bet Herodotus would have thrown in a battle rhino.

How bad is it really?

I think it depends what you’re looking for. If you want a history lesson, it’s bad. If you want a subtle nuanced portrayal of real men torn apart by the horrors of war, it’s bloody awful. If you object to sexual violence, racism, orientalism, or just strangely narrow cliffs which soldiers have to be pushed off one at a time in dramatic profile, you probably should avoid it.

If, on the other hand, you have a soft spot for Frank Miller style cinematography and can swallow a lot of testosterone with your popcorn, it’s an awful lot of fun and probably the least apologetic depiction of Greek warriors doing appropriately obnoxious yet spectacularly Greek warrior-y things you’ll find outside of the strangely detailed imaginings of a certain kind of classics student.

Best bit (if such there is)?

 

Ooooh….so many quotables, so little time. Do I start with the Persian Ambassador famously being kicked down a well (“This. Is. Sparta!” shouts a strangely Glaswegian Leonidas)? Perhaps Queen Gorgo snarking that “only Spartan women give birth to real men” (another historical quote)? And of course there’s the famous “we will fight in the shade” line.

Plus no matter what you think of Frank Miller’s politics, man, he makes pretty comics, which pretty much gets used as the storyboard for the film. It’s visually stunning.

What’s up with…? 

 

  • So, the traitor Theron sells out Sparta to the Persians for gold, which he conveniently keeps about his person in easy to recognize gold coins, nicely stamped with Xerxes very recognizable face? Why? And also, where? He’s wearing a blanket for most of the film. Man must have had amazing muscle control.
  • I understand that the Spartans were body fascists extraordinaire, but did Leonidas have to kick the earnest little hunchback, Ephialtes, to the kerb quite so firmly? Couldn’t he have given him a bag to carry or something? Or just killed him if he must? Him running off to Xerxes in a fit of pique did seem rather inevitable.
  • I get that battle rhinos improve almost any given story, but could maybe some of Xerxes exciting shock troops (which include Africans, Indians with elephants, and the oft mentioned rhino) have maybe come from the actual Persian Empire?
  • What happened to all the other Greek forces at Thermopylae? According to Herodotus the total number of troops opposing the Persians numbered in the thousands (still massively outnumbered by the Persians who modern historians estimate as being in the tens of thousands) and included troops from Thebes, Arcadia and Corinth amongst others. Did they just…stay home?

Ratings

Production values: Whatever 300’s faults, it’s a very very pretty film and beautifully put together. 4
Dialogue and performances:  I might be being harsh here. There’s not really much for the cast to work with here, and they actually do pretty well with what they’ve got. Gerard Butler is consistently macho and stern. Lena Headey is scornful and imperious. Dominic West oozes whenever he comes on screen (seriously, Sparta, how did you not notice he was evil for so long?) and whoever is played Xerxes is…convincingly pierced. It just isn’t really a film you can perform in. 10
Plot and execution:  I mean, there isn’t a lot of plot to cram in, really. There is a Persian army. They go to war. There are some oracles and a bit of politics along the way, but really, how can you mess up a bunch of dudes stabbing each other with spears now? 8
Randomness: And that was mostly because the film occasionally just throws something totally insane from left field in. 12
Waste of potential: 300 is exactly what it says it is going to be from beginning to end. Madness? No! SPARTA! 2

Overall 36%

Not Falling, but Doing – Comic Books and Bad Adaptations

(This post originally appeared in my other movie blog, My Life as a Doge.)

Say what you like about the yellow spandex, at least you knew who was on which side.

“It wasn’t like that in the comics” is a common enough rallying cry for the aggrieved geek community these days.

Let’s be clear: I’m not having a go at geeks. Have you read this blog? I’m a geek, or possibly a nerd; it depends if the geeks will have me. I’m talking about a particular facet of geek culture, which has as many flaws and foibles as any other cultural group.

So, increasingly I start to ask myself if it isn’t a good thing sometimes when an adaptation breaks away from the original text, especially in an original text as convoluted as a comic book continuity. After all, it isn’t as if the comic books themselves haven’t cleaned house from time to time, with either a universe shattering Crisis event or an outright reboot. It’s needed too, with the two main continuities – DC and Marvel – each spanning dozens of titles and decades of publishing history, including a lot of highly contradictory, controversial, and on occasion just plain dumb stuff.

So, what change is okay when adapting a comic book for the screen? What change is too much change?

Continue reading Not Falling, but Doing – Comic Books and Bad Adaptations

Ghost Rider (2007)

ghost_rider_ver6_xlg

“Hell is about to be unleashed”
“His curse is his power”
“Let’s ride!”

Directed by Mark Steven Johnson
Starring Nicholas Cave, Eva Mendes and Wes Bentley

Johnny Blaze makes a deal with Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda) to save his father from lung cancer, only for Blaze senior to die in an accident during the family stunt-cycle show. Years later, Blaze (Cage) is called on to hunt down renegade demon Blackheart (Bentley) and his Nephilim minions as the Ghost Rider, to prevent a contract for a thousand souls granting vast power to either Mephistopheles or Blackheart.

What’s wrong with it?

Eve Mendes is a feisty, but not much more, as Blaze’s lost love, although she gets at least one shot in, which is something.

Pretty much everything with Blackheart in is ludicrously melodramatic, to the point of unwitting farce, and the occult shenanigans are basically just silly. There is also barely an instance of the Rider getting a decent fight. Blackheart knocks him downa  few times, but basically he owns the three Nephilim without much effort, including burning the one made of water.

What’s right with it?

First up, it’s great to see a film that knows how to do a tagline. I mean, it has some less-convincing ones, but look at that pick up there.

It also has Sam Eliot as Carter Slade, the Phantom Rider and Blaze’s predecessor, and no film which casts Sam Eliot as a Texas Ranger has got everything wrong.

How bad is it really?

Chunks of it drag, mired in crummy dialogue, and the action scenes are mostly pretty stilted, but there are occasions where it sparkles (a witness describes the flaming skull head thing as ‘an edge look, but he totally pulled it off’) and it’s cheesy fun.

Best bit (if such there is)?

Slade reveals his identity by lighting up for one last ride, then he and Blaze charge across the desert to an electro-metal rendition of ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky’. Sadly he doesn’t actually fight, but it’s still awesome.

What’s up with…?

  • Burning the water demon?

Ratings

Production values – Marvel Studios have set the standard in superhero special effects. Not, however, with this film. 15
Dialogue and performances –  The Johnny Blaze story is actually pretty solidly written and performed. Unfortunately, the demon stuff drags it down. 11
Plot and execution – The film rambles from set-piece to set-piece. As with the dialogue, the cursed and redeemed storyline is better than the more directly demonic stuff. 12
Randomness – Once you accept that Johnny Blaze is the Devil’s Bounty Hunter, it’s all pretty straightforward. 7
Waste of potential – So, it’s a Ghost Rider movie; what were they going to do? On the other hand, Sam Eliot doesn’t shoot one person. 8

Overall 53%

The Time Machine (2002)

Time_machine

“Where would you go?”*

Directed by Simon Wells and Gore Verbinski (uncredited)
Starring Guy Pearce and Samantha Mumba

Alexander Hartdegen (Pearce) proposes to his intended, only to see her shot dead by a mugger. Dedicating himself to training as a fighter and detective, he becomes the Batma… No, wait.

He dedicates himself to saving her by building a time machine to alter history, but failing once he decides it must be impossible and instead travels into the future to learn why. Witnessing the rise and fall of humanity, he is then thrown forward into the distant future, where he encounters a humanity divided into two races, the atavistic, subterranean Morlocks, and the entirely human Eloi, and must decide whether to try to change the past, or fight for the future.

Actually, I’m kind of overstating it a bit. It’s more like he has to decide whether to walk away and let a creepy brain-boss Morlock turn his Eloi friend Mara (Mumba) into a sexy-dance monkey or not, which is a no brainer in anyone’s books.

What’s wrong with it?

So, you see above where I emphasise that the Eloi are entirely human? That’s the crux of it. I mean, it starts with the addition of a tragic backstory, which reduces the wonder of time travel to one man’s hissy fit with the universe, but it’s the Eloi and the Morlocks who are at the heart of it.

In the book – and I promise, this is not just a ‘the book is better’ rant – the Eloi and Morlocks are two sides of the class divide taken to extremes; the idle rich who have devolved into heartless, contented children, and the labouring poor who have become naught but bestial muscle. It’s an allegory. In this film, there really isn’t one. The Eloi are a little fatalistic, but ultimately unflawed, whereas the Morlocks are self-made monsters who chose to become cannibal trolls, and look ridiculous to boot with their huge, rubber faces and bullshit, dehumanising caste structure.

The Eloi also get their theme from the Civilization computer games, which is a little bizarre.

The film also manages to trump the nastiness of the Morlocks eating the Eloi, with brain Morlock (Jeremy Irons) explaining that they keep the cute ones as ‘breeding stock’.

Mark Addy, as Hartdegen’s friend Philby, has a terrible American accent.

What’s right with it?

The first part of the journey into the future is nicely done, with the collapse of the moon a nice alternative to the more obvious ‘nuclear holocaust’ option to create a divide in history.

How bad is it really?

Even leaving aside the value of the film as an adaptation of the book (it fails, but then again the book was of its time and its allegory no longer directly applies), it’s not a very good film. After a contrived introduction, it makes a good stab at the time travel bit, but it doesn’t have anything to say with the Eloi and the Morlocks, so it just becomes a nasty, rapey cannibal plot.

Best bit (if such there is)?

A holographic library interface sings a snatch of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s The Time Machine: The Musical.

What’s up with…?

  • The brain Morlock, built to be the psychic smarts of the race, being as badass as any of the muscle/hunter Morlocks?
  • The Morlock caste system in general?
  • The Eloi’s superstitious fatalism? A species that can build sophisticated windmills and complex, cliff-hugging villages, ought not to be this helpless in the face of the crude Eloi hunting parties.

Ratings

Production values – The Time Machine is a thing of beauty, and the futures wonderfully realised. It’s just a shame then that the Morlocks look so bollocks. 11
Dialogue and performances –  The dialogue is largely uninspired, and the leads give it what it deserves. Stand outs are Orlando Jones as the library computer and Omero Mumba as Mara’s brother, putting the older and more prolific cast to shame. 12
Plot and execution – The films greatest weakness is a failure to do anything with the Morlock/Eloi divide. There is supposedly something about unbridled technology, represented by the mining of the moon, but it doesn’t connect to the split into two races, which makes the core of that section pointless. 16
Randomness – The film doesn’t make a great deal of sense, but that’s a failing in the core premise of the second half, rather than randomness. 5
Waste of potential – Two words: George Pal. It wasn’t perfect, but the 1960s version was so much better, and I’ve never understood the point of remaking something worse that the last version. Plus, it’s a good book, even if the allegory is utterly dated. 17

Overall 61%

* The question is not where… but WHEN?”

World War Z (2013)

WWZ_Poster_5_23_13

“Remember Philly!” (No, really; that’s what they got. I’m starting to suspect that the tagline is a dying art.)

Directed by Marc Forster
Starring Brad Pitt

In the wake of a zombie apocalypse, former UN, umm… guy Gerry Lane (Pitt) is sent to track down patient zero in the hopes of developing a vaccine. From Korea to Israel to Cardiff, he tracks the spread of the virus, leaving a trail of zombies and corpses in his wake.

Alternatively, an asymptomatic plague sufferer travels the world, fantasising about a zombie apocalypse to explain the death that follows him without having to shoulder any blame for it.

What’s wrong with it?

Based on a book written as the collected oral history of a zombie apocalypse, World War Z the movie attempts to create the kind of ‘one informed narrator in an apocalypse’ vibe that John Wyndham used to rock, and instead create a global catastrophe that revolves around just one person.

Jumping from place to place, with few ongoing characters apart from Lane and his family, who are essentially off-limits, the film has little in the way of emotional stakes. If the world dies, who cares? Even the death of a family who help the Lanes (because every life that Typhoid Gerry touches is destroyed) barely raises a quiver.

Through a random walk around the planet, following rumours and destroying already shattered lives even more than they already were, Gerry is blessed with obvious revelations that have not occurred to anyone else, and thus saves the day (mostly). His role as a harbinger of doom is established in Israel, where his arrival immediately presages the complete collapse of the country’s entirely awesome zombie defenses, and by his almost psychic detection of a spreading infection aboard a passenger airliner.

The original script, by John Michael Straczynsky, was described as ‘genre-busting’. It is incredibly apparent that this is not that script.

What’s right with it?

The zombies spasms are creepy, and the wall-climbing waves are actually pretty amazing. In addition, the fact that the original Russian-gulag-to-rape-revenge-rampage ending was removed made it a less terrible film.

How bad is it really?

Despite some good set-pieces, the film is lacklustre, with none of the dead characters around for long enough or well-enough introduced for us to get to give a shit about them, and in a disaster movie you have to care. It’s not enough for Jennifer Jones to fall out of the elevator; we care because she saved the children and had a sweet little love story with Fred Astaire.

Best bit (if such there is)?

Probably the ‘ant pile’ as the zombies hurl themselves against the Israeli wall, clambering one on top of the other until the speed of climb surpasses the rate of collapse.

What’s up with…?

  • The complete failure of anyone other than Gerry to notice anything?
  • Sending a doctor into the field with a pistol and no weapon safety training? Even in a desperate situation, you’d think they’d go over ‘finger off the trigger’.
  • The zombies’ psychic ability to sense illness and injury? Given that they are basically ravening corpses responding to sound only, it seems remarkably selective.

Ratings

Production values – as usual with commercial entries, I can’t fault the film here. 3
Dialogue and performances –  There is nary a line of dialogue that isn’t exposition, with the exception of a few semi-coherent references to what Lane used to do. The acting is all good; there’s just nothing memorable to be said. 12
Plot and execution – The plot is basic, but the execution fails on a fundamental level when the film fails to make us care about really anyone16
Randomness – Lane’s revelations are not random, but the fact that no-one else sees what he sees (not just Joe Public, but Mossad agents, WHO researchers and other trained observers) is. The plot is also held together by chance in a number of cases. 8
Waste of potential – An interesting idea is not merely rendered dull in the name of accessibility, it is actually rendered inaccessible, as anyone we care about proves indestructible, and anyone who dies proves unimportant. 18

Overall 57%

Divergent (2014)

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“What Makes You Different Makes You Dangerous

Directed by Neil Burger
Starring Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Zoë Kravitz, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q, Jai Courtney, Miles Teller, and Kate Winslet.

Set in a dystopian future where some kind of unspecified calamity has wiped out civilisation as we know it, the few survivors huddle together in a post-apocalyptic Chicago, divided into five factions – the kindly Amity, the honest Candor, the knowledgeable Erudite, the fearless Dauntless and the selfless Abnegation. Beatrice, our heroine, is born into Abnegation, the faction who look after people, rule the city (because they think of others) and feed the factionless, who are the people who ‘don’t fit in anywhere’.

When you’re sixteen you are put through a kind of serum induced dream aptitude test, which tell you which faction you belong to, based on your personality, although apparently 95% of those who take the tests stay in their birth factions. And then once you’ve taken the test, you can make an informed decision at the big public ceremony where you chose your faction, move into their part of town, and adopt a nifty new colour coded outfit for the rest of your life.

Beatrice takes these tests with a Dauntless woman, Maggie Q, only to be woken by an upset proctor who kicks her out and tells her to never speak of this again. Apparently her test results suggest that she has more than one personality trait, and as such is ‘Divergent’ and liable to be executed if caught, because she ‘can’t be controlled’. Nevertheless, Beatrice turns up to the choosing ceremony the next day, picks the black clad, tattooed and pierced Dauntless, and goes off to learn to be one of the city’s warriors, renaming herself ‘Tris’ in the process. Meanwhile, the blue suited power dressers in Erudite are plotting to overthrow the city’s government. Will Tris save the day?

What’s wrong with it?

So, let’s start at the beginning. Tris, our heroine, appears to be magically and amazingly super special due to her magic power of having more than one personality trait. Yes. That’s all it takes in this world. Everyone else is a two dimensional cardboard cutout, but Tris is different (allegedly) because she can be more. There’s very little evidence of this, admittedly, and she comes across as being about as bland as every other Young Adult heroine out there but the script tells me firmly that she’s different and so I shall try and believe it. I shall also try and get my head around the notion that no one else has any more than a single personality trait, despite the fact that other characters regularly display a (limited) combination of traits. Tris can also, apparently, control the weird serum hallucinations she kepts getting put into which is also a side effect of being divergent so I’ll accept that as a super power.

Tris’ time in Dauntless is OK, in an entirely generic way – heroine is trained by strong brooding hero, who maintains a single constipated frown at all times to indicate hidden depths and sometimes twitches his eyebrows together a bit more when he’s getting emotional. She starts off getting beaten up but through guts, willpower, and the support of her sassy PoC friend, learns how to throw knives, shoot guns, and even captures the flag in a battle game with an ending which made me wonder if the director was a fan of Disney classic, Mulan.

The conspiracy to overthrow the government makes vague sense – as far as I can tell, Evil Kate Winslet mostly felt thwarted in her desire to rule the world so decided to brainwash a fifth of the population to kill another fifth of the population. Which I guess is reasonable if you’re a psychotic megalomaniac who probably drowns kittens in her spare time which is pretty much all the character that the script gives Kate Winslet. And, to do her credit, she really does run with it; Kate Winslet manages to pretty much add barely contained psychosis into the sentence ‘are you alright?’

The final outburst of violence progresses in a bizarrely slow motion fashion – I understood why Evil Kate Winslet wanted the brainwashed Dauntless to round up the Abnegation and shoot them all in a shocking dawn raid. What I didn’t understand was why having rounded them up, she insisted that the Dauntless spend half an hour lining them up against a wall and pointing guns menacingly at them while she faffs around getting back to her lab, thus allowing the good guys to regroup and come after her, and why she insists on a slow countdown to execute o’clock even as the good guys charge the lab is totally beyond me.

What’s right with it?

To be fair, it’s reasonably inoffensive. It’s a comfortable Young Adult dystopian action flick which ticks all the boxes of the genre, and has a generically positive message about how being different makes you strong. Visually, it’s quite pretty; I liked the image of a post-Apocalyptic Chicago, with the wind turbines on every tall building, and the massive walls around it.

How bad is it really?

It isn’t offensively bland – it’s just very very generic. It’s a Young Adult dystopia by numbers which painstakingly ticks every box going without ever coming up with anything terribly new. Spunky young heroine who’s family don’t understand her? Check! Chisel jawed and slightly intimidating hero who turns out to fancy the heroine all the time? Check! Vaguely defined powers to emphasize how special the heroine is? Check! I could go on, but it would take some time.

The acting is mediocre at best (although I do want to make special note of Kate Winslet who looks like someone told her she was playing in the Nag End Community Theatre annual panto, and clearly had an eye out for any stray Dalmatians she might find wandering the streets) and the story never ceases to follow the exact path you could have predicted from the first opening scene. The world itself is a thinly sketched post-Apocalyptic Hogwarts which actually embraces the universally acknowledged fact that Slytherin are actually the cool kids, and instead makes Ravenclaw the villains of the piece, and lets them kick the crap out of Hufflepuff.

I understand that the original book was written as a university project while Veronica Roth was studying for a degree in creative writing at Northwestern University and I can certainly see that. It looks like it was following a text book showing you ‘how to’.

Best bit (if such there is)?

I quite liked the combat mother appearing out of nowhere with a gun in hand to rescue her daughter, and revealing the fact that she’d been raised in Dauntless, but had chosen to leave to become Abnegation, a choice which immediately made her the most interesting character in the film as far as I was concerned.

What’s up with…?

  • Tris’s mother explaining to her that Abnegation can only look in the mirror for a few minutes every day to discourage vanity, while Tris stands there with a full face of makeup and fresh highlights in her hair. God alone knows how that worked.
  • Four’s tattoo. How did no one notice he was Divergent when he had an elaborate back tattoo showing all five factions because he identified with all of them? Was that not a give away? Did the artist at least not ask questions?
  • The entire city infrastructure. As far as I can tell, there are only five jobs in the city – soldier/policeman, academic, farmer, charity worker/politician, and lawyer/honest person. How does a society function on that? Who keeps the roads mended, or the generators going? Who does the admin? And where are the accountants? Is there even an economy? Is this a communist Utopia? The film is frustratingly vague.
  • The Factionless. The Dauntless training system, in particular, seems designed to turn the majority of its recruits into Factionless, who, as far as I can tell, just hang around looking depressed from then on in waiting to be fed by Abnegation. How does this not lead to social unrest if you’ve created an aimless and disenfranchised underclass which significantly outnumber the police and army?
  • The rest of the world. Is there no one there? Why is everyone having to hide inside the city walls? There is no sign of there being any actual danger, and no mention of the calamity which destroyed the rest of civilisation.
  • What do Dauntless actually do? I mean, apart from run around, climb high buildings and train. Do they exist just to keep the Factionless in check? There is no other obvious possible threat to this otherwise tightly controlled society and no obvious external threat, so they end up coming across as either a totalitarian police force or basically waster teenagers with an extreme sports fixation. Which seems like an awful drain on the economy.

Ratings

Production values – It’s actually quite nicely put together and some of the visuals are pretty good. 5
 Dialogue and performances – The dialogue could have come out of a generator. 12
Plot and execution – Not awful but very very predictable. 11
Randomness – It rarely comes too far from left field. 3
Waste of potential – It was never really going be very much more. 8

Overall 39%

The Last Legion (2007)

Last Legion

“The End of an Empire. The Beginning of a Legend”

Directed by Dough Lefler
Starring Colin Firth, Ashwarya Rai, Ben Kingsley and Thomas Sangster

In the twilight years of the Western Roman Empire, the Goths sack Rome and imprison the young emperor, Romulus Augustus (Sangster). Lead by the renowned General Aurelius (Firth),  the last of the Emperor’s personal guard, together with his tutor Ambrosinus (Kingsley) and an Indo-Byzantine warrior woman named Mira (Rai), set out to rescue Romulus from the Goths, then flee the treacherous senate and Eastern Empire to seek sanctuary with the lost Ninth Legion in Britain.

What’s wrong with it?

In terms of historical inaccuracy, this film gives King Arthur a run for its money. The legions are clad in the classic finery seen in the Asterix books, centuries out of date, and Mra is by comparison about seven centuries ahead of her time in terms of weapons and martial arts development. The reverence shown for Romulus Augustulus, in reality the teenage son of a usurper, is matched only by that given to Julius Caesar and the Emperor Tiberius (who died in disgrace, painted by his own people as the worst kind of tyrant and child-molester). The Ninth Hispana are renamed ‘the dragon legion’ and portrayed in a way that makes The Eagle look like a triumph of speculative fiction.

What’s right with it?

So, firstly, dat cast. All the leads are good, and ably supported by Alexander Siddig and all the big, grim blokes who would later find such profitable employment filming Game of Thrones for HBO (apart from the ones who were too busy being in Rome). More importantly, the film may be bollocks, but it’s fun.

How bad is it really?

Well, actually it’s pretty good. The film is basically here for its woeful depiction of a historical period which, although no-one knows what it actually looked like, can pretty soundly be said not to have looked like this. Outside of that and few hilarious bits of philosophising, it’s a good watch of a quiet afternoon.

Best bit (if such there is)?

Ambrosinus stands on the walls and hurls fireballs at Vortygn’s horde. A second shot shows that he is actually just waving his arms while onagers fire from behind him.

What’s up with…?

  • The Byzantine machine guns? Having decided to betray Romulus, the Byzantine ambassador lures the guard into a trap with rapid-firing bolt throwers in some sort of misguided nod to The Godfather or possibly The Great Escape.
  • The porta-ballista? During the assault on Capri, Aurelius uses a stockless ballista held with his feet, despite the fact that large catapults of a more modern kind would be available by then, and that any kind of bow would be more practical than a folding ballista.
  • The counter-Darcy? Mira emerges from the river like Mr Darcy, in front of the man who made the moment famous. Was that deliberate, or just a way to get the actress in a wet shirt?

Ratings

Production values – I’m in two minds about this. It’s well-shot and nicely put together, but when push comes to shove, almost every detail of the costume, props and buildings is wrong. 11
Dialogue and performances –  The dialogue is nothing special, with a few gems matched against some bits of clunky philosophy, but the acting is so good you barely notice. 8
Plot and execution – The plot is basically silly. ‘We must flee to Britain to meet up with the 9th Legion’ is a poor reason to go all that way at that time, especially when a teenage emperor would be unidentifiable anywhere outside the heart of Rome. It’s fun though, and rattles along without ever getting gratuitous. 12
Randomness – Caesar’s sword = Excalibur, the ‘Dragon Legion’, Ben Kingsley does kung fu. 10
Waste of potential – One of the best pseudo-Arthurian Romano-British romps of recent years, if far from the only one. 4

Overall 45%

Captain America (1990)

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“The Original Avenger” (I imagine this one was added for the rerelease)

Directed by Albert Pyun
Starring Matt Sallinger, Scott Paulin and Ronnie Cox

Huge, but polio-crippled patriot Steve Rogers is enlisted for a special programme and injected with a special serum, developed by Dr Maria Vaselli, transforming him into Captain America. After Vaselli’s murder by Nazi agents, Cap is sent to take out a war rocket built by Nazi super soldier Red Skull, an Italian piano prodigy kidnapped and injected with an early version of the formula. Cap proceeds to get beaten like a red-headed stepchild and tied to the rocket, managing to deflect it into the arctic ocean and becoming frozen until the 1990s. Waking, he has to battle the Red Skull again, now working as an agent of the military-industrial complex to sabotage a major environmental treaty.

What’s wrong with it?

Captain America is a big hero, for big stories; like punching Hitler in the face. After a brief foray into his WWII adventures, in which we discover that Captain America went on one mission, which he royally screwed up, this film pits him against the Red Skull and… a bunch of hip Italian Mafia slackers led by his evil, but personality-free daughter, working for a group of industrial magnates who might as well be battling Captain Planet as Captain America.

Pitching towards the more family end of the market, it nonetheless opens with the brutal murder of a family, and the agonising transformation of a young boy into the Red Skull; pretty strong stuff, even if not shown in graphic detail. It’s also harder to hate the Red Skull when his evil is due to a flawed formula, and correspondingly harder to admire Cap when the implication is that his heroism likewise derives from the perfected serum, rather than his own courage.

As we go on, Steve’s ex-girlfriend and her husband are killed, as is President Ronnie Cox’s best friend, and just about anyone else that crosses Cap’s path without being the leader of the free world or the designated love interest. This would be bad enough if not for the fact that most of them die because Rogers can’t be arsed to stick around and protect them, wandering off to some plot dump while they get butchered.

Did I mention that Red Skull’s legion of doom is five hip young kids who seem to have escaped from a Madonna video?

What’s right with it?

Environmentalism was topical at the time, and it’s interesting to see a film at least in which America leads the way in that regard. The WWII section is actually a highlight as well, and its a shame they didn’t go all historical.

How bad is it really?

Man, this is bad, and all the worse for seeing what could be done with the material.

Best bit (if such there is)?

On seeing the Cap for the first time, Red Skull declares that he is delighted to have a chance to practice his English. He then proceeds to kick him around the room while reciting his language exercises: “Where is the pen of my aunt? The pen of my aunt is on the table!”

What’s up with…?

  • The Red Skull’s ineffectual mod squad goons? Who thought that would be threatening?
  • The environmental slant? I guess it was super topical at the time, but it’s an odd choice for Captain America.
  • The Red Skull being an eleven year old piano prodigy from Italy instead of a committed officer of the German Reich and HYDRA member?

Ratings

Production values – The historical costumes are not terrible, but the fight scenes suffer for their budget and the villains lack menace due to their hip, modern get-up. 15
Dialogue and performances –  The dialogue tops out at nothing special. Most of the performances are adequate, but Matt ‘son of JD’ Salinger in the central role is both a low point (although apparently he’s a shit-hot playwright; who knew?) and the bulk of the screen time. The love interest fails to be remotely memorable. 14
Plot and execution – Shambling, shambolic and inconsistent in tone, with a poor sense of purpose not helped by the tacked on environmental message, which could honestly be a pace-holder for any issue. Moreover, the film simply has no real stakes, the ultimate threat being that things stay much the same as they are already. 18
Randomness – The mod goons; the Italian piano prodigy; the string of deaths which Cap barely even seems bothered by. The fact that the President managed to snap a shot of Captain America flying past on a rocket on the camera he had in 1943, when he was eight16
Waste of potential – In spite of its limited budget, any comparison to the recent Captain America films show this to be inferior, not only in terms of special effects, but of plot, characterisation and fundamental grasp of what might make a superhero film interesting. 18

Overall 81%