2013’s Best Bits – Movies

Lists are for suckers – so here’s another one, this time a gleaming cavalcade of cinematic entertainment.

"Elysium" - arm the poor!
“Elysium” – arm the poor!
“Iron Man 3” – bringing funny with the sixer of whup-ass
Much Ado About Nothing
Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing” is anything but…
“Pacific Rim” – a film dreamt up by your inner seven-year old
"The World's End"
“The World’s End” – getting leathered whilst the world burns…

An intriguing selection of delights, if you happen to like off-centre sci-fi and films by treasured geek auteurs.  I didn’t see “Gravity“, so I can’t speak to whether Alfonso Cuaron‘s science factual two-hander is the real deal or not. Worrying talk from the blogosphere of the film’s spiritual underpinnings was sufficient to make me pass on seeing it at the cinema, a fate which also befell one of Autumn 2013’s other sci-fi offerings, the Vin Diesel-starring Riddick“.

I’m usually well up for any film set in Diesel and David Twohy‘s grim-dark sf dystopian universe, but the advanced reviews and their decrying of the film’s dubious sexual politics had me skipping one of the films of last year that I was really looking forward to.  The loss, in that case, may be mine but I’ll probably be checking it out on Blu-Ray to see if it really was as objectionable as Empire magazine‘s queen geek, Helen O’Hara would have me believe it was (She has become my go-to critic for things science-fictional, fantastical and wholly nerdsome…)

As for the films I did love last year?  “Elysium” is a damn good try at putting social sci-fi on screen, fatally undone by a script which barely skims the surface of the complex political issues it covers and substitutes kick-arse sci-fi weapons to distract you from the story careering off the rails towards the climax.  I loved the terrifying plausible barrio future and wondered where the bloody hell Jodie Foster‘s character was supposed to be from (a hitherto unknown Parisian enclave of the Hamptons?  Islington-Sur-La-Mer?).

Edgar Wright‘s “The World’s End” is an acute, unsparing and honest look at male friendships and made me redouble my efforts to avoid typically British town centres on a weekend evening.  Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have never been better, playing against type and headlining a killer ensemble which included Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, Paddy Considine and secret weapon, Rosamund Pike.  I loved the ending, too, which had the courage to be a (slight) downer but was all the better for it.

“Iron Man 3” is a surprisingly funny, always entertaining third outing for the world’s most goateed tinkerer-in-chief and proved to me that giving Shane Black the freedom to make his film was a damned good idea.  Your mileage may vary, of course, if you really love the Stark of the comics and his rogue’s gallery – the film’s playing of arch “Iron Man” villain, The Mandarin, was one of 2013’s more divisive acts in the geek community.

In 2013, Joss Whedon‘s made a black-and-white, modern dress adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” and delivered an object lesson in how not to be pigeon-holed.  The cast were sublime, the photography was gorgeous and Nathan Fillion delivered the year’s most scene-stealing performance as the buffoon’s buffoon, Dogberry.

Finally, and most ridiculously, Guillermo Del Toro actually made one of the 987 films he currently linked to – what larks!  As giants robots versus bigger monsters movies go, Del Toro’s “Pacific Rim” was a great big heap of fun if you could get on board with the wartime propaganda vibe that the director went for.  This was not a film where subtlety had much place, unless that place was to be squished under the titanic toes of lead robot Gipsy Danger.   “Pac Rim” had some of the best character names of the year, too – Stacker Pentecost, Mako Mori, Hercules Hansen were just some of the names I’ll be pillaging for RPG characters in the near future.

“Elysium” movie review – Everything’s Ruined!

"Those anti-Batfleck protesters went this way, yeah?"
“Those anti-Batfleck protesters went this way, yeah?”

I really enjoyed director Neill Blomkamp’s debut sci-fi movie, “District 9” in 2009.

It did a great job of embedding social commentary beneath the surface of a sci-fi action flick, finding time to suggest that Racism Is A Bad Idea whilst also not forgetting that we were probably watching the film to see cardboard cut-out bad guys get satisfyingly splattered by big ass alien weaponry.

It was cheap as chips, knew that it was a genre movie and wasn’t afraid to have an idea or two – “District 9” was a rather wonderful piece of filmic sci-fi.

Expectations, then, were high for Blomkamp’s follow-up, the Matt Damon, Jodie Foster and Sharlto Copley starring “Elysium”.

It’s a tale of haves and have-nots on a suitably epic scale, with Moneybags One Percenters in the far future having left a polluted and overpopulated Earth to the empty-pocketed masses and fetched up on Elysium, an orbital gated community-cum-gated community where tasteful, monied excess is the order of the day and all diseases are cured by magical space technology.

On Earth, former crook-going-straight Max (Matt Damon) is having a much scabbier time – when he’s not being brutalised by the no-tolerance police droids which he helps to build in William Fichtner’s factory, he’s getting horrifyingly irradiated in an industrial accident which gives him five days to live.  His one hope is, yes, an illicit run to Elysium on a shuttle which will probably be shot down by Jodie Foster’s head of security.

This is, as you might have gathered, a less than subtle and occasionally ham-handed “District 9” follow-up from Blomkamp, which at least has glorious action cinematography and genius industrial design to distract you from a screenplay which is frequently so earnest and simplistic as to make anybody with half-a-brain roll their eyes in dismay at the contrivances and technology fails evident throughout the story.

The world building is still magnificent – Blomkamp does convincing, beaten-down future settings in the style of his filmmaking forebears Ridley Scott and James Cameron and invents environments which have clearly had more consideration paid to them than the plotting of this film has.

Potential viewers of this film whose politics are right of centre are probably best advised to skip this at the cinema as the film’s wide-eyed liberal politics, nay actual socialism, will just piss them off.  And I say that as a liberal soul who frequently found himself whilst watching this film wondering whether Blomkamp actually wants his viewers to take up rail guns in order to get access to the medical care which they are  denied by glitzy CEOs in space Bugattis?

Damon’s good as the titular, rough-hewn hero – and he’s matched by Copley who makes a superbly hissable villain (you might need to fine tune your hearing to pay attention to his none-more-Sarf-Iffrickan accent, but it’s worth the effort). The only weak acting link in this movie, bizarrely, is Jodie Foster who appears to decided that what this movie really needed was an accent and characterisation which wanders between French diplomat, “Barefoot Contessa” tv chef Ina Garten and a minor member of the British Royal family.

It’s utterly perplexing – can we retrospectively revoke acting Oscars?  Is that a thing, yet?

Nonetheless, “Elysium” is a very entertaining action movie with sufficient forward motion that it can temporarily blind you to the fact that it doesn’t really hang together when you view the plot and events therein afterwards (Brain data transfer?  Surface to orbit missiles shot from a hand held rocket launcher?  Changing one word in a computer code sub-routine magically reboots the global social order?).

The idea at the heart of the film – that healthcare should be  free and universal – is one that I wholeheartedly agree with so it’s nicely subversive if not actually deliciously eccentric to see it form the centrepiece of a summer action blockbuster. Wonders will never cease…


When Gulls Cry – Power Metal Album Artwork of the Day

Stratovarius are Finnish and have been a going concern since 1984 (or 1982, if you include their previous incarnation, Black Water).  They’ve released 14 studio albums and a live record.  And they’re quite fond of the Avian community.

No dragons? No swords? What gives?

This is fantasy artwork of a type that I can really get behind – the signature Stratovarius spaceship rendered delightfully by artist Gyula Havancsak amidst an idyllic lagoon, as a cyber-gull type-dude gives it some ‘once I caught a fish THIS big’ in the foreground.

At least, that’s how I read it, anyway – I never was top of my class in ‘Album Art Appreciation’ at Pseud’s College.

As an image, it’s a nice departure from the stuff of many Metal records – perhaps owing to the band’s slightly more progressive influences?  You can easily see this kind of art subbing in for the Roger Dean designed Yes album covers without it being too jarring a transition.

If this cover has piqued your interest, why not check out a live version of their song “Under Flaming Skies” at their label EarMusic‘s YouTube channel…