After almost twenty years in the having-an-uninformed-opinion-about-movies-because-I-can business, I have learned there is one universal truth about film distribution in this country: Some films are released after months of preparation and anticipation … some films just escape when no-one’s looking. Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel is definitely one of the latter. I’d never heard of it until the day before seeing it.

This zero-budget British sci-fi comedy … sorry, SF comedy … is an underdog even by British film standards. Creeping out of the shadow the rightly-feted Shaun of The Dead (2004) and the wrong-headed Lesbian Vampire Killers (2009), with more than the occasional glance across the water to the works of That Kevin Smith, this film wears its science fiction fan credentials with pride.

Chris O’Dowd (in his second movie in two weeks – after The Boat That Sank) plays Ray, while Marc Wooton (BBC 3’s Shirley Ghostman) is his creatively frustrated friend, Toby and Dean Lennox Kelly is the long-suffering sceptic, Pete, who goes along with their mad ideas just because they’re his mates. In the film’s opening scenes, Ray comes across as the most sympathetic a depiction of a science fiction fan as I’ve ever seen outside of an actual convention hotel. He, like most ‘serious’ SF fans, absolutely hates the term sci-fi, as popularised by Forry Ackerman. He, like many SF fans, is overly intelligent and under-occupied with life. He, like some SF fans, has only male friends and limited experience in conversing with women. Which is why it comes as a pleasant surprise to him when young, American and not significantly un-attractive Cassie (Scary Movie’s Anna Farris) strikes up a conversation with him.

Now, reading that description, many a dedicated SF fan is going to be dusting off their Umbrage in anticipation of taking it with them when they leave, because there is a real sense of pre-emptive antagonism amongst SF fans to the disdain of ‘mundanes’ as some of them still feel compelled to call non-fans. It is assumed, by SF fans, that all references to them in the mass media will be negative ones. Certainly, there is a lot of precedent on which that belief is based. The legendary SF commentator Dave Langford’s monthly newsletter Ansible typically includes a section called ‘As Others See Us’, which invariably contains some gross misrepresentation of the genre perpetrated by those so-called literati who are attracted by the exotic ideas of SF, but are simultaneously repelled by the cultural association. Against such a background it is not surprising, then, that SF fans, who tend to be astute, analytical and very-well-read both within and without the genre, have learned to expect misplaced disdain.

Of course, the reality is that any gathering of SF fans is no more or less inviting to the uninitiated than a gathering or accountants or golfers or fly-fishers. Yes, SF fans are ‘weird’ when seen from the outside, but no weirder than any clique which has its own traditions, habits, jargon and interests. Personally, I find the company of people with imagination, intelligence and the wit to articulate both a hell of a lot more interesting than, say, an afternoon trapped on the terraces with hundreds of aggressive, over-stimulated ignoramii hysterically bellowing insults at the opposition, the ref and each other. But that’s just me.

Meanwhile, back at the plot; Ray and his mates emerge from the cinema, having watched A Boy’s Life (I won’t insult your intelligence by telling you what that’s a reference to) before wandering over to the pub (The White Horse, a subtlyelliptical little nod to the book Tales From The White Hart by the recently-departed granddaddy of British SF, Arthur C Clarke).

Here, the afore-mentioned Cassie confesses she’s a big fan of Ray’s and what an honour it is to meet him. Like the equally star-struck Rufus in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) she’s from the future and her job is to “repair time leaks”. Ah, methought, now that’s a bit like Gilliam’s Time Bandits (1981), then Cassie warns Ray about The Editors, who travel through time finding important people and killing them. Surely not Timecop (1994) too? Heaven forbid.

Ray, not unreasonably, assumes that she’s been put-up to saying all this by his mates but very quickly realises that she’s telling the truth when we get the introduction of the time-travelling toilet which projects the three friends into various different alternate futures, both near and far, without ever leaving the pub. Then there’s the inevitable running around trying to avoid bumping into alternate version of themselves (à la Back to the Future Part II, 1989) and, to be fair, quite a lot of incident for a film set almost entirely in one room.

I understand why budget limitations have made the film-makers think, wisely, on a small scale. Small cast, one main location, limited number of special-effect shots, etc. That works well enough on the two-camera TV shows director Carrivick has spent the last decade helming, and it can be done well on film. But there’s no excuse for under-written or poorly-timed dialogue in a comedy. The story is intriguing and there are a few clever lines in there but, ultimately, I came away from the film with a hankering to see these ideas done better.

The dilemma of the film’s latter part is simple and intriguing: is a good idea worth dying for? For an SF fan, that’s a potentially fascinating conundrum. After-all, the foundation of most of the negative criticism of SF is that it tends to prioritise ideas above characters, technology above humanity. Whilst this is true of much bad SF, and even some good SF, it certainly isn’t true of all SF. But it is true of this film.

Despite a sterling attempt by Kelly to make Pete believable, we simply don’t care about what he goes through lost and alone in the time continuum. Which is a shame because, in his appearance as William Shakespeare in Doctor Who (2007), Kelly succeeded in coming across as both complex and charismatic, but there’s nary a trace of that here. Indeed, with the honourable exception of Ray and his mischievous little smirk, none of the characters in this fourth-dimensional tale rise above the level of under-written, one-dimensional clichés.

No matter how large or small the budget of a film, the writing of the script is the cheapest and most important part of the process. Here, the script needed a lot more work, not on working out the logistics of the various alternate futures, but on developing sympathetic, warm characters to escort us through all those narrative complexities. The reason Shaun of the Dead (the film from which FAQ clearly lifted its pub setting) worked is not because Pegg, Frost and Wright are the biggest horror movie fans and could therefore pack their story with loads of deliberate references to other films, nor even because they are exceptionally gifted comic writers (although that clearly didn’t hurt), but because they took the time to develop and write multi-faceted characters with lives and histories and personalities with which we could identify. Simply put, they made us care about their characters before putting them in harm’s way. That makes for good drama and for good comedy.

The irony of Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel is that it’s about history repeating itself in subtly different ways yet, if you’ve ever seen Shaun of the Dead, Doctor Who, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Time Bandits or Back to the Future Part, you’re going to spend this entire movie experiencing that all-too familiar sense of déjà vu.

Or did I mention that already?

Dir: Gareth Carrivick
Stars: Chris O’Dowd, Dean Lennox Kelly, Anna Farris , Marc Wooton
Dur: 83 mins

Cert: 15


LET THE RIGHT ONE IN / Låt den rätte komma in

We begin with snow falling through the darkness … which immediately stands as a symbol for the cold, black-and-white world we’re about to enter … a world as often as not seen through windows because it’s simply too cold to be outside.

It’s also not safe.

The black-and-white motif takes us into the woods where the narrow, unnaturally-straight birch trees look like a barcode. They afford almost no cover for The Predator who dispassionately stalks passing innocent victims in the silent snow-blanketed woods. Apparently unconcerned about discovery, The Predator is appropriately sanguine as he strings up his victim, opens a vein and begins to collect the jet-black blood in a bottle. Then a snow-white dog disturbs him and he has to flee the scene.

The Predator uses his knife dispassionately … meanwhile a pale, almost-albino child called Oskar practices using his knife with great passion on those self-same trees. He is being bullied at school for committing the cardinal sins of being intelligent and friendless and rehearses his retaliation when he’s alone. Like most of us, when he’s actually faced with his tormentors, he freezes. Unlike most of us, he keeps pictures of knives and cuts out the newspaper article about the body found hung up in the woods. He is slowly working his way towards perpetrating the kind of high-school massacre we read about with horrifying frequency these days.

Then he meets his new neighbour, Eli, out in the frozen playground in front of their apartments. She’s a lonely teen, like him, and sees in his blank, colourless eyes something with which she can identify. He, in turn, is attracted to her because he may just possibly have found someone sadder than himself. As the midnight snow settles on her he asks; “Aren’t you getting cold?” “No,” She replies casually, “I’ve forgotten how.”

The whole film has an air of chilly, indifferent despair as, I suppose, befitting a world gripped in a perpetual winter night. Everything at the beginning is dead and silent. Well, the dead are typically silent; as it proceeds, this film concerns itself increasingly with some of the ones who aren’t.

Of course, Eli’s ‘father’, Hakan, is The Predator, who next, unwisely tries to tap into the blood of a boy in the gym but is seen through a window and captured. Why is he taking the blood? For whom? Well, you don’t have to be Stephen Fry to work that one out. Or Stephen King, for that matter.

As the still, miserable but orderly world of identical tenement blocks and stocky, unimaginative workers is thrown into chaos, the incidents of violence escalate, the panic sets in, the horror grows and flourishes and, ultimately, destroys families. But those families were only being held together by vodka and habit, so, is the loss really all that great? The film is even dispassionate about its tragedies. The only warmth here is the blood in their veins … and the breath leaking from their lips.

Young Oskar neither notices nor cares about the panic spreading around him, his concerns are purely dealing with those bullies, and clumsily feeling his way through his first friendship. These are matters of earth-shattering import to him, as they are to any child and the inexplicable foolishness of adults is something best ignored. But Oskar is redeemable, we know this because of his relationship with his mother, the one glow of warmth in his life, which is beautifully illustrated in a mime scene when they simply clean their teeth together. This is a moment of great cinema, where nothing need be said but everything important is shown.

Of course, those aren’t the teeth Oskar is really interested in.

For obvious reasons, this film reminded me of Cronos (1993) in that it shares the eerie, uncomfortable, disturbingly human air of Del Toro’s breakthrough movie. Let The Right One In would, however, have been better served by being released in the depths of winter, hitting our screens in the budding of spring puts it curiously out of step with its audience and drains it of that depressing dread which it feeds upon and which, lets be honest, stalks this land every January.

As the two narratives draw closer together, the friendship of Oskar, the death-toll in the town, all revolving around the elusive Eli, you sometimes you get glimpses of her as she really is, just a split-second here or there, just enough to understand her pain and desperation. Similarly, the violence which surrounds her happens swiftly, in the distance, catching you unawares and offering just fragmentary images which imprint themselves on your mind like a warm hand-print on a cold window.

In the dark, Let the Right One In bears a dignified hopelessness, but when the sun finally rises, the harsh chill light affords the film a ray of bitter hope. This is the best, most complex horror film I have seen since Darabont’s The Mist (2007), a film to which, after a repeat viewing, I may even decide it is superior.

Director Alfredson is a clearly a film-maker to watch. I hope the similarities to Guillermo Del Toro don’t end here. I look forward to more films from him, more careful, thoughtful, dreadful work which lulls you into an entirely appropriate sense of insecurity, then still manages to creep up behind you and bite you when you’re not looking.

Dir: Tomas Alfredson
Stars: Kåre Hedebrant, Lina Leandersson, Per Ragnar
Cert: 15

Dur: 115 mins



“Whew, what they can’t do these days.” – Jiminy Cricket on the top menu of this Blu-Ray.

The Film:

I was recently given, as a gift, a pile of old magazines. Seems an odd gift, you might think, but I love rifling through old magazines and papers, looking at the ads, reading the articles, seeing the world from a different perspective. One article, from The Sunday Times Magazine November 22 1970, written by Tony Osman, looks forward to a near-future world without cinemas (something that did very-nearly come to pass in Britain in the late seventies) and asks where, then, people will see films: “ … the signs are that they may soon be able to amuse themselves with recorded programmes – the visual equivalent of LPs … A handful of companies think there may be a future in such programmes … Each of the systems will at least provide a cassette of recorded material and some way of ‘projecting’ it.”

Wow. How science-fictional that must have seemed … and how accurate history has proven it to be. Within fifteen years the VHS video-cassette had taken-over the cinema-going world, fifteen years after that the tape was supplanted by the disc and now, ten more years on, we have Blu-Ray and high-def digital video projectors.

I only mention this to put the year 1970 in context. Seen from the perspective of people who are used to watching films on demand on everything from a 52 inch plasma to a 2 inch iPod, 1970 must appear as The Dark Ages. Well, it was.

It was also the year I first saw Pinocchio.

I was five. This was my first ever trip to the cinema. Back then, in the early seventies, TVs were mostly black and white and Disney films never played on them. I would have seen clips on Disney Time and seen photos in my Donald & Mickey comic, but this would be my first chance to see the real deal. As well as being my first big-screen experience, this was almost certainly my first feature-length cartoon and definitely the first moving images I’d seen in colour.

Quite a momentous movie for me, then.

So it was only fitting that this be the first Disney disc I buy in the shiny-new domestic-big-screen format: Blu Ray.

This release has been given the meaningless appellation Platinum Edition but it is actually, more importantly, ‘The 70th Anniversary Edition’. A message cast forward through time from the world of 1940 to the world of today. If 1970 is The Dark Ages then 1940, well, that’s The Time of Legends. But, look a little closer: As Jiminy says, when he’s talking directly to the viewer in the early scenes “I bet a lot of you folks don’t believe in dreams come true …” For the first audiences to see this film, that was more than likely true. They were still emerging from the Recession against which all others are still measured and they looked across the water to see the rest of the world being consumed by the black clouds of a war that was getting ever-nearer; damn right they’d forgotten how to dream. That’s what they needed movies for. Seen in that context … is 1940 really so vastly different from 2009?

Something that definitely isn’t different … whether this film is unspooling in a glorious 1940s Picture Palace, a ramshackle 1970s flea-pit or at home on a flat-screen with 7.1 doo-hickeys … is the power of the story, the enchanting nature of the characters and the unparalleled artistic vision of the genius behind it … that is eternal!

Jesus, I sound like I’m trying to write a quote for the back of the box. Okay, so lets just say that I have a real soft spot for this movie, and move on.

It’s lovely to hear the sound sharp enough to cut glass and picture so clear you can see your reflection in it. In this new high-def presentation you can really appreciate the incredible attention to detail that had become the Disney hallmark. I’m thinking particularly about the range of clocks Geppetto has constructed, each of which has its own personality and tells its own story; but further, I’m impressed by the way that every story element, however insignificant, has been thought through and considered in relation to every other element around it. I noticed this particularly in the casting of shadows, someone had to sit down and work out where shadows would fall, how they would change from moment to moment and then animate them, by hand.

The film begins with some delicious scene and tone setting, played out very largely in mime, which continues for fully fifteen minutes before The Blue Fairy comes down and animates Pinocchio. Fifteen minutes? I seriously wonder if today’s children would have the patience to wait fifteen minutes for the story to get going … and whether or not today’s film-makers would have the nerve to make them wait.

And the colours … oh, the colours … a subdued autumnal palette lit, very much as the world was in the days before electric light, by waxy splashes of flickering yellow, all thrown into context by the vivid red of Pinocchio’s shorts, or the cool powder-blue of Jiminy’s top hat.

Then there are the gorgeous Multi-Plane tracking shots, leading us through the beautifully realised water-colour world, over roofs, through arches, in and out of shadow … all of which seems so much more elegant than the desperate ‘look-at-me-look-at-me’ gimmicks of pointing sharp objects at the viewer in the recent crop of 3D movies.

I don’t know if it’s a product of the greater clarity or my middle-aged cynicism that led to my noticing that the Honest John / J. Worthington Foulfellow sequence (“An actor’s life for me”) is artistically les accomplished than the scenes that surround it. The artwork is less fussy, less detailed, and the characters themselves – especially John’s side-kick Gideon – are quite derivative of the slapstick Marx Brothers type comedies of the period. Gideon is, of course, simply a re-working of Dopey, right down to the same dull smirk. They are animated in a style more befitting the more-anarchic shorts … indeed, some of their elasticated stunts foreshadow the work of Tex Avery.

Once we are introduced to Stromboli’s theatre, the dramatic colour palette and attention to detail returns. I remember, as a five year old, being completely mystified by all the cosmopolitan dancing puppets with their ethnic dances and strange foreign words. But then kids are accustomed to not understanding stuff. In this, my innocence mirrored Pinocchio’s own.

My first experience of pathetic fallacy will have been the lightning flashes which punctuate Pinoch’s realisation that he is a prisoner, symbolising his shock and panic at being locked into a cage and driven away from the loving arms of his father, who trudges despondently past, drenched and down-hearted in the equally symbolic torrential downpour.

This is, at heart, a very basic morality play. A simple treatise on the “Do do this, don’t do that” and “You’ve had your fun, now you’ve got to pay for it” theme, all perfectly presented to slide into the subconscious of any child. Hey, it worked on me, I never ran off to join the circus, after all. Admittedly, the worst excesses of Carlo Collodi’s novel have been smoothed away in a process that would become known, dismissively, as Disneyfication, but the images of the badly-behaved children at Pleasure Island turning into jack-asses and being herded into slave ships by amorphous humanoid blobs is plenty disturbing, thank-you very much.

A key part of the morality play, and something I have missed on previous viewings, is Jiminy’s sarcasm … he describes a conscience as “That still, small voice that nobody listens to” then, later, when Pinoch is part of Stromboli’s troupe “Wouldn’t hurt you to take orders from your conscience … if you had one”.

Cut to the sequence which lived in my imagination for decades: Monstro the Whale. Remember, I’d never seen a film on the big screen before, so I’d never seen anything in my life as vast as that cruel, frowning behemoth, bursting forth from the water, massive maw wide open, casting ocean and rocks before it in a single-minded drive to devour little Pinoch and his dad. Tiny Jiminy, contrasted in size to that vast, shiny, implacable eye-ball and those mountainous teeth. Imagine, if you can, how big a screen would have to have been to cater for an auditorium with 5,000 seats (that’s about ten times the seats in your average multiplex auditorium today), then imagine that screen filled with the fiercest, most terrifying creature my little five-year old brain could imagine. Needless to add, I didn’t run off to join the navy either.

As an adult I can take from this film a message which I would have been completely unaware of as a child, but no doubt just as susceptible to. It is simply that a child is like a puppet, completely dependant on the kindness of the adults standing over him holding the strings. Out in the world, Pinoch finds no kind adults, just greed, mendacity and abuse. Well, welcome to the world, kid. Of course a related, if slightly skewed, interpretation might say that the achievement of redemption and the reward of being transformed from wood to flesh … is to make Pinoch inherently less interesting. So, the reward for conspicuous good behaviour, is to disappear into ordinariness.

The Discs:

Okay, so let’s wade into a suitably rich stew of extras on this three-disc Blu-Ray and DVD set.

Firstly, let’s deal with the whole DVD question. Why have they included a DVD in with the Blu-Ray? What’s the point? Unless it’s so you can buy the big flash hi-def version for yourself and give the standard-def version to your kids so they’ll leave yours alone … Other than that, I’m at a loss. Everything we’ll discuss on Disc One of the Blu-Ray is here on the DVD, except the Pinocchio Knows game. I suppose, from the perspective of the completist, it’s interesting that the menus are different here.

So, on to:

Disc One:

Firstly you have to wade through no fewer than seven trailers to get to the main menu. I really feel that this is an insult to the purchaser, who should enjoy the privilege of getting to the film as soon as possible, especially since these same trailers are accessible through a sub-menu anyway. And, unlike many a DVD, you can’t just skip these and go straight to the menu.

Once you get to the ‘Total Menu’ you can choose to listen to a knowledgeable if slightly-too-reverential audio-commentary, featuring various animation experts and archival quotes from the film’s makers, all chaired by Disney’s pet crit, Leonard Maltin. This is never less than interesting and, thankfully, doesn’t simply reproduce the information presented elsewhere.

An additional feature allows you to jump to your favourite song, complete with karaoke lyrics, or you can watch an eyeball-meltingly-awful R&B rendition of Wish Upon A Star by Disney Channel clone Meaghan Jette Martin.

You can also watch the film with pop-up Matter of Facts trivia … but I can’t imagine why anyone would ever want to spoil their view of the film with large orange signs popping up every few seconds telling them things any eight-year-old already knows.

Speaking of eight-year-olds, there is the Pinocchio Knows Trivia Challenge, which skips to clips from the film then asks you questions about it. I suppose the pop-up trivia could be considered preparation for this game.

Oh, and don’t forget the Sneak Peeks menu, where those trailers wait to be enjoyed yet again, if being forced to watch them once every time you put the disc in the player is insufficient for you.

Disc Two:

Now we get to the real treasure, the features that lift this edition right up there as among the best and most exhaustive I’ve seen in a long time, comparable, indeed to the Region 1 DVD release of Disney’s own 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea!

Firstly, for the kids: A couple more games. Pinocchio’s Puzzles is a simple jigsaw game for younger kids which features a most credible impersonation of Cliff Edwards’ Jiminy Cricket voice. Then there is the Pleasure Island Carnival, a suite of more demanding games for older, more game-savvy patrons.

I must note, at this point, that some of the features take an extraordinarily long time to load-up on my Sony machine but, if the warning screen at the beginning of the disc is anything to go by, this is considered normal. It’s almost as if the disc technology has already out-distanced the player technology.

Anyway, now to the features that make this old movie lag’s heart beat just that little bit faster …

Backstage Disney:

No Strings Attacked. 56 mins. The inevitable making-of documentary. Even at this duration it hurtles through the three-year production of the film. As pure information it is interesting and enlightening but comes across as a rather charmless piece of work; I’d have loved to have seen what a film-maker like Laurent Bouzereau could have done with this archive footage and this story. Still, at least it successfully avoids repeating the information contained in the commentary.

Deleted Scenes. 10.30 mins. All the deleted scenes are presented in story-board form only as none of them made is as far as actually being animated. The box of this release proudly trumpets that this disc includes an alternate ending. Well, technically, it does, but they are nothing more than a series of rough sketches which were obviously briefly discussed then discarded.

The Sweatbox. 6.30 mins. This highlights the day-to-day process of working with Walt Disney, shooting the story-boards, temp-voicing the dialogue the projecting the lot to Disney and the other animators for feedback. Ideas would be brain-stormed while a stenographer would struggle to write every word down. This was how Walt stamped his fingerprints on every frame of the films which bore his name. It’s a process which latterly John Lasseter has reproduced and which has, no doubt, had a definitive effect on the high quality of the product of Pixar. This little snap-shot of the Process is so fascinating, it could have done being longer. I’d love to know more.

Live Action Reference Material. 10.00 mins. Again, an absolutely fascinating look at The Process. This highlights the way Disney would have actors, in costumes, in sets, working with props, all based on the animator’s designs, all being filmed so that the animators would have real images to work from. Like roto-scoping and the multi-plane camera, this process was one of Disney’s industrial secrets, an idea which no one else in the business had developed. In principal, there is very little difference in this technique being used 70 years ago and the digital mo-cap technique employed by film-makers like Robert Zemeckis and Peter Jackson today. This riveting little feature is a text-book illustration of how far ahead of the game Disney was and how, even today, you can’t really improve on the best.

Production Illustrations. Hundreds of them. Sketches, designs, photos of reference material (including articulated puppets which Disney had built). These are really easy to navigate but, if your attention wanders given the exhaustive nature of the collection, this feature is actually quite difficult to escape from.

Trailers. From the original 1940 release and the 1984 and 1992 re-releases (sadly, not the 1970 release I saw). This an interesting demonstration of how the trailer-makers’ art has changed from one of tempting and teasing to one of delivering all the best bits in a bite-size form.

Honest John. This is a recording o the official merchandising – the spin-off record, sung by The Fox, containing such gorgeous lines as “He’s so crooked he’d pick his own pocket”. The fact that this track, which doesn’t feature in the film, was released clearly shows how they underestimated the value of Wish Upon A Star!

Geppettoes Then and Now. 10.00 mins. An odd little documentary-ette which starts off as a think-piece about traditional toy-makers, then quickly turns into an advert for Disney’s own Wall E toy line. So, the disc ends with a reminder to us about what the modern Disney Corporation has turned into … a very slick machine for selling merchandise. Still, with the back-catalogue of phenomenal movies they have at their disposal, even if they do only see them as commodities to flog, if they keep packaging them this well I, for one, will happily be flogged-to.

Directed by: Hamilton Luske & Ben Sharpsteen
Stars: Dickie Jones (Pinocchio), Cliff Edwards (Jiminy), Christian Rub (Geppetto).
Cert U
Dur: 88 mins



Another great example of a can’t-possibly-miss ‘High Concept’ turning into an average movie. A ‘High Concept’, for the benefit of the uninitiated, is traditional Hollywood jargon for any idea which is so simple, so lacking in nuance, substance or originality, so utterly devoid of anything unique that every single significant element of it can be summed-up in pitch five words long or less. This is felt, in Hollywood, to be a good thing.

So, ‘Jim Carrey is Now God’ would be a perfect High Concept guaranteed hit. ‘Entire World is Computer Game’ is another good one. ‘Will Smith Alone on Earth’ likewise. You’d be forgiven for thinking ‘Will Smith as Drunken Superman’ would have some potential too. But, the ultimate Holy Grail is to reduce that ‘High Concept’ to such a state of simplicity that the entirety of it can become the film’s title. Hence: ‘Monsters versus Aliens in 3D’, what more could a body want?

DreamWorks have now firmly established themselves as the second best animation house out there. After Disney? Don’t be daft. It’s nigh-on a decade since Disney made a cartoon that was fit for use as anything more than a soporific for teething babies. No, silly, after Pixar, who seem to be unassailably brilliant year in and year out.

My point is that DreamWorks' cartoons have their own personality, sassy and sarcastic and aimed as much at the adults as the kids in the audience. This formula stood them in good stead with various Shreks and Ice Ages and there’s no reason for it to falter now.

Consequently, this film is packed to the rafters with sly references to classic SF films of the fifties and sixties. I won’t spoil the fun by reeling them all off here, but let’s just say that a big ole grin spread across my face when a Harryhausen flying saucer swept across the DreamWorks logo at the very beginning.

After this, the film’s opening scenes seen to take something of a left-turn as we are introduced to the small-town world of Susan Murphy, who is getting married to charmless TV-host, Derek, this kitsch-en sink drama leaves the kids in the audience (who, understandably, came expecting monsters or, at the very least, aliens) sitting there kicking their heels and waiting for something to happen. Fortunately, it’s not too long before, out of the blue, the deus ex machina arrives in the form of a meteorite-strike and Susan suddenly starts sprouting into a fifty foot woman (with really stretchy clothes).

In next-to-no-time poor Susan finds herself locked-up in a super-secret solid-steel secret government installation (which bears more than a passing resemblance to both Monsters Inc’s HQ 2001 and Men in Black’s, 1997) with … well, with all the other monsters.

Hugh Laurie is the mad scientist (“I’m not a quack, I’m a mad scientist”), always managing to whip-up some logic-defying gadget from anything he finds lying around, like a few old bits of string and a used pizza-box; while Seth Rogen plays a good-natured blob with no brain (“Turns out you don’t need one”). No great stretch for him there, then. Stephen Colbert turns up to give the film’s best performance as The President. First contact twixt him and the huge alien spaceship upon its first arrival is the single biggest laugh-out-loud moment in the whole movie!

And so this motley crew is unleashed to join in combat with the VAST alien robot lumping its way across America. It’s worth noting, at this point, that there seems to be some rule presently being adhered-to in Hollywood, that all cartoons must be in 3D Gimmick-o-Vision. Well, that’s just slappy for the people for whom 3D works, but my eyeballs aren’t wired right, I guess, because 3D films are just blurred to me. So I go and see them in 2D. Therefore, the steady stream of sharp pointy things being stabbed at the screen to remind the idle-brained that they have (in all likelihood) paid extra to get that extra dimension, are nothing more to me than a bloody annoyance. I want to see films that have some legs, that’ll still be being watched when 3D Desperate-Attempt-o-Scope has justifiably faded once more into memory. To Monsters vs Aliens’ credit, it gets its blatant stabs at making stupid people scream early on, and after that uses the 3D to emphasise the sheer scope of the story being told.

So, when a giant Weeble is stomping through the city and the tiny-by-comparison Ginormica (Susan) is running from it, the sky-scrapers between them give you a real sense of scale and, above all, depth. This is intelligent use of the new technology to add to the narrative, to make the experience of watching the film on the big screen all-the-more immersive, rather than just using it as a pathetic excuse to make the viewers duck, as last year’s Beowulf seemed content to do.

The visuals here are exquisite, the designs, both alien and terrestrial, are a thing of beauty but the characters are ciphers we’re so familiar with as to be contemptuous of. The nasty humans / nice monsters motif has been flogged to death a gazillion times before so, even the twelve-year-old I saw the film with could see the major plot-points being telegraphed ages before he was supposed to and commented how the let’s-rescue-Susan-from-the-alien-spaceship storyline was lifted almost intact from The Wizard of Oz (1939).

This film is very aware of its pulp predecessors and quotes them cheerfully and without remorse but, unlike, say, The Incredibles (2004), it doesn’t explore, analyse, interpret or develop its sources, it just quotes them and then smiles expectantly at you, waiting for approval.

So the voice actors do the best they can with indifferent characters and a limp, unfocussed script, but its an uphill struggle against which they ultimately fail. I think it’s fair to say that the designers, the animators and the actors have all been let down by the writers. But then, when you check the credits and see that there are five credited writers, suddenly the problem becomes clear. As is so very often the case with ‘High Concept’ movies, they are developed by committee, which means any spark of originality, any unusual, new, non sequiturial idea will be snuffed-out in favour of a compromised less-artistic decision that offends the lowest number of people. Problem with that is, it inspires and excites the lowest number of people at the same time. This is why Miyazaki films have one auteur in charge. This is why Pixar films never have more than two directors up front. This is why a Writer’s Room (which works fine for an on-going TV show once the characters have been created and the rules set) will never be a substitute for the vision of a single all-seeing eye. Maybe the inevitable MvA2 will be braver.

Dir: Rob Letterman & Conrad Vernon
Stars: Reese Witherspoon, Seth Rogen, Hugh Laurie, Stephen Colbert.
Cert: PG

Dur: 94 mins


Comebacks are big news these days. Some actors, like Julia Roberts for example, have hardly been away long enough to warrant calling their latest work a ‘comeback’. In the case of Jean-Claude Van Damme, he never even went away … we just stopped paying attention to him.

He’s been churning out straight-to-DVD films on a fairly consistent basis since he fell off the big screens round about the time of Maximum Risk (1996) As with Bruce Campbell’s My Name is Bruce (with which this film would make an entertaining double-feature) this is a B Movie Legend having a pre-emptive pop at his own work.

The film weaves together two narrative threads, one in the present tense and one in the past tense leading up to the present. In the flash-backs we see JCVD’s career on the rocks. He has lost custody of his young daughter and loses a film job to his arch nemesis, Steven Seagal. His misery is palpable and one feels the genuine heart-felt nature of this self-critique (well, until a spot of research reveals that ole J-C doesn’t have a daughter, just an adult son).

Against this rather glum background, he stops off at village post-office to draw out some money, is turned down by the teller and gets himself caught up in a heist. The police descend on the post-office, hotly pursued by the media, keen to cover the story of the disenfranchised movie-star who has gone off his rocker and taken hostages.

These early scenes, where we’re not sure quite what is going on, are deftly, teasingly handled and make the film most engaging. I don’t think it’s too shocking a spoiler to reveal that J-C isn’t really the bank-robber, but rather a hostage as well, one who his captors treat rather like a performing seal, getting him to perform his kicking-a-cigarette-out-of-your-mouth trick for their amusement. Throughout these scenes, J-C is passive, restrained, almost submissive … he is so depressed by where his life has taken him he doesn’t even have the will to fight two bad-guys whose collective intelligence is slightly lower than that of a sponge.

The lighting is cold and sullen, the music mournful and bluesy, the humour bitter. Essentially this multi-millionaire world-famous movie-star is asking we poor working stiffs to feel sorry for him. Well, at least he does have the common decency to parody his image and his own work but, as when Schwarzenegger did this with The Last Action Hero (1993) one feels compelled to wonder what his actual fans make of this “Sorry I’ve been taking your money and turning out such shit films all these years” confessional.

This movie is shot through with a knowing post-modern sense of self-analysis … never-more-so than in the much-talked-about soliloquy, where he turns to the camera and addresses the viewer directly, pouring his heart out in jumbled, incoherent, half-finished thoughts that were clearly un(der)rehearsed. This is a cry from the heart, with him bemoaning his betrayal of the simple, pure principals of his Martial Art, judging his achievements as being hollow and discussing the confusion he feels in just being himself. He is, in other words, having his mid-life crisis on screen.

Well, I wish he’d had it earlier because this is the most entertaining I’ve seen he being since Hard Target (1993) This is not a film in which he stars, it’s a film in which he acts. Despite all the doubt on show, he obviously knew what he wanted – and he got it – a chance to make his peace with himself and prove that he doesn’t have to keep making and re-making the same unambitious plodding action fodder.

The question is: where will his career go from here? Is this just an aberration before returning to the comfort, and guaranteed income of B-movies, or will he pursue this far-more experimental, far-more-interesting, doubtless far-less-lucrative path?

Myself, I hope it’s the latter, but a glance at IMDB suggests that his next film will be Universal Soldier 3 … Ah well. His comeback was nice while it lasted.
Directed by: Mabrouk El Mechri
Starring: Jean-Claude Van Damme & loads of other people of whom you’ve never heard.
Dur: 97 mins

Cert: 15