Monthly Archives: June 2005

The Siege

The most striking thing about this film is just how prescient it turned out to be. Released in 1998, it features Islamic fundamentalist terrorist attacks on New York, a public stricken with fear and anger lashing out at anyone vaguely Arab-looking, politicans looking for a quick solution to please their angry constituents, a military willing (and eager) to round up suspects in the streets and to torture prisoners. The war is fought on American soil (Brooklyn is placed under martial law, and occupied by the army), but the themes of the war against terror that followed the September 11th attacks are all present and accounted for. It would be impossible for a Hollywood studio to make this picture in 2005, because it would be considered far too aggressive a condemnation of the US government’s behaviour since 2001.

(An independent production company, however, might not make the colossal mistake of casting Bruce Willis in the role of the Army general in charge of the occupation. In the face of meaty performances from Denzel Washington and Annette Bening, he stands out as wooden and lifeless. If there was ever a role written for the late, great J.T. Walsh, this is it.)

Seeing this film in the middle of 2005, it is easy to dismiss the ending as unrealistically happy. It’s as if someone had filmed a reconstruction of a particularly gruesome car crash, and let everyone walk away with only minor injuries, when in real life no-one got out alive. But to do so would be unfair. In 1998, The Siege set out to be an action thriller, with some strongly cautionary messages about the importance of the American values of justice and liberty, especially in times of crisis. For expressing the wish that those values can win through in the end, it should be applauded, not berated.

If only the real world were more like the movies.

Neal Asher – Brass Man

From the title and the blurb, I knew in advance that Brass Man was going to return to one of the most interesting characters of Neal Asher’s earlier book, Gridlinked. (Brass Man is the third in the Gridlinked/Ian Cormac series.) What I hadn’t expected was the holy shit moment in the first chapter when you realize just how directly it follows on from The Line of Polity, too. From that point on, Brass Man is just as much of a head-over-heels race for survival as the previous two in the series.

It is probably the most reflective of the three, too. You spend a lot of time in Mr Crane’s head, learning more about what brought him to this point, and how his internal struggle works. The stage is also shared by more, and more powerful AIs than before, which leads to some duels that are cerebral as well as planet-shaking. (Fans of Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels will find a lot to like here.) And on top of all that, there is a wonderful parallel plot involving the quest of a knight on the far-out world of Cull to slay a dragon. If he can fight his way past the rest of Cull’s flora and fauna, that is…

Neal Asher – The Line Of Polity

The Line of Polity is the second book in the Gridlinked/Ian Cormac series. After having dispatched part of the extra-galactic entity known as Dragon, Cormac is back to his day job of infiltrating and eliminating terrorist cells. One such action, designed to put an end to the activities of rogue bio-scientist Skellor, doesn’t go quite as planned, and Cormac suddenly finds himself with a much more dangerous enemy on his hands.

Meanwhile, an Outlinker space station has been destroyed by nanotechnology last seen employed by Dragon; an undercover sting operation against an arms dealer goes sour, and a revolution is brewing on the theocratic world of Masada. Neal Asher brings back most of the key characters from Gridlinked to tie these threads together in spectacular style. With threats to the protagonists ranging from being subsumed by hostile nanotech to being eaten alive by the horrifying wildlife of Masada, this is classic all-out adventure from start to finish.

Reign Of Fire

I think I know why this wasn’t a hit at the box office: too many beards. Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey (both of whom rock) are found here sporting decidedly odd facial hair. They’re both buffed up, and take on heroic action roles, but when it comes down to the classic “men want to be them, and women want to be with them” test, I think I’d rather hang on to my Gillette triple-action, thank you very much.

Apart from that, it’s actually pretty good. In a burned-out world where long-dormant dragons have awoken and laid waste to mankind, a group of survivors are forced into a position where they have to fight for their lives, and for the survival of mankind. It’s dark, it’s violent, and not everyone lives happily ever after. The absence of a PG certificate means it doesn’t have to try and please delicate sensibilities, but neither does it stray all the way into gory last-man-standing mode. Director Rob Bowman seems to have resisted any pressure to fit the story into an established audience-pleasing mode, and instead just tells it like it is. Uncompromising, and very watchable.

Batman Begins

What struck me most about Batman Begins, and what still resonates most with me, is how realistic a film it was. That might sound strange, considering it’s a superhero flick, but Batman is a hero without special powers. He draws his strength and determination purely from his anger and guilt, rather than from a mutation or otherworldy force. With director Chris Nolan at the helm, this film does a great job of exploring that side of the character, and giving it equal weight with the action story, which is, incidentally, also driven by very human motives of greed and power, rather than gratuitous insanity and fancy costumes. Even the production design is gritty and down-to-earth, inasmuch as it can be with locations like Wayne Manor and the Batcave. Much though I love Tim Burton’s Batman I have to say that I vastly prefer Nolan’s vision to Burton’s gothic stylings.

The casting is great, and all the actors give excellent performances. Christian Bale in particular shines from inside the costume and mask. His face may be hidden, but he drops his voice a notch, adds some gravel, and pumps all of Bruce Wayne’s anger and frustration into short, punchy sentences. The moment when Bale first utters the words “I’m Batman” sent a shiver up my spine and left me with goosebumps for a good minute after.

(Did anyone else notice, by the way, the near total absence of American actors in the headline cast? You’ve got Morgan Freeman, Katie Holmes, and…er…that’s it. Christian Bale is Welsh, Michael Caine, Tom Wilkinson, Gary Oldman, and Linus Roache are all English, Liam Neeson and Cillian Murphy are Irish, Ken Watanabe is Japanese, and Rutger Hauer is Dutch. When was the last time a Hollywood summer blockbuster was ever cast with so few American stars?)

The one thing that let Batman Begins down for me, and this is the only thing that knocks it down from a perfect 5 stars, is the microwave generator plot device. Nnggggnggaarghhh. Did they have to do that? It is the single thing that puts this movie beyond the realms of the plausibly realistic. A secret society driven to purify Gotham City by destroying it is far-fetched, but no more so than, say, The Da Vinci Code (hack, spit). A sinister figure using a weaponised hallucinogen to instil fear and madness in his victims? Yeah, I’ll still buy that. Bruce Wayne using prototypes from his own company’s advanced weapons lab to build the persona of the Bat? It works.

But a microwave emitter capable of selectively targeting water supplies, without cooking every man and beast nearby? Sorry, you lost me there. I see how the device needs these properties to sustain the final chase sequence, but damn it, this could have been the greatest superhero film ever. It could have been utterly unique in not resorting to hand-waving mumbo-jumbo. But it just…quite…isn’t. I badly wanted to give this five stars, but I just can’t forgive the microwave device. Sorry.

She’s The One

This is a much more interesting film than the romantic comedy drama I had taken it for when I rented it. For a start, it’s not really a comedy. It has funny moments, but it’s primarily a story about the relationship between brothers Mickey and Francis Fitzpatrick (Edward Burns and Mike McGlone), and the woman who binds them together in anger as much as in love. Romance makes an appearance, but in a struggling and painful form, and it doesn’t always work out for the best.

Mr. & Mrs. Smith

I fully agree with Richard that this is a very entertaining film to watch, but it fades from memory as soon as you leave the cinema. I think it’s because it’s all just a bit too slick, a bit too smooth. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have the glossy but coolly estranged couple thing down pat, but when the script calls for passion, it’s very controlled. Likewise, they look the part when it comes to showing off their gizmos and guns, but when the shooting starts, they look like they don’t care all that much. There’s no grit, no tension, no real sense of danger that things might not work out for the best. Compare this to The Bourne Identity, a masterpiece of spy thriller tension, which was also directed by Doug Liman, and I felt disappointed that Mr. & Mrs. Smith was merely good fun.

Neal Asher – The Skinner

Set in the same universe as the Ian Cormac books, but set several hundred years earlier, and taking place on just one planet. The protagonists battle against the wildlife of the planet Spatterjay as much as against the bad guys who are out to get them. Also notable for the sarcastic drone Sniper–an excellent character. If you like Iain M. Banks, you’ll like this.

(This quick review is part of my September 2005 “clearing the decks” exercise.)

Sin City

Noir doesn’t get any blacker than this, nor any better. Sin City is a series of four stories, linked by a few common characters, and by the seedy location of Sin City itself. The stories cover revenge, justice, and the struggle of the downtrodden at their most basic and brutal. Life is cheap, violence is ubiquitous, but the good guys (or at least, the less bad guys) still fight for the ones they love. Told in an arresting, partially colourised, high-constrast black-and-white visual style with voice-over narration, it really is a film that has to be seen to be believed.