Monthly Archives: July 2005

Fantastic Four

The trailer looked good, the reviews looked terrible. So what did I think? Well, it’s a film of moments. It has lots of decent, and even some quite good moments. But there is just no way to link them all together. The plot makes no sense, and I don’t say that lightly. There is literally no reason why anything should happen the way it does, or why the characters act the way they do. It’s as if the laws of cause and effect were suspended for the duration of its production.

That said, if you’re willing to sit back and enjoy the moments, you’ll find a lot to like in the Thing (Michael Chiklis) and the Human Torch (Chris Evans). Following their accident in space, they have the most extreme reactions to their new-found powers: the Thing struggling to cope with his loss of humanity, and the Torch determined to wring every last drop of fun out of his abilities. These roles give Chiklis and Evans the best material to play with, and they actually do quite well with it.

In comparison, Ioan Gruffudd as Mr Fantastic and Jessica Alba as the Invisible Girl take themselves way too seriously, and spend the whole film trying to one-up each other as to who can produce the best expression of earnest concern. Even Julian McMahon as the bad guy isn’t particularly memorable. Oh, you’re metal? How interesting.

I can’t see myself watching this a second time, even when it comes around on TV. It’s only really worth watching the first time if you like superhero movies, and have a couple of hours with nothing better to do.

Allen Steele – Coyote

In a repressive, totalitarian future America, a group of dissident scientists and astronauts plot to steal the first interstellar colony ship, and turn its mission into one of escape and liberty. Idealism only gets you so far, though, when you’re setting up base on an alien planet light years from home.

I’d read most of the stories that make up Coyote when they were published in Asimov’s a few years ago. Reading them again, fixed up as a novel, they’re still very strong.


Madagascar is much more cartoonish than Dreamworks’ other recent animated features. In addition to a healthy (but not excessive) dose of slapstick violence, it plays about with cut-scene asides (the monkeys and penguins), with movie references (the American Beauty one is particularly good), and classic visual gags, such as Alex the lion seeing all of the animals around him transformed into juicy steaks. It doesn’t feature a make-it-all-better plot like Shark Tale, nor does it have a top-heavy list of stars who want their voice performances to take priority over everything else. It takes some chances, and is a better film for it.

Kung Fu Hustle

After seeing the wonderful trailer, how could I not want to see this film? Gang wars, dance routines, CGI-enhanced Matrix-style kung fu, and a hefty dose of physical comedy. The question was really: could the film really pull all of this off?

The answer: yes. And then some. It starts off as a pretty brutal gangland flick, with the leaders of one gang being brutally taken down by the aptly named rivals, the Axe Gang. Then it moves to the slums of Pig Sty Lane, where people go about their business, constantly watched and kept in line by the obnoxious Landlady. Two drifters try to hustle a free haircut by pretending to be members of the Axe Gang. The residents refuse to be intimidated, and proceed to deliver a thorough kicking. Unfortunately, a real Axe member gets in the way of the altercation, and has his ass handed to him. So begins a vendetta between the slum dwellers and the criminals, which will ultimately be decided by the strength, speed, and skill of the champions that emerge from their midst.

To put it in a more Western perspective, it’s a kung fu superhero movie. The heroes reveals themselves slowly, reluctant to discard their secret identities, but ultimately ready to stand up for what is right. The visuals are amazing. Never mind the sometimes imperfect CGI–the freshness and imagination with which the effects are deployed more than makes up for any lack of quality. The fight scenes blend extreme moves with mystical abilities (superpowers) and comedy in a way you never see in Western films, which take themselves so much more seriously. The story and plot are all over the map, but in the end it’s hard to care. The sheer energy, fun, and excitement that Kung Fu Hustle delivers can hardly be bettered.

Bubba Ho-Tep

Elvis isn’t dead–he’s living out his days in a Texas rest home with a dodgy hip, a growth on his pecker, and nothing but geriatrics and patronising nurses for company. John F. Kennedy isn’t dead, either. He was fixed up, dyed black, and tucked away in that same rest home, safely out of sight. Or…so these characters believe. Together, they investigate a couple of strange deaths in the home, which turn out to be the work of an ancient mummy who is feeding on the souls of the residents, safe in the knowledge that they won’t be missed.

This is a very odd film. Like its characters, it moves very slowly. The traditional mummy horror movie is subverted by the this pace, and by its sarcastic takes on key plot sequences. You just can’t take a fist-sized scarab familiar seriously when it’s being fought off by a decrepit Elvis with a bed pan. But it’s not a comedy, either. It doesn’t take any cheap shots at the (potential) delusions of the two main characters. It portrays them in a completely sympathetic light, and thus draws attention to the things that matter to them: the people they love, the people they left behind.

It’s an interesting attempt to mold a low-budget, off-beat genre movie into something more sophisticated and meaningful. And it does work, to an extent. Bruce Campbell gives a wonderful performance as Elvis: he is believable enough to make you question whether he is deluded, and vulnerable enough to make you care about him regardless. I don’t think it was good enough to hit the five stars Richard gave it, though.

John Sandford – Hidden Prey

Sitting down with a new John Sandford Prey novel is always a great pleasure. In many ways they are standard cop thrillers, but the lead character, Lucas Davenport, is so charismatic and cool that hooking up with him for another ride feels like slipping on a pair of expensive shades on a sunny day. It helps that Sandford’s writing is consistently good, not too wordy, tightly plotted, with a touch of humour. Basically, it hits my sweet spot every time.

Davenport is now with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, a somewhat political post, in which he gets to “fix shit” for the Governor. A Russian from a very important family has been murdered. When the police don’t make much progress, and the Russian government starts pushing the matter, Davenport is asked to move things along. This involves liaising with a Russian policewoman, who (inevitably) turns out to be more than she seems at first.

What else can I say? I thoroughly enjoyed it, and was, as always, a little sad at eventually having to finish it. Fortunately, I somehow managed to skip my annual Sandford fix last year, and have his latest book, Broken Prey sitting invitingly unopened on my bedside table at this very moment.

Christopher Brookmyre – A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away

I started reading this the day before the London bombings earlier this month. The first few chapters cover the activities of a terrorist for hire, the the reaction of the police, who have learned that he is planning a job on British soil. The sudden eruption of terrorist violence in real life, mixed with Brookmyre’s acerbically humorous writing, made reading the book quite uncomfortable for a while: I felt guilty about laughing.

The story revolves around two characters, Simon Darcourt and Raymond Ash. They were students and flatmates together at one point, but they fell out catastrophically and have gone very separate ways: Darcourt is now an infamous contract terrorist, and Ash has taken a job as an teacher, and is being driven psychotic by his colicky infant son. Ash thought Darcourt had died in a plane crash several years ago, but when he sees him walking through an airport one day, their lives become entwined once more.

In the end, the book is more about how the history Ash and Darcourt shared, how they came to be the people they are, and how life rarely turns out the way you expected it, than it is about the terrorist plot and how it unravels. It’s tense, funny, and full of sympathetic insight into the mind of a new teacher and a sleep-deprived parent.

War of the Worlds

There are some 12 (and 12A) certificate films that I would be willing to let Alex (age 4) see–with proper supervision, of course. Despite the dark tones, I think he would quite enjoy Revenge Of The Sith, for example, and Spider-man, too. War of the Worlds, though, definitely does not fit on that list. I found this a genuinely scary film.

After first setting the scene with an interestingly unsympathetic main character (Tom Cruise playing a divorced dad reluctantly taking his kids for a weekend), Spielberg ramps up the tension and doesn’t take his foot off the gas until the closing scenes. The images of death and destruction are vivid, and the more subdued set pieces continnuously push a sense of despair at the overwhelming odds the humans face. The whole film is filled with a sense of genuine dread. It’s somewhere beyond thriller, but short of horror: a mixture of shock at what has happened, and fear of what is to come.

The ending, then, comes as a bit of a let-down. Because it stays true to Wells’ original story, the humans don’t have a hand in their own salvation. Tom Cruise doesn’t turn the situation around, and single-handledly defeat the invaders. Instead, they are saved by the good fortune of evolution itself. This isn’t very Hollywood, but it is much more like real life, where heroes aren’t on tap to avert every disaster, and a return to normality may seem incongruously mundane. The references to 9/11 are wholly intentional.