13 August 2009

The Mad Prophet #1- Two Moons

Yeah, this is about the size of that promised rebrand. Let me fill you in on why I've gone off in a different direction from the "Filmgoat" name I was planning and alluding to. Having gotten catastrophically drunk last week, I wandered outside the club I was in and met an old friend from secondary school. Well, I say a friend... point being he's apparently being reading these reviews and told me they were very funny. This, for me, is a score.

More than anything else, I've hoped I'm not brow-beating people with my opinions. If anything, I'm happier to be Howard Beale, the mad prophet of the airwaves from the film Network. His show in that film is set up by the TV network executives to open with him delivering elaborate and disillusioning rants that he's channeling to the world from some unknown celestial force. At the end of each rant, he'll collapse into a faint in the spotlight, whereupon the studio audience applauds raucously. They're entertained, but they haven't took on a word he's been saying. And when someone reminds me of that in their response to these reviews, I know I'm doing something right. No one likes a critic, so I'm on the backfoot if I'm not entertaining you.

Moving on then- I've seen four new films this week and this post shall cover two of them. One quite literally involves the Moon, and the other is a remake that drops trou and flashes its arse at the superior original. As ever, mild spoilers may crop up here and there but not so far as to reveal any major plot developments.


Who's in it? Sam Rockwell and Kevin Spacey are at the forefront in what's largely a two-hander, I was surprised to see homegrown Channel 4 stars like Matt Berry and Kaya Scodelario (of The IT Crowd and Skins fame, respectively) popping up in the background.

What's it all about? Sam Bell (Rockwell) is an astronaut nearing the end of his three-year contract working on the Moon to extract and export an energy resource that has made the Earth clean and efficient. With only a computer (voiced by Spacey) for company, Sam has a quintessentially personal encounter right before he's due to go back to Earth.

Any good? Sci-fi is bandied around like a dirty word sometimes, unless it's followed by the word "blockbuster". Nine times out of ten, such films have more money than ideas, and so the genre in its undiluted form rarely sees wide release. Even the Sci-Fi Channel have rebranded themselves as the mind-killingly banal "Syfy". So a film like Moon is a breath of fresh air if you like intelligent films with ideas. And I'm eager to point out from the off that not all science fiction features Klingons or Daleks, so don't fall into that slightly populist trap of avoiding Moon cos you're expecting something boring and nerdy.

Director Duncan Jones lovingly harkens back to the age when sci-fi films had ideas- films like Silent Running in particular- but it's as a result of that that it's not particularly original. I couldn't pretend that Moon has new ideas, as I even spotted one major part of the plot that's been done in an Arnold Schwarzenegger film, but the execution of these ideas is what makes it a good film- it wasn't half as good with Schwarzenegger. This film is directed and performed with more subtlety than Michael Bay could muster if he spent ten years in the dark trying to make a silent film, and it's just beautiful. As mentioned, it's more or less a two-hander, providing a claustrophobic atmosphere in the moonbase, which Sam Rockwell amplfies brilliantly with his diverse and great performance. I can't sing Rockwell's praises enough in general, but here is one of those performances that should get nominated for an Oscar, and probably would if the nominations and voting procedure weren't so skewed against genre fare. When February rolls around, I doubt the recipient of the Best Actor award will have been half as good as Rockwell is here, in whatever beige "prestige" film he (or she, you never know these days) has starred in.

There's not much of a supporting cast to speak of, but Kevin Spacey lends the film some tension as well as Sam's helper robot, GERTY. As he trundles around with a "Kick Me" post-it stuck to his back, he does his best to keep Sam sane and happy, but his ulterior motives are brought to the fore by the fact that Spacey can't even ask if you'd like something to eat without sounding menacing. But then I'm not planning to eat round Kevin Spacey's house anytime soon, so that's just fine with me. So besides these two, the other stand-out aspect of the film is the effects work. Far from relying on CGI, some beautiful model shots are employed of the vehicles, the base and the surface of the Moon itself. Another aspect of the homage to Silent Running and its low-budget ilk? Perhaps, but Jones was absolutely right to look elsewhere instead of succumbing to CGI shots. I'm talking about anything other than the story because I'm avoiding talking about the crux of the plot in advance- I knew nothing about this aspect of the story when I saw it, and I think I enjoyed it more because of that. So while I'm lavishing more praise than usual on effects (the score is good too, by the way), be assured that the film has more than enough story to keep you thinking and guessing throughout.

Intelligent and thought-provoking, Moon is the best sci-fi film in ages. Possibly since The Matrix. It's not entirely original, but it takes the time to execute the ideas that support the plot with new techniques rather than patronsing the audience by lazily chucking CGI at us. As with most low-budget films, it's sadly not in wide release, but I strongly recommend you catch it when it's released on DVD/Blu-ray.


Who's in it? John Travolta and Denzel Washington sit in for Robert Shaw and Walter Matthau, with James Gandolfini and John Turturro lending ample support.

What's it all about? Walter Garber (Washington) is a New York subway train dispatcher whose life is changed when Ryder (Travolta) hijacks a subway car and demands $10 million in return for the 19 hostages he has on board. The two men form an uneasy relationship over the radio system as the clock ticks towards Ryder's deadline- for every minute he doesn't have the money thereafter, he'll kill a hostage...

Any good? Let me tell you about the 1974 film, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. I saw it recently and found it to be one of the better films I've seen since... well, ever. Well-paced, great action sequences and beautifully acted by Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw. Shaw, he of Jaws fame, is ice-cold and completely dedicated to getting what he wants, while Matthau is an endearing everyman who could easily have gone into his own spin-off series. Hell, I'd have watched another film with Matthau's Garber. Most importantly, the film leads up to one of the best endings ever- played just right and ending in media res. As the credits roll, you'll be smiling. 35 years on, Tony Scott has also adapted the book from which the 1974 film was based, so this isn't a remake in the strictest sense. But that won't stop me tearing it a new one, folks.

First problem, I say, as I pop open the hood of the film to take a look at it, is that Scott has clearly cast the lead roles the wrong way round. Denzel Washington can clearly play baddies well, as his Oscar for Training Day will attest, so while he's as endearing as he is in other films where he's the good guy, he's just too cool to be in the role of Garber. Cool, that's what Robert Shaw was. John Travolta, not so much. He needs to stop playing baddies altogether. Just... stop. People have talked endlessly about his easy charm, the kind of thing that came through in Grease and Pulp Fiction. In this, he's easily the worst possible drop-trou to the 1974 version as he overacts his way through yet another villain role, seemingly only there to demonstrate every possible vocal iteration of the word "motherfucker". Oh, and in an unintentionally hilarious moment, the word "bumhole". On the positive side of things, James Gandolfini captures the ineptitude of the Mayor of New York perfectly, even in spite of the script making him more competent than his predecessor towards the end of the film, and he has some of the best lines in the film.

Second problem, I say, poking at the mechanics of the film with a spanner, is the "updating" of the film. I feel that Pelham One Two Three was a film very much of its time. In the mid-70s, you can have a subway car full of New Yorkers react with derisive laughter when a gunman tells them he's hijacking the train. They have a cynicism and hard edge that only evaporates once they start shooting. Of course, something quite big happened in New York within the last ten years that now has "terrorist" being said almost as often as Travolta spouts "motherfucker". Post-9/11 subtext was one of the many things the film didn't need, and because it's an unfortunate necessity of setting a film like this in New York, it raises the question of whether it was necessary to remake the film in the first place. Additionally, you know you're in trouble when your film has a social networking sub-plot and vague allusions to the financial corruption that's landed us in the current credit crunch.

But the major problem, I yell, as I start smacking the film with a pipe-wrench, is Tony Scott's direction. He sits somewhere just above McG in the pantheon of awful directors, and he's far too content to bring in shaky-cam, aerial shots and rock music wherever he possibly can. He is not one of those directors who does subtlety. One scene in the original has a police car crash into a fire hydrant- understated because the significance of the crash to the plot is more important than the spectacle of it. The equivalent scene in this update has the car fly spectacularly off a bridge and roll several times, causing various other explosions around it as it goes. Don't even get me started on the jump-cuts and the horrible raping of that brilliant 1974 ending I mentioned. But replacing the hood for a moment, I have to grudgingly admit that most people will be entertained by this. It's got a lot going for it with Washington and Gandolfini at the centre, even if the former is miscast, and Scott didn't change enough of the story to make this a bad film.

The Taking of Pelham 123 is due a drubbing from anyone who's seen the 1974 version, and I strongly advise you to see that film instead of this one. Newer isn't better, but I admit that you could do a lot worse in an evening at the cinema than see this. On the other hand, the DVD costs but £2.99 online at its cheapest, and £5 in HMV. The 2009 version is a good film done poorly.


The next films to be reviewed will be G-Force and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, and I obviously kept those back because I need help with witty subtitles and they have the G thing in common. Um, but also because they're both family films, obviously.

I'm the Mad Prophet of the Airwaves, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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