Veronica Mars (2014)

2014 #22
Rob Thomas | 108 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

If you hadn’t heard of Veronica Mars before 13th March 2013, you almost certainly did soon after. That’s the date Rob Thomas, creator of the six-years-dead TV series of the same name, launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to pay for the long-mooted continuation movie. Aiming for a whopping $2 million, it raised that in just 11 hours, going on to bag $5.7 million by the end of its 30-day campaign. In the process it became the fastest Kickstarter project to reach $1 million (and $2 million), the highest-funded film project ever on the site, with the most number of backers for any campaign, and inspired countless think-pieces on how it was ruining/saving the movie industry, or at least completely changing it forever. In reality, very few (if any) big-name Kickstarter movies have come along since, and those that have haven’t inspired the same fervour as Veronica did three years ago.

The film itself picks up nine years after the end of the TV series. A quick opening montage reminds/informs us that Veronica (Kristen Bell) moonlighted as a private investigator while she was in high school, making plenty of enemies in the process and enduring more than a few tragedies, but she eventually managed to drag herself out of that life and start afresh. Just as she’s about to begin a career as a high-flying lawyer in New York, she sees on the news that her one-time on-off love interest Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring) has been arrested for murder. Then he phones asking for her help. Just when she thought she was out, etc. So Miss Mars heads back to little old Neptune, California, just in time for her ten-year high school reunion and a murder investigation involving all (well, most of) the familiar faces from the TV show.

There’s no denying that this is primarily a film for fans of the TV series — well, they did fund it, after all. The best way to get the most out of the film is to have watched all 64 episodes of the show first; preferably soon before, in fact, so you can remember who all the minor characters are. However, creator-cowriter-director Rob Thomas is no fool: you don’t produce a successful movie that continues a little-watched TV show by making it a requirement that you’ve watched 64 hours of TV first. (I mean, Joss Whedon knew that with Serenity, and there’s only 14 hours of Firefly.) So Veronica Mars: The Movie is accessible to neophyte viewers. You might sense there’s references and whatnot that are passing you by, but everything that’s relevant is explained.

The long gap between series and continuation actually works to the film’s advantage, too, because this plays as the story of someone revisiting an old life, in a place that’s in some ways different and in others exactly, depressingly the same. The hook here is of Veronica as a kind of addict, but instead of being addicted to booze or drugs, it’s private investigating — she may be nine years ‘sober’, but now she’s being tempted to indulge. Again, this makes even more sense if you’ve watched the TV show, where a subplot deals with Veronica’s mother’s alcoholism, but the general conceit works standalone.

Plus, this is a crime drama — there’s a case to be solved, and that’s self-contained within the film. Okay, most of the players are characters from the series, but everything is introduced and explained within the film. Heck, there are even characters Veronica knew in school who weren’t actually in the TV series, which might give you a flavour of how it works both for fans and newcomers. The case itself isn’t a bad mystery, but at the same time it’s a little subservient to the other goings-on. I suppose you could argue this is really a comedy-drama about a woman reconnecting with her past life and past friends, and she just happens to have a murder to investigate at the same time.

For fans (who will have watched this years ago, hence why I’m focusing on the newbie experience), the film is immensely rewarding. Obviously, because it finally gives some closure to the cancelled series’ dangling elements; but also, it feels like Veronica Mars, not like something from older people that’s only claiming to be what it once was. There’s the sparky characters, the funny repartee, the raft of neo-noir allusions. As cheesy as “teenage private eye” sounds, one of the reasons Veronica worked was because it really used those noir elements, just grafted on to the high school experience. The town of Neptune is practically a throwback in this regard, with rich kids and businessmen who can buy their way out of trouble thanks to a thoroughly corrupt police department, while the poor schmucks at the bottom of the pile get by as best they can, which often is not well. It didn’t even cave to the usual youthification of adding happy endings; in fact, more often than not, things didn’t end well. The movie isn’t quite as bleak as the TV series often was — there’s clearly an awareness this might be a one-time deal, so Thomas wants to leave things suitably wrapped up — but not everything comes up roses. (Where’s the sequel at?!) And to pay things off fully, there’s a tonne of fun references, not just to the show but also to real life (not least the Kickstarter campaign).

To bring up Firefly/Serenity again, I think there’s a reasonable parallel between how those relate to each other, and how they can work for newbies, and how Veronica Mars the TV series and Veronica Mars the movie relate. To wit: in an ideal world, you’d watch all of the series and then the film; but TV series can be long commitments, and for a spot of ‘dipping your toe in the water’, you can also start with the movie and go back to the series for the full picture. Sure, some things are going to be spoiled doing it that way round — but hey, not everyone who’s in the series but not the film ends up dead, I promise.

When I first watched the movie, it was at the end of a first-time binge through the TV series, where it sat very happily. To finally write this review, I watched the film again in isolation. I have a memory, so obviously I’m not coming at it from a totally fresh perspective, but it was as entertaining in isolation as it had been as “one more episode”. Fans will get the biggest kick out of seeing old characters resurface, out of learning what’s happened to them in the past decade, out of seeing big-name cameos alongside familiar faces, out of all the callbacks and nods, out of certain things finally being resolved. But that doesn’t mean newcomers can’t get joy from meeting these characters for the first time, from the self-contained mystery and storylines, from the fresh gags — indeed, from all the things that make the TV show entertaining if you started there. And then, if they like it, there’s the joy of there being 64 more instalments to discover.

More than just a nostalgia trip for people who were there first time round, the movie is a strong addition to the Veronica Mars canon — as someone who didn’t discover the series until the Kickstarter campaign, I thought the film was a heck of a lot of fun, and a wonderful capstone to a mostly-great series. That said, there’s plenty of room for further cases… someday… hopefully…

4 out of 5

Veronica Mars is available on Amazon Prime Instant Video in the UK from tomorrow.

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Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow (2008)

2014 #50
Jay Oliva | 75 mins | DVD | 1.78:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Next Avengers: Heroes of TomorrowNo, not the ’70s spy-fi series The New Avengers (is there no way for Marvel’s superheroes to avoid sounding like that franchise?), nor the sequel to the third highest grossing film of all time (but you knew that), this direct-to-DVD animated movie follows in the footsteps of the two Ultimate Avengers animated movies (though not in the same continuity… I don’t think…), and concerns… the children of the Avengers! How kids’ TV can you get, eh?

So, there’s the son of Captain America and Black Widow; the daughter of Thor and Sif; the son of Hank Pym and Wasp; the son of Hawkeye and Mockingbird; and the son of Black Panther. (Aside: in the live-action movie universe, 100% of those men have or will soon appear; only 50% of the women, though.) These kids must work with the still-living members of the original Avengers to fight… Ultron, the villain of this summer’s Live-Action Avengers 2! (Do you ever feel like the Marvel universe goes round in circles? I suppose that’s not fair — DC does it too.)

I’m being snarky but, actually, this oh-so-childish-seeming cartoon is surprisingly good. Sure, the animation and voice acting is all very ’00s Saturday morning kids’ cartoon, but there’s a moderately solid story in there, and some great new characters. Well, some good interpretations of old characters, and one great new character: Thor’s daughter, Torunn. Her character arc is a good’un, and teen voice actress Brenna O’Brien does good work with her too.

Torunn, James, AzariThe rest of the new characters are largely fine, and while they’re clearly grounded in their parents’ personalities, they’re not just carbon copies — Cap’s son James is less worthy than his father, for instance; Black Panther’s son Azari is less elbows-out; and so on. Though Hawkeye Jr. is a little skeevy… Writer Christopher Yost has done a fair job of crafting realistic-enough kids, and in an era when superheroes seem to spend more time fighting amongst themselves than they do against villains, it’s nice that this team largely get on — though not in an overly-rosy “it’s all happy families” way, thankfully.

As for Ultron, they’ve modified his creation story: he was now built by Tony Stark. That’s where they’re going with it in Avengers 2, funnily enough. It gets hardcore fanboys in a tizzy, but clearly it makes far more sense that the inventor of Iron Man would also create a sentient robot (that does look a little bit like Iron Man, kinda) than that the inventor of a miniaturisation suit would.

It’s quite nice to see a new set of characters and a new ‘world’ within a familiar universe — it feels less re-hash-y than the comics and the longer-running movie franchises can. Rage of UltronCoupled with a good plot, which keeps moving and developing rather than setting up one threat and meandering along until a big fight, as well as a few cameos and maybe even surprises along the way, Next Avengers is the kind of movie you expect to be pretty awful kids-only dross, but turns out to actually be pretty darn good.

4 out of 5

Avengers: Age of Ultron is out in the UK tomorrow.

Rear Window (1954)

2014 #119
Alfred Hitchcock | 112 mins | Blu-ray | 1.66:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Rear WindowAdrenaline-addicted photographer L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies (James Stewart) finds himself house- and wheelchair-bound during a New York heat wave. Whiling away time spying on his neighbours around their shared courtyard, he begins to suspect the man opposite, travelling salesman Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), has committed a murder and is trying to cover it up. Jeff persuades his high-society girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly), visiting nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) and police detective friend Doyle (Wendell Corey) to help investigate, but no hard evidence is forthcoming. Is Jefferies just bored and paranoid?

The end result of this, as a film, is a heady mix of suspicion, tension, voyeurism, and a light romantic subplot — Hitchcock through and through. It’s one of his best-regarded films, too: Vertigo may gain the Sight & Sound plaudits, but Rear Window is second only to Psycho on the IMDb Top 250; and, as I write, they sit precisely side by side, which on a list that long is tantamount to equality. (Not that S&S ignored Rear Window: it’s at #54 on their last list.)

At its most basic level, Rear Window is an incredibly effective thriller. The setup is intriguing, followed by a drip feed of facts and clues that invite us to play detective too, joining in with the characters’ speculation. Jeff believes Thorwald’s guilt almost unequivocally, but not all his friends and associates agree, which gives us permission to doubt the movie’s ostensible hero. Maybe this isn’t the story of a well-executed murder uncovered by a right-place-right-time layman, but instead the narrative of an adrenaline junkie driven half-mad by being cooped up at home? The final reveal might turn out to not be the truth of the crime, but the truth of Jeff’s paranoia. The romantic subplot, which pivots around the vastly differing lifestyle desires of the pair (Lisa loves being a fashionable New Yorker, Jeff desires to explore the dangerous parts of the world), only emphasises the notion that Jeff may just be unhappy being ‘settled’.

The titular portalHitchcock certainly didn’t consider Jeff to be an out-and-out hero, even aside from the very real possibility that he may be wrong — as he put it in one interview, “he’s really kind of a bastard.” After all, what right does he have to be poking his nose so thoroughly into other people’s business? Not only to spend his time spying on all and sundry, which in many respects is bad enough, but to then investigate their lives, their personal business, even break in to their homes. If he’s right, they’ve caught a murderer, and the methodology would be somewhat overlooked; if he’s wrong… well, who’s the criminal then?

So Jeff is a voyeur, a position that one can interpret the film as implicitly both condoning and condemning; perhaps not in equal measure, but there are pros and cons. Through his directorial choices, Hitchcock makes us into one as well. In a genius move, we’re limited to Jeff’s perspective: we only see inside his apartment and the view from his window, pretty much as he sees it. If he falls asleep, we most often fade to black. We don’t have the advantage of knowing much that he doesn’t (as is sometimes the case in this kind of movie), but we do know exactly what he does, no less. The only difference is we can consider the possibility that he’s fooling himself — we have slightly more objectivity. Nonetheless, placing us in his shoes so thoroughly makes us consider the feeling of being a voyeur too. For some it’s uncomfortable; for others, probably a thrill; for many, I suspect, it’s a bit of both.

All of this is made possible, in part, by the movie’s incredible set, which has to be one of the greatest ever constructed. To quote from IMDb’s trivia section:

The entire picture was shot on one set, which required months of planning and construction. The apartment-courtyard set… consisted of 31 apartments, eight of which were completely furnished… some of the buildings were the equivalent of five or six stories high. All the apartments in Thorwald’s building had electricity and running water, and could be lived in.

Rear Window courtyardClick to enlarge.

It’s an incredible toy box for Hitchcock to play in, and every technical element rallies to use it to its full effect. Virtually the entire movie is shot from within Jeff’s apartment, the camera panning from apartment window to apartment window as we follow Jeff’s voyeuristic gaze. (This choice has, decades later, led to at least one striking re-working.) In every film the camera’s lens is our window on the world, of course, but you rarely feel it so much as you do here. We share in Jeff’s frustration about not being able to get a closer, better look; at only being able to watch as his friends imperil themselves, so close — only the other side of the courtyard! — yet so far away. Nonetheless, he’s afforded something of the same perspective we get as film viewers: late in the film, as Lisa searches the suspect’s apartment, Jeff can see Thorwald returning home, but he has no way to warn his girlfriend — just like us in so many moments of movie suspense. (These days he’d just send her a text, of course. Though I suppose you could still milk that: He can’t handle predictive texting! Autocorrect’s got it all wrong! He’s dropped the phone! How did he load a Chinese keyboard?!)

There’s the sound design, too. The heat wave means windows are open, letting the sounds of parties and whatnot drift to all ears. It’s not as meaningful a commentary on the viewer’s experience, I don’t suppose, but it lends a veracity and sense of immersiveness to the situation, Suspense!further enhanced by the almost total lack of a score (only present in the opening few shots).

In crafting both a suspenseful thriller and a commentary on the audience’s perspective, Hitchcock created the kind of movie that can be appreciated by both the casual movie fan and the analytical cineaste alike. Whatever one’s reasons for appreciating Rear Window, it’s certainly a masterpiece.

5 out of 5

Rear Window was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2014 project, which you can read more about here.

Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger! (2012)

2014 #133
Debbie Isitt | 109 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | UK / English | U

Nativity 2David Tennant replaces Martin Freeman as the teacher of a primary school class who enter themselves in a Christmas singing competition in this part-improvised sequel to the endearing 2009 hit.

Sadly, lightning doesn’t strike twice. A talented cast (also including Joanna Page, Jason Watkins, Ian McNeice and Jessica Hynes, all of whom are underused) struggle with an over-padded story, which leads to a climactic concert full of charmless, cringeworthy songs. There’s some sweetness from the kids, but not enough to paper over the cracks.

It’s no wonder last Christmas’ second sequel (with another new, bargain basement, leading man) flopped badly.

2 out of 5

Nativity 2 featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2014, which can be read in full here.

The Shining (1980)

2014 #80
Stanley Kubrick | 120 mins* | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

The ShiningFêted director Stanley Kubrick turned his hand to horror for this Stephen King adaptation. Poorly received on release (it was nominated for two Razzies: Worst Actress and Worst Director) and reviled by King (he attempted his own version as a miniseries in 1997. It didn’t go down well), it has since been reassessed as a classic. I’ve never read the novel, so have no opinion on the film’s level of faithfulness or (assuming it isn’t true to the book) whether that’s a good thing or not. As a movie in its own right, however, The Shining is bloody scary.

The plot sees Jack Nicholson, his wife and young son travelling to a remote hotel to be its caretakers while it’s closed over the winter. As the weeks pass by, strange things begin to happen. Nicholson begins to go a little stir crazy… or is it something worse? As the hotel becomes cut off by a snowstorm, everything goes to pot…

It’s somewhat hard to summarise The Shining because, in a way, nothing much happens. There are some mysteries, but few (if any) answers. That prompts plenty of wild theories — there’s now a whole film about them, even — but whether any of those are right or not… well, you know what wild theories are normally like, right? Really, story is not the order of the day. Kubrick seems to have set out to make a horror movie in the truest sense: a movie to instill fear. And that it does. And then some.

But you're not called JohnnyGradually, inexorably, the film builds a sense of dread; a fear so deep-seated that it feels almost primal. There are few jumps or gory moments, the easy stomping ground of lesser films. There’s just… unease. It’s a feeling that’s tricky to put into words, because it’s not exactly “scary”; even “terrifying” feels too lightweight. There are undoubtedly sequences of suspense, where we fear what’s coming or what will happen to the characters (everyone knows the “Here’s Johnny!” bit, for instance), but that’s not where the film’s impact really lies.

I guess some find it slow and aimless. There are certainly fans of King and his original that are just as unimpressed as the author by the way it supposedly shortchanges Nicholson’s character. There may be some validity to both of those arguments. Nonetheless, I found Kubrick’s realisation to be probably the most excruciatingly and exquisitely unsettling film I’ve ever seen.

5 out of 5

The Shining placed 3rd on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014, which can be read in full here.

It was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2014 project, which you can read more about here.


* The Shining was initially released at 146 minutes. After a week, Kubrick cut two minutes off the end. Following a poor reception, he cut even more for the European release (some say 31 minutes, but that doesn’t add up). He maintained the shortest version was his preferred cut, though it’s not the one released in most territories… except the UK. ^

Requiem for a Dream (2000)

2014 #136
Darren Aronofsky | 97 mins | DVD | 16:9 | USA / English | 18 / NC-17*

Requiem for a DreamOn Coney Island, the faded and decrepit one-time pleasure place of New York City, four people — Harry (Jared Leto), his girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly), his best friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans), and his mother Sara (Oscar-nominated Ellen Burstyn) — find themselves accidentally drawn into a whirlwind of drug addiction. Not to put too fine a point on it.

A lot of people say that Requiem for a Dream is the bleakest or most depressing movie ever made, and you kind of think, “yeah well, we’ll see — how bad can it be?” For most of the film, that notion is indeed misleading. Not that it’s a happy-clappy affair, but it’s a very watchable drama, not a gruelling slog through misery. However, I’m not sure you can quite be prepared for what comes later. Even if you were told what happens, or see some of the imagery, or feel like you can see worse stuff on the internet without even looking too hard (which, of course, you can)… that’s not the point. It’s the editing, the sound design, the sheer filmmaking, which renders the film’s final few minutes — a frenzied montage that crosscuts the climaxes of all four characters’ stories — as some of the most powerful in cinema. It’s horrendous. It’s brilliant.

The rest of the film may not be its equal in terms of condensed impact, but it’s of course vital in leading you to that point. These characters lead relatively normal lives — not exceptionally bad, certainly not exceptionally good, but pretty humdrum and bog standard. They all try to better themselves in some way — Sara through diet pills, Harry and Tyrone by getting rich through selling drugs — and it all goes horrible awry.

It may be a descent into misery, then, but director Darren Aronofsky keeps it watchable through pure cinematic skill. The editing, camerawork, lighting, sound design, and special effects are all incredible throughout. There’s a surfeit of ideas and innovations from everyone involved. And yet they are never show-off-y for the sake of it — this isn’t a Guy Ritchie movie. None of the tricks or striking ideas are put there to render the film Cool, even in the way they are in some equally brilliant films (Fight Club, for example). No, everything that is deployed is done so in aid of emulating a real-life feeling or experience, or conveying a concept or a connection. At times it’s breathtaking.

I must also make special mention of the score by Clint Mansell. The primary theme is arguably most famous for being used in The Two Towers trailer a couple of years later (that’s certainly where I discovered it). Something that works fantastically on the trailer for an epic fantasy war movie might not sound like it sits well in a junkie drama, but it really works.

Requiem for a Dream may have a bit of a reputation at this point; one that might put you off viewing it, or possibly only deigning to attempt it in a certain frame of mind. While there is an element of truth to that, it is a brilliant film — not “enjoyable” in the easily-digested blockbuster sense, but as a mind-boggling and awe-inspiring feat of filmmaking, yes. Incredible.

5 out of 5

Requiem for a Dream placed 8th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014, which can be read in full here.

It was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2014 project, which you can read more about here.


* After the film was given an NC-17, it was decided to release it Unrated — so, technically, it’s not NC-17, it’s Unrated. Ah, the quirks of the US classification system. (There’s also an R-rated version, which is the same except for some shot removals and replacements during the ending.) ^

Bill the Galactic Hero (2014)

2014 #128
Alex Cox, Merritt Crocker, Amanda Gostomski, Danny Beard, Alicia Ramirez, Jordan Thompson & Raziel Scher | 90 mins | download | 16:9 | USA / English

Bill the Galactic HeroAlex Cox was once the director of noticed movies like Repo Man and Sid and Nancy, tipped for Hollywood success. That wasn’t really his style, though, and he wound up heading into ultra-indie territory, ultimately to “microfeatures” — films made so cheaply they fall below the Screen Actors Guild cut-off of $200,000. I confess that the only previous film of his I’ve seen is one of these: Repo Chick, a non-sequel to Repo Man that most people hate but I kinda loved. So when it turned out he was crowdfunding a new film, and a satirical science-fiction comedy at that, I jumped on it (readers with long memories may remember I mentioned it at the time). The finished result finally came out back in December, and… well…

To start at the beginning, Bill the Galactic Hero is an SF comedy novel by Harry Harrison. It’s a spoof of right-wing militaristic sci-fi, specifically Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (which was also lampooned in its own film adaptation (apparently — I’ve still not seen it)). The story sees a lad from a backwater planet, Bill (James Miller), being tricked into joining the intergalactic military, who are locked in a never-ending war with reptilian aliens called Chingers. We follow him through his training, his dispatch aboard a war(space)ship, and adventures beyond. The novel is very good — not packed with gags and perhaps not often laugh-out-loud funny, but consistently wry in its outlook. You can see it would be a tough sell as an adaptation, mind, so an alternative director like Cox is probably the perfect fit.

Colorado bouldersThe way he’s gone about filming it is as, essentially, a giant student film. Cox currently teaches film at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and it was along with his students (plus some professional colleagues from previous films) that this movie was produced — that’s partly why there’s the lengthy list of directors (Cox actually directed “most of the first act and all the third”, as discussed in this interview with Quiet Earth). For various legal reasons, it’s a not-for-profit venture; indeed, any venue in the world can acquire a good-enough-to-screen quality copy from Cox for free, so long as it’s being shown in aid of charity. (That, and other interesting points, are discussed in this interview with Boulder Weekly.) The film is also available online, for free, here. This combination of factors (student film; shown only for charity; etc) makes it a little hard to be judgemental about it — witness, for instance, this ‘review’ from Boulder Weekly. But judge we must, and, sadly, in many ways it’s just not very good.

Things start badly with a colourful animated opening. I can see why this was judged to be the most cost-effective way to relate that part of the tale, as it’s set on an alien planet and filled with background extras and future-technology, but considering the amount of cardboard-and-Sellotape set dressing later in the film, surely they could have rustled something up? I also simply don’t like the style of the animation. Its painfully-bright colourfulness provides a contrast to what follows that is nearly appropriate, Awful animationbut there’s no transition from it into the black-and-white live-action main film, just an abrupt cut (a good place to have put the title credits, at the very least!) Worst of all, no effort whatsoever is made to establish that the cartoon guy we saw being enlisted at the start is now a live-action guy with a teddybear strapped to his spacesuit. It took me a minute to get it, and I’ve read the book.

The cast are kept in full spacesuit gear the whole time. This sounded like a bad idea, and it is. It’s hard to relate to their facelessness, harder still to tell the supporting characters apart. That’s also a flaw of the screenplay and direction, neither of which allow enough time to establish anyone. A lot of the supporting cast are fleeting anyway — as I said, we follow Bill across multiple situations, each with a new group of people around him — but the potential impact of certain scenes involving characters like Eager Beager and Deathwish Drang is lost thanks to the lack of early investment. Even central Bill is lacking in personality or identifiability, particularly so considering he’s the main character. This is in some ways a problem inherited from the novel, where Bill is a blank canvas floating through his various adventures. I don’t know if that was intentional on Harrison’s part, but it didn’t work for me in the book and it doesn’t here either.

The spacesuit decisionAfter a hurried start, the film does settle down to slightly longer scenes with more of a point, like Bill’s encounter with the Laundry Officer-cum-Chaplain, and some of these work pretty well. Sadly, too much of the time it’s a race through the novel’s story, feeling like a filmed recap for those who’ve read the book. Goodness knows what someone who hasn’t would make of it all. Goodness knows if they’d even be able to follow it at all, to be frank.

Not all of the adaptation’s ideas are poor, though. The novel was written in 1965, bang in the middle of the Vietnam War. For the film, Cox has substituted the final act’s Vietnam-inspired jungle planet for an era-appropriate Middle East-inspired dustbowl. An ingenious idea, though there’s little (or no) commentary on the past couple of decades of Western military intervention once you get past that obvious observation. Ah well.

The live-action parts (i.e. most of the film) are shot on black-and-white film stock, though I’m not convinced they should have bothered — video would’ve been cheaper, and probably looked much the same in the end. That said, there’s an oppressively dark feel to much of the cinematography, with numerous deep blacks crowding in, which is surely the result of using real film. It’s quite appropriate to the story’s tone, a very dry satire of a controlling future dystopia. Conversely, the special effects look great. They’re the kind of lo-fi models-and-basic-CGI style that I had been expecting, and they nail the intended tone in a way other elements are too amateurish to quite reach.

lo-fi models and basic CGI

Unfortunately, the audio quality is quite poor. The spacesuit decision reveals itself to be a bad idea once again when it muffles all the dialogue. Halfway through one character is subtitled, and I’m not sure why — she’s just as clear as everyone else. That is to say, not very; but no one else has subtitles so why does she? Possibly this could all be to do with the film being mixed for 5.1 by people inexperienced in doing so (Cox admitted as much himself) and then poorly downmixed to stereo for the online version that I watched. Perhaps the 5.1 version on the DVD comes over better? (I do have a copy, but haven’t brought myself to watch it to find out.) The end credits scroll under a new song by Iggy Pop, which I actually rather liked.

The sad thing is, I think the film could have been so much better. And I don’t mean by making it ‘properly’, either. Cox has shown he can make microfeatures work, and I don’t believe student films (which this essentially is) are fundamentally meritless. Even the production values, low-rent as they are, are fine if that’s what you’re expecting (and, given the film’s background, you should be). No, the problem lies in the storytelling: a pace that rushes through the novel at such speed that only someone familiar with it could keep up; a lack of time spent establishing characters and situations; rough editing and sound design that obscure elements and, without any breathing room elsewhere, leave you no space to work out the gaps and catch up.

HandyBill the Galactic Hero might be best described as a noble failure. It’s been created with the best of intentions, both in terms of adapting a quality novel that Hollywood had no interest in, and in training up a new generation of filmmakers in an independent and proactive way. It’s a shame the end result isn’t wholly as enjoyable as it might’ve been.

2 out of 5

Bill the Galactic Hero is now available to stream or download, for free, on Vimeo.

Ten Little Indians (1965)

2014 #105
George Pollock | 88 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | UK / English | 12

Ten Little IndiansAdapted from one of Agatha Christie’s best-regarded novels (now commonly known by its US title, And Then There Were None), Ten Little Indians sees a group of ten people invited to a remote location (in the book, an island; here, an alpine hotel) by a mysterious host, who doesn’t appear but does accuse them all of murder via a recorded message. Then, stranded, they begin to die one by one.

Also known as one of Christie’s bleakest books, this follows the track of most adaptations and uses the upbeat ending Christie herself wrote for a stage adaptation. Apparently other changes abound, with characters and their actions updated to have a more ’60s vibe. Novel purists may wish to avoid it. There’s also the ‘innovative’ addition of “The Whodunnit Break”, where the action pauses and a clock counts down for 60 seconds while a Creepy old house in the dark? Super.voiceover informs us this is our chance to have a guess. Ah, the ’60s.

Modified or not, the rest of the film remains full of the usual Christie antics — essentially, it’s one big puzzle. Whether it bears re-watching once the solution is known is probably down to the individual viewer, but Pollock and a decent cast make it an entertaining ride.

4 out of 5

Ten Little Indians is on Film4 tomorrow at 11am.

Punisher: War Zone (2008)

2014 #40
Lexi Alexander | 93 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA, Canada & Germany / English | 18 / R

Punisher: War ZoneThe 2004 film of Marvel’s foremost vigilante killer was the Punisher as mainstream Hollywood PG-13 blockbuster*, but this follow-up takes a different route. It’s more the grimy, low-budget, direct-to-DVD, B-movie version of the character; all action, gore, and a conscious lack of class. For some that will make the entire endeavour distasteful, but I can’t help but feel it’s a more faithful depiction of the character.

This is a reboot and sequel in one, Incredible Hulk style: Frank Castle’s backstory has been tweaked, and we learn that in montages and the like, while our re-cast hero gets on with the plot of the film — namely, taking down some drugs importers before they can bring something far worse into the country.

As the hero, Brit-playing-American Ray Stevenson is a suitably straight-faced action hero. His secret-underground-lair-style base of operations has a more classic feel than the block-of-flats origin-story place of the last movie, the kind of simple-but-effective decision that defines the movie’s entire approach. As the villain, Brit-playing-American Dominic West is suitably unhinged. He’s a top-quality actor when he wants to be, making this seem an unusual choice; but he chews the scenery with pleasant abandon. Both Brits fare better than their genuinely-American counterparts from the 2003 version. The quality of the rest of the ensemble varies, but all within the confines of the aforementioned B-movie style. There’s a consistency there that works.

PunishingYour enjoyment of the film will hinge on your tolerance for this level of filmmaking. War Zone isn’t a Marvel-derived adaptation to sit alongside their big-budget in-house productions, but one to rival other hard-R violence-focused flicks. It may be kind of nasty in places, but no more so than other movies of its ilk; and really, if you look at it from outside the confines of sometimes-simplistic comic book morality, the Punisher is quite a nasty character.

As with the sequel to that other semi-successful Marvel movie of a dark-character-turned-blockbuster, Ghost Rider, this sequel takes a grungier tack. For Spirit of Vengeance it didn’t quite come off; for War Zone, while it won’t sit at the forefront of the comic book movie pack, it is something of a guilty pleasure.

3 out of 5

* Technically it was an R. Didn’t feel like it. ^

Show Boat (1951)

2014 #110
George Sidney | 103 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | U

Show BoatYou’d be forgiven for thinking MGM want people to forget this movie even exists: it was dumped on US DVD back in 2000, it’s never had a UK disc release, and a long-rumoured special edition has never emerged. That’s a shame, because there’s a good-quality musical tucked away here.

The titular boat floats into a small community, where things immediately begin to go awry: someone reports the star couple (Robert Sterling and, more importantly, Ava Gardner) to the authorities for their interracial relationship, leading to them being carted off; fortunately, Gaylord Ravenal (Howard Keel) is around to hop on board in their place, owing in part to his instantly falling in love with the ship’s captain’s daughter (Kathryn Grayson). To be honest, I found much of this opening a little hoary, including an insipid and instantly forgettable love song between Keel and Grayson.

With that out of the way, however, things begin to warm up: the boat sets sail (not that any sails are involved) into the early-morning mist, to the strains of Ol’ Man River, a downright fantastic song. “I get weary and sick of trying / I’m tired of living and scared of dying”*Ol' Man Rivera bit fatalistic for a bright little musical about two people falling in love on a show boat? No, it’s just an indication of where things are going — into darkness, as modern parlance would have it, because from here on out everything goes to pot. To detail the ins and outs would be to spoil the narrative, but much of the film is more tragedy than cheesy Hollywood musical.

I think people forget just how many musicals actually are pretty glum. They’ve acquired the image of being happy-clappy-smiley-singy nonsenses, but many of them — and most of the best ones — come with a thick undercurrent of reality, or classical tragedy. I mean, West Side Story is based on Romeo and Juliet, for crying out loud — and doesn’t really sanitise the ending, as musical-haters might expect. Show Boat may build to a largely happy finale, but it’s not so for everyone, and the journey there is not all toe-tapping tunes and jazz hands.

This is the third film of Show Boat, based on a stage play that’s based on a novel. Apparently this version cuts back on both comedy elements and racial elements, so is presumably both less funny and less serious than some of the other versions. It seems many critics, scholars and fans consider one or more of the other versions to be superior. They may be right — I’ve not seen or read any of those — but, on its own merits, I think this is a very fine version of the apparent story, songs and themes.

The show boatPerhaps it isn’t a film to ease back with on a Sunday afternoon, but not every old film or musical needs to be. If you can get past the opening, Show Boat offers a tough, emotional, perhaps even challenging, view of the world that marks it out as a film deserving of some rediscovery. Can we have that special edition now, please?

4 out of 5

* In case anyone thinks I’m trying to deny black people their voice or something, the original lyric, as written, goes: “Ah gits weary / An’ sick of tryin’ / Ah’m tired of livin’ / An’ skeered of dyin'”. I changed it for clarity when read, though it being sung like that is in many respects vital to its intent. ^