Snowpiercer (2013)

2018 #251
Bong Joon Ho | 126 mins | Blu-ray | 16:9 | South Korea & Czech Republic / English & Korean | 15 / R

Snowpiercer

Before we knew about Harvey Weinstein’s real, vile crimes, his offences against cinema were already widely discussed. From manipulating the Oscars to re-editing foreign films himself before distribution, he’d managed to become powerful often at the expense of films themselves. Snowpiercer was another example: having acquired distribution rights while the movie was in production, Weinstein later insisted on severe cuts (reportedly 20 minutes) and changes (adding opening and closing monologues), but co-writer/director Bong Joon Ho refused. It was eventually released in the US uncut, but only on a limited number of screens, and the planned worldwide distribution either didn’t happen or was curtailed — I don’t know about other countries where Weinstein had the rights, but there was no UK release at all. But the downfall of Weinstein has seen the rights to various films shopped to other distributors, and so Snowpiercer finally made it onto Amazon Video in the UK last November, and as of this week is available to Netflix subscribers. For my part, I heard the good reviews back on its US release and, with no sign of it coming to the UK, imported the US Blu-ray when it came out in 2014; but, me being me, I only actually got round to watching it last year.

Based on the 1982 French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette, Snowpiercer is set in the far future, after an apocalyptic event has left the world an arctic wasteland. What survives of humanity all live on the titular train, which constantly circles the planet. The rich people live in luxury at the front; the poor people live in squalor at the back. Numerous attempted uprisings by the lower class have failed, but, with nothing to lose but their shitty lives, they’re going to try again.

The War Doctor, Captain America, and Billy Elliot step aboard a train...

Yeah, it’s a pretty out-there, not-at-all-plausible premise, but just go with it and the film has rewards aplenty. If you want to get intellectual, the train’s societal structure and how it’s maintained offers an allegorical commentary about class divides and the interdependence of the oppressed and the oppressors. But if that sounds a bit heavy, the film wraps it up in a pulse-pounding action thriller, dressed up further with mysterious backstories ripe for exposing and an array of memorable performances, not least Tilda Swinton as a toothy commandant. So, it’s by turns seriously thought-provoking, outrageously hysterical, and wondrously exciting — there are several superbly staged action sequences as our heroes literally battle their way up the train.

It may’ve taken an unconscionably long time to reach our shores — but hey, what could be more British than a mega-train only turning up after a mega-delay? Unlike our shoddy rail service, however, Snowpiercer proves worth the wait

5 out of 5

Snowpiercer is available on Netflix UK now.

It placed 3rd on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018. I watched it as part of my Blindspot 2018 project.

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Black Narcissus (1947)

2018 #49
Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger | 101 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | UK / English | U

Black Narcissus

It’s over a year since I watched Black Narcissus, but this review is only materialising now for two reasons: first, my overall tardiness at posting reviews nowadays (my backlog currently numbers north of 140); and second, but actually more relevant, I’ve struggled to make sense of what I thought of it.

On the surface a story about some nuns opening a convent in the Himalayas, there’s so much more going on beneath the film’s surface than just conflicts with locals and amongst the small group of nuns — that much is clear. But what else is going on? Critics often talk about the film’s eroticism, but (even allowing for the fact it was made in 1947 and so could hardly be overt about such things) I rarely felt that. In his video introduction on the Criterion Blu-ray, Bertrand Tavernier says it’s all about desire, specifically female desire, and the prohibition of said desire. Hm. I mean, I don’t disagree that’s in there somewhere, but it doesn’t feel like that’s what it’s “all about”. Writing in Criterion’s booklet (reproduced online here, critic Kent Jones says that “the reduction of Black Narcissus by admirers and detractors (and cocreators!) alike to the three Es — expressionist, exotic […] and erotic — has often deprived this bracing film of its many nuances and complexities.” So, I’m not alone in thinking there’s other stuff going on here… though I’d wager Mr Jones has a better handle on what that is exactly than I do.

I confess, I find this a bit frustrating — not the film itself, but my inability to ‘get’ it. I was never bored, so something kept me engaged, there’s something to it, but I can’t get at what this is. I felt a bit like there’s a germ of a good thing, but it’s not brought out. Like, the characters all being gradually driven mad or hysterical by the place — it’s an effect that’s almost there, but not quite; and it only affects, like, two-and-a-half of them anyway. But maybe I’m expecting the film to be too overt; maybe it was just too subtle for me. Whatever it is, it clearly disturbed the Christians: when the film was released in the US, Catholic weekly The Tidings reportedly asserted that “it is a long time since the American public has been handed such a perverted specimen of bad taste, vicious inaccuracies and ludicrous improbabilities.” Reason enough to like the film, there.

Nuns gone wild

Oh, but my overall confusion aside, there are many specifics that deserve concrete praise. The last 10 or 20 minutes, when it almost turns into a kind of horror movie, are fantastic. (Even the original trailer is largely composed of footage from the film’s final 25 minutes. It’s definitely the best bit.) It all looks ravishing, magnificently shot and designed. There’s the always-stunning work of DP Jack Cardiff (apparently a Technicolor executive claimed the film was the best example of the process), plus the work of production designer Alfred Junge and costumer Hein Heckroth. The luscious backdrops were blown-up black-and-white photos that the art department coloured with pastel chalks, which partly explains the film’s otherworldly beauty. Indeed, considering it was all shot in the UK, the location is very well evoked. That’s not least thanks to the constantly blowing wind, which ruffles clothing and hangings even during interior scenes — a detail that could’ve been easily overlooked during production, but whose presence certainly adds to the atmosphere.

It’s difficult to sum up and rate my reaction to Black Narcissus, because I feel like I missed something — not literally (I followed the plot ‘n’ that), but like I didn’t understand something about it. And yet I was engaged throughout, it’s gorgeous to look at, and the final 20 minutes are stunning on every level. One to revisit, for sure.

4 out of 5

Black Narcissus was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2018 project.

Coincidentally, it’s currently available on iPlayer, but only until tomorrow afternoon.

Attack the Block (2011)

2018 #231
Joe Cornish | 88 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK & France / English | 15 / R

Attack the Block

The directorial debut of comedian Joe Cornish seemed to become an instant cult classic on its release back in 2011 — I distinctly remember US geek websites urging people to see it and even arranging screenings, leaning hard into the kind of word-of-mouth promotion that is often how these small but dedicated fan bases are born. It has the kind of online scores that back up that status: as much as everyone who talks about it seems to love it, it only rates 6.6 on IMDb. I guess you’re either in a cult or you’re not. While I did enjoy it on the whole, I couldn’t quite see what all the fuss was about.

The film centres on a gang of teenage lads, led by John Boyega in what it turns out was a star-making performance. They roam their inner city London tower block and its surrounding streets, and we first meet them mugging a young nurse (Jodie Whittaker); and, when an alien creature falls from the sky, they savagely beat it to death. Hardly E.T., is it? Of course, murdering the little thing turns out to have been a bad idea, because soon more of the bastards are falling from the sky, and they seem to be particularly targeting our “heroes”.

I’ve bunged heroes in quotation marks there because this gaggle of protagonists are a right bunch of little so-and-sos (to be polite about it). The film sets itself a hurdle by making them so initially unlikeable, and then struggles to overcome it — frankly, I was cheering on the aliens to give the little chavs what for. You could certainly make a movie where the protagonists are unlikeable and the thrill comes from waiting for them to be slaughtered by the ostensible villains (I feel like someone has, probably something incredibly high-profile, but I can’t remember what it is right now), but I don’t think that was Cornish’s aim.

Thugs'r'us

On the brighter side, the boys eventually come across Whittaker’s nurse again, because she lives in the same block as them, and so we have her to root for. Her earlier experience makes her as non-disposed to the gang as I was, and it’s her connecting with them somewhat that comes to rehabilitate them. There’s also Luke Treadaway (that’s the one from Clash of the Titans and A Street Cat Named Bob and Ordeal by Innocence and so on, not to be confused with his brother Harry, who’s appeared in The Lone Ranger and Cockneys vs Zombies and Penny Dreadful and so on; although they’re twins, so, y’know, good luck) as a posh kid trying to score some drugs, and Nick Frost as the dealer he’s trying to get them off, to bring some comic relief. Not that the rest of the film is super serious (it’s about teenage chavs battling ferocious alien bears, c’mon), but their more direct humour is welcome too.

Despite my reservations about the characters, the film is a great calling card for writer-director Joe Cornish. Although tonal similarities between the movies invite comparisons to what Shaun of the Dead did for Edgar Wright (especially as he’s friends with Cornish and an executive producer here), I feel like Wright’s breakout film was even more assured. Instead I think of something like Guy Ritchie and Lock Stock: an imperfect film in itself, but which suggests a lot of potential from the man behind the camera. Quite why it’s taken eight years for Cornish’s second feature to come around is a mystery.

4 out of 5

Attack the Block was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2018 project.

Joe Cornish’s second feature, The Kid Who Would Be King, is in UK cinemas from tomorrow.

Blindspot Review Roundup

Of the 22 Blindspot/WDYMYHS films I watched in 2018, I still haven’t posted reviews for 18 of them. (Jesus, really?! Ugh.) So, here are three to get that ball rolling.

  • The 400 Blows (1959)
  • Big Fish (2003)
  • Strangers on a Train (1951)


    The 400 Blows
    (1959)

    aka Les Quatre Cents Coups

    2018 #4
    François Truffaut | 100 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | France / French | PG

    The 400 Blows

    One of the first films to bring global attention to La Nouvelle Vague, François Truffaut’s semi-autobiographical drama introduces us to Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a schoolboy in ’50s Paris who plays havoc both at home and at school, which naturally winds up getting him in trouble. The film is both a portrait of misunderstood youth (Antoine isn’t so much bad as bored) and indictment of its treatment (neither his school nor parents make much effort to understand him, eventually throwing him away to a centre for juvenile delinquents).

    The film barely contains one blow, never mind 400, which is because the English title isn’t really accurate: it’s a literal translation of the original, which is derived from the French idiom “faire les quatre cents coups“, the equivalent meaning of which would be something like “to raise hell”. Imagine the film was called Raising Hell and it suddenly makes a lot more sense.

    Anyway, that’s beside the point. As befits a film at the forefront of a new movement, The 400 Blows feels edgy and fresh, that aspect only somewhat blunted by its 60-year age. I was thinking how it was thematically ahead of its time, but I suppose Rebel Without a Cause was also about disaffected youth and that came out a few years earlier, so I guess it’s more in the how than the what that 400 Blows innovated.

    Either way, it’s an engaging depiction of rebellious youth, that remains more accessible than you might expect from a film with its art house reputation.

    5 out of 5

    Big Fish
    (2003)

    2018 #32
    Tim Burton | 125 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English & Cantonese | PG / PG-13

    Big Fish

    After getting distracted into the mess that was his version of Planet of the Apes, Tim Burton returned to the whimsical just-outside-reality kind of fantasy that had made his name. Based on a novel by Daniel Wallace, it’s about the tall tales of a dying man (played by Albert Finney on his deathbed and Ewan McGregor in his adventurous prime), and his adult son (Billy Crudup) who wants to learn the truth behind those fantastical stories.

    Most of Big Fish is fun. It exists at the perfect juncture between Burton’s sense of whimsy and a more realistic approach to storytelling — he’s reined in compared to some of the almost self-parodic works he’d go onto shortly afterwards made since, but it doesn’t seem like he’s constrained, just restrained. With a mix of many funny moments, some clever ones, and occasional somewhat emotional ones, it ticks along being being all very good.

    But then the ending comes along, and it hits like a freight train of feeling, clarifying and condensing everything that the whole movie has been about into a powerful gut-punch of emotion. It’s that which elevates the film to full marks, for me.

    5 out of 5

    Strangers on a Train
    (1951)

    2018 #176
    Alfred Hitchcock | 101 mins | Blu-ray | 1.37:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Strangers on a Train

    Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s thriller novel, in which two men get chatting on a train and agree to commit a murder for each other — as you do. In fact, one of the men — tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) — was just making polite conversation and doesn’t want to be involved; but the other — good-for-nothing rich-kid (and, as it turns out, psychopath) Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) — really meant it, and sets about executing the plan.

    Strangers on a Train is, I think, most famous for that premise about two strangers agreeing to commit each other’s murder; so it’s almost weird seeing the rest of the movie play out beyond that point — I had no idea where the story was actually going to go with it. It’s a truly great starting point — the kind of “what if” conversation you can imagine really having — and fortunately it isn’t squandered by what follows — the “what if” scenario spun out into “what if you actually followed through?” Naturally, I won’t spoil where it goes, especially as you can rely on Hitch to wring every ounce of suspense and tension out of the premise.

    Aside from Hitch’s skill, the standout turn comes from Walker, who makes Bruno a delicious mix of charming and scheming, confident and pathetic, and brings out the homosexual subtext without rubbing it in your face (well, it was the ’50s).

    5 out of 5

    The 400 Blows, Big Fish, and Strangers on a Train were all viewed as part of Blindspot 2018, which you can read more about here.

  • Blindspot 2019

    I already waffled on a lot at the start of my 2019 WDYMYHS list, so if you’ve not read that then do check it out for a full introduction to what this is all about.

    The relevant part, though, is that this is a list of 12 films I should’ve seen but haven’t that I must watch this year — and, because I’m doing both WDYMYHS and Blindspot, that’s 24 films I must watch. Whereas the WDYMYHS selection contains 12 films chosen by consulting lists of great movies to find what the consensus feels I should’ve seen, these Blindspot choices are simply personally selected from my DVD/Blu-ray collection. Nonetheless, I do try to add a bit of variety to the mix, with different countries, genres, and eras represented.

    Anyway, here’s what I picked out this year, in alphabetical order…


    All the President’s Men
    All the President's Men


    The Breakfast Club
    The Breakfast Club


    Les diaboliques
    Les diaboliques


    Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler
    Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler


    Dracula
    Dracula


    The Ipcress File
    The Ipcress File


    The Killer
    The Killer


    The Player
    The Player


    Rififi
    Rififi


    Rope
    Rope


    Scott Pilgrim
    vs. the World
    Scott Pilgrim vs. the World


    Starship Troopers
    Starship Troopers

    Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler is actually a two-part film (why so many online sources insist on listing it only as one movie when it seems to have been originally released as two, I don’t know), so you could argue I’ve given myself 25 films to watch for these challenges this year. Have I bitten off more than I can chew? Only time will tell…

    What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2019

    A new year, a new challenge… or, rather, an old challenge with new components.

    Yes, for a seventh year I’m setting myself the goal of watching 12 specific films I really should have seen but haven’t.

    And, because I’m a crazy madman, I’m doing it twice — i.e. 24 films.

    I’ve been doing two of these lists since 2017 (separated as “Blindspot”, which you may’ve seen on other blogs, and my own version, “What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…?” (aka WDYMYHS), which is the same thing by a different name), but previously only put ten films on the second list. Well, I got into such a rhythm of watching these films during 2018 that it felt weird in November and December after the WDYMYHS list had run out. So, I thought for 2019 I’d go all-in and do two full lists of 12.

    “Why do you have two lists of 12 rather than one list of 24?”, you may ask. Fortunately for you (or unfortunately, if you don’t care), I’m happy to answer. I started doing WDYMYHS as a 12-film challenge before Blindspot came along, but for my 10th anniversary in 2017 I decided to do ‘both’ — the regular 12-film challenge, plus a ten-film one, marking my blog’s 10th anniversary by selecting one film I really should’ve seen from each of the previous ten years. That went well, so I repeated it in 2018; and that went well too, so I’m making it that little bit trickier this year (9.09% trickier, to be precise).

    The exact difference between the lists is that Blindspot is a ‘free choice’ of 12 films I personally feel I should’ve seen, whereas WDYMYHS is selected by analysing lists of great and/or popular movies to try to determine a consensus view of what I’m a fool to have missed. I vary which lists I consult, and how much value I put in them, year by year (to some extent, anyway). This year, the formula to calculate these picks was based on the three Top 250 lists that are tracked on iCheckMovies — the ones from IMDb, Reddit, and FOK! — plus They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?’s 1,000 Greatest Films. These lists were factored with various weightings to give the films a score. Then I applied a couple of rules: films had to appear on at least two of those lists, including at least one out of IMDb and TSPDT; I had to already have access to them (either on DVD, Blu-ray, or if they’re currently streaming on Netflix/Amazon/etc); and, as usual, no repeat directors. That led to a load of high-scoring films being passed over (I had to go as far down as #32 for my 12th pick).

    After all that, this is what I ended up with, in the order they finally scored (from highest to lowest)…


    Ikiru
    Ikiru


    Untouchable
    Untouchable


    The Gold Rush
    The Gold Rush


    Life is Beautiful
    Life is Beautiful


    All About Eve
    All About Eve


    Sherlock, Jr.
    Sherlock, Jr.


    The Thin Red Line
    The Thin Red Line


    Eyes Wide Shut
    Eyes Wide Shut


    The Red Shoes
    The Red Shoes


    Cool Hand Luke
    Cool Hand Luke


    The Royal Tenenbaums
    The Royal Tenenbaums


    Memories of Murder
    Memories of Murder

    Some noteworthy exclusions…

    • To Kill a Mockingbird actually made the list (in 6th), but it was on my list in 2015. I once had the rule that a film only had to sit out one year before being available for reinclusion, but, I dunno, I like mixing it up. But if I don’t watch it anyway during 2019, I might let it back in for 2020.
    • If I hadn’t ruled out films I don’t own, the “true top 12” (i.e. based on score alone) would’ve included In the Mood for Love, , Cinema Paradiso, Andrei Rublev, Come and See, and A Separation.
    • If I didn’t rule out repeat directors, Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid would’ve been in 8th place.
    • If I’d kept the “must own/have access to it” rule but allowed films that were only on one list, it would’ve included Dangal, Taare Zameen Par, Ordet, Ugetsu Monogatari, and Fanny & Alexander.
    • Finally, if I’d had to own it and have it on multiple lists, but it didn’t have to be on IMDb’s or TSPDT’s, then Scott Pilgrim vs. the World would’ve been the 12th film.

    Of course, just because something got cut out of my WDYMYHS, doesn’t mean I couldn’t choose to include it in my Blindspot picks…

    The Hunt (2012)

    aka Jagten

    2018 #195
    Thomas Vinterberg | 111 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Denmark & Sweden / Danish, English & Polish | 15 / R

    The Hunt

    Mads Mikkelsen stars as Lucas, a preschool teacher falsely accused of sexually abusing a child in his class, in this hard-hitting drama directed and co-written by Thomas Vinterberg, one of the co-founders of Dogme 95. That filmmaking movement is pretty firmly relegated to the past at this point, but its goals — to focus on story, acting, and theme — live on somewhat in powerful films like this.

    In this case, primarily, one of the film’s great strengths is how plausibly the matter is handled. There are no screaming histrionics and no raging against the world from Mikkelsen, as slowly the entire town turns against him based on a few misguided and poorly-understood words from a confused child. Instead, he mainly conveys a lot of quiet desperation — a man who knows he’s innocent but can’t work out how to prove it, and is increasingly hurt as people he called friends almost all turn against him. And that, I suspect, is how a real-life version of this would go down, despite what some of the film’s few critics would prefer to think: most people would hunker down and hope the law would come through to prove innocence, not go on some screaming rampage.

    Nonetheless, it’s quite a damning film in its view of society. Most of what happens is due to adults getting carried away, misspeaking, and jumping to assumptions. It begins with a lie told by a child, but the intent is not truly malicious, but then things spiral out of her control. It’s also, naturally, even more pertinent now than it would’ve been when it came out, with allegations and denials of sexual abuse ever more often in the news. Fortunately, The Hunt is a mature and considered film, with something to say for audiences to consider, rather than hysterically coming down on one ‘side’ of an argument.

    With friends like these, who needs enemies?

    That said, I’m not sure some viewers are mature enough to take the film in. I’ve come across more than a couple of reviews that didn’t like it just because it was a difficult film full of unlikeable people. Sorry, but that’s life — there are annoying, stupid people out there just like the ones depicted here. Yeah, it’d be better if these morons didn’t exist, but they do, and that’s how shit like this happens in real life. Just because dickheads are real, and many of the characters in this film are inspired by those dickheads, doesn’t make this a badly-made film for depicting them.

    Obviously this is in the writing, by Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm, and the way the former has translated it to the screen, but also the performances. Mikkelsen is fantastic, of course, offering a restrained and unassuming performance characterised by inner desperation that only occasionally leaks out, which makes the injustices against him feel all the more hurtful — it is, in the most literal way, not his fault. Even more incredible, however, is Annika Wedderkopp as the little girl who first accuses Lucas. I mean, with a child that young it’s as much the skill of the direction as the actress, but they’ve given real depth and nuance to her character. You can actually see and feel the conflicting emotions she’s struggling with written across her face, most of all in an extended scene where she’s first interviewed about her accusations, as she’s visibly torn between wanting to back out of the lie but also not wanting to be thought a liar.

    It's okay, that's his son

    It all comes together to make a movie that is plausible, powerful, and pertinent — and kinda depressing for it, to be frank. I don’t want to spoil the ending (though I will say: dog lovers beware), but however it turns out legally for Lucas, the film suggests the reality of such situations: that some people will always follow the maxim “there’s no smoke without fire”. Once accusations have been made, is there ever really any going back?

    5 out of 5

    The Hunt is on BBC Two tonight at 12:25am, and will be available on iPlayer for a week afterwards.

    It was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2018 project, which you can read more about here.

    The Conversation (1974)

    2017 #10
    Francis Ford Coppola | 114 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG

    The Conversation

    In the mind of writer-director Francis Ford Coppola, the concept for The Conversation started out as a puzzle, a story that used repetition to make the audience reconsider what they thought they knew — “not like Rashomon where you present it in different ways each time,” Coppola told Brian De Palma (in this interview, which is a must-read for anyone interested in the genesis and making of The Conversation). “Let them be the exact lines but have new meanings in context. In other words, as the film goes along, the audience goes with it because you are constantly giving them the same lines they’ve already heard, yet as they learn a little bit more about the situation they will interpret things differently.” That element is unquestionably still in the film — it propels its plot and generates its twist — but Coppola was a very character-driven filmmaker, and so he couldn’t help but flesh out the man who was listening to those lines over and over again.

    That man is Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), a professional eavesdropper — people pay him to record what other people are saying in private. When Coppola conceived the film, this was just an interesting world to play around in. By the time it was produced and released, Watergate had recently happened and the film could not have been more timely. Nonetheless, the end result is not merely an espionage mystery, but also a character study about what kind of man would perform this work. So we do see how Harry goes about his job, but these scenes are almost as much about telling us who this man is (methodical, thorough, clever, inventive) as they are about furthering the plot (which, naturally, they’re central to).

    Here he just looks like a toilet repair man...

    It’s also about how the job affects him. One part of that is paranoia — an obvious reaction when you think about it. Harry has multiple locks on apartment door, and one major early sequence is based around him trying to establish how a kindly neighbour had got in to leave him a gift — a seemingly innocuous thing, but the potential it holds has him terrified. Come the end of the film, such behaviour takes on a maddening new dimension. But perhaps an even bigger problem is conscience. Harry lies to himself about the nature of his work, because once upon a time a trio of deaths resulted from it. He says they weren’t his fault because he was just doing his job, but he still clearly carries the guilt of it, and that is what ultimately leads him into a new predicament. Not that that ends well either. Yes, it all comes to a very ’70s conclusion: bleak.

    Coppola’s original vision for the film, as a puzzle for the viewer to be solved, survives into the final cut, though anyone watching it just to solve the riddle may find it slow going at times. That’s because Coppola’s other filmmaking instinct, to explore character, has naturally taken hold, and so the movie is as much about the bugger as the bugging. And so it’s very much two things hand in hand: the mystery of what’s going on in the recording, and a study of the psychology of a man who does this for a living. It’s all the richer for being both.

    5 out of 5

    The Conversation was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

    Blindspot Sci-fi Roundup

    With my 2018 Blindspot and “What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen” selections now chosen, it’s about time I got on with reviewing those from the class of 2017 that are still in my “to do” pile. Here, then, are four more reviews of my 2017 must-sees, connected (as you may’ve guessed from the title) by all being works of science fiction.

    In today’s roundup:

  • District 9 (2009)
  • Moon (2009)
  • Her (2013)
  • Forbidden Planet (1956)


    District 9
    (2009)

    2017 #88
    Neill Blomkamp | 112 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | South Africa, USA, New Zealand & Canada / English | 15 / R

    District 9

    We begin this roundup with two 2009 sci-fi thrillers that made the names of their respective directors. District 9 got the wider attention, being backed by Peter Jackson and receiving a Best Picture Oscar nomination (alongside three other nods), but I’d argue it’s ultimately the lesser of the two films.

    Although District 9 remains highly praised, co-writer/director Neill Blomkamp’s next two movies — Elysium and Chappie — haven’t gone down so well. Having seen both of those first, I feel like there are a lot of structural and tonal similarities between all three films, so it’s interesting to me how poorly the next two were received. Basically, they all start with some kind of societal sci-fi issue, explore that for a bit as the world of the story is established, then transition into being a shoot-em-up actioner.

    In District 9’s case, it starts out as a documentary about (effectively) alien refugees who live in a segregated community in South Africa. The obvious real-world parallels are, well, obvious. Then events transpire which make the idea of having to identify with those who are Other than us — of becoming affected by their culture — very literal. Then it turns into an achieve-the-MacGuffin shoot-em-up runaround. It’s done well for what it is, with some strikingly gruesome weaponry to give the well-staged shootouts a different edge, but that’s still what it is. Presumably it was all the rather-obvious allegory stuff that helped land the film a Best Picture nomination, and the fact the second half is a not-that-original humans-vs-aliens shooter was overlooked.

    Not so different. Okay, pretty different.

    For me, the clunkiest bit is the storytelling style it adopts. It’s a mockumentary… until it decides it doesn’t want to be so that it can tell its story more effectively… but then it sometimes slips back into mockumentary later on, most notably at the end. I found that distracting and formally inconsistent. I’d rather it had kept up the mockumentary act throughout or not used it at all; or, if you’re going to do both documentary and ‘reality’, have a point to it — show differing versions of the truth, that kind of thing, don’t just mix it together willy-nilly.

    All told, I found District 9 to be a mixed bag. The first half is excitingly original and interestingly ideas-driven, with allegory that is powerful if perhaps a little heavy-handed (I suppose that’s kind of unavoidable when you make a movie about segregation and set it in South Africa). The second half is just a shoot-em-up.

    4 out of 5

    Moon
    (2009)

    2017 #145
    Duncan Jones | 97 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

    Moon

    The other 2009 sci-fi debut feature was that of director Duncan Jones. Although it received no Oscar love it did get a BAFTA, but seems to remain less seen: it has almost half as many user ratings on IMDb as District 9. Personally, I thought it was the superior film.

    It stars Sam Rockwell as the sole inhabitant of a mining facility on the Moon. As the end of his tour of duty approaches, his investigation in a malfunction unearths a startling secret. To say any more would spoil things, though Moon gets to its reveal pretty speedily. Also, you may’ve guessed it from the trailers (I more or less did). Also, it’s nine years old now and you’ve probably seen it — though, as those IMDb numbers show, maybe not.

    If you haven’t, it’s definitely worth seeking out. Like so much good sci-fi, it uses its imagined situation as impetus to explore the effect on its characters (or, in this case, character) and what the human reaction would be in such a situation. Maybe this is becoming a cliché already, but it’s quite like an episode of Black Mirror in that regard. (Isn’t all sci-fi that puts a high concept through the ringer of human experience “like Black Mirror”? Such stuff existed before that series. That said, maybe there wasn’t as much of it.)

    It's like looking in a mirror. A black mirror.

    Jones marked himself out as a director to watch with his attentiveness to character in the midst of his SF setting, but also by helming an excellently realised production on a tight budget — the moonbase set looks great and the model effects are perfect. A major reason I reckon it’s clearly better than District 9 is this consistency of style and tone. It’s a film that better knows what it wants to be and how to achieve its intended effect.

    As for Jones, he went on to make Source Code, a solid follow-up, but then seemed to throw a lot of talent away on the risible Warcraft. Hopefully his forthcoming Netflix Original, Mute, will restore the balance.

    5 out of 5

    Her
    (2013)

    2017 #165
    Spike Jonze | 126 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Her

    If Moon is “a bit like an episode of Black Mirror”, Spike Jonze’s Her virtually is one. Set in a highly plausible near future — which has clearly been developed from our current obsession with our phones, iPads, digital assistants, etc — it stars Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore, a lonely chap who gets a new operating system based around a genuine AI, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). As Samantha develops, she and Theodore soon become friends, and then more.

    People often refer to the template of Black Mirror as “what if technology but MORE”, and Her definitely fulfils that brief: “what if Siri was genuinely intelligent and someone fell in love with her?” Also like an episode of Black Mirror, it’s as much about what this reveals about humanity as it is about the crazy sci-fi concept. It’s primarily a romance about a lonely guy who was hurt in the past finding a new connection, with the fact he’s falling in love with a piece of technology almost secondary. Even within the world of the film, he’s not some kind of outcast: we hear about other people who’ve fallen for their AI, and his friends unquestioningly accept his relationship as genuine.

    Such acceptance doesn’t translate into our current world, it seems. Although Her is generally very well liked, some people struggle to engage with it at all, and from what I can tell that mostly stems from them not being able to relate to Theodore and his situation, i.e. the very concept of falling in love with an AI is too impossible for them to even imagine. I can’t help but feel that says more about those viewers (for good or ill) than it does the film, which executes the storyline with a great deal of believability and heart.

    5 out of 5

    Forbidden Planet
    (1956)

    2017 #172
    Fred McLeod Wilcox | 98 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | U / G

    Forbidden Planet

    This classic sci-fi adventure sees a spaceship crewed by blokes (led by Leslie Nielsen) land on the planet Altair IV to investigate what happened to a previous mission there. They find it inhabited only by Dr Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), his robot servant Robby, and his beautiful daughter Altaira (Anne Francis), who perpetually wears short skirts and has a fondness for skinny-dipping. Turns out the crew are a right bunch of horndogs (they spend most of their time lusting after Altaira, tricking her into kissing them and stuff like that), but there are bigger problems afoot when the planet starts trying to kill them.

    Once it gets past everyone’s lustfulness (it feels uncomfortably like watching the filmmakers play out some personal fantasies), there are proper big sci-fi ideas driving Forbidden Planet. There are also some gloriously pulpy action sequences, like a fight against an invisible monster. It’s backed up by great special effects. Obviously they’ve all dated in one way or another, but much of it still looks fantastic for its time — the set extensions, in particular, are magnificent.

    Nothing's forbidden on this planet, wink wink

    Something I wasn’t expecting (but I’m certainly not the first to note) is how blatantly the film was an influence on Star Trek. You can even map the similarities between characters pretty precisely. Switch out the spaceship models and original-flavour Star Trek is all but Forbidden Planet: The Series.

    Although its gender politics have aged even less well than its special effects, and its story occasionally gets bogged down by stretches of explanatory dialogue (it sometimes feels like you’re watching the writer invent and explain his ideas in real-time), Forbidden Planet remains a mostly enjoyable SF classic.

    4 out of 5

    District 9 and Forbidden Planet were viewed as part of my Blindspot 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

    Moon and Her were viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

  • What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2018

    In an emulation of last year, in 2018 I’m setting myself the goal of watching not only a dozen Blindspot films, but also a decad WDYMYHS movies. Last year there was a reason for this (marking my tenth blogiversary); this year, I’m doing it just because it worked before.

    In another similarity to last year, my Blindspot list is a ‘free choice’ selected from films I either already own or have ready access to (i.e. they’re available on Netflix / Amazon Prime / etc), while my WDYMYHS list is chosen by mixing together lists of must-see movies to find those that consensus says I should’ve seen.

    To select this year’s ten, I noted films from IMDb’s Top 250 (or whatever they want to call it nowadays) that I already owned or had ready access to, then saw which were also on They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?’s 1,000 Greatest Films. Then I narrowed that long-list to films that also helped complete a list on iCheckMovies. After ruling out Princess Mononoke under my old “no duplicate directors” rule (because I really wanted to include Nausicaä on my Blindspot list; and also because I’d already had a shot at Mononoke during 2015’s list), these were my final ten — listed here in whatever order they ended up ranked.


    Das Boot


    The Lives of Others


    Full Metal Jacket


    Stalker


    Amadeus


    Scarface


    Ran


    Casino


    The Elephant Man


    Rocky

    Exciting observation: six of them are from the ’80s. No idea how or why that came about.