The Man from Earth (2007)

aka Jerome Bixby’s The Man from Earth

2011 #98
Richard Schenkman | 87 mins | DVD | 1.78:1 | USA / English | PG

The Man from EarthIMDb’s Top Rated lists tend to be full of films you’ve heard of; the kind of features that are sufficiently well-known to have been seen by a lot of people and so attract enough qualifying votes, and are well-regarded enough (be that critically or the baying masses) for those votes to be fairly high. So The Man from Earth has been an odd fixture on the Top 50 Sci-Fi Films for the last few years. It’s a low-budget, low-key feature from a TV writer (the titular Jerome Bixby) that stars mainly TV actors (the kind of faces recognisable to those who watched a lot of ’90s US SF and no one else). It’s not very widely seen, but has managed to maintain a permanent place on the list’s lower end for years now, despite increased awareness no doubt due to that very list (the number of votes it’s received has gone up considerably; as of this posting it sits at 42nd, whereas I swear it used to be in the top 25).

So does it deserve its place? Well, that’s a trickier question. The low-budget roots show through plainly: it’s all shot on grainy digital video, looking cheaper than even lower-end TV shows do these days, and all takes place in one location where a group of characters sit around and have a natter. You could perform it on stage and not have to lose anything. But that doesn’t make it inherently bad, just more surprising that it’s upheld its place on a public-voted list. You can see reviews on IMDb that bemoan the digital video, the wordy script, and so on, and yet they’re clearly not influential enough to pull it down.

The Pout from EarthJudged on its own terms, however, The Man from Earth is what one might call Proper Science Fiction. Most films classed as sci-fi just feature aliens or what have you; they’re space opera, or just action movies where Americans fight off-planet enemies instead of out-of-country enemies; the kind of thing Ray Bradbury termed fantasy rather than sci-fi (I’m inclined to agree, but that’s a discussion for another time). Instead of Shooting And Blowing Up Stuff, or even comedy antics with a twist, The Man from Earth deals in Ideas.

To say too much might spoil the setup, though I imagine it’s given away in the blurb, but let me try anyway: a college professor has decided to quit his job and move on, trying to slink away without anyone noticing; his friends and colleagues arrive at his house to cheer him on his way, but get sidetracked into a long discussion about a revelation he has for them. Something like that. This is why its IMDb place continues to surprise me — because the wider voting audience generally don’t like movies where nothing happens but chat.

As you may have guessed from repeated statements of surprise, I don’t think The Man from Earth is for everyone. You have to be able to look past the budget production values, the occasionally lower-end-TV level acting, the limitations of setting and action. If you sit down to view it as a filmed discussion between friends that you are a silent part of, The Cast from Earthand are prepared for all the slowness of pace that involves (because compare the experience of doing anything in real life for an hour and a half to how much gets crammed into a movie’s 90 minutes — that’s the speed Man from Earth moves), and are open to a movie that posits an idea and then explores it — including twists and turns of variable merit — then you might enjoy this film. I did.

I’ll continue to be surprised by its IMDb placement (unless it ever drops off, of course), but I’m glad it’s there. Whether it’s one of the 50 best sci-fi films of all time, I’m not sure, but it’s the kind of SF that should be on the list, and if by being there it reaches a broader audience than it would otherwise, that’s a very good thing.

4 out of 5

And that concludes the reviews for 2011! I’ll try not to take until June next year.

The A-Team: Explosive Extended Edition (2010)

2011 #100
Joe Carnahan | 134 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12

The A-TeamI’m a bit young to have experienced seminal ’80s TV series The A-Team first time round, though I swear I caught some repeats when I was young — enough that I know the basic premise but can’t specifically recall ever seeing any of it. Which means I approach this big screen update with perhaps a different mindset to someone who has a distinct opinion (be that good or bad) on the original.

As it’s presented here, The A-Team is an origin story. A double origin story, in fact: a long pre-titles sequence (technically a title sequence) shows us how the four guys originally met each other, before the main plot expands on the famous opening voice over — the whole “a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit” bit. The film is set today, unsurprisingly, with Vietnam switched for the Middle East. The action roams around the globe a bit, not that it really matters where it occurs. The lead cast seem to gel well, which is good for the humour quotient. There’s not enough use of the cool theme tune for my liking — they don’t use it on the title card or to kick off the end credits. What?

As it’s presented here, The A-Team is a lighthearted action movie. We’re in broadly the same vein as RED and Knight and Day, both of which were released the same year — clearly there was something in the water. You might also make a comparison to Shoot ‘Em Up, or even the Rush Hour films. All films that are primarily about action (well, maybe not Knight and Day) but done with a wink or a nudge, and certainly not po-faced seriousness. ShenanigansAs much as I like serious action, I enjoy this kind of film too. I gave RED four stars; Shoot ‘Em Up the same. You may see where this is going. I am, once again, probably being too generous.

As it’s presented here, The A-Team is a bit silly. If you’ve seen the trailer you know there’s a bit where they fall out of a plane in a tank. Then they battle with fighter jets from this free-falling tank. Clearly no one is meant to think this is actually possible. At least, I hope they’re not; I didn’t read it as the filmmakers trying to sell it as plausible. Carnahan and co are not shooting for a Bourne vibe here. As I see it, your reaction to that tank bit in the trailer will dictate your reaction to the whole film: if you thought it looked bloody stupid, extrapolate; if you thought it looked frickin’ cool, extrapolate; if you thought, like me, that it looked enjoyably far-fetched, extrapolate.

As it’s presented here, The A-Team is an “Explosive Extended Edition”, which is a funny name for it because nearly all the additions are dialogue — no explosions, barely any new action, mostly just people talking for one reason or another. It totals just under 15 minutes longer (I don’t think there are any cuts involved in that, just extensions or alternate takes). If you enjoy the film’s humorous side and the banter between the leads, this version would seem to be superior; A plan comes togetherif that doesn’t or didn’t interest you, there’s no need for it. That said, one scene is apparently “big and puts some drama and emotion into the movie, maybe a bit too much for a PG rating”. (In the UK, both cuts are rated 12, despite some additional bad language and the fact the theatrical version was cut for language to get said 12. Ah, the BBFC.) There’s a full list of changes here, if you’re interested.

The A-Team is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. I know some people only like their action po-faced; others just won’t think it clicks at what it’s trying to do; I don’t know if it measures up for fans of the original (nearly two years after its theatrical release, I imagine they know by now anyway). It didn’t go down well enough to earn a sequel, and that disappoints me a little — it was everything I expected from the trailer and I enjoyed it as much as I hoped I would. Can’t say fairer than that.

4 out of 5

X-Men: First Class (2011)

2011 #60
Matthew Vaughn | 132 mins | cinema/Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

Superhero films have been a significant regular part of the summer movie season for over a decade now, but this year really looks like it’s going to take the biscuit: The Avengers obliterated box office records Stateside last weekend, and has spent most of the week knocking down more worldwide; there’s a Batman sequel/finale to look forward to, which everyone has been expecting to do the same; and sandwiched somewhere between the two is a Spider-Man reboot that, provided it doesn’t get dwarfed by the other two and/or poor reviews, is likely to make a pretty penny. (If I recall correctly, the initial Raimi Spidey film was the first movie ever to make over $100m in its opening weekend; and now, 10 years later, The Avengers is the first to beat $200m — how neat.)

But that’s all still to come (I haven’t even seen The Avengers yet myself, and I won’t now until at least sometime next week, for various reasons. Grr.) Instead, here’s a review of my personal favourite from last year’s crop of comic book adaptations — indeed, I ranked it the second best film I saw all year.

I made sure to see First Class soon after its cinema release back in June 2011 — an increasingly-rare cinema trip for me (previous one before this was Inception in July 2010), and even rarer to go so quickly, but it earnt it as probably my most anticipated movie of the summer. I’ve been a fan of the X-Men since the ’90s animated series was a defining part of my childhood; Matthew Vaughn has become one of my favourite filmmakers thanks to Stardust and Kick-Ass, both of which earnt 5 stars and spots on my end-of-year top 10s (and Layer Cake was 4-star-ly entertaining too); and the idea of doing a superhero film that was definitively set in a specific point in the past (namely the early ’60s), rather than the perpetual Now of every other entry in the sub-genre, is the kind of thing creative fans long for but risk-averse studios rarely greenlight. Plus the trailers looked brilliant.

So my long-held high anticipation (unlike many whingy comic-continuity-obsessed inexplicably-Vaughn-dubious internet fanboys, who needed the trailer to even consider thinking the film might be good) led me to the cinema quickly. Why so long to post a review, then? Because I’ve been waiting for Blu-ray to see it properly.*

As “Film fans”, rather than “movie consumers”, we’re supposed to believe 35mm cinema projection is the best way to view a film, rather than the cold hard digital realm that’s taking over, or the home cinema that is increasingly the viewing location of choice as people seek to avoid inflated ticket prices and noisy crowds, and gain a huge degree of convenience in the process. Well, sod that. I saw X-Men on 35mm. It was blurry, the sound was muffly. I saw a clip in a summer movies trailer just a few days later when I saw Pirates 4 in 3D (i.e. digitally projected), and had a genuine moment of, “oh, that’s how it’s meant to look”. So thank God for Blu-ray — never mind prices, crowds or watching when I want, the real advantage is seeing it as sharp as a pin and being able to hear everything the characters are saying. I can enjoy the cinema experience, but at the end of the day it’s about the film, and if the only way to see, hear and appreciate it properly is to watch it 5+ months later on a much smaller screen from a digital source, so be it. The fact that it’s usually cheaper to buy the Blu-ray to own forever than take two people to see it just once doesn’t hurt either.

But I digress massively. X-Men: First Class takes us back to the origins of the X-Men (at least, the movie-universe X-Men): it’s the 1960s, mutants aren’t widely known about yet, Charles Xavier is uncovering some interesting ideas at Oxford, and Erik Lehnsherr is travelling the world taking revenge for Nazi atrocities. But when some Evil People are plotting to do Something Nasty, the US government winds up bringing them together, and the road to establishing the X-Men begins…

I should give up on plot summaries again, I never write good ones. There’s so much more to First Class than that might suggest. Firstly, it’s very much a prequel to the other X-Men films, rather than a reboot. So no Cyclops and co in the original team-up, which really annoys some fanboys, but pfft, it doesn’t matter. It’s fair to say the characters who make up the eventual first X-Men team aren’t as iconic or memorable, but that’s fine because here they’re just supporting characters. This is the story of two other young men, Xavier and Lehnsherr, aka Professor X and Magneto.

You need some pretty fine talent to replace two of our greatest actors — Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, of course — and in Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy you certainly have that. Fassbender carries much of the emotional weight of the film, and certainly received much of the praise from critics, but it’s thanks to McAvoy’s support that the film is lifted to a higher level. He provides calm, humour and fundamental decency to balance Fassbender’s rage and emotion. What’s fascinating about them as characters is that they are half-formed people. That is to say, while they are Wise Old Men by the time of X-Men, here they are still flawed and finding their way; witness Charles’ insensitivity toward Raven, for instance. That’s quite aside from all the little character-building touches. It all builds to the fantastic, heartbreaking climax on the beach. I’d also say it adds weight to the relationship between McKellen and Stewart in the original X films. Not significantly, perhaps, because those films are about other things, but I think you can feel their shared history more keenly.

The rest of the cast is suitably well equipped. There’s 2011 Best Actress Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence as Raven, aka Mystique. Little more than a henchman designed to bring sex appeal in the trilogy, here she’s given a significant degree of backstory that makes her an important piece of the overall series. Indeed, she comes across as woefully underused if you watch X-Men after this — the flipside to the Xavier-Lehnsherr relationship working better, if you will. There’s also Kevin Bacon, playing his second superhero villain in as many years, who does sterling work as a former Nazi seeking world domination — remember the ’60s, when world domination was a valid aim for a villain? There’s more than a little Bond in the mix here.

Rounding out, we have the likes of Vaughn regular and perpetual “I’m only doing it for the money”-er Jason Flemyng, in an almost dialogue-free part that, while visually striking, doesn’t fare much better than his Kick-Ass ‘cameo’ in terms of screen time. There’s also a very flat (in every way apart from her frequently highlighted chest) turn from January Jones as a villainous sidekick, feeling every bit like the last-minute casting she was (after various other actresses walked away — considering the small size of both the role and costume, I can see why). Plus Rose Byrne, who’s always worth mentioning.

Much was made in some circles of a rushed production schedule leading to some of the film’s flaws. I think that’s only an issue because people know it could be one, because (on second viewing especially) I noted no such problems. The earlier parts are probably the film’s best — with Lehnsherr and Moira being all Bond-y, and Kevin Bacon’s Shaw being very much a Bond villain, making it feel more like a big ’60s spy thriller than a superhero movie in many ways — and when it tries to introduce an X-Men team made up of second-string leftover characters it loses its way slightly. But balance is everything with ensemble casts like this, and watching the film again gives a better perspective on its pace and its actual balance. First time through these things are distorted because you don’t know how far through the story you are, how long’s left, how long each scene will last, and so on; a second time, with an idea of where it’s going and so forth, you can better appreciate how it’s all actually weighed up, and I think First Class achieves a balance better than most have given it credit for.

Also worthy of a mention is Henry Jackman’s score. He gives us brilliant driving, menacing action themes, alongside some evocative ’60s stuff too, especially when they’re on the hunt for mutants for instance. I love a good blockbuster movie score, and this is definitely one of those.

Perhaps the thing that most impressed me about First Class, however, was its genuine sense of spectacle. The climax features master-of-magnetism Magneto hoisting a submarine out of the ocean with his powers. That’s not a spoiler, it’s in the trailers — so we’d all seen it going in. And we’re in an era of anything-goes CGI — nothing looks impressive any more because we know not only that it can be done, but how it was done too (greenscreen and pixels, essentially). But that’s not what happens, at least for me, especially on the big screen.

Between Vaughn’s direction, Jackman’s score, Fassbender and McAvoy’s performances, plus those of other supporting cast members, and sterling work by the visual effects team(s), the moment when that submarine floats dripping into the sky is hair-raising. It played to me as a moment of genuine cinematic spectacle; the kind of thing you used to get when big stunts had to be done for real somehow. It’s not a feeling I expected to get from a new film ever again.

I’ve mentioned a couple of times how it ties in to the earlier (set later) films in the series, and how some complained about it messing up X-Men comics lore. But this is an adaptation — it’s not beholden to what’s established in the comics. And it’s working around fitting into the world of the later films, so of course they’re not going to have Cyclops in a ’60s X-team, and so on. It’s a complete non-issue for non-fans, and the same for any open-minded fans who realise they’re not trying to faithfully bring the X-Men canon to the big screen. Earlier films should already have shattered that illusion anyway.

As to the former, it largely fits well with the earlier films. There might be some questions about ages and events not lining up precisely (especially with the flashbacks in The Last Stand), but these are minor points that I think we can overlook for the overall quality of the film. Largely, a use of certain effects, call-forwards, cameos and little touches here and there really tie it in to the existing films. You don’t need to have seen them to get this — indeed, I imagine the ultimate way to experience it would be with no foreknowledge whatsoever of where Charles & Erik’s relationship is going — but for all those of us who have, it works very nicely.

Yet despite these links, and the 40(-ish)-year gap between the end of this story and the start of X-Men, if First Class never received a follow-up it would work perfectly as a standalone ’60s X-Men film. But I’m ever so glad we’re getting more, because I want to see this crew and this cast tell us more stories of the X-Men.

After seeing First Class in the cinema I thought to myself that, while I would dearly love to give it a full five stars, in all good conscience I couldn’t; for whatever reason, it didn’t quite come together enough. Watching it again on Blu-ray, however, I’ve completely changed my mind: I wouldn’t change a thing. All my anticipation is more than paid off — I love this movie.

5 out of 5

X-Men: First Class placed 2nd on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2011, which can be read in full here.

* That was released back in October 2011, I know. The rest is general tardiness. ^

La Règle du jeu (1939)

aka The Rules of the Game

2011 #44
Jean Renoir | 106 mins | TV (HD) | 4:3 | France / French | PG

I watched La Règle du jeu a year ago today, possibly the longest time I’ve ever waited before posting a review. I actually wrote this months and months ago, but sort of intended to re-watch it (especially as it’s been on Film4 plenty) to try to craft something better. But I still haven’t, and with a whole 12 months gone by — and plenty of new films needing to be watched — I’ve decided just to post this and be done with.

And it’s halfway through April and there’s still three more reviews from last year to post, never mind the nearly-40 from this year.

La Regle du jeuSometimes you watch one of the most acclaimed films of all time and find yourself with very little to say about it. La Règle du jeu — or, as it’s commonly known in America thanks to Criterion’s incessant title translation (in fairness, that’s probably the most sensible way to combat the mass attitude of “argh! it’s in Foreign!”), The Rules of the Game* — is certainly one of those films. Regularly voted into the top three on Greatest Films Ever Made lists, it sits at exactly #3 on the last iterations of both They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?’s 1000 Greatest Films and Sight & Sound‘s decennial Top 10 (one of only two films to have appeared in all six to date; the new one’s later this year).

“RULES OF THE GAME, the mutant, French cousin of DOWNTON ABBEY”
Patton Oswalt

What little I can say is that it’s a farce, but also a drama, which clearly has Something To Say — I believe I read that Renoir said it’s intended to be more about the lifestyle and the time it’s set than it is about a story. That kind of idea can often lead to pretension, but here it works. The story is simple yet complicated — it’s all about people having various affairs, basically, but there’s a lot of them and they’re constantly shifting. I’m not sure how Proper Film Critics would feel about this link, but I felt a certain affinity for Gosford Park while watching. Either I’m being plebby and there’s nothing substantial there, or that’s something that merits a more considered comparison. There’s some great camerawork — not flashy, not drawing attention to itself, but a lovely use of long takes, fluid movement and deep focus to keep the action flowing seamlessly.

And I agree, it is very good, but unlike Citizen Kane (which I instantly admired, though really need to see again to shake off the shackles of its Importance and just appreciate by itself — hello, Blu-ray!), I didn’t really see why it’s often rated so highly. I imagine there’s something I’m missing; possibly some historical significance. The Rules of the GameThere’s a lot packed in, and I can see how multiple viewings could reveal even more going on. Perhaps a better researched awareness of the period (beyond the obvious Eve Of War, though that’s important) and of French class structure at the time is necessary to get the full richness of Renoir’s vision. The fact it was banned by the French government due to being bad for morale, then also banned by the occupying Nazis, suggests it did have a lot of social relevance.

Not one of my favourites, then, but a definite “must try again”.

4 out of 5

* OK, this ‘criticism’ doesn’t stand-up to much scrutiny — it’s not like every UK DVD/Blu-ray release of a foreign film has the original language title on it. But I was inspired by the fact the BFI DVD does call La Règle du jeu by its original title, and numerous other foreign films retain their original titles on UK releases too, whereas you rarely see a Criterion release without a translated title. I also appreciate there’s some kind of cultural snobbery involved in this comment even coming to mind. For these reasons I was going to delete the comment, only I liked part of it too much. So much for kill your babies.

Um, anyway… ^

Nativity! (2009)

2011 #94
Debbie Isitt | 106 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | UK / English | U / PG

Nativity!Yes, this is exactly the kind of review I should be posting in April. But hey, it’s Easter! That’s about Jesus too, right? (It’ll have to do, I’m not hanging on ’til next Christmas.)

Nativity! comes from writer-director Debbie Isitt, previously responsible for the entertaining part-improvised comedy Confetti, and this fits in a similar vein… albeit more family-friendly than a movie featuring Robert Webb and Olivia Colman as nudists. This one sees Confetti’s Martin Freeman as a primary school teacher charged with producing his school’s nativity, which always gets bad reviews in the local paper (do any local papers really review nativities?) while their rival private school always gets glowing endorsements. To make matters worse, the other school’s nativity director is an old friend/rival (Confetti’s Jason Watkins), and he must deal with an enthusiastic but unprofessional new classroom assistant (Confetti’s Marc Wootton), and there’s some stuff about his ex-girlfriend (Extra’s Ashley Jensen) who’s gone to LA, and it’s all quite straightforward when you watch it but I’m making a right pig’s ear of describing it. This is why I didn’t use to bother trying to include plot summaries.

It’s not wholly my fault — it’s kind of a daft plot, really. It’s played relatively straight and realist, but it goes off that beaten track at times. Which I suppose is fine — why not, after all? Christmas spiritNo one promised grim social realism — it’s a Christmas family film, with some moral messages and a sort of romance and sweet kids and a cute dog. And regular readers know how much I love a cute dog.

It’s also cheesy and silly, with an ending so packed with sentimentality it could make Spielberg look like a grumpy spoilsport. But in a feel-good Christmas-time film I think that’s mostly allowed. It’s not deep or meaningful, and it’s not cutting edge or shocking, but it has a charm and a sweetness that sit well at that time of year. The kind of film you flop on the sofa, shove your brain in to neutral, and tuck in to a box of chocolates while smiling along.

Try watching this at any other time of year (like, er, now) and you can knock a star off, but over the Christmas period it’s a fluffily entertaining diversion. Maybe I should’ve held this review back after all.

4 out of 5

Super (2010)

2011 #71
James Gunn | 96 mins* | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

SuperIf Kick-Ass was the fantasy version of “ordinary man becomes superhero” then Super is the hard-hitting, suitably-silly, ‘real’ version. And it’s not often you get to describe a film in which God rips the roof off a house, reaches down with anime-inspired tentacles, slices open a man’s head and plants an idea in his mind — literally — as “hard-hitting” and “real”.

It stars The Office’s Rainn Wilson as odd diner cook Frank, whose wife (Liv Tyler) leaves him for a local drug dealer (Kevin Bacon). Inspired by a cheap TV show starring Christian superhero the Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion) — and the aforementioned finger of God — Frank sets out to fight crime as costumed hero the Crimson Bolt. Researching power-less heroes at the local comic shop, Frank meets Libby (Ellen Page), whose equal weirdness leads to her helping him and becoming his sidekick.

Super seems ready-made for cult status. Not in the self-conscious way of something like Snakes on a Plane, but in the genuine way of a film that’s quirky and different. It’s a comedy, but one with brutally realistic violence and visions of demons and faces in vomit. Unlike Kick-Ass (the blatantly obvious point of comparison, not least because they were made and released around the same time), He's in your hoodwhich moves fairly swiftly into the fantasy of being a successful superhero, Super stays quite grounded. The ending allows itself to be a little more triumphantly heroic, but not far beyond the bounds of realism (unlike Kick-Ass).

It emphasises the likely real-life difficulties of being a ‘superhero’. Frank has to get out books on sewing to make his awkward patchwork costume; he goes out on patrol, only to find no crime whatsoever; when he finds out where the drug dealers are, he gets beaten up; other crime he fights include “butting in line” (or, as we’d call it on this side of the Atlantic, queue jumping) or car-keying; and half the people recognise Frank despite his mask. No mob-level gangsters played by Mark Strong here.

Realism is the overriding principle throughout, from characters to dialogue to acting to fighting to direction. Obviously Frank’s visions (the tentacles, the demons, the vomit-face) are extremely not-real, but as representations of his mental delusions thy get a pass. Gunn’s direction has a rough, ultra-low-budget feel, yet can be quite stylishly put together when it needs to be, suggesting he’s made a choice rather than isn’t capable of something slicker. It’s even more effective at making the film seem real-world than the usual Hollywood handheld-and-grainy schtick that passes for realism.

Gunn says that his film is “about the deconstruction of the superhero myth. Who is Spider-Man or Batman? We assume that they are heroic characters but, Messed-up heroesreally, they are deciding something is right and something else is wrong”. The psychology of superheroes has been a factor to one degree or another for decades now, not least the Batman films making the parallel between the hero and his villains, but the difference in Super is it’s not a parallel — it’s primarily the heroes who are messed up. The villains are criminals and quite nasty at times, but they’re mostly quite normal. They may deserve their comeuppance, but wisely — and interestingly — they’re not over-written or over-played to heighten them to the level of the psycho-hero. The Crimson Bolt is a sledgehammer to crack a nut, even more so than Batman in Begins or (of course) Kick-Ass. Those two are at least going up against the top of big organised crime; Crimson Bolt just faces a local drug dealer.

The heroes are disturbed even outside their chosen vocation: Frank has weird visions, odd catchphrases, extreme reactions to relatively trivial things; Libby is secretly ultra-violent, gets off on their costumes, etc. Gunn says the film asks if it’s “psychotic for someone to put on a mask and a cape and go out and battle what they perceive as being ‘evil’?”, but I don’t think it sets out to specifically psychoanalyse these people. Still, it makes clear how barmy you’d have to be to give the superhero thing a go yourself. That said, Gunn argues that “I don’t think [Frank] necessarily is crazy.Boltie Super is about a troubled human being and his relationship with faith, morality and what he perceives as his calling… I think that is part of why we gave him Ellen Page as a sidekick — because her character, Boltie, actually is insane. The Crimson Bolt is not doing what he does because he enjoys hurting people but Boltie is and that is the difference between the two of them. It starts to become a concern when you enjoy the violence.”

A great cast brings these factors out with ease. Wilson does deranged hero well, not overplaying the comedy side of it. Page is suitably hyper as Libby, capturing a particular facet of The Youth of Today perfectly (again). Bacon is a fantastic villain, not so much menacing or psychopathic as just… I don’t know. That’s almost why it’s so good: it’s hard to say where he’s gone with it. Also worth singling out is Michael Rooker, playing Bacon’s top henchman, Abe. It could have been quite a basic henchman part, but he makes it more with expressions and line delivery (certainly more that than the lines themselves). He’s the only one on the villain’s side who realises the Crimson Bolt might actually be a threat. You kind of want him to cone through in the end, to turn good and live; but he does his job, which is probably truer.

All-action climaxFor all its grounded reality, Super lets loose in the final fifteen minutes, creating a punch-packing sequence that’s the rival of any comic book movie. It’s emotionally-charged action, all the more powerful for its semi-amateur-ness and realistic brutality. It climaxes in a face-to-face between our hero and the villain which is as good as any you’ll find in such a film. Is it revelling in the extremity of its violence? You might argue it is, but I don’t think it’s celebrating its gore so much as the triumph of its hero. And that’s followed by a neat epilogue, which I won’t reveal details of but is a kind of ending I’ve been wanting to see for a while.

Between the comedy, the ultra-violence, the rough edges, the slick climax, the characters’ silly catchphrases, the well-worded climactic face-off, you could argue Super has an uneven tone. I would disagree, as would Gunn: “I agree that the structure and tone of this film is very atypical… I enjoy films that surprise me and which are not formulaic and take twists and turns that I do not see coming. My life doesn’t roll along to just one ‘tone’ — one day it might be a comedy and the next a tragedy”. I’ve said in the past and I’m sure I’ll say it again: I wish more po-faced dramas would realise this.

All the technical elements come together to support the film’s main thrust. There’s a great soundtrack, mixing some choice bits of score by Tyler Bates, finding the appropriate quirky tone generally but adjusting to an action vibe for the climax, with an obscure selection of songs that seem well-chosen but not too heavy-handed. As an example, it includes Good eggsa decade-old track by Sweden’s 2007 Eurovision entry (they came 18th of 24. Don’t laugh — we were joint 22nd). And, despite the low budget, there’s great special effects. The tentacles are the rival of any big-budget movie; the blood and guts are all gruesomely realistic, not filmicly censored or reduced or cheaply fake; handdrawn-style Batman “kapow”s (etc) are very effective. The title sequence, in a similar style as the latter, but with a dance routine, is also a ton of fun.

So, to the big question: is Super better than Kick-Ass? I’m not sure. Personally, I loved them both. Some people will hate both, perhaps for different reasons. Gunn acknowledges there’s a definite connection: “I understand why people keep mentioning Kick-Ass… but let me clear this up. I wrote the script to Super in 2003 and worked on it for a long time… I think that the similarities are apparent, but I still wanted to get this story out there. I think what works in our favour is that people think it looks like Kick-Ass on the outside but when they see it they realise that we are less cartoonish and maybe a little more unpredictable.”

I certainly agree that it’s to Super’s advantage that it’s quite different to a regular film; more uniquely styled than Kick-Ass’s mainstream aims. Indeed, as Gunn also says,Fight! “I think that so many movies today try to be everything to all people and I’m a little sick of it. Super is not for everyone. It is for some people.” And for the people it’s for, I think it’s exceptional. If you were to compile a list of the greatest superhero movies, I believe Super’s unique style and perspective — plus its excellent climax — would earn itself a place right near the top.

5 out of 5

Super is on Sky Movies Premiere from tonight at 12:15am, continuing all week.

Super placed 5th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2011, which can be read in full here.

All quotes taken from an article by Calum Waddell in Judge Dredd Megazine #313.

* I first watched Super on the UK Blu-ray, where it runs 92 minutes thanks to PAL speed-up. The US BD (my second viewing) runs the correct 96. Image quality was better too, I thought, though if you’re considering a purchase do note it’s Region A locked. ^

Catwoman (2011)

aka DC Showcase: Catwoman

2011 #85a
Lauren Montgomery | 15 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA / English | 12

CatwomanIncluded on releases of Batman: Year One, Catwoman is an action-orientated short starring Catwoman (obviously) chasing down gangster Rough Cut because two of his goons tried to shoot a puddytat. OK, there’s more to her motivation than that, but that’d spoil the ending.

Being a short it has a brief plot, especially as Montgomery seems to have decided to make it all about the action, be that a car chase, a punch-up, or a striptease — of which there are two. But this is PG-13-ish animation, so don’t fret, it’s all cleavage and conveniently draped hair. That said, such gratuitousness could just add fuel to the fire of those who objected to DC’s controversial portrayal of Catwoman in her New 52 title the other month. This emphasis works well for a short — the plot is slight because there’s no time to develop it, there’s not much dialogue, just a visual feast of fluid fighting.

The titular womanThe quality of the action sequences outweigh anything seen in the main Year One feature. They’re original, exciting and very fluidly animated. Apparently Montgomery is known in fan circles for liking a bit of violence and trying to add it to the action in DCU films she’s worked on, and that’s in evidence here too. It gives it an edge, I think.

If you like a bit of animated action, this is a satisfying and well-staged piece.

4 out of 5

The Gruffalo’s Child (2011)

2011 #94a
Johannes Weiland & Uwe Heidschötter | 26 mins | TV | 16:9 | UK / English | U

The Gruffalo's ChildShown on BBC One over Christmas, this animated adaptation of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s The Gruffalo’s Child is the sequel to the Oscar-nominated adaptation of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s The Gruffalo (of course). For my money, it’s every bit as good as the first film.

Indeed, you could re-read my review of the first film and apply the same comments here. The pace is still considered — or, to be less polite, slow; but beautifully so. Though this time they’ve thrown some action sequences into the mix (yes, action sequences) to help round out the short picture book to a full half-hour film. Perhaps surprisingly, they work. The voice cast are the same, with the addition of Shirley Henderson as the titular girl-beast, and she fits in perfectly.

The CG animation retains the original’s “is it claymation?” feel, though the wintry setting allows the animators to really show off with some truly stunning snow. Most of the film goes for an appropriately cartoony style, but the various types of frozen water on display could pass for the real thing.

Lovely stuff, then, and thankfully every bit the equal of the first (which, in my opinion, the book isn’t). There was no nomination forthcoming at this year’s Oscars, but then with their complicatedly specific eligibility rules maybe it wasn’t released soon enough to qualify. Maybe next year.

4 out of 5

Faintheart (2008)

2011 #97
Vito Rocco | 88 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 12

FaintheartApparently MySpace had some hand in the creation of this movie. Remember MySpace? It’s what there was before Facebook. It was always rubbish, it just took a lot of people a long time to realise that. Anyway, some reviews seem to dwell on its involvement in the production of this movie — whole articles exist asking if it’s just a gimmick — but, looking at it as a finished film, I don’t know why: if you didn’t know (and, to be frank, even if you do) you’d never tell the end product had anything to do with that antiquated social network.

Faintheart isn’t about social networking… at least, not in any modern sense. It’s about battle re-enacters; or rather, it’s a Brit-rom-com that uses battle re-enacters as its USP. “Brit-rom-com” should give you a fair idea of the territory we’re in, although this has a geekier edge than most, which plays to the sensibilities of someone like me. One character owns a comic book store, for instance. It doesn’t play an overt part in the plot, but battle re-enacting stands in for any kind of niche pursuit. And it does make for a better-than-average climax. Swords always do.

Not-so-recognisable facesMost of the cast is drawn from the pool marked “British character actors” — you may or may not know the names, but you’ll probably know most of the faces. The lead is Eddie Marsan (Lestrade in Sherlock Holmes and A Game of Shadows; all sorts of other stuff, too much to even begin mentioning), his wife is Jessica Hynes (Spaced; all sorts), Ewen Bremner is his mate (Trainspotting; all sorts), Tim Healy (Auf Wiedersehen, Pet; all sorts), Anne Reid (dinnerladies; all sorts), Kevin Eldon (all sorts)… You may see a theme developing. And there are others, but they had even fewer things they were known for, or I didn’t recognise their names on the IMDb cast list.


Faintheart isn’t exceptional. Apparently it didn’t even get a theatrical release (though I remember someone coming on some chat show to promote it). Even if it was crowd-created through MySpace, that hasn’t made it something especially different, nor too stereotypical that it’s ruined. It’s not likely to be remembered in the never-ending pantheon of Brit-rom-coms, but for one with a slightly different edge I think it deserves better than it’s got.

3 out of 5

(I originally gave it four stars. Looking back, that felt generous. For once, I tweaked it. Guess I ought to go fiddle with my stats now…)

RED (2010)

2011 #88
Robert Schwentke | 111 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

REDRED here stands for “Retired, Extremely Dangerous”, a description bestowed by the CIA on a group of former agents who, for reasons I won’t go into — because, quite frankly, I can’t remember — fight back against the Agency when someone starts trying to kill them.

RED is just one in a recent array of tongue-in-cheek action films; films that aren’t strictly comedies but aren’t wholly serious either, meaning they can push their action sequences to ludicrous extremes and get away with it. They’re also a lot of fun and I love them. I love a gritty and serious Bourne as much as your next man, or a traditional action film too, but there’s also room for films that are daft, fun, knowingly silly rather than just ridiculous. Films like The A-Team, Knight and Day and RED — and I’ve enjoyed all of them.

So (to slightly repeat myself) it’s all daft, but it’s all fun. The action is thoroughly OTT, but inventive with it. It manages to be very amusing as well as quite excitingly action-y. It even begins as a rom-com, which is an interesting tactic. It’s not what you’re expecting from an action movie, but surely no one is ever going to watch this and be fooled? Does anyone watch films completely unaware of what they are?

Mad MalkovichNaturally, considering the theme, the cast is made up of older actors — a neat twist on the usual action movie format of making people younger and younger. Expect this to spread, especially as anyone that could still just about be dubbed a movie star is ageing, replaced only by flash-in-the-pan teen idols. They’re all great because they’re all great actors. Well, Bruce Willis isn’t a Great Actor like Helen Mirren or Morgan Freeman, but he can do an action movie and he can do humour well enough. John Malkovich is as barmy as he always is, but here it works. Sometimes things just line up like that. Karl Urban also gives another solid supporting turn. I’m sure he’s had a few lead roles at this point, but maybe this autumn’s Dredd will finally cement him as a viable action leading man.

Stray thought: it’s set at Christmas, despite an autumnal release date. An extremely subtle Die Hard reference? There doesn’t seem to be any other reason for it.

If I have one criticism it’s that it’s perhaps too long. It begins to drag a little in places and is unable to sustain its own craziness throughout the third act. But until then it’s a lot of fun, and after decades of Very Serious action movies, isn’t it nice to be allowed to have fun?

4 out of 5