Star Wars: The Clone Wars – Season 5 Review

Darth Maul
STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS Seasons 1-5 Collectors Edition
STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS Seasons 1-5 Collectors Edition

So we get to the end of the run for the superb Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated series. Following Disney’s takeover of the Lucas Empire, it seemed unlikely that heads wouldn’t roll, and so it was for The Clone Wars. Did this decision make sense…not really. The Clone Wars has consistently been the brightest and best thing in the Star Wars Universe for some years, with ever-improving animation and a series of storylines that never shied away from the gritty and realistic side of the galaxy far far away. It was both for children and adults, and other than a few clunky arcs, it was consistently a joy to watch. Maybe then, with a slew of new movies and projects coming from the House of Mouse, it isn’t such a surprise that a brilliant, innovative and popular show be shelved…we don’t want competition for the new stuff, eh?

So, we come to season 5. I would love to talk about the brilliance of the Blu-ray release, but sadly there were only DVD copies to be had for preview. However, I am certain that by the high standards of the previous Blu-ray seasons, this one will look and sound as epic as always.

Darth Maul
Darth Maul

After the return of Darth Maul in Season 4, we start season 5 in somewhat slower mode, with the Jedi helping rebels on the Separatist-held world of Onderon learn how to fight back and reclaim their world. There is a nice undercurrent of dark-side growth over these opening four episodes, with both Ashoka and Anakin straining at the leash of Jedi non-partisanship. The writers are building up the hints that the Jedi, and the Council in particular, are missing the obvious encroachment of the dark side, whilst acting in more and more crass and self-serving ways. Unfortunately, the Onderon plot overstays its welcome. At four episode long it feels two episodes over-length and never manages to succeed in making you care that much about the secondary characters. A ‘shocking’ death is not really shocking, and it has very little impact on the rest of the season. However, we do get to enjoy the return of Florrum Crime Boss Hondo Ohnaka (still sounding like Ricardo Montalban) and watch as Ashoka begins her own journey away from her Jedi upbringing.

After this somewhat clunky and tiring opening, the season moves on to another 4-parter…this time focusing on a group of Jedi younglings under the care of Yoda and Ashoka. There is a lot of fun in these episodes, although the ‘learning to work together’ theme is a little obvious. Hondo makes another welcome return, albeit in a nastier mood than we usually see him. With Ashoka captured and the younglings breaking orders to try to rescue her, the series reintroduces General

Yoda and Younglins
Yoda and Younglins

Greivous and Obi-Wan, linking the two plots together cleverly. Whilst this 4 part storyline is much more interesting than the season opener, it still leaves the season feeling a little flat and lacking the spark and originality of seasons 3 and 4.
From Jedi younglings we move to yet another 4 part arc, definitely aimed at younger viewers, but with a lot to offer the dedicated Star Wars fan. This arc follows R2 as he joins a secret team of Republic droids and a diminutive Colonel on a mission to reclaim an encryption module from a Separatist ship. As any true SW fan knows, the films aren’t so much about Skywalker as the hero, but R2. Without him nothing would have happened the way it does, from his opening scene in The Phantom Menace through to the very end of Return of the Jedi. So it is great to see the wee scamp getting so much airtime, and alongside other astromech droids, and without C3P0 around to cramp his style. The adventures these droids have together are fun, and exciting, if a tad overshadowed by yet another ridiculous…one wonders if Lucas directed…comedic character. Colonel Meebur Gascon is a tiny data expert on his first mission in command. He has height issues, as well as command issues and politeness issues. He is fun for about 5 mins but then starts to grate. He’d be fine if it were just 1 episode, but across 4…the season is creaking and groaning under the weight of all these multi-episode arcs!

Finally, the season begins to pull its socks up and get to the meaty stuff. Possibly this was when the team knew the plug was being pulled, because a seriously well-thought through plotline emerges. Darth Maul working with Savage Opress form an alliance with the Mandalorian Death Watch plus several crime syndicates in order to become a dominant force. They lure Obi-Wan to Mandalore, but Darth Sidious decides it is time for him to step in. There is then a bombing at the Jedi Temple, for which Ashoka is asked to investigate, and then accused of killing the key suspect. She goes on the run and teams up with Ventress whilst Anakin and Obi-Wan lead her pursuit. The Jedi Council refuse to consider her innocence, and it is up to Padme to fight for her defence. This 7 episode finale is absolutely superb, pure Star Wars storytelling at its best. It shows just how low opinion of the Jedi has fallen, just how little they are aware of their own deficiencies, and just how much of an isolated group they have become. Anakin’s embracing of the dark side starts to make more sense, and while we may never know what happens to Ashoka after the final episode, it feels like a good way to close her storyline. You can now better understand why so many Clone Troopers obeyed Order 66 without question.

All in all the writers have brought the plot to a very pleasing and balanced point in the existing narrative. That said…damn I wish there was another half season at least, or a movie, to wrap up Ashoka and Ventress, and properly connect the series with the movies.

ACW_IA_112843_RThe DVD look very good, with sharp, bright visuals and a very strong surround mix. There are ample extras to keep you informed and entertained throughout. As usual, it is a great package.

So, what’s the final verdict on the final season? Well, we have definitely been robbed of a wonderful piece of TV and the finale feels half-finished. We may yet get a conclusion, but if we don’t, this isn’t the worst way to go. The reliance on three 4 part arcs is disappointing, and while none of the stories are bad, they all overstay their welcome and you get the feeling that the writing team had been told to string these tales out. Too much Jedi? Absolutely. Not enough hardware, spaceships and troopers? Definitely. Another season of the best the SWU has to offer? Pretty much, yes. Disney has a lot to live up to following The Clone War…here’s hoping they’ve paid attention to just why so many fans loved this TV show.
8/10

From Up On Poppy Hill – Studio Ghibli Movie

From Up On Poppy Hill
From Up On Poppy Hill
From Up On Poppy Hill

A new film from Studio Ghibli is always an exciting prospect, but this one came with, for me, a certain degree of hesitancy. A post-Korean War slice of reality directed by Goro Miyazaki…could Ghibli deliver their usual magic in a non-fantastical setting, and could Goro-san improve from the utter disappointment that was “Tales From Earthsea”? The simple answer is yes, on both counts. The more complex answer is…well, there really isn’t a more complex answer. “From Up On Poppy Hill” is sublime, wondrous, heart-warming, thrilling, emotional, exhilarating, life-affirming, beautiful and so many other things I could just cut-and-paste a dictionary of positive terms here and be done with it. Out of five stars this is a 10 star film. This is Ghibli at its very best and it was an absolute pleasure to sit in that screening room and experience their stunning tale unfold over and hour and a half.
Written by the legendary Hiyao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa, and based on the 1980 manga by Tetsuro Sayama & Chizuru Takahashi, the story revolves around Umi Matsuzaki, a 16 year old high schooler in the Port of Yokohama. It is 1963 and she lives in a boarding house with her grandmother and several female residents, looking after their needs every morning and evening, and heading off to school during the daytime. Her mother, a professor, is on an extended trip to the US, and her father was killed during the Korean War. Every morning Umi raises signal flags hoping to reach the spirit of her drowned father. One day, the school newspaper prints a poem about her flags and she heads off to the clubhouse to find out who is responsible. It is here she, with her younger sister Sora, encounter Shun Kazama, a young man who is part of the journalism club and popular with the girls at the school for his antics trying to save the clubhouse from closure. Umi is instantly drawn to Shun, and volunteers to help with the paper, and encourages the boys in the clubhouse to tidy it up as a tactic to saving it from demolition. Through her involvement, the girls at the school rally to help the boys tidy, clean and renovate the building. Meanwhile, Shun visits Umi’s boarding house home and discovers (without her knowledge) that her father might also be his. This throws him off centre and builds a wall of silence between them, much to Umi’s distress. Finally she is able to get the truth from him, but even though they now believe themselves to be brother and sister, they still profess their love for each other, and they suffer with the pain of having to put that love to one side. As this melodrama unfolds, the school clubhouse, now beautifully restored to its European splendour (it is called the Latin Quarter) is condemned by the school board. Umi, Shun and their friend Shiro head in to Tokyo to petition the school board’s chairman to come see the building and save it. Elated by her trip to Tokyo but saddened by the change in her relationship with Shun, Umi heads home to find her mother returned. She reveals all to her mother and…well, let’s not ruin the final act, eh?

I honestly cannot speak highly enough of this film. The story is compelling and incredibly moving. I don’t think I’ve ever seen tears in the eyes of fellow press reviewers before, but there were a few at the end of this sublime movie. We were fortunate enough to see a subtitled Japanese original version (I know, subtitles aren’t for everyone, but I am a Ghibli purist and whilst I always enjoy the dubbed versions, I do appreciate seeing the original and hearing the original Japanese actors) so I can’t comment on the UK dub (although the previous dubs for Ponyo, Arrietty, Howl and Spirited Away were all superb) but I am sure it will be as good as you would expect from Ghibli. This is a nostalgic film, seen from a teenager’s perspective, with a fairly predictable plot but which nevertheless leaves you feeling elated and uplifted. It doesn’t do anything radical or shocking, which some may feel is a little disappointing, and it doesn’t have the same visual flair as Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle. But then this film isn’t a fantasy epic. It isn’t escapist wish-fulfilment. It is a slice of life drama with a strong comedic vein running throughout. It is a moment in Japanese history that few outside of the country are aware of, and it is an important coming of age tale that works because its female protagonist is someone we can instantly empathise with. Once again Studio Ghibli, under the leadership of Myazaki-san have offered us a strong female lead in whom we can see some of ourselves but more importantly through who we can learn about this very specific time and place in Japanese history. No, the story doesn’t take us anywhere new, but I, for one, was happy to be cocooned in the warm world of Ghibli, to be entertained, moved and entranced.

Visually the film is nothing short of sumptuous. Ghibli fans will love the hand-drawn style so reminiscent from Ponyo, Totoro and so many others. Every frame is stuffed with fine detail, depth and variety. From sweeping seascapes to winding narrow roads, from bustling ports to hectic schoolyards…everything is beautifully animated, with a slightly soft tone but vibrant lighting. Within five minutes I was sighing with pleasure at feeling so at home in this world. Much like Only Yesterday, Ocean Waves or Whisper of the Heart, this is the real world through the lens of Ghibli’s unique eye…at once recognisable and precise, yet at the same time ever so softer and more inviting. In this instance, we experienced a more grown up version of the port town in Ponyo, a teenager’s view of a busy Japanese town changing in the post war boom. I know I wasn’t the only person at the screening to be entranced by these wonderful images.

The soundtrack was equally nostalgic, sadly not by Ghibli go-to-guy Joe Hisaishi (if you’ve not heard his soundtrack to the game Ni No Kuni you are missing out on a real treat), but instead a mix of new tracks by Satoshi Takebe and Japanese versions of some period songs, some European, some American. It works very well for the style and tone of the movie, but I did miss Joe’s input, and the film doesn’t have an immediately memorable theme. Overall though, the music only adds to the brilliance of the movie.

Audio-wise you can expect the usual high-quality sound effects and sound balance. There’s nothing too bombastic or ear-shattering, but the sound designers have clearly had a lot of fun bringing the school and clubhouse scenes to life. And the soundscape of the port, and that of pre-Olympics Tokyo are vibrant and dynamic without sounding like a pastiche.

My only negative with “From Up On Poppy Hill” is that I can’t watch it again, right now. I would happily beg the lovely folk at StudioCanal for a preview BluRay…if I had a first born (I don’t) I might even offer a trade! No, seriously, if they are reading this, let me know what I have to offer to get a copy.

Hyperbole aside, this is just about the perfect (non-fantasy) Ghibli film to date. I am a real fan of slice of life anime, and to see Ghibli take the genre and do something so perfect with it was a real joy. I left the screening smiling, excited and desperate to see it again. It is a film Ghibli fans will thoroughly enjoy, but more importantly it is a film to introduce non-Ghibli fans to anime and Studio Ghibli. If you know someone who is averse to monsters and fantasy, and thinks anime is just for kids, get them to see “From Up On Poppy Hill”…it will show them just what great storytelling can be done using animation, and how anime in particular, and Ghibli specifically, can tell tales in way no-one and no other medium can manage.

My score out of 5: 10 (and maybe another 10!)

Evil Dead II – Blu-ray Review

Evil Dead 2 Special Edition Blu Ray
Evil Dead 2 Special Edition Blu Ray
Evil Dead 2 Special Edition Blu Ray

There are some films which are considered cult classics. And then there are some cult classics that are considered all-time greats. And then there are some all-time greats which are considered the perfect example of their type. Evil Dead 2 (Dead by Dawn) sits comfortably in this final category, and with this fantastic new restored BD edition you can finally enjoy it in all its glory.

The first Evil Dead film was a fantastic piece of low-budget, early-entry film-making by Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell, but everyone agrees that it was far from perfect. What it did was to spawn a whole new genre of horror cinema (the cabin in the woods) and show that gross-out horror and frat-house humour can sit side by side successfully.

When it came to the second film, the director and star choose to do a kind of re-boot…take what was great about the first film, but apply new film-making techniques and experience. They set out to upgrade, upscale and generally out-do their previous outing. And boy did they manage it?!

Starting with a brief review of the first film (re-filmed since they couldn’t get the rights to use their own movie!) we meet Ash and his girlfriend, enjoying some study-time hanky panky in a cabin in the deep dark woods. Unfortunately, Ash plays a recording of the previous owner (a professor) reading out the incantations from the dreaded Book of the Dead (the Necronomicon). This awakens a dark spirit that dwells in the woods, which possesses Ash’s girlfriend who he is forced to kill by beheading her. Here the new film begins, as Ash is forced to confront the various evil forces lurking within and without the cabin, a mixture of pure body horror and psychological attack. Meanwhile a new foursome are making their way to the cabin, the professor’s daughter and her boyfriend, plus two handy local hicks to show them the secret route through the forest. By the time they have arrived, poor Ash has been put through hell by the evil spirits, forced to cut his own hand off with a chainsaw and is pretty much a raving lunatic. With all five of them holed up in the cabin, it isn’t long before they are being picked off, one by one. There are attacks by forest demons (including the now infamous tree-rape scene), a cellar-dwelling granny deadite and by a possessed Ash. As each one dies (only to become a deadite themselves) Ash must learn from the Necronomicon how to send the spirits back where they came from.

This is a stunning piece of Blu-ray restoration and upscaling. The film has never looked so crisp and clean. Apart from the opening rehash of the first scene, which appears to be purposefully grainy, the rest of the movie is spotless. And in a film with this much spectacle, gross-out blood and gore, psychedelic imagery and OTT horrors, the restoration needed to be superb. The soundtrack has an equally stunning impact, with scenes such as the forest-demon attack and the Ash-goes-mad section having particular audio heft. It is a great session for your surround sound system. All in all, this is THE definitive way to watch Evil Dead II, and you won’t be left wanting.

Evil Dead II Blu Ray Extras

Also on the BD release are some great extras. There is a 1.5hr long making of documentary which is one of the finest examples of BD extras I have ever watched. It is split into sections which you can jump through, and covers every aspect of the film from early days, through production, to post production and the film’s continuing impact. It stars all the main players, with Bruce Campbell leading the way. The only notable name missing is Sam Raimi, which is a shame. Possibly too busy making Oz, or just too far removed from his early films…he is eulogised extensively and features in old footage, but it would have been nice to have even just a few minutes of him from the present day. This is one seriously interesting feature and gives you real value for money. There is a far shorter second feature looking at the original locations of the film. Sounds a bit dull, but it is far from being so. The director locates the original cabin in the woods (it’s still there!) as well as the old school gym where they built the interiors. As a fan it is a very pleasing extra.

Evil Dead II gets a 5/5 from me as a perfect BD package. One of the all-time greatest genre-defining films, restored and upscaled to perfection with a stunning soundtrack and a wallet-pleasing set of extras. If you are a fan, go buy this now. But be warned, watch it late at night and you could end up being “Dead by dawnnnnnn!!!!”

Looper Blu-ray Review

Looper Blu Ray Cover

Looper arrives on Blu-ray and DVD on 28th January 2013 (in the UK) covered in countless 5-star reviews and glowing superlative-heavy review quotes. Starring Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Emily Blunt, and directed by Rian Johnson, it is a time-travel action thriller mystery something-or-other that is both genuinely original in places, and stultifyingly dull in others. Let’s consider the plot:

“In the year 2044 time travel has not yet been invented. But in 30 years it will have been…” (there’s some Hitch-hiker’s Guide time-travel grammar for you to grapple with!). Joe (played by actor-of-the-moment Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a Looper in 2044, a man whose job is to wait for people to be sent back in time by crime bosses, and to shoot them dead. Apparently in the future it is impossible to dispose of people/bodies hence the crime bosses using time travel to send the poor mooks back in time to be offed. This all goes swimmingly well until a Looper is sent his future self to kill, with an appropriate retirement bonus, of course. When Joe’s future self is sent back everything goes awry, with future Joe (a grizzled but still on-form Willis) doing a runner and on the hunt for a child who will grow up to be…well, let’s not ruin too much of the plot. Suffice to say Joe has to try to hunt down future Joe, while being hunted himself by his own crime boss for reasons which are never really made all that clear.

So that is the film in a few sentences. It is quite hard to review the film without spoiling it for others, not because any of the twists are all that unexpected or original, but just because there is an actual pleasure to watching the film and working it out as you go (usually about 20 minutes before the director reveals the twist). Looper is an eminently enjoyable film, a nice balance between traditional thriller and SF spectacle. The world-building is handled well, albeit without recourse to explanation. 2044 is a violent dystopia, a perfect backdrop to the Looper activity. We learn little about why it is how it is, and even less about what occurs in the 30 years that follow. But this works, lending some mystery to the world we watch, while allowing us to accept the random and very public violence on display.

The time-travel mechanic feels as though it makes sense, a clever idea (if a tad similar to Timecop) which is at the heart of the story but never used as a deus ex machine…there is time travel, accept it! Admittedly the return of future Joe to 2044 and his subsequent actions do set up any number of paradoxes which may or may not hold up to scrutiny, and by the end of the film enquiring minds will be screaming out for someone to explain just how one paradox can lead to a logical conclusion while all the others are seemingly overlooked. But then, this is a movie, not reality and so story comes before mathematics, probably!

Looper has been hailed “The Most Exciting Film of the Year” (Shortlist) and given 5 stars by Empire, Total Film, SFX and FHM…but is it? OK, it certainly doesn’t disappoint in the same way as Amazing Spiderman or The Dark Knight Rises, but it is far from the most exciting film of the year. I suggest these reviewers expand their horizons to the Far East where, in 2012 alone, there were numerous movies made that outstrip Looper in the excitement stakes. This isn’t to say that Looper isn’t exciting, far from it. For approximately half the film’s running time there is plenty of excitement, fights, chases, guns, night-clubs and prostitutes. It is all very thrilling in a sub-Bladerunner style. Everyone is very tightly-wound, yet the film doesn’t come across as overly dark or angst-ridden. But half way through it comes to a resounding halt as we are offered some time to reflect on the timey-whimeyness of the plot, the intense emotional impact of the character’s individual stories and experiences, and watch as the director and writer cleverly place their pieces in preparation for the third-reel action-fest! JUST GET ON WITH IT!

Away from the interminable dullness of the middle of the film the director does good things with his characters, all of whom feel hyper-real but grounded. There is some very good casting of secondary parts here. Which is good, because they couldn’t have got a more wooden leading man if they’d tried? I apologise to the rest of the world, all of whom seem to think Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the next coming of the acting messiah, but I find the guy dull, flat, lifeless and one-note. His face is almost, but not quite, as frozen in place as Kristen Stewart’s. Throughout Looper he plays a perpetual mannequin. I suppose he is ‘acting’ dispassionate, detached, high on the eye-drop drugs his character takes constantly. Fine, great, wonderful. But it gives us one of the least-likeable leading characters in recent history. I just didn’t care about him or his plight. When, later in the film he takes refuge on a farm run by Emily Blunt’s character, he has the opportunity to bring the role to life with empathy and warmth, but the fact is he remains as stolid and wooden as ever. It doesn’t help that he is out-acted by a 10 year old (the stand-out actor in the film in my opinion). Now, to be fair to Levitt, he is supposed to be a younger Bruce Willis, and Willis’ future Joe is, well, Bruce Willis in grizzled action-hero mode. Yes, it is the Willis we all know, the stoney-faced, slightly laconic, wry and world-weary veteran pulled back in for one more go on the merry-go-round. Great stuff, it is what we love about ol’ stoney face (oooh, Willis as Dredd…it could have worked, you know?!) But where Willis pulls off subtle facial expressions and his eyebrows out-act two-thirds of Hollywood’s leading men, Levitt just looks plastic, frozen, botoxed to within an inch of his life. But then I didn’t see why he was considered the standout talent in Inception either. Maybe my Joseph Gordon-Levitt filter has been pre-set too high?

Emily Blunt does an admirable job playing the “seen it a thousand times before” grizzled, world weary single mother farmer with weird young kid. You can see her arc a mile away, but she plays it well and offers a well-rounded performance. Looper also offers us another chance to enjoy Jeff Daniels playing slightly off-kilter, loopy dangerous bad guy. It is always a pleasure to see Daniels in these more off-beat roles. He is counter-culture in so many ways, so seeing him playing against type is great, and of course, he does it with style and subtlety…a truly frightening bad guy.

The stand-out performance in the film comes from 10 yr old Cid, played by Pierce Gagnon. I can’t say too much without spoiling the film for you, but focus on this kid whenever he is on screen because there are some serious acting chops on display. Guided well, this kid could become a very big thing in acting. I just hope he is given the opportunity to continue with this style of honest, interesting and powerful acting. Believe me, the Cid character could have been played with far less intensity and power by many other child actors, congratulations to Rian Johnson for choosing Pierce and allowing him to perform the role this way.

So, all that said, is Looper worth your time and money? It certainly isn’t the messiah of movies from 2012, and is definitely isn’t the most exciting film of the year by a long chalk. But it IS a good film, it does dabble in time travel mysteries in a new and occasionally original way. It offers interesting world-building and tantalising near-future SF. Bruce Willis is good value for money, and young Pierce Gagnon is a brilliant revelation. There are faults and paradoxes, the film falls flat on its face halfway through, and the ending is far less powerful a statement than the film-makers intended. But it is a great example of a director and writer aiming for the stars, and while not quite reaching them, making something entertaining and far-different in tone and style from the big-money Hollywood blockbusters. Looper is a worthy addition to your collection if you value subtle SF-driven thrillers that try to do something new, entertain you and make you think.

The Blu-ray edition which I reviewed looked vibrant and detailed, with only occasional brightness issues. There was a slight issue with the audio mix, like so many recent BD releases, the dialogue in quiet scenes was exceptionally quiet, to be followed by explosively loud action scenes. Fiddling with your audio settings will help fix this (increase front centre and decrease rear speakers) but it is a slight shame the mix couldn’t be a little more balanced. Beyond that it is another great looking and sounding BD. Extras include commentary by the director and stars, featurettes on the making of and composing, deleted scenes, trailers, a science of time travel feature and some additional featurettes. Quite a decent package. Sadly, once again, the release price for the BD is a staggering £24.99 or £25.99 for the pointless steelbook edition. Even the DVD is RRPing at £19.99 – so keep your eyes out for good deals at the likes of Sainsbury’s or Tesco’s because these manufacturer RRPs are outrageously overpriced and not good value for money.

The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey – Review by Neil Gardner

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

It is Sunday evening at 6pm, and for most of the afternoon I have been sitting uncomfortably in the Odeon Leicester Square in London watching a screening of Peter Jackson’s new LOTR movie, The Hobbit. Uncomfortably not just because the film is long (too long by far), and not just because the Odeon’s seats are ruthless on your nether regions (some padding towards the rear of the seat would be nice, guys!), but because as I watched this ‘epic’ I knew I would have to write the following words:

The Hobbit is a pretty bad film

Phew, there, I’ve said it. So, let’s start with Mr Jackson’s much vaunted 48fps HFR 3D technological breakthrough. Oh dear lordy, for all that is good in the world, let this technology die right now! I am a real fan of 3D movies, thinking they often have a certain additional depth to them that helps make the movie-going experience more immersive. But guys, what the heck went wrong with The Hobbit? Are you telling me that someone has sat down, watched the film on a big screen and signed off on it?! If they have then they deserve the sack, because this film looks bad, very bad. Now, let me discuss the 48fps issue. There have been accusations from early part-screenings that this process made the film look like an HD TV series, pristine and shiny. Jackson et al claimed this was because the film hadn’t been graded, coloured, and generally ‘film-ified’ yet. “Don’t worry” they said, “it’ll look epic and grand on final release”. Well my friends, we have been duped. It looks like the shiniest of shiny things ever. Pristine is a good word for it, but STERILE is a far better one. There is rarely a scene with any ‘filmic’ feeling to it, everything is just so goddamn clean and crisp and perfect. It really DOES look like a top end HD TV production. There are a few saving graces, such as the battle scenes and the Gollum cave sequence where things get better, mostly due to interesting lighting and darkness. But overall it is all way too clean to feel like a LOTR movie. Is this the end of the world, or the very start of a new one? Who can tell. It doesn’t destroy the movie but it does lack warmth and flavour and the heightened sense of reality forces you away from the film rather than bringing you closer to it.

But that’s not the real bugbear I have with 48fps, oh no. There was a much greater, more aggravating issue. Now, it may have been a technical fault with the Odeon’s brand spanking new equipment. Possibly they don’t have it ‘run-in’ quite correctly. But throughout the screening we were subjected to sudden and terrible speed-ups, where a person would be moving across screen and suddenly speed up for a second or two. Or when they were talking. Or during a battle scene. Or…well, so often I lost count. It was as if the film were buffering and catching up with itself. A symptom of 48fps technology and all-digital prints & projectors? I know not, but it really did destroy the film for me, it was like adding a Benny Hill sketch into an epic Western. Utter technical failure. End of story.

Dwarves - THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY, a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
Dwarves Group Shot

So what then of the Jackson claim that 48fps would enhance the Real3D experience and make the movie more immersive? Well, it might have if not for all of the above and the fact that it seems WETA allowed the work experiencers to do the CGI and blending. The Hobbit never once achieved what the previous LOTR films managed 90% of the time, and that was to blend the CG with the real and make it all seem as one. In scene after eye-sapping scene the CGI backgrounds and creatures looked like badly layered early 2000’s computer game characters. In fast moving scenes actors appeared completely disconnected from their surroundings. Feet floated above and away from CGI landscapes, and as for poorly matted and layered…don’t get me started. Who cleared this film for theatrical release? Technologically the 3D (except in close-ups and real landscape shots), looked cartoonish and low resolution. The blending of real and CGI was cringe-worthy, and the sense that you were watching a 10-15 year old computer game cut-scene built throughout the movie. If you HAVE to see this movie, see it in 2D, because the 3D print is truly lamentable.

So that is the technology considered, but what about the story, the plot, the purpose of the movie? Well, it’s not terrible. I honestly can’t say it is epic, or thrilling or life-changing. The sense of scope and proportion wanders between small and personal to grand and majestic. But it does so with stops and starts, stumbles and staggers. Rarely does The Hobbit flow from scene to scene. It is as though everything we loved about Peter Jackson’s vision and style in LOTR has been erased by The Lovely Bones and replaced by whip-pans, juddery camera moves and just-a-fraction-too-early editing style. Add in some often-wooden, occasionally forest-like acting (sorry Sir Christopher and Sir Ian!) and a dearth of believable side-characters and you are left with a movie that is an hour too long, and a soul too missing. Not to say there aren’t some good performances…Martin Freeman owns the role of Bilbo and is immediately loveable and relatable. King Thorin and a few of the dwarves are likeable and well-rounded. But Gandalf feels lacking in purpose or reason, Sir Ian offering a muted and not altogether weighty performance. Hugo Weaving appeared to have phoned his Elrond in from another film-set (while doing his best to sound like David Bowie in Labyrinth), and Sir Christopher Lee’s CGI’d in Saruman was so lacking in spirit it was a geek-tragedy. But in all this there was one shining light…the brilliant Sylvester McCoy as Radagast the Brown was pitch-perfect, mysterious and loopy yet courageous and outrageous. A true Tolkien character brought to life with flair and charm. If only the rest of the film could have been populated by such well-crafted and well-acted characters.

Congratulations to the Gollum team who produced another unsurpassed moment of movie magic

Once again, Andy Serkis comes to the rescue (although possibly not in his role of second-unit director). The scenes with Gollum and Bilbo under the mountain playing a game of riddles are superb. The CGI is magical, the setting exquisite, the lighting and blending spot-on. Why oh why couldn’t the rest of the film have been made with such love and care? Gollum is a whole new creature here, expressive and exciting, terrifying and unstable. You feel the threat he poses, and yet you continue to sympathise with him. His look of pain, anguish and sadness at losing his precious is heartbreaking. Congratulations to the Gollum team who produced another unsurpassed moment of movie magic.

While in no way perfect, the story is certainly interesting and stays pretty close to the book. The additions of some Dwarf/Orc history are superbly handled (with some of the better CGI work employed here). It is to the film’s credit that the backstory to the Dwarf’s quest is explained so well and so succinctly. I’m not so sure about some of the ‘fan service’ additions, such as lines repeated from the original trilogy, and knowing nods and winks. But all in all the film trots along its trail without too many stumbles. Sadly, our return to Rivendell is marred by it looking like a matte-painting taken from a late 80s kids TV show. In fact a lot of the film feels oddly akin to a Russell T Davies CBBC series…lots of running around in front of green-screen and a set of CGI backgrounds that feel like updates on the old Captain Zep early 80s technology. My over-riding thought throughout The Hobbit was that I was hankering after watching some classic Knightmare episodes, rather than wanting to keep watching the film. I might just do that, or put Labyrinth on…something with way more character, soul and sense of the epic.

I really was looking forward to The Hobbit. While the book is certainly a classic, it has never been a rip-roaring adventure tale. However, the masterpieces that were the original LOTR trilogy had me believing Peter Jackson & co would pull something special out of their knapsack. Unfortunately all they’ve done is tire my bottom out, give me a sense of loss and annoyance, and made me want to go find the person who is pushing 48fps Real3D technology and introduce them to the words ‘Over my dead body!’

With the Hobbit we return to Middle Earth, but it isn’t how we remember it. It is all shiny and computery and cut-sceney. It is full of pixels and cartoonish speed-ups. It groans with the weight of expectation and falls flat on its need for putting technology before storytelling. Please Mr Jackson, re-grade and re-colourise the film, put it in 2D and turn the volume down just a tad…cut about 40-60 mins from it and sort out the lack of scope. THEN I’ll be the first in line to buy the Blu-ray edition!

The Castle of Cagliostro – Bluray Review

The Castle of Caglisotro Blu Ray Cover

The second Hi-Def helping from Studio Canal and Ghibli in November is not a Ghibli film at all, it is an earlier work, directed by Miyazaki-san called “The Castle of Caglisotro”, aka Lupin III. Made in 1979, it is Miyazaki’s first full-length anime film, and features Wolf (or Lupin in French), a character created by the artist Kazuo Kazuhiko (also known as Monkey Punch). The Lupin/Wolf stories were massively popular in Japan and as such the film doesn’t bother to explain backstory or characters, it just dives straight in to the action.

The film follows the adventures of Lupin, a master thief wanted by Interpol, and his hat-wearing, chain-smoking sidekick Jigen. They’ve travelled to the fantasy European mountain kingdom of Cagliostro to pull off a heist…to steal the famed Cagliostro fortune. However, they are quickly drawn in to one of the world’s greatest car chases, attempting to save a mysterious bride-to-be from thugs and goons. After failing to save her, they head off to the infamous Castle of Cagliostro, an epic monument to fantasy castles, set in the middle of an enormous lake. Here, Lupin and Jigen infiltrate the castle in order to save the girl (who we now know is Princess Clarisse)…and grab some of the fortune, of course. In doing so they come up against their old Interpol adversary Zenigata, and a whole host of cunning castle traps and nasties. The bad guy is the Count, who wants to marry Clarisse and gain access to her family ring, which will help him discover the treasure for himself. Suffice to say, Lupin, with the aid of Jigen, master-of-disguise cat-burglar Fujiko, enigmatic Samurai Goemen, and even Zenigata himself, is able to foil the Count’s nefarious schemes and save the day…helping bring down a counterfeiting scheme in the process.

This is an old-fashioned crime-caper that is chock full of action and adventure, anti-heroes and good vs evil. It is old-school Hollywood, rat-pack fun and games. There is honour and friendship at the heart of the story, and while Lupin is technically a thief, he represents so much more and ends up as the real-deal hero of the piece. The film has an interesting mixed pace, from frantic action to contemplative, almost romantic moments. And while the plot is never truly original, it is always surprising and enjoyable. This is a film that is very easy to watch time and time again.

The movie has previously been released on a very good DVD set, which included some nice extras, including a great introduction by Japan-o-holic and all-round Far East expert Jonathan Clements (if you don’t own a copy of his superb Schoolgirl Milky Crisis book, go buy one now!) Sadly, here we lose those extras, and all we get is a storyboard comparison function. This is a real shame, considering the historical importance of the film, as well as the general lack of knowledge many Western fans will have of the Lupin phenomenon. A short but simple history of Lupin feature would have been good. And considering how much extra stuff Studio Canal have put on their other big release this month, My Neighbour Totoro, it does seem odd to have such a vanilla Blu-ray.

Another disappointment is the lack of improvement in the picture quality. While the colours are noticeably more vibrant than the old DVD release, and the sound is a marked improvement, the film looks its age, with a great deal of dirt and damage on full display…possibly made worse by the HD nature of the medium and displays? With so much effort and skill put in to up-scaling the Ghibli films, it is a real let-down that Cagliostro hasn’t been afforded the same treatment. Maybe this is because it isn’t a Ghibli film, and so the investment for restoration just isn’t there? Whatever the reason, this coupled with the lack of extras makes recommending buying the new Blu-ray edition hard for me. For completists (like me) it is a must-own. The film is, quite simply, superb, and I recommend that everyone watches it. But if you already own the DVD, I’m not sure the cost of the Blu-ray (plus DVD copy thrown in) is worth the investment. To be fair, this is the best looking copy of the film you can buy, and the improved sound is fantastic. It’s 6 of one and half a dozen of the other, flip a coin and see what the outcome is.

That all said, do make sure you see Cagliostro. As an anime film it is wonderful. As an early Miyazaki it is fantastic. But as a crime-caper it is unsurpassed. And that car chase at the start is, for me, the best car chase in cinema!

Red Dwarf X – Review So Far

Red Dwarf X Poster

SF comedy legend Red Dwarf returns to our TVs, courtesy of a new commission by DAVE. Following on from the much-hyped but pretty terrible Back To Earth, this new 6-part series arrived with a whole heap of expectation. Could it return the series to its heyday? Would it put to rest the lingering distaste of the 2009 special? Would the premise still hold up after all these years?

One thing I can say with certainty is that Red Dwarf X, kicks sand in the eyes of the Back To Earth special. Fair dues to DAVE for commissioning the special, and resurrecting a much-loved and all-too-forgotten-about-by-the-BBC comedy series. The problems with the special are myriad and have been hashed over many times before. What RDX needed to do was go back to the magic of the earlier series, forget about clever CGI and film-like pretension and just be a slice of classic sitcom gold, character-based with original scenarios and quotable one-liners. And has it achieved this? Oh yes, by the Starbug-load.

Gone are the shiny spacesuits and gaudy costumes. Vanquished are the CGI-heavy pseudo-sets. This is Red Dwarf as it was back in seasons 1-3. Small scuzzy sets that looked lived in and believable. A Red Dwarf that appears old and decrepit, functional but only just. Silver is banished and red & grey predominate. The crew quarters, while a new design, feel like a subtle upgrade of the original series 1 quarters. The drive-room, again new, is not so far removed from the original drive-room (albeit with a nice spiral staircase for added class). The corridors are low-rent, the dispensers are talkative and characterful, and best of all we stay (for the most part) on the ship. The later-BBC series lost much of their charm when the crew travelled extensively off-ship (or off-Starbug). It is reassuring and comforting to be back on board the Red Dwarf after all these years.

Little has changed with our four heroes. They all look a little more aged, but otherwise they are the same Lister, Rimmer, Cat and Kryten we’ve come to love. Rimmer has reverted to a more ‘early-series’ whineyness, and the Cat seems to have lost a little of his ‘later-series’ intelligence. Dave still loves curry and booze and is searching for his lost love Kochanski. Kryten looks a little different (a side effect of Robert Llewellyn getting older and, dare we say it, a little larger), and also appears to have regressed to his more overly-agitated cleaner-bot persona. But these minor things aside, the boys are back and arguing and squabbling just as they always have. The chemistry is definitely still there, and the four actors genuinely look like they are having a great time working together again. Sadly though, there is someone missing. Holly, the loveable RD computer. I was always a Norman Lovett fan, not so much a Hattie Hayridge one…but Holly was integral to the Red Dwarf experience, and so far in RDX my only real complaint is that the character is missing. Holly’s stupidity, dry laconic sense of humour, ability to cause mayhem, and surprising deus ex machina saves were a vital component of why early RD worked so well. I don’t know why the writers haven’t brought Holly back, but I am hoping they do at some point soon.

So, with a characterful crew, old-school spaceship and even a live-audience back in place, does RDX work? Is it a success?

Red Dwarf 10 cast, left to right. Danny John Jules, Chris Barrie, Craig Charles, Robert Llewellen. (photo courtesy of Grant-Natlor via http://llewblog.squarespace.com/red-dwarf)

Four episodes in and all memories of Back To Earth and series 7 & 8 from the BBC are washed away. This is Red Dwarf as it should be, as it once was. Layered character interaction within cleverly constructed scenarios with lashings of one-liners and great visual gags. Buffoonery, slapstick, surrealism and kitchen-sink, all mixed up with a healthy dollop of silly. The writers have clearly made an effort to recreate the atmosphere and simplicity of the early series, while not reverting the characters to their primitive forebears. We still have hi-tech gadgetry and a cleaning-droid who mysteriously has the capabilities and knowledge of a much higher-level machine (just how does Kryten know so much about Earth technology & history since he was marooned for 3 million years in a crashed spaceship?), yet we also see him panicking over cleanliness and drying spoons with his ‘rear heat exhaust port’. Dave Lister, forever the space-bum, is less motivated than we have seen him of late, but much more human for it. Still a slob, still chasing a romantic impossible dream, yet he is also still looking to better himself (even though it is only to annoy Rimmer). The Cat is still very much The Cat. Danny John-Jules continues to amaze and amuse with his unique creation…part fashion diva, part Prince, all fabulous. Over recent series his character had evolved into a more human role, mastering spaceship control, use of advanced gadgetry and generally being far less stupid and much more helpful. Whilst this serviced the plots, it took away some of his charm, made him too much like Lister, and denied us the chance to enjoy his naivety and credulousness. In RDX he seems to have reverted to his more foolish, vainglorious past. He is clearly less intelligent but more fashion-tastic than in recent series, and as such he is more charming, fun and watchable. Rimmer, meanwhile remains whiney, vain, arrogant, obnoxious, aloof, selfish and yet amazingly loveable. While he has remained a ‘hard-light’ hologram via the light-bee device, gone is the hard-edged hateful character of the recent past. He seems more vulnerable, more human…and yet his pettiness and officiousness have increased, back almost to series 1 levels. He is a small man who uses his rank to bully, when what he really yearns for is respect and friendship. This is the Rimmer we know of old, no more complex than he needs to be, and with no references to his complicated recent history. He is petty, insecure and loathsome, but he’s just what Lister needs to stay sane.

The Episodes

[1] Trojan

Rimmer receives an SOS distress from a doomed ship commanded by his all-conquering brother, Howard. But Rimmer can’t bring himself to save Howard until he’s on an equal footing career-wise. He has 15 hours to pass his Astro-Nav exam and become an Officer. The same exam he’s already failed 9 times.

A good start to the series, with Rimmer on classic ‘selfish’ form, and a nice link back to much earlier revelations about his brothers and his relationship with them and their success.

[2] Fathers & Suns

Every year Lister sends himself a Father’s day card to celebrate the fact that he is his own father but when Rimmer points out he’s been a lousy father to himself Lister decides to do something about it. Meantime Rimmer and Kryten install a new computer, the beautiful, but lethally logical, Pree.

Episode two takes us into deep, dark RD history, building yet further on the fact that Lister is his own father. Some lovely acting by Craig Charles as the two Listers, and a genuinely clever play on the old ‘video message from yourself’ trope.

[3] Lemons

Marooned in Britain in 23 AD, the Dwarfers need an 8 volt battery to power up their Returner Remote and get home. Remembering a lesson from school, Rimmer suggests they make a battery out of lemons but the nearest lemon in Britain 23 AD is is in India 4,000 miles away. They begin their journey, a journey that will ultimately lead them to a meeting with a historical A-list celebrity that could alter the entire history of civilization.

For episode 3 we move away from Red Dwarf and do a ‘historical’ ep…something RD is well-known for. Some lovely visual gags here, plus a brave (in our current religion-must-not-be-mocked age) use of Jesus as a comedy character. Harks back to a certain JFK episode, but is none-the-worse for doing so.

[4] Entangled

Lister loses Rimmer in a game of poker to a group of Biologically Engineered Garbage Gobblers, and in return gets an unwanted gift: a groinal exploder programmed to detonate in 24 hours unless Lister pays his debts. Meanwhile, Kryten and Cat become quantum entangled and do everything in perfect unison.

Ep 4 is a mixed beast, with the ‘entanglement’ sub-plot feeling rather sparse and almost (but not quite) superfluous. Lister gambling away Starbug and Rimmer is classic RD and is a superb storyline. There are a couple of gripes though…how does Rimmer’s light-bee pass through the locked door…and just how did Kryten & The Cat’s entanglement cause the Beggs to choke to death? That aside, there is some terrific dialogue in this episode…great fun.

Just two more episodes to go and so far I am loving RDX. It is fun, witty and unafraid of embracing what made series 1-6 so brilliant…silliness. Doug Naylor has recaptured the magic of those early series, and yet managed to unencumber RDX of the weight of history and storylines-past. This is RD stripped to its core…the last human alive, 3 million years into outer-space, on a tired old mining ship, with just a hologram, evolved cat and cleaning droid to keep him sane and alive. The gags are good, the visuals are fantastic (it was lovely to see a matte-painting used in ep 4, rather than a CGI landscape) and the actors are all on top-form. Yes, there is nostalgia at work here for me, and any older RD fans, but I can see new fans being brought in to the fold through this superb series. All credit goes to DAVE for commissioning and funding the show, and I am sure I am not the only person hoping that it has proved to be a roaring success for the channel and that they go on to commission many more series.

Out with the new, in with the old…just bring back Holly, please (ooh, and the skutters!)

My Neighbour Totoro Bluray Review

My Neighbour Totoro: Double Play (2 Discs) (Blu-ray)
Once again the lovely folk at Studio Ghibli and StudioCanal spoil us rotten with new Bluray releases of classic Ghibli films this month. First up is my all-time favourite film (ever!)… “My Neighbour Totoro”. Ostensibly a children’s movie, but a film so magical, wonderful, intelligent and moving that anyone of any age can, and will enjoy it. A charming tale about 10-year-old Saksuki and her inquisitive younger sister Mei who move to a new home in the country to be closer to their mother in hospital. Far from the bustle of the city, they discover a mysterious place of spirits and magic, and the friendship of the big fluffy Totoro woodland creatures.

I never tire of this movie, it works on so many levels. From the magic and mystery of childhood, and the issues children face when faced with the illness of a parent, to ecological concerns and the way that man used to be in harmony with nature. But then it is also a fantastic fantasy adventure, with unique creatures – from the small, medium & large Totoros (think big fluffy plushy bunnies…sort of) to the agile and wily Cat-bus (yes, it is a cat that is a bus…it’ll make sense when you watch the film!) Beyond that it is a coming-of-age tale, with Saksuki learning to take responsibility for herself and her sister, while also helping their hard-working father whilst their mother is in hospital. But then again the film is also about how we can, and should, live with nature, look after the countryside and balance our need for space & technology with nature’s need for our patience and compassion.

With Totoro, the master Hayao Miyazaki created a near-perfect film, entertaining, educational, exciting, wondrous and full of warmth. But he also created the Ghibli studio, the Ghibli logo and even a Ghibli/Totoro foundation that attempts to rescue old Japanese countryside from development and return it to its original state. He also laid down a touch-stone for his films that would follow – of quality, uniqueness, accessibility and fun. My Neighbour Totoro isn’t just a film about big fluffy bunny creatures, it is the start of a true revolution in animated films.

With this new bluray edition we get to enjoy Totoro in a whole new way. The restoration/upscale is phenomenal, with colours outstandingly vibrant and no hint of blurriness or colour-bleed. As someone who has watched the original DVDs endless times, I was truly shocked at the improvement in quality, and on such an old film. I would dearly love to see a feature on how they are achieving these amazing results. I can honestly say that the bluray edition is worth any Ghibli fan owning, it is almost like seeing the film new all over again.

And then there are the bonus features. Not surprisingly, since this is Studio Ghibli’s biggest title (alongside Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle) they have added some very tasty extra items. A full list is below, with several new items that haven’t been included on older DVD editions, but one that stands out is a set of excerpts from a Japanese TV programme looking at the real-world inspirations for Miyazaki and how many Japanese are seeing the worth of saving these beautiful places. These are extra definitely worth watching.
As usual you get the original Japanese audio track plus the English/American dub. The English dub is pretty good, but I would recommend the Japanese original for slightly more depth of character and emotion. There are some great US voices, but the dub isn’t quite up to the standards of Spirited Away, Howl or Ponyo.

Surprisingly the only omission, still, is an HD trailer for the Ghibli collection…we still get the tired old DVD (almost VHS) quality trailer. It is about time Ghibli created a spangly hi-def trailer, they certainly have the material to make it by now!

So go forth and buy My Neighbour Totoro on bluray, you won’t be let-down. It is a superb film, in a beautiful presentation with great-value extras. What more could you ask for? Well, maybe a limited edition version with a Totoro plush toy…but then that’s just me, a self-confessed Totoroholic!

Extras: Storyboards / Creating My Neighbor Totoro (new!) / Creating the Characters (new!) / The Totoro Experience (new!) / Producer’s Perspective: Creating Ghibli (new!) / The Locations of Totoro (new!) / Scoring Miyazaki (new!) / Behind the Microphone / Textless Opening / Textless Closing / Original Japanese Theatrical Trailers / Studio Ghibli Collection Trailers

Review of French Fantasy Horror Film Livide

LIVID DVD Cover
Livid Review by Neil Gardner

French fantasy horror film ?Livide? by Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury is out now on DVD (titled ?Livid? in the UK) in a fanfare of positive reviews. But does it live up to its reputation as an original, scary modern horror?

The horror film world is in a bit of a muddle of styles right now, with everything from torture porn and splatter-fests, to hack n slash and old-school ghost thrillers being churned out. In a way it is a high time for horror fans, with no one style or theme dominating. One style that has benefitted from this egalitarian scattershot approach has been the traditional ghost thriller, the less-gore-more-chills variety of film-making, and Livid very almost nearly falls in to this category.

The film tells the story of a young woman who is training to be a visiting care worker in a French coastal town. She is taken on her first route by a middle-aged woman who is world-weary but wry. She learns that most patients are unable to care for themselves, many don?t speak and some are bed ridden. Finally, they reach a decrepit old mansion way out in the marshes, where she discovers the comatose lady of the house. We learn that it is rumoured the old lady has stashed a hoard of treasure somewhere in the mansion, but no one has ever found it. Talking with her boyfriend and his brother later that evening, the three decide to break in and steal the treasure, thus leading them to a promised life far away from the humdrum existence they currently have. And so they break in, and there begins a series of increasingly tense and creepy room explorations, which finally lead to them encountering the terror within.

As a slice of traditional style old school thriller, Livid works pretty well for about two thirds of its running time. There is a slow-burn build up for the first third, while we learn about the girl, the older woman, the house and the comatose old lady, along with some hints of a child-abduction sub-plot and just enough time to truly dislike the two male leads (such annoying and hateful characters!) When we finally get to the house and start the film proper it takes the directors a while to find their feet. While the soundtrack is superbly jittery and creepy, building tension and atmosphere, the house itself is a little lacking in creeping dread. Although, that said, the lead?s no nonsense approach to breaking and entering and getting the job done is refreshing and modern. But this is undermined by occasional ?There?s something wrong with this place? style comments. Oh dear, foreshadowing of the very bluntest kind!

Finally the film hits the on switch and apparently takes a 90 degree turn away from ghostly chills to creature feature with added violence. The sudden and jarring death scenes are fun and one has the air of originality to it?but the jerk away from creepiness to gore is a jar and feels strangely disjointed. Not disjointed enough to be a work of genius misdirection, just an annoying add-on to please the gore-hounds. The film then becomes something even more bizarre, which I won?t spoil for you, but which is both genuinely interesting to watch yet also head-scratchingly left-of-field. The leading lady (Chloe Colloud) does a good job with some low-tech body horror and with a sudden change of character trait. Which all leads us to the conclusion, a mixture of chase scene, monster-caper, Victorian gothic romance and classic gore. The film ends on a very odd note of redemption and rebirth, but leaves a heck of a lot of questions unanswered.

So?good, bad or ugly? For me Livid doesn?t live up to the hype. There is nothing much original here, no surrealist flights of fancy or amazing feats of storytelling prowess. What we have is a fairly typical slice of modern horror, a hotchpotch of styles and genres held together by a watchable lead actress and a desire to see where the plot is heading. The location is interesting but not in any way required (unlike the house in The Woman in Black), and the male leads are utterly redundant except as gore-fodder. By the end I found myself questioning exactly what it was the film-makers were trying to say with the movie, as it clearly IS trying to say something, just not very coherently. That said, this is not a bad film. It has some beautiful cinematography and superb sound, the choice of actors is strong, and the central horror conceit, while not entirely original, is unusual and would bear the weight of further investigation. The long set-up could do with some trimming down, and the ending could do with less faux-Gothic leanings, but Livid will certainly entertain horror fans who like a bit of variety in their diet. If you are a gore-hound or a traditional ghost story fan, Livid isn?t for you, but may hold your interest.

The DVD comes with a pretty dull behind-the-scenes featurette and some cast interviews, plus a trailer. It is in French with well-produced English subtitles.

All in all, Livid disappointed but not so much that I would damn the film. It is a worthy effort at trying something new, but falls for a few too many obvious clich?s and the film-makers have overly indulged themselves with mixing styles. That said, it succeeds in telling an old story in a new way, and there are enough unexpected twists to keep you guessing. I give it a solid 6.5 out of 10.

Crooks In Cloisters ? DVD Review

StudioCanal are making a bit of a habit of releasing classic British comedies, the one?s you used to see on Sunday afternoon TV. On DVD from 9th July comes the UK premiere of 1964 caper-comedy ?Crooks in Cloisters? starring Barbara Windsor, Bernard Cribbens and Ronald Fraser (among a host of other British comedy thesps). After pulling off a daring train robbery, ?Little Walter? (Ronald Fraser: The Misfit) and his crew are forced to lie low, away from the attentions of the monstrous Superintendent Mungo. The six of them set up business in an abandoned island monastery off the Cornish coast disguised as monks, despite the fact that none of them really qualifies as a monk – least of all Walter’s girlfriend ?Bikini? (Barbara Windsor). True to form, old habits initially die hard and soon their vows of poverty give way to a massive counterfeiting operation. Successfully dodging visits by tourists and even real monks, the gang are taken by surprise to find ?the simple? life starting to grow on them, but is it too late for them to turn over a new leaf and escape Mungo?s clutches?
It?s a by-the-numbers British 60?s comedy, silliness and sauce with lashings of slapstick. Barbara Windsor is at her ?Carry On? best, all legs, breasts and big hair; while Bernard Cribbens continues his run of playing foolish, almost simplistic, characters. And it is in these tropes that the real shame for the movie comes, because while the setting is unique, very little else about the film is. It is another Carry-On lark, another Ealing-caper, another comedy-ensemble that underuses its stars. Unlike some recent re-releases, ?Crooks In Cloisters? feels a little ?cookie-cutter?, something just knocked out quickly while the studio had a group of actors available on contract. There is no sense of love or passion from the cast, they are just ?doing their schtick? for a pay-cheque. And this is a shame as the movie has some heart and quirkiness that makes it endearing if not enthralling. The real problem is that the writer appears to have strung together a series of sketches, all of which would be fine within a TV show, but failed to tie them together with a worthwhile plot. Quite why Bernard Cribbens agreed to be in the film makes little sense, since he rarely speaks and seems to be only interested in sharing screen-time with an ornery goat.
The 1960s are fondly remembered for being a period of British film superiority and innovation, and in many respects they were. But they also suffered from the same malaise Hollywood suffers from today?that of bandwagons and never knowing when to stop. While there were some fine comedy films made in the decade, many of them featuring the stars of this movie, ?Crooks in the Cloisters? just isn?t one of them. Don?t get me wrong, it isn?t a disaster (except in some of the dialogue dubbing which is so out-of-sync it is an unexpected comedic moment in its own right), there is a warm, safe feeling to the film, one that makes it the perfect Sunday-afternoon movie to lightly snooze through. The cast are enjoyably manic, and 1960s Barbara Windsor is always a delight to watch. If you tell your brain to pop out for an hour and a half and switch off your modern day sensibilities, this film will entertain. You will have the urge to question WHY they pretend so hard to be real monks, and WHY anyone in the area would give two hoots about these chaps on the island. You might wonder at the predictable and rather coy love-story, or how Barbara Windsor?s character so easily falls in to the role of cook & cleaner. BUT?ignore these thoughts and relax. Sit back and enjoy some (fairly) innocent silliness. ?Crooks In Cloisters? doesn?t win any points for originality or innovation but it does tickle a few funny bones, and it is that rarest of things in our modern world?it allows you to switch your brain off for an hour and a half. And for that it is a DVD well worth watching (that and Barbara?s BIG hair?just magnificent!)

The DVD transfer is nothing spectacular, but the picture quality is good. There are some occasional aspect-ratio slips, where scenes appear too wide or too stunted, but this is rare. The sound is 2.0 mono, so nothing to be writing home about, but then what do we expect from a 1960s movie? The real shame, as with so many of these DVD releases of classics, is the lack of ANY supporting material. There must be press packs, photos and essays out there, so why not put them on the DVD? Why no retrospective documentary with the surviving cast & crew? This is hailed as a celebration of the 75th birthday of Barbara Windsor so why no short feature on her and her importance to British cinema? At ?15.99 this is an expensive vanilla release, one for British comedy fans only.

Hugo 3D Blu-Ray Review

?Hugo? 3D Blu-Ray Cover

Time for another nosedive in to the world of home 3D cinema, this time in the hands of top notch director Martin Scorsese. ?Hugo? is a sci-fi lite/steampunk-esque family movie based in a post-World War 1 Paris with a seemingly endless supply of top British thespians. From Sir Ben Kinglsey and Ray Winstone, to Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour, the great and the good of British acting talent are out in force. The film tells the story of young Hugo Cabret, an orphan who lives in the secret areas of a Parisian railway terminus. He keeps all the clocks wound and on time, and in his spare time dabbles in some petty theft to get the parts he needs to repair an automaton, the very machine his father was restoring before his death.

Sadly for Hugo he is caught stealing by an elderly toy seller (Ben Kingsley) and is forced to work to pay off his debt. But Hugo also gets to meet the old chap?s grand-daughter, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), an immediately annoying girl who has been spoiled, thinks the world is a playground and is altogether far too perky. Together they try to unravel the mystery of the automaton, and in the process learn a great deal about the old toy maker and the history of cinema.

As plots go, it is a light-hearted and enjoyable enough affair. If you don?t know your cinema-history then it will come as a pleasant piece of education, and if you do you will see everything coming a mile off. That said, the main plot is rather less ably supported by a couple of sub-plots. One of these is utterly dreadful and completely superfluous, concerning the railway station?s resident policeman (or Inspector), as played by Sasha Baron Cohen. Sadly this character is astonishingly annoying to watch, his motivation is nowhere in sight and the portrayal by Cohen is one-note. You feel no threat or love for this man as he one moment chases Hugo and sends orphans to their doom, and the next he is trying to win the heart of Emily Mortimer?s flower seller. A crude attempt to make him human with a backstory similar to Hugo?s comes across as trite and last-minute. To be honest, you could take him out completely and the film would work just the same.

It is hard to say much more without giving away the historic twist in the tale, so let me talk about the look and feel of the film. Where Scorsese had failed to engage on a character level, he has scored a hat trick with the visuals and design. There is a hyper-real feeling to this Paris, all steam and gas-lamps, clockwork and darkness. It is a fantasy Paris but one you feel is just a short distance in our past. The set designs are beautiful and the use of both CGI and large-scale models work very well. The automaton himself is a work of rare wonder and all credit to the artisans who created this prop.
Sadly there is a caveat to all this?in 3D, at times, things go very wrong. Initially my impression was that this was the most brilliantly conceived use of 3D in a home setting I had yet seen (live action, not animated). The early scenes of Paris and the railway were pristine and used the additional layers of depth proficiently. However whenever a person or item loomed forwards into extreme close-up, the 3D failed, completely. You could see multiple images, ghosting and the entire image became unwatchable. As soon as the close-up ended, the 3D reverted to superb once again. At first I thought this was a failing of either the TV or the PS3, but it wouldn?t do it with other 3D BDs, and reports online suggest many other people have had similar issues. They have also had problems with the 2D version either getting stuck or skipping. All in all, I feel let down by the experience. A lacklustre, if OK, film shadowed by a sporadically failing presentation in 3D. Such a shame, and especially from a director of Scorses? experience.

My advice is that this is a decent enough family film, but try to find the stand-alone 2D BD release, don?t bother with the 3D. There are some interesting if unoriginal bonus features to enjoy, including a rare moment of funny from Sasha Baron Cohen and the crew. It isn?t the overwhelmingly fantastic filmic experience I was expecting, but it is nice to see so many great actors in one place, especially the always-superb Christopher Lee. Rent rather than buy and you won?t go far wrong.

Speed Racer Blu Ray Review

Speed Racer DVD Pack shot
I honestly didn?t know what to expect as I settled in to watch the Wachowski?s much-derided hyper-real live-action love letter to the Japanese anime ?Speed Racer?. I only saw a few eps of the original TV series and didn?t really like it that much, and I had been disappointed with the Matrix sequels. And of course there had been nothing but hatred for this movie when it originally came out in 2008. But I decided to give it a chance as one of the few positives I had heard about it was that it looked superb in HD.

The movie tells the story of a young driver called Speed Racer (OK, remember this is based on an anime series where such silliness abounds) who aspires to be the racing champion in a worldwide ?Wipeout?-esque racing championship. He does this with the help of his mechanic-genius father, uber-supportive mother and outrageously annoying younger brother (and his pet chimp). Oh, and course, he has his childhood sweetheart by his side throughout. Yup, simple characters, simple setup. All very by-the-numbers. Speed, naturally, comes to the attention of a nasty businessman who has been rigging the races and profiteering. Can Speed win the big race and be the downfall of the bad guy? And can he do it all in the shadow of his supposedly-dead big brother?

Cheesey is the dish of the day where the plot is involved, but cheesey in a purposefully-camp and anime/Saturday morning cartoon way. The film is unashamed of its love of the source material, and the brothers Wachowski have spent a fortune on recreating the look of the anime in real life. All the actors seem well aware of the need for some ham, and you can almost see the collective wink at the audience. But this doesn?t matter, because Speed Racer is one adrenaline-fueled action adventurer from start to finish. The larger than life racing sequences will stun and then blow your mind. A mix of car-fu and Wipeout, these scenes are staggering, and superbly brought to life. A clever blend of real, hyper-real and outrageous cartoon, the Wachowskis have created something unseen in any other film (the closest yet is in the animated movie Redline). Battling, jumping, bouncing, fighting racing cars?what isn?t there here to enjoy? Emile Hirsch does a good job of making these racing scenes look and feel real, even though in the quieter scenes he does munch on the scenery a bit. But then he is surrounded and outshone by the likes of Christina Ricci, Susan Sarandon, John Goodman and Roger Allam, all of who are on fine form, albeit with tongue firmly lodged in cheek.

Of course, a film like this wouldn?t exist without a comedy sidekick (urgh!) and here we get two for the price of one (or possibly less!). Speed?s younger brother Spritle and his energetic chimp chum Chim Chim are the Sunny Delight/Haribo overdose the film could easily do without, but without whom it may not necessarily work. While they are insanely annoying, incredibly loud and aggravating and endlessly irritating, they add a real air of childishness and innocence to the movie and in a few scenes do actually earn their keep.

So, did I enjoy the film? Did the film deserve the slapping it got on release? Have the Wachowski?s directed another slice of Matrix-sequel-sick? Well, actually I did enjoy the film, a lot?.in fact it has rocketed in to my must-watch Blu-Ray list, the one I turn to when friends and family visit and say ?Oooh, what a large TV you have, can we watch something?? I loved the film (even with the annoying kid & his over-active chimp!) in all its hyper-real, rainbow-infused glory. The plot is as mad as a bucket of Bolivian bouncing bananas but that?s fine because it doesn?t pretend it isn?t. The film looks like nothing else I?ve ever seen (even Zack Snyder would have trouble topping this one for unique looks) and the clever blending of styles and sources works a treat. The race sequences are some of the finest entertainment on a TV I dare you find. I am a big Wipeout fan and here, writ large, is some filmic Wipeout (this is the game I am talking about, not that water-slide game thing with Richard Hammond on the BBC). I admire what the Wachowski?s were trying to do with this film. It definitely does the source anime proud, and is a wonderful, if intense, experience in HD. I heartily recommend it as a more healthy alternative to overdosing on fizzy cola bottles!