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1 Jul 2015 | Leave a Comment

After he tackled Facebook, the brilliant Aaron Sorkin next set his sights on Apple and it’s founder Steve Jobs. Based on Walter Isaacson’s bestselling biography, and directed by the equally brilliant Danny Boyle, the film stars Michael Fassbender as Jobs in what i’m sure will be a somewhat controversial look at the iconic man behind the rise of Apple.

Also stars Seth Rogen as Apple co-creator Steve ‘Woz’ Wozniak, Jeff Daniels as (boo hiss) John Sculley, and Kate Winslet as Macintosh team member Joanna Hoffman.

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24 Jun 2015 | Leave a Comment

The heyday of the Western is over, but the genre has never completely gone away. Part of its continued reinvigoration is the adoption of very American iconography by non-American filmmakers – the Italian spaghetti Westerns of the ’60s and ’70s, Australia’s The Proposition and The Rover, Denmark’s The Salvation. Slow West, John Maclean’s debut, is an unmistakably British film, despite being set in the West and shot in New Zealand (Scotland plays herself). As with those other examples, fidelity to the geographical settings is never as important as what an outside voice can say with the genre. Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) has left Scotland for America to reunite with a lost love, but finds himself ill-equipped for survival, teaming up with Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), who may or may not be trustworthy. The story is at first disjointed and episodic but what emerges is a more character- than plot-driven film, one that resonates beyond its short running time.

It’s not an easy film to read – there are moments of buddy comedy, black comedy, shocking violence, serious drama and peaceful scenery. At times it treats its characters with a Coen brothers-style meanness, but on the whole it’s sincere. The music is sometimes a little too jovial for what we’re seeing on screen, or maybe that’s the point. Fassbender isn’t playing to or against type – his accent is a little muddled (the character is Irish-Canadian), he doesn’t say much, and you get the sense that he’s a tough guy only because he can act like a tough guy. It’s his voice-over that drives the film, which is strange but ultimately fitting. The rest of the cast are unfamiliar faces so you never know who’s important, who’s good or who’s bad.

Every frame is visually rich, and Maclean and cinematographer Robbie Ryan make interesting use of split-diopter shots (when the frame is split in half, the foreground in focus in one half and the middleground in focus in the other). It’s an unusual technique but one that adds to the film’s sense of surreality – the flashbacks to Scotland arrive unannounced, taking on the quality of dream sequences, and the low budget means the massacring of Native Americans takes place just off camera. It builds to a sense of there being two Wests – the idealised, romanticised one that Jay believes in and has read about, and the reality that Silas has experienced. It’s never completely clear which one we’re being shown, just as the characters can never resolve that conflict in themselves.

8/10 – A Western full of offbeat choices, it’s well worth seeing for the final shoot-out alone.
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18 Jun 2015 | Leave a Comment

Milano Calibre 9

Milano Calibre 9

Fernando Di Leo’s Milano Calibro 9 (Caliber 9 in English) begins in gloriously over-the-top fashion with Rocco’s (Mario Adorf) henchmen rounding up and torturing three people to find out where some stolen money has gone. Cut to a cave and the three are tied together with a stick of dynamite. The bad guys laugh as the cave explodes. The rest of the film can’t quite live up to that initial promise of craziness but it’s still fun, and the ending is fantastic. When career criminal Ugo Ugo Piazza (Gastone Moschin) gets out of prison four years later, he finds himself in Rocco’s sights as the only one who could have stolen the money. There’s also the Police Commissioner (Frank Wolff) who wants to exploit Piazza to nail the elusive The Americano.

It’s not exactly a groundbreaking story – it’s basically Piazza going around waiting for Rocco to keep showing up and cause trouble, and attempts to inject pathos and romance with a blind old man and dancer love interest Nelly (Barbara Bouchet) respectively fall flat – but every other scene is charged with a violently masculine energy that could explode at any moment. The use of framing to show the power dynamics between the characters – low angles, handheld, and zooms – is masterful. (And if that kind of thing is important to you, the influence of Di Leo’s style on that of Scorsese, say, is hard to question.)

The sets and lighting are undeniably cheap, but a ’70s Italian cheapness that only increases in charm with age. There are some fascinating traces of the past, not only in the interior design, the urban landscapes and music but in its politics. Inspector Mercuri (Luigi Pistilli) is an outspoken socialist. He questions the efficacy of the prison system and asks the Commissioner why they don’t pursue bankers and businessmen with the same enthusiasm he has for The Americano. It’s a little shoehorned in, but serves as a nice reminder that exploitation filmmakers can be socially conscious too. Interestingly, Lionel Stander who plays The Americano was blacklisted from Hollywood for being a Communist to the extent that he had relocated to Italy by this period, also popping up in Once Upon a Time in the West.

This new Blu-Ray and DVD release from Arrow has a typically excellent transfer and a nice collection of special features, including featurettes on the making of this film, on Di Leo, and on Giorgio Scerbanenco who wrote the novel the film was based on.

7/10 – A trashy crime thriller that feels authentically ’70s.
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17 Jun 2015 | Leave a Comment

Cinematic history is littered with the “could have been”s. Orson Welles’ original cut of The Magnificent Ambersons. Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. And now, sort of, David O’Russell’s Nailed, which shot in 2008 and ran out of funding, leading Russell to leave the project in 2010. He would go on to make Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. Retitled Accidental Love and credited to Stephen Greene, the film is only now seeing the light of day. It’s impossible to know how it would play without knowing the backstory, but it feels like a broken film. The music and editing scream broad comedy while everything else pulls towards political satire. It’s already proved its worth as a curiosity (not least for the circa 2008 supporting turns by Jake Gyllenhaal and Tracy Morgan), but can it stand by itself as a film?

The answer is not really. When waitress Alice Eckle (Jessica Biel) is shot in the head with a nail gun, she starts a political campaign to reform the healthcare system. Along the way we learn that politicians are sleazy and corrupt and that the US spends a lot of money on its military yet little on healthcare. Even those soft insights are blunted by recent political developments in the real world, namely Obamacare. The goalposts, the targets for the comedy, keep changing. Are we meant to laugh at Alice, laugh with her, or care about her? Ditto for Congressman Howard Birdwell (Gyllenhaal), who changes allegiances literally every scene, although Catherine Keener in the villain role and Morgan as comic relief have a bit more consistency.

Nevertheless, Biel has a winning comic presence, and sells each aspect of her character even if they never quite gel together. She begins as a naïve small-town woman waiting for her buffoonish fiancé (James Marsden) to marry her and becomes a passionate political campaigner who behaves unpredictably and might be nymphomaniac. There’s a lot of potential in that personality change, triggered with her accident but too much of it is off screen (as is the moment of her first orgasm, which surely should have been a major development). The question is never raised of what would happen to her personality if or when the nail is removed, which should have been the actual dilemma for the character rather than the thin love triangle. Again, the same original footage edited and scored differently could have made her into a very compelling heroine. There are some striking dutch angles (where the camera is tilted 45 degrees or more), but the colour scheme is garish, over-saturated and over-contrasty, like a TV movie.

4/10 – Despite some good laughs, Accidental Love is more interesting as a lesson in the importance of editing.
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15 Jun 2015 | Leave a Comment

Science fiction has naturally given us a wealth of technological inspiration, from video calls to Roombas, though not all of our advancements are coming to the home. Advancements in medical technology could mean more lives are saved, thanks to gadgets from the big and small screen. Below are four tech innovations that might save our lives in the near future.

Cryogenics

Mr. Freeze

Mr. Freeze

Cryogenics has long been seen as the pursuit of the super-rich to prolong their life, becoming one of the go-to conversation topics when Walt Disney crops up. While the likes of Mr Freeze may spend years and years (or maybe just reboots and reboots) searching for the cure for his wife Nora, we may start seeing the benefits of cryonics in our hospitals sooner than you think.

Cryonics are predicted to become a stable part of hospitals, operating under the same principle as Tom Cruise’s character in Vanilla Sky, but on a much shorter timescale. The research is based on the discovery that a person’s cells remain alive for a short time even after they themselves have been pronounced dead. This has led to a search for a way to use cryonics with those on the verge of death (or having just passed away) and trying to find a way to revive them. Rather than widespread access to year-long freezing, the example Lance Becker from the Penn Center for Resuscitative Medicine gives is freezing a wounded man on a battlefield, transporting him to a hospital, and treating him with more dependable equipment than those available in a field medical kit.

Self-driving cars

I, Robot, Minority Report and Total Recall have all shown us the potential of autonomous cars, allowing relaxation and privacy while out on the road, unless you’re taking the slightly unsettling Johnny Cabs (why does he have eyelids? He doesn’t have legs, but he has working eyelids?). Nothing would be better if you need to get someone to the hospital, letting the car drive itself while you keep them calm.

Though not commercially available just yet, driverless cars are being developed by the likes of Google and Baidu, and have even been made legal on UK roads. With 360 degree cameras, sensors and radars, these cars will be able to effectively predict their surrounding much better than a human, drastically reducing the risk of an accident occurring, as a recent study revealed human error being the cause of 90% of all road traffic accidents.

Nanotech

Straight out of the world of Doctor Who, airborne nanobots (microscopic robots that can fix you up on a molecular level) are the answer to saving war-time civilians in the haunting story The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances. While a cloud of nanobots that can fix you in an instant may still be light-years away, nanotech is being developed to take tissue samples and target specific types of cells. Research is currently underway to develop a self-assembling robot made of individual capsules that perform simple tasks separately and then combine to perform more complex ones.

By improving the functionality and level of control of such capsules, in a few years, doctors may be able to treat illnesses in far less invasive ways using nanotech. If things improve enough, they’ll be looking to prevent diseases before they even appear in the human body. Just think, you’ll be part of the Borg Collective in no time! Oh wait…

Ambulance Drone

Everyone loves Baymax. Don’t try to deny it. He’s an adorable inflatable robot who just wants to help people. What’s not to love? A fully-formed Baymax to help you out may still be a long time away, but that isn’t to say robotics can’t help save your life in the near future. Alec Momont, an engineering graduate, has been busy developing a prototype ‘ambulance drone’ that can help those suffering from cardiac arrest.

Tracking an emergency phone call and navigating through GPS signals to get to incidents quickly, the drone houses a camera and speaker, meaning a paramedic unit can see what’s happening on the scene and talk someone through using the on-board defibrillator while an ambulance is on its way. While still in early stages, Momont hopes the drone will save “hundreds of lives in the next five years” and that it improves heart attack sufferers chances of survival “from 8% to 80%”.

These are some of the medical developments that are looking to become part of our regular lives in the next 10-20 years. Beyond that, who knows what we’ll have, and who knows what innovations science fiction will be inspiring even further.

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11 Jun 2015 | Leave a Comment

Christopher Lee

Christopher Lee

It’s rare I post my thoughts when an actor passes away, but when I heard Sir Christopher Lee had left us this week at the age of 93, I really didn’t feel I could let him pass without saying something. There are few people who deserve the tags ‘legend’, ‘remarkable’ or ‘extraordinary’, but all these apply to Christopher Lee.

His acting career spanned an incredible 7 decades, and was still working right up until his death. From Shakespeare, to the Hammer Horrors for which he became famous, to his outstanding performance in The Wicker Man, to appearing in both Star Wars and Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies. For his reprising role as Sauron in the Hobbit movies, which were filming only last year, he’d been too frail to travel, so Jackson flew to the UK bringing bits of the set with him, filmed Lee’s parts, and then matted it all back together. Lee is also one of the only people involved in the LotR and Hobbit movies to have actually met J.R.R. Tolkien.

But acting wasn’t his only love. How many people do you think can say reached their 80’s and thought “you know what… I really want to be in a rock band!”…

That’s the 84yr old Lee doing a heavy metal version of Sinatra’s ‘My Way’. 😀

Lee was a man that spent his entire life being awesome. Before acting, he was in WW2, and worked with the SAS. Not that he’d tell you what he did… Although, there was a conversation between Peter Jackson and Lee on the set of  Lord of the Rings, where Jackson was trying to explain how it should sound when someone is stabbed… to which Lee replies, “Do you know what it sounds like when someone is stabbed in the back… Because I do…” Jackson let Lee do it his way.

So to sum up his many highlights:

  • Fought in WW2 (and most likely stabbed a few Nazis).
  • 70yr acting career.
  • Played Dracula.
  • Was in a Bond movie.
  • Starred in Star Wars and Tolkien trilogies.
  • Met Tolkien.
  • Released numerous rock albums in his 80s and 90s.

As user ‘Fraugheny’ commented on Reddit – “I’m not sure if he died or he just completed life.”

RIP to a legend.

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