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Mass Effect (2007) (VG)
2 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Stellar, 17 November 2009

Bioware's space-opera in RPG form is, on the whole, a magnificent piece of storytelling and a thoroughly absorbing, playable and re-playable game that goes out of its way to accommodate newcomers to the genre but doesn't lack depth. Here I'll concentrate on the more 'filmic' qualities of Mass Effect, on the assumption that if you want a review that focuses on gameplay you'll go to a gaming website. Suffice to say I've enjoyed playing it through multiple times (on the PC); one could pick holes in various bits of the implementation, such as the AI in combat and the inventory system, but the strengths far outweigh the weaknesses in gameplay terms.

Mass Effect is, up to a point, what you make it. Commander Shepherd, the protagonist, can be selfless, principled even to the point of being holier-than-thou, or unsentimentally pragmatic; he/she can explore the blurry boundary between patriotism and xenophobia, or hold out for species-blindness; there are politicians to be mollified, tolerated or deliberately alienated, as well as a crew representing five different species, none of them straightforward quasi-racial caricatures, whose inner lives Shepherd can discover (or not), sympathize with or mock. He/she may find herself falling for one or two of them, but there are also sacrifices to be made. It's testimony to the quality of the writing, character design and animation and (not least) voice acting, that most of this feels supremely persuasive. One can feel really guilty about some of the choices one's forced into.

Technically, the game is often miraculous. Something it manages really well is the focus on nuances of character, helped along by a magnificent facial animation system, and some first-rate voice acting in most of the primary roles. Special nods go to the always excellent but never better Jennifer Hale as the female Shepherd; lovely, characterful work from Raphael Sbarge (Alenko), Kimberly Brooks (Ashley) and Brandon Keener (Garrus), and a fine performance from Fred Tatasciore as Saren, no one-dimensional villain. Not all the squad-mates are as well-written or performed, and neither Tali nor Liara quite comes to life as a character; their line readings tend to sound less spontaneous, but the actresses really do have much less to work with. (Edit: but Liz Sroka is quite wonderful in Mass Effect 2, given much better material and delivering it with terrific dramatic power.)

There are limits and compromises to the game's self-conscious feminism: when the female characters aren't tough soldiers they tend to be a bit feeble, and the exploitative character design for Matriarch Benezia should have been sent back to the drawing board (she's voiced by an uncomfortable-sounding Marina Sirtis). On the plus side, supremely solid support comes from the likes of Keith David as the compassionate, experienced Captain Anderson, and the unmistakable voice of Seth Green is very well cast as Joker. He gives a subtle, variegated performance that steals a few scenes without ever seeming to be doing so on purpose.

There are two fundamental tensions which Mass Effect has to disguise, if we're to suspend disbelief. The first and less important is pacing. In a race against time to save all civilization from an ancient foe, there's always time for a long chat, a side quest, a shopping trip. I'm happy to accept that as a necessary fudge; it's the price you pay for replayability. More serious is the tension between choice and linearity. For all the nuance with which you can create and develop 'your' Commander Shepherd, you gradually discover on multiple playthroughs that most of your choices are less meaningful than you think. Whatever you choose, the consequences are much the same in terms of plotting, and have only limited ramifications at the level of personal relationships.

This is one of those moments where a technical necessity starts to become a philosophical tenet by accident. Mass Effect presents itself as a morality, a story about choices and their consequences, but the more you play the game, the more you become aware that those consequences are locked down in advance. Of course they are: just imagine the inefficiency otherwise - the amount of dialogue, cut-scenes, character relations and plot developments that would branch off. Mass Effect simultaneously flatters and explodes the heroic illusion that every choice one makes changes the universe. That at least is a provisional conclusion: it'll be very interesting to see how, and how far, the sequels work out the consequences of choices made in the first game. And I for one will certainly be playing.

19 out of 40 people found the following review useful:
Sorry, but no, 17 November 2009

I wanted to like this, I really did. The BBC were trailing it as just the kind of episode I wanted to see - taut, scary, grown-up, sombre, intelligent sf. And if you'd cut it by about half, re-edited the remainder, and come up with some new stuff, you'd hit the jackpot. I like David Tennant's Doctor more and more, and will miss him in the role - he has a near-perfect combination of gravitas and impatience, and can shift in a moment from excessively cheerful to deadly serious to alarmingly peculiar, like no-one since Tom Baker. And I like any episode that doesn't turn on conventional sexual tension imported from Buffy. Trouble is, the script just wasn't good enough. Scenes went on and on, with diminishing returns. Doomy, adolescent self-indulgence got substituted for seriousness. Scary gave way to vaguely embarrassing. I started feeling sorry for Lindsay Duncan without even being sure whether she was feeling sorry for herself or had got sucked into the corporate self-regard of a show that badly needs to be stripped back to basics. I prefer to be optimistic that Steven Moffat is the man for the job, given the very high quality of the eps he's written. Lots of hard work went into 'The Waters of Mars', but the writing is hollow.

3 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
very well made, but curiously stupid, 9 October 2003

"Unbreakable" is an extremely well-crafted film. The acting is mostly terrific, with Bruce Willis cementing his position as almost the only actor who can convincingly fill a certain kind of role: an unpretentious, quiet, blue-collar man, no intellectual but also no fool, well-meaning but no saint. As in "The Sixth Sense", he is on quiet, controlled form here, but in this film he's more regularly the centre of attention, and he's sufficiently magnetic to carry it off. Samuel L. Jackson, the perfect Tarantino actor, also excels in a completely different, much more restrained aesthetic.

The production is in many ways as good as the performances: measured, pretty dour and unvarnished. Within individual scenes the writing is usually fine, and some of the staging is memorably done - although the director's obsession with precise storyboarding does yield a certain inertia, making this largely a film of fluent compositions rather than dramatic scenes. The trouble is that all this sophisticated film-making can't disguise the fundamental lack of intelligence behind it. It's not that the plot is silly or the idea self-evidently implausible -- that is very rarely a problem so long as the film is made with conviction -- it's just that the idea isn't illuminating, it doesn't tell us much about anyone or anything. Its impression of seriousness is bogus.

The family drama which occupies the foreground most of the time is in fact incredibly ordinary: if you imagine this story shorn of its fantastical elements, it would barely pass muster as a TV movie of the week; and (more damagingly) that family story is in no way enriched or even much affected by the journeys taken by Willis's and Jackson's characters. And I don't even think that this film tells us much about comic books or superhero origin stories -- certainly little that isn't squeezed into the opening couple of minutes of Ang Lee's "The Ice Storm" (itself no masterpiece). It's very strange to see so much professionalism and care in all departments lavished on such a thin, underwhelming, half-baked idea for a movie.

10 out of 11 people found the following review useful:
preposterous and hugely enjoyable, 3 June 2003

At a pinch, I suppose I'd accept that some of the lurid carryings-on and local legends that have gathered around the figure of the composer Gesualdo, and are retailed here with a gleeful lack of critical scrutiny, might actually be true. Perhaps quite a lot of them are, but it doesn't really matter, because Herzog seems at least as interested in the way that people create, exploit and enjoy the legends, as in the composer himself or his music. Some sequences are very obviously staged for the camera, and Herzog seems almost to be daring us to believe that we really are talking to, say, a mad ex-opera singer who believes herself to be the reincarnation of Gesualdo's murdered first wife. The results are certainly very, very funny -- but everything pales before the irrepressible wife of a local chef, who disrupts his efforts to tell us about Gesualdo's extravagant menus with a torrent of abuse dedicated at the composer, whom she regards as the devil incarnate.

But then, for all its contrivances, the whole film has a deadpan, dishevelled feel about it. No effort is made to disguise that the resident expert Gerald Place is talking from notes or keeps developing a nasty frog in his throat: as one of the few people in the documentary who seems basically sensible, he has to be quietly sent up some other way! Only the intelligent and rather sympathetic Principe d'Avalos seems to escape with his dignity intact -- perhaps because he's aristocracy.

Musical duties are divided between two groups of singers. The Gesualdo Consort of London mostly sing in tune, the Complesso Barocco mostly don't -- the avant-garde quality is certainly exaggerated by the problems with intonation in what is very difficult music. As with the interviews with Gerald Place I get the impression Herzog didn't want to do retakes if things went slightly wrong, and the singing certainly has plenty of enthusiasm. Only he can be blamed for the way the audio and visual get out of sync by a couple of seconds in close-ups of the director in one of the musical performances; but somehow it all seems to add to the effect of cheerful bizarrerie. How a specialist in Renaissance music would react to this documentary I dread to think (I'm sure there'd be some swearing and gesticulation) but as social comedy it's priceless.

Orlando (1992)
0 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
one of a kind, and often rather wonderful, 3 June 2003

For the first half hour at least, this is a real joy: there's so much visual splendour, sly wit and ingenuity on show in the Elizabethan and Jacobean sections that I'm inclined to forgive the longeurs and lapses later in the film. But then, how could any film live up to the casting coup of Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth I? He is quite wonderful: this isn't just a stunt, but an utterly convincing portrayal of the ageing queen, that helps us suspend disbelief and enjoy the gender-bending high jinks of England circa 1600, with its distinctly unshaven Desdemona (in a glimpse of a quite startlingly terrible production of "Othello"), and of course Tilda Swinton's Orlando. She's never particularly androgynous, though she does catch the body language of awkward male post-adolescence, and is well paired with the *very* feminine Charlotte Valandrey in the second segment. Throughout these sequences the look of the film is remarkable considering the tight budget, and the script is sharp, subtle and funny.

Things do go a bit flat for a time, both in the script and the execution: Heathcote Williams' poet on the make isn't terribly interesting, and the caricatures of various 18th-century literary luminaries are too crude for their feminist point to register very convincingly (it can't be said that the script is always subtle). The limits of the budget and shooting time mean that the supposedly traumatic sight of a man shot dead in battle ("he's not a man, he's the enemy!") doesn't have enough impact to motivate the central transformation of Orlando from man to woman. Luckily the film revives in time for the Victorians and a delicious, fairly preposterous modern coda. The final impression is of a movie that got slightly compromised, mostly because it was so hard to persuade investors to sink their cash into something so eccentric, but it's still a unique and gleeful highbrow entertainment -- even if it doesn't really say anything all that deep about gender or identity.

2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Underlying script and story problems undermine fine work from director and cast, 18 March 2003

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

A slow burner that ultimately fizzles out, Felicia's Journey offers things to admire along the way, but at its core it's not intelligent enough, substantial enough or interesting enough - it doesn't tell us anything new, or even anything altogether credible. The best reason for seeing it is Elaine Cassidy as Felicia, the innocent abroad, who's very natural and credible (and very pretty). Bob Hoskins gets a chance to do something different as Hilditch, and - especially by contrast with that natural quality Cassidy has - seems studied. It's a technically excellent performance and there are some fine, subtle bits, but - perhaps because of his sheer familiarity as an actor - I was always conscious of his accent as put on; I admired but wasn't drawn in.

Much the same is true of the rest of the movie, with its adroit control of narrative structure, trademark flashbacks aplenty, and its handsome cinematography. (Ironically its saturated colours often make industrial Birmingham look as beautiful in its way as the conventionally picturesque Ireland; I'm not sure if that was the plan.) The music tends to alienate one too: there are some very oddly scored scenes that struck me as over-wrought and intrusive; perhaps they were meant to evoke the disorder inside the mind of Hilditch, but if so I think that was a misjudgment.

So, worth seeing, especially for its often mesmerizing early scenes; it's just a pity that the pay-off doesn't pay (I can't say too much more about why that is without going into spoiler territory, but the problems are with the conception of the Bob Hoskins character). A pity, after Egoyan's fine "The Sweet Hereafter", that the material here just wasn't strong enough.

66 out of 131 people found the following review useful:
One to convert the sceptics, a rich, thoughtful and charming animation, 11 February 2003

If, like me, your heart sinks at the prospect of another pious, sanctimonious, tub-thumping eco-fable, give "Mononoke Hime" a chance all the same. It does have a distinct, and far from subtle, ecological message, of the "can't we just live together?" variety, but on the other hand it's far from clear that the answer the film suggests is "yes", and there are plenty of nuances and subtleties along the way. More to the point, there's a proper story, well-conceived and well told, there's a memorable, beautiful and violent world, credible characters and a good deal of charm.

The animation is mostly very fluent and careful, though not flashy in the way we're getting used to in this CG age. ("Mononoke" uses cgi, but subtly and with restraint, so that the feel remains that of a group of traditional craftsmen under one guiding hand). Quite often one finds that there are more static elements in a tableaux than you'd expect in a Disney animated feature, but I think this is an aesthetic choice rather than a mere economy: it stylizes and formalizes, while focussing attention on the important elements in the frame. But there is occasional jerkiness, though not enough to detract seriously, and perhaps it wouldn't trouble audiences whose frame of reference isn't so western as mine - I'm not sure.

Talking of the western and eastern sensibilities, the Region 2 DVD which I'm reviewing gives you a choice of English and Japanese dialogue, and though I watched the American dub first, I'd generally prefer the Japanese version, for the key roles of Ashitaka and San. Billy Crudup is appealing but too low-key, and Clare Danes strikes me as badly miscast: she sounds a bit too old, and altogether too urban to bring out the core of wildness or the steely sense of loyalty to her world. Like other reviewers, I have trouble with the Texas drawl of Billy Bob Thornton, which is just too regionally specific to match the look of the character (please understand that I'm not suggesting the cast should all have done fake Japanese accents!). On the other hand, it's pretty much a toss-up between Yuko Tanaka and Minnie Driver (who's very closely attuned to the aesthetic of the original) as Eboshi, and Gillian Anderson and Jada Pinkett Smith are just right. Still, overall you get more vividness and conviction from the original voice cast. Oddly, the lip-sync seems more approximate in the Japanese version, perhaps a fault in the synchronization on the R2 DVD. The subtitles unfortunately but understandably come from Neil Gaiman's adaptation of the screenplay rather than re-translating the Japanese - one's aware, for example, that Gaiman has added bits of extra, explanatory dialogue.

With all that out of the way, let's concentrate on what makes the film work: it delineates a world that's at once mythological and believable, and refuses to sentimentalize or simplify (even if it occasionally allows itself to preach). There are feuds and failures of trust not just between the humans and the animals, but within each world - and the animals seem as ready as the humans to exclude the other from their world. Indeed the conceit of the film seems to be that language, rather than being a product of distinctly human evolution, was originally shared among mammals at least, and it's as the war with the humans goes on that the animal kingdom becomes more brutish and less coherent. For all the prince's idealism and the delicate rapprochement some of the characters inch towards, one gets the impression that the logic of conflict will be hard to resist.

Perhaps the most appealing and intriguing element in this world is the kodoma: the little, voiceless tree-spirits seem to be a cross-between a mushroom, a toddler and a rattle, and I defy anyone not to be captivated by them.

0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
potentially fascinating, but creatively botched and already dated technically, 11 February 2003

Oh dear. I suppose I must have heard good things about "Blood", or I wouldn't have picked up the DVD, but if so, someone out there has extraordinary taste. This mini-feature, which feels like an underwritten, half-thought-out pilot for a rather promising series, has borrowed a few good ideas, and shoved them together to make the most frightful mess I've seen in a good while.

For me the biggest problem is the element that seems to have won the most praise: the technique of animation. It attempts to fuse traditional hand-drawn and computer-animated methodologies, and the problem is that they simply don't fit together properly - never has a film looked more like the product of a committee of egoists. The near-photo-realistic environmental textures and 3D environments only serve to exaggerate the flat, cartoonish quality of the drawn characters (who are perfectly well designed *as* cartoonish characters, and indeed the heroine is beautifully drawn and animated). Though a lot of care has evidently been spent on composition and lighting, and a couple of individual sequences have an efficient, kinetic power, I'm afraid to my eye the end product is just a mishmash of incompatible aesthetics. Plus, some of the computer animation already looks terribly dated, with some glitches in the animation, and at least one scene that looks like a rather old 3D console game.

Then there's the voice acting, which ranges from the acceptable to the execrable - not that the dialogue deserves any better. The modern conviction that a film really doesn't need anyone on the team who can write doesn't strike me as a high point in the evolution of cinema. Now that its geek value as a tech demo has frankly been superseded already, there's not much left to enjoy - except for a rather good soundtrack.

And it's a shame, because there was genuine promise here: though they haven't been properly developed or brought into any kind of focus, there's an intriguing protagonist and a thought-provoking cultural moment here: I'm sure that lurking behind this is some sort of allegory of Japan's historical identity and relationship with the United States. I may well be missing some things, but I fear it's not subtly suggestive, just confused and half-hearted.

49 out of 52 people found the following review useful:
a feast for the imagination, 24 January 2003

I can't help myself: I adore this film. I freely accept that it's not going to be everyone's cup of tea; if pushed, I might even accept that it's not perfect. But there's no film I love more, or more enjoy re-watching. One caveat though: I've seen both the subtitled and the dubbed print, and the English dubbing frankly comes close to ruining the movie. Ron Perlman dubs himself and is fine, and some of the other adult English actors are perfectly OK, though they tend to be blander than the French originals. But most of the children are terrible, and with her own voice it's Judith Vittet's extraordinary performance (all the more extraordinary considering she was nine at the time) that helps give "La Cité" the genuine emotional centre that some viewers don't feel it has.

But I'll come back to that. In any version, at least Jeunet and Caro's astonishing visual flair and artistry come over. I can't think of a film that has such a concentration of memorable shots - time and again, especially watching on DVD with a freeze-frame facility, you realize how many beautiful compositions Jean-Pierre Jeunet gives us: though the cast of characters could easily fill a freak show, and the sets are dark and quite unglamorous in themselves, the cinematography is gorgeous and the mise-en-scène often strangely elegant. It has a look all of its own, perfect for a modern, urban fairy-tale. The music too is gorgeous, one of the finest scores by David Lynch's regular musical collaborator, Angelo Badalamenti.

"Fairy tale" is I think the best generic starting-point for this film, so long as you think Grimm rather than Disney. (Unlike "Delicatessen", it isn't really a comedy, though it has comic elements). And the plot works according to its own logic, even if the progression from scene to scene is occasionally a bit lumpy or obscure. Krank (the astonishing Daniel Emilfork), grown prematurely old because he cannot dream, uses a cult of blind, messianic preachers to abduct children from a decaying industrial port and steal their dreams - but they have only nightmares, and Krank falls ever deeper into despair and evil. It's up to the orphan pickpocket Miette and a none-too-brainy circus strongman, One, to put a stop to him. This rich idea is elaborated with all sorts of visual conceits and eccentric characters - Jeunet mounts, for example, a couple of astonishing sequences in which chains of unlikely effects proceed from the smallest of causes - but never at the expense of the central relationship of One and Miette.

In a sense Miette, like Krank, has grown old too fast: the orphaned street-children of this city are savvy and unsentimental, and never seem to have had a childhood; meanwhile there's something deeply childish, in various ways, about most of the adults. Sensitively directed and never overacting, Judith Vittet's Miette gradually thaws, and Ron Perlman brings a lot of sympathy and pathos to what could have been an oafish, cartoonish role: Jeunet gives plenty of space and subtlety to their gradually-developing friendship, and dares to do what I suspect no English director would dare to do at the moment, which is to make their relationship innocently sexualized. Neither of them is really a grown-up, but it's still an extremely risky move, exploring the first stirrings of pre-pubescent sexuality while trying not to be exploitative or prurient. I do think the film pulls it off, though I can imagine some viewers feeling distinctly uncomfortable with it. For me it's one of the most convincingly unsentimental and nuanced (if mannered) portrayals of childhood I've ever seen on the screen, and there is real compassion and tenderness along the way, as well as some darker twists and turns.

It's a film that rewards analysis if you're prepared to surrender to its strange world with its strange rules. But it rewards the senses and the emotions too - and it radiates love of cinema as the perfect medium for sophisticated fantasy. One elderly actress who appears towards the end (Nane Germon) acted - as Jeunet's DVD commentary points out - in Jean Cocteau's "La Belle et la Bête" about fifty years earlier (there are, by the way, distinct references to the Beauty and the Beast story here), and "La Cité des enfants perdus" deserves to join that film as one of the classic cinematic fairy-tales. Pity about Marianne Faithfull over the closing credits, though!

2 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
handsome, poignant, a bit joyless, 16 April 2002

Though filmed for the most part in picturesque, sun-drenched Cornish exteriors, this is a rather sombre, steady account of Shakespeare's great, complex play. At times it's genuinely touching, but very rarely funny: Trevor Nunn's direction pitches it rather more as a BBC-esque costume drama than a comedy. Ben Kingsley can't sing but is nonetheless a charismatic, intriguing Feste; Nigel Hawthorne is particularly effective in Malvolio's final scenes, somewhere close to Madness of King George territory, while Imogen Stubbs is an engaging Viola (and reasonably credible Cesario) throughout. Imelda Staunton's Maria stands out too: she gives the impression of being the only remotely level-headed person in Illyria, and her understated distancing of herself from the plot against Malvolio as it becomes crueller is nicely observed. Nunn's direction could do with more subtle touches like that - and it could also do with rather more wit and lightness to offset the prevailing melancholy.

Cinema is rather cruel to the Renaissance stage conceit that identical twins really do appear identical. And perhaps there are other, specifically theatrical artificialities about "Twelfth Night" that don't translate naturally to the screen - like its whole plot, for example. Overall, a serious, honourable but not inspired attempt.

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