Signs (2002)

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SignsWhat if extra-terrestrial life actually existed? And how would you react if amidst the resulting worldwide confusion, they actually turned up on your doorstep? Upon the presumption that no everyman would simply be able to infect the alien’s computer grid with a virus and be done with it, M. Night Shyamalan approaches the subject in a mood far more thoughtful and restrained than most of his predecessors. Because while intrigue certainly features, the focus of “Signs” is undoubtedly on a family drama unfolding in eastern Pennsylvania between a widowed Mel Gibson, his brother (Joaquin Phoenix) and his two children (Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin). For long portions of the film, from the characters’ initial disbelief through their gradual encroaching on the humans, the alien life-forms remain in the shadows, importantly rooting the film in reality while equally adding the other dangerously Shyamalan horror undercurrent.

Unidentified flying objects are spotted over Mexico city and around the world but after mysterious crop circles appear in his cornfield, retired reverend Graham Hess (Gibson) and his family quickly need to come to terms with the fact that a close encounter with E.T. might be closer than they had initially thought. The family dogs begin acting strangely, shadows steal about the farm at night, certain radio frequencies pick up odd interference and a general sense of foreboding prevails the whole area. Even when his slightly eccentric children decide to don tinfoil hats as a precaution, Hess is far from convinced and is determined to hold the family unit together. M. Night Shyamalan movies are often hit-and-miss affairs, and his follow-up to “Unbreakable” treads a similarly fine line between thrills and the ridiculous: On the one hand “Signs” sells itself as a deep and contemplative family drama, successfully posing a what-if scenario with an added element of psychological horror for vast stretches, while on the other is Shyamalan’s palpable itching to remake “Independence Day.” One can easily get the feeling that the director would have relished a go at a straight-forward alien invasion movie à la Emmerich.

The resulting film is one of baffling paradox and for all of Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix’s fine acting and intricately wrought suspense throughout, the climax is painfully (or laughably depending on your mood) capricious and underwhelming in every way. The sad truth of the matter is that the blame must be laid exclusively at Shyamalan’s door as his screenplay shovels itself a hole it can never climb out of in a satisfactory manner. The world of a film should develop from A to B rather than try desperately try to find its way back to A, no matter how external the forces acting on characters. Similarly, detractors will be quick to point out the director’s reliance on creepy young children as a way of inflating chills, a method that paid far more dividends in the superior “Sixth Sense.” It’s a shame that these flaws and missed opportunities are so marked as they cloud over what is the basis for a genuinely good science fiction premise. The isolated and disconnected farm homestead and local community looking to its priest for guidance is positively brilliant, as is an utterly heart-wrenching last-supper scene (though the religious overtones are thankfully kept in check). “Signs” remains a missed opportunity for many reasons and it remains far more satisfying to watch Steven Spielberg tackle the same subject, something he twice managed masterfully.

Signs OSTJames Newton Howard, Shyamalan’s composer of choice has served the director well, often delivering music superior to what the film deserved. However the music for “Signs” sounds a little like an extended development of “The Sixth Sense” that would only come to full fruition in Howard’s score for “The Village” two years later. That is not to say the score doesn’t fit the film however, in fact quite the opposite: A repeating piano figure of three notes heard in the opening “First Crop Circles” and again throughout the score treads a fine line between delicate beauty and suspense. The alternating chord patterns make the theme suitable for both wonder and fear in the face of new discovery and Howard successfully leans into both. The closing “The Hand of Fate – Part II” rounds out the satisfying copious performance of this theme. The crashing dissonance that defines cues such as “Main Titles” and “Asthma Attack” and represents the aliens is far less interesting however and for listeners will return only for the first theme. Overall, “Signs” is beautiful in parts but not quite on par with some of Howard’s later work for Shyamalan, especially the aforementioned “The Village” and “Lady in the Water.”

“Signs” often displays flashes of brilliance but without the firm grounding of a satisfying resolution (and it’s not easy see how that could have been put together) the entire film seems somewhat pointless. Sci-fi fans might appreciate it but even they will be pushed. It needs to be said: Watch “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” instead.

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Cloverfield (2008)

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CloverfieldAfter its early post-teaser-trailer hype and no doubt to the great satisfaction of producer J.J. Abrams, “Cloverfield” was filmed in complete secrecy. Thus what began as a low budget horror and monster-movie turned into an international smash-hit that proves once again how possible it is to make money without financial clout or big star names attached. The concept is as simple as it is terrifying in our media-saturated age of citizen-journalism, on the spot as news breaks: Think of “The Blair Witch Project” relocated to the big apple and crossed with “Godzilla.” Whether or not the film is a mashup of previously existing documentary and monster conventions is a valid question and debatable but the attraction of “Cloverfield” will be its execution and its fresh if not unique style.

The film is presented as a home-movie, initially to record testimonials at a going-away party in Manhattan, complete with grainy and shaky footage as well as the obligatory running commentary by the operator. The party is abruptly interrupted by a huge explosion in the lower city and (in a great “Escape From New York” tribute) the Statue of Liberty’s head flung down on of the avenues. As the tagline taunts – something has found us. And whatever that something is, it’s pretty angry. In the ensuing panic five friends, played by Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas, T.J. Miller (as the cameraman), Michael Stahl-David and Mike Vogel stick together to try and rescue an injured friend across New York, filming as they go. It’s a harrowing experience for the viewer as well as the characters as they dodge between explosions, an evacuation, the home guard and the something itself. Director Matt Reeves and screenwriter Drew Goddard mercilessly (yet, one feels gleefully) exposing us to horror after horror and teasing with as little background as possible (the addition of CGI is prominent yet not intrusive, a welcome feature) to root the film in a sort of bizarre reality most films can never get close to.

Amidst the non-stop action and truly terrifying suspense there’s little room for respite, just enough to catch a breath with some trivial but nevertheless touching footage of what was previously recorded on the tape. The impact and importance of the human story of “Cloverfield” cannot be understated and as is so often the case with sci-fi or fantasy, it can accurately reflect struggle and suffering in a disaster zone without becoming laden with sentimentality. Reeves never allows the story to descend into simple bravado action and even his shaky first-person view seems to enhance the experience on a level that goes beyond mere effect or technique to suggest insecurity. In these moments, it’s place in the the horror genre comes into its own and leaves even the toughest viewer shaken. So much so in fact that on release some theatres displayed a notice, warning of side- or after-effects similar to sea-sickness. If that isn’t convincing enough for you, you’ll just have to see it for yourself.

Cloverfield OSTOfficially, “Cloverfield” contains no original score. To aid its docu-style, this feels natural but it didn’t prevent Abrams from asking regular collaborator Michael Giacchino to compose a suite of music for the end credits. The result, “Roar!” otherwise known as the “Cloverfield Overture” has to be one of the most bombastic single cues on film in a long, long time, featuring a full orchestra, bolstered low brass and some very haunting female vocals over the top. Giacchino provides us with twelve minutes of a glorious and very memorable over-the-top action-romp and as such it’s a shame that the idea couldn’t be explored over an entire film. While it pays significant tribute to Akira Ifukube (the Japanese “Godzilla” composer), the piece is littered with Giacchinoisms, a style that would find further exploration in his score to “Super 8” three years later. The piece is only available for digital download but considering the price, every film-score enthusiast should have this in their collection.

While the idea behind it may not be very new, “Cloverfield” is among the best hand-held camera films out there and makes for thoroughly gripping viewing throughout. If you’re looking for some mind-numbing thrills and are prepared to suffer some nightmares afterwards, J.J. Abrams has created the perfect film just for you. See it if you can.

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Super 8 (2011)

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Super 8Though J.J. Abrams has long been a darling of many looking for a possible successor to Spielberg at the top of the Hollywood brat-club, his directorial success has been almost exclusively limited to TV pilots. As his re-imagining of the “Star Trek” franchise proved however, he is an artist with considerable potential and how better to earn your spurs than with an homage to your childhood hero and the great director himself? Kept under wraps to heighten anticipation, the look and feel of “Super 8” is quick to betray Abrams’  inspirations: the film is firmly rooted in his childhood and the Spielberg, Lucas and Zemeckis films of the late 70s and early 80s. So specific is the zeitgeist of the era that it is easy to remark that “they simply don’t make movies like this anymore.” The setting is vital indeed but Abrams and Spielberg (acting as executive producer, giving us the first Amblin film in years) are on the best road to prove us wrong.

Making a zombie movie during the summer holidays on their super 8 camera, a group of tweens unwittingly become witness to a terrible train accident. It soon becomes clear that this was anything but a regular train as mysterious events begin to grip their town of Lillian: Army personnel roll in to gather evidence, dogs and then people disappear and power goes out again and again. What was contained in those freight carriages and what evidence might be contained on that reel of film that captured the immediate aftermath of the accident? The kids begin to hunt for the truth as the gripping tale begins to unfold. Abrams’ casting is key and with mostly unknowns it seems he’s hit the jackpot for every single role. The focus is on Joel Courtney’s Joe and his developing relationship with Alice (Elle Fanning), both struggling with difficult family situations and together they provide the heart of the film. Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, Gabriel Basso and Zack Mills make up the rest of the crew, adding a “Goonies” touch but providing much more than comic relief. Despite some typical Hollywood sensibilities, they are all entirely convincing throughout – their performances simply feel natural and we may well be watching the stars of the future (Elle Fanning is almost there already anyway). The adults, including Kyle Chandler who creates great dynamic with Courtney, rightly step into the background. Abrams wasn’t going to let anyone steal the kids’ show and their story is wholly involving.

The production design and keen cinematography (by Snyder regular Larry Fong) will immediately evoke nostalgia within those that grew up at that time but the film creates a great world for every viewer to feel into. Abrams’ direction is led by a sort of pure escapism that makes one yearn for those days of teenage freedom summer adventures despite the fact that onscreen events are anything but carefree. Indeed, many elements of “Super 8” far remove from kids-film territory, providing thrills, jumps and horror galore that will have you leaping out of your seat at several instances. And this is where eventually the film’s weaknesses do appear, namely when the plot requires the nameless terror to be revealed. At this point, Abrams can’t settle between homages to the likes of “E.T.” and “Close Encounters” or building up elements inspired by his production baby “Cloverfield.” Settling on all-out action sadly leaves the last 30 minutes devoid of the glorious filmmaking that defined the first 90 and robs the film of the highest possible rating. The film thus meanders into predictability and genre generics when it could really have been something outstanding. Thus the denouement is somewhat underwhelming and while this leaves a bit of a sour aftertaste as the credits finish up, nobody can complain of not having been entertained sufficiently in the initial two acts.

Super 8 OSTAfter his Oscar win for “Up” two years ago, Michael Giacchino’s output has been somewhat lessened and his effort for “Super 8” is a very welcome return to form for the composer. Significantly, this score provides him the opportunity to meld a beautiful, heart felt theme for the children with his very robust action style that he perfected for Abrams’s films. The child identity that plays mainly to Joe and Alice is heard at the outset of the album and is a very fitting and memorable theme. Sweeping strings are dominant in many passages and as always with Giacchino there’s a hint of John Williams though that of course is a nice play on the maestro’s scores for Spielberg. Secondary themes are explored in “Aftermath Class” and action explodes on the album’s latter half in tracks like “The Siege of Lillian” where significant inspiration from the Cloverfield Overture are to be heard. Even though some tracks are on the short side, there’s a generous amount of score on the album and makes for an excellent listen both beside the pictures and divorced from them. Both fans of the composer and casual collectors will find much to enjoy here.

Reminiscences to Spielberg’s own works mean the film carries the heavy burden of comparison to some real masterpieces one it can’t quite overcome. “Super 8” is very well worth seeing even though it ultimately falls short of the highest order. They really don’t make films like this anymore but J.J. Abrams is an honourable exception to that rule of thumb.

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Starship Troopers (1997)

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Starship Troopers“Starship Troopers” is extremely difficult to judge and depending on your social and political views, or your ability to tolerate gratuitous violence and kitsch dialogue, it may well be judged as a masterpiece or alternatively as one of the greatest jokes Hollywood has ever afforded itself. Polarising audiences and critics upon release, it remains divisive and for director Paul Verhoeven (who was already on his way down his career ladder throughout the 90s) it effectively marked the demise of a career. Those expecting a space opera in a grand, Lucasian style will be alienated by the jarring socio-satyrical elements and while Verhoeven fans will find his flowing narration correct and present, even they cannot eschew the film’s very rough edges. Consider yourself warned.

Loosely adapted from Robert Heinlein’s sci-fi novel of the same name, “Starship Troopers” takes place in a futuristic world where human civilisation continually ventures into space, colonising solar system after solar system. Threatened by arachnid-type aliens from the planet of Klendathu, the humans declare war on the primitive bugs, intent on wiping them out in a final-solution style operation. Entire action sequences as well as punctuations of recruitment videos play like fast-food military propaganda to appeal to the masses of youths who can sign up to become “citizens,” a more privileged class of people than the ordinary civilians. Joining up for entirely different reasons is Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien), namely to follow his girlfriend Carmen (Denise Richards). Also joining up are Dizzy (Dina Meyer) and Zander (Patrick Muldoon) who have the hots for one member of the couple, as well as Carl (Neil Patrick Harris) who joins an intelligence division. After an intense training boot-camp the troupe are dropped on Klendathu, in the middle of the inter-galactic conflict. Naturally, E.T. turns out to be far more intelligent and far less friendly than originally thought and the military mission quickly turns into a desperate struggle for survival. Jake Busey, Clancy Brown and Michael Ironside also star.

There is no one moment in the entirety of the film’s running time that escapes controversy. We are made acutely aware of the parallels humanity’s expansion into space as a superpower and similar enterprises on our home soil. On the one hand, such a vision of the future may be terrifyingly realistic (cynics in particular will have a field day here) and takes on a rather frightening form when applied to the American dream of liberty, on the other hand Verhoeven’s depiction of humans as Third Reich emissaries is painful and irritatingly crude. What will ultimately sink the film for many viewers is the duality created out of these satyrical undercurrents. Verhoeven can’t decide if he’s making a straight action picture or something with more far-reaching implications is clumsy, leaving the end product tangled and confusing. This latter point is certainly strengthened by the extremely clunky dialogue and wooden acting by the entire ensemble that all point to cheap, B-movie rather than something with a serious message, regardless of any satyrical statement. Often, the film veers dangerously close to farcical and laughable, understandably going over the edge for some viewers.

It’s quite possible that your relationship with “Starship Troopers” bears resemblance to that of Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski. Be that as it may, looking past the plot or its message and focusing purely on the technical side of things, viewers will find much more to universally enjoy. Verhoeven’s sense for flowing narration within individual scenes remains second to none, even if the dialogue is tosh, harking back to the days of “Basic Instinct” and “Robocop.” All the action is clearly and consistently choreographed, avoiding the confused “shake” that permeates so many post-Private-Ryan action. And finally, the visual effects are absolutely top-drawer, quite rightly nominated for an Academy Award though its loss to “Titanic” is hard to dispute. Nevertheless the bugs, including the climatic “brain-bug” are excellently rendered by Phil Tippett (ironically nominated against his “Jurassic Park” collaborator Dennis Muren) and Co. at ILM. The actual planet is rooted in reality, shot in Wyoming, but the bugs fit in almost flawlessly. As far as alien world’s go, the look is not unlike the original “Star Wars” and equally realistic.

Starship Troopers OSTPaul Verhoeven regularly collaborated with both masters Basil Poledouris and Jerry Goldsmith but for “Starship Troopers,” the former was first choice. Poldouris’ score plays mainly to the über-patriotic elements of the story with muscular brass and percussion, explored primarily in the heroic “Klendathu Drop” for the troop deployment and “Fed Net March” which plays to the propaganda video sequences. Amidst the frenetic action, there is little room for respite but Poledouris finds a beautiful lament in “Dizzy’s Funeral.” The rest of a disappointingly short album presentation is ballsy and militaristic but in the end, Poledouris can’t quite return to the brutal form of his “Conan the Barbarian” masterpiece. In retrospect, Poledouris probably fulfilled Verhoeven’s brief but it would nevertheless have been interesting to see what Goldsmith might have conjured for the project.

As was originally the concept behind “Star Trek,” sci-fi can be a great platform for socio-political comment. Undoubtedly, Verhoeven both succeeds and fails at this task. “Starship Troopers” will make a mark on you but if that be scarring or insightful will depend largely on the individual viewer. A middle-of-the-road rating tries to take account both sides of the story but realistically, any rating from one through five could be successfully be argued for.

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Thor (2011)

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In Marvel’s scramble to grant each of their superheroes a franchise before a possible united outing, the choice of Kenneth Branagh as director for “The Mighty Thor” was without doubt the best decision. To draw parallels between the mythically-inspired comic and the godly authority of the accredited Shakespearean with a pedigree that includes everything from “Henry V” to “Hamlet” was a stroke of genius that translated into the most anticipated hero-picture of the summer. Similarly a good decision was to cast a relative newcomer, golden-locked and uber-muscled Chris Hemsworth in the hammer-wielding title role alongside heavyweights like Anthony Hopkins and Natalie Portman.

After a folly mission, young and arrogant god of thunder Thor (Hemsworth) is banished from Asgard by his father Odin (Hopkins) and has his principle source of power, the hammer Mjolnir stripped from him. Exiled to a world called Earth, he first meets with scientist Jane (Portman) and her assistants Stellan Skarsgård and Kat Dennings. Concurrently, Thor’s brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has been eying the throne of Asgard for himself and has agreed a devious deal with the feared Ice-Giants that would see Odin dead, Thor permanently banished and said giants rise to their former glory. If that weren’t enough, the mysterious SHIELD agency (Introduced in “Iron Man”) is also after Thor’s hammer. As the forces of evil unite, Thor must prove himself worthy, regain Mjolnir and (of course) defeat Loki and thus save Asgard. As expected, Branagh’s influence saturates the picture, lending an epic touch to the exposition that may not quite rival the Bard himself but is a terrific – and the correct – direction in which to take a superhero film. The entire plot has hints of “King Lear,” minus the insanity. Yet Branagh rightly distinguishes between dramatic proceedings in Asgard and more casual ones on Earth, with surprisingly humorous results. Quite a large portion of the film’s middle third contains some hearty laughs that certainly come unexpected but also function as reassurance that Branagh isn’t taking it all much too seriously.

Hemsworth to does well in slipping into his godly shoes, though far more believable when able to ham up the headstrong and foolhardy side of Thor than when purporting love for his father, brother and country. His chemistry with Portman is fine though their relationship misses a crucial middle floor in her coming across a homeless hunk in the desert to believing him to be a god from another world. Portman is never bad in a role but maybe this one wan’t quite suited to her. There are further caveats to register, mainly the underdevelopment of the chief villain. Not only is it clear from frame one that Loki will play bad, his motives are so thoroughly scrambled that many a viewer will be scratching their heads. The screenplay thinks itself far too clever here, seemingly presenting a complex character but comes up short by having his behaviour be illogical. Many will also find fault with the presentation of Asgard itself, as it looks like a rather bad mutation of some of Lucas’ “Star Wars” worlds and oh so CGI. Too much so, especially in the huge crowd scenes and battle set-pieces that should by rights rock the floor like the Battle of Agincourt. Finally, a series of off-angle establishing shots stick out like sore thumbs. If these were intended to be a stylistic device is unclear but in any case no stylistic device should jump out and say look at me!

Patrick Doyle has always been Branagh’s composer of choice and like him, this was Doyle’s first dabble in the genre. Having also previously graced the fourth “Harry Potter” with music of epic proportions, the Brit certainly has the know-how for an appropriately large effort this time round as well. What surprised many listeners and deterred some was Doyle’s choice (or perhaps at the insistence of the studio) to venture into the grounds more usually tread by Hans Zimmer and his associates: That definitive “blockbuster” sound with power-anthems, orchestra plus synth elements and an abundance of driving percussion. Though it’s a departure for Doyle, the style fits the film well and is, unlike some of the efforts of Steve Jablonsky, Ramin Jawadi and indeed Zimmer himself, a score of intelligent construct. The main theme is powerful, the string ostinatos vary as appropriate and there’s almost excessive material for the percussion section to gnaw on. It would certainly have been interesting to hear Doyle apply his more conventional music but that may well have been far too romantic for the film. This score may very well mark the beginning of a comeback for Patrick Doyle who had slipped off the Hollywood radar somewhat in recent years. Definitely recommended.

Overall “Thor” makes for good entertainment. The continuation of style Branagh nurtured on the  Elizabethan stage is the film’s strongest playing card though several poor choices, some not directly related to the director prevent it from being an ace up his sleeve. That said, it’s a great kick-off for a summer with a full-up superhero offering. Should a sequel come to pass, definitely bring Kenneth Branagh back to the table.

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Watchmen (2009)

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WatchmenThanks to Hollywood’s continuing obsession with adapting comic books and graphic novels for the big screen, it was inevitable that one of its most famous, “Watchmen” by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons would eventually be made into a live-action movie. A figurehead of the phrase “studio development mess,” the picture finally ended up in the hands of director Zach Synder who had previously shown expertise in the genre with his brutally stylish “300.” Considering the fact it came with an R rating and had no star names were attached to it, the project was a success with older mainstream audiences as well as fans of the source material who praised Synder’s vision and retelling as particularly faithful and true to the original.

Set in 1985 at the height of the Cold War, the film presents an alternative history with super heroes, the “Watchmen,” who acted as humanity’s guardians and protectors but have long been disgraced and made political pawns in America’s struggle against the Soviet Union. In this dark and dreary world where it always rains (“Se7en” anyone?), Watergate never happened, Richard Nixon is still in power and the nukes are just a red button away, annihilation it seems, is ticking ever closer. In the midst of this carnage, a former superhero, Edward Blake also known as The Comedian (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is brutally murdered. The masked Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) believes this to be a conspiracy, that all the superheroes are being targeted, and begins to investigate. In parallel, Matthew Goodes’ Ozymandias yearns for the good old days of the superheroes, and kindles a romance with troubled Laurie Jupiter (Malin Akerman) while Billy Crudup’s Dr. Manhattan is having second thoughts on whether earth is really worth it all. Synder tries to keep all these different story strands on a leash as they weave in, out and around but the finished product remains a confusing mess. The damning statements the screenplay wants to make about humanity’s fall from grace and doomed fate are all lost amidst the violent action and Rorschach’s gravelly monologues. These journal entires present a mood similar to T.S. Eliot’s dark “The Waste Land” but their spoken hoarse growl is more akin to Batman in the Nolan era and equally irritating.

Particularly in the last third, the film becomes increasingly unsure what it really wants to be about. Hovering somewhere between satyrical insight, serious message and apocalyptic action movie, “Watchmen” becomes a victim of its own weight, Synder labouring to hit his “300” stride again. It is of course perpetrated by a similar visual style: From a visual point of view, utilising some of the same bullet-time effects pioneered on “The Matrix,” the film is unique and indeed impressive, every location showing the consistent and fully fleshed out vision the screenplay so desperately lacks. The action set pieces meanwhile, as stunning as they may be to look at, merely present violence for violence’s sake. Perhaps it’s all supposed to represent man’s inhumanity to his fellow man or is a neat swipe in the direction of more conventional superheroes but the film never leaves room for such philosophising, so obsessed is it with trying to portray the violence as grotesquely as possible, be that with a butcher’s cleaver or a steel saw. If this was Synder’s intent, he’s clearly succeeded but even the most grossly choreographed punch-up feels tired, seeking an excuse for violence yet never, for all its stylishness, achieving in its satyrical portrayal as, say Tarantino might.

Watchmen OSTIconic songs such as Bob Dylan’s “The times They Are a Changing” are as important to Synder’s style as the visuals. Their placement therefore is prominent, much more so than the original score by Tyler Bates, Synder’s regular composer. Bates who caused a stir when it was openly revealed (by Warner Bros. in part) that large parts of his “300” score were in fact plagiarised, approaches “Watchmen” in much the same way that Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard did for both their “Batman” scores, namely dark brooding atmospherics. Regardless of your opinion of the pair’s work, Bates’ effort is little more than a cheap rip-off, failing to ignite any interest in the film or on the album. While managing to avoid a lawsuit this time around, Bates does borrow significantly from Danny Elfman and Don Davis’ “The Matrix” as well as the “Batman” pair leaving us with a very disappointing score overall. The song compilation, released separately, offers a much more satisfying listen.

Who watches the Watchmen? You shouldn’t, and certainly not more than once. As faithful as Zynder is to the graphic novel, the film is overlong and a mush of ideas that fail to gel. Praise it for visual panache if you will, “Watchmen” is nowhere as deep or as engaging as it’s made out to be. As far as superhero movies go, this is not one to recommend.

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Inception (2010)

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InceptionIn a deliberate ploy, Warner Bros. and director Christopher Nolan kept his followup to the 2008 phenomenon “The Dark Knight” shrouded in mystery for a very long time. Cast and crew were tight-lipped also, only small fragments of information were let slip: Your Mind is the Scene of the Crime the tagline taunted, sci-fi then, an intense thriller set within the realm of virtual reality, dreams to be more precise, visual effects galore and a stellar cast to take us there. One thing was sure – it was going to be big. That is on both setting and financial scales, the project apparently devouring several hundred million dollars. One could certainly call it a gamble. Could whatever Nolan had dreamt up (pun intended) be another cash cow for the studio as Batman Begins #2 was, could fans be satisfied when not knowing what to expect and, perhaps most importantly could it ever live up to all the hype? To those of you waiting with bated breath let me put it simply: It’s a huge and resounding Yes!

The film’s plot revolves around Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb, a con-man who’s day job consists of stealing ideas from the minds of his victims, but takes up a different task: Inception. That is to plant rather than extract an idea. The stakes are high – should he be successful he may see his two children again, if not he will be trapped forever in “limbo”, a dream-wasteland of the mind. A team is quickly assembled, consisting of his regular co-worker Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the young architect Ariadne (Ellen Page) and others including Tom Hardy and the actual contractor, Ken Watanabe’s Saito. The target of the whole operation (which of course goes horribly wrong at the first corner) is Cillian Murphy, who as a rich business man’s son should (for Saito’s business interests) break up his dead father’s empire. Complicated? Believe me, this synopsis barely scratches the surface.

Yet Nolan manages to keep both film and audience on track with professional ease. Because it’s not like “Inception” is exclusively intellectual. The movie is equally concerned with explosions, gun-fights, fist-fights (in zero-gravity no less, “The Matrix” should watch its back!) and all round action entertainment. It’s a delicate balance but Nolan keeps all the mayhem in check, so it doesn’t necessarily matter if you’re not entirely sure what’s going on all the time. Central to this is clearly the mentally unstable Cobb. Tortured by his dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) as well as his children, loosing grasp on what is real and what is not, DiCaprio’s performance is his most mature yet (and that, by now is quite mature) and weighty, most of the movie’s heavier emotional moments resting on his shoulders. That is not to say the rest of the cast are merely sidekicks or serve comic-relief functions: Gordon-Levitt is quietly dangerous, Murphy excellent in crumbling slowly from the inside and, well, there’s something about Ellen Page. Quiet, too, unconventionally attractive and the the film, thankfully, never asks her to portray a love interest.

Best of all are the visuals. Firstly, the constructs of the worlds in dreams, the set pieces as you might say. “Dreams feel real while we’re in them. It’s only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange” Cobb says. Whether rain-soaked metropolis or mountain peak snow-fortress, these worlds feel real to the viewer. Only like this can it take a van 30 minutes to hit the water after driving off a bridge without our interest waning. The second is Wally Pfister’s sweeping cinematography. Like in Gotham, Pfister’s camera keeps a fantasy world rooted firmly in reality. Combine these with the photo-real CGI and the results are breathtakingly spectacular.

Inception OSTHans Zimmer who wrote the original score for the film is now officially Nolan’s composer of choice. Let’s not forget that it was Nolan also who convinced Zimmer that a film’s music should meld flawlessly with its sound effects. But, there comes a point in everyone’s life when one is fed up with simplistic writing, endlessly looped string ostinatos and low brass roars. For me, “Inception” is that point. I’m a huge Zimmer fan, don’t get me wrong, I even tolerated the Batmans, but this just goes too far. Any creativity left in Zimmer’s previous work has gone right out the window. Frustratingly, in his own opinion the composer seems to regard these sound-effect landscapes as intelligent constructs and hired Johnny Marr (guitarist of “The Smiths” fame) to prove it. Bottom line: it’s not intelligent, in fact it’s the opposite. It’s overly simplistic, an adequate but nowhere near good effort by Zimmer, in short it’s lazy writing. Doubtlessly I will be criticised for this rant but in my opinion he’s just gone down the wrong road.

Whatever about the music, “Inception” is the blockbuster movie to see this summer. An intelligent sci-fi epic with enough to please most camps of the movie-going species, this is quite simply a compelling 148 minutes. I will say that repeat viewing is advised, your appreciation of the complex plot and powerful performances can only grow. So beyond our wildest expectations Christopher Nolan has done it again! Bring on Superman and Batman 3…

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