OK. Let’s see if I can remember how this works.

Pacific Rim had me at “Guillermo Del Toro giant monster movie”, because that’s a dude who knows how to make big-screen beasties work. Like Prometheus I went in pretty sure the film would be wonderful to look at no matter what its other flaws might be.

I think the comparison to Prometheus is kind of telling, and not just because it’s another sci-fi monster film by a one of the best world-builders in the business that features the always-watchable Idris Elba in a position of authority. Prometheus was a film that I appreciated on an aesthetic level but couldn’t connect with because it was filled with so many stupid characters doing so many stupid things in service of such a stupid plot. During Pacific Rim my reaction was more “Hmmm, I sort of think this would work better if they’d either turn the melodrama down a notch or up a notch HOLY HUG THIS IS AMAZING WHAT IS THAT I CAN’T EVEN!!!”

The last time a movie action sequence hit me like this was when Qui-Gon O’Jin The Oirish Jedi and Poor Old Ewan McGregor first drew their lightsabres in The Phantom Mess. And that was a moment that had the weight of fifteen years of nerd anticipation behind it. By contrast, I’m not a kaiju movie guy. I’ve got no particular nostalgia or affection for the bloke-in-a-rubber-Godzilla-suit genre of films that inspired Pacific Rim. More than that, I’m someone who, for example, loves the Iron Man movies when Tony’s quippity-quip-quipping at people but quickly tunes out as soon as they turn into guys in CGI robot suits clobbering each other. And yet every time Pacific Rim deployed a robot suit to smack the heck out of a three hundred foot tall monster my mouth was literally hanging open.

I wish there had been a chance to get to know certain characters better so that their fate had more emotional punch. I wish the dialogue had been a bit snappier. I wish there’d been more than one and a quarter female characters. I wish I’d loved it rather than just really liking it. But in general I wasn’t bored when the mechs weren’t on screen and was COMPLETELY BLOWN AWAY when they were which is, you know. Not too shabby for an Orange Wednesday.

Hello again everyone, did you miss me?

RANK: B

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Because I a) own a Sky dish and b) apparently hate myself, I have seen every film in The Fast And The Furious Quintology (“The Fast And The Furious“, “The Faster And The More Furious“, “The Fastest And The Furiousest” and “The Ludicrously Fast And The Positively LIVID“). I even quite enjoyed one and a half of them. So I’m not speaking from a place of ignorance or sneering middlebrow dismissiveness when I tell you that Fast 5 might be the stupidest movie I’ve ever seen.

And, you know. I’ve seen The Happening.

This is a film where the opening scene sees its protagonists deliberately forcing a fully occupied prison bus into a high-speed crash, causing the bus to roll at least half-a-dozen times. It then shows us a news broadcast from the scene where a reporter tells us with a straight face that “miraculously, there were no fatalities.” Somehow this doesn’t even crack the top three most ridiculous things that happens over the next two hours. If you count the casting of the two leads  it might not even make the top five.

Fast 5 stars Vin Diesel as an ambulatory side of beef. Even twelve years ago you’d have charitably described the Vinster as someone whose physicality did most of his acting for him, like mid-period Sly Stallone or any-period Arnie. At this point, Diesel seems to have lost the ability to emote altogether. Now, Diesel might be a dead-eyed mumbling shambles but at least he’s got a modicum of screen presence. This is more than can be said for co-star Paul Walker, a man so utterly lacking in charisma that I kept forgetting his character’s name despite having already seen three films centred on the same character. McSomething? O’Something? And then there’s The Artist Formerly Known As The Rock And Also Pretty Much Currently Known As The Rock, who spends the entire film being gruff, striding purposefully and dripping with a frankly distracting amount of sweat. Seriously, it looks like they were actually hosing the man down with water between takes.

These powerhouse thespians lead us through what’s less a plot and more like a series of things that apparently happen. Halfway through the film it suddenly decides it’s going to be an ensemble heist movie and uses the opportunity to reintroduce such beloved characters as That Guy Who I Think Was In The First One Oh Actually Maybe The Second, One Of The Baddies In Blade 3 Wait Was He In Fast And Furious As Well? and, of course, I’ve No Idea Who That Bloke Is. There’s no easier mark for a good cinematic caper than me (and I’ve got the Gone In 60 Seconds and (bad version of) The Italian Job DVDs to prove it), which is why it’s such a disappointment that Fast 5 makes such a hash of it. When you assemble a team of people who are The Best At What They Do you’re supposed to give us a chance to see each of them Doing the thing that they are Best At! If you don’t, all you’ve done is give yourself a much-too-big supporting cast of borderline-indistinguishable characters who’re now just clogging up screen time that would be better served going to your leads… Oh. Actually, scratch that. Point being, where’s your respect for genre conventions? Further point being where are the montages? I NEED MY MONTAGE.

You know what, though? I didn’t hate it. Fast 5 has the same go-for-broke, throw-everything-at-the-screen attitude as Doomsday. It’s nothing like as good as Neil Marshall’s underappreciated b-movie gem, but in an era when most action movies are nasty, boring or both there’s something to be said for Fast 5’s cheerful live-action cartoon excess. It’s a complete mess but hey, at least it’s an inventive mess. And it might be the film best suited getting some mates together and MST3K-ing the hell out of it since that wildly hilarious ode to Steven Seagal’s towering hubris, On Deadly Ground.

RANK: C

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While watching the BBC’s coverage of U2’s Glastonbury set, I had a sudden, uncomfortable epiphany. I’ve always believed that U2 had been a decent band throughout the eighties but turned bloody awful shortly after the release of Achtung Baby. Watching God trying to drown Bono on stage in front of umpty-thrumpty thousand people, all of whom seemed to equally value U2’s nailed-on classics and their parody-of-themselves output of the last 20 years, I was struck by a blinding flash of the obvious.

U2 didn’t suddenly become terrible in 1992. I suddenly became 17 in 1992.

Pre-Achtung Baby U2 were music I’d grown up with, songs I got attached to before I had anything approaching critical faculties, before I had a taste in music that had developed beyond absorbing whatever was on the radio and whatever my friends listened to. This same period has left me with an affection for Roxette, A-Ha, Fleetwood Mac and Poison’s “Flesh And Blood“, so it’s actually a little amazing that I never questioned myself before now. 1992-93 represents the crest of the wave I was being carried along by, the point at which I picked up Floodland, New Miserable Experience and Little Earthquakes, the point at which I started developing and defining my own opinions for good or (largely) ill. Without the candy-coloured fog of childhood attachment it became laughably clear that Bono is a tool and his band are a bunch of stadium-bothering dad-rock merchants.

For the sake of sanity, let’s not consider this principle in relation to the Star Wars movies.

And so: The A-Team.

I loved the A-Team in my preadolescence. Yes, it was rubbish. But it was fun rubbish. Face’s white Corvette with the red go-faster stripe was literally the most glamorous thing my ten-year-old self had ever seen. There was Mr. T, whose appearance and demeanour was so far outside my experience he might as well have arrived from Mars. Plus: a VAN! HELICOPTERS! ENGINEERING! One of the FIVE BEST TV THEME TUNES EVER!

Turning those ingredients into a generic action movie just seems like such a missed opportunity. Turning it into an impossibly boring generic action movie with three-and-a-half charisma vacuums in the lead roles (headlined by a Liam Neeson performance embodying the Where’s My Paycheck? intensity of late-period Gene Hackman) seems a little tragic. Then there’s the bizarre subplot that treats it as a bad thing that one of the characters has decided to stop killing people, and the film’s delight when he decides that actually properly-applied brutal murder is a really good thing. What the ACTUAL hug?

Still, Bono has now opened my eyes to the fact that this is almost certainly nostalgia talking. Thanks, Bono. By the way, wearing those stupid shades at night makes you look a right git. And you do KNOW that we all realise your hair’s not really that colour any more, right?

RANK: D

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Watching Kick-Ass is like being trapped in a lift for an hour and a half with the sort of 13-year-old sociopath that dominates YouTube comment threads. “Look at MEEE! Look at what I’m DOING!! Isn’t it just so WRONG?!!! ARE YOU OFFENDED YET??!!!!” Kick-Ass is mildly irritating for about 25% of its running time and boring for most of the rest. Kick-Ass is Watchmen for absolute idiots, which is something of a surprise because up till this point I thought that Zack Snyder’s Watchmen had done a passable job of being Watchmen for absolute idiots. Kick-Ass drips with cynical contempt for its characters and audience, but it’s so patheticly eager to be a bad-boy and so artlessly superficial it can’t evoke any sort of emotional response at all. Kick-Ass really wants to be hated. Instead, the correct reaction is to remember the teachings of Bill, just say it’s rubbish and walk away.

Still, Nic Cage’s Adam West impersonation is quite good fun. RANK: E

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Unlike many other nerds, I never waste any time wondering what I’ll do when the world is overtaken by zombie apocalypse. This is because I’m a large, slow-moving target with no practical or combat skills and a picky appetite. In the event of things going all Romero my assigned role isn’t as one of the plucky, desperate last remnants of humanity but rather as one of the shambling mindless horde. To be honest, I’ve got Boomer written all over me.

Not that these are zombie movies, of course. The difference between zombies and the “infected” from 28 Days / 28 Weeks Later is both semantic and profound. Zombies symbolise our mortality – they might be slow but they pursue us tirelessly and relentlessly. We can stave them off for a while but in the end there’s no escape, whether through bad choices or bad luck eventually they’re going to get us. There’s also an element of zombies representing our society and specifically our worst impulses – our fears, our hate and/or our greed. Single zombies are easily avoided and almost laughable, it’s only when gathered en masse they become incredibly destructive and dangerous.

You know. Like Leeds fans.

The infected don’t have quite the same flavour. They’re much more of a direct individual threat and especially in the first movie we rarely see them in large groups. And, of course, they run. Key sequences in the opening of both films feature characters fleeing with the infected in hot pursuit.  It’s a threat that feels more personal, more aggressive than that which their forebears present, an impression that’s further heightened by the speed with which victims join their ranks. Unfortunates bitten by zombies generally take hours if not days to die and rise again, but the Rage virus is passed on in seconds. We live in a world where advertising and the media bombards us with the message that we’re all special, that we’re all clever nonconformists, that our opinions matter. These films give us the monsters we deserve, zombies suitable for attention spans eroded by the millions of different ways Western society presents to distract ourselves while the planet falls to ruin.  The infected are suppliers of bespoke carnage for the Me Me Me Now Now Now Generation. Because we’re worth it.

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A few years ago, I read a biography of the late Bill Hicks. Despite knowing from the off what the ending was likely to be (I mean, it’s hinted at pretty strongly by that “the late” part) the last chapter left me inconsolable. The impossibly cruel timing of his impossibly premature death, just as his career was starting to take off after years of toil in relative anonymity, hit me like a kick to the stomach.

See also: Control.

I really, really have to be in the right mood before I’ll sit down in front of a movie I know is going to be a bit of a tough watch. That’s the reason why American History X was on the shelf for the better part of two years before even getting its shrinkwrap removed, it’s the reason why I’ve seen Magnolia a grand total of three times despite it being one of my five favourite movies and it’s the reason why I hadn’t watched Control even though a chum had leant me the DVD an embarassing number of months ago, well before before I conceived the notion of the grand folly for which there really must be a better name than The Great DVD Project.

Suggestions on a postcard to the usual address.

I’d already hung on to the film for a shamefully long time so slotting it in down the order in its “correct” place (between Constantine and Coraline, as it goes) wasn’t really an option. So before I could start grinding away precious hours of my brief mortal span in earnest I had to clear the decks, and that meant manning up, sitting down and watching a film that I really wanted to see about a band that I absolutely love.

I’m pathetic, honestly.

To my complete non-surprise, Control is a terrific piece of work.  The quote on the box reads “The coolest British movie of 2007″, and it’s hard to imagine a review that could be more misleading whilst remaining more-or-less factually accurate. “Love, laughs and lessons in life set to a foot-tapping eighties soundtrack”, maybe. The phrase “a cool British film” makes me think of brashness and glamour and excitement, of beautiful people and sharp clothes and snappy dialogue. It makes me think of Velvet Goldmine or The Italian Job, basically.

Control is pretty much the opposite of The Italian Job.

Watching it is like listening to I Remember Nothing – it’s fragile and beautiful but relentlessly oppressive, a slow shuffle to breaking point punctuated by moments of frustrated anguish and rage.

I can apppreciate why that might not be everyone’s cup of tea.

In a film filled with strong performances Sam Riley’s central turn as Ian Curtis stands out as something special, awkward and delicate and haunted and deeply, deeply sad. It’s a portrayal of an obviously troubled young man that’s carefully understated yet completely magnetic. Every time he was on-screen I genuinely had a hard time looking anywhere else.  As the film goes on the sense of Curtis being ground down by the pressures of the world and by his own failings and frailties grows and grows until tragedy is unavoidable.

Joy Division’s music greatly aids the depiction of its singer’s mental and social disintegration of course, but the reverse is also true. Love Will Tear Us Apart is now so overplayed it’s become a cliché but when it’s used here, when it’s placed against context of Ian and Debbie Curtis’ marriage falling to pieces the song suddenly regains all the meaning and emotional impact that familiarity stole from it. The sweetness and heartbreak of it come rushing in all over again.

If you need a better recommendation to see Control than “it’ll make you hear arguably the greatest pop song ever written like it’s the first time”, consult your GP immediately.

Fantastic as Control is, it did cause me a problem – specifically, being wide awake at 1am on Easter Saturday having just been pretty thoroughly bummed out (ooh-er Matron, etc). However, an obvious solution did suggest itself – I was now free to begin my ascent of Mount Pointless Distraction. So what was at the top of the pile? A Better Tomorrow? 300? 28 Days Later?

Nope. 24 Hour Party People, the 2002 biopic of former Factory Records boss Tony Wilson. Or to put it another way, the other film that prominently features a fictionalised account of the rise and fall of Joy Division.

Damn you synchronicity my old nemesis, once again you have defeated me!

Now, on a good day with a following wind my taste in music lags about three years behind the cool kids. On most days it’s closer to ten years behind the weird kids that get sniggered at almost behind their backs. Every single significant musical movement of my teenage years passed by with barely a nod in my direction, and the rise of Madchester was absolutely no exception. While schoolfriends were getting into the Happy Mondays and Stone Roses I was busy developing a mild obsession with absolutely Godawful American perm-rock that’s been more embarassing and difficult to get rid of than a cold sore. A year or so later a mate who worked at the local games shop leant me his record collection for the last weekend before he moved away to Romford and kickstarted a passion for mid-eighties goth that would heroically shepherd me through the shoegaze, grebo, grunge and Britpop eras without the slightest threat of credibility. My parents bought me my first CD player for my 17th birthday in late 1992, giving me the ideal opportunity to restart my music collection and carry out a Stalinist purge of the Roxette albums and dad-rock best-ofs that were my first flirtations with pop in my early teens.

The first CDs I bought? All About Eve’s first album, Floodland by The Sisters Of Mercy and Slippery When Wet. Cool Britannia really was just something that happened to other people.

I digress. Massively and self-indulgently. Here’s the point – if you’ve slogged through the last couple of paragraphs you’ll have no problem believing that when I first watched 24 Hour Party People I had no idea who Tony Wilson was, beyond being that bloke with the floppy hair and incredibly smug manner who’d appear infrequently on ITV as an all-purpose frontcreature. Finding out that he was the bloke who’d discovered Joy Division was surreal and a bit disorientating – it was like hearing for the first time that teatime TV demigod Bob Holness had been the saxophone player on Baker Street.

Except, you know. True.

24 Hour Party People does two difficult things incredibly well. Firstly, it manages to portray Tony Wilson as one of the single most irritating, difficult,  grandiloquent men in the history of pop music without making him seem unsympathetic. In this respect, casting Steve Coogan was a stroke of genius. After all, he’s made a career out of coaxing reluctant affection from audiences for characters who are deluded, massively monomanaical and generally reprehensible. There’s certainly more than a pinch of Alan Partridge in this version of Wilson, most obviously when he almost pulls out of creating the first Factory night because the club owner’s name is too similar to his own (“There’ll be Tony 1 and Tony 2. Can you not see how that’s a problem? Straight away there’s a hierarchy“). Like Partridge, Wilson’s intial success and inevitable downfall are both rooted in his overweening ambition. Like Partridge, most of the time we’re laughing at him rather than with him. Like Partridge, there’s something about Wilson’s Quixotic tilting at windmills, his repeated refusal to accept his own limitations or the status quo, that makes him oddly but genuinely appealing.

My favourite moment in the film comes when Tony Wilson is at his lowest ebb, just he’s left by his first wife and Ian Curtis has committed suicide. Walking down a Manchester street he’s accosted by a homeless man (played by the ninth Doctor) quoting a 6th century Christian philosopher:

BOETHIUS: It’s my belief that history is a wheel. “Inconsistency is my very essence,” says the wheel. “Rise up on my spokes if you like but don’t complain when you’re cast back down into the depths. Good times pass away, but then so do the bad. Mutability is our tragedy, but it’s also our hope – the worst of times, like the best, are always passing away.”

Coogan’s delivery of the reply – a silent beat then “I know” – is wonderful. It’s both arrogant and vulnerable, both funny and heartbreaking. This is Tony Wilson’s moment of doubt on the cross and in two words you learn everything you need to know about him as a character.

To quote Wilson himself, though, he is a minor character in his own story. 24 Hour Party People is primarily a film about music, about musicians and the about their environment. This is the second difficult thing that it gets right – it makes Manchester circa 1979-1990 seem a genuinely exciting place. The film isn’t really interested in getting the facts right – often, it openly and gleefully deviates from historical events. What it’s interested in is getting the mood right. And it succeeds. From the first Joy Division gig (“The intro doesn’t normally go on this long, I think our singer’s in the toilet”) to the exhilarating, strangely moving last night of the Haçienda there’s a great sense of place and a greater sense of something new and revolutionary being created.

If you had no specific knowledge of either Control or 24 Hour Party People you might expect it to be tedious and /or tough to watch the same tragic story twice in quick succession. You would be completely wrong. The two movies compliment each other brilliantly – they could, in fact, almost be seen as companion pieces. Control is a eulogy. It’s grim and grey and grounded, intently focussed on the characters of Ian and Debbie Curtis. 24 Hour Party People is a celebration. It’s light and arch and vivid and completely, gloriously all over the shop. Both films are utterly fantastic.

Control
RANK: A.

24 Hour Party People
RANK: A.

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Well, that was a productive use of a couple of hours of my Friday night.

Look upon my works ye socially adequate and despair.

Look upon my works ye socially adequate and despair.

Best guess, that’s the better part of 300 DVDs and 500 or so hours sitting there. We’re only including feature films not TV series, standup sets or music DVDs. There is still some debate as to whether we should be watching every DVD in the house (and subjecting ourselves to Blue Man III’s petrol-station bargain-bucket action/light horror collection, or Ms. Blue Man’s diabolical taste in romcoms) or just the stuff that either Mrs. Blue Man or myself voluntarily bought.

Number Of DVDs Still Shrinkwrapped: 6 (Anvil! The Story Of Anvil, Cruel Intentions, KIll Bill vol. 1, Kill Bill vol. 2, Terminator 2, Velvet Goldmine)

Number Of DVDs That I Know We Own That Have Mysteriously Gone Walkabout: 5 (28 Weeks Later, Almost Famous: Untitled Edition, Batman Begins, Bulletproof Monk, Pirates Of The Caribbean)

Number Of DVDs That I Had No Idea We Owned: 2 (Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World’s End, Underworld: Rise Of The Lychans)

Number Of Films That We Own At Least Two Copies Of: 11 (A Matter Of Life And Death, Blade Runner, The Longest Yard, Mission Impossible 2, Reservoir Dogs, Jackie Brown, True Romance, Goodfellas, Fellowship Of The Ring, The Two Towers, Return Of The King)

DVD That I’m Most Embarassed To Admit Owning: Dead heat between Bring It On and Basic Instinct 2.

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Sorry so long without a post but hey, it’s not like you’re not used to frequent inexplicable losses of signal from this direction, is it?

Here’s a measure of how eventful and thrilling my life’s been in the time I’ve been away: I’m seriously considering trying to re-watch my entire DVD collection. In alphabetical order. The drawbacks I can see to this plan are a) it would would mean watching Alien, Alien 3, Alien Resurrection then Aliens, and b) it would mean watching Batman & Robin.

Anyway, some stuff that’s been great that I’ve discovered in the last three months:

The latest Metric album (especially Gold Guns Girls). The latest Raveonettes album (especially Heart Of Stone). Moon. Mount & Blade. The latest Yeah Yeah Yeahs album (especially Dragon Queen). The Incredible Hercules. Drag Me To Hell. The Sounds (especially No-One Sleeps When I’m Awake). Castle. Lloyd Doyley’s first ever senior goal. Forza Motorsport 3 (especially after finally working out how to use the XBox steering wheel I got for Christmas last year and has been lying shamefully unused since because of my general hamfistedness. Turns out I just needed some patient tutoring. Actually, one sentence of impatient tutoring. Actually, just my wife saying “You’re turning that wheel like you’re driving a hugging clown car”). The second series of Being Human. The second series of Newswipe. Pretty much everything Gail Simone’s written for DC Comics, especially her brilliant brilliant work on Birds Of Prey, Wonder Woman and Secret Six. The Answer Me This podcast. Lego Rock Band. Snow. Oh, and the iPhone.

Some stuff that’s not been great in the last three months:

Champions Online. Work. The Doctor Who Christmas special. The end of the best coverage of any sport on UK telly as Channel Five show (probably) their last Yankee Helmetball game. The Digital Economy bill. All car insurance ads in the history of all things, ever. Flash Forward. The iPhone’s battery life when you’re playing games on it.

So yeah. Alive and reasonably well. Further updates to follow. Eventually.

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Here’s proof I’d rather do anything than what I’m supposed to. Right now, in order of importance I probably ought to be a) preparing for tonight’s first session of a game I’ve never played before in a genre I’ve not GM’d in, oooh, 15 years?, b) sorting out my Christmas list or c) working. Instead, here’re some one-paragraph brainsplurges on some stuff that’s moved me to having to write over the last few months.

Once
The low-key and super-low budget story of the friendship between a Dublin busker and a young Czech pianist it made me laugh, made me weep like a tiny child for approximately 75% of its running time, then made me rush off and buy the DVD and soundtrack album. It’s not a musical, but rather a film about music so it’s just as well that the songs are absolutely bloody wonderful, by turns beautifully delicate and spine-tinglingly passionate. In an attempt to claw back my Hard-Bitten Internet Cynic image by proving that there’s nothing so exquisitely crafted and personally affecting that I can’t crush it under the lumpen weight of objective overanalysis, I’ll say that Once is better than Garden State and the Commitments, about on a par with Almost Famous but not as good as Magnolia. Rank: A

The Beatles: Rock Band (Xbox360)
We bought the game solely to replace the drum controller that got knackered on our heroic expedition up the north face of Mount Rock a couple of bank holidays ago, so it was a pleasant surprise that the game was so good. It’s fair to say that nobody in the family is a big Beatles fan – personally I’m so amazingly ignorant that before playing this I’d never previously heard While My Guitar Gently Weeps or Dear Prudence (other than the Banshees’ version, obv) – but this game totally won us over. The enthusiasm that the developers obviously have for their subject matter comes across over and over again, in the animation of the band members, in the often-beautiful staging of the songs (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band/With A Little Help From My Friends being a particular highlight), in the wealth of unlockable photos and video that’s included, even in the names of the Achievements. The Beatles: Rock Band is like reading an article by a really great writer on a subject they really know and really love but that you never previously cared about. Rank: B

Lie To Me
Someone’s seen House and gone “I’m getting me a piece of that action!” Quirky take on an established (some would say tired) TV genre – check. Grizzled veteran British lead actor who’s plainly having a whale of a time – check. Troubled but charismatic and brilliant central character with a distinctive gait (House’s limp, Lightman’s bizarre half-gibbon, half-Quasimodo shambling) – check. Unbelievably formulaic scripting with exactly the same story beats every week – check. The always thoroughly watchable Tim Roth does a nice job with a part that calls for him to say “Ah! Now THAT’S the truth!” fifteen times an episode but that doesn’t cover the fact that this is a slightly degraded photocopy of a show that itself has no pretentions to being anything other than disposable fluff. Rank: C

Dragon Age: Origins (PC)
Love it. Love it love it love it. It’s a properly beardy fantasy RPG for properly beardy people. I could pick nits – I’d like the game mechanics to be a bit more transparent so that I could make more informed decisions when levelling up, and while the main story feels decently epic it doesn’t wander far from painfully familiar fantasy tropes – but that would be stupid because this is the best game I’ve played this year that doesn’t involve a man dressed as a nocturnal mammal jump-kicking people in the face. What makes it come alive for me above anything else are your NPC party members, as consistently likeable a group as I’ve ever encountered in a CRPG. In particular, the droll-but-dorky Alistair (Chandler Bing in plate mail, but nowhere near as annoying as that sounds) and Morrigan the sarky heartless sorceress have spent most of the game in my active party, in large part because I enjoy them sniping at each other so much. Only slightly less fun are desperate romantic Leliana, the golum Shale who’s reminiscent of the (awesome) psychopathic android HK-47 from the (awesome) original Knights Of The Old Republic, and lust-for-life Elfish assassin Zevran who’s spent most of his time with the group trying to get into my pants. Bring on Mass Effect 2! Rank: A

[rec]
An hour of enjoyable-enough mockumentary zombie hokum, 15 minutes of HELL ON TOAST. In a good way. Rank: B

Dexter
When I first heard the premise of Dexter – a serial killer working for the Miami police department who preys on other serial killers – I was utterly repulsed. It sounded tacky and sensationalist and dark-for-the-sake-of-darkness and generally not my cup of tea. But eminently sensible people kept singing its praises, so eventually I gave it a whirl and was duly blown away. After a bit of a wobbly second series it got back on track with an excellent third (starring Jimmy Smits’ enjoyably terrible Cuban accent), and now the new season is easily the best yet. The latest episode – set on Thanksgiving – is like a distillation of everything that makes the show worth watching. It’s got Dexter struggling to cope with regular human interaction, it’s got terrific performances all round (particularly from John Lithgow in magnificently creepy form) and it’s got incredibly tense sequences alongside moments that are laugh-out-loud funny. It really is pretty much as good as telly gets at the moment. Rank: A

Lungs – Florence + The Machine
Since last.fm arrived on the FunSquareSuperPlus, I’ve spent a fair bit of time listening its automatically-generated reccomend-o-tron. It seems that Skynet has decided that I’m almost exclusively into impassioned and slightly eccentric female singer-songwriters. And, you know. It’s hard to argue. So it’s fair to say that there was a better-than-average chance I’d go for this album. And sure enough, it’s awesome and proof positive that modern pop really needs more a) harp-playing and b) songs about werewolf-themed sexuality. Rank: A

Let The Right One In
Unsettling lo-fi Swedish vampire flick that plays with themes of alienation and adolescence. But better than that sounds. I couldn’t shake the feeling there was stuff going on here that I was too stupid to understand – what was with the repeated shots of characters’ feet, f’rinstance? Rank: B

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Here’s the problem with Mark Wahlberg – he’s got exactly no ability to elevate the material he’s working with.

That’s not the worst problem in the world to have. It’s not that he’s a bad actor, it’s just that he hasn’t got the charisma to carry a film on his own the way, f’rinstance, George Clooney or Bruce Willis or Will Smith can. But neither is he a Keanu Reeves who’ll drag anything he’s involved with down to his level. He’s a safe pair of hands, a decent complimentary piece. Give Marky Mark a great script, a great director and a great supporting cast and you end up with Boogie Nights or Three Kings. Give him a mediocre script, a mediocre director and a mediocre supporting cast and you end up with The Italian Job. Give him one of the worst scripts in the history of motion pictures, a toweringly awful director and a helpless supporting cast and you end up with The Happening.

The Happening opens with hundreds of people in and around New York’s Central Park abruptly deciding to commit suicide. This leads to a moderately eerie scene of construction workers throwing themselves from the top of the building they’re working from and hitting the ground like sacks of tomatoes. From there on, it’s downhill all the way.

The rest of the film follows Mark Wahlberg (for it is he), a high school science teacher in Philadelphia as he flees from the “terrorist attacks” that are hitting the north-east coast of the US with his wife (Zooey Deschanel and her enormous Manga eyes – they could have cast her in that bonkers new BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU anti-drugs ad and saved themselves a fortune in CGI). It’s vaguely reminiscent of the Spielberg version of War Of The Worlds, with the majority of the movie spent showing its main characters running away from an implacable, unbeatable enemy before an anticlimactic deus ex machina ending. The reasons why War Of The Worlds works while The Happening very much doesn’t are many but the two most important are the presence of Tom Cruise, who despite being a batpoo insane religious cultist has screen presence out the fundament, and the drama that develops between the Cruise character and his two children being at least as interesting as the wider conflict with the aliens. You empathise with those three people. You care about what happens to them. It’s hard to give a toss about anyone in The Happening because they’re all so brain-bludgeoningly boring you find yourself rooting for their bloody and violent death just to temporarily alleviate the monotony.

M. Night Shymalan’s second movie, Unbreakable, was a film about comics written by someone who’s never read a comic in his life. Without wishing to give too much away in case you’re still inclined to see this terrible, terrible movie The Happening is a film about the arrogance of science and humanity’s impact on the Earth’s ecosystem written by someone who’s never spoken to a scientist in his life. Although given that the film hardly contains a single line of dialogue that sounds like something a real person might conceivably say, it seems to have been written by someone who’s never spoken to a human, either.

The first time we’re introduced to Marky Mark he’s telling a roomful of students about how millions of bees have suddenly vanished and inviting them to speculate as to what might have caused it. “A disease?” “But there are no bodies.” “Global warming?” “Could be. The temperature goes up a fraction of a degree, the bees can’t tolerate it any more and die.” EH? For a kickoff, wouldn’t that leave just as many bodies as a virus? And if bees were so sensitive that they couldn’t withstand a minute temperature fluctuation, wouldn’t they all die every time the sun went down? Plus, it’s stated this is happening all over the country, so presumably the bees in Arizona are being killed by an increase from 30 to 30.2 degrees centigrade at the same time that bees in Seattle are being killed by an increase from 18 to 18.2 degrees. Really? That’s your best guess? That’s your theory, is it?

Of course not! He’s got a much better answer than that. “They’ll come up with an explanation to put in a book but the truth is, it’s an act of nature. We’ll never know why it happened.”  Yes. Because that’s what science is, isn’t it? It’s basically just a load of hand-waving to fob people off. Really, science can’t hope to understand Nature in any significant way. And yes, it does deserve a capital N. You could write this attitude off as just being the wrong-headed attitude of one chump of a character, except that at the end of the movie another “scientific expert” repeats the line almost verbatim. They don’t say that there are various different theories. They don’t say that there hasn’t yet been sufficient study into the phenomenon to hazard a guess as to its cause. They don’t even say that we might never fully understand what happened. No, it’s stated as a hard fact – act of nature, we’ll never know why, end of discussion. Mark Wahlberg’s character and the TV talking head are presented as the face of enlightened science, they survive and thrive because they accept man’s place in the scheme of things. If that’s your attitude, fine. If that’s the message you want your film to convey, fine. But you can’t put those words in the mouth of your characters who’re meant to be flippin’ scientists because it makes them and you sound like cavemen cowering in fear at the sight of the giant golden ball of fire floating in the sky.

Beyond the heavy-handed fable it’s hard to work out what sort of film The Happening is trying to be. It’s not an action movie, because there’s sod-all action. Somehow, Shyamalan’s managed to make a film called The Happening and forgotten to include anything, well, happening. It’s not a twist thriller or a whatdunnit because the source of “the terrorist attacks” is made obvious half an hour in, explicitly stated about fifteen minutes later then repeated about three more times after that. It’s not the story of two people resolving their differences against the background of A World Gone Mad because the two protagonists barely have any differences. There’s not a single moment in their relationship or indeed the film as a whole that rings true intellectually or emotionally. There’s no character development. There’s no character depth. There’s no character conflict. To be honest, there are barely any characters. Instead, there’re just a bunch of cardboard cutouts riding the world’s least interesting ghost train trying not to step in the metaphor.

If you feel it’s been too long since you’ve properly hated something, The Happening might be just what you’re looking for.

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