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Thursday, 27 June 2013


Film after film this summer is offering us a supposedly new twist on an old theme. Star Trek Into Darkness provided us with a reimagining of the characters of the Starship Enterprise, Man of Steel did the same for Superman, and Byzantium tried to give the audience a new way of looking at vampires.

And so, inevitably, we come to zombies. The story is familiar, people are infected by.....,well by something, which turns them within ten seconds into a rabid, ultra-violent biting machine. They then infect others, and the plague spreads rapidly.

Jerry Lane (Brad Pitt) is the man charged with finding a solution to the now world-wide crisis that is quickly making global cities
no-go areas for human beings.

There are some impressive set pieces in the movie. The shots of the wave after wave of zombie-ness assaulting cities, buildings, people, vehicles, as if they have become a murderous mass rather that a collection of individuals, are terrifying and impactful.

The scene where Brad has to do something drastic to save an Israeli soldier from turning Zombie is stomach-churning and compelling.

And yet, the constant zombie attacks quickly become boring. Moreover, there is absolutely no character development here, we know almost nothing about what kind of people we are watching on screen. Even Brad is a mystery. All subtlety is washed away in this constant stream of scenes where characters are running away from zombies, fighting zombies, being eaten by zombies, escaping zombies.

Brad saves the day in the end, of course, more or less, but in a way that is totally unconvincing. We are asked to accept a range of assumptions and poorly explained solutions that assume that the viewer isn't going to think too much about Brad's magical discovery of how to defeat the zombie hoards.

What's more, we've seen this before, just like all of the other films this summer. We've seen 28 Days Later, and 28 Weeks Later, and The Living Dead and In the Flesh and Boy Eats Girl and I am Legend, and we've laughed at Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland. It's been done, it's been done, and it's been done again.

And even by the end there is still no explanation of what is causing the zombies to turn, is it a virus, is it supernatural? Why are they impervious to bullets to the torso? Nothing is never explained adequately.

Despite the unconvincing elements, there are things to enjoy about the film. It is well paced, and the scenes depicting besieged cities from the air do communicate well the sheer catastrophe that has befallen the planet.

Yet, in the end it leaves you crying out for just one original idea, just one real innovation, just one new way of looking at these tired old genres. And this film didn't provide any of this, it is more film-making by numbers, incorporating elements you have seen a hundred times before. Has "ORIGINALITY" become a dirty word in Hollywood?

Thursday, 20 June 2013


I asked the question recently about Byzantium, about whether the world needed another vampire film. The same question can be asked about Man of Steel. Does the world need a new Superman movie?

The answer, of course, is "no".

If your summer blockbuster doesn't try something new, or give a novel slant on a familiar theme, then it is simply a piece of merchandise, a product, like the Coca Cola or popcorn you consume while watching it. And that is, fundamentally, what Man of Steel is.

It is like the director took a slice from every sci-fi film of the last twenty years and squashed them all together. There are the flying beasts from Avatar, the inside of the ship from Prometheus, the space ship looming over the city from Independence Day, the Thing's massive leaps from Avengers Assemble, and the explosions and effects from Thor and Iron Man and literally every action film of recent times.

And then of course there is the story. They didn't even make the effort to think up a new bad guy for Superman, instead the writers recycled the plot of the second Christopher Reeve Superman movie, where General Zod and his henchmen come to Earth in search of their enemy's son, Kal-El.

What the film is trying to do is to portray Clark Kent as an outsider, basically as a misunderstood X-Men character. He grows up a freak, and is isolated as a child because of his super powers. As an adult Clark gets lost in the wilderness, a la Wolverine, as he can't deal with his difference from normal humans.

Finally, he finds a ship sent from his home planet which contains a message from his father (played very po-faced by Russell Crowe), and discovers who he is, the last of his race from the now destroyed planet Krypton.

Of course he is 33 years old when he discovers his destiny and finds out who his real father is. The Jesus Christ parallels are not subtle in the movie, the message from his parents - both on Krypton and on Earth - is that Clark (or Kal-El, his Krypton name) has a special destiny as an inspiration for mankind, as an example of how to be good. Superman as Messiah.

Yet all of this is done with a script that feels like it was written by a computer. The characters are constantly having conversations that you have heard a million times before, and saying lines that can be accurately predicted well before they utter them. The movie is filled with cornball platitudes and weak exposition - "you have to trust me, I'm a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist", Lois Lane says to her editor at one stage.

And the theme of the film, such as it is, is trite and unexplored, the message fatuous and flimsy. People have the potential for good, and it is up to Superman to bring this out in them. Yet the movie spends little time with this idea, and ends up becoming a tedious orgy of special effects, explosions, CGI, as Superman battles his Krypton nemeses.

And the thing about these bad guys is that they are boring. They are simply psychopaths, willing to commit genocide at the drop of a hat without any real strong motivation behind them. There is no complexity to them, no explanation for the lack of morality that they glory in.

This is true about the film as a whole. There is no real attempt at intelligence or complexity. It is a story we have seen before, filled with images and plot points and characters and set pieces that have been done a million times in other movies. 

The last hour is basically fight scene after fight scene, destruction on a massive scale that becomes like a cartoon. The most common image of this part of the film is of a bunch of random puny humans looking up with wonder and terror (and possibly boredom) at the battling aliens above. The extras in this movie must have had serious cricks in the neck after shooting ended. 

It is lazy and derivative and was obviously written to a formula. Blockbuster by numbers. It is not even any fun, as it takes its ridiculous self very seriously. It is indicative of the weakness of the whole enterprise when the best thing about the movie is that it is Toby from the West Wing - in this film the nerdy scientist - who saves humanity in the end. Superman? More like Super-meh.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013


Do we really need more vampires? It has been done to death at this stage, Twilight, True Blood, Vampire Diaries, Let the Right One in, there is nothing new left to say about these immortal blood suckers, no novel slant left that hasn't been used.

In Neil Jordan's latest film we are introduced to two female vampires, Clara and Eleanor, played by Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan, who live an unstable life, travelling around from place to place, scraping a living. Clara introduces herself as Eleanor's sister, but we soon learn that she is in fact her mother.

They end up in a seaside resort where Clara quickly sets about establishing a brothel in an old guest house, the Byzantium of the title. Eleanor goes to school and meets a boy her age.

Things get complicated when Eleanor breaks the golden rule that the two vampires have lived by for their whole lives, and decides to tell her boyfriend the real story of who she is.

And that's really most of the plot. The film is very slow to get going, for the first hour it stutters and the story takes a long time to unfold. The pace picks up once we have learned most of the back-story of how the two women came to be vampires and the second half is an improvement, yet the overall impression is of a film that isn't sure what it is about.

What's more, Byzantium's efforts to refresh the genre are pretty weak. In this film the vampires grow a thumb nail in order to pierce the veins of their victims. And there is some kind of misogynistic brotherhood of vampires which sees female vampires as an aberration, something to be wiped out.

And that's it. There is little here that could be called a real addition to the genre. These vampires have to be invited in, and yet don't seem to have a problem with daylight. They have little fangs, but we don't find out if they can tolerate garlic. It is hard to see what the point is of a new film on the undead if you're just going to go over old ground.

There are things to admire about the film, though. For me the strongest part was the complex mother-daughter relationship between Clara and Eleanor, the two central vampire characters. Between the two women there is resentment, love, attachment, dependence, hatred, built up over the two centuries of their existence.

Yet I was left with the impression, at the end, of a film with a lot of holes, that meandered too much and that decided to focus on an area
that has been done, literally, to death.

Monday, 3 June 2013


Kevin Barry's characters are outsiders, criminals, addicts in one way or another, intellectually challenged, society's outcasts. He seems to have an affinity with these people on the margins, the ones who are, for one reason or another, not part of regular society.

In this new book of short stories, Dark lies the Island, he takes us on a tour of the seedy, the sinister, the run-down, the criminal, the alcoholic. The characters are nearly all doomed, they are failures, have had bad luck, made bad choices, some of them are simply bad and toxic to society.

The most sinister story is called Ernestine and Kit. It is a simple tale about two elderly women who travel around Ireland's North-West. They are maiden-aunt-like, innocent-looking, one thin as a rake, the other plump and apparently kindly. Only that their hobby is kidnapping children. We never find out exactly what they do with them when they manage to nab one, but that just makes the story all the more creepy.

Then there is Beer Trip to Llandudno, which won the Sunday Times Short Story Award last year. It is easy to see why. It is a simple enough narrative about six friends who are members of a Real Ale Club, who travel from Liverpool to the Welsh town of the title for a day trip.

To themselves they are simply hobbyists, a group of friends out on a day trip just as others go hill-walking or rock-climbing. Soon though we see that the men all have a loss in their lives, and have filled their quiet desperation with beer and the companionship of their group.

When one of them meets an old flame in Llandudno, their delicate balance is disrupted.

The success of Beer Trip to Llandudno is the way Barry exploits the gap between appearances and reality, between the men's own image of themselves, and the sad reality of their lives.

Some of the stories are more successful than others. Wifey Redux is set in middle-class south Dublin, and describes the hostility of a father towards his daughter's boyfriend. But it is clumsily written and constantly strikes a wrong note. The story is just a heavy-handed attempt at satirising what Ross O'Carroll Kelly has done much better.

Some of the other stories are no more than snatches in time, little scenes involving one or two people where there is no real narrative, just a brief glimpse into someone's life. Snapshots that give the reader a tiny window into another person's existence, before fizzling out.

At times this works, at others this is just not enough. The stories are delicate, and self contained, but frequently limited, and often the writing is not strong enough to carry the slightness of narrative.

As with any short story collection there is a mixture of tales here. There are some that are forgettable, or else that just strike a wrong note, and disappear as soon as you have read them.

And yet others work perfectly, are touching, creepy, funny, and self-contained enough to be a little universe just on their own. The last story - Berlin Arkanoplatz, My Lesbian Summer - is one of these, a perfect capturing of a particular slice of the Berlin art world, and the illusions of a young Cork man who intersects with it.

What is always true, though, is Kevin Barry's ear for dialogue, and for being able to transcribe what Irish people actually say, and the way we use words when we speak.

People in his stories ask "What's it they call you?" when they want to know someone's name.

Ernestine and Kit, in discussing what they are going to have when they stop in a roadside cafe have the following exchange... "..would we chance a scone, Kit?". "It would hardly put us in the ground, Ernestine."

And that is the pleasure in reading Kevin Barry, to see and feel characters come richly to life in the space of a few pages, through the words that they say, and also what is left unsaid.