Space Dementia – Gravity

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While peril and the clash of man versus the natural world has been explored thoroughly on film in recent times, such as in The Gray or 127 Hours, the inky black void of space remains uncharted. Master Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity takes queues from the adventure genre, but takes them literally out of this world to stunning effect.

Less man versus nature, more man versus nothing, Gravity explores a more primordial feeling of dread and isolation by framing the action almost entirely within the zero-g surrounds of space. Medical Officer Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and veteran astronaut Matt Kowlaski (George Clooney) find themselves stranded in the vastness of high orbit when working on the Hubble Telescope. Debris from a defunct satellite shot down by a Russian Missile rips towards them in a deadly hail of metal, leaving the pair adrift in the coldness of space.

What follows is 90 minutes of pure tension. While the threat of drowning or being stranded in the desert has often been explored on screen to terrifying affect, there’s a feeling of the stakes being raised to vast degree with Gravity. Where there’s the slim chance of rescue on the open seas or deep within the Sahara, Space is an entirely different matter. This is played upon during Gravity by the brilliant stroke of using a skeleton cast.

While Ed Harris supports as the voice of mission control in Houston hundreds of miles below, Bullock and Clooney are left to carry the film. The pair rises to the challenge with aplomb. Clooney has charisma to spare, as usual, as Kowalski who offers Dr. Stone a reassuring, confident presence – that is until more calamities befalls the pair in one of the film’s most heart wrenching scenes.

But while Clooney is great in support, this is entirely Sandra Bullock’s film. We’re with her every giant step of the way as she floats, twists, bumps and turns through the void enduring pitfall after pitfall with a combination of nervousness and a growing confidence. It’s a tough task to hold an entire film on your shoulders, but Bullock is such an engaging presence throughout Gravity that if she isn’t the recipient of many golden statues come award season it’ll be an astronomical oversight.

Painstakingly crafted using a mixture of CGI, practical effects and digital tweaks, Curaon has crafted, along with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, one of this decade’s most visually stunning films. Earth is beautiful from orbit, but it’s the all-encompassing dark that frames the action creates the most gut feelings; feelings of awe, insignificance and terror.

The camera work is particularly amazing. The feeling of zero gravity and weightlessness is explored using Cuaron’s signature long takes that dive, turn and spin with each trial that befalls Stone. It’s as though we’re right there with her in the cold dark. One particular shot plays with our point of view as we find ourselves looking through Stone’s visor in one moment, and then switching outside to gauge her reaction in the next in one liquid motion. Cuaron had already displayed terrific visual fair in his previous efforts, especially Children of Men, but Gravity confirms his place as a visionary of Kubrickan proportions.

Anchored by two amazing performances and enhanced by simply stunning photography, Gravity is contender for not only film of the year, but for film of the decade. And with healthy box office performance, perhaps it heralds a return to the more intelligent, experimental side of science fiction filmmaking.

A Day To Remember: The Day of the Doctor – Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special

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It’s been 50 years since the Doctor first warped onto television screens and straight into pop culture. 11, soon to be 12, incarnations of the time traveller have journeyed across time and space and since the shows reinvention in 2005 has grown from cult favourite to global sensation. With the 50th Anniversary, the BBC has pulled out all the stops with The Day of The Doctor, which is being beamed into homes across the world, but also in cinemas in 3d too.

 A major part of Doctor Who’s mythology is the Time War – an intergalactic conflict involving the nigh-mythical Time Lords and the genocidal Daleks that threatens to consume the universe. To prevent this, the Doctor wipes out both races – an event that comes to shape his character during his next 3 regenerations. While the Time War has been hinted at and alluded to throughout the series, this is the first time it has been depicted on screen for any length of time.

The Day of The Doctor is a treat for hardcore fans, particularly of the latest series. The special sees current Doctor Matt Smith and his predecessor – and fan favourite – David Tennant team up in an adventure that encompasses the far future, Elizabethan England and the present day. John Hurt also appears as a mysterious Doctor – a warrior who fought in the Time War and the incarnation responsible for the burning of Galifrey (the Time Lords home world) in order to halt the fighting.

The main draw of The Day of The Doctor is seeing Smith and Tennant play off each other. Their different portrayals of the same character provide plenty of sparks and laughs, with enough differences between them that show off the diversity that multiple actors can bring to a role.

John Hurt is a stalwart presence throughout. He acts as a buffer between Smith and Tennant, and brings a much-needed touch of gravitas to the proceedings.

The time-travelling, space-faring nature of the show ensures that the pace never really slackens. This is certainly an improvement on the regular length show, as the 90 minute run time means that the reveals, twists and solutions feel natural and organic rather than rushed.

The low budget feel that usually permeates Doctor Who is thankfully avoided in this big-screen offering. It’s slickly shot and, even if the effects are still a bit shonky, still retains the shoddy charm that is the show’s calling card.

There are some disappointments though. A subplot involving shape-shifting Aliens seems to peter out into nothing, and The Time War segments are a let down. Of course, this is probably due to budgetary constraints, but the hints and tales of supernatural monsters and huge conflicts alluded too in the show are ignored in favour of standard Sci-fi laser shootouts, which smacks of missed opportunity.

However, almost all of this can be forgiven by a cameo towards the end that will have fans of the Classic Doctors punching the air in delight. A close up of soon-to-be-Doctor Peter Capaldi’s eyes is also seen – eyes that are full of rage-filled promise of darker direction for the Doctor after the Christmas special this year.

On the whole, The Day of the Doctor is a satisfying celebration of the show’s past for new and older fans alike. While it has it’s flaws, it’s still a Tardis full of fun and hints at great promise for Doctor Who’s future.

Jailhouse Rock – Escape Plan

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Stallone. Schwarzenegger. The two names have cast a long shadow over the action genre since the 80’s, but the two titanic presences have only shared the screen a handful of times – most recently in macho meat fest Expendables 2. Escape Plan, then, is a film many have been waiting for since at least 1987, as its the first time the pair plays off each other for an entire film for the first time.

Prison security expert Ray Breslin (Stallone) spends most of his time breaking out of the world’s most formidable prisons to test security systems to their limit. But when he’s deceived and wrongfully in hi-tech mega jail “The Tomb”, he is forced to join together fellow inmate Emil Rothmeyer (Schwarzenegger) devise a seemingly impossible escape and learn the truth behind his betrayal.

While the prospect of the two action legends sharing the bill is enticing, it’s Arnie who walks away with the film. Stallone is his usual, dependable – if barley comprehensible – self, but its Schwarzenegger who hurls himself into this moderately budgeted thriller with aplomb. It’s his charisma that really drives the film and the film suffers when he’s not on screen. Naturally, Arnie steals many of the best lines and even impresses in the acting stakes for once by breaking into a German-spoken fit of feigned madness in order to further their escape attempts.

However, while there’s tonnes of fun to be had watching Stallone and Schwarzenegger’s interactions, Director Mikael Håfström’s film can’t help but retread old prison movie clichés – There’s an eccentric, savage warden in the form of John Caviezal and a sadistic brute of a head guard in potato-headed Vinnie Jones – and utilises a twist that seems illogical and out of place.

Sam Neil is completely wasted as The Tomb’s resident doctor who barely has characterisation beyond being a tool to push the plot along plot. Perhaps the most bizarre casting choice is Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson as computer expert Hush. Although the action genre heavily relies on the suspension of disbelief, believing that 50 Cent could be a cyber-whizz doesn’t so much require suspension as it does complete obliteration.

 Aesthetically, it’s a mixed bag. While the cinematography is nothing to shout about, the art direction does give the impression of the hi-tech nature of the prison’s innards; all glass walls and neon strip lighting. This is falls down due to the tackiness of the guard’s uniforms and some shonky cgi.

 On the whole, it’s an entertaining effort. It does however beg the question as to why Stallone took the lead rather than Schwarzenegger as the film slacks every time the Austrian Oak is off screen. Will it stand up in the canon of great action films? Probably not. But it is worth it just for the adolescent thrill of seeing two of the genres key players on screen together.

Here Come The Fuzz – Filth

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When it comes to adaptation, Filmmakers have dipped into the seedy, grotty world of Irvine Welsh’s formidable back catalogue a fair few times – the most successful of these being Danny Boyle’s seminal Trainspotting.

Welsh’s knack for creating vivid yet pitch black situations and characters that represent the twisted realities of drug abuse, pornography addiction and a wealth of pop culture touchstones mean most of his works are perfect for the big screen treatment. This time around it’s Filth, Welsh’s third novel, which makes the jump from page to film.

Filth drags us into the warped world of Edinburgh copper Bruce Robinson – a twisted, drug-hoovering, bigoted Freudian nightmare of a man – who is making Machiavellian overtures towards being promoted to Detective Inspector while gradually losing his tenuous grip on reality. Stepping into this cocaine and booze fried mind space is what most might think a bit of a leffield choice: James McAvoy.

McAvoy has always been the perennial good guy since his breakout role in The Last King of Scotland. Filth then sees any illusions of McAvoy’s inability to play anything but goody-two-shoes utterly smashed in a blizzard of coke, booze, whores and autoerotic asphyxiation. McAvoy is a revelation as Roberston. He morphs from drunken monster to an emotionally decaying wreck of a man and back again in a performance that will surely stand out as his greatest. It’s certainly his best to date. McAvoy owns the film and rises to the script’s muck-encrusted scenarios.

We shouldn’t feel any sympathy for this walking embodiment of psychosis, but such is the power of McAvoy’s performance that you can’t help but feel a slight tug on the heartstrings as Roberston tips over the brink of insanity.

Eddie Marsan, fresh from nearly stealing the show in The World’s End, offers suitably timid support as Clifford Blaze, while Jamie Bell and John Sessions are the standouts amongst the supporting cast.

Imogen Poots and Shirley Henderson also excel in their respective roles – Poots as determined Detective Sergeant Amanda Drummond (one of Robertson’s fiercest promotion rivals) and Henderson Blade’s demure yet overbearing wife Bunty.

Writer/Director Jon S. Baird has managed to take the usually picturesque city of Edinburgh to a darker, dingier place. But rather than focus on housing schemes and hypodermics of Leith – ala Trainspoitting – Baird chooses to frame the city through the distorted view of Bruce Robertson giving place a surreal quality that hasn’t really been explored on film before.

Standout sequences include Roberston confronting his psyche in the form of a brilliantly cackling Jim Broadbent during hypnagogic hallucinations. A frankly bizarre David Soul cameo is another highlight, displaying the film’s pitch black humour.

Frightening, disturbing images abound. Whether they are Bruce’s hallucinatory visions or one of the scenes of sexual depravity, various shots and snaps will stick under your fingernails for weeks to come. Particuarly galling is the sight of McAvoy being choked – or “turning the gas on” whilst shagging a colleague’s misses.

 An intense, burning character Study, Filth is a film that will linger as insidious presence at the back of your mind after viewing. While it may not be an all encompassing success as Trainspotting, Filth is nonetheless an excellent film adaptation and is worth it alone for James McAvoy’s unhinged performance.