Reign of Fire

An edited version of this rant review appeared on the very lovely Geraldine Clark Hellery’s blog during the build-up to the Nun & Dragon release (*cough* still available! still has a story by me in! *cough*). I thought since Gerard Butler popped up in a post the other day, I’d do the full version on here now that a suitable period of time has passed.

Fair Warning – I do go on a bit about a movie that appeared in 2002 and promptly sank like a fucking rock.

So. On with the show. What’s the deal with Reign of Fire? Is it really a bad movie, or is it a sadly underrated gem?

Awkwardly enough, the truth lies somewhere in between. Things were never going to go well for it. Prior to its release the marketing team made some terrible mistakes in promoting the film, the most damaging being the creation of a poster that made the apparent promise of a helicopter versus dragon dogfight.


There *is* a helicopter in the movie – an Agusta A109 – and I count eight distinctive silhouettes of fully-armed Apaches in the poster. Failure to deliver is the worst crime that we can weigh against Reign of Fire, and it’s not even the movie’s fault.

Poor marketing isn’t the end of the world, but a myriad of smaller flaws combined to drive nail after nail into the coffin of what could have been the definitive dragon/apocalypse film.

The characterisation is weak.

The men are caricatures, with Christian Bale as Quinn, who we meet as an adult (following his VO narration of the dragonocalypse) digging away at the foundations of a castle. Contractual obligations being what they are, he has his shirt off and is working away with a muscular vigour that seems somewhat at odds with the idea that the last of humanity is scratching at the very limits of survival.



“Bad news. We’re out of chocolate protein shakes. Only got cherry and hazelnut left. War is Hell.”

Denton Van Zan (Matthew McConaughey), summoned into the tale by the Plot Gods, is even worse: a grimy, sweat-soaked Techno Viking who demonstrates his tenuous grip on what sanity he has left by leaning forward a lot and fixing people with his boggle-eyed stare.



Whatever you say about Denton van Zan, you’ve got to respect a man who is happy to Wil. E. Coyote himself off a building. Yes, that’s a verb now.

The sole exception is Creedy, played by Gerard Butler, who serves as Jiminy Cricket to Bale’s Pinnochio, a lone voice of (admittedly sarcastic) reason in a world given over to ridiculous idealogical clashes.

The women, by comparison, are non-existent. Alice Krige gets maybe a minute of screen time, including a memorably brilliant establishing shot of her flagrantly ignoring all forms of workplace safety by using a carbon dioxide fire extinguisher underground to flash-chill a can of beer. Added to the fact that her twelve year old son can get on-site and down the work lift with only the offer of a cigarette by way of challenge, the appearance of a dragon can be perhaps read as less a sign of the end times and more a fast-track past the red tape of an industrial tribunal.

Izabella Scorupco appears later as Alex: helicopter pilot, inexplicable Van Zan devotee, and token love interest. What little dialogue she gets is mostly spent in defence of one man, or expressing sympathy for the other. I guess we’re meant to be happy that she gets to fly the helicopter?



“Whee! This is symbolic of my agency! Did you know I’m also a successful singer?”

What it gets right, though, is the thing that should have been promised in the marketing – a post apocalyptic vision where people are just trying their absolute best to cope and survive. In the face of the setup – dragons burninating everything until there’s nothing left to burninate – Quinn has taken the course of action that makes the most sense. He’s gathered as many people as he can, taken them to the most remote and defensible point he can safely reach, and he has started digging. Ultimately, he’s hoping that the dragons will run out of food and the matriarch will go back into hibernation before he does. The fact that she will eventually return is immaterial – the scale of her sleep/wake cycle is so vast that it is – on the timeline of the thirty or so families he’s trying to protect – essentially meaningless.

It’s a great concept, and it’s a shame that more time isn’t spent on it. The balance of people to food and the constant risk and consequences of exposure are touched on briefly in a very satisfying and surprisingly well-handled way. The group that disobey Quinn aren’t rebels – they’re just hungry. As much as they let the collective down, he cannot bring himself to punish them because he understands their desperation. The atmosphere and character of the community shines when it is shown as being just that – a community. By far the most memorable moment is seeing Bale and Butler act out the climax of The Empire Strikes Back to an audience of wide-eyed toddlers (bonus marks for Butler for his reassuring “it’s okay, I’ve still got my hand” wave) and it’s a genuine shame that we don’t see more of it.



Instead, we are passed over to a traditional Hollywood arc for the final third. Creedy is dispatched in an act of sacrifice that prevents him from picking holes in anything that follows, and Quinn throws every belief he has out the window before flying down to London to fight the dragon.

There’s a saying that goes, no-one ever sets out to make a bad movie, and yet bad movies still get made. In hindsight, it’s easy to see where Reign of Fire went badly wrong. It’s also easy to see where it went right, and could have gone much better. A little less man-versus-dragon and a little more of the human side of things and it could have become a classic.

Don’t believe me? Look at 28 Days Later, which also came out in 2002.



Putting aside the incredibly weak setup (even the most ardent of animal liberators would know that opening a cage to an animal that’s been sorely abused, sticking your face in and smiling at it is a bad idea), it is a brilliant movie about how people try to cope with the end of the world. Yes, there are zombies, but the zombies are not the main event. It’s how everyone else reacts that drives the story forward, and it’s that difference that makes 28 Days Later the classic, and Reign of Fire the almost-ran.

Classic movies you’ve never seen, but should really watch.

Don’t worry – it’s not a diatribe…rather more of a request.

Talking to my brother tonight on the phone, he mentioned having ticked The Graduate off the list of films he should have seen some time ago, but simply hadn’t.  I saw it years and years ago, long before any comparison between Ben and Ross from Friends could have been made (but oh, so very apt – except Ben doesn’t visibly swell as the movie proceeds, oil-sheened skin distending glossily with the pressure of impossible real world riches), and honestly don’t remember the balance of it – but as I recall it’d be a better use of my time to just watch Marathon Man again instead.

So, I started thinking about movies that I should have seen, but just haven’t, and decided to follow that line of thought by inviting the world to suggest ones that I (or indeed my brother) might have missed.  My Lovefilm queue needs a bit of padding out, if we’re going to be honest, and I don’t think Lisa would smile too kindly on me popping the entire collection of Best of the Best movies on there just for the sake of numbers.

One of the first I’ve added tonight is Five Easy Pieces.  It’s a classic piece of 70’s cinema, a story about identity that resonated with the era of it’s creation – a difficult story of frustration and resentment that offers up no Hollywood-style resolution to the question of Dupea’s ill-at-ease rebellion – and yet I’ve never seen it.  I’ve even quoted one of the most memorable scenes – “I want you to hold it between your knees” – and I’ve never watched the bloody film.

Well, that’s easily fixed.

So – what else should I queue up?

True Grit

Lisa isn’t a massive fan of Westerns.  I know this chiefly because I’ve made her sit through more than a couple in the past, trying to get her to at least appreciate them on the grounds of thematic and cinematographic merit, and every time it has resulted in her boredom alarm (in the form of a world – or, at least, boyfriend – weary sigh) going off every ten minutes.

Since I had used up all my good viewing graces (banked sitting through the slew of rom-coms that found their way onto our Lovefilm listings) on The Assassination of Jesse James and Appaloosa, I decided it was best not to push my luck and went to see True Grit by myself.

Continue reading “True Grit”

The Windup Girl

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bagicalupi is a 2009 novel of dystopian future, a world where an advanced level of genetic crop manipulation has produced two almost-cataclysmic results – the development of advanced and destructive disease strains (it’s left to the reader to decide whether these strains have formed through evolution, or have been synthesised) and a global monopoly on the gene patents of disease-resistant fruit and crops.

The story itself takes place in Thailand, one of the few strongholds of meaningful resistance against the monopolisation of the “calorie” companies – the only reason they have held out successfully is through the aid of defected geneticist and the possession of a massive seed bank, thousands of genetic samples of pre-manipulation and disease-free plant material that can be used as genetic stock for the generation of “fresh” produce lines.

That’s not to say Thailand is without problems, though.  Corrupt to the core, two government factions struggle for power over the other, primarily concerned with the largely insular Kingdom’s strict trade and customs systems, while various underworld and street factions take their share and hold de facto sway over the industrial sector and the streets themselves.

Stuck in the middle of it is a cast of disparate characters: Anderson Lake, operative of a calorie company on the hunt for the elusive seed bank location; Hock Seng, survivor of an Islamist purge of Malaysia and foreman in Lake’s cover operation, an experimental spring factory; Jaidee, Tiger of Bangkok, incorruptible Captain of the White Shirts – the enforcement arm of the Environment Ministry; Kanya, Jaidee’s second-in-command; and Emiko, the titular Windup Girl, a genetically-modified, vat-grown, built for pleasure but ingrained with specific, controlling flaws – the irresistible urge to obey, the staccato motion of her muscles – dumped as an economic sacrifice by her owners and found at the start of our story being debased on-stage in a Thai sex show.

I should start with what’s good about the novel.  I enjoyed it, for a start, and read through the entire thing in almost a single sitting during a day’s relaxation after the start of my Christmas holiday.  It’s not a difficult read for anyone willing to familiarise themselves rapidly with the jargon of a world based on biotech and genetic tinkering – in fact, I found the Thai words slipped into things more jarring than the tech-speak – and the characters are readily sympathetic if not exactly angelic in their respective agendas.

The writing, too, is excellent.  Stirring, evocative imagery: just the right amount of research in there to give the world shape, colour, tone, and not so much that you feel like you’re getting a lecture.  The author skips lightly over action sequences and fights, and rightly so – the few times that more detail is required, things take a treacle-slow turn for the worse and you find your eyes skipping description just to find out what’s actually going on.

For all that, though, the plot builds nicely, both in the macroscopic scene-by-scene flow of things and the overarcing build of pressure as the government factions kick off a battle of escalating wills.  If anything it peaks a little too early on, and the final lifts feel shallow compared to the city’s implosion at the two-thirds mark.

On the downside, it’s hard not to make obvious comparisons to superior work.  I am, if anything, a child of my influences, and it would be disingenuous of an author to present such a postmodern work without expecting readers to sit and pick parts apart.

The biggest problem I had with the entire thing was the Windup Girl herself.  She’s a mish-mash of imagery, a sex doll inconceivably gifted with the ability to move at superhuman speeds, to break all genetic and social codes programmed into her and self-emancipate.  Granted, she’s pushed hard on that journey, but it still feels convenient, a little too inspired towards producing an image instead of something that fits into the plot.  One second she’s an alien machine-person, loathed, reviled, desired, punished for her existence, next thing she’s punching people in the throat and moving with a fluidity and grace that Pris couldn’t quite manage even with a male stunt double.  Near the end she pulls the joint of an elbow apart catching herself on a balcony and in that long, drawn-out moment dangling above the dark alley you can’t help but recall Major Kusanagi’s cyborg body just plain giving up the battle between her irresistible will and the immovable lid of a spider tank.

Taking the wider view, the entire book is good, but more than anything else it makes me want to read The Quiet American again.  Greene’s prose is more clipped, less vibrant, but nevertheless the simmer of his plot is more subtle, more controlled.  Very little happens that the reader doesn’t experience first-hand in Windup Girl, and given the controlled, corrupt nature of the various factions at work it might have been more fun to have more reaction, more subtlety to events.  I realise that’s not a fashionable publishing view – the here and now is very much in vogue – but it’s the immediate difference that sets The Quiet American apart as a classic and denies the Windup Girl similar status.

New Wordpunk post.

I’ve decided to start cross-posting links, simply because I don’t think I advertise my own ramblings nearly enough to satisfy the cravings of my nigh-insatiable ego.

Say that after four pints!

Anyway, there’s a new post up at Wordpunk by yours truly.  It’s about remakes, and the sad panda feelings they evoke in my fragile heart.


Extreme Athiesm Woooo!

So, it’s been a while since I posted, but I have an excuse. Lots of work suddenly cropped up, and I had to do it.

I know, I know.  Cool story, right?

Anyway, we’ve been filling what little spare time we have with running round the garden making enthusiastic noises at the chickens (they ignore us, they still go mad for raisins) and watching our LoveFilm movies.  Have to use up our monthly allowance, or it’s not worth having!

I know it’s had good reviews and people have been recommending it to me, but I wasn’t bowled over by Moon.  Sam Rockwell, who I normally love irrespective of what he’s doing (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is great, and you should go watch it), didn’t look particularly comfortable in his role. It felt more like someone repeating lines by rote than actually acting and the fairly slim running time (about 90 mins) felt more like a solid two-and-a-bit hour slog.

Wow. Linking that paragraph up, I’ve just seen the IMDB changes.  When did that happen?  It looks like the iPhone app version of IMDB now…is that a good thing?  I can’t tell.  Being human, I instinctively loathe change and want to kick off about how great the old IMDB template was, but the more sensible portion of me says I should give it a chance.  It'[s not like I use it for anything other than cross-referencing actors whenever Lisa asks me, “oh, what else has that guy been in?” and I can’t answer her.

We also watched The Lake House, which I have actually seen before and yet still managed to sit through a second time.  It’s not a desperately bad movie by any stretch of the imagination.  If you turn off your brain it’s a reasonably produced movie, albeit a touch unsatisfying – the dramatic punches are heavily telegraphed and rather weak compared to things like The Notebook, a movie Lisa refuses to watch because she knows it will make her cry.

Finally, we saw Stranger than Fiction, which I was so sure I had posted about that I had to search the blog twice to make sure I hadn’t already.  Have I posted about it somewhere else? I just don’t know. I can’t find it, so I apparently haven’t…and yet it feels like I’ve written everything I’m about to write already.

Anyway. It’s a Will Ferrell movie, in which Ferrell is the surprisingly restrained straight man, a dopy, plodding-through-life numbers geek who doesn’t see anything beyond the next day’s work at the office.  Obviously he can’t go on this way, and fate takes a hand by linking his life with the ongoing work of a famous author, played by Emma Thompson.  Unfortunately, she writes tragedies, and Ferrell is apparently doomed to an imminent death by an implacable narrator who he can suddenly hear.

Will Ferrell isn’t a great actor.  He’s good, with the odd moments that verge on great within a fairly limited range, and it’s a wise decision on the part of the writer and the director to keep him well away from Thompson, who seems hell-bent on acting the living shit out of what screen time she gets.  As disparate as their talents are, it works on the screen, with Ferrell’s deadpan demeanour slowly cracking as he embraces a life he did know know existed.  Thompson’s journey is a little less direct, but she’s more than capable of ping-ponging believably between highs and lows, between mania and depression – and the director is wise enough to treat them with a light touch.  One pivotal point for her character occurs off-screen, and the scene begins with a stoically bemused Queen Latifah picking her way through the debris of the tantrum it has precipitated.

I could go on about it for ages. It really is good, and worth renting along with …Dangerous Mind.

Right. That’s enough waffling for today.  I’ll post tomorrow or Saturday about the Great North Run.

I have geek oozing out of every pore.

Tonight we sat down and watched The Assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford.*

Lisa was firmly of the opinion that the movie, weighing in at two hours and forty minutes (approximately the same amount of time it takes to write the title out longhand), was a good hour too long for the actual amount of story there was.

Normally I’d agree, in that any movie that drags out a fairly thin slice of narrative past the two hour mark will start to make me itchy all over and I’ll have to take a break from it (someday I’m going to write a huge blog post on why the cinema is shit and you’re all going to hate me forever).  However, in this particular case I was captivated by it.

The movie is composed almost completely of silence and stillness.  The palette is muted, the cinematography flattened and obscured.  We see characters in the distance, at rest, hidden or distorted through lenses and the thick, puddling glass of roughly-cut windowpanes, we see them in mirrors, or through their own viewpoints.  There’s not a great deal of gunplay, or action, and when the violence comes it, too, is heavily cut-down – a thick-palmed slap of furious motion, then the long, drawn-out consequences that follow.

And even though there’s not a great deal of dialogue, not much being said out loud, the film is absolutely drenched in drama.  The acting, from Casey Affleck especially, is superb.  The camera lingers on each character’s face for far longer than any normal filmmaker would dare, and for a time you can barely bring yourself as a viewer to meet Ford’s eyes: his frustration, that simmering, impotent rage that turns over in his belly is right there in those heavy-lidded glances, and the bitter, oily twist of his grin.

Pitt, too, is very good in his role, although he gets less room to show his skills. James, iconic and enigmatic, remains largely so throughout the movie, and it’s only through the aid of narration and a couple of tiny moments that we actually begin to see a little more of the character coming to life.  It’s a shame we don’t get more of him, given the running time, but he is a legend in American history, and legends are perhaps best left painted only as an outline.

We know the ending from the beginning, of course, and it’s almost too easy to fall into the trap of seeing Pitt as a good man – even though the narrative paints him quite readily as a thief and a murderer – and Affleck as the twitching, baleful Ephialtes figure who betrays his leader.  By the climax, though, things are not so clear-cut, and we’re left swimming in a muddy world where no one figure stands out as right or wrong, and the motivations of the characters are less satisfying from a Hollywood perspective, but so much more from the perspective of humanity.  The players are capricious, and this gives the story much-needed tension.  As we build to the climactic assassination, there’s a palpable feeling of nervousness, of what if, because although we know how the story ends it feels like at any moment the situation could turn and history could be rewritten in just a single second of celluloid flicker.

That alone makes the movie worth watching.  Add to that a well-chosen supporting cast – a few big names in there but none that lumber onto the screen and jar your suspension of disbelief too strongly – and a brilliantly-paced epilogue, this is a great movie to spend an evening with if you’re up for something a little more heavyweight than the norm.

In other news, I got a Kuru Toga mechanical pencil! It has a tiny clutch just behind the nib that rotates the lead to keep the wear uniform across it, reducing breakages and improving the feel when writing.  So far, thumbs up!

*Obvious porn title – The Ass-Assassination of…you get the picture.

Is it so wrong?

I love The Mask of Zorro.  I know that it’s an incredibly cheesy film, and I should really know better, but still it manages to satisfy my cravings for a bit of dumb adventure.

Certainly it provided a suitable antidote after watching Babylon A.D., which we added to our LoveFilm list out of a egalitarian desire to give it as good a chance as every other movie that we list.

Big mistake. While it was pretty easy to work out what the story was, the clumsy writing and direction meant that I spent the entire film trying not to snap my remote control in two.  I don’t know if they meant it to be a twist, or some sort of astonishing reveal when they explain the girl’s backstory, but it was just horribly mishandled.  The ending was terrible, and Vin Diesel’s glib one-liner to camera that closes things up feels almost ad-libbed; like he’s sick of the movie too, and wants the viewer to know how ridiculous he’s finding it.


I bought a hand-driven lawnmower at the weekend, and spent an afternoon pushing it round the lawn in a parody of actual gardening.  While I was out there, I made a new friend.


Lisa was overjoyed, as she adores frogs, and a happy ten minutes was spent staring at him before I decided it was probably in his best interests to be chased back into the shade.  Oddly enough, ten minutes was long enough for him to stop being petrified of the insanely massive giants, and getting him to go away from where I was mowing was tasking work.

I didn’t dare tell Lisa how many spiders there are in our garden.  She’d never set foot out there if she knew.

On a somewhat lighter note.

Lisa and I went to see How to Train Your Dragon today.  Obviously, since we’re both relentlessly obsessed with all readily accessible forms of new technology, we went for the 3D option.

It’s a very good movie.  I’m not going to try and over-sell it, of course.  It’s not going to bother any awards ceremonies, it doesn’t have deep allegorical meaning, or any difficult-to-handle concepts.  It’s served up to the audience with the purpose of entertainment in mind, and it delivers exactly that.  90 minutes or so of tightly-written, popcorn fun for you to while away an afternoon with.

Thankfully movie makers seem to have got over the newness of 3D quite quickly (although you wouldn’t think it from watching trailers in a 3D screen) and while there are still obvious panderings to the technology (OH LOOK IT CAME STRAIGHT AT US OH WOW) they are thankfully few and far between.  Instead we’re given the opportunity to enjoy some excellent art.  The world of Hiccup’s Viking village (suspiciously populated with Scots accents) is full of effortlessly vibrant caricature, and it’s so well done that you find yourself quite taken with the oddly-proportioned villagers.  There are one or two lame ducks in the background filler – a strange half-smiling round-faced lady takes centre screen during a dramatic scene, kind of ruining the moment – but generally speaking it’s fantastic eye candy.

Also the dragons are cute.