Review: “Ghost Ship” (Film)

Well, since I was in the mood for a horror movie, I thought that I’d take a look at a film from 2002 that is quite literally called “Ghost Ship” (I wonder what it could be about?).

If I remember rightly, I noticed this film mentioned in film magazines and sitting on shop shelves back in the day and was intrigued by it. Unfortunately, I was only about fourteen or fifteen at the time and many of the video shops nearby had an annoying habit of asking for ID. As nostalgic as I sometimes get about the early 2000s, I’m so glad that I’m not a teenager any more.

Anyway, out of curiosity and nostalgia, I ended up buying a second-hand DVD of this film a couple of weeks before preparing this review. To my delight, not only did this film arrive in one of those wonderfully old-school cardboard and plastic DVD cases, but it also contained this utterly awesome lenticular cover art which makes a skull appear when you tilt it slightly 🙂 Seriously, I miss the heyday of physical media 🙂

So, let’s take a look at “Ghost Ship”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS (and a CREEPY SKELETON. Wooooo!).

This lenticular DVD cover is so cool 🙂 I’d like to see “Net-Flix” do something like this

The film begins in 1962, on board the luxurious Italian cruise liner S.S Antonia Graza. There is a lavish party, complete with big band and glamourous singer, and all of the passengers are enjoying the festivities. Well, everyone except for a young girl sitting on the deck who finds the whole thing utterly boring. Eventually, the ship’s kindly captain takes pity on her and invites her to onto the dancefloor on the ship’s front deck. Meanwhile, someone lurking in the shadows pulls a lever.

I’m sure he’s just turning the central heating on or something… Certainly nothing evil, surely?

Suddenly, the lights on deck begin to explode. A high-tension metal cable breaks loose and scythes its way across the deck – slicing and dicing all of the dancers except for the young girl, who survives by virtue of being very short. Then, in classic horror movie fashion, she lets out a loud scream.

We then flash forwards to the Bering Sea in 2002. A rough and ready salvage crew on board the Arctic Warrior are towing a dilapidated ship back to port when it starts to take on water. Captain Murphy (Gabriel Byrne) and a couple of the crew are eager to let it sink, but tough-as-nails crew member Epps (Julianna Margulies) thinks that she can weld the breach in time. After lots of high-wire acrobatics and some tense moments, she manages to plug the hole with the help of a couple of her friends.

In a dramatic scene that involves both sailing and abseiling, no less.

Back at port, Murphy isn’t really that annoyed about Epps disobeying orders. After all, the team have made a big pile of money from the old ship and are spending some of it in a neon-lit dive bar. Suddenly, a mysterious man approaches their table. He’s a sea-rescue pilot who has spotted a cruise ship adrift at sea and is willing to tell them where it is in exchange for both a cut of the profits and a place on the salvage expedition.

Wow! Their luck just keeps improving! Surely nothing can go hauntingly wrong for them…

The crew agree to his terms and set sail. And, after some mysterious issues with the radar, they almost crash into the floating remains of the S.S Antonia Graza. It’s covered in rust and appears to be slowly sinking. Strangest of all, there doesn’t seem to be anyone left on board. It’s almost like some kind of ghost ship

Who would have thought it?

One of the first things that I will say about this film is that, before I started watching it, I was in a fairly glum mood. By the end credits, I had a huge grin on my face 🙂

Yes, it’s a fairly cheesy mid-budget horror B-movie which is about as scary as a kitten and also includes some angsty late 1990s/early 2000s Nu metal music too. But, this stuff is what makes this film so enjoyable. It’s a gloriously fun “so bad that it’s good” horror movie with a lot of personality, a sense of humour and a wonderful atmosphere. It’s also a reassuring relic from a rose-tinted time when films like this actually appeared in cinemas and survival horror videogames were regularly being released for the Playstation 2.

And, yes, this film is a survival horror videogame at heart 🙂 It takes place in a self-contained location like the old “Resident Evil” videogames (and the first “Resident Evil” film) and it is filled with wonderfully rusty, dilapidated and gloomy set designs that wouldn’t be out of place in one of the old “Silent Hill” games. And, although I haven’t played it, the “abandoned ship” idea was also used as a premise for a game released in 2005 called “Cold Fear“. Not to mention that the 2001 Game Boy Color game “Resident Evil: Gaiden” (anyone remember that?) also takes place on a creepy old ship too. This film is wonderfully evocative of late 1990s/early-mid 2000s survival horror games 🙂

Seriously, this location wouldn’t be out of place in “Silent Hill 3” or something like that 🙂

Although this is a film that will probably only scare you if it is the very first horror movie you’ve ever watched, I still really loved the film’s horror elements. There’s a good mixture of ghostly apparitions, ominous locations, gory moments, some mild psychological horror and even a couple of gloriously corny jump scares that are more unintentionally funny than anything else 🙂

Boo! A scary skeleton! I shouldn’t laugh, but this “jump scare” moment is unintentionally hilarious!

All of this is handled with a knowing theatricality and a gleefully dark sense of humour which more than makes up for the lack of actual scariness here 🙂 Plus, like with 1980s monster novels, half of the fun of a film like this is the fact that you get to feel like an absolute badass when you find yourself totally un-scared by the film’s “horrifying” events.

The film’s special effects, pacing and direction play a large role in this “fun horror” atmosphere. Not only is the reveal of the film’s (utterly silly) film noir-style backstory directed like a cheesy, rapidly-edited music video but even the gruesome opening scene is played as much for hilarious dark comedy (with body parts moving independently of their owners etc…) as it is for actual horror.

Although this film isn’t quite as ultra-gory as I was expecting, this allows many of the film’s grisly and/or bloody moments to have a slightly slapstick quality to them which just adds to the film’s charm.

Add to this the fact that this film mostly consists of “build up” – with the horror elements only seriously coming to the forefront during the last 20-30 minutes, the fact that it has random moments with Nu metal music that are completely at odds with the gothic “1960s” horror atmosphere and the fact that it also concludes with a gloriously silly and random plot twist … and you have a film that – whilst it won’t actually scare you – is just fun to watch. It’s a gloriously cheesy “so bad that it’s good” late-night horror movie that will put a huge grin on the face of anyone with even a vaguely dark sense of humour 🙂

And, yes, this film is funny. In addition to various lines of dialogue, the cheesy neon pink font used in the opening credits, a couple of “laugh out loud” gross-out moments/jump scares and several moments of grisly dark comedy, this film also contains a brilliant parody of a popular horror trope from the early 2000s too. Although the ghostly child that appears on the ship is initially presented in the same “creepy” way that you would expect from other early 2000s horror movies like “The Ring” and “Resident Evil”, she actually turns out to be one of the good guys later in the film. Seriously, I was not expecting this and it certainly made me laugh.

Another awesome thing about this film is the characters. Although you shouldn’t expect in-depth characterisation here, the fact that the main characters are a rough group of salvage hunters means that they are just fun to hang out with. They make corny jokes about each other, listen to cheesy Nu metal, drink beer etc… and are just generally the complete opposite of the boringly “prim and proper” main characters who often turn up in older horror movies. You get a real feeling of friendship and camaraderie in this film that is an absolute joy to experience.

I’d say that this would make a great TV series. But, being a horror movie, you can probably guess what happens to most of the characters…

The best characters are either a hilariously comedic metalhead called Munder or the film’s protagonist, Epps, who actually comes across as a more understated and realistic version of the typical Ellen Ripley-style protagonist you’d expect in a horror thriller. Imagine Starbuck from the 2000s remake of “Battlestar Galactica” and this should give you a vague idea of the kind of cool character she is. Plus, the film’s villain is a wonderfully corny “evil for the sake of evil” character who is quite literally working for the devil. Scary? No. Hilarious? Yes 🙂

And, talking of awesome stuff, I cannot praise this film’s set design and lighting highly enough. Not only does the ruined cruise ship look intriguingly creepy and gothic, but the film is also filled with lots of wonderfully atmospheric lighting that is gloomy enough to create atmosphere whilst also being bright enough to let you actually see what is going on. As I mentioned earlier, this is the kind of film that – visually – wouldn’t be out of place in an old survival horror videogame and it is a glorious visual feast for anyone with a vaguely gothic sensibility and/or memories of when mainstream videogames were better 🙂

You have found the BISHOP KEY. Add this item to your inventory? > YES NO ?

Is it just me or would an air raid siren and lots of radio static be the perfect sound effects here?

All in all, this film was an absolute joy to watch 🙂 It’s a gloriously fun “so bad that it’s good” horror B-movie that is wonderfully evocative of both old survival horror videogames and the early 2000s in general. Yes, it’s a lot more likely to make you laugh than scream, but this is part of the film’s charm. It’s a film that has personality, a sense of humour and lots of entertaining macabre silliness. It’s the cinematic equivalent of one of those old monster novels from the 1980s. Seriously, I miss the days when films like this were a lot more common.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least a four. It is quite literally “so bad that it’s actually good” 🙂

Review: “The Snow Queen” By Joan D. Vinge (Novel)

Well, although this review has been quite a while in the making, I thought that I’d take a look at Joan D. Vinge’s Hugo Award-winning 1980 sci-fi novel “The Snow Queen” today 🙂 And, although I’ll probably take a break from reading/reviewing novels for a while, I’ve really been looking forward to reviewing this book 🙂

If I remember rightly, I ended up finding a second-hand copy of this book after really enjoying Vinge’s later prequel novel “Tangled Up In Blue” – which I discovered after reading the second novel in the “Snow Queen” series, “World’s End“, about a decade after I found it by chance in a charity shop. It has been a weird journey.

So, let’s take a look at “The Snow Queen”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1988 Orbit (UK) paperback edition of “The Snow Queen” that I read.

The novel begins on the planet Tiamat. Although Tiamat is a member of a powerful interplanetary alliance called the Hegemony, it is only accesible to the rest of the Hegemony via a wormhole that opens and closes in 150 year cycles. The planet is split into two tribes – Summers and Winters – who rule depending on whether the wormhole is open or shut. When it is open, the Winters are in charge and off-world technology is temporarily available to the planet in exchange for the “water of life” – an immortality serum derived from the blood of sea-creatures called mers.

In the planet’s capital city of Carbuncle, a festival is in full swing to celebrate a visit by the Hegemony’s Prime Minister. During the celebrations, a drunken couple fall asleep in a room in the city’s palace. The planet’s ruthless Winter queen, Arienrhod, sneaks into the room with a reluctant off-world doctor she has bribed into helping her. She orders the doctor to insert an illegal clone implant into the unconscious woman.

Several years later, on an island in the Summer areas of the planet, a young woman called Moon leaves home with her beloved cousin Sparks. Unlike the technology-obsessed Winters, the Summers are a more primitive and superstitious people who live from fishing, consider mers to be sacred and worship a sea-goddess called The Lady. Part of this mystical tradition is the existence of “siblys” – people who become human search engines/encyclopaedias thanks to the sharing of blood.

Both Moon and Sparks have wanted to become sibyls since they were children and they have travelled to another island in order to begin the tests and rituals that will allow this. However, after reaching a dark cave, Sparks realises that he can’t see in the dark in the same way that Moon can. He has not passed the test and cannot become a sibyl. Despite his protests and their promise that they would become sibyls together, Moon reluctantly continues into the cave and begins her sibyl training.

Dismayed by this, Sparks eventually decides to leave Moon and seek his fortune in the bustling metropolis of Carbuncle. After having his belongings stolen by two of the locals, he begins a profitable career as a busker before being attacked in an alleyway by a gang who want to sell him into slavery. Meanwhile, two Hegemonic police officers – Jerusha PalaThion and BZ Gundhalinu – have an awkward formal meeting with Arienrhod and are returning to the station when they find Sparks being attacked. They save him and, to avoid vagrancy charges, he gives the address of a blind mask-maker called Fate who he met shortly after arriving in the city.

Fate agrees to let him help her out. Sometime later, Arienrhod visits the shop to enquire about a ceremonial mask. Sparks is stunned. Arienrhod looks just like his cousin Moon. He makes the mistake of pointing this out to her. Arienrhod suddenly becomes a lot more interested in him and insists that he works at the palace as a musician. Things improve for Sparks and he quickly rises in position and, at Arienrhod’s prompting, he sends for his cousin to visit…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is WOW 🙂 On the back cover, there is a quote from Arthur C. Clarke that compares this novel to Frank Herbert’s “Dune” and it is a very apt comparison 🙂 If you enjoy epic fantasy-influenced science fiction, set in complex worlds filled with intrigue – where high technology and ancient traditions sit uneasily side-by-side, then you’ll enjoy this novel 🙂 Seriously, it’s an absolute crime that this novel isn’t more well-known and/or hasn’t been adapted into a film, videogame or TV series yet.

So, I should probably start by talking about the novel’s science fiction elements. Although the novel has some of the trappings of the fantasy genre (eg: monarchy, tradition etc…), it is very much a science fiction novel at heart – with every strange or futuristic thing in this novel either following scientific rules or having a scientific explanation. But, the technology itself isn’t really the main focus of this novel. This is more of a novel about the power of knowledge and technology than anything else.

The Hegemony controls Tiamat by only allowing the planet’s people to own technology during the 150 year window that the wormhole is open – remotely destroying or seizing anything vaguely high-tech before the wormhole closes. They also keep some technological knowledge and history secret from the people of Tiamat and make it difficult for them to leave the planet. Although one character tries to explain this by quoting something similar to the “Prime Directive” from Star Trek, it is very clearly shown to be a way to keep Tiamat weak and easily-exploitable. So, this is very much a novel about the interplay between technology, politics, knowledge and power. It’s sort of meta sci-fi in this way 🙂

Still, one interesting thing is how the novel’s “sibyls” are inspired by, and expand on, the idea of human computers from Frank Herbert’s “Dune”. Unlike the mentats of “Dune”, this novel’s sibyls are linked by a strange genetically-engineered network created by a long-lost ancient civilisation (that the Hegemony are trying to reconstruct). Due to the bio-tech in their blood, they are both feared and revered by everyone in the story. And, in an eerily prescient twist, they act like a human version of something like Google or Wikipedia. This might not sound that impressive now. But this is a novel from 1980!

Like novels by some modern sci-fi authors such as Becky Chambers, this is more of a novel about life in the future. Although it has a thriller-like plot, filled with intrigue and drama, it is the type of “realistic” sci-fi that just shows what ordinary life in another galaxy might be like. In other words, this novel has absolutely excellent worldbuilding 🙂

The world of Tiamat really feels like a complex, living place that is always really fascinating to visit. The best way to describe it is “Blade Runner/Star Wars meets Game Of Thrones”. If you loved the intriguing combination of high technology and ancient cities/traditions in Frank Herbert’s “Dune”, then you’ll love the world of this book too 🙂 Seriously, I cannot praise the worldbuilding here highly enough.

Not only that, this first novel in the series also gives us some tantalising glimpses of other places and societies in this series’ “universe” too. The highlight is probably a brief trip to the planet Kharemough, which creates an overwhelming sense of intrigue, atmosphere and wonder that I’ve only ever really seen in a few other sci-fi novels (the most recent example I’ve read probably being Becky Chambers’ “A Closed And Common Orbit).

Thematically, this is also a novel that covers timeless topics like inequality, the environment, moral ambiguity, religion/tradition and how power corrupts. All of this thematic complexity is mostly explored through the novel’s excellent cast of characters.

Every major character in this novel comes across as a complex, realistic person with emotions, history and motivations who experiences a significant amount of character development as the story progresses. I cannot praise the characterisation in this novel highly enough 🙂 This story has a large enough cast of main characters to feel epic, but a small enough cast of characters to allow each one to actually have some depth. I could spend absolutely ages going on about the characters, but this is one of those stories that just feels “realistic” in terms of its portrayal of humanity.

In terms of the writing, it is also excellent 🙂 This novel’s third-person narration is formal and descriptive enough to lend atmosphere and complexity to the story, whilst still being gritty and “matter of fact” enough to keep the story feeling realistic. Yes, like many 1980s novels, the writing is probably a little formal or slow-paced by modern standards – but if you’re used to this writing style or willing to get used to it, then you’ll be rewarded with some timelessly brilliant storytelling.

As for length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At 536 pages, this novel is a bit of a tome. But, thanks to the complex and epic story, this length is justified. “The Snow Queen” is one of those books that is best when savoured and enjoyed in smaller instalments of 10-50 pages at a time.

The pacing is really good too. Although you shouldn’t expect too much of a fast-paced novel here, the plot moves along at a fairly natural pace and is structured in a way that means that it never gets boring. Likewise, the story also becomes more and more dramatic and compelling as it progresses too 🙂 Although the earlier parts of this book were interesting, the mid-late parts were even more gripping than I’d expected.

In terms of how well this forty year old novel has aged, it is pretty much timeless. Yes, there are a couple of brief moments that seem mildly dated and the writing style is also a bit formal by modern standards, but thanks to the novel’s complex sci-fi setting and well-written realistic characters, this could pretty much be a modern novel 🙂 Like how George R. R. Martin’s 1996 novel “A Game Of Thrones” still seemed fresh when it was faithfully adapted to TV in 2011, this is the kind of novel that could easily be made into a complex, fresh and modern TV series or film with hardly any changes. In other words, it’s pretty much timeless.

All in all, this is an excellent sci-fi novel that is well worth reading if you’re a fan of Frank Herbert, Becky Chambers or “Game Of Thrones” 🙂 It has excellent characters and worldbuilding and is the kind of classic sci-fi novel (and book series) that really should be more well-known than it is 🙂 It richly deserves its Hugo Award 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.

Review: “Two Weeks Notice” (Film)

Well, although I’m nearing the later parts of the next novel I plan to review (but am enjoying it so much that I want to slow down and savour it), I thought that it was time to review yet another film. And, since I was also in the mood for another “feel good” romantic comedy, I thought that I’d check out one that I’ve been meaning to watch for quite a while. I am, of course, talking about the 2002 film “Two Weeks Notice”.

I’d vaguely thought about reviewing this film during my “1990s films” series a couple of years ago, but it fell just outside of the time range (eg: 1989-2001) I’d set for the series. So, when a relative asked if I wanted to borrow any of their DVDs for these reviews, I was delighted to find this one in a box set.

So, let’s take a look at “Two Weeks Notice”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

The film begins in New York with a legal aid lawyer and community activist called Lucy Kelson (Sandra Bullock) and two of her friends protesting the demolition of a community theatre by the nefarious Wade Corporation. After managing to delay the wrecking ball for a few minutes with the strategic use of yoga mats, we later see her parents bailing her out of jail. Since they are both experienced lawyers who have a history of standing up for ordinary people, civil rights and local causes, they are proud of her for taking a stand.

And, in classic Hollywood fashion, Lucy is very much a “hippie” character in this part of the film.

Sometime later, Lucy learns that cartoonishly rich businessman George Wade (Hugh Grant) also plans to bulldoze the local community centre. So, after compiling documents about it, she decides to find him and plead the case for keeping the centre going.

And, yes, there’s an obligatory magazine article scene too. I miss the early 2000s.

Meanwhile, George is in a spot of bother. His richer brother, the head of the family’s company, is more than a little annoyed at him for hiring a string of attorneys based on looks and romantic interest rather than on actual legal skill. He gives George an ultimatum to find a good lawyer within the next few days.

When George leaves the office, talking to one possible candidate, Lucy confronts him with a folder of information about the community centre and tries to appeal to his better nature. Their conversation is interrupted by a reporter looking for a statement about the proposed development work. After Lucy inadvertently helps George to give an inspiring and eloquent speech to the press, he asks her to join her in his limo. He has a proposition. He’ll save the centre if she agrees to work as his lawyer.

Naturally, it turns out to be a rewarding and intellectually-stimulating career choice.

Much to the disapproval of her parents and long-distance boyfriend, Lucy accepts. At first, the job goes well and she’s also able to direct a lot of the company’s charitable spending too. However, George starts treating her more like a P.A. than an actual lawyer. And, after calling her in the middle of a wedding to ask her opinion about what he should wear during a TV interview, she hands in her two weeks notice. But, after a series of underhanded attempts by George to get her to stay at the company, the two reluctantly reach a deal. Lucy will find a replacement lawyer if George doesn’t try to stop her working for anyone else afterwards…

One of the first things that I will say about this film is that, whilst it is very stylised, it was still a lot of fun to watch 🙂 It’s also a romantic comedy that pays as much, if not more, attention to it’s comedy elements as it does to the romantic elements of the story 🙂

“Make sure you massage his cloven hoof!”

So, I should probably start by talking about this film’s comedy elements, which are excellent. Although the numerous comedic moments are more “amusing” than “laugh out loud” a lot of the time, the frequency of them really adds a lot of personality and fun to the film.

Although there are some well-placed moments of slapstick comedy (and other comedic set pieces), the bulk of this film’s humour comes from the characters – in particular, the amusing “opposites” relationship and dialogue exchanges between Lucy and George. Both of them are stylised, but amusing, comedic characters and are absolutely perfect.

Although Grant and Bullock aren’t exactly playing against type here, this is what makes the film so excellent. Lucy is the kind of awkward, eccentric, kind-hearted and slightly cynical character that Sandra Bullock excels at. George is the kind of utterly charming, but loveably foolish and endearingly stupid, character that Hugh Grant does so well. As you can imagine, this allows for a lot of amusing comedic conflict and character moments throughout the film.

Such as this scene where Lucy tries to get George to fire her from the company.

Or when George casually calls for a lift home after a bizarre series of events involving tennis, traffic jams, chilli dogs and a mobile home.

Plus, talking of the casting, I was amazed to see David Haig in this film too 🙂 Although he plays his role as George’s miserable, ruthless brother fairly “seriously” and is a much more understated version of the kind of grumpy character he played in classic BBC sitcoms like “The Thin Blue Line“, it’s still really cool to see him in a mainstream Hollywood movie 🙂 And, though he mostly just serves as a foil to Hugh Grant’s character, he still adds an extra something to the film.

Seriously, it was a really awesome surprise to see David Haig in this film 🙂

However, I should point out that – during one brief scene later in the film – Donald Trump has a cameo. Yes, in the 1990s and early 2000s, these cameos were kind of a Hollywood tradition/running joke – but, depending on your opinions about US politics, this scene may briefly ruin the mood of the film when watched today.

In terms of the film’s romance elements, they are better than I’d expected. For most of the film, the relationship between Lucy and George is this weird mixture of friendship, business and antagonism – which fits in well with the film’s unusual premise. They seem like two people who should hate each other but somehow get along in an oddly charming and amusing way.

This antagonism also means that their relationship progresses at a reasonably slow and sensible pace, with the two characters having enough conflict between them to provide the film with a few “serious” dramatic moments whilst still keeping a fairly “feel good” emotional tone.

The film’s dramatic moments add a bit of depth and character to the film, but never really get in the way of the comedy.

Likewise, the fact that their relationship for most of the film is this weird mixture of friendship, antagonism and business also means that the film sets itself apart from many romantic comedies, allowing for a lot more “traditional” comedic moments and situations than you sometimes find in this genre.

Plus, although it’s clear from the outset that they’re going to end up together, the interesting part is how this ends up happening and all of the inner conflict and character development (eg: Lucy is initially eager to find someone to replace her at George’s company, but has mixed emotions after she finds someone etc…) on the way to the expected final kiss just before the credits.

Yes, there are vague elements of a “Fifty Shades”-style dynamic between the main characters in some moments, but the film actually handles this in a suitably irreverent and vaguely intelligent way, with these parts of the film being presented as sources of comedic conflict rather than as anything particularly “romantic”. Likewise, although the giant wealth disparity between the two main characters is a well-worn romance trope, it’s not only played for laughs in many moments but the film also has a rather heartwarming message about money being less important than community, love, friendship etc… Although this is also a rather cliched trope, it’s still kind of refreshing to see it here.

As mentioned earlier, there is actually a fairly good amount of character development. Although this is slightly stylised and predictable- with Lucy going from being an activist and beleagured P.A. to a more confident character and George going from an arrogant, but charming, “more money than sense” businessman to a charming, but somewhat more decent, person – it still adds a bit of extra depth, nuance and humanity to this film’s characters. Who, again, are extremely stylised but somehow still manage to be very compelling.

All in all, this is a much better film than it probably sounds on paper (or, in this case, a computer screen). Yes, it’s incredibly stylised in a lot of ways, but Bullock and Grant turn it into something greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a romantic comedy which works just as well as a comedy (if not slightly better) as it does as a romance. So, if you want a fun, funny and “feel good” film with a quirky and cute main couple, then this one is definitely worth a watch 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least a four.

Review: “Sphere” (Film)

Well, although I’m still gradually reading the next novel I plan to review (I’m over halfway through it at the time of writing), I was in the mood for another film review. So, I thought that I’d take a look at a rather intriguing sci-fi horror film from 1998 called “Sphere”.

This is a film that I often saw sitting on shop shelves when I was younger and was vaguely curious about, but never actually got round to getting a copy of it. And, when shopping online for second-hand DVDs, I happened to spot a copy of it and wanted to satisfy my curiosity.

So, let’s take a look at “Sphere”. However, I should warn you that this review will contain some MAJOR SPOILERS. This film is best watched without spoilers. So, if you just want a spoiler-free summary, then it’s a surprisingly good sci-fi horror thriller film 🙂

And, yes, this is one of those old-school late 1990s DVDs that comes in a semi-cardboard case. Anyone remember those?

The film begins with a psychologist called Norman (Dustin Hoffman) being flown across the sea in a US Navy helicopter. He’s been told that he’s required to help out with a plane crash and, sure enough, there are several Navy ships and a cordoned-off area in the middle of the ocean.

But, when he gets on board one of the ships, he is greeted by a military officer who tells him to wait in his quarters despite his protests that he needs to see the crash survivors within a vital 24-hour window in order to reduce the likelihood of post-traumatic stress disorder. A few hours later, a mysterious US government agent meets him and leads him to a conference room.

Hmmm… This secret agent looks totally trustworthy…

In the conference room, a marine biologist called Beth (Sharon Stone), a mathematician called Harry (Samuel L. Jackson) and an astrophysicist called Ted (Liev Schreiber) are waiting for him. The agent explains that they are a team who have been assembled based on a half-joking report that Norman wrote for the president about what to do and who to bring in the event of alien contact.

Needless to say, the rest of the team aren’t exactly happy about this.

After an accident with a ship laying fibre-optic cable, the US Navy conducted various scans and undersea expeditions and discovered a mysterious spacecraft buried in a coral reef. From the rate of coral growth, they have deduced that the spacecraft landed on Earth three hundred years earlier. The team will be the first people to look inside it…

One of the first things that I will say about this film is… Wow! It’s a really compelling sci-fi horror thriller 🙂 If you’re a fan of movies like “Alien”, “Event Horizon” and “2001: A Space Odyssey”, then you’ll be on vaguely familiar ground here. It’s a really great mixture of mysterious science fiction, thrilling drama and creepy horror 🙂 In other words, it is sci-fi horror done right 🙂

If this reminds you a little of the Space Jockey scene from “Alien”, then you’ll probably enjoy this film 🙂

And the “2001” style computer messages are surprisingly creepy too 🙂

So, I should probably start by talking about this film’s horror elements, which are really excellent 🙂 Since this film only has a “12” certificate, I wasn’t really expecting that much in the way of horror – but this is a surprisingly creepy film 🙂 Although the BBFC were generally stricter during the 1990s, one cool thing is that they didn’t really take quite as much of an over-protective attitude towards horror films in lower categories as they do these days. So, don’t let the low rating put you off. Yes, it isn’t really that gruesome – but this film will actually scare and unsettle you 🙂

There’s a really good mixture of suspenseful situations, eerie mystery, psychological horror, creature horror, cosmic horror, claustrophobic horror, unreliable reality, sci-fi horror and a few grotesque skeletons/bodies too. Although there are also a small number of “jump” moments, most of the film’s horror is a slightly more subtle and unsettling thing which is left just mysterious enough to both make you curious and to make you feel afraid.

Surprisingly, this film relies a lot less on creatures and “jump” moments than I’d expected 🙂 It’s a bit more of a sophisticated sci-fi horror film 🙂

In addition to this, there is a brilliantly tense and suspenseful atmosphere running through almost all of the film. Not only are the characters frequently in danger but, as the story progresses, they become less sure of who they can trust and of reality itself.

The concept behind the film is absolutely brilliant and utterly chilling too. In essence, thanks to whatever is inside the sphere, the later events of the film follow literal nightmare logic (if you’ve ever had a normal dream and then suddenly worried about something in the middle of it, you’ll probably know what I’m talking about here) – where the character’s fears quite literally become reality. Seriously, I cannot praise this film’s psychological horror elements highly enough.

It’s impossible to talk about this film’s horror elements without talking about the sci-fi elements too. This film is a perfect example of sci-fi horror done right. Not only are all of the main characters intelligent scientists and mathematicians, but the film also has a strong element of mystery to it – a mystery which can only be partially solved by exploration, logical deduction and scientific study.

Throughout the film, there are strange events (eg: English text within the spaceship, strange numbers appearing on computer screens etc…) which all have some kind of logic to them that the characters have to understand and use to their advantage. Likewise, whilst the characters learn a bit about how the alien sphere works and why it is on Earth, enough is still left mysterious to keep the film feeling both intriguing and creepy

And, yes, despite some rather high-end computers, the scientists still use pen and paper occasionally 🙂

Although the film includes a few well-known features of the sci-fi genre (eg: spaceships, aliens, time travel etc…), it also takes a wonderfully Lovecraftian approach to science fiction too. In other words, this is a film about people confronted by strange and unknown alien forces that humanity should not know about. It fits into the classic Lovecraftian idea of dangerous knowledge too, with the characters eventually choosing to forget about everything they have learnt (and quite literally saying something like “We are the wrong hands”) because it would be catastrophic for humanity to know the sphere’s powers.

Although, weirdly, this is a horror movie with a (sort of) happy ending. Probably explains the “12 certificate”, I guess.

Plus, although the film is set underwater, it may as well be set in the inhospitable void of outer space too. This is a film that takes heavy inspiration from both “Alien” and “2001: A Space Odyssey”, whilst also very much being it’s own thing at the same time 🙂 Imagine a toned-down version of “Event Horizon” or an extremely terrifying horror novel like Nick Cutter’s “The Deep” and this may give you some vague impression of the kind of awesome sci-fi horror film this is 🙂 Although I haven’t read the Michael Crichton novel that “Sphere” is based on, you can really get the impression that this is a novel-based film rather than a Hollywood original 🙂

In addition to this, it is also a really great thriller too. As well as the mystery and suspense that I’ve mentioned, the film not only has a novel-like structure (and is split into chapter-like segments), but there is a really good mixture of quieter moments and slightly more fast-paced survival drama moments that keeps the audience on their toes. And, as you’d expect from any decent thriller, the drama gradually keeps escalating as the film progresses.

Seriously, the chapter title-like segments work really well.

The film’s characters are absolutely excellent too. They have enough personality and backstory to make you care about them, whilst also coming across as slightly more understated and “realistic” than the average Hollywood thriller or horror movie protagonists.

Although the main characters are played by fairly famous actors, their acting is good enough for this not to be too immersion-breaking (although the film would have probably been mildly creepier with an unknown cast) and they actually come across as vaguely realistic scientists. Seriously, I cannot praise Hoffman, Stone, Jackson and Schreiber highly enough for their performances here. The same goes for the supporting cast too, who all seem like fairly “realistic” military characters – even if they don’t really get that much characterisation.

In terms of lighting, set design and special effects, this film is brilliant 🙂 This film makes absolutely excellent use of 1990s-style gloomy high-contrast lighting, which both adds to the creepy atmosphere and just looks really cool too.

Seriously, the lighting design here is really cool 🙂 It’s gloomy enough to add mystery to the film, whilst bold enough to allow you to see what is going on 🙂

Seriously, people certainly knew how to use lighting in dramatic ways in the 1990s 🙂

The set design is absolutely awesome too – taking heavy visual inspiration from the spaceships in both “Alien” and “2001: A Space Odyssey”, whilst also being gloomier, more metallic and just generally more “realistic” 🙂

The team hang out in the mess hall- For example, the mess hall onboard the base looks a bit like a gloomier and more metallic version of the dining room from “Alien” 🙂

Likewise, although the close-ups of the sphere look a little like “old CGI” at times, the film’s lavish special effects still stand up surprisingly well when viewed today – probably thanks to the compelling story, the film knowing when to leave things to the imagination and the gloomy lighting covering up any small flaws that might be noticeable upon closer inspection.

All in all, this is an absolutely excellent sci-fi horror movie 🙂 If you enjoyed the movie “Alien” and you want something a bit more subtle, with more of a focus on mystery and psychological horror, then this film is well worth a watch 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.

Review: “Picture Perfect” (Film)

Well, as I continue my glacial progress through the next novel I plan to review, I thought that I’d take a look at yet another film. And, since I was in the mood for “feel good” films again, I thought that I’d take a look at a romantic comedy from 1997 called “Picture Perfect” – which was a random “I haven’t heard of this one before” film I found when shopping online for second-hand DVDs during a moment of 1990s nostalgia.

So, let’s take a look at “Picture Perfect”. Needless to say, this review may contain SPOILERS.

The film is set in New York begins with Kate (Jennifer Aniston) making out with a guy, before stopping suddenly and asking him to leave when she realises that her mother has set up the date.

The next day, she shows up to work at a trendy advertising agency and is called into a meeting. The agency has got America’s second-most popular mustard brand as a new client and they need to work through the night to come up with an ad campaign. After several hours, Kate suddenly has a genius idea for an Audrey Hepburn-themed magazine advert.

And, being the 1990s, the meeting also has awesome gloomy mood lighting too 🙂

The client approves the campaign and hires the agency, but Kate is shocked to learn that she isn’t part of the creative team for it. Needless to say, Kate is more than a little bit annoyed by this. One of her colleagues says that she’ll talk to the boss on Kate’s behalf.

Over the weekend, Kate attends a friend’s wedding and briefly meets a handsome photographer called Nick (Jay Mohr). At one point, someone takes a Polaroid photo of the two of them together. When she meets with the boss, he says that he likes to promote people who live in a certain way – a “proper house”, a car and/or a stable relationship. Naturally, Kate is more than a little bit shocked by such backwardness and, after the meeting, goes somewhere private to let out her emotions until her colleague shows up to reassure her.

She points out that she showed the boss the photo from the wedding and convinced him that Nick was Kate’s fiancee. Kate is initially wary about going along with this ruse but reluctantly agrees. Things initially work well out for her. Not only does she get promoted but a handsome, suave and mildly sleazy guy called Sam (Kevin Bacon) that she’s had her eyes on suddenly becomes interested in her when he learns that she is “unavailable”. They have a couple of passionate trysts until Kate happens to see that Nick is being interviewed on the news after rescuing a child from a burning building.

What a bizarre and unlikely coincidence!

Everyone in the office applauds her “fiancee’s” heroism and her boss wants to meet him over dinner in a few days’ time. Panicked, Kate manages to find Nick’s number and agrees to meet him in a cafe. She offers him $1000 if he’ll pretend to be her fiancee for long enough to stage a dramatic “break up” during the dinner. However, it isn’t long before Kate realises that Nick actually has feelings for her…

One of the first things that I will say about this film is that it is a fairly typical, but reasonably good, 1990s Hollywood romcom film. Although it is very much on the stylised and contrived side of things and also contains a few socially-awkward situations, it is still very much a “feel good” film that was reasonably enjoyable to watch.

In terms of the film’s romance elements – although there is the love-triangle plot that you would expect, this actually has less emphasis than I’d initially expected. Most of the film focuses on the relationship between Kate and Nick – which progresses fairly well, albeit in a stylised way with lots of misunderstandings and conflicted emotions. Nick is the kind of handsome “nice guy” character you’d expect and Kate is the kind of adorable, neurotic, quirky etc… character that you’d expect in a Jennifer Aniston comedy film. Needless to say, they make a rather sweet couple.

And the film also has a few well-placed moments of serious drama too, but not enough to ruin the light-hearted atmosphere.

Interestingly, the other love interest – Sam – is a better character than I’d expected. Although I was initially sceptical about Kevin Bacon playing this type of character (and, yes, the only other Kevin Bacon films I’ve seen are “Tremors” and “Flatliners”), he pulls it off really well with a level of charm that is sweet enough to be loveable whilst just slightly suave, sleazy etc…enough to come across as “dangerous” in a mostly non-creepy way. He comes across as a reasonably nice character and, even though it’s fairly predictable who Kate will end up with (pretty much as soon as Nick shows up), he still helps to add a little bit of ambiguity and intrigue to the film.

Although he doesn’t get that much characterisation, he’s still a fairly interesting character.

However, this film does the old-school romcom thing of being set in a dystopian parallel universe where literally everything seems to revolve around romantic relationships and where not being in one is seen as a terrible thing that causes all sorts of tutting social disapproval. Yes, the film does question this a little bit, but it still comes across as a little bit weird when watched these days (or if you’re relatively new to the romcom genre). Then again, it’s kind of a traditional feature of the genre and part of the film’s stylised set-up, so I can’t really criticise it too much.

In terms of the film’s comedy elements, they’re reasonably good – with the film being something of a farce, where Kate finds herself having to keep up an elaborate pretence for most of the film.

Although this doesn’t quite have the same warm, reassuring atmosphere as a film like “While You Were Sleeping” and also includes a few moments that – if you are at all prone to social awkwardness – will make you cringe and look away from the screen, the film is still a fairly light-hearted and feel-good film. In addition to all of this farce, this film also contains some amusing lines of dialogue, some comedic acting and funny character moments too. Although this film isn’t “laugh out loud” funny that often, the humour helps to give the film a fairly light-hearted tone.

The film’s 1990s elements are also fairly interesting. On the one hand, the film contains a couple of wonderfully nostalgic pieces of 1990s music (eg: Macy Gray’s “I Try” and Texas’ “Say What You Want”) and also contains a fair amount of wonderfully 1990s lighting design and fashions too. But, I couldn’t help but think of the idea that many films are secretly set twenty years earlier than they claim to be.

So much beige and a generally faded look. Is this lounge really from the 1990s?

And this is literally the only computer I can remember seeing in the film’s office scenes. In a big company. In 1997!

Then there’s the the fact that, despite a couple of mildly satirical moments, the film mostly presents the advertising inudstry in a fairly positive and glamourous way. For context, this film was released between the heyday of grunge music, Bill Hicks’ famously cynical comments about advertising etc… in the early-mid 1990s and the era of “No Logo” and anti-corporate protests in late 1990s America.

Not to mention the fact that the “give everyone cameras” thing during one wedding scene involves expensive 1980s-style Polaroid cameras rather than the cheap disposable cameras that were actually popular for holidays, weddings etc… during the 1990s/early-mid 2000s. Still, given that the photos need to be instant for a contrived plot reason, this might explain the odd choice of cameras here.

Still, this is a film that also wouldn’t be entirely out of place in the 1970s-80s (except possibly for the cordless landline phones, one computer and a brief glimpse of a ’90s mobile phone). And, yet, this kind of works. It lends the film a wonderfully unique, if slightly strange, atmosphere which is both very 1990s and not quite the 1990s at the same time.

All in all, this is a fairly typical and highly stylised 1990s romcom. Although it’s probably easy to get cynical about this film, it was still reasonably fun to watch and is still very much a “feel good” film. The main couple are adorable, it’s set in a bizarre version of the 1990s and – despite some socially awkward situations – is probably a film that will leave you feeling happier than when you started watching it.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least three and three-quarters.

Review: “The Relic” (Film)

Well, since I still seem to be in the mood for films (and am still reading the next novel I plan to review, albeit at a slow pace of 20-30 pages a day), I suddenly realised that it’s been a while since I last watched a monster movie. And, yes, although I’m still very much in the mood for “feel good” films, I also consider this wonderfully cheesy (and not really that scary) sub-genre of horror films to fall into that category.

Luckily, whilst shopping online for second-hand DVDs a few days earlier, I found a rather intriguing-looking sci-fi horror film from 1997 called “The Relic”. It could have been the gloriously melodramatic cover art, the fact that it is set in a museum or the fact that the film’s title reminded me a little of an unrelated 1980s horror novel, but it seemed like it could be worth watching.

So, let’s take a look at “The Relic”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

The film begins in a forest in Brazil, with an American anthropologist called John Witney documenting a ritual being performed by a local tribe. They give him some kind of tea to drink and he suddenly begins to hallucinate and flinch in fear at one of the people nearby.

Sometime later, he rushes to the docks and tries to intercept a box of artefacts that he’d originally sent to Chicago. The ship’s captain tells him that he can’t remove anything after customs has checked it. So, John stows away on board and finds the box. He opens it and then starts screaming.

And, yes, he wears an Indiana Jones hat too. If you can actually see it in this gloom.

In Chicago, world-weary detective Vincent D’Agosta (Tom Sizemore) is called out to the docks after the authorities find a deserted cargo ship adrift in the water. He’s in a bad mood because his ex-wife has just taken custody of his pet dog. His mood gets even worse when he finds blood spatter on the walls of the ship. Although one of his fellow detectives is eager to write the ghost ship off as the result of a drug-related crime at sea, a more thorough search turns up what is left of the crew floating in the ship’s bilge deck.

At the Chicago Museum Of Natural History, an evolutionary biologist called Dr. Margo Green (Penelope Ann Miller) shows up to work after meeting two schoolboys who are playing truant (and, in the tradition of Seymour Skinner, have decided to visit the museum). There is a gala planned in a few days time to celebrate the opening of a superstition-themed wing of the museum and Dr.Green learns that she needs to charm some of the wealthy patrons who will be attending because one of her co-workers from another department is trying to poach funding from her department.

After an argument with said co-worker, Dr. Green visits John’s office. He still isn’t back from Brazil, but a delivery of artefacts has arrived. One of the crates contains a smashed statue of a mythical monster and the other is empty except for leaves covered in strange red spores. The museum director orders the leaves to be incinerated, but – out of curiosity – Dr. Green takes one of them and begins running scientific tests on it.

What could possibly go wrong?

“Specimen Unidentified”? What a surprise!

Later that night, a security guard finishes his shift and decides to have a crafty spliff in the museum bathroom. Because older Hollywood horror movies can be more puritanical than Ned Flanders, something suddenly grabs his leg and drags him away. There is a lot of screaming.

D’Agosta shows up to the museum the next day to investigate the guard’s grisly remains. When he attends the autopsy, he also learns that part of the guard’s brain has been removed. Fearing that a serial killer is hiding inside the building, D’Agosta wants to keep the museum closed whilst the police carefully search the many basements and storerooms, but the museum administration and the Mayor want it re-opened in time for the gala…

One of the first things that I will say about this film is that whilst it should be a good film in theory, the practice isn’t always perfect. In other words, it has some really cool elements and an interesting concept behind it, but these things are let down somewhat by the way they are presented. Yet, saying this, some of the “bad” creative decisions in this film are also fairly understandable too.

So, I should probably start by talking about the film’s… lighting design, of all things. One of the cool things about 1990s films (in many genres) is that they often use a very distinctive gloomy style of lighting.

This adds atmosphere to a film whilst also allowing the director to creatively use lighting to subtly highlight things and/or to create dramatic chiaroscuro-style contrasts between light and darkness. When done well, it looks amazingly cool. But, whilst this film sometimes gets the lighting right, large parts of it either take place in almost total darkness or include barely enough light to even make a guess at what is going on.

Sometimes, the lighting is really excellent 1990s-style lighting with enough contrast between light and darkness to allow the viewer to see what is going on.

But, quite often, the film looks a bit more like this! Can you tell what is going on here?

Yes, I understand the practical and creative reasons for this decision. By making the lighting very gloomy, it adds extra suspense to the film and also leaves some of the horror to the viewer’s imagination – which theoretically makes it more frightening.

The ultra-gloomy lighting also means that the most of mid-late 1990s CGI during some scenes involving the monster still looks reasonably good today. It means that the film-makers can do a lot more with a lower special effects budget. It also creates a disorientating sense of panic during the film’s more frantic moments too. So, there are some very good practical and artistic reasons behind the film’s lighting design.

However, as hinted earlier, it can make it very difficult to tell what is going on during large parts of the film. Yes, you can usually make a reasonably good guess, but this film may as well be a radio drama some of the time. [Edit: However, thinking about it more, this could possibly either just be an issue specific to this DVD edition or possibly even the monitor that I watched it on.]

As you would expect, the film’s horror elements consist mostly of suspense, a few mild “jump” moments, gory horror and sci-fi monster horror. Although this film probably isn’t going to give horror movie fans nightmares, these elements are handled really well.

The monster design is really creative and the backstory behind it is reasonably well-explained, with the film even presenting a fairly detailed in-universe reason for why it likes to eat people’s brains (since it’s a DNA chimera of several species, created from plant hormones similar to those found in the hypothalamus). Seriously, I cannot fault the creative concept behind this film 🙂

Not to mention that the monster is also vaguely reminiscent of “Predator”, whilst also very much being it’s own thing too.

Likewise, although the ultra-gloomy lighting makes it difficult to tell what is going on during some parts of the film, it does at least make the monster look a bit more “realistic”. And, as I mentioned earlier, it also does an absolutely great job of making most of the mid-late 1990s CGI look fairly good when seen today. Seriously, in terms of monster effects, this could pretty much be a modern film.

Except for one very brief moment where the monster turns into the T-1000 for a couple of seconds.

The film’s gore effects are also really well-handled too. Although you shouldn’t expect too much of a splatter-fest here, this film uses the clever technique of using some brilliantly grotesque, detailed and realistic-looking practical effects during the more brightly-lit earlier scenes in order to prime the viewer’s imagination so that the less-detailed gruesome moments later in the film also seem fairly grisly, even though you don’t actually see that much – due to the almost-impenetrable gloom. Seriously, this is how to use a limited special effects budget.

Thematically, this film focuses on the topic of “science vs. superstition”. Although this is mostly used for a few brief comedic dialogue segments and to add a small amount of characterisation to the main characters, it also adds a tiny bit of depth to the film too. Since, although there are ancient myths explaining the monster, Dr.Green still insists on finding a scientific explanation for it (which also adds a bit of “X-Files” style sci-fi horror to the film too). Still, the practical outcome of both things is exactly the same – there is a brain-eating monster lurking in the museum.

As for the characters, this is another area where the film should “work” in theory – but doesn’t in practice. The two main characters are an under-funded evolutionary biologist who believes in science and a world-weary Chicago detective who has good instincts, some superstitious beliefs and a bit of a backstory.

On the plus side, they seem fairly “realistic” and the film’s focus on plot rather than characters also means that the film moves along at a reasonable pace. Plus, the contrast between superstition and science also hearkens back to Mulder and Scully from “The X-Files” too.

However, not only is Dr. Green absent for a fairly sizeable segment of the film, but both main characters don’t really get quite enough characterisation to make the viewer care about what happens to them. Yes, they seem like fairly “realistic” (albeit minimalist) characters, but they also seem a little bit too much like stock characters for the viewer to really get invested in them enough to give the film’s suspenseful moments a real feeling of nervous, uncertain suspense. Good horror relies on good characterisation, on the viewer actually caring about what happens to the characters.

D’Agosta is a “grizzled, cynical cop” character. See pretty much any detective TV show for other examples.

Dr. Green is a “scientist” character. See “The X-Files” or pretty much any sci-fi TV show for other examples.

The film’s pacing is also another area that should work in theory, but doesn’t in practice. This film begins with a mysterious opening scene and then gradually builds in intensity as the story progresses. So far, so good. However, the film’s most dramatic, fast-paced, gripping etc.. parts only really appear fairly late into the film. So, there’s a lot of build-up but relatively little payoff.

Also, this is one of those films that is too much like a thriller (eg: police procedural elements, disaster movie elements, action sequences etc..) to really “work” as a horror movie, whilst also including too many horror elements (eg: one monster, creepy suspense etc...) to really “work” as the kind of fast-paced thriller film it tries to be during a few moments. Still, it never really gets that boring.

All in all, whilst this film wasn’t as good as I hoped it would be, I can’t quite call it an entirely bad film either. It is a film that does a lot of the right stuff in theory, but doesn’t always work that well in practice. Still, it has some good points and – as I said earlier – it isn’t an entirely “bad” film either.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get three and a half.

Review: “High Heels And Low Lifes” (Film)

Well, although I’m still gradually working my way through the next book I plan to review, I was in the mood for another film. So, I thought that I’d check out a rather interesting comedy heist/crime caper film from 2001 called “High Heels And Low Lifes”.

This was a film that I vaguely remembered seeing advertised in magazines at the time and since it’s been ages since I last watched a comedy heist film and because I was still in the mood for “feel good” films, I decided to look online for a second-hand DVD of it. To my delight, the old DVD also included a little booklet that extolled the cutting-edge wonders of “The DVD Experience”. Oh my god, the nostalgia!

So, let’s take a look at “High Heels And Low Lifes”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild SPOILERS.

The film begins in London with a group of rough Cockney gangsters carrying out an elaborate and painstaking heist on a safety deposit facility. In another part of the city, a man listens in to random phone calls and edits them together into some kind of mixtape. In a nearby hospital, a nurse called Shannon (Minnie Driver) finishes her shift and goes home to celebrate her birthday with her boyfriend, Ray. However, he’s too busy with his experimental phone call-based music project to go out to dinner with her. Furious, she storms out of the house.

Meanwhile, a down-on-her-luck American actor called Frances (Mary McCormack) is performing in a bizarre avant-garde play in a small theatre. When she returns to the dressing room, her friend Shannon is already there and is still angry about Ray. Frances decides that the solution is to go out clubbing and get absolutely hammered.

When they get back to Shannon’s house, Ray is gone. However, he has left his computer and phone scanner on. Frances listens in to a random mobile phone call and, after hearing something about a bank job, she scribbles the phone number on her hand before eventually falling asleep. The next day, Frances tries to do some voice-acting for a cartoon whilst extremely hungover and Shannon breaks up with Ray. Then, both of them happen to spot a TV news report about the robbery.

Frances rushes to the hospital to talk to Shannon. The phone number on her hand is still just about legible and she’s got a plan to solve both her financial worries and get some new equipment for Shannon’s under-funded hospital by blackmailing the bank robbers. What could possibly go wrong?

I’m sure that giant wall of guns in the criminals’ mansion is just there for show.

One of the first things that I will say about this film was that it was a lot of fun to watch 🙂 Yes, the plot is more than a little bit silly if you actually think about it but, if you just want to relax with a funny “feel good” crime caper film or you suddenly find yourself struck by rose-tinted early 2000s nostalgia, then this one is well worth a watch 🙂

So, I should probably start with the film’s hilarious comedy elements. In addition to a few well-placed and well-choreographed moments of farce and slapstick comedy (featuring some gloriously pyrotechnic special effects), this film is not only a good parody of the “Cockney gangster” genre, but it is also filled with lots of amusing characters and dialogue too. Yes, a few brief moments may seem dated, but – overall – this film was even funnier than I’d expected.

Such as when Frances does a hilariously inept impression of a Cockney gangster.

Or the many amusing conversations between the two main characters.

The core of the film’s comedy comes from the friendship between Frances and Shannon. Not only are they amusing characters in their own right, but they are also different enough to allow for lots of amusing arguments, irreverent moments and dialogue exchanges. Of course, this is to be expected in a comedy. However, this film excels itself with the way that the dynamic between them changes as the film progresses – with Frances going from being the impulsive one to being a bit more cautious and Shannon doing the exact opposite. This allows for some brilliantly funny moments in the later parts of the film – which I won’t spoil.

In contrast to Frances’ optimism and hilarious impressions of a rough Cockney gangster (including confusion about US and UK slang), Shannon also brings some much-needed cynicism to the film too. Not only that, the instantly likeable dynamic between the two main characters is also complemented with an excellent supporting cast, including Mark Williams as a world-weary detective (if you’ve watched “Father Brown“, then seeing him play a more “realistic” detective is even funnier) and Danny Dyer playing… well… Danny Dyer.

Although he plays the role vaguely “seriously” here, it’s always fun to see Mark Williams playing a detective.

This is such a Danny Dyer role that his character is even called “Danny”. Such imagination!

As for the film’s crime thriller elements, they’re fairly well-edited and the story flows well, but it is important to remember that this film is a comedy. In other words, these elements of the film are very much on the stylised side of things and often include all sorts of contrived coincidences, farcical moments and blatantly unrealistic events. But, although the plot certainly has it’s fair share of holes, the film still gives the impression of a well-plotted heist thriller. Still, don’t expect a “realistic” story here:

Take a look this large billboard – in Comic Sans, no less – that is somehow discreetly printed and posted in the space of about a day or so, and which the gang boss just happens to see before it is removed.

The fact that it’s so funny and the characters are so likeable means that it’s easy to overlook all of this stuff and just get caught up in the mindless fun of it all. It’s a parody of “tough” 1990s gangster films (like “Lock Stock And Two Smoking Barrels”) that is also well-written, edited and acted enough to stand on it’s own two feet even if you aren’t that familiar with the genre.

On an interesting side-note, the heist at the beginning of the film also seems eerily prescient when watched these days, given that it is vaguely similar to the notorious real one in Hatton Garden in 2015.

I also really loved the stylised early 2000s atmosphere of the film 🙂 This is a time period that is just slightly too recent for popular nostalgia to have caught up with yet, and it is so interesting to see. The film is just about modern enough to still feel fresh today (aside from a couple of fairly “politically incorrect” lines of dialogue from the villains) whilst also being a fascinating glimpse into a lost world very different to our own.

Whether it is the slightly more hedonistic atmosphere of the time (which is a joy to see in this miserable age), the fashions of the time, the cynical/irreverent attitude, the old mobile phones, the remnants of the “Cool Britannia” thing from the 1990s, actual telephone boxes (complete with dodgy postcards), pre-9/11 optimism etc… this film is a really fun glance into the better parts of a world that has disappeared. So, if you want to take a very rose-tinted glance back in time, then this film is worth watching for this alone.

Remember when mobile phones looked like this and were actual phones?

And does anyone else remember when this style of bandanna was popular?

In terms of lighting and set design, this film is fairly good. Yes, the film mostly takes place in fairly “realistic” locations, but the addition of a few well-chosen exterior locations (eg: a large rooftop garden, a scrapyard etc..), the fact that Shannon’s house reminds me a bit of the set of the old TV show “Bits” and the sumptuous homes of the film’s gangsters help to add some distinctiveness to the film. Likewise, although a good part of the film takes place during the day (so the lighting isn’t always as noticeable as it is in films from the 1980s/90s), I love the fact that this film comes from a time when films weren’t as de-saturated as they often are today.

It’s probably the clutter, empty bottles and retro computer, but this scene reminds me a little of an awesome early 2000s videogame-themed TV show called “Bits”.

All in all, this is a funny “feel good” crime caper film that was an absolute joy to watch and is also an interesting piece of rose-tinted early 2000s nostalgia too. Yes, the plot is more than a little bit silly if you actually think about it too much, but this is all part of the fun of the film. So, if you want a rather amusing farce with fairly likeable main characters, lots of funny dialogue and a mildly “retro” atmosphere, then this one is well worth a watch.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least a four.