Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Paranormal Activity 2 (Tod Williams, 2010)

In cinema the lowest form of scare is undoubtedly the jump scare. It takes an artist to frame a chilling image and a clever writer to come up with a fearsome entity. Any fool with a big stick can make a loud noise.

Paranormal Activity 2 is a film all about loud noises: American family, demonic possession. Bang. Bang. Bang. Some of these moments are mightily effective, but like a rollercoaster work only for that instant.  There's nothing behind them, no meat to chew over, nothing for the unnerved movie-goer to ponder over on the late night walk back home.

Events in the film unfold, faux-documentary style through a combination of handheld video and clips from a closed-circuit security system. The methodical cycling through footage of different rooms fails to live up to the potential of the idea, with only a scattering of "did you see...?" manipulations.

Acting as a wrap-around companion piece to its predecessor, this is ultimately forgettable, but fun with an audience.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977)

Suspiria is a pitch-perfect example of "pure" horror cinema; the near-total disregard of narrative and character in favour of painstakingly setting a specific mood and atmosphere.

The results will frustrate those seeking logic, but offer in its place an unparalleled aesthetic experience; a whirling maelstrom of colour and composition accompanied by a cacophony of sound designed to unsettle and unnerve. It's proof if proof need be that in the right hands, books and films can be very different things indeed.

The story could be written on the back of a beer mat, and involves witches at a German ballet school, but like all Argento films it is little more than a framework to support a series of increasingly outrageous murder scenes, the director's ruthlessly sadistic streak competing directly with his decorative sense of fine detail and beauty.

With Italian prog-rockers Goblin providing the deafening soundtrack, one doesn't so much watch Suspiria as be buffeted around in its turbulent waters. This is unquestionably Argento's masterwork, a unique piece of horror history; gory, stupid and absolutely redoubtably glorious.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)

One of the most visually brilliant films ever made. The combined design endeavours of Swiss surrealist H.R Giger, French illustrator Jean Giraud, American designer and illustrator Ron Cobb and British comic and film artist Chris Foss make for a film that can be both breathtakingly beautiful and strikingly nightmarish. 

The cast are strong and the music haunting, but it is the look of ALIEN; the langurous, masterful direction of Ridley Scott and the ideas that the aforementioned visionaries brought to what might otherwise be a fairly standard horror film that propels it into the realms of genius.

Aliens (James Cameron, 1986)

Legendary Vietnam-in-space action horror from director James Cameron, deftly proving that The Terminator was far from a fluke.

Skillfully crafted for less than the catering budget on some of today's mega-budget blockbusters, ALIENS wisely eshews trying to beat Ridley Scott at his own game and instead opts for a slick combination of military fetishm, maternal instincts and classic war movie tropes, delivering one of the most tense, satisfying and rousing genre films ever made.

Endlessly quotable and with first-rate sets, effects and direction, ALIENS (the theatrical cut, avoid the bloated Special Edition) never once puts a foot wrong and shows how to do a sequel that pays loving homage to the original, without recycling, insulting or misunderstanding.

Alien³ (David Fincher, 1992)

Famously wracked with production troubles, Alien3 still manages to astound with a deliberate return to both the gothic trappings of the original film, and an alien creature that is clearly more than just an expendable bug.

Unrepentantly bleak and downbeat from tragic beginning right the way through to the final shot, the film bravely attempts to undo the 'shoot-em-up' tag James Cameron's second film had left the series with, and was critically punished for doing so. Nonetheless it is still a beautiful, graceful film with a black cynical heart beating underneath - a combination that even the most meddling studio couldn't extinguish.

The 2005 Assembly Cut reinstates a further half an hour of black blasted misery, hysteria and murder, returning the film to something vaguely akin to its original form, and is even more starkly compelling than the original.

Transformers (Michael Bay, 2007)

Few directors could take a premise as potentially explosive as a giant robot war on Earth and make it boring, but Michael Bay manages with effort to spare. Overlong, woefully unfunny, and filmed like an advert for a men's razor, Transformers limps along as one-dimensional character cyphers run back and forth, chasing an increasingly ridiculous set of plot devices, while violence sporadically erupts, and is instantly rendered nigh-unwatchable thanks to Bay's dreadful shaky-cam direction.

With a bland, identikit cast that has clearly mistaken shouting for acting it is down to the Transformers themselves to provide the human interest, but apart from the platitude-spouting Optimus Prime and the silent Bumblebee, the rest of the robots look and sound too similar and do too little to be in any way memorable.

This is a terrible film, one which no amount of nostalgia or brainless summer apologism can possibly excuse. And if the rumours are true that it was only ever made because producer Don Murphy failed to get the rights to 'G.I. Joe', a film that never should have been made in the first place.

Transformers: the Movie (Nelson Shin, 1986)

Nostalgia can be a powerful tool, ask any child who grew up on this film and they'll tell you that crying when Optimus Prime died was our generation's 'hiding behind the sofa from the Daleks.'

Like its parent series TFTM is a shameless manipulative exercise in merchandising, killing old characters purely to make space for new ones fresh off the toy lines. With a darker and more cynical tone than the series, it also benefits from the increased budget, its animation far better than the cheapo TV shows and the soundtrack, a combination of wonderfully un-self-conscious power rock and Vince DiCola's industrial, electronic funk providing the perfect backing to this futuristic adventure.

Despite myriad flaws it is still hugely entertaining, flitting breathlessly between deftly-directed action sequences, juvenile humour and even a musical set piece with barely time for the flimsiest exposition. Obviously aimed at pre-teens with millisecond attention spans it's exhausting work; the pace never daring to slow down as galaxies are crossed in minutes while characters appear, die and are transformed into new ones while all the time chasing a series of mechanical macguffins until the final, spectacular showdown.

Were I not a fan of not only Transformers but also sci-fi and anime I doubt I'd give it a second glance, but the non-stop pace, wildly imaginative designs and sickly sanctimonious moral messages make it ideal as both children's film and a wonderful piece of retro-nostalgia.

Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977)

David Lynch's ERASERHEAD is a gloriously thick, analogue, black-and-white nightmare vision of marriage and child-raising. It follows the life of Henry, an unassuming, awkward young man who endures a series of surreal, terrifying renditions of family situations; having dinner with his girlfriend's parents, discovering his girl is pregnant and raising the resultant monstrous offspring as their own.

The film mercilessly flits back and forth between reality and fantasy, the outre nature of the characters and their environment making it sometimes difficult to tell one from the other. Rich in hidden meaning and suggestion and with a dark vein of humour running throughout, Eraserhead is a pure, visceral slice of cinema that has to be experienced, or suffered, at least once by every film fan.

Alien Vs. Predator (Paul W.S. Anderson, 2004)

Again and again throughout this film director Paul Anderson exposes his miniscule talent and ambition like a demented flasher. If it's not vapid reconstructions of scenes from previous films or desperate attempts at creating 'iconic' images, it's pathetic non-characters and men in suits engaging in poorly-shot gunplay and fisticuffs. With no characters and too tenuous a plot to even notice, when the film's tagline asks the audience to ponder on who will win this battle of sci-fi horror titans, an hour and fifty minutes later the answer turns out to have been 'nobody cares.'

Too scared to play it 100% straight, AvP adopts a mock-ironic, knowing tone, which neuters its effectiveness just as much as the 12A rating, and one comes away from it with a sense of an incredible wasted opportunity. Clearly budget, talent and time were unscalable barriers that none of the cast, crew or studio could ever possibly hope to overcome.

Manhunter (Michael Mann, 1986)

Extremely effective, genuinely tense and intelligently constructed serial killer film, elevated way above the norm by Michael Mann's elegant direction, a strong cast, gorgeous photography and a moodily evocative synthesised soundtrack.

Sensibly reigning in the more over-the-top moments of Thomas Harris' original novel, Manhunter is far more than the sum of its parts; managaing to be chilling, haunting, funny and thrilling by turn, succeeding everywhere the increasingly cynical and ridiculous sequels/remakes failed to do.

LIMBO (Playdead Studios, 2010)

LIMBO is an independently-developed XBOX Live platformer; a simply-told monochrome nightmare of perilous jumping and clever physics-based puzzles.

With no real plot or character, LIMBO is minimalist in the extreme. There is no on-screen clutter; no score or power bar. You have no lives to speak of, as liberally-placed checkpoints before and after each event ensure that there is never far to travel after suffering one of the numerous, black-humoured death animations. All you have to do is survive and progress.

Where LIMBO scores highest is with its overwhelming atmosphere. Beginning the game in a dark forest, your child protagonist ventures forth from left to right, avoiding pitfalls as huge trees, arachnids and primitive tribespeople gradually give way to dilapidated cityscapes and eventually a monstrous industrial complex. Every screen is a stark, depressing and beautifully-rendered tableau that adds immensely to the overall experience. LIMBO sounds as good as it looks, with flat blasts of noise and a scattering of effects creating a terrific ambience and contributing to the overwhelming, dreamlike feel.

The second half of the game does lose its way a little; the factory settings swiftly dispel the awesome sense of fear and wonder of the opening forest section, and sometimes death comes a bit too easily. Some of the puzzles are a little too obscure, although there is a genuine feeling of satisfaction when solving one of them .

LIMBO is a gorgeous slice of nightmare ambience, slightly hamstrung by its reliance on trial-and-error gameplay. It's Eraserhead meets Rick Dangerous, short and sweet, funny and disturbing. It's no Super Mario Galaxy, but it's an original spin on a well-worn genre and is well worth taking a look at.

Sherlock (BBC1, July 2010 “A Study in Pink”)

Not content with claiming top dog status at Doctor Who, writer-producer Steven Moffat has turned his talents to a contemporary reimagining of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective. Transplanted to modern-day London and given a shot in the arm (not of opium, mind) Sherlock sets out to prove that the science of deduction cannot be beaten, whatever the century.

The wonderfully-named Benedict Cumberbatch is superb as the modern-day Holmes, who with just a hint of Jeremy Brett totally captures the frustrated, arrogant and almost autistic genius at the heart of the character. Martin Freeman does a convincing enough job of playing Martin Freeman, the script wisely avoiding the idiot Watson of many of the prior adaptations. Everyone else fits neatly into their pre-set roles, the bumbling Lestrade, the busybody Mrs Hudson and assorted red herrings, victims and obstructions.

But while the characters and setting have been updated fittingly, the episode is filled with great clunking references to smartphones and blogs and GPS navigation that are not only unneeded, but guarantee the series will date appallingly. A lot of the charm of Holmes comes from its turn-of-the-century flavour and vague gothic trappings, and curry houses, office blocks and laptops simply aren’t as evocative or exciting.

With Moffat at the helm and with sometime Who contributor and League of Gentlemen alumni Mark Gatiss both writing and acting, comparisons with the Time Lord are inevitable and in this case deserved. A Study in Pink (a riff on the Doyle novel A Study in Scarlet) feels like an episode of the newest seasons of Doctor Who; the breathless pace, the seemingly-compulsory running around, the self-glorifying exposition and even the awkwardly inserted gay undertones feel at times like a fan fiction cross-over . And it’s hard not to imagine Cumberbatch himself playing either role; Moffatt’s incarnation of the great detective is only a short step and a few regenerations away from the modern-day Doctor himself.

A 2010 Sherlock Holmes could have been a disaster, and while far from perfect, Sherlock reigns in its sensibilities, pays due respect to its source material and manages to be a little funny and a little scary at the same time. Logic dictates we won’t be waiting long for a second season.

The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991)

Silence of the Lambs begins the inescapable downward spiral of commercialisation over creativity, with Jonathan Demme's famous 1991 serial killer movie based on the novel of the same name.

Nearly identical to Manhunter/Red Dragon in terms of structure, Silence attempts to distract the viewer from this by unwisely upping the ante of the content with more violence and weirdness, and an even more ludicrous and twisted social misfit killer.

The film also marks the start of the transformation of the character of Hannibal Lector from believable, chilling minor role to the serial killer version of Ronald McDonald; a supernaturally-powered, pun-dispensing omnipotent face-eater. Anthony Hopkins' hissable pantomime version robs the character of any menace or dignity and replaces them with cliched evil genius tics and a parade of funny voices.

And while Jodie Foster is splendid in the role of FBI agent-in-training Clarice Starling, the one-two punch of the film's crippling similarity to Michael Mann's far superior Manhunter and the cartoonish story and characters doom it from the very start. Even the occasional dip into gothic horror, and a superbly tense final pitch black shootout aren't enough to quite redeem it.

Predator 2 (Stephen Hopkins, 1990)

Textbook 'in the big city' sequel that treads largely the same ground as its predecessor, replacing the trees and bushes with concrete and steel, guerilla soldiers with drug gangs and the lumpy '80s comic-book heroics of the first film with cynicism and satire.

Despite being at times a virtual remake, Predator 2 still manages to entertain thanks to the combined efforts of the constantly-perspiring Danny Glover and the shark-like Gary Busey, and the wise retention of the violence, action, humour and ethnic stereotyping that made the original such a classic.

Decent effects, music and direction help paper over the cracks and just about keep the audience interested as they wait for the characters to discover all the things everybody who saw the first film already knows.

A few good ideas and some welcome expansion of the Predator's culture and technology add to the appeal, but the overall similarity, plus a confused and rambling climax detract from a decent but not spectacular follow-up.

Die Hard With a Vengeance (John McTiernan, 1995)

Perhaps realising the terminal limitations of the "Die Hard in a ___" formula, brought all the closer to parody by Seagal et al, the third film in the series dispenses with the claustrophobic, cat and mouse of the first films and instead splashes its violent, acerbic paint over a much wider canvas.

Adapted from a script called SIMON SAYS, at one point a Brandon Lee vehicle then later considered as the next LETHAL WEAPON, the film sees John McClane team up with Samuel L Jackson, again playing himself, as a zany mismatched couple attempting to foil the efforts of a grudge-bearing sadistic Euro-terrorist, wrought laughably camp by the constantly vest-clad Jeremy Irons.

A satisfying balance and zinging dialogue between the two leads, plus plenty of clever action and moments of shocking violence keep the interest initially high, although the film fails to sustain it throughout, especially once the villain's plan is revealed as almost an exact retread of the first film's. Like so many action films it also loses focus an hour and a half or so in, failing to keep ahold of the myriad plot threads it has woven, and the seemingly ad-libbed, tacked-on climax is deeply unsatisfying.

Die Hard 2 (Renny Harlin, 1990)

Spirited if misguided attempt at improving the original by ramping up the action, threat and scope of the story, destroying in the process much of what made the first one great.

A film clearly far too ambitious for the writers and directors who worked on it, Die Hard 2 is sprawling, aimless and full of hundreds of screeching unsympathetic minor characters. This time we find Detective John McClane battling a confused mix of military, mercanery and drug lord against the admittedly atmospheric background of a Christmas-time Dulles International Airport.

The tense stand-offs of the first film are replaced with countless nonsensical overlong gun battles, the unique locations with huts and tunnels and the charasmatic villains with silly action figures. A few clever moments and pretty snowscapes raise the film now and then, but it's never more than a minute or two away from its noisy, clumsy roots.

Twin Peaks - Fire Walk with Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Guaranteed to disappoint those looking for an explanation to David Lynch and Mark Frost's confused, troubled and fitfully brilliant television series, Fire Walk With Me is Twin Peaks distilled; a return to the heart of the series.

With few revelations, the power and interest comes instead from the chance to see the feral Sheryl Lee's Laura Palmer vividly interacting with a cast that could previously only mourn her.

The high points surely Laura's interactions with her father, the possessed Leland Palmer, portayed brilliantly and frighteningly by Ray Wise. These moments are genuinely disturbing, casting off the shackles of TV censorship to lay bare the true nature of their twisted relationship, following it through to its terrible climax.

Fans of special agent Dale Cooper may be saddened by his minimal screen time, likewise fans of the television series' quirky humour and whimsy may feel left out. However this shift in tone focuses on the core of the story, and the horror inherent in this small town, something the embarassing second series spectacularly failed to do. The film has no Packards, no Nadine, no Hornes (Audrey being the sole exception, and sorely missed for it) no convoluted love octahedrons or beauty contests. The seedy, terrifying feel of the best original episodes is back, magnified tenfold; with Lynch's trademark masterful sound design providing a run-down, buzzing, nightmarish feel to the proceedings.

Fire Walk With Me fails as a stand-alone film, sequel or prequel, but as 'best of Twin Peaks' highlight reel, it's better than the cherry pie at the Double R diner.

Bram Stoker's Dracula (Francis Ford Coppola, 1992)

Confused, rambling cod-epic that severely overstays its welcome.

Despite plenty of pre-CGI visual effects, making clever use of stop-motion, green-screen and reverse photography, as well as a rousing, darkly European soundtrack, the film is viciously staked through the heart by its terrible lead actors, awkward attempts at humour and the stubborn focus on the lumpen-headed, deeply uninteresting love story.

The Invasion (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2007)

Cowardly, simpering third remake of the perennial sci-fi classic, by far the least engaging, least interesting of the four Bodysnatcher films.

A pointless, porcelain Nicole Kidman stars as an indestructible super-mum, battling to save her MacGuffin son from waves of soulless alien 'pod' people, who this time round have foregone the iconic giant seed pods and instead prefer to transform their victims by means of a liquid (and sometimes projectile-vomited) virus.

Clearly uncomfortable with the original concept's inherent slow pace and talkiness, this film reveals the alien's ploy halfway through, devoting the rest of the time to protracted car chases and tedious gunplay.

Some clever minor details, and an effective if predictable framing of today's political climate add some interest, but are undone by gratuitous product placement, yet more 28 Days Later-style running zombie crowds, globs of conveniently-delivered idiot pseudo-science and the ultimate cardinal sin - a patronising happy ending.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Steven Spielberg, 1984)

Worthy sequel (actually prequel) to the magnificent "Raiders of the Lost Ark", containing all the ridiculous fisticuffs, quips, traps and globetrotting peril that one could ask for.

While it never manages to top the impossibly bravura opening sequence, "Temple of Doom" is constantly thrilling and fluidly scripted, with seldom a drag in the action. Even teaming Indy up with both a precocious brat and prima-donna singer (Kate Capshaw, managing to be simultaneously incredibly irritating and hugely attractive) can't harm this punchy, sassy thrill-ride.

However it's still a sequel and the shadow of the original hangs over it throughout. It's not as funny or as clever and the music is not as good. Even the settings simply can't match up to the perfectly-chosen locales of the original film.

And although the action is consistently first class, the concepts are far weaker. With a child co-star, child villain and the kidnapped children subplot, it's clearly aimed at a younger market, and despite being fairly violent it's a much simpler effort than the previous film. The good guys and bad guys are clearly defined, and even Indy himself isn't as complex or interesting as he used to be. "Temple of Doom" is often praised for being dark, but eating monkey brains and pulling out hearts just isn't as compelling or interesting as Indy's implied cradle-snatching antics in "Raiders."

The side is further let down by the uninteresting villains. A hundred Indian cultists in a jungle somewhere just isn't as scary or potentially overwhelming as the evergreen Nazis. What is their plan actually supposed to be? It seems like they're intent on getting rid of the world's pantheon of gods, which isn't especially worrying if you're an atheist.

If the Nazis got their hands on the Ark they'd be an invincible army, and that's a frightening thought. What the world has to fear from the Thuggee is unclear, especially as the cultists have already proven themselves particularly vulnerable to bullets and karate kicks from small Chinese children.

"Raiders" handled the supernatural elements far more intelligently, you didn't need to believe in God to appreciate the power, and danger of the Ark. Here it's too overt and clumsily-handled, and sticks out a mile.

Despite these flaws, it's still an excellent film; technically superb, amazingly paced and beautifully shot. Its passing into the halls of pop-culture infamy is well-deserved.

The Medusa Touch (Jack Gold, 1978)

Wonderfully overwrought slice of 1970s British supernatural horror, with a fine cast, grand central conceit and the courage and conviction to see things through to the very end, in a most grisy, satisfying fashion.

John Morlar (played with bitter relish by the late Richard Burton) is a man who in his own words has "the power to create catastrophe." He can will things to happen; cause disease and disaster at a whim, and end the lives of anyone who wrongs him. Is his power telekinesis? Demonic possession? An incredible series of coincedences?

The film opens with Morlar's attempted murder at the hands of an unknown assailant. As his attack is investigated, by Inspector Brunel, played by Lino Ventura as a kind of anti-Clouseau, the inspector's investigations lead him to Morlar's journals, and then to his psychiatrist and slowly he begins to understand the precise magnitude of the events unfolding around him.

With Morlar hospitalised throughout, his character is explored through a series of flashback sequences, acting out the anecdotes one by one as Brunel discovers them. This dual-story structure is undeniably clunky and amateurish, but at the same time does the job. Little 11 year-old Morlar is just as frightening as his middle-aged counterpart.

It also becomes clear that the script was written largely as a means to have the redoubtable Richard Burton utter an increasingly bitter series of savage monologues in that fantastic, gravelly portentous voice of his. That said, these speeches are the undoubted high point of the film; venomous, furious tirades against humanity, a sweaty, eye-rolling tour de force from the man in question. His short-lived stint as a defence lawyer, which sees him launch into a floridly impassioned rant against war and man's love of war is unabashedly hilarious.

By the time Brunel realises the truth, at around the same time that the audience realises, the film has jumped, feet-first into a ludicrously overblown, but at the same time incredibly satisfying and anarchic climax. Who doesn't enjoy the thought of the queen, members of parliament and heads of the church all being crushed to death under a collapsing cathedral?

Other delights to be savoured throughout include the destruction of London's Centre Point Tower, a failed American Moon mission and one of the most realistic, chilling suicide scenes ever filmed.

The film's cheap feel, and drab, corduroy '70s ambience adds no end to the atmosphere of underlying dread, and a brilliantly bleak denouement (that cries out for a sequel, which fortunately, never came) is the icing on the cake. Well worth seeing for fans of quirky British horror.

Superman Returns (Bryan Singer, 2006)

Superman is one of the strongest, fastest and most invulnerable fictional characters ever, and to make a boring story about him is in itself a superhuman feat. Nonetheless this is exactly what director Bryan Singer and friends have done with "Superman Returns", a sequel/remake/reboot soup made from stock of Richards Donner and Lester's originals, twenty years before.

Beginning with Superman's return to Earth after a five-year space absence, any hopes that the film will attempt to deal with the notion of a world without its god-like boy scout protector are jettisoned instantly, not even mentioned, the film preferring to plough straight on with ineffectual love pentagons between clothes-model leads, and Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey, mildly entertaining) embarking on a seemingly factory-generated evil plot. Who'd have thought it?

Strangely, Superman seldom appears in his own film, almost as if the writers didn't know what to do with him, apart from a few brief rescues and some awkward dialogue with Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth not a patch on Margot Kidder's ferocious newshound.) Only the bravura aeroplane rescue scene early on strikes the right note, with a verve, involvement and satisfying internal logic the rest of the film singularly fails to match.

Regardless it soldiers on, insisting the audience be intermittently awed and thrilled; celestial choirs ooh and aah, pianos plink and plonk and we gawp on cue at vast computer-generated vistas, but there's something missing; heart, passion, whatever it is.

The pedestrian direction seldom helps. Too often the viewer is just looking at something thrown up on screen, the sense of simple, spine-tingling wonder that should pour from a Superman movie has been replaced by pastel-shaded simpering. It's no fun at all, with its drab, muted colour schemes and sneery ironic little jabs. And while the music takes its main theme from the famous, brilliant John Williams piece, the rest of the soundtrack rambles and falls over, repeatedly.

Superman Returns is a film of far too many endings, including a nauseating hospital scene, which surely only managed to avoid the "body covered by bedsheets" cliche by some sort of cosmic coincidence.

And at the very very very end, nothing whatsoever has changed, the relationships so belovedly waffled over remain exactly where they were at the start. The twist isn't very twisty, and at a stultifying two and a half hours in length, an hour of which could have been chopped out easily, it's an extremely unrewarding end, both emotionally and intellectually.

It's far more likely to inspire boredom, apathy and resentment in audiences than truth, justice and the American way, and proves you need more than polygons and refried Marlon Brando to make a good superhero film.

300 (Zack Snyder, 2007)

300 is hopefully the purest distillation of that 21st century cinema spectacle, the "CGI armies colliding" film that filmgoers will ever see. Lovingly recreating Frank Miller's not-particularly historical comic, Zack Snyder has delivered a quite hysterically over-the-top and ludicrously macho piece of celluloid gristle.

Let it be said, there are no characters in this film whatsoever. There is a beard. There are a couple of hundred six-packs, some breasts and some black skin. These items roll around on screen in assorted combinations for two hours and then it's over. What have we learned at the end? God knows. That a warrior race which kills imperfect newborn babies and feeds its young to hungry wolves can champion logic, learning, female empowerment, enlightenment, free will and numerous exciting sexual positions, apparently.

Even without thinking about things, 300 is a drag. The action centres upon the titanic Persian army and its repeated attempts to break the Spartan barricade and overwhelm them. As such every single action scene consists of the same elements. The limitations of basing a film around a series of identical beach skirmishes, and their uncreative handling soon becomes all too obvious. The film tries to disguise the repetition by changing the colour of the camera filter, having different uniforms and adding Elephants and mutants - but that's all it can do. After the initial amazement has worn off, what's left is boring. The climax is boring. Viewers will yawn at the end, not cheer.

As a purely vapid, empty spectacle 300 succeeds beyond all measure. Intermittently and undoubtedly spectacular it makes for a great cutscene or tech demo, although the heavy saturation and obvious blue-screening robs proceedings of any grit, physicality or sense of location. Likewise the seeming lack of any human touch makes it hard to care about anything, or anyone on screen.

Chocolate (Prachya Pinkaew, 2008)

Taking the timeless cultural meme of the wordless martial arts protagonist to its logical conclusion, CHOCOLATE is a Thai kickboxing film centring around Zen, the daughter of a crime boss and a gang enforcer.

Zen is autistic, withdrawn and as luck would have it gifted with incredible senses of hearing and spacial awareness. Growing up living opposite a Muay Thai training school, when her mother becomes ill she and her brother decide to try and call in some of mum's past gangland debts to pay for her medicine.

CHOCOLATE is somewhat postmodern as far as martial arts movies go. At several points, clips of ONG BAK appear on television, while Zen's first fight sees her whooping and wailing a la Bruce Lee and the credits even have a Jackie Chan-esque outtake reel running behind them. It wears its influences on its torn and tattered sleeve.

But it's still a martial arts movie through and through. The main character and sidekick run into a series of elaborate brawls in acrobatically-encouraging locations, including an ice factory, a warehouse and a slaughterhouse. and soon skulls and chests are cracking away merrily at the knees and elbows of our special needs action star.

What's refreshing about CHOCOLATE is its slightly off-key feel; its kooky, but strangely sensitive handling of autism and its wry sense of humour, plus a refreshing awareness of its own inherent ridiculousness. At one point Zen faces off against the bad guys' secret weapon - an EPILEPTIC CAPOEIRA FIGHTER. It's easily the film's high point, and it's almost a shame he isn't followed up by a karate-fighting obsessive-compulsive or attention-deficit disorder sumo wrestler.

It's well-directed, it's pretty and it zips along nicely at an optimum ninety minutes in length. Although the stunts aren't quite as epic, nor the fighting as varied as the Tony Jaa films it draws heavily upon, it makes up for it with a stronger story and more interesting characters and settings. And Zen is easily the best female martial arts protagonist since Fong Sai Yuk's mum.