Friday, 30 December 2011

No Strings Attached - Ivan Reitman - 2011

After the manic intensity of Black Swan it feels both surprising and refreshing to find Natalie Portman in a lightweight rom-com and happily she sparks enough chemistry with genre favourite Ashton Kutcher to keep this bobbing along nicely enough. Taking as its premise the 'no strings attached' relationship between a pair of sex buddies the film at least sets itself up with enough originality to engage and crucially takes a step to the left of the cutesy romance that makes so many of these films sickeningly dull. The laughs are meagre but when they do come the sex brings enough earthy humour to make them more knowing than usual, whilst Reitman at least retains enough skill to keep the gags from sinking to the gross depths of the Farrelly Brothers. For a little while it even feels that the film might avoid convention altogether and aim for something a little more melancholy but infinitely more believable, but then Lake Bell appears again playing less of a character and more of a walking klutz and its immediately obvious that the film is returning to the sweet but highly predictable conventions from which it momentarily was raised. On a related note it’s all very well to reference other films but the danger especially in comedy is that this just makes you look bad by comparison. For example Sideways is a great film. No Strings Attached by comparison is not.

Never Say Never Again Irvin Kershner 1983

Before the first James Bond film Dr. No went into production, writer Ian Fleming collaborated on a story for a potential movie that was eventually turned into the book Thunderball. Unfortunately for the producers of the subsequent film series, this left Fleming’s partner Kevin McClory with certain rights to the property that he seemingly spent his entire career trying to extend in legal battles. Eventually he managed to get enough leeway to remake Thunderball and thus the world was treated to Never Say Never Again, the second and happily last unofficial Bond film of 1967’s spoof Casino Royale. Hot off the back of The Empire Strikes Back, Irvin Kershner was hired to direct and in a surprise casting coup Sean Connery was lured back to the role of Bond over ten years since he had last played it in Diamonds are Forever, making the film a serious challenge to Roger Moore’s Octopussy released the same year. Happily for all concerned in the official camp however, Moore’s film is by far the better one, leaving Connery and Kershner with a film that is at best pedestrian and at worst frankly ridiculous – a climactic scene sees Bond riding a horse off the wall of a castle into the sea with no harm done to all concerned. The story is full of plot holes which given that this is a remake just seems absurd – Bond seems to go investigate the villain for no logical reason other than the plot needs him to do so – and with the exception of Barbara Carrera who is a strikingly sexy villainess, all the cast give muted performances. Connery seems even more bored than he was playing Bond in the late sixties, Alec McCowen bizarrely plays Q as some sort of cockney geezer and Rowan Atkinson turns up looking like he’s wandered onto the wrong set to play a bumbling British official. Klaus Maria Branduer is a distinctly lifeless and uncharismatic villain, only coming to life when literally slobbering over poor Kim Basinger who as an unwitting pawn in the villain’s/director’s game probably escapes with the most credibility. The lesser films in the official series survived moments of flat villainy, dodgy gadgets and unimaginative action with a breezy charm and panache that continues to make them popular with audiences; Never Say Never Again proves incapable of achieving this which mercifully means that it has so far remained a one off, at best a curiosity, at worst an embarrassment.

Napoleon Dynamite - Jared Hess - 2004

Quite possibly the most eccentric high school comedy that's been seen in quite a while, Napoleon Dynamite takes many of the genre cliques - the bullies, the bitchy girls etc - and puts them up against the titular hero who takes the traditional dweeb character into whole new dimension. With his petulantly elongated sighs, absurdly childish obsessions and delusional attitudes towards everybody else, Napoleon takes a little getting used to, but once the audience has adjusted to his rather unique outlook he rapidly becomes one of cinemas sweetest and most quotable nerd heroes. In what will probably amount to his defining role (he's had approximately two major films since), Jon Heder is a delight, never going out of his way to win the audience over but resolutely stomping his way through a disastrous school dance and various clashes with his family – a creepy uncle and a brother who’s even more nerdy – with such delusional self-assurance that by the time he walks on stage for the now legendary dance sequence, only the most stony hearted can fail to cheer him on. Unlike most comedies of this ilk Napoleon Dynamite doesn't try to force on some maudlin message of reconciliation but if we, like Tina Majorino's loner who latches onto him, can appreciate Napoleon's blissful unselfconsciousness in the face of mockery, abuse and extreme stupidity then perhaps there is something worthwhile here to be taken away after all.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Good Night, and Good Luck - George Clooney - 2005

A fascinating if slight political film that is elegantly directed by George Clooney (showing how much he’s learned since Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), Good Night, and Good Luck, examines the battle that took place between veteran news broadcaster Ed Murrow and Senator Joseph McCarthy at the height of the latter’s Communist witch hunt. Shooting the whole thing in black and white and using period songs at key moments Clooney takes us straight into the 1950’s vibe, quickly and economically creating the atmosphere of a bustling news room to serve as the backdrop for what would make broadcasting history. Murrow as played by the beautifully understated David Strathairn (perfect casting) cuts a dignified and respectable figure who decides to challenge McCarthy’s methods because he genuinely believes that the purpose of broadcast journalism is to highlight injustice wherever it may be found. McCarthy in a key directorial decision is not played by an actor but simply his own archive footage which shows with savage irony how unjustified and ridiculous McCarthy’s dirt digging rants really were, especially in the face of Murrow’s calm and incisive commentary. With such juicy drama playing out between the pair it seems surprising that Clooney chooses to skip through the narrative in a mere ninety minutes and simply focus in on key moments in the ongoing debate, a fact that also never gives us the chance to grasp many of the supporting characters; for example why exactly is the marriage of Patricia Clarkson and Robert Downey Jr. not allowed in the newsroom? Interestingly this means we never really get inside Murrow’s head (probably why the Oscar nominated Strathairn didn’t win) and he remains for the large part a figurehead, inspiring the loyalty of his co-workers and the respect of us in the audience; one has to turn to the epilogue to find Clooney’s reasoning. A long time after the main events, Murrow makes a speech decrying lazy populist television and championing the sort of challenging journalism that he made famous in the McCarthy debate and it is clear that this is what Clooney wants us to take away. If the history feels confusing and rushed its because he isn’t interested in that in itself but rather what drives the characters in this particular situation, an ideal all too rarely seen in the modern world: integrity.

Cedar Rapids - Miguel Arteta - 2011

The Hangover was a sleeper hit that made all three of its leading men into bankable faces so after Bradley Cooper has become a bona fide leading man in Limitless and Zach Galifiankis has taken his hairy/stupid act elsewhere, it’s a pleasure to find Ed Helms a.k.a Stu with his own vehicle. Cedar Rapids takes the naive innocent that Helms does so well and shoves him into the sordid world of a hotel insurance convention (no really) and throws enough drink, drugs, casual sex, bribery, corruption and hypocrisy at him to make him grow up. This sounds hilarious but actually takes a long time to get going as director Miguel Arteta avoids going straight for the gags and instead takes the time to develop the characters of Helms and the other eccentrics he's reluctantly introduced to. This means that at times the pacing is almost too slow for what would appear to be a light comedy but it pays off in the final forty-five minutes with a stream of jokes that feel all the more richer coming from heartfelt characters rather than just being stuck in for the sake of it. Helms has yet to demonstrate any real range as an actor but with this line of sweet and naive innocents he has a niche that he could easily make a career out of.

Cassandra’s Dream - Woody Allen - 2007

Cassandra’s Dream is Woody Allen’s third film since his arrival in London following on from the unreleased Scoop and 2005’s intriguing Match Point, a film that saw the writer/director moving into thriller based territory with some success. Sadly it seems that this may have been a once off since Cassandra’s Dream leaves us with an equally tragic story that is only occasionally gripping and is sadly let down by an unevenly paced script and some distinctly dodgy casting. In Match Point Allen told the story of a man drawn into a double life of deceit and murder by his own greed and he attempts to do something similar here, following two brothers who in attempting to solve their money troubles only make matters worse for themselves, but strangely he moves away from the upper classes he looked at last time and sets this piece among the lower middle classes of East London. Sadly Allen has even less of an ear for East End vernacular than he did for RP English but tragically he carries on regardless leaving his cast to flounder as best they can. Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell are both talented leading men in their own way but neither one is from East London and crucially neither is good enough to convince an audience otherwise, which means that however hard they try the film is gasping for credibility from the outset. The supporting characters fare better – Hayley Atwell is a strikingly sexy presence – but they are never enough to make the film more than mildly engaging. Allen still shows some flashes of style – the camera tracking to hide behind a hedge at the crucial moment so we hear but don’t actually see the crucial murder is a nice touch – but his inexperience and lack of connection with his characters means that this never has the impact of his earlier work. A classically beautiful score from Philip Glass seems to imply that this is meant to come across as a moving Shakespearean tragedy. In Allen’s hands it doesn’t.

Ned Kelly - Gregor Jordan - 2003

Purporting to tell the true story of the Nineteenth Century Australian outlaw Ned Kelly, the film of the same name takes pleasure in recreating all the period details but ultimately is too earnest in its quest to do Kelly justice for it to have enough of an impact. Debate continues to rage between historians as to whether the outlaw was a vicious killer who terrorised the Victoria territory or simply an ordinary man who was driven to crime by persistent police persecution but director Gregor Jordan makes it clear from the off that he favours the Robin Hood version of the history. As played by Heath Ledger with his usual rugged charisma, Kelly is an honest and hard working son of Irish convicts who refuses to accept the bullying and cheating methods employed by the Australian police and so is eventually driven into living as an outlaw, robbing banks so he can secretly supply his friends and family with money but never killing unless he has to. This is all very well but with the Kelly family and the police painted in such broad shades of white and black, it’s hard not to feel that Jordan is whitewashing history in order to create an idealised portrait of Kelly, which given the many varied points of view involved feels almost like a cop-out. Jordan doesn’t shy away from depicting the violence when Kelly finally shoots down a policeman, but by then we’ve already seen him engage in a clumsy and unnecessary flirtation with Naomi Watts and suffer unwarranted verbal and physical abuse along with his family from the police, so its inevitable that we are going to sympathise with him by then whatever he does. From then on Jordan struggles to encompass Kelly’s growing notoriety into the short running time before the climax, veering tonally between comedic moments as sidekick Joe Byrne (Orlando Bloom) seduces a banker’s wife under her husband’s nose and some serious drama as the gang are forced to start eating their horses, but never quite finding a medium to settle on. The final showdown between the four gang members and the small army of police led by Lieutenant Hare (an underused Geoffrey Rush) does achieve the moments of emotional connection that Jordan has been straining for as the police brutally shoot down innocent bystanders and the quartet face their fate with tragic stoicism, but by then this isn’t enough to leave the audience with anything more than the briefest sense of injustice at Kelly’s story. By daring to go more in depth and view Kelly as a complex character rather than just a tragic hero, Jordan might well have created an even more powerful film.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Avatar - James Cameron - 2009

Avatar has been promoted to death as the next stepping stone in the evolution of cinema so now that it is finally here does it live up to the hype? Happily the answer is mostly yes. To get the quibbles out of the way first, the story runs along very familiar and thus highly predictable tracks with the result that all of the plot twists can be seen a mile off and the film's obvious environmental message comes across as rather heavy handed. Narrative problems aside however, Avatar is indeed a revolutionary piece of cinema in that from now on, every other action/fantasy director will most likely have to severely up their game if they want to compete. Put simply the world of Pandora where the story is set is absolutely mind-blowing. The running time maybe long given the meagre amount of story to tell but with a highly detailed and inventive eco-system on show, Cameron can dare to take plenty of time as Jake (Sam Worthington) explores Pandora's wonders with sights like towering monoliths of trees and gorgeously glowing plants that light up on contact making this an astonishing visual experience. However the true wonders are saved for the final battle sequence that brings new meaning to the phrase epic as Cameron's camera flies with his Na'vi heroes into battle against Stephen Lang's heavily armed battleships, zooming around wondrous floating islands in shots of such dazzling complexity that you’re literally left breathless from the ride. Without a doubt this is literally now the biggest fantasy/action film out there. Technically at least, the stakes have well and truly been raised.

Amores Perros - Alejandro González Iñárritu - 2000

Alejandro González Iñárritu's debut is an ambitiously epic interweaving tale of how random people from different walks of life are brought together by one tragic a car crash. Splintering off from this one event forwards and backwards in time, Iñárritu uses each of the three stories to examine love in its different forms and how in all cases it turns out to be as the title suggests, a bitch. Thus we watch Gael Garcia Bernal's Octavio fruitlessly pining after his sister-in-law Susana (Vanessa Bauche), the traumas of Valeria, a model (Goya Toledo) whose new relationship is falling apart thanks to her injuries, and a tramp (Emilio Echevarria) who stalks the daughter who believes that he's dead. The intriguing premise that links them all however is that each story revolves around dogs. In the silliest segment of the film Valeria’s pampered pet disappears beneath the floorboards in a forerunner of her own abandonment by a callous industry, but the stories of Octavio and the tramp take us via the adventures of the same dog into a very different world. Coffy is a champion dog fighter making money for Octavio's plans to escape with Susana, a practice that is shot by Innaritu in all its gritty realism, providing a shocking and eye-opening viewpoint on a vicious sport that is little known in this country. In attempting to bring together such disparate walks of life into one film Iñárritu is occasionally too ambitious, dragging out some stories longer than necessary, but as both an exposé of the darker underside of Mexico City and a wider examination of the nature of love through our relationships with dogs, this is an impressive debut.

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn - Steven Spielberg - 2011

It has been over three years last since Steven Spielberg last entertained us with the questionable franchise sequel Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, so his return is good news in itself but when that return is a motion-capture adaptation of the adventures of Tintin, the legendary comic-book reporter from Belgium, there is definite cause for excitement. Motion-capture films which are shot entirely on an empty soundstage with actors in grey pyjamas were pioneered by Spielberg’s good friend Robert Zemeckis with The Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol all proving to be fairly successful but Spielberg himself has never stepped beyond the grounds of conventional movie making so this was always going to be an intriguing experiment as well. Happily the veteran director rises to the new challenges and opportunities that the medium affords, creating a delightfully buoyant adventure of the sort he hasn’t really done since Jurassic Park and a film that not only surpasses Zemeckis’ efforts for visual daring but makes the breakthroughs in technical realism that he never managed, creating detailed characters that aren’t so dead behind the eyes. Adapted from three of the graphic novels by Belgian writer Hergé, The Secret of the Unicorn sees the famous reporter (Jamie Bell) set out with his faithful dog Snowy on a treasure hunt, that introduces him to the rambunctious Captain Haddock (mo-cap veteran Andy Serkis) and takes him from Europe to the deserts of North Africa and back, via plenty of antics on the high seas. From the opening scene in a Belgian street market (complete with a perfect introduction to the character via the original drawing), Spielberg never lets up the pace whether he’s sneaking after Tintin in a deserted mansion, catching them in a breakneck motorbike chase through an African city or in the film’s best sequence relating the history of Haddock’s ancestor. Here in a succession of glorious edits and camera moves we are taken from an increasingly rambunctious Haddock into a pirate battle and back again with such elegant style that it’s hard not to feel Spielberg’s excitement in the possibilities this new medium has to offer. Its not perfect – Simon Pegg and Nick Frost fail to register as the Thompson twins, while some fans may be disappointed by the seeming lack of regard for Hergé’s sequel Red Rackham’s Treasure – but in embracing this new technology Spielberg has made a blockbuster that is far more fresh and exciting than a lot of the comic book derived efforts to appear in recent years. And it’s got a really cute dog.

Natural Born Killers - Oliver Stone - 1994

A vicious blast of surreal sounds and images, Natural Born Killers must surely stand as Oliver Stone's most experimental film. Satirising the American media circus that can turn Mickey and Mallory (career defining performances from Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis), a pair of serial killers into national celebrities, Stone opts to abandon his usual straightforward storytelling technique to create some visual mayhem that initially appears confusing but culminates in some of the most visceral and disturbing scenes Stone has ever put on camera. The first half of the film gives us some rough snapshots of the pair's killing spree shot with enough spinning cameras, swirling colours and occasional shots of a dragon (played by a feeble looking puppet) to make an unprepared audience feel quite disorientated. These moments are interspersed with flashbacks to Mallory's abusive home life that in a disturbing comment on TV entertainment is shot like a cheap sitcom complete with canned laughter for every grotesque abuse inflicted by the reliably repulsive Rodney Dangerfield playing her father. The film really takes off though in the second half when the killers are locked away and a sleazy media hack played by Robert Downey Jr. in one of his first and best roles comes in to do an interview with Mickey that escalates into a riot. Shot in a cascade of violent imagery, the riot explodes off the screen in a burst of terrifying energy that communicates the shocking insanity of humans out of control more effectively than any riot scene before or since; and with the authorities led by Tom Sizemore and an OTT Tommy Lee Jones (leaning dangerously close to Two-Face excesses) shown to be just as vicious and corrupt as the prisoners, we are left with a scathing view of the violence humans are capable of inflicting on each other for no reason other than entertainment. Despite superficial similarities to Bonnie & Clyde, it’s no longer surprising by this point to realise that Natural Born Killers isn't likely to satisfy any innate feelings of justice in the same way.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Ocean’s Eleven - Steven Soderbergh - 2001

After a series of worthy and artsy but generally dull films both before and since, it is something of a surprise to find Steven Soderbergh directing a crowd-pleasing crime caper in the shape of this remake of the 1960 Rat Pack starring Ocean’s 11. And although Soderbergh's cold approach still affects the film - the colours and some of the performances on show here are often clinical and muted - this is still a much more entertaining watch than most of his canon, largely thanks to a sheen of laidback cool that makes dialogue, acting and even music seem glossy when in other hands it could almost be dull. Danny Ocean leader of the gang is a role that epitomises the Clooney archetype; smooth, charming and always ready with a sly quip, the star oozes enough charisma to drive the whole show while generously allowing time for the other gang members to shine. Most notable among these are Brad Pitt whose chemistry and dry banter with Clooney is a delight and Scott Caan and Casey Affleck as the drivers whose constant bickering provides the films biggest laughs. Julia Roberts (always an overrated actress) makes little impact as the love interest, but Andy Garcia makes a convincingly threatening villain without ever having to raise his voice. The film takes a while to get going but once the heist begins proper the film doesn't stop ticking, moving through the incredibly complex plot with enough pace to cover up the plot holes that might occur later. Now if only Soderbergh could take some of this lightness and pacing into his more personal work then it might have made more of an impact.

Gone with the Wind - George Cukor & Sam Wood - 1939

A grand and beautiful Civil War epic from the golden age of Hollywood, Gone with the Wind might be nearly four hours long, but rather than being long-winded and boring, the film is by turns gripping, charming, funny and tear-jerking. Adapted from the epic tome by one-hit novelist Margaret Mitchell, the film takes several directors to travel from a Georgian cotton plantation to Atlanta and back again whilst putting the characters through the traumas of both the American Civil War and its aftermath. Seen through the eyes of spoilt brat Scarlett O'Hara the film by rights should be a difficult watch with such a mean-hearted protagonist, but English actress Vivien Leigh delivers a miraculous performance, perfectly capturing the contradictory nature of Mitchell’s Scarlett and ensuring that she is always sympathetic and never unwatchable, even at her worst moments as she grossly mistreats the men in her life. Clark Gable and Leslie Philips can’t quite nail the complexities of the two most important of these men, Rhett Butler and Ashley Wilkes, but Olivia de Haviland does a splendid job in making wet blanket Melanie Hamilton a lovable character when in other hands she would probably come across as boring. The one issue with the film that could hinder its continued acceptance as a cinema classic is its perceived casual racism that roots the film firmly in the past. Mitchell’s book takes a long time to establish the many different attitudes towards race in the South at this time, suggesting that it is a PC generalisation to assume that slaves were mistreated and unhappy when in fact many (but in no means all) slaves were born into this way of life and thus were content with it having known no other, developing a fierce loyalty to their white ‘families’ beyond what some would assume is a natural loyalty to one’s race. The film however loses all this subtext and thus only shows what appears to be an idealised picture of life in the Deep South where the slaves are all happy people, awkwardly showing them as simply content to loyally serve white people come what may. Hattie McDaniel's famous Mammy is therefore a lovable and often funny creation but often comes across on screen as nothing more than a rigidly defined stereotype when actually Mitchell wrote of an old woman who loved and raised Scarlett from a baby and was terrified by the thought of other African Americans being freed to do as they pleased. In the end however these issue simply serve as a constant reminder of how old the film is, a fact that actually makes its achievements in transferring this epic story onto the big screen all the more remarkable.

Fish Tank - Andrea Arnold - 2009

Andrea Arnold's debut film Red Road stormed the festival circuit, while this her second film has premiered with comparatively little fanfare which is a shame since it is very much the stronger of the two. Moving from the tower blocks of Scotland to the housing estates of Essex, Arnold this time focuses on fifteen year old Mia, an ordinary teenager teetering on the brink of adulthood and awash with strange emotions she doesn't understand. Newcomer Katie Jarvis was plucked from the streets where Arnold spotted her to play Mia and it is here that Fish Tank gains its greatest strength as she delivers a performance of astonishing intensity, finding a realism that more technically proficient actors probably couldn't match. Matching her with Kierston Wareing as her mother and the scene-stealing Rebecca Griffiths as her little sister and with strong support from Michael Fassbender as the scary but seductive older man in her life, Arnold effortlessly draws gentle comedy and intense heartbreak from Mia's clashes and relationships with her family. Used to communicating with swear words, expressing emotion is clearly something beyond the three of them, but you only have to watch Griffiths' unique way of saying 'I love you' at the end to know the emotion is always there despite the events that they go through. And this is probably Arnold's greatest success – by finding and showing a rare humanity in people too often dismissed by a middle class industry and audience, Fish Tank has a valuable lesson for us: chavs are people too.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas - Terry Gilliam - 1998

Even alongside all of Terry Gilliam's crazy fantasy movies, this drug-fuelled trip through seventies Las Vegas completely takes the biscuit. How much you appreciate the film could depend a lot on how much experience you have with drugs. Adapting the memoir of legendary gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, Gilliam shoots Vegas from the perspective of two terminally high drug fiends so we are granted a disorientating riot of insanely random images, sounds and dialogue that might be an excellent approximation of a drug trip but can get a little relentless if you don’t know what to expect. Happily when things get too head splitting, leading men Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro are never far away with some crazy comedy gold to lighten things up: highlights include Depp throwing oranges at Del Toro in the bath, the pair's hysterical attempt to enter a circus high on ether or the marvellously subversive image of the pair sitting in on an anti-drugs conference. However despite the alarming antics on show it’s Gilliam's somewhat vague approach to the drug issue that make this occasionally uncomfortable viewing. As the film swings between comedy mayhem and just mayhem, we're clearly meant to root for the pair but it’s hard to tell whether Gilliam is condoning or condemning their behaviour? It’s not until near the end that we're granted a clue. All the way through, Depp's manic and slightly doleful narration has powered the film and thus the final image of him typing away by candlelight in a hotel suite that looks like a war zone lends the character a melancholy air that suggests he is vaguely aware of the consequences of his actions. Will the audience be though? That is the crucial question and whether it’s because he’s on unfamiliar ground with this subject matter or he just wants to avoid facing it, Gilliam skirts the issue.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

The Gauntlet - Clint Eastwood - 1977

Clint Eastwood’s sixth film as director, The Gauntlet sees that star at his most uninspired, turning out a predictable tale of police corruption that was seemingly written around the old saying ‘run the gauntlet’. Clint plays Ben Shockley a burnt out policeman who, like many of his other leading men, is nothing more than a sub-par version of his famous Harry Callahan persona that under his own direction seems disturbingly happy to let his leading lady Sondra Locke be abused both physically and verbally before she inevitably falls in love with him. Locke, who was Eastwood’s mistress at the time, is an attractive leading lady but sadly not a good enough actress to convincingly play a hard-bitten prostitute; would be tough-girl lines that sound OK in the mouth of someone more talented, simply sound wooden when delivered by Locke. Together the pair of them travel from Las Vegas to Phoenix while being hunted by corrupt police in action scenes that have flashes of quality – Bill McKinney’s dirty minded cop is entertaining, whilst Clint does look pretty cool riding a huge motorbike – but are never consistently gripping. The finale that sees the pair drive an armoured bus directly into a police ambush (the gauntlet of the title) is not only fatally lacking in pace or tension but brings the film to a close with an anticlimax that throws all logic out of the window and ends on the purely nonsensical. Of course at this stage in his career Clint was still discovering himself as a director but when The Gauntlet is compared with masterpieces like High Plains Drifter and The Outlaw Josey Wales that both came before it, its clear that his burgeoning talents where lost outside of the Wild West.

Source Code - Duncan Jones - 2011

Director Duncan Jones created a landmark piece of science fiction with his debut film Moon and so it is exciting to find that he's stuck with the genre for his first big budget project in Hollywood. Source Code is more commercial in style and approach (It has explosions! It has more than one character!) which takes away some of the edge that made Moon so special but Jones still manages to create a unique sci-fi concept involving multiple timelines and successfully wrap it up in a satisfying and thought provoking way. The source code of the title is a program that repeatedly throws Jake Gyllenhaal back in time onto a train in another man's body during the last eight minutes of his life so he is forced to replay the same events over and over again. Jones impressively marshals these replays for both tension and comic relief (Gyllenhaal remembers each visit but the passengers see him afresh each time), ensuring that each visit is different enough to retain the audience's attention but never losing the through line of the mystery narrative. Apart from an unnecessary subplot involving Gyllenhaal's father, the film zips along at a good pace, (contrasting it with the gentler Moon) and despite veering slightly into existentialism, successfully pulls together all the characters and plot threads to create an intriguing thriller that even has time for a sweetly convincing romance. After such impressive work so far, here’s looking forward to what Jones does next.

Serenity - Joss Whedon - 2005

For his big screen directorial debut Joss Whedon daringly chooses to reboot his cult failed TV show Firefly and produces a refreshingly original sci-fi adventure that refuses to succumb to genre clichés and dares to go in new directions. One enormous benefit is that the cast all return from the TV show, bringing with them a ready made chemistry that neatly serves to make Chiwetel Ejiofor's sinister Operative all the more of an outsider. Like a lot of Joss' work the TV series had a sharp wit coupled with a swashbuckling adventure style that at times made it feel like a better written Star Wars that’s set in a far grittier adult universe and the film keeps this attitude throughout, forging a path apart from the high camp of Star Wars yet well clear of the revered art house of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nathan Fillion in his finest role to date provides the solid centre of the film as Captain Malcolm Reynolds who comes across as a darker more driven Han Solo, Summer Glau as the elegant but potentially dangerous River Tam cuts loose with some astonishing almost ballet like fight scenes and Adam Baldwin and Alan Tudyk provide a welcome mix of dryly ironic humour. The real star though is Joss who in a brave move for an action-adventure proves to be completely willing to explore the darkness always hinted at in the crew's adventures; as a middle-act conspiracy unfolds and the characters are caught between an unstoppable foe and a cannibalistic horde, the showdown comes in the form of a bloody battle that not everyone might survive. And therein lays the ace: by daring to genuinely beat his characters up, Joss has given them a credibility that ensures we care about anything they do and are devastated if and when the worst happens. At the moment it looks unlikely with Joss moving on to other projects, but with a pedigree this good we can only hope that Serenity will one day fly again.

Scream - Wes Craven - 1996

Wes Craven has spawned a whole number of horror movie franchises, spin-offs, retreads and sequels including several genre classics like The Last House on the Left, The Hills have Eyes and A Nightmare on Elm Street so he is perhaps the most qualified to direct this piece of existential mockery. Scream relishes playing up all the genre tropes that Craven himself helped to establish - pretty teenagers bumped off one by one by a masked killer etc - but with the added twist that the characters are fully aware of the clichés to which they can't help but succumb. Using this self-awareness to create surprisingly well drawn characters that an audience might not care for but at least be interested in, Craven populates a taut and scary but exciting thriller that achieves both jumps and laughs by playing scenes completely by the book (every scene with the killer you can anticipate him before he arrives) but stands up as well as an entertaining game of whodunit. Neve Campbell's endearing heroine, David Arquette and Courtenay Cox as the goofy/irritating investigators and Skeet Ulrich, Jamie Kennedy and Matthew Lillard as a trio of alternately creepy and ridiculous classmates round out a film that is certainly scary in parts but succeeds in being entertaining rather than gruelling, disgusting or disturbing and thus winds up being a far more satisfying watch.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street - Tim Burton - 2007

Tim Burton might seem a very odd choice to direct a musical but when that musical is Stephen Sondheim's gothic melodrama Sweeney Todd, the two make a perfect match with Sweeney's bloody rampage through Victorian London proving to be an excellent vehicle for Burton's usual Gothic excesses. Shot in blocky grey and bright blood red this is a visual treat right from the opening credits which linger in lurid detail over the journey of a stream of blood from chair to pie, to the twisted picture postcard realm of Mrs Lovett’s fantasies and in every gloom filled shadow of this dark vision of London where the sun never shines. Interestingly Burton seems relatively comfortable with musical numbers, staging most of them with enough wit and panache to make their sheer ludicrousness acceptable and not only daring to cast actors in the roles but insisting that they can do their own singing. Unsurprisingly Burton has cast his muse Johnny Depp and his wife Helena Bonham Carter as Sweeney and his accomplice Mrs Lovett, but cynics need not fear – they both quit themselves admirably, turning their inexperience as singers into advantages; Depp spits out his lines with alarming venom and Bonham Carter cunningly uses her airy voice as a front to keep Sweeney interested in her. The music itself is a grower - on first viewing the songs don't have the richness of Lloyd Webber or the fun of Rodgers and Hammerstein, but given time, Sondheim's own unique and highly evocative style shines through. Highlights include Jamie Campbell Bower's beautiful (if slightly stalker like) love song Johanna and the darkly witty A Little Priest in which Sweeney and Mrs Lovett compare fillings for pies. It does however slow down the film for the first forty-five minutes as we’re forced to wait for these big numbers to arrive and for Sweeney to begin his bloody business, but eventually the story builds up to a climax that is chillingly satisfying and yet still manages to find moments of tragic pathos. If nothing else, this must be the only musical ever to warrant an 18 rating which might make it a genre anomaly, but also one of the more original films out there.

Shrek the Third - Chris Miller - 2007

The Shrek franchise pulled off a rare success by creating a sequel that was almost as good as the first, so it is perhaps inevitable that the magic would fizzle out in attempting to extend the franchise into a trilogy. Shrek the Third isn't bad – there are some occasional funny moments, one or two inspired ideas and some great animation, but it in no way manages to scale the dizzy heights of the first two. The usual cast are fine but this time they simply can't shake off the feeling of familiarity; Shrek and Fiona go through yet more marital angst before the inevitable reunion and even Eddie Murphy's Donkey, the highlight of the previous films, is no longer the inspired comic creation he was before.  This isn't helped by the introduction of particularly poor new characters; Eric Idle's Merlin is underused, while Justin Timberlake's Prince Arthur is just dull, given to tedious moralising arguments with Shrek in a clumsy attempt to give the film a message. On the plus side the introduction of several other Disney princesses to form a tag-team with Fiona and the Queen is great fun, creating the film's best gags but even they can't pull the film much above the relentlessly rising tide of the formulaic.

Shrek 2 - Kelly Asbury - 2004

The sequel to one of the most witty and widely acclaimed animated movies ever made, Shrek 2 is inevitably not quite as sharp as its predecessor but is nevertheless a consistently hilarious watch. Where the first film usually resisted the temptation, the second unfortunately succumbs with a series of pop culture references that are as tiresome as they are embarrassing but these are balanced with a series of knowing winks to films like Spiderman, Indiana Jones and Alien that work better because they demand a little more from the audience than simply recognising the voice of Jonathan Ross. Also the fairy tale skewing that the first film did so well continues here with the filmmakers delighting in discovering what the reality might be behind the Happily Ever After by forcing Shrek to meet the in-laws, as well as a decidedly unconventional Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) and Fairy Godmother (Jennifer Saunders) that neatly subvert their traditional images. However the high point of the film like the first is the friendship between Shrek and Donkey with Eddie Murphy's improvisations continuing to be his finest work in cinema to date as he delivers line after line of pure comedy genius. Add Antonio Banderas’ Puss-in-Boots into the mix and the result is some of the best comic chemistry in cinema – which for an animated movie is saying something.

Sherlock Holmes - Guy Ritchie - 2009

Britain's most famous detective is reinvented by Guy Ritchie and Robert Downey Jr. for a rollicking action adventure which should please both Conan Doyle fans and fresh audiences. Admittedly die hard Holmes readers will probably still find holes to pick – the plot isn't taken from any Conan Doyle stories, there are a lot of explosions for the sake of it and Holmes' person and lodging, while entirely fitting for Downey Jr.’s eccentric performance, don't convince for someone who is apparently in business as a consulting detective – but this is of course simply the latest in a long line of interpretations. Downey Jr's action based character is in fact entirely justified by the original stories – in their very first adventure Watson notes that Holmes is a fine boxer and swordsman while his famous escape at the Reichenbach Falls was down to his knowledge of  a form of Japanese wrestling called baritsu. Conan Doyle hardly ever lets Holmes make use of these abilities but they are all there all the same. Where this film really shines however is in its depiction of the relationship between Holmes and Watson. Downey Jr. and Jude Law bicker backwards and forwards constantly and often hilariously throughout the film in manner reminiscent of Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid and indeed much like the eponymous outlaws, its clear these two depend on each other almost as much as they are too proud to admit it. Taking a stab at a period film for the first time, Guy Ritchie turns out to be an excellent choice to direct this new adaptation with his frenetic picture and sound editing style proving to be an excellent means to show off the speed of Homes’ brain with numerous flashbacks and flashforwards keeping the audience on the edge of their seats as they try to keep up. Into the mix Ritchie throws in Rachel McAdams as the duplicitous Irene Adler who is sadly underused given her apparent history with Homes and his long time friend Mark Strong who continues his run of cinematic villains with the delightfully macabre Lord Blackwood. However the film is really all about the famous duo: Holmes and Watson, Downey Jr. and Law, it's clear that this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Monday, 28 November 2011

X-Men: The Last Stand - Brett Ratner - 2006

The third and so far final part in the X-Men series (prequels aside), The Last Stand aims to achieve an explosive and mind blowing climax to the trilogy but without the guiding hand of Bryan Singer at the helm staggers when it should be soaring. The first film successfully introduced a core group of characters which the second entry then expanded upon but the third one (perhaps smelling the possibility of no more sequels) crams so many new characters in that many of them, both old and new go to waste. What made X2 so impressive was that it ensured that practically every character was pushed a little bit further and had a moment to shine; unfortunately the same can not be said for The Last Stand which includes such travesties as Ben Foster's Angel (irrelevant), Ellen Page's Kitty Pryde (underwritten) or Eric Dane's Multiple Man (irritatingly pointless) all of which take up screen time better given to other characters. Rebecca Romijn's Mystique was one of the most popular characters from the first two films so to see her abruptly shoved out of the story half through is quite sad and with Alan Cumming's Nightcrawler not returning at all (frustratingly the writers don't even bother to explain his absence), new blue mutant Beast is suddenly left with lot of lifting to do. Happily as played by Kelsey Grammer he at least is a great success, proving to be a gruff and tough but witty and entertaining addition to the team and enjoying some entertaining sparring with Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. Oddly however it also must be said that in many ways the story is quite daring in its inclusion of a several deeply tragic scenes which given that we have lived with some of these characters for three films now are actually very emotional. Ironically though these moments only make the clunkers more frustrating since they show up the potential for what might have been in terms of natural progression for both the story and the characters; however hack director Brett Ratner who was rushed into the job at the last minute has little of Singer’s mastery of these simple ideas and thus a lot of it sadly goes to waste

X-Men: First Class - Matthew Vaughn - 2011

After stumbling through an unimaginative origin story for Hugh Jackman's Wolverine, the X-Men franchise turns to the past of the team’s two grandmasters - Professor X and Magneto - and this time it’s a blast. James McAvoy was a surprising choice for the young Charles Xavier but he is actually an enormously entertaining presence, utilising some very British dry wit to take the character from a brilliant but feckless young man on a journey to find the first seeds of wisdom that would ultimately make him the team's mentor. Michael Fassbender meanwhile is a striking and menacing Magneto who manages to pull off enough dash and charisma as well to make him so badass and cool that it’s hard not to sometimes cheer him on - an early sequence that sees him relentlessly hunting Nazis across the world is an exciting highlight. In support Kevin Bacon (why isn't he in more films?) is a picture of sneering charm as the villainous Sebastian Shaw while the lovely Jennifer Lawrence grabs the heart of the film as the young Mystique, struggling to come to terms with her identity and be noticed by an oblivious Charles. However these are merely two highlights in a cast of supporting characters that is almost but not completely uniformly well drawn (Riptide doesn't even get a name check let alone a line) right down to a couple of hilarious cameos that deserve their spontaneous rounds of applause. Director Matthew Vaughn who makes his franchise debut here having bailed on X-Men: The Last Stand, manages to fill the film with interesting characters, highly imaginative uses of mutant powers, some exhilarating action and a rousing score from newcomer Henry Jackson (even Take That made a song that sounds cool, who'd have thought?!), which given that he turned the film around in a year after releasing Kick-Ass is even more impressive. After the exit of Bryan Singer the franchise was in need of a safe and talented pair of hands. Now it seems that the search is over.

X2 - Bryan Singer - 2003

X2 is everything that a sequel should be, with returning director Brian Singer taking the world he successfully established in X-Men, and exploring it further whilst pushing every character in interesting new directions. Typically thespian knights Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen steal the show once more, relishing every moment of barbed banter, but Hugh Jackman continues to make Wolverine an engaging anti-hero with his moments of berserker rage used to particularly good effect. In support Mystique again has many of the best moments with Singer finding consistently fun new ways to spring surprises with her mutation; best of all though is the brief glimpse of actress Rebecca Romijn out of makeup as Mystique goes undercover as a very sexy blonde. Joining the fold are Alan Cumming's Nightcrawler (brilliant power, underused as a character), Brian Cox's wonderfully malevolent General Stryker and Kelly Hu's super-cool Lady Deathstrike. Real credit though should go to Singer for pushing the boundaries beyond what was after all a successful first outing for the X-Men. Right from a shocking opening sequence in which the previously safe haven of the school is invaded by paratroopers to the unexpectedly downbeat climax, Singer makes it clear that this world is not the safe, contained world we thought it was but one with real danger and the possibility of genuine human tragedy. The fact that he works all this in within the framework of a thrilling superhero film must make this one of the finest comic book movies ever made.

Vera Drake - Mike Leigh - 2004

A fascinating slice of mundane fifties life, the latest film from Mike Leigh simply and delicately portrays various characters going about their daily lives with nothing more than quiet dignity and respect, an approach that sounds dull but is actually both touching and often quite funny. The centre of the activity is Vera Drake, who as played by a superlative Imelda Staunton is a genuine pleasure to watch, delighting in nothing more than family life and being able to help people out. Unfortunately this ‘helping out’ extends to young women and providing illegal abortions for those who haven’t a hope of affording the official fees. Obviously this was and continues to be a controversial issue but Leigh wisely decides to take a back seat and let us make up her own minds as in between scenes with the family and scenes at her cleaning jobs, Vera visits a succession of scared girls and with the same unshakeable cheeriness competently delivers an amateur but effective abortion. Without going as far as showing penetration, the operations are depicted in a very clinical manner which doesn’t try to hide what is happening and thus the audience is not allowed to ignore the full implications of her actions. In a clumsily signposted subplot Vera’s quick-fix solutions for numerous working class women are contrasted with scenes of Sally Hawkins’ rich girl who is forced to go through an endlessly humiliating series of interviews when trying for an abortion herself. Inevitably of course something goes wrong and Vera is forced to face the consequences of her actions and hardest of all, face her dependant family with them in scenes which however you feel about her actions are heartbreaking to watch. By creating an abortionist who works out of the genuine goodness of her heart, Leigh has made a film that not only functions as one of his classic studies of ordinary working class life but a film that tackles a controversial issue open-mindedly and with respect which is a rare pleasure.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Into the Wild - Sean Penn - 2007

Sean Penn is best known for giving barnstorming performances in Oscar nominated films so it’s something of a surprise to find him at the helm of this epic road movie. Telling the story of Christopher McCandless, a student who abandons his possessions and goes walking in an attempt to focus on what he believes is important in life, Into the Wild is a beautifully shot and intensely emotional experience. Admittedly the film occasionally drags a little as its episodic nature seems initially predictable but as Chris meets more people on the road to his ultimate destination Alaska, it’s difficult not to become attached and get frustrated as Chris eventually abandons them all. Emile Hirsch as Chris holds the film together well, making sure we never lose sympathy with this often frustrating and potentially dislikeable character, but it’s his new friends who are the most memorable. From Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker's warm-hearted trailer park couple to Hal Holbrook's dignified lonely old man, its profoundly moving to see Chris in their company rediscovering the humanity he sought to escape. This only goes to make the ending even more tragic as the viewer by then so desperately wants Chris to return and find a new life with his new friends, but in the worst irony it’s the simplest obstacle that prevents this from happening. Ultimately it’s arguable that this was inevitable, but if so Penn seems to be saying, Chris’ story is all the more tragic for it.

The Incredibles - Brad Bird - 2004

A superhero spoof from animation masters Pixar, The Incredibles celebrates the very best of the men (and especially women!) in tights whilst sending up the genre's absurdities and poking a sharp eye at what happens after the day has been saved. Taking place fifteen years after superheroes have been outlawed, the film follows the shenanigans of the Parr family as they struggle to hide their powers whilst going about normal suburban lives. Wryly funny but also emotive and engaging as director Brad Bird takes time to develop each family character in their own right, these scenes are probably the best in the film generating plenty of knowing laughter as we witness the home life Batman or Superman never bothered with. Of course before long the family is called back into action to face the inevitable master-villain (Jason Lee having a ball) in a lair that makes Blofeld's volcano look like a climbing frame and from then on the film treads a familiar path. Bird creates some fantastic action sequences that make use of the animation medium to push the boundaries of what can be achieved that little bit further but ultimately the film can't help falling into the same old story clichés that its previously been sending up. Of course design and writing wise this is still head and shoulders above most current animated offerings but it ultimately doesn't feel as daring as some of Pixar's finest.

Inception - Christopher Nolan - 2010

Christopher Nolan it seems just keeps going from strength to strength. After revitalising the Batman franchise with its two finest entries yet, he takes time off to create Inception - the film that surely must stand as his masterpiece. Effortlessly blending the abstract interplay between dreams and reality with the gritty yet stylish action for which he's become known, Nolan carefully treads the fine line between delivering an intelligent and thought-provoking narrative and not confusing the audience with bundle of concepts that are too hard to follow. Imagining a technology that creates artificial dreams and even dreams within dreams, Nolan constantly keeps us off-kilter as we can never be sure what is a dream and what isn't, an approach that creates at times some of the scariest questions about the nature of reality since The Matrix; the idea that reality might be a dream from which we're constantly struggling to wake is possibly the most mind-blowing concept ever to generate a summer blockbuster. What should also be emphasised though is that in Nolan's hands this is pretty damn cool. The idea that in a dream world anything is possible leads to some astonishing visuals like an entire cityscape crumbling into the sea while in one of the film's best sequences, Ellen Page literally bends the world around her to create a city like the inside of globe. Similarly with events happening around the sleepers affecting the world of their dreams, Nolan is granted license for some gravity-defying action scenes that puts even his best work to shame. In the opening sequence a bathtub plunge turns into a flood inside a crumbling Chinese mansion while in a particularly memorable scene a plunge off a bridge leaves Joseph Gordon-Levitt with a weightless fight scene in a spinning hotel corridor - in fact with so many sequences that would be the single highlight of any other film, its hardly surprising that the much-talked about snow fortress climax doesn't quite live up to expectations. And that ending? Its true that with everything that's gone before the twist hardly comes as a surprise but given the head-spinning worlds that both the characters and the audience have gone through its surely the only one that could do the film justice. The danger now is that Inception could become over analysed and over watched to the point where it almost becomes acceptable but even if the technology is full of plot holes when scrutinised, the film contains more than enough mind-blowing set pieces and concepts to make this a classic that should last.

I Am Number Four - D.J. Caruso - 2011

I Am Number Four, the latest teenage book to be adapted into a multi-million dollar franchise in the wake of the Twilight saga, is entirely as derivative and predictable as you might expect but is actually nevertheless a lot of fun. Alex Pettyfer has managed to grow up and out of the blandness that made Stormbreaker so dull to watch and now makes a likeable enough leading man, even as he slots without question into the burgeoning superhero path that has been trodden countless times before. Much more fun though is the deliciously badass Teresa Palmer who rocks up in skin tight leather and sarcasm every time the movie needs a kick up the ass; her introduction, strolling away from an exploding house has got to rank as one of the coolest entrances in popular cinema. Credit must also go to director D.J. Caruso who keeps the film buzzing along at a healthy pace with a romance between Pettyfer and the adorable Dianna Agron that he manages to keep sweet rather than saccharine, some good jump scares from the hilariously OTT alien villains (current horror film directors should take note) and some dazzlingly inventive action when both sides finally meet. Of course the whole affair is covered in big, gloopy cheese but when cheese is as much fun as this, who's to say that's a bad thing?

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Casino - Martin Scorsese - 1995

Granted less attention than earlier Scorsese/De Niro combos like Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, Casino is in actual fact probably the pinnacle of the pair's collaboration and one of Scorsese's finest films to boot. Though sticking closely to the mob setup that made Goodfellas so popular, the setting here is Las Vegas and the gambling circuit run ruthlessly by De Niro's latest incarnation Ace Rothstein. Like he did in Goodfellas Scorsese takes time to introduce the layers of this world through the use of voiceover, immersing us in the intricate system of running a casino, but complicates matters by putting De Niro's voice alongside a second by Joe Pesci as the hood sent out to protect him but intent only on building his own rather less legitimate empire. Although this takes a long time the set up it is worth it because even as Ace's world becomes complete we can start to see all the little holes that are eventually going to bring it crashing down again, an arc that is perfectly encapsulated in the two voiceovers that start in accord but gradually turn against each other. But like any Scorsese movie this rides on the performances and the director's two veterans certainly deliver: relishing the extra dimension that the voiceover can bring Pesci is even more magnetic than Tommy DeVito, while De Niro shines in an unusually sympathetic leading role. Goodfellas struggled because its protagonist was the obnoxious Henry Hill, a narrator who hardly inspired audience empathy. With a powerhouse like De Niro given the rare opportunity to play it straight, Casino rises even higher.

Half Nelson - Ryan Fleck - 2006

An intriguing independent drama, Half Nelson follows a teacher (Ryan Gosling) in an unspecified but poor area who struggles to balance his smart and engaging work with the kids with a heavy drug habit. Gosling is typically superb, communicating simply with a few penetrating glances both the innate charisma that makes him a hit with the kids and the profound disillusionment that has led to the drug habit. His life gets complicated though when he is discovered by Drey, one of his students and forms a tentative friendship that forces him to think for the first time about someone else and their problems. This is very interesting but it rapidly becomes clear that director Ryan Fleck doesn’t really know where to go with the story once it has started taking shape and so the film just drifts along, hinting at dramatic possibilities as Gosling clashes with local drug dealer Anthony Mackie and his friendship with Drey develops, but never really fulfilling on any of these opportunities. There is a nice irony to be had at the end when the friends finally find some common ground as dealer and junkie but given the impressive critical buzz the film has garnered (Gosling was Oscar nominated) it feels disappointing that this is all there is to take away.

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral - John Sturges - 1957

A retelling of the classic tale of Wyatt Earp and the Clanton gang (itself more myth than history), Gunfight sets itself up as a buddy movie between Burt Lancaster's straight man Wyatt and Kirk Douglas' crooked Doc Holliday. Unfortunately the leads have little to no chemistry so the premise falls flat and the film turns into a sluggish drag. Douglas is far and away the best thing in it, delivering a nuanced performance as Holliday, tragically bitter and self-loathing as he slowly dies from TB. Lancaster in comparison is terrible; in his wooden hands Wyatt becomes an intensely boring and often irritating figure who is so rigidly good that he often comes across as two-dimensional, indeed its possible Lancaster is often replaced by a cardboard cut-out and we wouldn’t know the difference. Once the film gets to Tombstone and the build up to the famous shootout (not bad considering) the film does pick up and develop some pace and tension, but this actually feels almost infuriating as the first hour has been so dull. In the misguided belief that he's developing a relationship between Wyatt and Holliday, director John Sturges spends far too long with irrelevant scenes in Dodge City that thanks to the aforementioned lack of chemistry, only succeed in dragging the film out. The second hour could make a reasonable short film, but as it is, you'll be lucky to wake up for it.

Grizzly Man - Werner Herzog - 2005

Timothy Treadwell spent thirteen summers living with and filming grizzly bears in Alaska before he was killed and now veteran filmmaker Werner Herzog has put together a documentary to examine the life of this remarkable eccentric. Cutting together Treadwell’s own footage with interviews with the people who knew him, Herzog puts together a portrait of a man whose great devotion to the bears produced some of the finest film footage of animals ever produced but who was fatally misguided in his beliefs that he was doing some good. Watching Treadwell alone in the wilderness with only his camera to talk to its clear what appealed to Herzog who has regularly examined the sanity of man when opposed to the grandeur of nature, but as an engaging piece of cinema the film isn’t helped by the fact that Treadwell actually comes across as a rather unpleasant protagonist. In several scenes he filmed of himself, Treadwell talks to the bears as if they are small children and arrogantly goes on and on about his role as a ‘kind warrior’ protecting the bears when as Herzog dryly points out they are living on a reservation designed to keep them safe anyway. Coupled with moments in which he rants about the park rangers, swearing profusely, these scenes all add up to suggest that Treadwell hangs out with bears because of some sort of superiority complex as opposed to genuine concern for the wildlife. In one interview a museum guide even suggests that Treadwell might have harmed the bears’ chances by encouraging more people to follow his example and camp out on the reservation. However to simply vilify Treadwell is to do the man’s memory a disservice, however obnoxious he may have been in life. Much of the footage he obtained of not just the bears but local foxes as well (adorable) is stunningly beautiful and much more wide-ranging and detailed than anyone else is ever likely to accomplish. Whatever the faults of the man Herzog seems to be saying we can’t fault his legacy and that on this evidence is at least something worth the respect.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Gremlins - Joe Dante - 1984

A classic Christmas film, Gremlins bounces around between horror and comedy with entertaining if severely uneven results. When the evil gremlins first hatch out, kill the token black teacher and are violently slaughtered by Billy's mother in the infamous kitchen scene, we seem to be in store for a gleefully wicked horror movie. However once the gremlins multiply and hit the town they are reduced to the level of cheeky mischief makers. Granted they wreak a lot of havoc, but Dick Miller aside no one else appears to be killed or injured with the result that the level of threat is lessened and the scare rating minimised. Once the audience has adjusted to this change of tone and begun to enjoy the runaway creatures (gremlins singing along to Snow White in the cinema is a highlight), we are confused again with the story of why Billy's girlfriend hates Christmas. The scene is played with beautiful understatement by Phoebe Cates, but the story casts a distinctly sombre note over the rest of the film so further jokes mostly fall flat. The main redeeming feature is good gremlin Gizmo who is without doubt the most adorable monster in cinema history. Played by a brilliantly lifelike puppet, scenes of Gizmo singing along to a keyboard and his final goodbye to Billy will warm the hardest heart. Ultimately Gremlins is simply unsure of what it wants to be and in trying to cover too many bases, falls down the cracks in between.

Alien Resurrection - Jean-Pierre Jeunet - 1997

After the Alien franchise ended with shocking finality at the end of Alien 3, that was apparently that, but of course this is science-fiction and so anything is possible when box-office returns are in sight. Happily though Alien Resurrection injects a breath of fresh air into the franchise after the moribund Alien 3, delivering a film that comes far closer to the visual style of the first film than either of the other two sequels. Incoming director Jean-Pierre Jeunet keeps to the familiar format of a small band of bickering characters being picked off one by one, but takes the monsters in whole new directions that are gleefully reminiscent of the pioneering work of original designer H.R. Geiger. Blending Alien genes with Ripley's human genes gives Jeunet the chance to mess with the Alien biology, giving them whole new tricks to play with but also complicating the reproductive cycle and leading to the climactic and very twisted birth of the 'newborn' - a horrific hybrid of human and alien that Geiger would have been proud of. The logic behind all this might not entirely make sense but with such dramatic imagery and an excitingly ambiguous performance from Weaver who relishes the chance to play Ripley as potentially evil this hardly matters. If there's a weak spot its Winona Ryder who struggles to make sense of a character that can't decide if it respects or loathes Ripley but this is probably more the fault of script rewrites and edits than anything else. It might not have such spectacular action as a Cameron or a Fincher (the final battle ends on a bit of a damp squib although an underwater pursuit must be one of the tensest moments in the series) but Jeunet with his European sensibilities has crafted a film that stands as a worthy sequel to the original.

Chicken Run - Peter Lord & Nick Park - 2000

Aardman Animation studios received international acclaim and the all too rare accolade of national treasure for their three short films about the lovable duo of cheese obsessed inventor Wallace and his faithful dog Gromit so their big screen debut was eagerly awaited. However it is perhaps unsurprising that it has taken this long when the stop-motion technique that has become the studio’s trademark allows the animators to turn out on average ninety seconds of footage a week. Happily Chicken Run is well worth both the wait and the effort that has clearly gone into it many times over. Taking place in the none-more-British setting of a Yorkshire chicken farm that is lovingly realised in muddy detail, the film is many respects simply one big loving homage to The Great Escape as a determined group of chickens led by the plucky Ginger (winningly voiced by the little known Julia Sawalha) attempt to escape the clutches of tyrannical farmer’s wife Mrs Tweedy. Peopled by an assortment of classic British eccentrics in chicken and rat form plus Mel Gibson’s American rooster charmer (a dutiful nod to the need for American audiences), the film rattles through some exciting action and plenty of comedy that the whole family can appreciate with an endearing pride in its own uniqueness. A mid-film highlight sees Ginger and Rocky the rooster trapped in a giant Heath Robinson style pie making machine filled with enough death traps to make Indiana Jones think twice (spot the in-joke), while the climactic escape attempt is an outrageously intricate invention but by this stage its impossible not to be carried away and cheer on the chickens, such is the sheer amount of gumption and derring-do on display. With such spirited wit, delightful eccentricity and gosh-darn British pluck on display this is pure comedy genius.

Chariots of Fire - Hugh Hudson - 1981

A paragon among both sports films and British cinema, Chariots of Fire tells the true story of runners Harold Abrams and Eric Liddell who led the British athletics team in the 1924 Paris Olympic Games. Of course for many the thought of upper class Brits running around Cambridge and the Scottish Highlands sounds like the essence of dullness, but director Hugh Hudson together with Greek composer Vangelis creates a film that both celebrates and transcends the sports movie clichés. Newcomers Ben Cross and Ian Charleson both deliver strong performances as conflicted athletes Abrams and Liddell, struggling to reconcile faith and anti-Semitism with their desire for glory at the Olympics; and while its needless to say that the ending is hardly a surprise, they both ensure that the characters rise above the public school stereotypes and go on real emotional journeys. Its true that Hudson over uses the slow motion when shooting the races, but when coupled with Vangelis' now legendary synthesizer soundtrack, the competition scenes are still stirring today. Chariots of Fire might embody every conception about costume dramas full of posh people, but with a perfect combination of direction, casting and music it still manages to tell an impressive and genuinely human story underneath.

Call Northside 777 - Henry Hathaway - 1948

A low key black and white thriller that showcases Jimmy Stewart at his best, Call Northside 777 is hardly one of his classics but can at least claim to be a mildly diverting piece of entertainment. Stewart is perfectly suited to the role of a cynical journalist who becomes increasingly obsessed with solving an old case that he at first dismissed, blustering against a heartless justice system with all of the righteous earnestness that made him so popular. His quest is given added piquancy by the knowledge that this is also a true story but unfortunately veteran studio director Henry Hathaway lets that get in the way of making a good movie. Maintaining a pace that plods rather than speeds, the film's adherence to the truth minimises the opportunities for excitingly dramatic scenes with the eventual climax proving to be nothing more than the reveal of a key piece of evidence that is clever but hardly thrilling or surprising. Happily Stewart, caught between his star making era with Frank Capra and his forthcoming masterpieces with Alfred Hitchcock, proves to be capable of impressing even on the most mediocre pieces of work, making him surely one of the most committed stars of his generation.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Alien 3 - David Fincher - 1992

Alien 3 is often vilified as the film that after two groundbreaking chapters brought down the Alien franchise, but while it is true that the film doesn't stand up to Scott and Cameron's efforts, it is unfair to completely dismiss it. After a brave yet brutal opening that wipes out all the survivors from the previous film bar Ripley, we are catapulted into the latest enclosed environment to suffer alien assault populated by the by now anticipated group of disparate characters ready to be picked off one by one. Following the space truckers of Alien and the marines from Aliens the latest group are a motley band of prisoners condemned to a remote industrial planet where Ripley and the inevitable alien stowaway crash land. Predictable as this is by now, the prisoners as played by an array of great British character actors are at least an entertaining bunch, different enough to feel fresh whilst sticking to the accepted formula. The plot meanwhile follows pretty tightly to the blueprint set by Alien with a slow, tense build-up to the creature getting loose in the tunnels and the prisoners then struggling to fight back with no weapons at their disposal. Unfortunately the advent of CGI means that the alien is now created with some rather unconvincing animation rather than the on camera effects that worked so well previously, but David Fincher who made his directorial debut with this film creates some fantastic shots from the alien's POV as it pursues hapless prisoners down corridors. Shot in a cold industrial world lit by little more than ever flickering flames, Fincher's vision is both consistent with the world already established but also hinting at the style that would mark the masterpieces he would go on to create. Measured against both the franchise and Fincher's canon as a whole, Alien 3 is obviously a weaker entry but contains enough to still make it a relatively entertaining film in its own right.

Amazing Grace - Michael Apted - 2006

A fascinating biopic of a fascinating man, the story of William Wilberforce, one of the driving forces behind the abolition of the slave trade is one very much worth the telling. Played with great charm and charisma by rising star Ioan Gruffudd, the film finds Wilberforce at his lowest ebb after several defeats and a debilitating illness as he reluctantly tells his story to his soon to be wife Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai, as lovely as ever). From here we are launched into traditional British costume drama territory as a succession of beautifully costumed character actors fight to get some screen time alongside the barnstorming Wilberforce. Ciaran Hinds and Toby Jones are perfectly cast villains playing Wilber's opponents in the House of Commons, Sewell and Cumberbatch leaven ambiguity with moments of humour as they both help and question Wilber's quest and Michael Gambon delights as a wily politician playing a longer game than anyone can see. The standout though is Albert Finney who in merely three scenes playing Wilber's mentor John Newton brings some genuinely moving heart and soul to a film that at times risks being overcome by its own worthiness. This knowledge that this is also an important history lesson together with its acting and costume drama pedigrees means that director Michael Apted can't quite keep it alive as a cinematic drama but come the end and Wilber's final victory its hard, thanks to Gruffudd more than anyone, not to feel moved by his achievements. And that at least is as it should be.

All About My Mother - Pedro Almodóvar - 1999

A gentle and melancholic tale about the struggles of women under adversity, All About My Mother doesn't make such a strong emotional impact as some of Almodóvar's more recent work but still manages to tackle the issues involved in the witty and ironic style that has become the director's trademark. Following the journey of Manuela (Cecilia Roth) back to the city and friends she ran away from many years before, Almodóvar takes us into a strange world of transvestites, divas and nuns - characters that might seem wildly varied but are ultimately proved to be all suffering somehow inside. Most of these people appear extreme in one way or another but they are all created with such delicate strokes that however outrageous their behaviour, they all feel simply and tragically human. However Manuela is the emotional centre of the story and Roth in a relatively restrained performance successfully anchors the film in reality with Almodóvar carefully capturing every pained nuance as she struggles to find some balance in her existence. She might not respond to life with the same melodramatics displayed by the cast of A Streetcar Named Desire, (a running metaphor) but it is very clear that her feelings as well as those of everyone around her are just as intense and thus just as worth listening to.

All About Eve - Joseph L. Mankiewicz - 1950

A sharp and incisive comedy drama that does for Broadway what Sunset Boulevard did for Hollywood, All About Eve is a thoroughly entertaining peek into the dog eat dog (or more literally bitch eat bitch) life of the Broadway star. Watching Bette Davis (fading herself as a movie star at this time) struggle to maintain her friends, dignity and popularity in the face of a conniving and talented upstart, is to see the twilight of the star system in action. Davis gives one of her finest performances as has-been diva Margo Channing, expertly channelling the passions, temperament and dignity of a true movie star into what was possibly her last great role. Ironically though her successor wasn't the young starlet who plays the usurping Eve; Anne Baxter delivers an excellent performance in her only notable role, initially coming across as nothing more than enthusiastic innocence personified but gradually revealing the claws underneath before, with delicious irony, she ends up exactly the same as Margo. However it’s the young Marilyn Monroe who plays a small part at a party who manages to blow both Davis and Baxter away with an effortless sexiness that instantly puts anyone else in the shade and sealed her role the screens greatest sex symbol for the next generation. As one star set another rose.

The Lion King - Rob Minkoff & Roger Allers - 1994

Marking the final high of Disney’s second renaissance after the successes of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, The Lion King stands up as both a pinnacle of all that Walt Disney dreamed of and a landmark in the history of animation. Talking animals have always been a mainstay of the Disney canon right from the very beginning but always with humans lurking around as at least supporting characters. The Lion King takes therefore what can now be seen as a bold approach by taking elements of classical human drama (Shakespeare’s Hamlet) and retelling them purely with animals from the African savannah, a brilliant concept that plays dividends by creating, in a forerunner of the work of Pixar studios, a film that can appeal to both adults and children. The story following the journey of Simba the lion cub to fulfil his destiny and become king of Pride Rock contains for once a genuine character arc for its protagonist that is marked by plenty of danger and what is probably the most traumatic death since Bambi’s mother but is balanced by some fantastic comic relief courtesy of the legendary duo of Timon and Pumba who are silly without ever being infantile. Of course no Disney film would be complete without the music and its here that The Lion King really strikes gold. Supported by a sweet and melodic score by Hollywood maestro Hans Zimmer, lyricist Tim Rice has joined forces with Sir Elton John to create not one or two but five fantastic songs that all instantly catchy and have since become classics in their own right, surely a record for a Disney film. With everyone singing along from the outset, some exquisitely beautiful animation recreating the colours of the savannah and those knowing flashes of humour (references to Taxi Driver and In the Heat of the Night? Really?), The Lion King is a true classic. The recent re-release in 3D did very little to change it other than adding depth to some of the action scenes like the stampede of the wildebeests and thus was most exciting for the opportunity it afforded to see the film again on the big screen, a re-appreciation that was well worth the trip.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Green Lantern - Martin Campbell - 2011

Superman and Batman might be the big guns in the comic book world but with arch rivals Marvel watching the X-Men franchise move from strength to strength and Iron Man, Thor and Captain America all setting up for The Avengers after successful films in their own right, it seems that DC has some catching up to do. Unfortunately for everyone concerned this feeble launch of second tier hero Green Lantern is unlikely to achieve that. The premise of a legion of intergalactic superheroes that protects the galaxy by harnessing will power is certainly an intriguing prospect in the right hands but it needs a skilful creative team to catch at people’s imaginations and draw them into this fantastical world, the sort of team in fact than Marvel found to make Thor a great success a few months previously. Typically for DC though, this is one success they seemingly couldn’t emulate. Director Martin Campbell clearly has no idea how to approach the material, bringing none of the energy he used to kick start both Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig as James Bond and instead just hiding behind the visual effects and hoping no one will notice. These are admittedly very impressive with the home planet of the Green Lanterns looking particularly good on the big screen but against this backdrop a strong cast is left high and dry by writers who have no idea how to engage an audience. The story of a man who must overcome the familiar obstacles and personal issues to become the hero he’s destined to be in time to save the world and get the girl feels so run-of-the-mill by now as to be almost derisory and the writers fatally seem to think that setting it partly on a different planet and having an occasional exotic alien cameo will make it interesting. Well it doesn’t. Ryan Reynolds at least has enough charm to stop the movie sinking entirely, especially when he’s playing off the gorgeous Blake Lively but Peter Sarsgaard has just turned up to chew the scenery, Mark Strong emotes fiercely in the hope that people won’t notice he’s purple and Tim Robbins just looks embarrassed to be there. With DC working at this level it seems that, at the very least until Christopher Nolan returns with a new Batman film, Marvel will continue to rule the roost.

Caddyshack - Harold Ramis - 1980

Harold Ramis has written and directed some wonderful comedies, most notably the Ghostbusters films and Groundhog Day, but they now they seem even more miraculous considering that they were preceded by this trashy and nonsensical failure of a comedy. The premise of a golf caddy caught between two rival golfers seems good but Ramis aims for farcical and wildly overshoots, creating a film that literally has two laughs throughout the entire 100 minute running time. Rodney Dangerfield and Ted Knight as the rivals are seemingly competing over who can overact the most, crucially losing the characters and film all credibility and thus making themselves look embarrassingly stupid rather than funny. Even the normally reliable Bill Murray is reduced (after a surreal opening monologue about the Dalai Lama) to pulling stupid faces and running after a toy gopher. The worst offender though is possibly Ramis himself, tacking scenes together with little or no sense of cohesion and thus dragging out the perfunctory plot much longer than necessary; a sequence at the marina for example is apparently included only under the misapprehension that people falling in water is hysterically funny. After watching this it’s a great relief to know that Ramis actually developed as a comic writer/director but on the flipside it’s technically impossible to sink any lower.

Bus 174 - Felipe Lacerda & José Padilha - 2002

A documentary masquerading as a thriller, Brazilian film Bus 174 unfortunately doesn't have much success in either genre. The intriguing premise is that a real life bus hold up was caught on CCTV by the press and broadcast across the country and directors Lacerda and Padilha then used a lot of this footage in their film, interspersed with interviews with the people involved. In theory this should be fascinating, but in practice it materialises as little more than several people repeating verbatim conversations they had on the bus with the hijacker over long shots of him walking up and down the bus and shouting at the prisoners. While possibly communicating the boredom of being stuck in a four and half hour hold-up, this translates into dull cinema since for most of the running time nothing actually happens. Similarly the film purports to tell the story of Sancho the hijacker, but this turns out to be mainly more (this time all too brief) interviews that fail to build up much of Sancho's character and crucially fail to establish why he held up an inner city bus during rush hour. This is a great shame because it’s immediately clear that all of these people have issues that deserve to be heard on a wider scale, but at best we are left with only a hazy impression of what these might entail both personally and in the wider picture of Brazilian life.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Fran Rubel Kuzui - 1992

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a seminal TV series that ran for seven brilliant seasons in the late nineties and with luck that's all that should be remembered. The prequel movie, written when creator Joss Whedon could not expect a series, has literally none of the wit, charm and originality that later made the television show such a success. Directed by Fran Rubel Kuzui (thankfully booted down to executive producer on the show), the film is a horribly mangled version of Whedon’s vision  that amounts to little more than a mercifully quick succession of terrible dialogue, appalling acting and lame action scenes. Kristy Swanson makes for an admittedly attractive Buffy but has none of the style or charisma that made Sarah Michelle Gellar such a success, while Donald Sutherland mumbles his way through the clichéd mentor role struggling to not look embarrassed to be there. Meanwhile on the dark side Rutger Hauer hams it up to the max as vampire bigwig Lothos and Paul Reubens seems to have escaped from the Rocky Horror Picture Show to play his cackling sidekick. The genre blending of high school drama and Gothic horror is a novel idea but in Kuzui's clumsy grasp the result appears as a Hammer Horror reject stuck in a third rate High School Musical rip off. Any crucial pieces of Buffy's past appear in flashbacks at the end of season two so if justice is served, this embarrassing mistake of a prologue can be forgotten as it truly deserves to be.