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.

Ben-Hur - William Wyler - 1959

Billed as one of the greatest cinema epics of all time, setting records at the Oscars that wouldn't be matched until Titanic arrived over thirty years later, Ben-Hur would surely appear today as either a classic epic or a hysterical failure. It is a little disappointing to report therefore that it is neither one nor the other. Lew Wallace's story is filleted and told competently enough by veteran director William Wyler - the sea battle for example is hardly epic but contains some impressive model work and great use of the rowing deck set - and comes to a natural climax shortly into the second act with the legendary chariot race. This scene happily is all that its cracked up to be - cleverly shot with no music and just the sound effects, it contains enough interactive camera work, well-placed edits and thrilling stunts to top a lot of today's hyperactive action scenes. Unfortunately from here the film really tails off: Charlton Heston is hardly a great actor but when he descends into a strop over the treatment of his family and won't listen to reason, he becomes almost unbearable. There was an opportunity for redemption in Wallace's story with Ben-Hur travelling and learning with Jesus but instead Heston vocally refuses this chance, leaving the story with nothing but an all too brief connection between the two characters on the road to the crucifixion. This does at least bring closure to the brief relationship established between the characters earlier but at this stage that isn't enough. After watching Ben-Hur all one is left with is a very impressive action scene with a mildly interesting story tacked on, which for a film of this stature feels a bit sad.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Quantum of Solace - Marc Forster - 2008

There's an increasingly fine line between Craig's Bond and Jason Bourne, and during the frenetically edited car chase that serves as the opening sequence to the 22nd and latest Bond film, anyone could be forgiven for mistaking it for the former. However after a dubious title song from Jack White and Alicia Keyes, the plot quickly kicks in and we are back in Bond territory with yet another international conspiracy to occupy the attentions of Britain’s number one agent. New director Marc Forster (a surprising choice given his previous work on Finding Neverland and Stranger than Fiction) works hard to make sure the action beats come regularly – a running battle juxtaposed with violent scenes from the opera Tosca shows particular flair – but mainly serves to keep the formula ticking over and feeling fresh. Bond is on an increasingly angry rampage following the death of Vesper in Casino Royale, butting heads even more with Judi Dench’s M (the tension and chemistry between the characters is some of the juiciest yet seen) and not even finding time to bed his latest lady friend, the similarly vengeful Camille. Olga Kurylenko is a fitting addition to the gallery of Bond girls, sexy even when roughing it up on the run and convincingly handling action and character beats when they are demanded. Continuing the continuity from the previous film, Giancarlo Giannini returns for and all too brief appearance as Bond’s ex-ally Mathis, last seen mistakenly condemned to torture and interrogation by Bond, leading to an intriguing confrontation when Bond is forced to go to him again and ask for help. Rounding out the cast is Mathieu Amalric as the villainous Dominic Greene who while suitably slimy can’t quite compare to the magnificent Mads Mikkelsen from Casino Royale, but is nevertheless an all too believable villain for the modern world. Seen making deals with both greedy Americans and even (heaven forbid) maybe our own Foreign Secretary, Greene is a reminder that there are no clear cut lines between good and evil any more leaving it harder for bastions like Bond and M to know where to stand. If the producers can only keep this focus on creating impressively relevant stories like this one then Bond shouldn’t ever have to look to Bourne for guidance.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End - Gore Verbinski - 2007

The grand climax to the new millennium’s most popular trilogy, At World's End tries to cram in way too many characters and plot machinations for its own good but brings the story to a satisfactory and interesting close whilst leaving room for a back to basics sequel. Bloom and Knightley are given centre stage which is occasionally irritating since other characters are often pushed aside to make room - Chow Yun-Fat's Pirate Captain Sao Feng deserves a film of his own rather than a hasty mid-film exit - but to their credit the filmmakers opt out of the conventional ending one might have expected for the lovers, ensuring that the film remains surprising. Of course the real star remains Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack who relishes the chance to spar once again with Geoffrey Rush's Captain Barbossa (a glorious return) and even in a left field decision from writers and director has to struggle against multiple versions of… himself. Forced to imagine the inside of Davy Jones' locker, Gore Verbinski conjures up surreal images of endless white sands populated by nothing but Jack Sparrows and mysterious crabs that might seem bizarre for a summer blockbuster but are all the more striking for it. Less effective are the good and bad Jacks that occasionally appear on his shoulders to voice the internal arguments of his conscience since rather than being funny they simply smack of the writers struggling to communicate the overly complex plot that they've conjured up. However aside from the odd revelation that whoever stabs the heart of Davy Jones must become the Captain of the Dutchman (why did no one mention this in the last film?), the plot is mostly both exciting and intriguing and if it demands the audience's undivided attention in order to be understood that's surely no bad thing. It might not have the charm of the first film but with great action, characters, dialogue and music, Pirates is once again the blockbuster to beat.

Drive - Nicolas Winding Refn - 2011

Nicolas Winding Refn is the latest European director to arrive in Hollywood having made his mark at home in Denmark with the Pusher Trilogy and moved into the English language a few years ago with art house prison drama Bronson. Now he has been given a budget and a star (Ryan Gosling) and used them to create a stylish new spin on the classic tale of a man who reluctantly takes on one job and gets pulled into a never ending spiral of violence and death. Gosling, seemingly one of Hollywood’s more intelligent leading men, here channels his charisma into playing the nameless and almost wordless ‘Driver’, a Lone Ranger type character that has clear antecedents going back to The Man with No Name, a man who is at home in a car as Eastwood was with a gun and who protects his anonymity just as fiercely. Clad almost permanently in a white jacket emblazoned with a yellow scorpion, the Driver would probably come across as very cool in any other hands but Refn has other ideas. After an exciting but abrupt opening sequence that introduces us to the Driver at work and with a few brisk edits lets him show off his skills, Refn is already moving on, never lingering over the man, the car or the action in order to give them an aura that they don’t need or deserve. Instead we are thrown straight into meeting both the girl who will prove his undoing (Carey Mulligan personifying innocence) and the gangsters he will eventually be forced to face with bloody results, and its here that Refn starts to have fun. Fans of gangster films might expect a certain level of violence but even they might be surprised by Refn’s extremes; as a woman’s head gets blown off, a man is kicked to death in a lift and comedian Albert Brooks stabs a man in the face with a fork its hard not to wonder: whatever happened to people just shooting each other? But Refn films a lot of it in the sort of slow motion that other directors might reserve for pumped up action scenes, ironically making palatable what would probably be otherwise considered too extreme for what is under the surface a fairly standard crime film. If Refn’s first effort in Hollywood is to push a classic American genre to new extremes his next move could be very interesting indeed.

Bobby - Emilio Estevez - 2006

A passion project for writer/actor/director Emilio Estvez, Bobby takes place over one single significant day in American history – the day Bobby Kennedy was assassinated – and imagines the lives of the ordinary people who might have been there on that day. Thus what could’ve been a history lesson instead becomes an intricately woven mesh of stories, all of which converge on the Ambassador Hotel on that fateful day in June 1968. Perhaps inevitably when there are twenty-two leading actors jostling for attention, some stories are more convincing than others while still others just feel they deserve more time, problems that are heightened by Estevez’s attempts to address people from all walks of life. Discussions of race down in the kitchen between busboys Freddie Rodriguez and Jacob Vargas and sous chef Laurence Fishburne are acutely and sensitively handled although Fishburne’s speech about King Arthur might feel too forced for some people. Less convincing is Ashton Kutcher’s hippie drug dealer who sounds more like someone’s imagined stereotype of a hippie than an actual person. Elijah Wood and Lindsay Lohan as a young bride and groom need more time to explore their relationship while Brian Geraghty and Shia LaBoeuf are sweet but irritating as volunteers who dodge the campaign to get high. Given that these stories continue happily for about three quarters of the film (pacing isn’t Estevez’s strong point) the film can seem a little dull at times but arguably this is the point. These people are meant to be dull ordinary human beings going about their daily lives; the film is about the common ideal that unites them: Bobby, and its here that the film hits home. Rather than make a biopic of Robert Kennedy, Estevez has used the reactions of the characters together with some archive footage to explore what Bobby meant both to America and its people. Building up to the horrific moment of assassination with a mix of huge crowds and quiet moments, the one thing that Estevez communicates more than anything is the great hope that an entire generation had invested in Bobby following as he did after JFK and Martin Luther King and the devastation that followed when that hope was taken away. Having spent so much time with these characters this moment of desolation is much more heartbreaking than a direct focus on Kennedy could ever have been but Estevez goes further to suggest that this is not what Bobby would have wanted. Culminating in a voiceover from the man himself and duet from Aretha Franklin and Mary J. Blige entitled ‘Never Gonna Break My Faith’, the film reminds us how important it is to keep going in this circumstances regardless, which as both a message to take away and a legacy to the great man is something beautiful. Bobby would’ve been proud.

Black Book - Paul Verhoeven - 2006

An intense and gripping World War Two thriller, Black Book marks the return home of Dutch director Paul Verhoeven. Set in the Netherlands towards the end of the war the film throws Jewish singer Rachel Steinn (a marvellously revelatory performance from Carice van Houten) into a fiendishly complicated plot populated by both bickering Nazis and desperate Dutch resistance workers as the world crumbles around them. Some might dismiss the film as another orgy of sex and violence the likes of which was Verhoeven's perceived oeuvre in Hollywood and indeed both are a lot stronger than audiences might expect from a war film like this. While the gore is never explicit, Verhoeven never shies away from depicting the violent extremes under which so many people suffered and died at the time. Likewise while it’s hardly surprising that for much of the film Van Houten is naked – her enforced seduction of Sebastian Koch’s Nazi officer is central to the plot – this arguably serves to emphasise both how far spies in her position were prepared to go and the extent of the humiliation they could expect if caught. Focusing on these issues though is almost doing the film a disservice. On its own terms Verhoeven has created a cracking thriller which may have the occasional plot hole but is filled with beautifully realised period detail, superb sequences of suspense and an intriguing narrative that consistently surprises and engages. More interestingly Verhoeven doesn't fill his story with the sort of good allies and evil Nazis that whitewash so many war films but ensures that every character is a different shade of grey. Thus we have sympathetic Nazi officers and resistance workers who would happily betray their countrymen in order to survive or just make a little profit on the side, making this not only one of the most gripping but one of the most believable war films seen in a long time.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Behind Enemy Lines - John Moore - 2001

Variable at best, Behind Enemy Lines can at least muster some impressive fire fights but falls down almost completely at every other hurdle. Firstly and most disastrously protagonist Owen Wilson loses our sympathies at the outset by whinging loudly about not getting to fight, suggesting he'd rather spark a major war than help keep the peace like he's told. Later of course he does get into trouble but by this stage he's practically begging to have his stupid permed head blown off which is a major flaw when he's meant to be the hero. Gene Hackman is of course much more charismatic but he's stuck back at base listening to Wilson whinging even more on the radio and dealing with a subplot involving countermanded orders that doesn't really go anywhere. Director John Moore who made his feature debut with this film has a few interesting visual ideas - a broken stone angel in the snow on a cliff top is a striking recurring image - but these are few and far between. If anything is to be gleaned from this forgettable war film it’s that Wilson should stick to the stupid comedies that made his name and leave war to the real men like Hackman.

Beetlejuice - Tim Burton - 1988

A hilariously ghoulish comedy, this is only Tim Burton's second film but already establishes most the trademarks that would define his own little niche in contemporary cinema. A young Alec Baldwin paired with Geena Davis (whose career would shortly peak with Thelma and Louise), are the inoffensive innocents whose home is invaded by a ghastly family from the city once they have died, forcing, in a typical Burton twist, the ghosts to play straight man to succession of comic gems that could all steal the show. Catherine O'Hara and Glenn Shadix both deliver their most memorable performances here as a pair of revoltingly pretentiousness home designers, while Jeffrey Jones as the repressed husband matches them perfectly, underplaying against their extravagance to achieve some beautiful moments of comic desperation. Winona Ryder meanwhile has great fun going off kilter as the morbid daughter, providing some of the film's few touching moments as she struggles with depression and ultimately turning out bizarrely sexy as she dances in mid air to Harry Belafonte. These all play second fiddle however to the whirling dervish of Michael Keaton in the title role; best described as terrifyingly hilarious, Keaton spits out insanely quotable lines (Nice F***** Model!) from behind a black and white stripy costume that's destined to become history, bounding around with such manic energy that's it hard to believe this is the same guy who plays the withdrawn Bruce Wayne a year later. As Baldwin and Davis bounce back and forth from an increasingly crass house of the living and a colourful yet twisted office of the dead, the sets and effects might look a little cheap and clunky over twenty years later but they have an innate charm and believability that was sorely lacking in Burton's recent Alice in Wonderland. He might never have gone quite so dark since (how many notice Miss Argentina and her little accident?) but the morbid sense of humour and alternative outlook on normality are firmly established here as well as a partnership with composer Danny Elfman that despite now stretching for at least thirteen films maybe has its finest outing here. It remains to be seen after the lacklustre Alice whether Burton can recapture some the brio that made this so original but regardless of the outcome this will always stand as the first moment we got to look into the brain of one of America's more original directors.

Brighton Rock - Rowan Joffe - 2011

In updating Graham Greene's classic thriller Brighton Rock to the sixties, director Rowan Joffe brings some old school style seedy glamour to the proceedings that make the film a piece of richly evocative viewing. Figures emerge and disappear into the mist, the South Coast glimmers in the sunshine of nostalgia and the sea is an ever present background, both a metaphor for the turbulent times that the town is going through and a handy place to dispose a body. Joffe is less successful at establishing a tone for the piece, veering between establishing shots to make the gangsters seem cool and lingering close-ups of the brutal violence that is their meat and drink, and then attempting to layer some religious symbolism over the top that never really sticks. Happily a stellar cast come together to tell this twisted spin on the gangster genre with enough verve and enthusiasm to make it consistently engaging; Helen Mirren is as good as ever as a spirited landlady turned private investigator while Sam Riley adds another impressive string to his bow as Pinkie, the sadistic gangster protagonist. The real star though is Andrea Riseborough as Rose, the waitress who falls blindly in love with Pinkie when he comes calling, tragically clinging to her faith in his affection even as the evidence stacks up against him. A scene midway through the film with the pair at a record booth in which Pinkie callously vents his true feelings is made simply heartbreaking by Rose's naive passion waiting outside. Its Riseborough who is the heart and soul of the film right up to the final ironic twist that takes the film out on a high after a slightly unconvincing climax and its Riseborough more than anyone who deserves to move on to better things after this.

Brazil - Terry Gilliam - 1985

Years before Twelve Monkeys, Terry Gilliam produced his first masterpiece on a much smaller budget (which unfortunately shows around the edges) and called it for no apparent reason, Brazil. Set in an Orwellian bureaucratic dystopia, Brazil in many ways presents a far more terrifying vision of the future than some more popular sci-fi films. Instead of being ruled over by apes or forced to abandon earth to the rubbish, we face according to Gilliam a world of endless paper. Paper shunted endlessly backwards and forwards between different departments, creating a system of such ridiculous complexity that the government can routinely arrest, torture and murder people and get away with it simply by burying it in the paperwork. Gilliam delights in subverting audience expectations; several times he fills the screen with vistas of beautiful landscapes and elegant buildings that are then revealed to be billboards or models as the camera pulls back. In the end we can are left alongside protagonist Sam Lowry with the same inevitable conclusion: there is no escape. Granted a rare leading role, Jonathan Pryce is perfect as the daydreaming desk drone Lowry, demonstrating a nervy energy and superb comic timing that directors have sadly failed to capitalise on since. In support Michael Palin expertly treads a fine line between good humour and menace as Lowry's friend whose cheerful approach to his job is possibly the most blackly funny element of the film, while surely only Gilliam could get away with casting Robert De Niro as a subversive heating engineer. The film belongs to Pryce though and as a bumbling everyman representing the audience's perspective in this world, there is no one better.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Battle: Los Angeles - Jonathan Liebesman - 2011

The Earth is being attacked by unknown forces? The sunny streets of Los Angeles are for no apparent reason the focal point of the battle? Does that sounds familiar, maybe from every single one of the hundreds of previous invasion/disaster movies from which Battle: Los Angeles resolutely fails to deviate? Director Jonathan Liebesman at least knows how to create good fight scenes but that would appear to be it - all thoughts of character, plot or convincing dialogue are cast aside for the sake of endlessly mindless action. Aaron Eckhart certainly gives his all as ultra-driven Staff Sergeant Nantz which is eventually enough to rouse some enthusiasm from exhausted grunts and a bored audience but his platoon is entirely made up of the sort of one dimensional character clichés that might inhabit a Marine recruitment film. Respectable character actors like Michael Pena and Bridget Moynahan are wasted in all too brief civilian roles and even Michelle Rodriguez who has otherwise carved a niche as the hardcore action chick has nothing to do except run and shoot with the boys. It maybe arguable that its rarer to have the camera thrust among the action with the soldiers like this making it more exciting, but with no characters to engage with and a plot we've all seen hundreds of times before its hard not to wonder what's the point? Star Wars climaxed with an attack on the Death Star. Battle: Los Angeles culminates in an attack on the Command Centre. Somehow all of the latter film's complete lack of imagination, flair or even just plain damn cool is summed up in this example.

Battle of Britain - Guy Hamilton - 1969

A classic war film about one of the most perilous moments in British history, Guy Hamilton crams the great and the good of British film and theatre into telling the definitive story of the Battle of Britain. In committing to screen some of the finest battle scenes ever seen at the cinema, Hamilton sends his camera soaring and plunging through the skies over Southern England capturing some astonishing shots of aerial dogfights that put most of today's CGI artists to shame. It is ironic therefore that it’s this high level of realism that ultimately lets the film down. Naturally the camera spends a lot of time in the cockpits of the various characters but since they all wear oxygen masks that cover everything but the eyes its virtually impossible to work out who's who thus fatally rendering any chance of an emotional connection with the pilots life or death situations. The ensemble all make fine work of their relatively small parts (though its questionable whether you can maybe have too many stars?) but it feels like an exceptional waste to only discover when reading about the film afterwards that a great leading man was shot down at the crucial moment, something that practically never happens in his own films. With all this in mind, mention must be given to Ian McShane who when caught up in the Blitz on the ground conveys some much needed personal tragedy, but its sad to conclude nevertheless that the film can't muster the solid emotional core that the spectacular shell deserves.

Batman - Tim Burton - 1989

Fresh off the back of cult favourite Beetlejuice, Tim Burton's blend of anarchic humour and Gothic high camp made him an apt choice for a second try at bringing the Caped Crusader to the big screen after Adam West’s outing in the sixties. Burton's huge sets and extensive model work may look over twenty years old but the staginess of this Gotham City lends the film an enjoyable sense of retro cool and camp entertainment that is lost in Christopher Nolan's grimy reality. After the manic energy of Beetlejuice, Michael Keaton dials back his performance of Bruce Wayne to deliver a well nuanced portrait of an introvert whose only outlet is dressing up as a bat to play at being a vigilante. This also leaves space for Jack Nicholson's comic but terrifying joker to let rip with some maniacal bouts of madness that dominate the film but too often topple over into ham - everyone may remember Nicholson but on repeat viewings its increasingly apparent that Keaton's is the better performance. Robert Wuhl (who?) and Kim Basinger's plucky investigators are instantly forgettable which only leaves the wonderful warmth and dry wit of Britain's Michael Gough to add anything extra. It can never claim to find the emotional heart of Nolan's entries to the canon (which is fair enough since it probably wasn't trying) but simply as both a comic book adventure and a warm up to Burton's later more complex work, this stands up well enough.

Bamboozled - Spike Lee - 2000

Spike Lee attempts to expose the unconscious racism permeating American society with this faux docu-drama about a black television writer who recreates an old minstrel show expecting it to flop and instead watches it become a wild success. Lee hits the notes perfectly with the minstrel show itself, creating horrific scenes of two black actors in golliwog makeup behaving stupidly while the audience - mainly, but not exclusively white - reacts with increasingly wild appreciation. However his presentation of this writer who comes up with the idea is rather more obtuse. As played by Damon Wayans, Pierre Delacroix is initially horrified by what he has created but then appears to all intents and purposes to go along with it and soak up the acclaim, even to the point of bullying the actors once they begin to feel to uncomfortable with the roles. In today's PC society this is almost more awkward than the show itself, confusing the issues at stake and raising questions as to where Lee's feeling really lie. Such apparently contradictory characters muddle the points that Lee maybe trying to make which means that the film is never the searing exposal of institutional racism that it wants to be or could have been.

The Lion in Winter - Anthony Harvey - 1968

Although this is not directly a sequel, The Lion in Winter finds Peter O’Toole reprising his role as King Henry II after his successful turn in Becket four years previously. Once again this is a look at the King’s personal relationships, but this time with the members of his own family during one tempestuous Christmas reunion: wily Queen Eleanor (Katherine Hepburn) and their three disgruntled sons (Anthony Hopkins, John Castle and Nigel Terry). What follows is a dazzling display of wit, intrigue and dysfunctional family politics that might be occasionally hard to follow but when it seems most complicated really just operates on the assumption that everybody is plotting against everybody else! Adapted from a stage play of the same name, the screenplay is laced with a mordant sense of humour that makes the byplay both very funny and refreshingly modern without seeming at all jarring; it takes immense confidence to include self referential lines like “Of course he’s got a knife, everybody’s got knives, its 1183!” but The Lion in Winter manages to pull if off. Acting wise a young Hopkins makes for a grumpy Richard, the less well known Castle plays cynical middle son Geoffrey and Terry makes John a sullen clumsy teenager which is amusing given his later reputation as the enemy of Robin Hood. It’s the parents who are the most impressive though with O’Toole and Hepburn sparking off each other with a natural chemistry rarely seen since Hepburn’s own partnerships with Spencer Tracy. O’Toole storms, blusters and swaggers, merely letting hints through the armour of the vulnerability he feels around Eleanor while she alternates between exultant rampages when she has him on the ropes and cold cunning when she’s losing. It’s the moments when she too lets the armour slip though which are the most moving as we can see, even though Henry doesn’t, how much she still loves him inside despite everything he’s done. It might be set in 1183 but it’s this complicated, touching and surprisingly modern relationship that makes The Lion in Winter so consistently engaging.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Bad Day at Black Rock - John Sturges - 1955

Twenty-four hours in the life of a small Western town post World War Two when the heroics of the Old West are long gone, Bad Day at Black Rock is an excellent mystery/thriller from The Magnificent Seven director John Sturges. Stopping the train at the little town of Black Rock - literally a street in the middle of the desert - enigmatic one-armed stranger Spencer Tracy arrives to be greeted with suspicion and enmity. Tracy is perfectly controlled in the face of crude bullying from the likes of Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin, turning out a fresh version of the classic mysterious stranger character and never giving anything away unless it’s absolutely necessary. Principal villain duties go a marvellously sinister Robert Ryan who with am ever present and weirdly garish red baseball cap presents a brilliant study of seething resentment and prejudice, barely covered by a mask of cunning politeness. As the film progresses and Tracy and Ryan become more openly antagonistic, Sturges perfectly controls the mystery letting out information one crucial point at a time, so the film culminates in a climax of superb tension and suspense that even dares rewrite some of the stalwart genre conventions. It might not have the wit of Sturges' later masterpieces, but as a revisionist Western Bad Day at Black Rock does a fine job.

Alien - Ridley Scott - 1979

Over thirty years down the line, Ridley Scott's Alien still stands up as a fine piece of sci-fi/horror - the benchmark that all future films would aspire to and (mostly) fail. But why does it work so well? Obviously the plot device of a stranded band of characters being picked off one by one is a time honoured classic, but it is so much more effective here because Scott takes the time to establish them all as individual people. Particular notice must go to Sigourney Weaver as the famous Ripley, slowly emerging as a natural leader as the film progresses and Ian Holm who delivers a beautifully understated performance as Science Officer Ash, magnificently creepy even before the mid-film twist. However the whole cast successfully develop strong characters which pays off brilliantly later, making scenes such as Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) hunting for Jones the cat and Dallas (Tom Skerrit) stuck in the airshaft genuinely tense and frightening, unlike many slasher films which simply trot out the same formula without putting in the work to make us care what happens to the characters. Up against the beleaguered crew is the titular alien which Scott is smart enough to restrict mainly to the shadows and thus through jumps and flashes creates a monster that is truly scary rather than just another man in a creature suit. Later films in the franchise would bring the alien out into the light, but it’s surely at its best here where the imagination can fill in the gaps and at times it’s difficult not to agree with Ash in admiring its purity of purpose as a conscious less killing machine. Alien spawned a whole franchise that refuses to die away, but on this evidence it isn't going to be topped any time soon.

Alice in Wonderland - Tim Burton - 2010

The deranged imagination of Lewis Carroll is so obviously a perfect match for eccentric director Tim Burton that one can only wonder why it wasn't thought of before. Its only when we follow Alice (Mia Wasikowska) down the proverbial rabbit hole that the realisation dawns that maybe it was too obvious. Burton's Wonderland is naturally visually stunning (even in 2D) complete with alarmingly twisted architecture and grumpy flowers, but its difficult to shake the feeling as we follow Alice through the traditional adventures that this is nothing new for Burton. Strangely for a book adaptation it is only when the film breaks away from Carroll's original that the film perks up. Having already replaced Carroll's little girl with a precocious woman of nineteen (we discover this is her second visit to Underland as the locals call it), Burton proceeds to send her off on a quest to overthrow the wicked red queen and reinstate the rightful white queen on the throne which can only be done by facing the legendary jabberwocky... Largely thanks to the quarrelling queens, the film is injected with some much needed vim at this point and finally takes off as an all new action adventure. Bonham Carter is typically brilliant as the tyrannical red queen, veering between hilarious and terrifying but always barking mad, while Hathaway matches her every step of the way as a white queen who is somewhat quieter but all the creepier for it. Burton favourite Johnny Depp on the other hand hardly registers in comparison. Despite being dressed in possibly his most insane costume yet, Alice's scenes with his Mad Hatter are much less entertaining than those with the queens reducing him to a bit player in what is apparently his own movie. Ultimately it seems that this is still what Tim Burton does best; it just took him a while to find something original to do with it.

10 Things I Hate About You - Gil Junger - 1999

The Taming of the Shrew is generally considered to be one of Shakespeare’s more controversial romantic comedies and so a surprising choice to be adapted into an American high school film but it actually works surprisingly well. By removing the misogynist overtones that date the original, director Gil Junger actually manages to turn the story into a comedy that feels relatively fresh which is in itself a rare achievement. In this form the eventual outcome of the story is as predictable as every other high school comedy, but thanks to a focus on character and wit rather than the sort of gross-out humour that the genre is too often saddled with, the film is consistently entertaining. Julia Stiles in her first of a triple bill of Shakespearean roles effectively balances being a ‘heinous bitch’ where other people are concerned with genuine feelings of pain and anger that she prefers to hide behind attitude. Playing against her, Heath Ledger (in his breakout role) shows off his trademark charm to winning effect – his pitch side rendition of ‘Can’t take my eyes off you’ is an instant classic moment – and woos Katherine through more conventional and less misogynist methods than his Shakespearean counterpart, ensuring that while the romance follows a similar course it is far sweeter and much less awkward. The supporting cast all find the right balance of comedy and heart although the real show stealer is Larry Miller’s concerned father whose sarcastic concern for his daughters’ welfare is both hilarious and heartfelt as well providing an excellent modern equivalent for Shakespeare’s older sister marrying before the younger plot. Less convincing is Daryl Mitchell’s laid back English teacher who seemingly spends all his classes bantering with the students rather than actually teaching but he does make one excellent point which sums up why 10 Things I Hate About You works so well both as an adaptation and a film in its own right: “Shakespeare maybe a dead white guy but he knows his shit”.