Saturday, 29 December 2012

Last Action Hero - John McTiernan - 1993

What would normally be a standard Arnold Schwarzenegger action film, Last Action Hero rises head and shoulders above the pack thanks to a deliciously witty script that takes pleasure in sending up both the genre as a whole and Schwarzenegger in particular. Irritating fanboy Danny Madigan (Austin O'Brien) finds himself projected through the cinema screen into the latest movie of his idol, action hero Jack Slater (played by Arnie at his most derivative), and spends an annoying amount of time running after him trying to make him understand why he always knows what's going to happen next. There are some nice side gags (Sly Stallone as The Terminator!) but the film doesn’t really take off until Jack is dragged back into the real world along with the standard scenery chewing British villain (Charles Dance having a ball) and has to learn the hard way that in real life injuries are genuine and nothing ever explodes after just one gunshot! Arnie plays along gamely, endeavouring to pretend as Jack that he doesn’t know who Arnold Schwarzenegger is, gracefully sending up his own image when the ‘real’ Arnie arrives for the premiere of the latest Jack Slater film and even at one point playing Hamlet in Danny’s fantasy which is very funny but hopefully the closest Arnie will ever get to the Bard’s lines. Unfortunately the film also indulges in the sentimental moments that are generally the weakest part in any Arnie film, stopping every so often so that Jack and his new friend can learn life lessons from each other and so the film slows right down, sadly losing the frenetic pace that director John McTiernan generates in the action scenes. However with pastiches and cameos galore ranging from F. Murray Abraham gleefully mocking his Oscar winning performance as Salieri to Ian McKellen doing his best impression of Death from The Seventh Seal, Last Action Hero is still a lot wittier than most standard Arnie or McTiernan movies and all the more fun for it.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Tomorrow, When the War Began - Stuart Beattie - 2011

A group of pretty Australians are forced to become guerrillas in this glossy adventure film that successfully transfers Hollywood production values into a home-grown movie. The characters have no more dimensions than a soap opera but they are all played with enough freshness and verve by the young cast (unknown outside Australia) to overcome the occasionally po-faced script and keep the audience engaged as the country is invaded by enemy troops and the group is forced on the run. Director Stuart Beattie works hard to ensure that the film is not just about fighting and more fighting but that the characters are given some emotional credibility as they struggle to survive and adapt, both to the situation and each other; the moment when de facto leader Ellie (Caitlin Stasey) finally breaks down after days of trying to be an impromptu commander is actually quite moving. Crucially Beattie tells the whole story from the perspective of the teenagers so we are left as much in the dark about the mysterious invaders as they are – a ploy that makes the barely glimpsed soldiers all the more scary but also makes the simple idea of coming home to find houses deserted much more threatening and at times almost thought-provoking. To the rest of the world casting the faceless soldiers as Asians may come across as a little stereotypical but given both Australia’s global position and previous history with the Japanese this is perhaps understandable. Also mustering some effective action to bolster the occasionally predictable character dynamics, the film treads a fairly low key path to create both a self contained narrative whilst also leaving in the potential for a sequel or even a franchise. And given that the story contains no superheroes or monsters but just ostensibly ordinary people, this would be no bad thing.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

To Kill a Mockingbird - Robert Mulligan - 1962

Adapted from the enormously popular novel by Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird is a gentle and deeply moving tale about growing up during the Depression in the Deep South that works brilliantly as both a touching portrait of the loss of childhood innocence and a sharp critique of the institutional racism that was still prevalent at this time. It’s a story filled with small but colourful characters from the tragic but noble Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) to the secretive Boo Radley (Robert Duvall in his first film role) but carried by youngsters Mary Badham and Philip Alford as Scout and Jem whose natural charm and innocence is a delight to watch. The pair’s relationship with their single father, peaceful lawyer Atticus Finch, forms the backbone of the film and it’s the wonderful scenes of family interaction that make the story so much more than an anti-racist slogan. As played by Gregory Peck in possibly the best performance of his career, Atticus is a firm but gentle and endlessly patient figure, developing a warm and quiet chemistry with Badham and Alford that is by turns wryly humorous and sweetly touching. Peck’s finest moments though come in the famous courtroom showdown during which his one-take speech pleading passionately (if a little naively) for racial understanding can’t fail to stir the audience off screen but tragically falls on deaf ears in the jury box; the coda in which the black community acknowledge his efforts is simply heart-breaking. Kudos is also due to director Robert Mulligan whose simple and slow approach to the story effectively recreates a child's nostalgic view of small town Deep South where a mad dog down the street is the most exciting event of the summer. Following Lee’s cue and shooting entirely from the perspective of the two kids enables Mulligan to approach the issues at stake from a fresh perspective; rather than forcing an anti-racism message to the forefront Mulligan keeps it on the backseat until the courtroom, letting the children's incomprehension of the racist attitudes show up how stupid these ideas really are. It’s unlikely that a film this slow and this subtle would be made today – issue dramas are expected to be 'serious' and 'hard hitting' - and thus the fact that To Kill a Mockingbird achieves so much within a simple framework of childhood memories makes it a film to treasure.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Hall Pass - Bobby Farrelly & Peter Farrelly - 2011

An embarrassingly crass failure of a comedy, this latest effort from the Farrelly Brothers sees them plumb the very depths of the toilet from which they pull most of their humour to create a film that can only called a ‘comedy’ because the word ‘disgrace’ has yet to be regarded as an official genre. The plot which follows the adventures of two bored husbands when they’re granted a ‘hall pass’ meaning a week away from marriage, does at least have a wry line of humour buried somewhere about how childish men can be about sex regardless of how old they are but the Farrelly's mostly avoid this for endless scenes of Owen Wilson and newcomer Jason Sudeikis humiliating themselves in the fruitless pursuit of women far out of their league. Whether it be attempts at toilet humour that weren't even funny in the school playground, the ridiculous notion that one lady would even put up with Wilson's nauseatingly sleazy attentions, let alone agree to sleep with him, or the insulting assumption that the audience would actually root for these two pathetic guys, all in all the film adds up to a rather painful experience. Childishness aside though (the box office figures sadly suggest that there are plenty of people who only need the sight of a big black penis to make them laugh), Wilson at one point even goes so far as to claim rights to a girl over someone else simply because he has a steady middle class job rather than a working class job and artistic pretensions, a statement so outrageously offensive that it’s hard not to attack the screen in an effort to break Owen Wilson's stupid nose. Again.

Monday, 3 December 2012

American Beauty - Sam Mendes - 1999

A fresh examination of the darkness at the heart of small town America but without the fantastical elements popularised by films like The Stepford Wives and Blue Velvet, American Beauty betters both of those films with its tragi-comic depiction of a mid-life crisis brought on by a daily routine of nothing but mundane existence. Kevin Spacey in an Oscar winning performance plays Lester Burnham, an ordinary middle-class drone going through the motions with his ambitious wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) and grumpy teenage daughter Jane (Thora Birch) when an unexpected sexual attraction to Jane’s friend Angela (Mena Suvari) awakens a need to revaluate his empty life. What follows is equal parts funny and cringe-worthy as Lester suddenly begins to have fun flying in the faces of what’s expected of him at home and work but reverts to being an awkward and slightly pathetic teenage boy whenever Angela is around, unable to cope with her overt sexuality when he hasn’t felt anything for so long. Spacey handles this balance perfectly, never shying away from the creepy nature of his obsession but finding levels of pathos underneath that ensure he never loses the audience’s empathy, showing them instead a window into the sad confused soul of a man who has simply lost his way in life and therefore is latching onto the only real feeling he can grasp. Suvari herself delivers what is still her finest performance as Angela, slowly peeling away the super-confident exterior to hint at the vulnerable girl underneath struggling to come to terms with the effects of her sexuality. Bening also deserves a mention for the subtle nuances she uses to ensure Carolyn’s frustrations are believable and the character doesn’t simply become a two-dimensional harridan whilst Birch once again pulls off the trick off finding heart within the stereotypically grumpy teenager that has become her trademark. In fact Jane’s growing attachment to withdrawn next door neighbour Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley, also delivering a performance he has yet to better) eventually provides a touching counterpoint to Lester’s tragic downfall. The real star though must be director Sam Mendes who uses his theatre background to great effect, carefully observing the characters with the camera from a short distance and giving full space to the performances and Alan Ball’s marvellous script. It’s hardly fair to call Mendes’ first film his masterpiece given his continually fascinating output, but for sheer elegant quality this is tough to beat.

Away We Go - Sam Mendes - 2009

A change of pace for director Sam Mendes after the intensity of Revolutionary Road, Away We Go also follows a young couple struggling to find a little happiness in an altogether more comfortable relationship. Burt and Verona however are very much in love and are entirely content to spend the rest of their lives in each other’s company as they prepare for the arrival of their first child. As played with beautifully understated warmth and charm by John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph the pair are a delight to spend time with as they bicker and banter their way across America in search of a suitable home to raise the child. Burt is a little goofy and over-excited at the prospect of being a father (Krasinski get a big laugh every time he jumps out on Verona in an attempt to raise the baby’s heart rate), Verona is more pragmatic, wryly tolerant of Burt’s antics yet utterly dependant on his support and together they form what is a very rare sight on the cinema screen: a perfectly happy, refreshingly normal relationship. The drama, such as it is, comes from the variety of amusing and alarming eccentrics Burt and Verona meet on the way and the often disturbing approaches to parenting that the pair are recommended. Allison Janney treads a fine line of dark comedy as a boisterous Southern mother who happily swears and makes fun of her kids in front of them whilst Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey have a happy Montreal house full of adopted children (look out for the lovely maple syrup analogy) that covers a tragic personal secret. In the most bizarre scenes the couple go to meet Burt’s distant cousin LN (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and are increasingly freaked out as she introduces them to her free love approaches to life and parenting. Mendes plays out the scenes for maximum cringe worthy awkwardness before breaking the tension with a gloriously farcical chase with a toddler in a pushchair that gets the film’s biggest laughs. It’s the gently humorous moments between Burt and Verona that are the best though as they work together to overcome the depressing views of parenthood that they witness and simply find a place that’s right for them. It has to be said that the film doesn’t have the same dramatic punch of Mendes’ earlier work but the gentle chemistry of Krasinski and Rudolph and Mendes’ assured direction ensure that what in lesser hands would have come across as maudlin and overly sentimental, is instead something a bit special.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Anchorman – The Legend of Ron Burgundy - Adam McKay - 2004

The first and probably the most popular from Will Ferrell's relentlessly successful comedy stable, Anchorman isn't quite the laugh-a-minute comedy that its been hyped up to be but contains enough brilliantly original one-liners to tickle even the chilliest of funny bones. The main problem is that Ferrell approaches legendary anchorman Ron Burgandy with the same manic acting style he does practically every role, a style that several films later easily becomes tiresome, so while Ron having a childish hissy fit might be funny the first time it quickly becomes repetitive, especially when its repeated in almost every scene. Ron's relationship with his new co-anchor Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate gamely playing the straight man in the duo) is actually quite sweet with moments of genuine emotion, but it’s a shame he can't find a middle ground between this and the hysterics. In support Paul Rudd and David Koechner walk a fine line between funny and obnoxious an occasionally fall on the wrong side, but the best performance has to be from Steve Carrell. As sweet but dimwitted but weatherman Brick Tamaland, Carrell successfully steals every scene with an innocent simplicity that is adorable in a world populated by sleazebags like Ferrell and Rudd. Ultimately however it’s not the characters but the writing that makes Anchorman memorable; a bizarrely violent battle of the anchors is a surreal piece of comedy genius, whilst practically every other scene is salted with an unusually large number of memorable quotes which are well worth bantering back and forth one's rich mahogany smelling apartment and raise the film above a lot of the dross Ferrell and director Adam McKay subsequently turned out.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Cloverfield - Matt Reeves - 2008

Warning: do not watch this film if you suffer from motion sickness. Cloverfield is a classic monster/disaster movie that takes the innovative approach of filming the entire story on a portable camera held by Hud (T.J. Miller), one of the small group of protagonists struggling to survive when something rises out of New York’s East River and begins laying waste to the city. This idea enables director Matt Reeves to tell a story that everyone has seen a hundred times before from a fresh perspective and cleverly ratchet up the tension (we never know more than Hud) by putting the audience closer to the action than they've ever been before. The downside is that the camera very rarely stays still as Hud spends a lot of time running and the rest waving it in his friends faces in an anxious attempt to make sense of what's happening and thus may induce motion sickness in those used to their action under the control of a steadicam. The film is remarkably brief, but 81 minutes of constant movement is still too long to be on the move without giving the audience a chance to focus, acclimatise and digest what has happened.  However with this amateur technique Reeves has hit a whole new level of realism that the likes of Roland Emmerich can only dream of. Gone are the cod heroics, cute dogs and deus ex machina of traditional disaster movies and instead there is simply a group of genuinely believable young people, caught up in normal petty relationship difficulties before they are forced to go on the run. In another neat device, Reeves occasionally cuts to a romantic daytrip that Hud is accidentally recording over, giving the characters a sense of pathos that you might not normally expect from a disaster movie like this. One character having been potentially infected is shunted off to an unknown and possibly brutal fate, while all Hud can do is run, scream and catch occasional glimpses of the monster on camera. These moments just hinting at the creature are the most effective as they let the audience’s imagination create a genuine sense of threat so it’s a shame that Reeves feels the need to close the film by showing off his monster in full, a moment that just goes to show up how unoriginal it is, but this is a minor misstep in a film that takes pride in being realistically bleak rather than stereotypically heroic.

Clueless - Amy Heckerling - 1995

It takes an inventive mind indeed to imagine Jane Austen's gentle upper-class romances displaced to the slick world of the American high school but writer/director Amy Heckerling unexpectedly pulls it off with this adaptation of Austen's novel Emma. The titular socialite and matchmaker is rewritten as Cher (Alicia Silverstone), a spoilt little rich girl whose sole mission in life is to remain the most popular girl in school and from there the plot remains relatively faithful to Austen with all the familiar characters dropping into place around her (Mr Elton is even called Elton!) Of course the change in locales inevitably means that some of Austen's dry wit is lost but Heckerling neatly turns the writer's wry observations of the nineteenth century upper class into a sly satire on the American high school cliques that forever permeate rom-coms. So while a lot of time is wasted on shrieking slapstick, Heckerling manages to mine some laughs from Cher's hilariously oblivious voice overs where other high school films might try to take her imagined woes seriously. Ironically (but perhaps deliberately so knowing the witty minds at work here) Cher's little world feels even more shallow and unbelievable than Emma's village, but whereas in a lot of American films this would be enough to send sensible people running from the cinema, with an adorable guide in the form of Silverstone this actually isn’t the case with Clueless. More than anything though Heckerling has proved that Austen's stories and characters are universal, which ultimately is surely the best compliment the writer could receive.

Monday, 19 November 2012

All Quiet on the Western Front - Lewis Milestone - 1930

Probably the first classic war movie ever made, All Quiet on the Western Front might drag a little today but its savage portrait of innocence lost in the mud of World War One trenches still puts it a cut above the rest. Based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque, the film follows the fortunes of a class of boys who are inspired by a patriotic teacher to volunteer when war breaks out and although it suffers occasionally from an archaic acting style that distances the audience slightly and often makes it hard to keep track of who's who, once the class start being picked off one by one the emotional impact begins to hit home. The final half hour in which one survivor comes home to rail against the teacher who is still unwittingly sending boys off to their deaths before returning to face his inevitable fate must rank as one of cinema's most searing indictments of war; the final tragic moment achieves a beautiful poignancy that is still moving eighty years later. However the most ironic part of all (especially given that the film was made only twelve years after war’s end) must be the fact that these boys are all Germans, giving a rare and at the time surprising glimpse of life on the other side, but crucially at the same time proving that whatever side you're on, war is always hell.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Gods and Monsters - Bill Condon - 1998

Gods and Monsters (a quote from Frankenstein the movie), is an exploration of the last days of that film's director James Whale via an imagined relationship between the director and his new gardener Clayton Boone. Played with lovely dry humour by Sir Ian McKellen, Whale is presented as a reclusive, almost impish figure who indulges in dreams of the past and his impotent homosexuality as a means to keep going in a life that no longer holds much interest. When he latches onto Boone, an unimaginative fan boy who trims the hedges for some extra cash, he finds a new lease of life in drawing him reluctantly into his world, scenes that are nicely understated by Brendan Fraser (an actor occasionally given to ham) but suffer from a seeming lack of direction from the top. Possibly stuck with the fact this relationship is fictional, director Bill Condon seems unsure of where this relationship is going once its started and so despite the lovely performances the film is left stagnant for most of its running time. The best moments take place inside Whale's head as he fondly remembers shooting his most famous work or even imagines himself in the Monster's place with Fraser as the Doctor, a metaphor that neatly encapsulates his newfound purpose. Always intriguing, Gods and Monsters does at least create an interesting portrait of an enigmatic figure in Hollywood history but remains frustratingly vague about any worthwhile truths in his life.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

A Night to Remember - Roy Ward Baker - 1958

Long before James Cameron’s Titanic broke box-office and award records all over the place there was another film recounting the fatal events of the night of April 14 1912, Roy Ward Baker’s A Night to Remember. Where Cameron would later invent a cross-class romance to engage his audiences emotionally Baker has no need of such frivolities, taking instead a documentary style approach to the events and telling the story (almost) as it happened through the eyes of Second Officer Lightoller (Kenneth Moore) and a cross-section of passengers and crew. Moore is a solid and likeable presence who doesn’t need any of the emotional grandstanding that Leonardo DiCaprio would later be so fond of but simply keeps his stiff upper lip firmly in place and shoulders on through the disaster with a quiet determination that is ultimately just as moving to watch. Impressively given that this was shot in 1957 nearly forty years before Cameron’s film set sail, the action and visual effects are just as good. Titanic is recreated in loving detail and looks just as beautiful in black and white while the sinking is shot from such a wide range of angles – long shots of the ship and lifeboats are intercut with vividly realised scenes of panic on decks – that the audience never doubts for a moment that this is the real thing. Where Cameron would later take over an hour to get to the fatal night Baker only allows twenty minutes or so of introduction before spending practically all of his three hour running time charting the course of the disaster which means that the film can feel a little slow at times but ultimately this attention to detail pays dividends. As the ship sinks ever lower, people start dying and the crew’s carefully controlled order descends into panic, it doesn’t matter that we haven’t spent time in the characters heads, we know them well enough to care and thus the final moments of the disaster when the square-jawed husband watches his wife and children sail away and an old man cuddles a strange child with the lie that they’ll find his mother soon are just as heartbreaking as anything Cameron would later concoct. Interestingly in what is one of many thinly veiled critiques of the Edwardian society arrogance that led to the disaster being so devastating, the film spends a large proportion of time aboard the neighbouring ship Californian who was stationed ten miles away from Titanic throughout the whole crises but through a series of communication breakdowns failed to offer any assistance, a plotting device that rams home how unnecessary the extreme the loss of life really was. The final message that this disaster changed the face of maritime safety forever might come across as a little pat but like the film itself it stands as a fitting testament to all those who lived and died on that fateful night.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Casino Royale - John Huston, Ken Hughes, Robert Parrish, Val Guest & Joseph McGrath - 1967

In 1961 producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman smelt a hit in the pages of Ian Fleming’s popular series of spy novels starring British secret agent James Bond and snapped up the rights to all but one of the novels, quickly starting what is now the world’s longest running movie franchise. The gap in the collection was the original novel Casino Royale which found its way to Columbia Pictures, who after the enormous success of the first four films starring Sean Connery inevitably wanted to cash in wherever they could, but with You Only Live Twice already moving into production the drastic decision was made to turn Casino Royale into a spoof and this was the end result. Overrunning its shooting schedule, blowing out its budget and seeing five directors coming in to shoot the vast number of sequences demanded the best way to sum up the film is a very glamorous mess. The plot, such as it is, sees Sir James Bond (David Niven) called out of retirement in response to a vague threat from a non-specific villain and respond by declaring that every agent will be renamed James Bond, a device that lets actors as disparate as Peter Sellers and Ursula Andress all rush around the screen pretending to be Bond whilst they pretend even harder that they know what’s going on. The opening half hour includes an extended and entirely pointless sequence in a Scottish castle with a bevy of beautiful women trying to seduce Sir James for no apparent reason. Later on we are randomly introduced to James’ daughter Mata Bond (the beautiful Joanna Pettet) who goes to Berlin in a London cab spends twenty minutes rushing around a German Expressionist SMERSH lair with a Ronnie Corbett robot. Towards the end she’s kidnapped by a spaceship that lands in Trafalgar Square which takes her to the grand climax at Casino Royale complete with cowboys, seals and Woody Allen burping cartoon smoke. With such absurdities just piling up more and more as the epic running time progresses, the film is quite likely to just send people running for the comforting arms of Sean Connery but there are some gems hidden under the insanity. Both Niven and Sellers deftly use their light comedy skills to mockingly celebrate Bond’s patriotic British image while all the directors have fun playing up his womanising reputation by filling the screen with more impossibly beautiful women in glamorous costumes than most of the official films put together. And if none of this appeals how many other films see Peter O’Toole turning up in a dream sequence playing the bagpipes?

Casino Royale - Martin Campbell - 2006

After Pierce Brosnan hit a wall of ridicule by CGI surfing away from a giant laser in Die Another Day, James Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson wisely took four years to readjust and find a new Bond for a new millennium. Happily the result was this new version of Ian Fleming’s first novel Casino Royale and it was well worth the wait. Drawing a veil over the 1967 spoof film of the same name, Broccoli and Wilson rehired director Martin Campbell who had introduced Brosnan with such success eleven years previously in Goldeneye to pull off the same trick with rising English star Daniel Craig and despite early naysayers, the pair proved to be an exciting combination. Rebooting the character to play Bond in the early days of his career, Craig proves to be a formidable onscreen presence, lacking something of Sean Connery’s charm and casual cruelty but more than making up for it with a caustic wit and brutal fighting style that reminds us very clearly what should never have been forgotten: Bond is a very dangerous man. Crucially Craig is adept at anything Campbell throws at him, proving to be just as comfortable with the hard-hitting action as he does with the sharp emotional scenes that hint at a depth in the character that we haven’t really seen since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Taking Fleming’s novel as the core of the story (for the first time since the early days of Roger Moore), the largest part of the film focuses on the crucial card game at the titular casino and the twisting relationships between Bond, the villainous Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) and the enigmatic Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) that develop as the poker chips fly. Cinematically though poker is hardly the most exciting of sports but Campbell keeps the scene alive, partly by introducing action beats during the breaks in the game (a brutal fight in a stairwell as one of Le Chiffre’s creditors turns up to claim his money with a machete is a highlight) but mainly by getting his camera on the table amongst the players and watching them sweat. Craig’s constant tension, matched by Mikkelsen’s sardonic cruelty is more than enough to hold the audience in suspense when they’re not distracted by Green looking impossibly glamorous in a beautiful backless purple evening gown. Naturally though there isn’t enough story here to fill an entire film and so returning writers Robert Wade and Neil Purvis flesh out the story with scenes in Madagascar, The Bahamas and Venice that follow Bond tracking down Le Chiffre’s minions using, in a happy step away from Brosnan’s Bond, no more gadgets than his wits and a good computer and remind the audience that, despite the clear influence of Jason Bourne and accomplices, this is still above all a James Bond film. What’s more, a Bond for the 21st Century.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Shakespeare in Love - John Madden - 1998

A brilliantly heart-warming comedy with a perfectly written witty script by Tom Stoppard, Shakespeare in Love finds clever parallels between the story of Romeo and Juliet and the Bard's own (imagined) life and in so doing crafts a delightful tale about the inspirations for great art. Although not every single element convinces, director John Madden crafts a believably muddy Elizabethan England that is peppered with enough knowing references and in-jokes to Shakespeare's work that any seasoned bardophile with a heart is bound to fall in love. Alongside throwaway references to a young John Webster and the death of Christopher Marlowe, the script neatly parallels Will’s love affair and desperate attempts to hold onto his career with the developing plot of Shakespeare’s most famous love story, bringing the two together in a first night performance of the play that is tense, funny and ultimately a glorious celebration of Shakespeare’s universal appeal. Gwyneth Paltrow is charming and adorable and probably deserved her Oscar as the love interest Viola but it’s the performance of Joseph Fiennes, cast in an all too rare leading role as the Bard that really engages. Turning from depressed lethargy to manic energy in an instant when inspiration strikes, Fiennes delivers a funny but ultimately moving portrait of the struggle that genius goes through to be created. In support Geoffrey Rush deliver a comic tour-de-force as harassed manager Phillip Henslowe, Ben Affleck appears for an all too brief moment as the hilariously arrogant Ned Alleyn and Judi Dench does what Judi Dench does best in her Oscar winning turn as Queen Elizabeth I. With a light and witty score from Stephen Warbeck that perfectly enhances the finely tuned script, Shakespeare in Love might poke fun but deep down the film is really a tribute to the finest and one of the most enigmatic writers that ever lived.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Scrooged - Richard Donner - 1988

A modern twist of Charles Dickens' classic A Christmas Carol, Scrooged casts Bill Murray as cynical television producer Frank Cross, a man who happily fires people just before Christmas, a season he sees as nothing more than a time for exploitation and money making. Murray's particular brand of deadpan sarcasm would be ideally suited for the role and he is of course always a delight to watch but director Richard Donner is not relaxed enough to just let Murray rip and so he often pushes the star towards the rubber faced gurning he sometimes resorts to in less successful vehicles like Caddyshack and so the character and the film are never quite as funny as they could be. The script itself throws out some gems (the opening Christmas action movie clip is genius) but it can't quite match the witty genius of a Groundhog Day or a Tootsie, its cleverness stretched to the max in fitting the Victorian story into a modern setting. The writers work hard to find modern alternatives to the various supernatural elements, striking gold with a deranged taxi driver as the Ghost of Christmas Past (David Johansen) and veteran John Forsythe as the literally rotting equivalent of Jacob Marley but the film still remains funny rather than hilarious. Carol Kane is just bizarre as the childish yet violent Ghost of Christmas Present and scenes of Bobcat Goldthwait’s fired clerk cracking up on the streets rapidly get tiresome. Murray does at least get to show his range in rather sweet relationship with the always adorable Karen Allen (why is she not in more films?) that gives the film an emotional core that makes it genuinely upsetting in the flashbacks to watch Frank cast her aside in favour of his career and brings the film together in a climax that is surprisingly very moving, proving that however good or not the individual lines are, this classic story always hits the right notes.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World - Edgar Wright - 2010

For his first step into the Hollywood pool Edgar Wright has turned his attention to a series of Canadian graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley that spin a traditional romance through a comic-book quest and found a chance to expand all his technical tricks whilst giving his inner nerd a field day. The tale of Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) who must fight off the seven evil exes of his one true love Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) before he can win her hand serves as a neat metaphor for the inevitable romantic struggles everyone faces at that age but is also a great twist on the traditional comic-book battles – rather than fighting over the fate of the world, Scott and the exes are merely a bunch of people all obsessed with the same girl. On a character level what makes the film relatively different is that Scott, for the most part is a massive jerk. Callously dumping his girlfriend when he meets someone he likes better (but too cowardly to dump her until he has to) and walking out on his bandmates when he has somewhere better to be, Scott is a frustratingly difficult protagonist for most of the film and its too easy to think he really doesn’t deserve the lovely if oddly enigmatic Ramona. Surrounding the pair however are an array of crazy supporting characters who have so many hilarious asides that they regularly steal the film away from Cera and keep it going when he gets especially irritating. Standouts include Allison Pill’s hilariously deadpan drummer and Kieran Culkin’s dryly flippant gay roommate and that’s without even mentioning the seven increasingly ridiculous and increasingly psychotic exes. Only Ellen Wong as Scott's ex falls flat, lumbered with a last-reel change of heart that really doesn't convince and generally taking too much screen time away from funnier characters. The real star though is Edgar Wright who perhaps over indulges at times (the film could be tighter) but laces the film with a wonderfully nerdish vibe – every punch gets an onscreen kapow – that is delightful to watch. Filled with gaming in-jokes that happily don't all require insider know-how to appreciate, Scott Pilgrim might not be the director's most accomplished work but is still a pretty cool blast.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

The Warrior’s Way - Sngmoo Lee - 2010

COWBOYS! NINJAS! FIGHTING! The Warrior's Way is one of those gloriously convoluted movies that clearly saw a bunch of executives try and hang a film around a cool sounding concept. And do you know what, it kind of works. The world's greatest swordsman Jang Dong Gun travels to the Wild West stalked by his ninja nemeses and gets involved in a battle with Danny Huston's dastardly outlaw and thus the stage is set for some awesome action and not a lot else. Director Sngmoo Lee orchestrates some fantastically stylised fight scenes complete with flying black-cloaked ninjas, slow-motion blood spurts and a genius climactic moment that sees the swordsman coming down a corridor lit only by muzzle flashes. The film flags however when Lee attempts to develop some background for his protagonists as well, creating scenes of flashback and exposition in the middle act that drastically slow down the pace - a fatal flaw in any film that is sold on its action. These moments do at least give Kate Bosworth a rare leading role as a tough Southern cookie (derivative as the role is) but the great Geoffrey Rush is given too few moments to shine as a sharpshooter turned drunk and Jang himself, while charismatic, can't escape from the strong but impassive archetype that consistently dogs Asian action stars. But then again maybe this is just nitpicking; surely sometimes bad-ass cowboys fighting super-cool ninjas against glorious painterly backdrops are all you really need.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Push - Paul McGuigan - 2009

Coming across as an attempt to recreate the X-Men without the flamboyant costumes and silly names, Push imagines a world (stop if you’ve heard this a hundred times before) where ordinary people with special powers are hunted by a mysterious government organisation. Categorising its heroes rather dully as pushers (ability to plant thoughts in another’s mind), watchers (ability to see the future) and movers (telekinesis) as well as throwing in shadows, sniffers, shifters, stitches and screamers, Push sets all these characters down in Hong Kong and pretty much just lets them run around after a briefcase that, despite all the importance attached to it, is essentially just another macguffin. Chris Evans does his normal bored wisecracking performance as Nick, a mover dragged into events when a young watcher called Cassie turns up on his doorstep. As played by Dakota Fanning, Cassie is sweet when determined and funny when drunk (yes really), and together she and Nick go in search of Kira (Camilla Belle), carrier of the briefcase, hook up with a shifter called Hook (Cliff Curtis, underwritten) and run away from sinister pusher Carver (Djimon Honsou, replaying the only role Hollywood will seemingly give him) and the Chinese mafia who are seemingly just thrown in for good measure. This is all very well and often quite exciting – telekinetic battles that Nick has with evil sidekick Victor (Neil Jackson) are a highlight – but without the unique names and powers that make the X-Men movies so much fun it’s harder to remain interested in these characters. The plot also suffers both logically when it’s revealed that the Division agents hunting down the heroes have similar super powers rendering their motivations confusing, and structurally with a final act heist style set up that isn’t presented precisely enough to make it either exciting or surprising. The Hong Kong locale is at least an exotic change from the normal superhero setting of New York or Los Angeles but without a good enough plot or memorable enough characters, Push isn’t a strong enough film to compete in the big leagues.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Wrath of the Titans - Jonathan Liebesman - 2012

Having destroyed the reputation of the classic alien invasion story with the crushingly dull Battle: Los Angeles, it’s fairly depressing and less surprising to see director Jonathan Liebesman achieve something similar with 2012’s least anticipated sequel, Wrath of the Titans. The Clash of the Titans remake may have been hollower than a Transformers movie but it was at least a mildly entertaining watch with enough great character actors popping up to keep the story moving along between CGI fight scenes but sadly the sequel cannot even manage that. On the plus side the special effects are much better than the first film with a trio of Cyclops (Cyclopses?) and the volcanic Titan Kronos rendered in impressive detail, whist a few beautiful landscapes hint at the epic scope Liebesman is striving for but that is it. Being a remake Clash at least had a narrative to follow; in attempting to forge out with an original story Wrath falls flat on its face, cobbling together bits of Greek myths with made up macguffins and the pyramid from Alien vs Predator to make up a story that is never for one moment convincing or exciting. Rosamund Pike, taking over from Alexa Davlos as Andromeda (continuity is the least of this film’s worries) at least grits her teeth and spits out the awful dialogue like a professional but Sam Worthington, returning to play Perseus again, simply resorts to frowning a lot, perhaps conscious that audiences are mainly preoccupied with his new hair. In support Bill Nighy hides behind a beard you could thatch roofs with, Edgar Ramirez playing grumpy God Ares stomps around like a grumpy actor sensing a career vanishing before him and Danny Huston is upgraded from Poseidon God of the Cutting Room Floor to Poseidon God of Momentary Exposition. Even returning Gods Zeus (Liam Neeson) and Hades (Ralph) Fiennes are stuck for the most part bickering on a stage apparently rejected from Prometheus next door and although they eventually unite to dispense some bad-ass godly justice the excitement, in what seems to be Liebesman’s trademark style, is only sustained for about two minutes. Making the fatally wrong assumption that we already care about these characters Wrath never tries to engage with anything other than CGI and so ends up being a profoundly dull watch all round. One thing that can be said though, at least this film actually has Titans in it.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

An American Werewolf in London - John Landis - 1981

Legendary director John Landis followed up his cult musical comedy The Blues Brothers with this fresh spin on the werewolf legend and successfully packed in enough laughs, scares and new ideas to make the a major milestone in the history of the cinematic werewolf. In the initial sequences on the Yorkshire Moors, Landis relishes playing the monster movie clichés up to the max as two backpackers stumble into a pub of hostile locals, ignore all their advice and end up in a nasty encounter with the mysterious beast. From then on we follow David the survivor (David Naughton, whatever happened to him?) as he hooks up with sexy nurse Jenny Agutter and comes to the slow realisation that he has been horribly changed by his experience on the moors, changes that eventually lead to the most impressive transformation yet seen on the screen. Given that the effects are all created in camera by makeup guru Rick Baker, Landis bravely elects to take the monster out of the shadows and play the scene in wincingly graphic detail, but the move pays off with a scene that emphasises more than any werewolf film how excruciatingly painful the change must be and unlike a lot of eighties special effects sequences, still stands up alongside today's best CGI. The most interesting twist though is the reappearance of David's dead friend Jack (Griffin Dunne) heralding his transformations in various stages of hilariously gruesome decomposition, always at inappropriate moments but best of all in the back row of a porn cinema in Piccadilly. Bubbling over with Landis' often morbid wit, the inherent darkness of the story doesn't always sit perfectly with the rest, while the inevitable ending feels somewhat abrupt, but as a classic horror/comedy this has undoubtedly reigned supreme until the arrival of Shaun of the Dead over twenty years later.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

The Green Hornet - Michel Gondry - 2011

The Green Hornet is a frankly ludicrous movie, even by comic book standards but the biggest surprise of this highly unanticipated entry into the genre is that occasionally its actually quite good fun. The eccentricities of French director Michel Gondry are curtailed by the material but for his first foray into Hollywood he delivers some impressively flashy action that utilises the 3D effectively rather than simply wasting it on cheap gags. Sadly this isn’t enough though to hide how paper thin the characters are which is unfortunate since he drags the film out to almost a full two hours with repeated teeth-grinding scenes of ‘hero’ Britt Reid flouncing and storming his way around his mansion expecting us to care about his poor little rich boy problems. Seth Rogen is always an entertaining actor but even he can't hide the fact that Britt is a massive jerk Jay Chou as his put upon sidekick Kato can certainly pull off some really cool moves but the character is so derivative of every other Asian action hero to have come West since the advent of Bruce Lee that he actually comes across as quite dull, especially since he can't show any motivation for why he would want to stay with the bullying Rogen. Still the plot does at least attempt to be intriguing and by the time the front half of the car drives up the elevator the film is clearly so ridiculous you might as well just give up and have fun. After all isn't that what comic books are all about?

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Niels Arden Oplev - 2009

The first adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s phenomenally popular Millennium novels, the books that can be credited for starting a wave of Scandinavian crime drama that shows no signs of stopping, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo arrived with a heavy reputation to live up to. Introducing us to nominal hero Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), a disgraced journalist whose laconic cynicism towards everyone around him conceals a drive to root out injustice whenever he smells a story in it, the story quickly takes us away from civilisation to a remote island to investigate a forty year old disappearance. With a whole family of suspicious characters to dig into Blomkvist’s quest quickly begins to resemble a classic Agatha Christie murder mystery, complete with intriguing clues and exciting twists at every turn before a dramatic final reveal. Except that Christie never wrote about gang-rape, girls locked in basements and quasi-religious ritual murders. Shot through with the dull patina of fading history the story is initially quite slow but as these brutal truths are dredged up from the past the film becomes increasingly engrossing, carrying the audience from disturbed fascination to fear and back again. Mystery aside though the main draw is the titular girl with the dragon tattoo; computer hacker Lisbeth Salander has already become an iconic character in crime fiction and now thanks to an intensely committed performance from Noomi Rapace she’s destined to be an equally significant figure in noughties action cinema. Withdrawn behind a wall of Goth style and bad attitude Lisbeth is the sort of person most of the audience would probably avoid in the street but after we witness her taking a brutal revenge on the guardian who sexually abused her, its hard not to be drawn in by the woman’s intense will to survive. The rape scenes are not important plot-wise until later stories but they are still shot in graphic detail by director Niels Oplev, a device that prepares the audience for the horrors to come whilst introducing them to Lisbeth and Larsson’s world with an intensity that is shocking for those used to their violence wrapped in Hollywood candy. Long and complicated it maybe but happily Oplev’s film lives up to the hype, delivering to cinemas a dark and twisted thriller the likes of which has never been seen before.

The Girl who Played with Fire - Daniel Alfredson - 2009

Picking up the strange and enigmatic friendship between Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) and Listbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) where it was left hanging at the end of the previous film, The Girl Who Played with Fire finds Lisbeth returning to Sweden after her lucrative trip abroad only to walk straight into a whole mess of danger. A big break for Blomkvist turns nasty when a pair of freelance journalists working a sex-trafficking story are brutally murdered and Lisbeth is implicated, forcing her to go on the run and relive some dirty secrets from her family history, for where Tattoo was a self contained mystery, Fire has a broader aim, painting a bigger picture of Larsson’s world and characters. Lisbeth’s flashback in Tattoo as she watched Martin Vanger burn hinted at her fiery past but now we are granted more details as both she and Blomkvist turn their attention to her father Alexander ‘Zala’ Zalachenko (Georgi Staykov), a bitter and malevolent old man left deformed by his previous encounter with his daughter. Zala doesn’t appear in person until the climax but his presence hangs over the film like a malevolent cloud drawing the investigative duo into his predictably dark past until they can’t think about anything else (frustratingly the murders are soon pushed aside in favour of a wider conspiracy). In villainy Zala is represented for the most part by big blonde henchman Niederman (Mikael Spreitz), a cross between Sandor Clegane and Jaws who due to a rare disorder feels no pain, a twist that almost pushes the film away from its normal gritty extremes to almost Bondian excess. His action moments though are contrasted with drier scenes as Blomkvist attempts to track down the elusive Zala by bullying a succession of scared and grumpy old men into revealing information they’ve kept hidden for forty years as part of that conspiracy, a plot that rapidly gets a lot more complicated than the Vanger scandal. Naturally this is just as fascinating as the mystery in the first film (although it may take several viewings to fully understand every plot detail) but since Blomkvist and Lisbeth spend most of the film working separately, the emotional appeal that drew audiences in the first time around is somehow lacking, despite Blomkvist winding up his colleagues with his relentless Lisbeth obsession. With an even more dramatic and brutal climax than Tattoo, Fire is certainly a fitting sequel but as the story is left open to be continued in the final film rather than forming a closed arc like Tattoo, the film can never be quite as satisfying.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest - Daniel Alfredson - 2010

Joining an elite group of female action heroes like the Bride and Buffy the Vampire Slayer who clawed their way out of their own graves, Lisbeth Salander returns after the battering she received at the climax of the previous film to fight back against the increasing number of people who want to lock her away. Since this is ostensibly the real world though Lisbeth has to spend the first third of the film in hospital before moving to a holding cell in preparation for the final showdown in court between the conspirators and Blomkvist’s investigation team. Dramatically this is a problematic structure as director Daniel Alfredson can do little but cut between Lisbeth’s cautious recovery, Blomkvist and his lawyer sister (Annika Hallin) looking increasingly harried and the conspirators coldly anticipating their every move. A token action scene with a pair of Serbian gunmen and a shocking moment early on when a sweet old man goes into hospital and shoots a patient in the head shake up the drama but otherwise the film consists for the most part of people talking urgently in rooms. The trial itself is a tense affair as unctuous psychiatrist Dr Teleborian (Anders Ahlbom) tells a string of cruel lies about Lisbeth’s character but the resolution is suspiciously easy given the amount of evidence stolen or discredited before hand and does raise the question of whether evidence acquired by hacking can really be legally used in court. The fact that the film is just as intriguing and engrossing as the previous two has to be then for the most down to the performances. Michael Nyqvist continues to provide a solid centre to the story as the driven Blomkvist, his natural charisma leavened by a dry sense of humour that makes it easy for the audience to root for him even as his staff begins to fall away. Noomi Rapace in what has already become a career defining role continues to inhabit Lisbeth with intense dedication, freezing other characters with single cold stare but absorbing the audience with tiny emotional nuances that hint at the feelings raging beneath the mask she displays to the world. With its insanely complicated conspiracy plot carried over from Fire, Hornets was never going to deliver quite the same intense experience as Tattoo but is still a good enough film in its own right, enjoyably more intelligent than most of the thrillers that emerge from Hollywood.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

The Three Musketeers - Stephen Herek - 1993

Alexandre Dumas' classic swashbuckler is revamped yet again, this time into a Disney action movie and if the story is weakened by the inevitable Hollywood bastardisation, it does at least succeed as a fun-filled action romp. It doesn't help that Chris O'Donnell is predictably terrible as leading man D'Artagnan, visibly straining to act during emotional scenes but still failing miserably, leaving us with nothing but his big plastic face to look at. The musketeers themselves are more fun with Kiefer Sutherland and Charlie Sheen having great fun swaggering through the action scenes, although this can't hide the fact that they both clearly get bored every time they're called upon for something serious. By far the most entertaining though is the belligerent Porthos played by character actor Oliver Platt who relishes the rare opportunity to play alongside the stars and brings some much needed genuine comic timing that, given the lack of other talent on display, pretty much steals the whole film. In support Paul McGann is reduced to shrieking in a high pitched voice as an old rival of D'Artagnan but principle villains Tim Curry and Michael Wincott deliver enjoyably menacing and conniving performances despite having played very similar roles many times before. Given the lack of decent character moments and imaginative storytelling the later remake of Dumas' The Man in the Iron Mask stands as better film, but an audience simply seeking swashing and buckling could do a lot worse. At the very least it’s far less ridiculous than Paul Anderson’s ludicrous 3D version…

Throne of Blood - Akira Kurosawa - 1957

Legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa turns his attention to Shakespeare's great tragedy Macbeth for the story of this samurai epic and in so doing has created a film that must rank amongst the director’s finest work. Wreathed in wonderfully atmospheric fog, feudal Japan makes a neat parallel for dark ages Scotland and a boisterous Toshiro Mifune makes for a particularly enjoyable Macbeth whether he be muttering darkly into his beard or storming manically round the wonderfully named Cobweb Castle and nearby forest. However its the little directorial flourishes that are most memorable; in a piece of wonderfully economic filmmaking Kurosawa reveals that a murder has taken place with a single shot of a rider-less horse returning home - an image that is far more chillingly because we can only guess the cause. Similarly in the silence before the final battle at Cobweb Castle the sound of chopping axes echoing through the night hints at what the invading army plans but by withholding expositional scenes in the camp, Kurosawa lets us be unsettled with Mifune's waiting troops. In fact such is the director's visual flair and imagination that this stands as not only one of his best films but also one of the greatest interpretations of Macbeth ever committed to celluloid and thus is well worth seeing on both counts.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

The Taking of Pelham 123 - Tony Scott - 2009

Tony Scott knows all there is to know about making classy and (relatively) original action thrillers but it seems that when it came to remaking this story from 1974 about a hijacked New York subway train he had nothing fresh to add. From the very first minute Scott piles on the swanky slo-mo shots and the funky soundtrack to introduce us to the gang of villains but this is de rigueur for a Scott film by now so is hardly enough to pull an audience in. John Travolta treads a fine line between ridiculous and cool as lead bad guy Ryder (Sunglasses in the subway, really?) but rapidly loses our attention with a performance that is so loud and aggressive that it verges on ham. Much better is co-star Denzel Washington who once again excels at playing an ordinary man forced into extraordinary circumstances but he is let down by a script that becomes bogged down in character nuances that could be sketched in a few sentences. Writer Brian Helgeland is clearly interested in the developing relationship between Washington and Travolta over the phone but this is already unbalanced by Travolta's inferior performance before it is dragged out just long enough to lose all the pace and tension requisite to keep and audience interested in a thriller of this nature. As Scott and Washington proved in their next film Unstoppable (a whole twenty minutes shorter), it’s perfectly possible to drop in character beats without losing the pace. A third act runaway train goes someway towards redeeming this - shot with Scott's traditional glossy shaky camera and quick cuts this is the highlight of the film - but Helgeland loses it again in the final moments. A final twist about Ryder's motive is intriguing but hardly shocking while a foot chase across New York relies on too many implausible coincidences to convince. Luckily for Scott and Washington another runaway train was waiting just around the corner...

Taxi Driver - Martin Scorsese - 1976

Arguably Martin Scorsese's first masterpiece and certainly his greatest collaboration with Robert De Niro, Taxi Driver is a brutal and vicious howl against a world that no longer takes care of its own. Whereas in the following two films, New York New York and Raging Bull De Niro would simply play pathetic brutes who can't communicate without violence, his Travis Bickle is rather more complex. Whilst its true that his harassment of Cybil Shepherd feels like an embarrassing forerunner of his treatment of Liza Minnelli in their later film, Scorsese is confident enough here to spend plenty of time alone with his protagonist so that despite his behaviour, we can empathise if not sympathise with the man's tragic loneliness. In support Harvey Keitel makes a rather unconvincing pimp but a young Jodie Foster is astonishing as his prostitute prodigy. Aged just thirteen, Foster delivers a performance of such astonishing naturalness and maturity that it’s a wonder she didn't win more awards. The real success story though is Scorsese himself; the film certainly isn't perfect - the ending feels clumsily tacked on in order to give the film an additional message - but coming in the middle of a decade in which his films were characterised by unfeeling and distancing protagonists, Taxi Driver stands out as something greater, something that resonates rather than repulses.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Michael Clayton - Tony Gilroy - 2007

Michael Clayton is one of the most highly acclaimed thrillers of recent years winning award nominations all over the shop and so it is rather disappointing to discover that for a large part of the running time the film is actually quite dull. Legal thrillers can be great but in order to succeed they have to cater for an audience not familiar with legal ins and outs; unfortunately writer/director Tony Gilroy is trying so hard to balance this with making a film that looks stylish that he ends up failing to do either. The film starts almost at the end the story before flashing back to establish events leading up to this point but its at least another half an hour before anything starts making any sense and so for the audience is left struggling to keep up. Happily the second half picks up with a juicy murder to justify the genre classification and culminates in a well staged sequence that repeats events we saw at the beginning but from an unexpected perspective. Even so its hard not to leave with a feeling that Gilroy has chopped away a lot of plot and character beats in order to bring please the studios and bring in a two hour runtime; why else for example would George Clooney (in serious mode as the titular lawyer) get out of the car at a crucial moment to look at horses for no apparent reason?

The Men Who Stare at Goats - Grant Heslov - 2009

The Men Who Stare at Goats is an odd little film, uncomfortably straddling the join between comedy and drama to the point where it’s hard to tell whether it’s being deliberately clumsy or is simply a case of dodgy filmmaking. Purporting to tell the true story of a secret US army unit who trained soldiers with psychic abilities, the film is a scattershot collection of funny but all too brief vignettes full of great character actors kicking back and pretending to be hippies. Jeff Bridges channels his Dude persona as the battalion commander, George Clooney has great fun playing the sort of deluded idiot that could previously be only found in a Coen Brothers film and Kevin Spacey sulks and squirms as his rival before, in a scene of pure comedy gold he gets high on acid and has a conversation with a bug. So far so true, but these moments are only flashbacks in a framing device created especially for the movie in which an older Clooney takes young Ewan McGregor on a quest through the Middle East and teaches him about the battalion. Clooney is clearly trying hard here but McGregor is the sort of vaguely irritating protagonist-out-to-find-himself that we've seen a hundred times before and director Grant Heslov fails to make these fictional segments as sparkly and entertaining as the (ostensibly) true flashbacks. Furthermore Heslov's attempts to comment on current conflicts through various characters that Clooney and McGregor meet along the way feel either clumsy or nonsensical, leaving the audience confused as to how to react to the changes in tone. Regardless of whether the story of the psychic unit is true or not it clearly is one that's worth the telling, but maybe with a more direct narrative structure that doesn't get sidetracked wandering around in the desert.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

The Missing - Ron Howard - 2003

Potentially a gripping Western thriller, Ron Howard's The Missing has many great scenes and captures some beautiful landscapes but suffers from an uneven pace and tone that hampers the narrative development. After an opening section that focuses purely on Cate Blanchett's hard-bitten frontier wife, establishing her with a family that are subsequently killed or kidnapped, the film suddenly jumps away to follow the villain of the piece, a move that shatters the milieu that Howard apparently took so long to establish. It doesn't help that this villain is an evil Indian witch doctor who as played by Eric Schweig is a fantastically menacing and disturbing presence that lends an intriguing strain of mysticism to the bleakly realistic old west, but also a narrative device that feels horribly stereotypical and regressive, particularly since he isn't granted many lines beyond grunts. That said Blanchett is a striking presence, generating a great chemistry with estranged father Tommy Lee Jones (surely the only actor alive who could convincingly play a white man turned Indian) that powers the drama through the quieter moments, and Howard manages to create some intelligent action scenes that mainly develop naturally from the drama and in the end bring the film to a suitably gripping climax despite the earlier stumbles.

Backdraft - Ron Howard - 1991

An action film about Chicago firemen doesn’t sound very exciting and it has to be said journeyman director Ron Howard fulfils these expectations to the letter. Kurt Russell and William Baldwin are two brothers in the fire service who are continually quarrelling for no apparent reason until they are forced to put aside their differences and work together to fight the good fight and put out those nasty fires gosh darn it, proving themselves to be lovely heroic Americans along the way and so on along those familiar paths. In the meantime J.T. Walsh does his usual thing as a slimy public official, Donald Sutherland steals every scene he can as a deranged arsonist and Robert De Niro investigates the cause of a series of mysterious ‘backdraft’ fires (a phenomenon never properly explained in 130 minutes) in a subplot that starts off very interesting and technical before just petering out in a surprise revelation that can’t seem to summon the energy to be surprising. Along the way the film spends a lot of time following the fire engine crews during their daily business and through the actual mechanics of fire fighting which is always mildly interesting, although they only ever seem to be summoned to epic building sized blazes (do no cats get stuck up trees in Chicago?) and never seem to deal with false alarms of chip pan fires. Howard was still a few years short of Apollo 13 when he made this film but he demonstrates a confident hand directing action that would later put him in good stead for his Dan Brown adaptations, and has some fun throwing around CGI fire like there’s no tomorrow. Doubtless the effects were very impressive in 1991 but with the cynical eyes of twenty years in visual effects advancement there is hardly anything that creates the same terrifying effect Howard was doubtless trying to achieve. Worthy as it is for trying to give firemen more recognition Backdraft has little to make it lastingly memorable.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Frost/Nixon - Ron Howard - 2008

The moment when popular TV host David Frost talked ex-President Richard Nixon into admitting guilt in some part for the Watergate scandal has gone down in television history as great a dual of wills, an idea that writer Peter Morgan turned into a successful play Frost/Nixon and then reworked for this impressive film adaptation. Given that the script was essentially a dialogue between two highly intelligent men with opposing agendas, Morgan and director Ron Howard have done a fantastic job in opening the story out to feel more filmic, expanding the scope to examine both the build up and the aftermath of the interviews on a wider scale. Taking a good forty-five minutes before the pair come close to sitting down together the film is hardly the most kinetic of thrillers, but Howard uses this time wisely, carefully threading in the historical information that might be relevant and crucially building up the tension, using Frost’s team of researchers as mouthpieces to ram home how much is at stake both on a personal and a political level. Portraying Frost as not taking the interviews seriously at all and focusing entirely on the financial side isn’t completely believable, but this pays off when we finally get into the television studio and we can only join the researchers cringing in agony as Nixon calmly wipes the floor with Frost’s every effort. Having gone so far though the eventual turnaround is all the more gripping and here Howard is sensible enough to sit back and let Peter Morgan’s screenplay, adapted largely from the actual interview transcripts, to come to life in the capable hands of Michael Sheen and Frank Langella. No doubt helped by the fact that they had been playing these moments together on stage for months, the pair are electrifying together, trading questions and answers, accusations and defences back and forth like boxers in a ring and although their only weapons are words the sparks are just as tangible. Sheen the chameleon repeats the trick he already used with Tony Blair and disappears into the role of Frost until the two become synonymous; in his capable hands Frost’s legendary charm becomes an amusing front which at crucial moments he lets slip to hint at the fierce drive beneath the seemingly shallow exterior. Langella bears little resemblance to Nixon but he has such a strong presence and fierce integrity that the audience will be gripped instead by the complex emotional journey that this infamous figure goes through as he’s forced to think again about his actions for the first time. Ironically in this age where television screens are saturated with stupid people Frost/Nixon may not find the audience it deserves but as both an intense character drama and a recreation of a key piece of history, the film is a great success.  

Cinderella Man - Ron Howard - 2005

A biopic about Depression era boxer James Braddock, Cinderella Man dusts out every sports movie cliché that has since been celebrated and destroyed to retell the story that invented them all in the first place. Supporting a family with a steady boxing career in the late twenties, Braddock struggles dangerously close to the edge when his career and money disappear in the Crash before he’s offered one last fight and begins an inevitable comeback. Of course this whole plot is entirely predictable almost from the outset but being smart enough to realise this, director Ron Howard doesn’t try and force tension into the plot where there isn’t any but instead focuses in detail on the characters and their milieu, letting the tension spring naturally from the empathy the audience soon develops with them. Howard recreates the world at the bottom rung of the ladder in exquisite period detail, taking the time to explore every little problem besetting both the Braddocks and to some extent those around them, but the film’s real joys lie in the performances. Returning to work with Howard for the second time after the award winning A Beautiful Mind, Russell Crowe is outstanding as the embattled Braddock, embodying with tragic dignity the stubborn honour of a man determined not to let circumstances drive him down and bulking himself up to be convincing physical threat inside the boxing ring. In support Paddy Considine is cut short shrift with a character rather obviously signposted as ‘what might have been’ for Braddock but Renee Zellweger is perfect as Mae Braddock, torn between her family’s needs and terror of what might happen if James goes back in the ring, and Paul Giamatti is brilliant as ever playing tirelessly loyal manager Joe Gould. All this time Howard spends at home then goes towards the emotional payoff in the boxing ring as the climactic bout approaches and the stakes are raised even more by Braddock’s man-mountain opponent Max Baer, a figure built up to be such a dangerous physical threat that the clichéd outcome starts to appear doubtful. Howard has never directed anything remotely sporty before but in the ring he lets the camera dance confidently around the players capturing every blow in careful detail but crucially knowing when to cut away to the nervous listeners. Some of these which include people gathered in a church feel a bit forced, suggesting somehow that Braddock is fighting on behalf of all New York’s poor, but this is a minor aside; essentially we care about Braddock and therefore we are gripped enough by the fight not to focus on the obvious ending before it comes. Sometimes it seems an old cliché, if redone well, can be just as effective as a new idea.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Spider-Man 3 - Sam Raimi - 2007

The third and least popular Spider-Man movie from Sam Raimi’s trilogy, Spider-Man 3 isn’t really as bad as everyone makes out, it simply like all good franchise movies attempts to push the characters further and explore new territory but is hampered by the same faults that underpinned the previous films. Realising perhaps after the massive success of Batman Begins that the breezy tone of the previous films wouldn’t be taken so seriously anymore, Raimi attempts to explore Peter Parker’s dark side as the adulation that Spiderman brings him begins to go to his head and he begins to lose sight of his relationship with Mary-Jane. With the aid of a mysterious alien symbiote known already to devoted comic fans as Venom, Raimi manifests this new personality twist with startling literalness, giving Spiderman an all new black suit that does at least look pretty damn cool and making Peter… grow a stupid haircut and act like a dick. Raimi may have thought that dressing Peter in style, giving him an emo fringe when he’s being bad (just in case we can’t tell)  and making him dance down the street was cool but Maguire is such a callow presence that he just comes across as ridiculous. At least when Venom finally appears as a fully fledged villain he looks excitingly feral and dangerous, a beast-like anti-Spiderman, but by then the film has progressed so far that he barely has time to register before the climactic showdown. For all their faults the Green Goblin and Doc Ock were given time to grow as characters in their own rights, with Venom’s screen time stolen by new villain Sandman (Thomas Haden Church, doing a good job with what he can) and the need to finish the Harry Osborn/Goblin story arc, its hard not to wish Venom had been saved for a later film and the Peter’s dark side driven solely by good ol’ fashioned emotions. After two films of James Franco’s acting making everyone else look good it was clear that we wouldn’t be allowed to escape this time and sure enough, Franco returns to put more strain into both of his expressions and finally throw himself into some action as the new Goblin is unleashed. In fairness his fights with Spiderman are some of the most spontaneous and exciting but neither Maguire or Franco are strong enough actors to make us care about their broken friendship and the final resolution  can be seen coming half a mile away. Despite all the faults of both the film and the overall franchise though it did not deserve to end at this point when surely there is so much more source material to be plumbed. Sadly such are the whims of the studios.

The Witches of Eastwick - George Miller - 1987

The devil comes to small town America in this camp comedy horror vehicle for Jack Nicholson. As dashing and roguish new playboy-in-town Daryl Van Horne, Nicholson is perfectly cast with director George Miller happily giving him free rein to unleash his arsenal of manic twitches, grins and raised eyebrows as Daryl seduces his way into Eastwick’s collective pants. Of course there is a dark secret underneath this charming exterior which the ladies eventually cotton onto but unfortunately Miller feels obliged to resort to cheap CGI for the climax which is a shame since Nicholson is probably a strong enough actor to carry it all the way. Co-starring as the titular witches, Michelle Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon and Cher are all fun, sharp and sexy though they do occasionally fade in the force of Nicholson's grins. With a thrilling score from John Williams as well, it’s a shame then that the script and direction often fall short of the performances; despite being called The Witches of Eastwick the film fumbles the question of whether the girls actually have magical powers themselves or they simply develop Daryl's influence. Also Miller seems unsure about the tone of the film, often mixing farcical comedy with sub-Exorcist horrors (one memorable sequence sees Veronica Cartwright vomiting cherry stones) to the point that the audience is left unsure how it is meant to react. Apparently the original novel is a sharp satire of small-town American life but it seems that even with a strong cast Miller didn’t know how to translate this to the big screen. Much like Frank Oz’s recent remake of The Stepford Wives, The Witches of Eastwick rules out satire and just struggles for light comedy.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Me and Orson Welles - Richard Linklater - 2010

A fictional peek into the world of a very real genius on the cusp of his first success, Me and Orson Welles imagines the influence that a man such as Orson Welles could have had on a boy on the cusp of manhood. Zac Efron belies his annoying reputation and turns in a mostly credible performance as a student who stumbles into the Mercury Theatre just before Welles is due to open his legendary production of Julius Caesar. The mistake that director Richard Linklater makes though is to forget that Efron is really only our eyes in this world and as such his problems are far less interesting than everything else going on around him, a mistake that has irritating repercussions when the film becomes tied up with his romantic petulance when really it should be focusing on the run up to opening night. On the plus side Christian McKay makes a superb Orson, capturing the great man's presence, charm and bombast alongside the arrogance and sly cunning that made him so many enemies as well as fans on his way up. Such is his dominating presence though that between him and Efron's aforementioned growing pains, the world of the theatre and the play (beautifully recreated by Linklater) not to mention a whole eccentric supporting cast, don't get much of a look in which is a shame given the talent involved, both of characters and actors. It is undoubtedly interesting to watch a piece of dramatic history in the making but maybe because it is told from the perspective of an outsider rather than Orson herself, the film does not ultimately make any real emotional impact, which given the inherently emotional nature of the craft on display is a surprising disappointment.

Marnie - Alfred Hitchcock - 1964

Something a different from the master of suspense and the only film in the Hitchcock canon named after the main character (Rebecca is dead), Marnie as Hitch so astutely suggests in the trailer, resists classification. While still containing elements of a thriller (a scene in which Marnie breaks into the company safe is as nail bitingly tense as anything the director has ever done), Hitch eschews his usual tricks to try and delve into the psychology of Marnie and her captor/husband Mark Rutland. With Tippi Hedren relishing the chance Marnie afforded to follow up The Birds with a more complex character and Sean Connery pushing his newly minted Bond persona over into possible perversion by playing Mark, the pair's sexy yet often uncomfortable relationship provides most of the tension and the mystery throughout the film. Also, in a plus for a Hitchcock film, some of the supporting characters are more than just ciphers, with Louise Latham standing out in two scenes as Marnie's awkward mother and Diane Baker playing an excellent third to Hedren and Connery, often driving the plot forward when the film is in danger of sinking under the weight of all the relationship issues. It’s unfortunate that the second part of the film when Marnie and Mark are married feels rather sluggish at times, especially since the final revelation on which it hinges feels rather banal by Hitch's standards, but this shows that even towards the end of his career the director was capable of attempting something a little different, and for that Marnie should be applauded.

Friday, 29 June 2012

Season of the Witch - Dominic Sena - 2011

The latest in an ever increasing line of movies in which Nicholas Cage wantonly destroys his credibility, Season of the Witch finds the star fighting witches and demons in faux medieval Europe, and yes this is as terrible as it sounds, but at least this time there's a bit of fun to be had along the way. Cage does the usual earnest-but-trying-to-be-cool acting that he reserves for this sort of film, playing a crusader who turns from bloodthirsty Christian warrior to disillusioned outcast after he accidentally stabs a woman (yes the plotting is that pathetic) and then gets stuck in a fantasy road movie, escorting a witch to trial. Cage trots along having adventures that range from the mildly entertaining to the snort-inducingly ridiculous while a respectable band of character actors (presumably they all had mortgages to pay) struggle to bring the feebly written characters to life. Claire Foy chews every piece of scenery in sight in an effort to be malevolent and mysterious and not make it obvious she’s trying to set the group against each other. Stephen Graham turns in rare bad performance but luckily a delayed release date ensured his career could survive the hit, Robert Sheehan who hasn’t been seen in a cinema since, doesn’t seem to have been so lucky. Having abandoned all pretence of historical credibility right from the off by misdating the crusades by over a hundred years, director Dominic Sena attacks the inevitably CGI heavy climax with a similar lack of subtlety, attempting a pointless twist and unleashing a monster blizzard that does at least contain a cool B-movie first in the form of zombie spider monks. Cage and the always reliable Ron Perlman maintain their dignity to the bitter end but Sena needs to learn that lots of cheap CGI and a Christopher Lee cameo do not automatically make a good fantasy horror film. The zombie spider monks were a pretty cool idea but that’s about it. In the previous two years Soloman Kane and Black Death already proved that films like these are hard to pull off convincingly. Season of the Witch just reaffirms the point.

The Social Network - David Fincher - 2010

Facebook has one of the defining inventions of the last decade, irrevocably changing the face of social interaction across the whole world and so creating a biopic of its founder, a mere seven years down the line feels particularly apt. Director David Fincher dials back on the neo-noir style visuals that made his masterpieces Fight Club and Se7en so striking but, with the help some great performances, still manages to create an equally engrossing film out of the Greek tragedy of destroyed friendships that apparently marred Facebook's creation. Jesse Eisenberg is superb as introverted genius Mark Zuckerberg; even as he arrogantly walks all over everyone he needs to help fuel his latest ambition then petulantly wonders why they turn against him, Eisenberg never completely loses the audience’s sympathies, cutting a faintly pathetic figure in his inability to really connect with anybody. Also impressive is British actor Andrew Garfield as Mark's friend Eduardo Saverin who sticks by him, turning a blind eye to how one sided the friendship is, and provides the heart of the movie as he struggles for Mark's attention with the opportunistic Sean Parker (a notable turn from singer Justin Timberlake). Fincher mainly sits back and lets this play out in the hands of Aaron Sorkin’s intelligent dialogue, with his only major stylistic contribution being a boat race set to a synthesized revamp of Grieg's Hall of the Mountain King. Narrative wise though he cleverly structures the film around the two simultaneous court cases that Mark simultaneously faced as the network was poised to go Global, flashing back to the relevant events in Facebook’s genesis from each one. This technique is initially confusing as it takes a while to get to grips with three different time frames but ultimately works out as the quickest and most coherent way to cover a lot of plot and highlight the crucial turning points of the story. For a long time this is all very interesting but not much else, it isn’t until the final reel as the money rolls and the relationships fall apart that the great tragic irony of the story hits, the fact that the principle contributor to social interaction in the new millennium so far was incapable of achieving anything similar in his personal life, a message that in its own small way is as dark as any as of the more obviously extreme in Fincher’s catalogue.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Melinda and Melinda - Woody Allen - 2005

A more intriguing proposition than a lot of his more awkward films, Woody Allen's Melinda and Melinda takes one simple narrative hook – an uninvited guest at a dinner party – and uses it to question whether life is a comedy or a tragedy. Thus two stories unfold simultaneously, both revolving around a woman called Melinda and with Allen's writing on form for once – this includes some cracking one-liners – both neatly counterpoint each other and make the audience think about how easy it is for simple situations to spring to one extreme or the other. It helps that Allen has assembled a particularly fine cast with Radha Mitchell shining in not one but two all too rare leading roles as both Melindas, Will Ferrell proving once more that he can genuinely act and Chiwetel Ejiofor charming the hell out of everything and everyone with some cruelly calculated waffle about the music of the soul. Some might find the dual stories and their tenuous ties a little to pat to be believed and it’s certainly true that Allen is forced to rush the ending in order to find some sort of resolution for all plotlines. It makes a refreshing change however to not have everything in a film wrapped up in a big bow and if some characters and events are left messy and unresolved, then surely that's just more like life right?