Thursday, 29 March 2012

The Paper - Ron Howard - 1994

A day in the life of an ailing New York tabloid is the subject of this gentle comedy-drama from director Ron Howard. The film starts off rather slow as we simply follow editor Henry Hackett (an excellent Michael Keaton) about his daily routine, but this gives Howard a chance to set up the microcosm of life that is the newspaper offices; here we can discover and recognise the daily rituals that drive the business and glimpse the ongoing petty squabbles that characterise the workplace. About half way through though as Hackett gets a whiff of an exclusive story the film shifts gear into a nail biting race against the clock that culminates in scene between Hackett and office bitch Alicia Clark (Glenn Close, also good) in the printing room (itself a very impressive set) that is so excruciatingly tense that its difficult not to shout at the screen. From this high point though the film unfortunately stumbles on the way to the end, unable to tie up the subplots and reach the requisite satisfactory conclusion with such dramatic skill; a storyline revolving around the editor-in-chief's struggle to reconnect with his family is wonderfully performed by the reliable Robert Duvall but is a needless diversion when we want to focus on Hackett. More than anything though this is a film about the ordinary activities of a working newspaper office and as such has much to be enjoyed.

Pan’s Labyrinth - Guillermo del Toro - 2006

Beautiful and creepy, funny and vicious, Pan's Labyrinth is a fascinating parable about the differences between dreams and reality. Set in post civil war Spain, young Ofelia (an astonishing debut from Ivana Baquero) moves with her pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) to a remote woodland mill to live with her new stepfather - the terrifyingly callous fascist Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez). Del Toro's eye for the fantastical has never been greater, revelling in the wild beauty of the ruins lost in the woods and pushing at the fine line between creatures and monsters; the titular faun (Doug Jones) is a gnarled and (potentially) malevolent creation, a world away from the cute goat-men of Narnia while a later, bloody encounter with the Pale Man (also Jones) is a welcome reminder that fantasy can be just as terrifying as reality. Del Toro does a fine job balancing said fantasy with the grim reality of Ofelia's surroundings; Vidal's increasingly violent encounters with rebels in the woods are often wincingly bloody, ramming home the point that not all fairy tales are for children. The final outcome very much depends on your own interpretation of Ofelia's fantasies, but either way this is a bold, brutal yet beautiful fable that celebrates the dark side of childhood and mourns the loss of innocence.

Pale Rider - Clint Eastwood - 1985

As a frightened girl prays for a miracle over the fresh grave of her dog, a lone figure on horseback appears across the snowy plains. As she reads aloud from the Book of Revelations a stranger draws up outside riding a pale horse. Ever since A Fistful of Dollars Clint Eastwood has made many Westerns revolving around the concept of a stranger riding into town and dispensing a brutal form of justice and with Pale Rider, his first straight Western for nearly ten years, Eastwood returns to put a fresh spin on the formula. Moving on from the vengeful ex-lawman of High Plains Drifter, the Eastwood of Pale Rider is ostensibly a preacher, but one that is handy with both fists and a gun and strikes fear into apparently indomitable foes. Although the plot borrows liberally from Shane, right down to the moment where the stranger and the family man (Michael Moriarty) bond over some good honest labour, Eastwood is a far more charismatic hero than Shane’s Alan Ladd. This effect is heightened by exciting little hints of the supernatural that Clint the director shoots around Clint the actor; quite apart from his biblically heralded entrance the Preacher has a habit of appearing in silhouette and disappearing as soon as anyone double takes and strikes a shiver through the coolly professional Marshal Stockburn (John Russell) that hints at a past we can only guess at. Although there are one or two awkward moments between Clint and the female leads, (Eastwood’s arrogance still demands that all ladies fall in love with him) he develops a nice chemistry with Moriarty who does a much better job than whiny Van Heflin at playing the more passive worker whose manhood is threatened by the Preacher’s arrival. Up against the Preacher are an eclectic bunch of villains that with the exception of Richard Kiel are more interesting and better developed than the usual cannon fodder, addressing as they do an environmental subplot about strip mining that feels pleasingly relevant. Plus it’s surely a mark of Clint's effortless cool that he makes a lot shorter work of the giant Kiel than did Roger Moore! Set against some beautiful remote and snowy landscapes the film may feel repetitive but with such safe experienced hands playing the formula, who is to say that that's a bad thing.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone - Chris Columbus - 2001

The book that launched one of the most famous fantasy sagas of the modern era is adapted here into the first of an equally popular film series that has only just reached a spectacular climax and become cinema’s highest grossing franchise. Compared to the intensity of later episodes this might seem rather sweet in comparison but as an introduction to J.K. Rowling's magical world it’s practically perfect. Of course the child actors aren't great but at this stage Daniel Radcliffe doesn't need to do much more than reflect our wide eyed wonder at this magical new world. Rupert Grint, often the weakest of the trilogy is here limited to about three expressions but the much maligned Emma Watson actually has some of her funniest moments here, delivering Hermione's snooty lines with some instinctual comic timing that she has started to lose as the franchise progresses. Of course the raft of great British character actors remains a sight to be treasured and if Richard Griffiths and Fiona Shaw veer too much on the side of slapstick as Harry's aunt and uncle, this is more than compensated for by the subtle control and magnetic presence exercised at Hogwarts by Maggie Smith and Alan Rickman. However dodgy acting and CG aside (several films later the centaurs still look bad) the stately acting and luscious visuals coupled with John Williams' truly magical score (surely one of his finest) continue to make this a deliciously warm and cosy opening chapter in the franchise.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets - Chris Columbus - 2002

Returning director Chris Columbus turns out a near perfect sequel to the first Harry Potter film by sticking close enough to the successful formula whilst starting to look in enough darker directions to step it up a notch. The kids have all improved noticeably and although some of their acting still looks wooden they are at least starting to think individually; Watson for example still looks rigid in friendly moments but projects genuinely heartfelt emotion when Hermione is subject to racist abuse. Otherwise all the ingredients are still in place with enough fresh additions to make this film stand out even after four more sequels. Kenneth Branagh is hilarious as new Defence against the Dark Arts teacher Gilderoy Lockhart, The giant spiders and the basilisk at the end remain the scariest monsters to appear in the entire series and the scenes in the flying car are a huge visual treat. Despite being forced to relinquish conducting duties this time around John Williams builds beautifully on his first score, adding three lovely new cues, one of which – Fawkes' Theme – ranks among his very finest compositions. Of course the problem remains that Rowling's complicated plots are hard to cram into even two and a half hours and so the inevitable cuts leave a few plot holes but with a story that even after seven books is one of her finest this is still an immensely delightful film.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - Alfonso Cuarón - 2004

Although directorially this remains one of the best films of the franchise, Alfonso Curaon pays frustratingly little heed to the visual continuity with the previous films creating a look that occasionally seems to belong to another world entirely rather than the one already established. The death of Richard Harris makes Dumbledore's recasting unavoidable but the fact that Professor Flitwick has seemingly been transformed into another character entirely (though still played by Warwick Davis) makes no sense and just jars audience expectations, while the transformation of the Fat Lady from respectable Elizabeth Spriggs to hammy Dawn French simply feels offensive. Similarly while its true that the Whomping Willow and Hagrid's hut look far more spectacular against their new backdrops – Cuaron is clearly far more visually imaginative than Chris Columbus was – the fact that he just moves already established places around at will makes it a lot harder to see this film in terms of the overall series. However it should also be firmly stated that this rant ignores all the major plusses that Cuaron's filmmaking brings: the kids – and in particular Daniel Radcliffe as Harry discovers the truth behind his parents deaths – take their first steps away from kiddie acting and towards some genuine adult emotions. Newcomers David Thewlis and Gary Oldman raise the bar on guest performances – while Thewlis' Lupin makes an unconvincing werewolf he is granted several touching scenes with Harry that compensates a lot for the character's all too brief appearances in later films. Oldman only appears too briefly near the end but as escaped convict Sirius Black his dark presence can be felt over the whole film, lending the series a genuine feeling of menace for the first time after Columbus' lighter entries. Cuaron even does impressive work with Rowling's big set pieces (something that David Yates would later struggle with in his first two films) with some moments, notably the time travelling sequence, surpassing the original writing. Now if only Cuaron could have managed all this within the restraints of good continuity...

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - David Yates - 2009

The sixth entry into the Harry Potter canon runs along the same rails as its predecessors – tremendously enjoyable as a film but never as good as the original book. Here the most glaring omission is a running battle between Death Eaters, the Order of the Phoenix and Dumbledore's Army in the corridors of Hogwarts that on the page read as tremendously cinematic. In its place is a confusing attempt at an action scene halfway through the film that’s randomly set in a cornfield outside the Burrow (since when was there a cornfield?) which is an effective enough sequence (continuity aside), but feels too much like action for actions sake. These are quibbles however, as other key sequences are brilliantly done, from the opening assault on the Millennium Bridge (!) to the zombie battle in the cave in which returning director David Yates takes great pleasure in cranking up some much needed tension. The other key part of the book is the romantic entanglements between the established characters as they grow up to the point that relationships blossom for the first time. Happily these scenes are just as funny as they are in the books, with the highlight being Ron's infatuation with the hilarious Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave) and Harry’s realisation that his fame could get him girls. The elder statesmen mostly have little to do bar Michael Gambon and Alan Rickman who make the most of opportunities to establish their politicking behind the scenes, and Helena Bonham Carter who continues to enjoy cutting loose as a crazy Bellatrix Lestrange. Kudos should go however to Jim Broadbent who appears for the first time as Professor Slughorn and practically steals the show with a performance that successfully mines every moment of comedy, whilst still instinctively finding the tragedy at the heart of the character. Genius.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part I - David Yates - 2010

And so the epic franchise begins to draw to a close, Harry's world gets even darker and popular characters start dying all over the shop but is it any good? Unsurprisingly the film is just as good and as bad as the other films, flourishing where it can build on the action J.K. Rowling created on the page and flagging when the exposition becomes too much. Highlights include an all too brief flying chase down a muggle motorway, a break in to the Ministry of Magic featuring the genuinely scary Death Eater Yaxley (Peter Mullan is probably the most memorable supporting character this time around) and a visit to Malfoy Manor that gives Helena Bonham Carter a chance to go even more berserk than usual. The film does slow down too much in the middle when the central trio hit the road but since the book suffered from the same problem, this can hardly be blamed on the filmmakers; the hauntingly beautiful montage of a ruined country shot to the soundtrack of a litany of the dead does at least show they have some visual imagination of their own. Frustratingly their are other moments where it feels like the cinematic potential of the books was wasted: while a death near the start and another at the end are tragically heartbreaking, other deaths that happen offstage in the book remain offstage with the chance for further emotional drama and action pushed aside by the need for exposition - a brief but striking moment when the death eaters halt the Hogwarts Express hints how much more exciting and rich the film could have been if it had dared to stray away from Harry more. But of course this is nitpicking. The world, the story and the score (Alexandre Desplat improving on Nicholas Hooper's last lacklustre effort) are still as magical as ever leaving this film in exactly the same category as all the others - great but never quite as great as the book.

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian - Shawn Levy - 2009

A follow-up to the 2006 children's comedy hit Night at the Museum was probably the year's least-anticipated sequel but actually Battle of the Smithsonian is one of those rare sequels that improves on the original by simply taking what worked best the first time and running with it. The first was hampered by the sort of heavy-handed, tedious moral message that Hollywood loves, rammed home too forcibly to be appreciated and dragging out the story unnecessarily when all the audience wanted was to have fun. This time around returning director Shawn Levy carefully restrains the moralising and focuses instead on having as much fun as possible, bringing his characters back to life in the larger environment of Washington's Smithsonian Museum. Of course many of the jokes and characters are still too tame to really fly - Bill Hader's General Custer is a non-event while evil sidekicks Napoleon (Alain Chabat), Al Capone (Jon Bernthal) and Ivan the Terrible (Christopher Guest) are just embarrassingly demeaning to their historical counterparts - but there is enough fun being had here to gloss over the cheap writing. Ben Stiller returns in fine sardonic form as everyman hero Larry Daley clearly relishing the fact that he's matched this time with the marvellous Amy Adams who plays twenties aviatrix Amelia Earheart. Adams is a delightfully sassy presence with enough good ol'fashioned charm and high spirits to make the character fun, believable and above all three-dimensional, (unlike most of the other exhibits) and generate some great chemistry with Stiller that keeps the film buzzing along where the previous one flagged. The action is mostly bigger and more exciting this around, (especially when Abraham Lincoln gets involved!) as the characters return to battle an evil pharoah (Hank Azaria being ridiculous) for the legendary tablet and Levy even manages to include some clever in jokes with recognisable paintings and exhibits that come to life - in the best moment Larry and Amelia step through to New York in 1945! The film is obviously still nothing more than a cheesy adventure but with Stiller and Adams leading the charge there is a lot of undemanding fun and excitement to be had here.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II - David Yates - 2011

The epic conclusion to the new Millennium's greatest fantasy saga, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II finally does justice to J.K. Rowling's novels and achieves the sort of emotional impact that the film series has never quite managed before. After a low key opening giving the final necessary bits of exposition and a short but creepy scene showing Hogwarts under Snape's regime, we are thrown straight into some exhilerating action with the raid on Gringotts bank. Bursting over with excitement and tension (Helena Bonham Carter playing Hermione playing Belatrix is a delight), director David Yates and returning composer Alexandre Desplat take great delight in the outrageous derring-do on display, skillfully building the scene up to a magnificent escape via dragon that more than anything showcases how far the work of the CGI artists has progressed since the series began. From there it is but a short step into the final Battle of Hogwarts which forms the main body of the film and sees the teachers, the Order of the Phoenix and Dumbledore's Army uniting to fight off Lord Voldemort's hordes and defend Hogwarts Castle, symbol of all that's good and safe throughout the series. Naturally the normal running time limitations mean the film remains focused tightly on Harry at the expense of a lot of supporting characters, some of which barely get more than a single shot while others are frustratingly killed off too quickly for the shock to even register. However Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy (Jason Isaccs and Helen McCrory) have notable small but crucial character beats and the indomitable Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith) stars in a stirring but heartbreaking scene in which she rallies the defenders of Hogwarts bringing the castle itself to life to fight the invaders; Desplat matches the mood perfectly here with an understated music cue that perfectly encompasses the attitude of the characters walking out to their deaths. The real star though is Alan Rickman who after seven films spent lurking malevolently in the background finally reveals how Rowling persuaded him to play Professor Snape all those years ago, performing the secrets that are revealed in his backstory with a simple emotional truth and honesty that is tear-jerkingly moving to watch. Mention also needs to be made of Radcliffe, Grint and Watson who may not match Rickman quality wise but have now grown enough in acting and emotional maturity to carry us through the film's moments of often apocalyptic intensity with dignity and compassion. Writing so much its odd to note that for the first time a Harry Potter film almost feels too short (another five minutes spent with supporting character in the battle would make it perfect), but as an emotional climax to a great fantasy saga Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II gives fitting closure.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Cruel Intentions - Roger Kumble - 1999

A modern update of Dangerous Liasions, Stephen Frears' classic melodrama about scheming French aristocrats, Cruel Intentions finds an accurate parallel for the seductions and power games of eighteenth century France in the socialites of modern day New York. In keeping with the times the language of the characters as they plot there way into each others beds is rather more explicit though surprisingly the actual sex scenes are muted in comparison. Writer/director Roger Kumble more than compensates however by gathering an outrageously gorgeous cast that oozes sexiness all over the screen, thus making the film rather more accessible than did the magnificent but tightly clad John Malkovich and Glenn Close. Ryan Phillipe hardly has a great range as an actor but his smooth and slightly cold charm is perfect for master seducer Sebastian; Sarah Michelle Gellar drops the neuroses but hones the confidence she developed playing Buffy to steal the show as man-eater Katherine, while Selma Blair overcomes a misplaced running joke that has her constantly falling off things to find the pathos in the innocent Cecile. The ending takes a slightly different direction from Dangerous Liasions, especially regarding Katherine's motivations but the impact is still the same. While the power struggles are immensely entertaining, Kumble understands that underneath this is a tragic story about the damage people can do to each other and by not trying to avoid this he has created a film that is just as, if not more affecting than the original.

Conspiracy Theory - Richard Donner - 1997

Setting itself up as a light comedy thriller in the vein of director Richard Donner’s Lethal Weapon series, Conspiracy Theory finds Mel Gibson doing his best crazy man acting as New York cab driver Jerry Fletcher who is obsessed with conspiracy theories. Ranting at his passengers, padlocking the coffee in the fridge and rushing to buy copies of Catcher in the Rye whenever he has a panic attack, Jerry is an occasionally amusing character who gradually gets more and more irritating as his madness spins him out of control and the film away from a coherent plot. Naturally, this being a Hollywood film, Jerry’s theorising attracts some unwelcome attention from bad guys in suits led by the now standard British villain (Patrick Stewart this time) and he is forced to go on the run, seemingly in order to flail around ineptly whilst trying to work out what the hell is going on. Caught up with him is Julia Roberts playing a justice attorney who for no convincing reason still takes the time to listen to Jerry, even when everyone else (including the audience) is begging her to throw him out to the Feds and be done with him. Of course she is eventually dragged into the action and pursued by Gibson one minute, Stewart the next and a random FBI agent in between and although she tries hard she isn’t a strong enough presence to give the film the grounding in reality that it so desperately needs. Although Donner conjures some good moments he seems drastically uncertain of the overall tone of the piece, veering at times wildly between bad comedy and dark thriller and dragging out the details of the actual conspiracy for far too long. Possibly Donner is a little embarrassed at how clumsy and nonsensical screenwriter Brian Helgeland’s plot really is and so he has focused as much as possible on Gibson’s crazy acting, presumably under the impression that it is continually entertaining. He was wrong.

The Color Purple - Steven Spielberg - 1985

Steven Spielberg is quoted as saying that he took this project on because he was afraid he couldn't do it and while The Color Purple retains many of his hallmarks, this uncertainty shows. Adapted from Alice Sebold’s novel, the film tells the story of an African-American woman's struggle to escape from male oppression, certainly an odd topic for the director coming off the back of E.T. and two Indiana Jones films, but to his credit he does the characters justice, if not the book. Anchored by an astonishing debut performance from Whoopi Goldberg (who has done nothing to match this since), all the cast deliver beautifully realised characters that can’t fail to move an audience; even Danny Glover who plays Goldberg’s brutal husband manages to find moments of humanity in man who could so easily have been a one-dimensional villain. Its literary origins are obvious however with the screenplay’s episodic nature losing many plot details and leaving some minor characters and their relationships unclear and confusing. Ironically though the film still feels too long, particularly in the middle section when Goldberg’s humiliations just seem to be never ending, something that isn't helped by Quincy Jones' horribly saccharine score. With beautiful harmonies placed over scenes of intense emotion and violence it feels like the whole story is being over-sentimentalised, though whether the fault is Jones' or Spielberg's is a moot point. The director does find some brilliant dramatic moments including a nail biting scene with a razor that heightens the tension through some superb editing and a final sunset shot that feels dreamlike in its beauty but these aren’t enough to fill out the running time. If Spielberg had approached this with Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan under his belt it's probably have been better. As it is The Color Purple stands as a fine film by a director still exploring his craft.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Contraband - Baltasar Kormakur - 2012

Mark Wahlberg gained some much needed credibility last year with his Oscar nominated performance in The Fighter something he is now in danger of wasting if he continues doing bog-standard, by-the-numbers thrillers like Contraband. Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur is making his Hollywood debut here, (remaking the original film, Reykkavik-Rotterdam in which he starred) and although he has landed a potentially interesting subject involving smuggling via shipping containers he wastes pretty much every opportunity to be original with an utterly predictable one-last-job heist plot. Kormakur includes literally just one cool shot of Wahlberg silouhetted against smoke and headlights and although he orchestrates some effectively gritty action none of it is fresh or imaginative enough to really engage an audience who has seen it all many times before. Wahlberg is a strong and charismatic lead but the role of ex-smuggler Chris Farraday is essentially the same strong but conflicted character that he has played so many times before that he could probably do it in his sleep. In support Kate Beckinsale spends most of the film being menaced by bad guys in a vaguely misogynistic manner, Ben Foster glowers like he does in every other film and Giovanni Ribisi overacts with the rage of someone who senses his career is going down the toilet. Obviously Contraband has no particular aims for greatness other than to entertain the masses but to do that the film needs some tension, excitement and humour coupled with a good twist. Contraband fails on all counts.

Youth Without Youth - Francis Ford Coppola - 2007

The return of legendary director Francis Ford Coppola to filmmaking for the first time since The Rainmaker ten years previously should by any measure be a treat worth waiting for and to start with at least it looks like Youth Without Youth may fulfil that promise. Tim Roth plays aged European linguistics professor Dominic Matei who is struck by lightning and begins going through a Benjamin Button style regeneration, regaining his youth and strength and in so doing attracting the attention of various scientists, some benign and some rather more dubious. Setting the film initially in Nazi occupied Hungary and Romania, Coppola shoots everything in gorgeous sepia tones, whether it be the elements of intrigue as the Nazis take action to find out Dominic's secret or the more abstract mystery as Bruno Ganz endeavours to investigate the same both scientifically and philosophically. From there Dominic escapes via a random Matt Damon cameo into Switzerland where he ends up in what seems to be an existential noir thriller, but just as the audience is starting to adjust to this switch the film takes another completely unexpected left turn. For the second half the story abandons all of the thriller aspects and turns into a bizarre mystery romance that finds Roth hooking up with Alexandra Maria Lara who plays Dominc's long dead fiancee Laura who has been reincarnated as a girl called Veronica in the fifties who then randomly transmutes into a dead Medieval Indian Princess. Yes really. Dominic being a professor of languages is naturally available to help and so takes Veronica under his wing and rekindles a romance that feels as convoluted and nonsensical as the whole language/soul transmutation idea did to start with. And then when Dominic starts being followed by his own doppelganger it becomes clear that the film has come a very long way from the promising opening and we can only watch as Coppola's attempts to bring the story full circle are rendered meaningless as the audience will most likely have just given up. Coppola undoubtedly knows what all the metaphors are supposed to mean but he is not telling and so the audience is just left looking at Youth Without Youth as they would any other piece of abstract art: something beautiful but bewildering.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Star Trek: The Motion Picture - Robert Wise - 1979

The popular science-fiction television series Star Trek had its first outing on the big screen with this film and on this evidence it’s astonishing that it spawned a franchise that has so far ran to eleven movies with a twelfth on the way. Clearly inspired by Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey veteran director Robert Wise aims to create a grandiose epic but mistakes pompous and plodding for stirring and gripping and ends up with a film that is a trek more by nature than by name. Wise clearly relishes the chance to bring such iconic figures to the big screen but he apparently reveres them too much to try and actually make them exciting, something sharply demonstrated in the opening sequence when he lavishes a full five minutes just on the moment when Captain Kirk (William Shatner) first docks with the Starship Enterprise. Given that Star Wars had revolutionised the space-opera two years previously this was a fatal mistake. The first half of the film is stuffed full of fantastic special effects shots of both the Enterprise and the mysterious alien menace (a big cloud) but practically nothing happens in terms of narrative so the audience is left wondering what all the fuss is about – with the film moving so sluggishly there is no sense of danger or threat. Luc Besson realised in The Fifth Element that alien clouds need personifying and so gave us a semi-bald Gary Oldman but all Wise can manage is some spooky (if admittedly very good) futuristic sound effects. Jerry Goldsmith layers a stirring score in the vein of John Williams over the top (though unlike Williams' Star Wars music it wouldn't stand up on its own) but since nothing is happening to be stirred up about it all feels rather pointless. The regular cast all the make the transition from small to big screen but with the exception of DeForest Kelly’s Bones who is granted the occasional amusing witticism they have little to do except stand around and deliver lines rather woodenly; any emotional heavy lifting is offloaded to newcomers Stephen Collins and Perseus Khambatta. Happily the final half hour is perked up by a reasonably good twist but the film has taken so long to get to this one moment that it’s a fair chance that no one will care anymore, however impressive it all looks.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan - Nicholas Meyer - 1982

The second and apparently best of the original Star Trek movies, Wrath of Khan is infinitely better than the crushingly slow Star Trek: The Motion Picture, suggesting that incoming director Nicholas Meyer has sat down and watched Star Wars in order to learn something about pace, action and excitement. Kirk’s nemesis Khan, as played by Ricardo Montalban is a marvellously flamboyant character and the film benefits enormously from having a humanoid villain at the centre for the Enterprise to banter and fight with rather than an omnipresent cloud. Kirk and Khan’s antagonism flashes and sparks with cheesy confrontational dialogue all the way through, culminating in the legendary shout “KHAAAN!!!” the closest William Shatner has probably ever had to a memorable quote. Most of the other regular characters are as wooden as ever but Shatner and Leonard Nimoy do at least bring some more zest to the friendship between Kirk and Spock which lends some much needed pathos to the unexpectedly sombre climax. Shatner’s plot parallel with A Tale of Two Cities feels a little tacked on but is at least better acted than the emotional character beats involving an old flame of Kirk's and her son, underdeveloped characters who suffer in comparison to Kirstie Alley’s strangely attractive Vulcan protégée Lieutenant Saavik, a new recruit who is granted far more screen time. The plot itself hinges around the Genesis Project, an imaginative science-fiction macguffin with enough convincingly apocalyptic ramifications to give some urgency to the plot and make it feel less like an extended television episode. In sequel terms though Wrath of Khan doesn’t come anywhere close to The Empire Strikes Back in terms of upping the ante and surprising the audience, especially since any shock factor and emotional impact is leavened here by knowledge of the impending sequel. Still even if Meyer can’t quite match the perfect combination of excitement and emotion that makes Star Wars tick, he has at least introduced enough cheesy excitement and suspense to make the Star Trek franchise one worth watching.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock - Leonard Nimoy - 1984

Unusually for the Star Trek franchise this third entry stands as a direct sequel to the previous film The Wrath of Khan rather than a new adventure and so we kick off the story with flashbacks to Spock’s death and the anticlimactic revelation that he maybe isn’t dead after all. This acts as the cue for the classic plot that all heroes end up going through at some point in their lives – the old chestnut of disobeying orders and going rogue, putting loyalty to a buddy over respect for authority. Cheesy as this is, there is actually a lot of excitement to be had from watching our old friends in the crew sneaking around stealing the Enterprise, especially since they all (with the exception of DeForest Kelley’s Bones who’s gone mad) seem to relish the chance to dress in something other than uniforms for once. Meanwhile on the new planet Genesis David Kirk (Merritt Butrick) and Lieutenant Saavik (played this time by the rather less attractive Robin Curtis) get tangled up with an eco-system gone wild and some rogue Klingons led by Christopher Lloyd’s Commander Kruge. Just a year before he became famous for playing Doc Brown in Back to the Future, Lloyd has tremendous fun chewing the scenery as a villain, turning what could have been a one-note character into a worthy if brief adversary for Kirk; in the film’s best scene Lloyd and Shatner have a full blown punch up as the planet self-destructs around them! As we watch our characters pilot the Enterprise with none of the normal hundred extras its hard not to wonder why they are normally necessary if the ship can actually be flown with a crew of five, but this has the knock on affect of making the casualties a lot closer to home than usual, giving the film some unusually dark moments. With Spock theoretically having passed away Leonard Nimoy here takes over directing duties and although he can’t quite Nicholas Meyer in terms of pace and excitement (the final scenes on the planet Vulcan are a massive anticlimax) he works hard to make sure the film is a fun an entertaining adventure. And lets be honest, what more do we want from a Star Trek film.

Monday, 19 March 2012

The Insider - Michael Mann - 1999

An intense and slow burning corporate thriller, The Insider puts Russell Crowe and Al Pacino together for the first time as a tobacco industry whistleblower and the TV producer who tries to get his story heard. Initially as Crowe leaves the firm and starts grudgingly talking to Pacino its a little difficult to follow the story as Crowe keeps his motivations close to his chest and director Michael Mann over shoots it all with moody lighting and sharp angles, but as the full weight of the corporation's power starts stacking up against them the film becomes steadily more gripping. While his most popular film Heat was entertaining but never really engaged emotionally, here Mann gets it right, slowly but surely drawing the audience right into his world and the characters who struggle vainly to fight against it, a job which is helped immeasurably by his two leading men. Driven producer Lowell Bergman is typical Pacino character, complete with all the rants and the intensity that the actor does so well but the real revelation is Crowe; quiet and introverted for the most part, he communicates tension and fear with every hunted glance but still manages to shock when he finally explodes. Pulling no punches in its depictions of the lengths big corporations are prepared to go to get anyone in their pockets, The Insider also stands up as one of the most thought-provoking thrillers in recent years, which together with the emotional heft of Crowe's ordeal must make this one of Michael Mann's finest works.

The Incredible Hulk - Louis Leterier - 2008

After Ang Lee’s attempt to create a Hulk movie proved to be something of a non-event, Marvel turned to French action director Louis Leterier to reboot the franchise as part of the long term Avengers initiative. Happily the end result is an above-average action/super-hero movie with some great set-pieces and a fantastic lead performance from Edward Norton that grounds the story in a grittier and more exciting reality than anything Lee could manage. Setting out his cards on the table right from the beginning, Leterier doesn’t waste time on exposition but replays the key moments of the Hulk’s birth during the flashy opening credits before opening the story in Brazil where we find Bruce Banner (Norton) living in hiding having been on the run for five years. Leterier shoots the Brazilian favela to perfection, utilising all manner of fancy camera moves to show it off in all its intricate and dingy but strangely affecting beauty and when the soldiers led by Tim Roth and William Hurt arrive, unleashing a dazzlingly executed foot chase that charges the streets and alleys fast enough to leave the audience breathless. Naturally the chase climaxes with the introduction of Banner’s big green alter ego, but Leterier cleverly doesn’t go straight for the big reveal but at this stage keeps the Hulk lurking in the shadows, just hinting at the creature’s vast power and potential. Of course after such a great beginning it is perhaps inevitable that the rest of the action can’t match up, especially when in the final showdown both the hero and the villain are largely CGI. The effects have at least moved on since Lee’s time with the Hulk redesigned to be a more natural colour than the previous film’s cartoon like bright green, but as he gets thrown around a New York street by the Abomination, we’re left feeling that Leterier is just letting the film sink back to standard monster versus monster fare. In between fights Norton works hard to make Banner’s struggle against his affliction (as he sees it) an engaging one and while Liv Tyler has little to do other than shout at her dad and look upset, William Hurt has fun as a clichéd cigar chomping military type and Tim Roth delivers a nicely balanced performance as the villain of the piece. Given shots of a serum seemingly left over from when Steve Rogers turned into Captain America, Roth’s Emil Blonsky slowly turns from ambitious soldier to power hungry monster, eventually blending the serum with Banner’s gamma radiation to create the demented looking Abomination in a character arc that makes a nice contrast with Banner’s efforts to contain and destroy the monster within. Unlike Iron Man this didn’t spawn a franchise and frustratingly Norton has refused to return for The Avengers, but as a stand alone movie The Incredible Hulk is certainly a more memorable experience than Lee’s version and perhaps the best we can expect from a character that spends half the time getting angry and hitting things.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

John Carter - Andrew Stanton - 2012

In 1912 A Princess of Mars, a comic book by Edgar Rice Burroughs, was first serialised in a magazine and the character John Carter of Mars was born. One hundred years later after all the space operas and comic book heroes that were inspired by Burroughs' book and its sequels have entered popular culture, the original story is finally appearing on the big screen in a Disney blockbuster that has now clocked in as one of the most expensive movies ever made. Putting this mammoth production in the hands of Andrew Stanton who as one of the Pixar dream team directed hit animated films Finding Nemo and Wall-E but before now had never directed a live action film might have seemed a risky move, but happily Stanton seemingly had no problem translating all his storytelling skill and technical nous between film formats. John Carter is a ridiculously cheesy story that finds renagade Virginian Cavalryman John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) mysteriously transported to the surface of Mars where he is imbued with superhuman agility, gets caught up in a Civil War between rival tribes and fights a variety of bizarre monsters. Introduced to the world of Barsoom (Mars), ruled over by the Jeddaks of Helium and Zodanga, infested by Tharks and overseen by an omnipresent Thern called Matai Shang (Mark Strong), it is highly likely that the audience will either be confused by the barage of fantastical names or, having been brought up on the more stylish elegance of The Lord of the Rings, unimpressed by the broad and simplistic strokes of the storytelling. However Stanton directs the film with aplomb, taking the story seriously enough to make the action engaging but never losing the light-hearted adventurous touch that originally made Star Wars so popular, creating the sort of fantastical boys-own-adventure that has become less popular in this cynical millenium but can be tremendous fun if you buy into it. Kitsch as Carter makes a credible action hero, scowling his way around Barsoom, throwing out the occasional gruff quip and romancing Lynn Collins' gorgeous Princess Dejah, owner of the bluest sparkling eyes you will ever see, while the rest of the largely British supporting cast chew the scenery with varying degrees of relish, confident in the fact that this way their performances will register against the vast desert backdrops and the epic special effects. And epic they certainly are. Stanton unleashes giant monster apes to battle the heroes in an arena, a huge travelling city that tears up the Martian landscape and turns Wilem Dafoe and Samantha Morton into four-armed green Martians at the head of an alien army, all in big, beautiful and intricate detail. It may be an overlong piece of fantasy fluff but when it comes to putting every penny of the budget on screen, Stanton and Disney haven't held back making John Carter an exciting cinematic experience if nothing else.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Gone Baby Gone - Ben Affleck - 2008

A tour de force directorial debut from Ben Affleck, Gone Baby Gone finds the actor returning to his Bostonian roots to create a fascinating issue driven thriller about missing children, shady drug deals and corrupt police. As the private eye (Affleck’s younger brother Casey) gets drawn into the case of a missing girl and rapidly finds events spiralling out of control, some may find the plot beats familiar but Affleck the director addresses the issues at stake with sensitivity and restraint whilst never losing sight of the cinema audience expecting to be entertained. Affleck opens and closes the film with shots of ordinary working class people and their lives in Boston, establishing with voice over narration how close knit and friendly these communities are despite the seemingly high crime rate and drug problem that might ordinarily lead outsiders to turn up their noses. Thus even while we may be shocked by the missing girl’s neglectful mother (Amy Ryan) she is never demonised but presented as a regular person, leaving the characters and us to debate for example whether the child should in fact be returned to her mother. Affleck makes no judgements but merely presents the moral dilemmas at stake and leaves us to go away, think and question the issues, an experience all too rare in the cinema these days. The film is bolstered by a bevy of solid performances from both established character actors like Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman and relative newcomers like Michelle Monaghan, as well as Casey himself who occasionally loses a few lines behind a thick Bostonian accent but otherwise delivers an astutely controlled picture of an ordinary guy forced to question his deepest moral values. Affleck keeps the film pushing forward at a smart pace which makes it occasionally hard to keep up with all the intricate plot twists but ensures that the film is always gripping as well as thought-provoking. This, for a directorial debut, is a mighty fine achievement.

Bel Ami - Declan Donnellan & Nick Ormerod - 2012

Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod have over the last twenty years developed an international reputation with their theatre company Cheek By Jowl so it is perhaps surprising that it has taken them this long to make the move into cinema. Fittingly given the company's history of classical pieces the pair have chosen to adapt Guy Du Maupassant's 1885 novel about a young man's rise through French political society; what is more surprising is how unengaging, irritating and frankly dull the film is. Obviously the novel no longer has a very popular readership but after spending some time in the company of protagonist George Dufroy its hard to imagine what Donnellan and Ormerod saw in his story and why they thought anyone else would want to see it. As played by the ubiquitous Robert Pattinson, Dufroy is one of those incredibly unpleasant people with a massive chip on his shoulder who believes that he somehow has the right to move amongst the rich and powerful without working for the privilege. Whether this is the way the character is written or Pattinson is simply really this unpleasant is unclear but it makes the time we are forced to spend in his company immensely dragging and often excrutiating. Utilising his tawdry good looks, Dufroy sets about seducing all the aristocratic women he meets along the way, all of whom fall into his arms with unconvincing ease, seemingly forgetting how to act in the process. Cristina Ricci comes off best, maintaining a coquettish charm throughout everything the script throws at her but Kristen Scott Thomas is reduced to a tragic, childish figure begging for Dufroy's attention and Uma Thurman loses pages of dialogue down her vast and overbearing cleavage. Pattinson is at least due some kudos for trying to escape his Edward Cullen image but his performance here is exceedingly unlikely to win over the anti-Twilight hordes that may have come looking for a dark but fascinating anti-hero but will only find a shallow and petulant youth. Donnellan and Ormerod create a beautifully realised vision of 19th Century Paris, complete with luscious music, costumes and sets but they are unable to capture the novel's dark heart or even make a coherent subplot out of the French political situation that Dufroy somehow becomes involved with. Given their reputation this is sadly disappointing.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Scre4m - Wes Craven - 2011

Ten years after the original Scream trilogy started a new trend of self-referential horror films, director Wes Craven, writer Kevin Williamson and the original trio have all returned to Woodsboro for another rerun that takes a similarly satirical swipe at the evolution of horror cinema in the last decade. Possibly the most significant development in horror has been the rise of the gorenography subgenre with the Saw and Final Destination franchises proving to be remarkably enduring despite a perceived plunge in quality. The Scream series was always relatively light on the gore despite the subject matter but in acknowledgement of these increased levels of violence displayed by the competition, Craven and Williamson have upped the body count for this outing to twelve and increased the details of the violence - for the first time we see not just blood but a victim's guts spilt across the room. In another nod, this time to the handheld camera style that was introduced by The Blair Witch Project and popularised by the Paranormal Activity series, one of the characters keeps a live blog of the action, another sets up surveillance cameras to try and trap the killer and in a rather heavy handed reference to the rise of online social networking we realise the killer has been filming the deaths to achieve instant notoriety. And in a malicious swipe at these long running franchises, Craven takes the self-referencing to extremes by beginning Scream 4 with the opening sequences of Stab 6 AND Stab 7. A new young cast including Emma Roberts, Hayden Panettiere and one of the Culkin brothers (they all look the same) plunges into the melodrama with relish and hold the screen alongside the established trio (Campbell, Cox and Arquette) who dutifully return to their roles after years in a career wilderness and sink their teeth into the latest perfunctory character developments. Of course the characters are always secondary to the killing plotline which as usual goes through enough twists and turns to keep the audience guessing, sniggering and cringing, but even with the modern upgrades this story is starting to feel rather formulaic. Once again the killer delights in tormenting Sidney Prescott (Campbell) while murdering everyone around her and though this is entertaining on a superficial level, it very quickly feels that we are watching yet another rerun of the original with nothing more than some new window dressing. Sartorial critiques of horror cinema are all very well but without an original story to hang their ideas on, Craven and Williamson have wasted this opportunity.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

The Manchurian Candidate - Jonathan Demme - 2004

A remake of a classic sixties conspiracy thriller, The Manchurian Candidate might in lesser hands come off as silly, but with assured direction from Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs) the film comes off as a highly chilling and thought-provoking political thriller. Denzel Washington is on good form as Major Marco, watching on television as his former sergeant moves suspiciously close to The White House as he struggles with some disturbingly convincing nightmares. It must be said that he makes the mental leap from these unrelated events to a brainwashing conspiracy rather too easily to be believable but his single-minded quest for the truth is utterly convincing. Meanwhile Liev Schreiber shines in a rare leading role as Sergeant Shaw who struggles vainly against the glory thrust upon him by sinister puppet masters (a perfectly cast Simon McBurney) and Meryl Streep is typically fantastic as Shaw's domineering and slightly menacing mother who just may have her own agenda. Bleak in its outlook, it often seems that Marco's struggles will be in vain against a seemingly untouchable political and corporate conspiracy, a tone Demme expertly manipulates to bring in an unpredictable and extremely tense climax. Despite the inevitable ending that follows though, this bleakly intense style is scary enough to have the audience come away looking very carefully at our own politicians. After all with someone like George W. Bush in power (at the time of release) how easy is it to believe someone else must be pulling the strings?

Mamma Mia! - Phyllida Lloyd - 2008

A welcome burst of glorious Greek sunshine complete with sparkling seas, beautiful people and stereotypical Greek extras, Mama Mia! is relentlessly determined that everyone will join in and have a good time in the ultimate feel-good film. Adapted from a stage musical of the same name the film utilises classic Abba songs to tell the story as a jukebox musical, proving that despite their reputation for being embarrassingly cheesy, Abba created some good catchy pop songs that are great fun to sing along too. Highlights include a barnstorming remix of Does Your Mother Know belted out by Christine Baranski, a new version of Lay All Your Love On Me which becomes a sexy flirtation between Amanda Seyfried and Dominic Cooper, and Seyfried’s cover of I Have a Dream as a sweetly beautiful ballad filled with yearning. All the cast are clearly having great fun making a fair stab of doing all of their own singing, even though many have clearly never sung before. The ladies in general cope well and generate some good chemistry together even if some of their antics are really rather embarrassing at times. Meryl Streep typically dominates proceedings as single mother Donna, tackling the huge emotional and vocal range of The Winner Takes It All to prove her singing credentials and finding moments of touching sincerity within what could have potentially been a very hammy character. Pierce Brosnan took most of the flack for his singing but he isn’t as bad as people have suggested, making the power ballad SOS work both for his limited vocal range and crucially for his character. It’s actually Colin Firth who comes off worst, stuck as he is with an awkward homosexual subplot and a refined voice that comes out much too nasally when he sings. The story of a girl meeting three potential fathers on the eve of her wedding comes over on screen as melodramatic, shallow and often ridiculous but it’s actually well matched by some good Abba songs and when everyone on screen is clearly having so much fun its hard not to give in and have fun too.

M*A*S*H - Robert Altman - 1970

A satirical war movie on a par with the likes of Dr. Strangelove…, M*A*S*H finds that perfect and all too rare blend of humour, heart and wry observation that characterises the very best the genre has to offer. Robert Altman in his directorial debut brings for the first time his unique style to bear in a peerless recreation of the chaos of war, letting an array of eccentric doctors, nurses and officers swarm all over the screen but effortlessly finding the crucial moments to create some sort of coherent narrative out of the madness. That said the story is only really concerned with the misadventures of Hawkeye and Trapper John as they arrive and establish themselves in a mobile hospital during the Korean War and as such is little more than a series of episodes strung together, but what episodes they are. Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould are at their young and irreverent best as the anarchic doctors who are the very finest in the surgery but still find every possible opportunity to provoke the stuffy authority figures who still believe the Korean War (an obvious cover for Vietnam) to be serious. Whether they are conspiring against the hypocritical Major Burns (Robert Duvall), attempting to seduce the new head nurse (Sally Kellerman) or causing mayhem on a holiday to Japan, Hawkeye, Trapper John and the brilliantly sketched band of supporting players never fail to find the fun and relaxation in what with just a slight change of perspective could be a serious drama. No one is saying that war is anything less than a very serious situation but what M*A*S*H reminds us is that when in that situation it is equally important to remain hilariously and irrevocably human.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Murder on the Orient Express - Sidney Lumet - 1974

The first and the greatest of the films adapted from the works of Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express is simply a joy from start to finish. Apart from a couple of name changes director Sidney Lumet remains more or less faithful to Christie's novel and thus her famously daring solution remains intact. Up to that point though, the story runs along very traditional lines with a classic cast of suspects all of whom have secrets to hide. The fun however lies in spotting the names behind the faces, since Lumet has assembled what is possibly one of the finest casts ever to appear in one film to play the various suspects; thus for example rising stars like Sean Connery and Vanessa Redgrave (who says practically nothing) appear alongside actresses like Lauren Bacall and Ingrid Bergman in the twilight of their careers. With such an embarrassment of riches on screen it is hard to pick anyone out but Jean-Pierre Cassel deserves a mention for his performance as haunted wagon-lit conductor Michel, while kudos must go to Anthony Perkins who survives a clumsy attempt by the script to reference his most famous character, Norman Bates. Christie stories are known for their puzzles rather than their three-dimensional characters, so it is a credit to the calibre of acting on show that Lumet is able to ring some genuine emotion from the denouement. Of course no Christie can survive without a good detective and happily Albert Finney, while no David Suchet, makes a much more credible Poirot than Peter Ustinov would later; while his methods are occasionally rather more aggressive than one might expect, he hits the mannerisms well enough to form a character rather than a caricature. As a bonus Lumet also stretches the budgets to include numerous shots of a wonderful old steam train to play the titular express which when coupled with the engrossing mystery make for a practically seamless piece of entertainment.

My Fair Lady - George Cukor - 1964

As the golden age of musicals rolled on, Lerner and Loew's musical adaptation of Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion was given the inevitable lavish big screen treatment by Hollywood veteran George Cukor. With a cast taken entirely from the stage version (bar Julie Andrews who was replaced by Audrey Hepburn), all of Shaw's wit and Lerner and Loew's pizzazz are lovingly recreated on screen Harrison and Hepburn's sparkling chemistry being a particular highlight. Harrison is perfectly suited for the role of snobbish and arrogant Professor Henry Higgins while his vocalised style of singing actually suits both the character and the film as a whole. Hepburn's singing is dubbed by Marni Nixon but she accurately hits both Eliza’s cockney drawl and her later educated tones, proving to be a charming, mischievous and utterly engaging Eliza Doolittle. The problems really lie within the concept itself; Shaw's Pygmalion is a very tightly written story that bounces from one sly witticism to the next, communicating the narrative very concisely. By taking that same narrative and just adding music, Lerner and Loew manage to draw it out for nearly three hours, which despite some good songs, feels the film a little tedious at times, especially during the less imaginative numbers. For example Eliza's father Alfred is granted a greatly expanded role with two songs focusing on his life that prove to be a comic highlight in the hands of Stanley Holloway, but a scene of gentry parading around Ascot is just pointless, while songs illuminating Eliza and Henry's emotions are nothing that can't be communicated by such fine actors normally. One aspect this does benefit though is the hinted love story; Leslie Howard's 1938 film stuck precisely to Shaw's original but tacked on a Hollywood ending that felt horribly inappropriate, but here by tweaking the developing relationship between Eliza and Henry, Lerner and Loew manage to make that same ending fit with the preceding story. Overall then this maybe wasn't the best idea for a musical but it’s worth sitting through the epic running time anyway to enjoy the great performances and the few good songs.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

The Woman in Black - James Watkins - 2012

First written in 1983 by Susan Hill, The Woman in Black is a hugely popular Victorian ghost story that was adapted into a hugely successful West End stage play in 1989 and has been running continuously ever since, so it is perhaps surprising that this film adaptation has taken so long to arrive. Draped with lashings of supernatural atmosphere, the film relishes in finding excitement and scares from the classic Gothic tropes that horror films hardly bother with any more, including suspicious locals, rolling mists and a ruined house that looks like it will fall down if you sneeze to hard. There is practically no violence or gore in The Woman in Black but the fact that it is so scary is down to both the fantastic source material and the assured adaptation by director James Watkins and writer Jane Goldman who use all those supernatural cliches to create some thrilling moments of tension and suspense where in less skilled hands they might just seem cheesy. Long sections of the film involve nothing more than Daniel Radcliffe wandering around the house with only shadows, empty corridors and some incredibly creepy toys for company, while Watkins drip feeds visions of the titular woman, generating more fear by keeping her hidden than he could ever make by unleashing a raging monster. A section towards the end that swings suspiciously towards a Hollywood style 'redemption' and sees Radcliffe diving around in the mud is an awkward misstep but the film quickly gets back on course with a climax and a resolution that is absolutely faithful to the chilling spirit of Hill's original story. Of course apart from the material the film's big draw is Daniel Radcliffe in his first leading role since finishing Harry Potter and so it is good to report that he emerges here with credibility more or less intact. Either because he still looks youthful with added stubble or because its not been long enough since the last Harry Potter film, Radcliffe does not convince at all as a father which initially distances the audience from his new character Arthur Kipps. As the film goes on though this rapidly falls away as Radcliffe shoulders the burden of carrying the audience through the story in much the same way as he was the audience's guide through the magical world of Harry Potter. Arthur, like Harry, is not a complex character but rather a solid central presence around which the horror happens and as such Radcliffe does an excellent job, proving he can handle a different genre with equal commitment and so paving the way for more interesting character parts down the line. With an excellent supporting cast that includes some wonderfully freaky children, The Woman in Black is an unusually classy horror film that overcomes any glitches to deliver an exciting cinematic experience.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace - George Lucas - 1999

Oh George where did it all go wrong? Having defined the childhood of an entire generation by creating the original Star Wars trilogy, George Lucas finally returned to filmmaking at the end of the nineties to create the first of three prequels to his epic space saga. Anticipation was at fever pitch but typically given his reputation (his best work is always with collaborators) all Lucas could deliver was a mixed bag. On the plus side Liam Neeson as Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn grounds the film with a real presence and gravitas, delivering even the most ridiculous lines with real weight and developing an easy chemistry with Ewan McGregor’s young Obi-Wan Kenobi. Together the pair cut through swathes of fighter droids with the sort of dazzling effortlessness that is just very cool and go up against the brilliant but under-used Darth Maul (Ray Park), a villain with an iconic entrance that matches the legendary first appearance of Darth Vader. In the climax the trio face off in what must be the finest lightsaber battle in the entire saga, moving through vast and eerily beautiful generator halls with a speed and grace that is astonishing and, when completed with John Williams’ epic music cue Duel of the Fates, tremendously exciting to watch. And then when it all seems to add up so well up pops the infuriating Jar-Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) and the embarrassingly mis-cast Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) to drag everything down. For all his faults Jar-Jar does have a role to play in the plot, enabling Lucas to introduce heavy handed messages about environmental destruction and cultural unification, but when the character is written and performed like racist white person’s idea of what a black person sounds like the film starts to feel awkward and then when Lucas throws all logic out of the window and takes him (a swamp based life form) travelling on a desert planet where he would surely shrivel up and die, just at the moment when leaving him on the ship would have given us all a convenient break, it becomes clear why some fans got so angry. Jar-Jar Binks essentially makes C3-PO look like Han Solo. And what about Anakin, the great anti-hero doomed to become one of cinema’s most iconic villains in the legendary Darth Vader? Its easy to see the see both the excitement and the potential of telling Anakin’s back story which if done well should be a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions but introducing the character as an eleven year old feels like a misstep. Although Anankin’s adventures will be very exciting for children (the pod-race is an overlong but very well executed action sequence), the presence at the centre of the film of a small boy who misses his mother feels oddly distancing for an older audience expecting someone similar to Luke to relate to. Hayden Christensen is hardly a brilliant actor but casting him as Anakin from the beginning could have given this film the lift it needed. The film will always stand as an enjoyable film but a frustrating prequel, something that the recent re-release in 3D will do nothing to change. The conversion to 3D is truly awful and in large parts completely pointless, proving more than anything that Lucas is happy to flog his cash cow for as long as necessary if it means he doesn’t have to create something new.

The Seven Year Itch - Billy Wilder - 1955

A deliciously funny comedy from that master subversive Billy Wilder, The Seven Year Itch takes a cruel pleasure in men's inability not to be distracted by a beautiful woman the moment the spouse is out of the door. The unknown Tom Ewell plays the ordinary Joe forced to stay home alone while his family is on holiday and while his performance might be a little hammy at times his mood swings between cheeky fantasies and guilt stricken panic are both enormously entertaining and often alarmingly close to home. Marilyn Monroe meanwhile is hardly the most talented actress but her unique brand of breathy innocent sexuality is perfect for the object of Ewell's daydream – the proverbial girl next door. Wilder famously got regularly infuriated with his star but that didn't stop him shooting her to perfection - from her first entrance bathed in light to the legendary subway vent shot that introduced the world to that frankly magnificent pair of legs, it was Wilder with this film that more than anything else made her the sex symbol she remains to this day. Although studio interference meant that Wilder didn't have the same tight grip on the comedy that made Some Like It Hot a masterpiece, The Seven Year Itch still contains enough subversive sexiness to make it another Wilder classic.

The Illusionist - Neil Burger - 2006

A slow-burning period thriller, The Illusionist relies on atmosphere rather than action and pace to create suspense but carries this off beautifully thanks to the dual efforts of director Neil Burger and composer Philip Glass. Burger washes the film in beautiful sepia tones that create a marvellously evocative world for nineteenth century Vienna that just hints at the possibility of something supernatural around the corner. Glass's score doesn't rely on grand classical themes as John Williams or Hans Zimmer might but instead simply uses a piano and string section to draw the audience in and keep them engaged in this world of illusion and magic. As Eisenheim the titular illusionist Edward Norton is suitably magnetic, showing off some brilliant magic tricks that are impressive despite being seen through the distance of the camera, and although some of his line readings sound slightly odd, his performance is hypnotic enough to ensure that we can never be certain as the true extent of his powers. Instead our eyes in the film are with Chief Inspector Uhl (a typically gruff Paul Giamatti) who is unwittingly drawn into Eisenheim's battle of wills with the crown prince (Rufus Sewell, chewing the scenery) but always destined to remain two steps behind everyone else. It’s true that some may work out the twist before he does, but such is Giamatti and Glass’ combined joy at the moment of revelation that the film is wrapped up with all the simple satisfaction of a good magic trick. Were you watching closely?

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Mystic River - Clint Eastwood - 2003

Another Clint Eastwood film, another Oscar winning masterpiece; yet to put Mystic River into a box like this does it a disservice since it easily stands apart from a lot of his other material. A powerful and moody examination of the ripple effects that a single tragic event can have on old friendships, this is one of those rare beasts, an actor’s film. Although the plot is ostensibly a murder thriller following the investigation of a teenage girl’s murder in Boston, Eastwood refuses to pace the film like a Hollywood thriller and instead takes his time to draw out the performances and get to know the characters that are caught up in the mystery. After a prologue in which three childhood friends are split apart by a violent act, we find them again many years later as they’re forced to reconnect by this new tragedy. Sean Penn mostly manages to control his normal histrionics as he sinks into the role of a grieving and vengeful father driven by his obsessive love for his daughter into acts that he will later regret in the film’s wonderfully ironic twist. Kevin Bacon's understated cop is perhaps the most restrained of the trio but he finds his moments to hint at his own personal demons, jealously defending the memory of a friendship to Laurence Fishburne’s uncomprehending sergeant. However it’s Tim Robbins who shines the most as a man struggling to maintain a focus on reality after a hinted rape as a child; communicating volumes with his soft eyes that betray confusion and anguish as people misunderstand him and a baffled frustration that he can't just be left alone, Robbins more than anyone is the beating heart of the film. Eastwood, remaining behind the camera this time round, directs a combustible subject matter with great economy, always cutting straight to the heart in every scene without letting rip technically and yet still finding a cold beauty in the details of working class Boston. Following on from the succession of cheesy thrillers he made in the nineties, Mystic River marked the beginning of a new cinematic run for Eastwood that left us after five or so years with a series of gripping human dramas that could all be considered masterpieces. It is saying something then to suggest that Mystic River could be the definitive entry into this catalogue of classics.

Man on a Ledge - Asger Leth - 2012

War. Fighting. Man on a Ledge. There is something strangely satisfying about a film that puts its entire plot in the title, and as such Man on a Ledge doesn't disappoint. In the opening scene a man clocks into a hotel and checks out the ledge outside the window. After eating a last meal he opens the window and climbs out onto the ledge. A cop comes up to another cop and asks 'What's the situation'. Answer: 'We've got a man on a ledge'! Sam Worthington does his rugged everyman thing as an escaped convict who spends most of his time on the titular ledge but the film aspires to be more accessible than a pyschological suicide drama and so director Asger Leth cuts away frequently to internal politicking between the cops outside and for good measure throws in a heist taking place at the same time across the street. This plot device of the two events happening simultaneously (set up already in the tagline 'The Ultimate Deception Needs The Ultimate Distraction') does at least feel refreshing but since the audience is made aware of what is happening long before most of the characters, practically all tension and suspense is lost and the first two thirds of the film moves too slowly to really make the film a successful thriller. Newcomer Genesis Rodriguez grabs most of the attention thanks to a pink push-up bra that will surely push her all the way to superstardom, but Ed Harris also has fun as snarling villain given to throwing things around the room and Elizabeth Banks struggles manfully as a hostage negotiator stuck with some truly terrible lines. Oddly given the title, the film finally picks up in the last act when the main focus finally moves away from the ledge and despite a badly handled subplot involving Anthony Mackie's rogue cop, musters enough exciting action to at least bring the film to a reasonably exciting climax.