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.