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.