Friday, 25 January 2013

Rango - Gore Verbinski - 2011

A darkly twisted animated Western from the director of the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films, Rango is certainly one of the odder propositions to show up in cinemas but also one of the most fresh and enjoyable. After a confusing start in which a playacting lizard is thrown out of a car, has a conversation with a squashed armadillo and wanders into the desert for a spiritual journey enhanced with a giant orange fish, the style does settle down for a loving parody of all things Western. The plot is fairly conventional – a stranger rides into town and ends up fighting on behalf of the townsfolk – but the characters are all eccentric talking animals who make random jokes about prostate cancer and swallowing pygmies that will go way over younger children's heads but will delight anyone bored with cuddly and repetitive animation. The sinister town mayor is a turtle in a wheelchair, a villainous rattlesnake glares down at Rango with the Eye of Sauron and a gleefully morbid Mexican band of owls regularly break up the action for choric pronouncements of impending doom. It is with the action though that Verbinski demonstrates most confidence, proving that he has learnt from the Pirates films by creating at the film's centre an extended stagecoach chase that references everything from the Star Wars pod race and Apocalypse Now (Ride of the Valkyries on a banjo? Genius) to the original Stagecoach from 1939, an action sequence it comes closer to matching than anything attempted within the genre since. Verbinski is also bold enough, despite the negative reaction the move got in At World's End, to journey into the surreal at one point and bring Rango, via the crabs from Davy Jones' Locker, to meet the Spirit of the West who in an applause-worthy homage is none other than Sergio Leone’s Man with No Name. Unfortunately the moment is jarred slightly by the sound of Timothy Olyphant's voice appearing where Clint Eastwood's should be but perhaps that would've been too much to ask. Set to a rambunctious Hans Zimmer score that is itself a tribute to the pioneering work of Morricone and the like, Rango contains more than enough dazzling wit and excitement to rank it higher than most normal animations or Westerns. And all whilst resisting the pressure to jump on the 3D bandwagon.

Rage - Sally Potter - 2009

The newest experimental film from director Sally Potter is possibly her least conventional but conversely, also one of the best pieces of work she's ever done. Composed entirely of a series of interviews shot on a mobile phone by an unseen student against various coloured backdrops, Rage tells the story of an accident in a fashion house that rapidly escalates into a murder investigation. Considering the closest the audience ever comes to witnessing these events is background noise during the interviews and occasional reactions to something off camera, the film shouldn't work. However Potter's carefully paced script plus the brilliant performances she draws from her actors (both stars and unknowns) in fact turn Rage into one of the most riveting crime dramas seen in cinemas for a long time. Feeding us a whole mix of differing opinions which nevertheless coalesce to form a coherent whole, the range of characters we meet, including the models (Lily Cole and Jude Law), the security (John Leguizamo) and the viperish critic (Judi Dench), all successfully engage and entertain the audience with nothing more than the script and their delivery. Possibly what makes Rage so refreshing though is that the audience is never spoon fed the story but expected to use their intelligence to work it out for themselves from the titbits let drop by the interviewees as their initially calm facades slowly unravel. In a culture where cinema is increasingly about big lights and bigger noises this is very refreshing. Some elements of the story do unfortunately remain a little vague (it’s never quite clarified why there are rioters outside) suggesting that Potter may have bowed to pressure for a quicker running time which is a shame because with the addition of another five minutes, the film has all the other ingredients to make a masterpiece.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Armageddon - Michael Bay - 1998

After tearing apart half of Miami (in Bad Boys) and San Francisco (in The Rock) it was perhaps inevitable that for his next step director Michael Bay would go all Roland Emmerich on us and take on the whole world. Rather than opting for aliens or freak weather conditions however, Bay’s option is a lot simpler: take a rock the size of Texas, throw it at Planet Earth in a threat to repeat the disaster that wiped out the dinosaurs millions of years ago and accidentally steal the plot of Deep Impact (eventually released the same year) along the way. Of course we know this is serious because a lot of very serious people led by Billy Bob Thornton (who is of course a very serious actor) spend a lot of time arguing in rooms finding new ways to describe how futile the situation is while outside Michael Bay periodically obliterates major world cities whenever he feels the audience might be getting bored. Eventually they all decide the only way to save the day is send for Bruce Willis the world’s best driller and send him up to the asteroid so he can drill a hole in the beast, plant a nuclear bomb, save the world and hopefully be home again in time for tea. Naturally matters are complicated by a romantic subplot between Bruce’s daughter left on Earth (Liv Tyler being all lovely and pouty) and his sidekick in the sky (Ben Affleck, back when he was bland and nobody liked him) as well as some jaunty sidekicks who come along to conveniently be funny and then die at crucial moments but essentially we are all here to see the world saved in spectacularly explosive fashion and in this at least Bay can (eventually) deliver. After the serious people have eventually put their faith in Bruce and his ragtag team of slumming character actors – Steve Buscemi and Michael Clarke Duncan are very funny, Affeck and Owen Wilson are not – and spent an inordinate amount of time reluctantly training them up, the film finally gets going when everyone is blasted into space and Bay can finally cut loose with the CGI. From here on in the audience and characters are relentlessly blasted with explosions, rocks and seriously freaky weather as they land on the asteroid (bizarrely designed like something from Dr. Seuss's worst nightmare (thank you Steve)) and take so long to destroy it that the whole scenario might actually be tense if anyone actually cared. To say that the outcome is predictable is like saying Bruce Willis is bald but if you like your sunset’s golden, your heroes to walk EVERYWHERE in slow motion and your animal crackers violated then you can’t fail to love Armageddon.

Pearl Harbour - Michael Bay - 2001

After decimating at least three major world cities in Armageddon, director Michael Bay was clearly stuck for things to do so for his next film so turned to decimating history instead, specifically the Japanese bombing of the American naval fleet at Pearl Harbour in 1941, a train wreck for American national pride and now, ironically, a critical train wreck in American cinema history. To give Bay his due the battle sequence itself is visually very impressive; the camera zooms through the water with the torpedoes, drops from the skies with the bombs and soars wide with the airplanes over the harbour to take in the whole horrible spectacle of several magnificent warships thrashing in their death agonies, capturing on film the magnitude of the disaster in spectacular detail. It’s just a shame almost every other aspect of the film bombs on an equally disastrous scale. Two and a half hours of Armageddon was at least bearable since Bruce Willis is a charismatic leading man and (Ben Affleck aside) he was surrounded by talented character actors. In Pearl Harbour Bay makes us sit there for three hours and with Affleck promoted to leading man duties along with (of all people) Josh Hartnett and Kate Beckinsale, leaves us with the dullest romantic love triangle anyone had ever seen, at least until Stephanie Meyer picked up a pen. Affleck and Hartnett pout and attempt to cool in pilot uniforms while Beckinsale looks impossibly glamorous and all three struggle and fail to convincingly deliver dialogue so clunky it could have been written by George Lucas. Literally the only moment of genuine feeling or pathos comes from Ewan Bremner when his pilot is confronted with a personal loss after the battle; the romantic tensions between the central trio are dragged on for so long that it’s almost a relief when the Japanese finally attack. Of course this is a flag waving American movie and so once the dust has settled the audience isn’t granted to the welcome relief of rolling credits but rather another FORTY-FIVE MINUTES of needless posturing, purely so American audiences can leave with their natural feelings of smug superiority gratefully restored after the ‘minor setback’ of the titular battle. It cannot be a good sign when the list of a film’s historical inaccuracies is longer than the plot of the film itself but then this is Hollywood so naturally it made millions at the box-office. We should just be thankful they haven’t made Pearl Harbour 2.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Leaving Las Vegas - Mike Figgis - 1995

The story of an alcoholic who comes to Las Vegas to drink himself to death sounds like it’s going to be nothing but a massive downer but in the hands of director Mike Figgis and Oscar winner Nicolas Cage it actually becomes an engrossing and unexpectedly moving experience. Cage has made so many embarrassing and bizarre career choices recently (hands up all those who liked Season of the Witch) that a lot of people have forgotten that he can be a great actor when he wants and never more so than here where his sensational performance as the alcoholic Ben deservedly took home the little golden man. Either drunk or hung-over for practically the entire film, Cage never fails to mine the character for his inherent black humour but more importantly he instinctively finds the tragic pathos of a man who discovers light at the end of the tunnel only after he has given in to the dark. That light comes in the form of hooker Sera (a brilliant performance by Elisabeth Shue – whatever happened to her?), another lost soul who unexpectedly connects with Ben when she is also at her lowest ebb and thus begins a twisted and strangely sweet love story as the pair stumble towards some form of redemption. The film is not without faults – Julian Sands' bizarre Latvian pimp is an unfortunate misstep – and contains many scenes that are difficult to watch but thankfully Figgis errs on the side of discretion and only hints at the true horrors that have blighted the couple’s lives, instinctively understanding that the audience is more likely to stay put if they are allowed to fill in the gaps for themselves rather than being bombarded with explicit details. Ultimately, and perhaps surprisingly given the subject matter, the film is an incredibly moving love story about two people in the worst of circumstances and as such is actually a fulfilling experience.

Friday, 18 January 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - Peter Jackson - 2012

After The Lord of the Rings smashed box-office and award records and became a worldwide cultural phenomenon it was inevitable that hungry executives would look eagerly towards The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkein’s prequel to his genre-defining trilogy and eventually persuade original director Peter Jackson to return to the helm for An Unexpected Journey, the opening chapter of a new trilogy and thrilling return to the world of Middle Earth. Thus as the titular hobbit Bilbo Baggins (venerable Ian Holm in Rings, played here sixty years earlier by Martin Freeman) sets out on another quest, this time to recover the lost treasure of Erebor from Smaug the dragon, we are treated once again to exciting action set pieces, gentle comedy from a whole new range of characters and so many more eye-wateringly beautiful landscapes that you start to wonder if New Zealand is running out of space. Freeman, having gained critical acclaim for playing everymen, most recently John Watson in TV’s Sherlock, is a perfect choice to play Bilbo the ordinary hobbit whose life is changed forever when thirteen unruly dwarves show up on his doorstep one evening. Ostensibly a less complicated character than his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood), Bilbo is in many ways a far more relatable leading man, determinedly focused on his creature comforts in the face of everything that the world throws at him and maintaining a quiet dignity that whilst often funny is also both his relief and his best source of strength. In support Ian McKellen returns to play the delightfully sly, gruff and witty Gandalf the Grey (let’s face it Gandalf the White in the last two films was far less interesting) but the rest of the principal cast are fresh, with the dwarfs, represented in Rings solely by John Rhys-Davies’ Gimli, coming to centre stage for the first time. Despite how hard Jackson has tried to design thirteen distinctive sets of facial hair some of them, unlike the central fellowship in Rings, are unfortunately less well defined but with notably less source material to work with this was perhaps inevitable and as a group at least they form a wild and dangerous band that is endlessly entertaining to watch. Dean O’Gorman and Aidan Turner playing Fili and Kili take up the Legolas mantle of good-looking action heroes, Ken Stott is a voice of wisdom as the twinkly-eyed Balin and Richard Armitage gives an impressive performance as the group’s dour, driven leader Thorin Oakenshield who possibly has the most complex character arc since Boromir died. Interestingly The Hobbit, unlike The Lord of the Rings, was never written as a trilogy so whereas the original films were always trying to cram in as much story as possible, the writers here have weirdly done the opposite, bringing back Rings characters like Saruman (Christopher Lee) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) that never appeared in the original novel in order to give the story a wider scope. Although some of the additions may seem a little excessive (here’s looking at you Sebastian), most of the new plot elements consist of intriguing hints of a darker conspiracy at work that only increases anticipation for the next film The Desolation of Smaug. A note should also be made about Jackson’s controversial new technology that he used to shoot the film at 48 frames-per-second as supposed to the standard 24, a decision that certainly pays off in the large scale sequences that really do feel like they are on the other side of a window but is less effective elsewhere with some scenes, particularly at the beginning just looking unnaturally sped up. This isn’t enough to take away from the experience though, which for Middle Earth fans at least, is cause for a long expected party.

Monday, 14 January 2013

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring - Peter Jackson - 2001

J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is deservedly regarded as a masterpiece of fantasy fiction and one of the great novels of the Twentieth Century, so any film adaptation was always going to be a mammoth undertaking, riding as it does on the backs of devoted fans the world over. However almost from the first frame of The Fellowship of the Ring, the first film of a trilogy, any expectations are blown out of the water as Peter Jackson, a small hairy independent filmmaker from New Zealand, has created not just a movie but a major movie event. Taking in epic landscapes, a vast array of eccentric characters and monsters and more action, drama and humour than you can shake a wizard’s staff at, The Fellowship of the Ring throws a classic everyman hero Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) onto the quest to end all quests to throw The One Ring of Power into the Crack of Doom and save all Middle Earth from the wroth of the Dark Lord Sauron. Summed up like that it all sounds a bit ridiculous but Jackson and his cast play it absolutely straight, using New Zealand’s most fantastical imagery as a backdrop and filling in the foreground with such gorgeously intricate effects and design work that it becomes very easy to buy into this world and its detailed mythology. The opening scenes of rural life in The Shire where Tolkein’s principal characters the hobbits live are filled with an earthy charm and sweetness that is delightful to watch and forms a beautiful contrast with the elegant and ethereal elven worlds of Rivendell and Lothlorien and the gloomy Mines of Moria where Howard Shore’s score soars to perfectly encapsulate the dark majesty of an ancient lost civilisation. Guiding us through all this visual splendour, Wood overcomes some disturbingly blue eyes to turn Frodo into a gentle and dignified leading man and develops some nice chemistry with his best friend/gardener Sam (Sean Astin) and Ian McKellen’s gruff but twinkly wizard Gandalf. In support Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd lend comic relief as fellow hobbits Merry and Pippin, Viggo Mortensen brings some rugged intensity as ranger Aragorn and Sean Bean scores possibly the best emotional character arc as the conflicted Boromir. In the second two parts the story gets even more dramatic as war in Middle Earth breaks out in earnest but this film still contains some of the best scenes with the first half dominated by the sinister Black Riders who bring the first shadows into the sunny Shire and the second by horror icon Christopher Lee who plays the treacherous wizard Saruman, manipulating events from afar and wreaking havoc with the aid of the monstrous Lurtz (Lawrence Makoare). The film’s natural climax though is Gandalf’s now legendary duel with the Balrog, a scene that has transcended the cinema to enter popular culture. For this moment alone The Fellowship of the Ring has officially raised the bar.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers - Peter Jackson - 2002

Picking up a year after The Fellowship of the Ring first collectively blew everyone’s minds and introduced a whole new legion of fans to J.R.R Tolkein’s magnum opus, The Two Towers turns one storyline into three as the Fellowship heads off in different directions to explore new regions of Middle Earth/New Zealand. Elijah Wood and Sean Astin have by now developed a very sweet and touching friendship as Frodo and Sam that forms the emotional core of the film, an arc that reaches a high point in Sam’s beautiful climactic speech about why they continue to struggle against the odds, but the highlight of their storyline is the proper introduction of Gollum. Lurking in the shadows throughout Fellowship, the character crawls vertically downwards into full view for the first time here, throwing the hobbits into a whole mess of danger and cinema technology into the 21st Century. Utilising cutting edge motion capture technology years before James Cameron began showing off with Avatar, Gollum is played by Andy Serkis in a performance that is now rightly considered definitive, a performance that saw the actor on set alongside Wood and Astin in a grey pyjama suit creating the movements and voice for Weta Digital to use in creating the cunning and emaciated creature seen on screen. The fact that Gollum is a photorealistic creation who seamlessly interacts with Frodo and Sam and at one point engages in a fascinating duologue with the two sides of his personality is a testament to both Serkis’ committed performance (he is now the world’s leading motion capture artist) and Peter Jackson’s dedication to bringing Tolkein’s characters to detailed life by any means necessary. Away from Frodo and Sam comedy duo Merry and Pippin (Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd) are stuck with possibly the most thankless storyline wandering through Fangorn Forest with Treebeard the ent (read walking tree) but finish up leading one of the trilogy’s best scenes as the forest goes to war and the ents attack the city of Isengard. The action quotient however is led for the most part by Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn as he leads the surviving members of the Fellowship into the Kingdom of Rohan, home of the horse lords and gets caught up in their struggles with Isengard, a war that culminates in the legendary Battle of Helm’s Deep. Despite all that is still to come in The Return of the King, Helm's Deep still must go down as one of the greatest battles in cinema history; a masterpiece of sustained action, the fight dominates the final hour of the film, expertly interweaving cool stunts (shield surfing!) with thrilling heroics (with ten thousand monstrous Uruk Ha’i knocking on the walls the battle is a classic fight against impossible odds) and blending in moments of humour and pathos to ensure the audience is always emotionally engaged. The most exciting part however must be the realisation that the best is yet to come…

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King - Peter Jackson - 2003

The final part of J.R.R. Tolkein and Peter Jackson’s ground breaking fantasy adventure, The Return of the King was awaited with worldwide baited breath after the awe-inspiring first two parts and once again has proved Jackson’s genius by exceeding all expectations and blowing everyone away. The days of the Ben-Hur style three-hour epic were long gone with modern audiences assumed to have far poorer attention spans, but Return of the King proves to be the exception to the rule, cramming in so much excitement, adventure and really wild things that the running time is hardly noticeable. In how many other films would a duel between a hobbit and a giant spider come as a breather? The action largely moves now to the Kingdom of Gondor and the ancient citadel of Minas Tirith, yet another piece of beautifully intricate production design to be smashed to bits as the vast armies of the Dark Lord Sauron make their final assault on Middle Earth, oblivious to the fact that the One Ring and the increasingly battered Frodo (Elijah Wood) are inching their way closer to Mount Doom. With so many characters to orchestrate it is perhaps inevitable that some would fall by the wayside but it is sad to see things like the motivations of malevolent steward Denethor (John Noble) cut away, reducing the character to a two-dimensional mad man. For the most part though every character has a moment to shine with Orlando Bloom’s Legolas grabbing the best action as he single-handedly takes down a mammoth only have the moment stolen by Gimli the dwarf’s (John Rhys-Davies) marvellous one-liner and Bernard Hill reducing everyone to tears as King Theoden leads the Riders of Rohan in a heroic but potentially suicidal charge against vastly superior numbers. In the finest scene though Peter Jackson steps up from being an orchestrator of a vast fantasy canvas to becoming a deservedly Oscar winning director, expertly cutting a last ditch assault on the orc infested city of Osgiliath together with the heartless Denethor eating dinner in a way that rams home the terrible consequences without needing to reveal a single corpse. Amongst all this drama it would be easy to lose sight of Frodo and Sam’s (Sean Astin) quest and it must be admitted that at times scenes of the pair on the road feel like breaks from the action rather than the other way round but it’s worth sticking with them for the final emotional scenes on the slopes of Mount Doom at the End of All Things where Astin’s heartfelt performance brings home once and for all what this story is all about. From there it’s a long way downhill to the final credits but given the amount of time we’ve spent with these characters they deserve the send-off from what is surely now the greatest film trilogy of all time. It is a little pat but actually very apt to sum up The Lord of the Rings as this generation’s Star Wars; just as George Lucas did in the seventies, Peter Jackson has inspired a whole new generation of film makers and film lovers and for that alone this trilogy is a remarkable achievement.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

The Last Station - Michael Hoffman - 2009

An account of the battle over the copyright to the works of dying Russian genius Leo Tolstoy, The Last Station is a refreshing change from a lot of English costume drama, with Russian sensibilities shaking away the traditional English decorum that so often stifles the genre. On one side is a barnstorming Helen Mirren as Tolstoy's wife Sofya, passionate in both her devotion to her husband and her determination that her children's inheritance will not be sold off to outsiders. By sheer force of nature Mirren probably has the edge on the audience's sympathies, but Paul Giamatti is a good match for her as conniving Tolstoyan Chertkov, sincerely calling for the author's works to be made national property and only hinting at the hypocritical motives underneath. The obvious point about the debate though is that surely once Tolstoy's works are published anyone can read them anyway, a point that the film never addresses and thus Giamatti's point of view is undermined almost from the beginning but more crucially it’s often difficult to take the conflict as seriously as the characters. Stuck in the middle Christopher Plummer is wonderful as the legendary writer. Never as vocal and energetic as Mirren, Plummer is nevertheless an excellent sparring partner bringing some much needed calm and sly wit into the mix and ensuring the film is always more than just a shouting match. The story is told however from the perspective of James McAvoy's Valentin, an acolyte who introduces us to the world of Chertkov’s Tolstoyan movement, an oddly puritanical organisation whose aims seem to be slightly at odds with the ethos of Tolstoy himself and thus their purpose and motivations appear somewhat confusing from a modern perspective. However the subplot of Valentin's growing understanding that there is more to life than rigid ideals forms a nice counterpoint to the often bitter struggles in the family and director Michael Hoffman eventually manages to expertly pull the two together for the inevitable climax and hit all the right notes emotionally, even for those who may be left confused by the dense mesh of Russian history and literature.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Love in the Time of Cholera - Mike Newell - 2007

Presumably aiming to be an old-fashioned epic romance in the vein of Gone with the Wind, Love in the Time of Cholera fills the screen with swooning camera moves and melodramatic actors but tragically cannot boast of even being in the same league. Based on the famous novel by Columbian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the plot revolves around a romantic telegraph boy in South America who fails to hold onto the woman he loves but rather than moping around and moving on proceeds to wait for over fifty years until she is free for him to approach again, spending the intervening time sleeping around in an effort to dull the pain of his lovesickness. Theoretically this should be a three hanky corker but English director Mike Newell crucially fails to make us care about any of the characters and so the 139 minute plod through half a century of history quickly becomes rather turgid. Javier Bardem playing Florentino the ‘hero’ is frankly irritating to the point of being insipid and while Giovanna Mezzogiorno does at least has some good moments playing Fermina, the object of his affections, she is too cold and distant to really engage. Far more interesting is the charismatic Benjamin Bratt who plays Mezzogiorno's husband doctor Urbino, turning a character that in Hollywood would be made a villain in order to better sanctify Florentino and Fermina’s romance into an intelligent, understated and essentially decent man who is far more deserving of Fermina’s affections than the drippy Florentino. Similarly impressive is Catalina Sandino Moreno as Fermina’s cousin Hildebranda, bringing a much needed spark to her sadly brief scenes that is sorely lacking from the rest of the film. Newell though is far more interested in the central love story, presumably under the impression that the languid shots of admittedly beautiful scenery and the feeble poetry of Bardem's pathetic musings say something deep about the timeless nature of love. They don't.