Wednesday, 24 December 2014

I Am Legend - Francis Lawrence - 2007

I Am Legend, a short novel from acclaimed science-fiction writer Richard Matheson, has been adapted for the big screen before, most memorably in 1971 with Charlton Heston, but never before as a Christmas blockbuster starring (arguably) the world’s biggest movie start as Dr. Robert Neville, the last man on Earth. Given the studio pressure it would not have been surprising if this I Am Legend turned out to another derivative Hollywood thriller with the science-fiction diluted in favour of action but happily Smith and director Francis Lawrence (Constantine) are better than that. After a brief Emma Thompson starring prologue that sets up an apparent miracle cure for cancer, Lawrence cuts directly to three years later and a deserted New York City, occupied solely by Neville and his dog Sam. Taking his time to drift with the pair, Lawrence drip feeds information about the fate of the rest of the world, letting the audience work out the details for themselves whilst revelling in the eerie beauty of the empty city. Whether its stalking deer through the grass in Times Square, cutting corn in Central Park, or racing down 5th Avenue, its creepy and fascinating in equal measure to see the locations so familiar from umpteen superhero and disaster movies empty of all human life and slowly returning to nature. Smith delivers a wonderfully nuanced performance as the lonely Neville, reining in the bouncy charm that made him a star and taking the audience into the heart and soul of a man struggling to cope after three years with only his dog for company. Sam the Alsatian is a beautiful and energetic co-star and her warm and affectionate relationship with Neville carries the film, leavening the seriousness with moments of gentle humour that ground the story in an emotional reality without ever giving in to saccharine sentiment. Of course nothing is quite what it seems as it gradually becomes clear that Neville maybe the last human but there are monsters lurking in the dark, relics of the virus that wiped out the rest of humanity. Given the amount of detail that went into to creating the concept and the world it’s a little disappointing when the monsters turn out to be just animalistic vampires, badly rendered with cheap looking CGI but happily Lawrence largely keeps the focus on Smith – racketing up the suspense with a couple of excruciatingly tense set pieces; the moment Neville realises that a shop window dummy has apparently been moved across town of its own accord is terrifying. Lawrence can’t help descending to formula for an explosive action finale but by then he and Smith have gained enough emotional investment that this doesn’t matter. By grounding an original story with a great performance Lawrence has made I Am Legend a consistently watchable film.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire - Francis Lawrence - 2013

And so after the inevitable blockbusting success of The Hunger Games, the latest series of teen novels to be adapted for the big screen, the franchise marches on to churn out its first sequel Catching Fire, a mere 18 months after the rest of the world was forcibly awakened to Katniss Everdene. Francis Lawrence replaces Gary Ross in the director’s chair and does his level best to up the ante (Angry baboons! Acid fog!) but cannot escape the fact that Suzanne Collins original source material is little more than a re-run of the first book. Thus once again circumstances prevail to force Katniss to compete in the games against her will, once again we have to spend an inordinate amount of time in the Capitol with the fashions of the filthy rich before the games begin, and once again Josh Hutcherson is a useless wet blanket holding everyone else back. Happily Jennifer Lawrence is as fantastic ever, channelling the determined toughness and underlying vulnerability that made her breakout film Winter’s Bone so good, to make Katniss one of the defining action heroines of this generation, far more cool and relatable than soppy Bella Swan. Like the first one though the film suffers whenever the script forces to focus on the love triangle rather than the bigger picture but happily Liam Hemsworth still has nothing to do and Hutcherson is so dull that it becomes relatively easy to channel him out so the romantic scenes are more bearable this time round. Far more entertaining is Donald Sutherland as repressive President Snow who is granted a lot more screen time to glower into his beard every time Katniss annoys him (so all the time) and Stanley Tucci as flamboyant TV host Caesar Flickerman whose shiny teeth and ridiculous laugh provide the only real breaks for fun in two and a half hours. A train tour of the other districts in the first half an hour is an interesting diversion with some nice emotional beats as the victors begin to understand the full reach of the Capitol’s oppression but as an opportunity to explore the Districts of Panem further it feels sadly rushed as director Lawrence is in too much of a rush to spend time playing with glitzy costumes in the Capitol. The games themselves once they finally get going are too repetitive and reminiscent of film one to really excite, despite the new threats, and like Ross, director Lawrence fails to make us care about any of the contestants apart from Katniss so none of the inevitable deaths have the hard-hitting impact he would clearly like. This time round we are at least granted a final twist that bodes well for the forthcoming two-part sequel but in retrospect Catching Fire feels much like its predecessor: worth watching for Jennifer Lawrence’s iconic heroine but sadly lacking in the story or directing smarts to make it an iconic film worthy of her talents. 

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 - Francis Lawrence - 2014

Ever since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was divided into two parts, ostensibly to give the story and the characters more room to breathe in the climactic chapter, part ones have become standard in almost every blockbuster franchise going. Mockingjay – Part 1 therefore, the penultimate instalment in the mega-hit Hunger Games saga, can hardly be blamed for not bucking the trend and happily, in the capable hands of returning director Francis Lawrence, this film feels less like a holding card for the final battle, the problem that dragged the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises down, and more like a natural character development in an on-going story. After the unexpected twist ending in Catching Fire the story shoots off in a new direction, landing our put-upon heroine Katniss Everdene (Jennifer Lawrence) in the mysterious District 13 where she becomes embroiled in an entirely different arena – propaganda politics. Going out on location under the direction of Natalie Dormer’s badass documentary director Cassandra, Katniss witnesses the devastation of President Snow’s oppression first hand and its in these sequences that director Lawrence matures his storytelling to match the material, drawing audience empathy into the escalating war (something he never really managed when the action was confined to an arena) with scenes of quietly affecting human suffering that, like the best moments in the series, have a sincere heart to them. Jennifer Lawrence is as good as ever in these moments, taking the audience into Katniss heart and bringing warmth into this grey jump-suited world (the glitzy costumes of the Capital are largely absent) with her innate compassion for those around her, be it unknown children crouched in a makeshift hospital or her sister’s grumpy cat, saved from the ruins of District 12. Lawrence is less convincing in her romantic moments with Gale and Peeta (Liam Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson) but that is largely down to them rather than her. Gale finally has something to do (though quite why he is a major figure in the Rebellion government is unclear) yet all Hemsworth can do is brood his way through every scene giving Lawrence nothing to go on, while Hutcherson’s wet-blanket-in-residence Peeta is stuck as a hostage in the Capital, his scenes reduced to anaemic TV spots so happily Lawrence doesn’t have to spend much time failing to convince people that he’s worth caring about. Wet romance aside though the series does finally get exciting when the rebellion takes off, and although the rebels only callous battle plan seems to be throwing unarmed people into heavy gunfire until they overwhelm the soldiers with sheer force of numbers, director Lawrence racks up enough tension that for the first time since the series left the arena, we don’t know what’s going to happen next. With more characters than Harry Potter and Twilight combined now fighting for attention, its hard to see how on earth everything will be resolved in Part 2 next year, but we will wait and see with interest. 

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Wuthering Heights - David Skynner - 1998

Emily Bronte’s classic Gothic romance has been adapted for the screen more times than is really necessary and so every new version must naturally work harder to rise above the pack. Sadly however this ITV version has little to make it stand out. Orla Brady and Robert Cavanah make a striking pair as doomed lovers Cathy and Heathcliffe but they never find much to work with beneath her selfishness and his obsession and neither is able to find the depths of romantic passion that Bronte captured on the page and so the audience is left with little more than people being unpleasant to each other for two hours. Brady instinctively finds Cathy’s flightiness but there is no warmth underneath and so it is hard to be sympathetic at her absolute incomprehension at the hurt she’s caused. Cavanah does brooding very well but the only way he finds to take it is intense and shouty which quickly becomes wearing when Heathcliffe does little but behave horrifically to everyone around him. Director David Skynner gets in some nice shots of the moors and makes a good contrast between the rundown muddy Wuthering Heights and the blandly elegant Thorley Grange but never quite manages to capture the story’s epic scope on a TV budget. However this version is unique in one respect in that it carries on after the romance has been cut off and follows Bronte’s overall story arc in order to discover the aftereffects on the next generation. This doesn’t entirely work in practice as the audience is fed up by now of Heathcliffe’s self-pity and so it can be a struggle to push on through but it does mean that after all the misery and death the audience is eventually granted a small ray of sunshine and can at least take away Bronte’s final message of hope. 

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Romeo and Juliet - Joan Kemp-Welch - 1976

Romeo and Juliet, the greatest love story the world has ever known has been produced on stage and screen more times than anyone can count but there has possibly never been a more crushingly dull and unimaginative version than this eight-part TV serialisation. Shot entirely on cheap looking cardboard Renaissance sets and lit with the sort of horribly flat studio lighting that ruined so much TV drama of this era, Shakespeare’s play is presented in its complete uncut form but without any of the passion, drama or chemistry that has endeared the story to millions. Clive Swift does capture some of the tender fatherly compassion of Friar Laurence and there is an enjoyable irony in watching Patsy Byrne, who would go on to famously play Nursie in Blackadder, deliver a similar performance as Juliet’s Nurse but aside from these two the cast spectacularly fails to engage with the characters and the text. Christopher Neame (at least ten years too old to play the teenage Romeo) can at least play some of the emotions the story demands (although never more than one at the same time) but he never engages with any of the subtleties of Romeo’s speeches or makes any connection with any of the characters around him, a drastic flaw in a romantic drama. Ann Hasson, making her screen debut as Juliet, is even worse, delivering every single line in a high-pitched breathy voice that is appropriately childish but rapidly becomes annoying when she proves to be incapable of finding any of the character’s emotional range or depth and so every scene that she is in quickly becomes tiresome. Its rare to find a Shakespearean adaptation without at least some edits but when the actors rush through the lines making no effort to give them more than the most superficial expression, then the faith in the text is wasted and all that this will achieve is to put people off one of the greatest stories from the greatest writer who has ever lived.