Monday, 26 May 2014

The Rare Breed - Andrew V. McLaglen - 1966

The American Western was dying out by the time the sixties arrived, passed over in favour of the more innovative Spaghetti Westerns that had started coming out of Europe, but The Rare Breed proves that with a great cast, a relatively original story and the injection of some light comedy there was life in the old dog (or cow) yet. So many Westerns spin tales about dangerous outlaws and weathered lawmen that it is an unexpected pleasure to find one that actually deals with the real driving force of the old west – cattle. Supporting roles for old cowhands like Jack Elam and Ben Johnson give nods to traditional western characters but the main story revolves around prize Hereford bull Vindicator, the first of his breed to be imported from England, and the quest of two debonair English ladies to interbreed him with the Texas Longhorns that were commonly farmed in the Old West. Director Andrew McLaglen is perhaps best known for injecting wry humour into any genre and so the fish-out-of-water scenario of two well-spoken ladies stranded in the Wild West must have been irresistible. Reuniting with James Stewart after Civil War drama Shenandoah, McLaglen delights in casting the diminutive leading man against type as rough and ready cowhand Sam Burnett and throwing him into several enjoyably destructive brawls for maximum contrast with Maureen O’Hara’s prim and proper Martha Price. As Sam and Martha’s business relationship predictably develops from their initial loathing to tentative respect, McLaglen effectively uses the comic timing Stewart honed in his days with Frank Capra to lace the film with some laugh-out-loud moments that ensure the traditional Western adventures never get dull. Even Stewart however is no match for the film’s secret weapon, newcomer Juliet Mills as Martha’s daughter Hilary. Pretty, perky and blessed with some wonderful put downs, Mills waltzes through the West like its an English garden party, confounding Sam and co with her stubbornness whilst simultaneously walking off with the movie and the audience's hearts. The Rare Breed may not be as technically inventive as the work Sergio Leone was creating in Spain, but sometimes a good story well told, is all you need.

Friday, 16 May 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man - Marc Webb - 2012

Five years after Spiderman 3 clunked under the weight of too many villains and storylines that nobody cared about, the news of a franchise reboot smacked at best of laziness and worst of desperation and so it was a wonderful surprise when The Amazing Spider-Man proved to be the best film yet. The aptly named Marc Webb had previously only made the delightful (500) Days of Summer but he proves to be an excellent choice to take over the franchise from Sam Raimi, forging a grittier path that steers clear of the bright shiny colours that personified the first three films but retaining a mischievous wit that even in the darker moments reminds us why we fell in love with Stan Lee’s characters in the first place. He is assisted no end by rising British star Andrew Garfield who embodies the character of Peter Parker to a depth that Tobey Maguire could never manage. Whereas Maguire personified fresh-faced innocence as an idealised Hollywood teenage nerd, Garfield simply IS a teenager, stumbling through school and family life in an awkward bleary daze that anyone who remembers that age will relate to. Crucially Garfield’s discovery that he has developed super powers also feels far more natural; quite simply he reacts like any seventeen year old would – like a bit of a dick (without the need to grow a Maguire fringe and dance in the street) and thus the subsequent story turns, as Peter learns the famous maxim ‘with great power comes great responsibility’, are much more engaging and relatable than the usual generic superhero origin story. Another ace that Webb holds over Raimi is Emma Stone who as Gwen Stacy proves to be far more interesting than cookie-cutter sweet Kirsten Dunst. Bringing all the tough but vulnerable charm that endeared her to millions in Easy A and The Help, Stone is not an overtly sexy heroine but simply a warm-hearted and down-to-earth girl whose hilariously awkward chemistry with Garfield brings every one of their scenes to sparkling life and makes Peter and Gwen a couple everyone will be rooting for. Webb also couples the delightful performances with detailed use of live stunts to create a succession of confident and exciting action scenes that showcase Peter’s developing control and understanding of his powers, letting the action be driven by the characters rather than the other way round.  In the most stirring sequence an earlier tender moment when Spider-Man saved a boy from a burning car is paid off magnificently when the boy’s father rallies the city to Spider-Man’s aid and Webb’s 3D camera, Garfield’s performance and James Horner’s stirring score come together to celebrate our hero’s triumphant arrival. Smart enough to lay the groundwork for wider story arcs in Peter’s past (hints about his father’s mysterious past are an exciting addition) and within the gleaming walls of Oscorp tower, The Amazing Spider-Man successfully captures, far more than its predecessors did, the unique blend of irreverent action and human drama that first made the character so iconic. 

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 - Marc Webb - 2014

Two years after Marc Webb’s Spider-Man reboot unexpectedly found a new heart and soul beneath the suit of everyone’s favourite webslinger, the inevitable sequel is here and happily, much like its predecessor, it doesn’t disappoint – cleaving to sequel formula by making everything bigger and louder but pushing the story in interesting and dangerous new directions to ensure that it never feels formulaic. If any criticism can be levelled at The Amazing Spider-Man 2 its that the film is deliberately slow, taking its time to re-establish returning characters and introduce new ones but given that at its heart this is still a love story between Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy, possibly the most adorable onscreen couple in recent years, time spent in their company is a pleasure not a chore. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone are now so naturally attuned to each other’s rhythms that their every scene together crackles with an earthy chemistry that makes Peter’s conflict between his desires for Gwen and the memory of the promise he made to her father (Denis Leary returns for a number of ghostly flashbacks as Captain Stacy) all the more heart wrenching. Webb shows his maturity as a director by handling these moments with great delicacy, carefully letting his camera dwell tenderly on every look and touch without ever seeming intrusive; if he has a weakness he occasionally struggles to find equal levels of nuance and depth within the villains his Spider-Man faces. In the first film Rhys Ifans delivered a wonderfully complex performance as Curt Connors but when he turned into The Lizard, practically all that subtlety was lost. This time around the opposite is the case. Jamie Foxx is a wonderful Electro, a terrifyingly menacing vision of a social outcast given ultimate power to wreak havoc on the city that ignored him but before his transformation his performance as the nerdy Max Dillon is a little too hammy to quite fit with the overall tone, his jokes feeling a little forced where Garfield and Stone’s humour comes naturally. Narratively though Webb largely handles his villains better than Sam Raimi, successfully avoiding the ‘too many characters’ problem that plagued Spiderman 3. Paul Giamatti is wasted as the Rhino, turning up for barely five minutes as a clumsy Russian thug that any 3rd rate Hollywood goon could have played but the rise of Electro is carefully developed and paced alongside the fall from grace of Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan – doing more with the character in one scene than scene than James Franco managed in three movies) so that the two story arcs enhance but never intrude on each other. Webb pushes the action quotient, making spectacular and occasionally beautiful uses of the 3D but crucially never loses the emphasis on character, climaxing the final battle with a brutal twist that is all the more devastating after what’s gone before. The fact that Webb can pull off such daring narrative turns in a Hollywood blockbuster just shows how much the franchise has matured; Spider-Man may have originated in a comic book but these characters are universal

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Deep Blue Sea - Renny Harlin - 1999

Shark brains are the new cure for Alzheimer’s? On paper this sounds like a new low for trashy B-movies but anyone who manages to stop laughing at this ridiculous (and perhaps a little offensive) excuse for a plot may actually enjoy Deep Blue Sea, Renny Harlin's attempt to turn Jaws into a serial killer film. Trapped in a flooding underwater laboratory is the usual assortment of mismatched personalities forced to band together when inevitably disaster strikes and they start getting picked off one by one. Deep-sea diver Carter Blake (Thomas Jane) is a classic default hero, strong, silent and dull, religious chef Preacher (LL Cool J) constantly argues with his parrot to bring some much needed humour and thoughtlessly ambitious scientist Susan McCallister alienates the audience to such an extent that actress Saffron Burrows is eventually forced to strip off for no reason in a vain attempt to win them back. Best of all though is Samuel L. Jackson who starts off playing against type as a visiting office drone but when shit goes down becomes the Sam Jackson we all know and love, grabbing all the best lines and eventually stealing the film with a monologue that rivals Robert Shaw’s Indianapolis speech in Jaws. So far so standard horror/disaster movie except that Deep Blue Sea couldn’t be content with conventional killers, instead pushing the boat out (no pun intended) to give us… super-intelligent giant CGI sharks. Clearly everyone is now laughing again but in his defence Harlin may not be able to create an original or even credible plot but he can at least knock together some decent moments of action and suspense, making inventive use of his three levelled set and, in one moment of rare dramatic flair, pulling off an unexpected twist that is still shocking on repeat viewings and ensures that, whatever else it maybe, the film is never dull. Which given that its hooked around the most pathetic B-movie science since, well fifties B-movies, is saying something.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Gattaca - Andrew Niccol - 1997

The feature film debut of long time advert director Andrew Niccol and an influential piece of nineties sci-fi, Gattaca paints a bold vision of the future where the science of genetics has been pushed to its logical extreme and new babies are created (for those who can afford it) with predetermined characteristics, all physical and mental fallibilities ironed away. Seen through the eyes of Vincent (Ethan Hawke), a genetically ‘normal’ or ‘in-valid’ and therefore second-class citizen, Niccol’s world is a triumph of clinical minimalism, filled with clean and non-descript spaces that, unlike a lot of sci-fi worlds, are obviously futuristic without drawing attention to themselves. Instead the focus is on the equally cool and collected characters moving through this world and with his piercing blue eyes and striking cheekbones Hawke fits perfectly into Niccol’s vision, whether its as the awkward in-valid Vincent or as the clinically perfect valid Jerome whose identity Vincent takes on as part of a dangerous masquerade to pursue his dream career. When a murder occurs at the Gattaca Space Centre where Jerome works his world begins to fall apart and Hawke proves adapt at communicating the depths of Vincent’s fear and desperation with one haunted look of those huge eyes, even as he maintains Jerome’s frigid exterior for those around him, but sadly this is not enough. The problem is that whilst this is undoubtedly a fascinating premise and the lengths to which Vincent must go to protect himself are always intriguing, Niccol has apparently forgotten to try and engage his audience on an emotional level as well. Its all very well Hawke sharing in voiceover his dreams of space travel but when both Hawke and most of the supporting cast, including Uma Thurman’s forgettable love interest and Alan Arkin’s sardonic detective are as devoid of emotion as the rooms through which they walk its very hard to care about the drama unfolding. Only Jude Law, in his first role in Hollywood as the real Jerome who provides the genetic materials necessary for Vincent’s deception, goes someway to making a connection, his alcoholic mood swings providing welcome bursts of cynicism that the film desperately needs. Gattaca has taken its place in the history of sci-fi thanks to the original and very well thought out concepts but as a film, with practically nothing for an audience to connect with on a deeper level, it is sadly likely to be forgotten.