Sunday, 27 February 2011

Rock N Rolla

From the director who brought us Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and Snatch comes a story of property development in London! No really. Tom Wilkinson is Lenny, a gangster-type who plays off punters, councillors, developers and any one else who gets in his way, so he can make lots of money. However, when Russian Billionaire Uri Omovich (Karel Roden) moves into town and wants Lenny to smooth over all his property deals at a cost of 7 million Euro, everything starts going wrong. Especially after Uri lends Lenny his lucky painting (which is then stolen by Lenny's junkie son: washed-up RocknRolla Johnny Quid), and throw into the mix Uri's crooked accountant Stella (Thandie Newton) who is leaking information to crooks One-Two (Gerard Butler) and Mumbles (Idris Elba) about the 7 million Euro that is being moved around.

The film is very much in the style of Snatch and Lock, Stock; there is the usual catalogue-of-errors-heists, Cockneys swearing inventively, and funky music; but it falls fairly short of either of the other two. I'm not sure whether it is because we have seen this all before, or because the plot perhaps was not as zany as previous films, but I felt there was something missing. Don't get me wrong, it was an enjoyable film, and it's not like it dragged on, more that we were spoiled by Ritchie's previous films. It's more things like the dialogue not being as snappy, and the music, that was such a large part in Lock, Stock and Snatch was barely noticeable here. Even the swearing wasn't that inventive!

The cast don't disappoint. Gerard Butler is very cool as One-Two, rarely breaking sweat (except when being chased by a seemingly indestructible Russian heavy); Tom Hardy is great as Handsome Bob; and Mark Strong as Archie (Lenny's main heavy, providing the main narration of the film) is also very cool and calm. Even Super Hans Matt King as Cookie is good.

Overall an enjoyable film, but not in the same league as other Guy Ritchie heist films.

Monday, 21 February 2011

The House of Flying Daggers

I revisited "Daggers" as Nebular had listed director Zhang Yimou as his favourite: I hadn't really remembered much about the film other than the famous dancing sequence near the beginning of the film, so felt I should re-familiarise myself with it.

The House of Flying Daggers are a group of rebels who aim to bring down the failing government. The government guards are continually trying to track down the leader of the Daggers; having recently been successful in this venture they are now out to find the new leader. One of the guards (Jin, played by Takashi Kaneshiro) is sent to a local brothel, as there is talk of a new girl (Xiao Mei; Zhang Ziyi) who may have connections to the Daggers. Jin's boss Leo (Andy Lau) allows Jin to help Xiao Mei (who happens to be blind) leave the brothel and escape from the city guards, so that she may lead Jin and Leo to the Daggers' hideout. As Jin and Xiao Mei flee, they have various adventures, including many battles with guards from other districts, until finally they find the Daggers' hideout. Plot twists and double crosses lead to a climactic showdown between Jin and Leo.

Kaneshiro and Ziyi are both fantastic, Ziyi demonstrates that the talent which brought her to the masses in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, was not a fluke. She is able to act completely convincingly as a blind girl alongside Kaneshiro, and her sense of balance and fighting technique while staring off into the middle distance is amazing. Kaneshiro plays Jin wonderfully as the ladies man who first sets out on this quest because he fancies Xiao Mei, then falling for her, then realising he is in deeper than he had counted on as he has to kill guards from other counties. I felt that Andy Lau as Leo was less convincing early on; but now I think of it this could have been because of  how he was trying to play his character who was actually deeper into the conspiracy than we know at the outset.

The style of the film is absolutely phenomenal! Both the fighting and the cinematography. The fighting is wonderfully stylised, with a lot of other post-production techniques to make it even more dynamic. But the look of the film is simply stunning. The costumes are all very richly coloured; from the opulent dresses in the brothel to the blues of Jin's travelling gear to the greens of the Daggers' robes. But what makes it really stand out are the trees. The trees aren't just there for the sake of it, Zhang Yimou uses them as a canvas for almost the entire film. A lot of it is shot against the greens and browns of bamboo, but not always.

I would like to post loads of shots, it may get a bit gratuitous, but I could look at them all day! The whole film is gorgeous, lush, and beautifully shot; cinematographer Xiaoding Zhao is someone I should watch out for in future.

As I've intimated, there is very little I don't like about this film; great characters, great acting, intriguing plot (seemingly straightforward, but twists and turns towards the end), beautifully designed, shot, and executed. The only niggle I have is the fight between Jin and Leo at the end. Not the fight itself, that's perfectly choreographed,  it's the fact that it seemingly goes on for ages!

**Spoilers!** Initially the two fighters square up in field backdropped with an autumnal forest of typically stunning colour. Then a moment later, there is snow everywhere! Are we to believe two or three months have passed and still the combatants stand there? Not only that, but towards the end Xiao Mei comes around (she was stabbed, seemingly to death), to help solve the battle. Again, are we to think that she was at death's door for two to three months, just for her to recover enough to influence the fight? It just all reminded me of the Long Big Punch Up from the Fast Show:

Also, the snow that is falling relentlessly is only falling in front of the screen, it doesn't seem to land on any of the characters!

As I say, this is only a small niggle, but as it is the finale to the film I felt a bit let down. But overall this is a film not to be missed, I could watch it again and again simply because of its design, the fact that everything else about it is great is a huge bonus.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Yeah, Well. The Dude Abides!

How to start a review of one of my favourite films? The Big Lebowski is almost genre-less. It's mostly comedy, but being the Coen Brothers it's not straightforward comedy; but then it's not the black comedy of True Blood or Fargo. Above all it's a story about an ordinary Dude, who likes bowling, driving around and the occasional acid flash-back, who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or rather with the wrong name.

Jeff Bridges is Jeffrey Lebowski aka: The Dude, a lazy man, who becomes confused with The Big Lebowski (David Huddleston). The Big Lebowski is a successful businessman, but who's young wife Bunny (Tara Reid) disappears. Unfortunately Bunny owes money to a Porn film producer, and when his heavies come to collect, they go to the wrong Lebowski. So The Dude gets caught up in a tale of kidnap, ransom, Nihilists, sex, and of course bowling.

Jeff Bridges is always great in my opinion, but rumour has it that the Coen's had Bridges in mind when they were writing the character of The Dude; and he is just perfect. But not just Jeff, most of the cast is superb. John Goodman gives the best performance of his career as The Dude's best friend: Walter Sobchack. This 'Nam veteran is a great character, has arguably some of the best lines in the film, and on occasion drives the story forward as he influences what The Dude thinks.

                                           "Smokey, this isn't Nam, this is bowling. There are rules!"

John Turturro is also there as the creepy but hilarious Jesus; a fellow competitive bowler with a history of being a sex pest! Add to that the usual Coen brothers crowd - Peter Stormare as a Nihilist, Steve Buscemi as Donny (who essentially gets told to "Shut the Fuck up!" by Walter and then dies of a heart attack at the end!) - as well as great smaller parts by Julianne Moore, David Thewlis, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, and the Coen's couldn't really go wrong. Of course I can't forget the photography done by Roger Deakins, though there are not so much of his trademark wide panorama shots, he is saving those for No Country for Old Men and True Grit.

                                     Nobody Fucks with the Jesus!

I love this film, one of my all time favourites. If ever I need cheering up, this film will do it; guaranteed laughter within about 5 minutes! So many good moments:

Jackie Treehorn's "sketch" on his notepad.

The Dude getting Donny's ashes in his beard.

Walter and the Dude's reaction to Jesus saying "Liam and me, we're gonna fuck you up!"

The Dude paying for a 69 cent carton of milk by cheque.

Walter telling Donny: "You're like a child who has wandered into the conversation".

I could go on, but I really shouldn't. All the Dude every wanted was his rug back. It really tied the room together!

Thursday, 17 February 2011

True Grit (2010)

True Grit is the story of Mattie Ross, whose father was murdered by the outlaw Tom Chaney. Mattie wants revenge for her father's death, and hires notorious U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn (known for taking no quarter, and often shooting before thinking) to hunt down Tom Chaney and have him brought to justice. Justice for Mattie is, of course, death. As well as the rather reluctant, grizzly Cogburn, Mattie encounters LaBoeuf, a Marshall from Texas who also wants to bring in Tom Chaney (though LaBeouf knows him by another pseudonym) for killing a Senator. The three set out, and amidst reservation of a girl riding with them, Tom is finally brought to "Justice".

Though Jeff Bridges (Cogburn) is first billing, this is really Hailee Steinfeld's film. As Mattie, Steinfeld is witty, ballsy, never afraid to argue her case, won't take no for an answer, and she gives a very lively and mature performance without ever coming across as being arrogant. A great performance for a 15 year-old. Jeff Bridges is great, as usual, though doesn't stand out in the same way that Hailee does. Jeff is perfect for the grizzly, recalcitrant, slightly maverick US Marshall. I did worry in Bridges' opening scene in court, that I wasn't going to understand a word he said in the film (much like Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men), but happily that turned out not to be the case; it just took a wee while to get my ear tuned in! Matt Damon is also good, as he usually is, though his role is somewhat smaller and doesn't get the opportunity to shine so much.

This film sees a return of the Coen Brothers to the style that served them so well in No Country for Old Men: great characters, great cast, great screenplay (isn't it always?) and wonderful scenery. Of course one of the reasons for that wonderful scenery is Roger Deakins, the genius cinematographer behind many other visually stunning films (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, No Country for Old Men, Kundun etc etc).

I've never seen the John Wayne version of True Grit (actually I'm not sure I've ever seen a John Wayne film!), but I thoroughly enjoyed this updated version. A great western, more in the mould of Unforgiven than others, but not quite that good. I think I expected it to be more epic, but that is not a criticism, just my over-expectation. A brilliantly shot, superbly acted, humorous revenge story.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Watchmen (2009)

Tonight, a Comedian died in New York.

I hadn't read the novel before I saw the film, but when I finally did, I appreciated what a massive undertaking it was to try and bring it to the silver screen. I did have misgivings about Zak Snyder after 300, because I just don't get on with it for various reasons, but he completely redeemed himself with Watchmen. I wont go into the plot here as it is far too complicated. If you want a summary then for goodness sake see here!

Right from the beginning it is great. The Comedian being beaten while Nat King Cole's Unforgettable is playing is just brilliant. Then the credits play along with The Times They are a Changing, while we see lots of old photographs, nicely animated (not in a Harry Potter kind of way!), giving a lot of background info into the origins of The Minute Men and the Watchmen. Not only does this look great, but it manages to tell a lot of back story in a short time; though I guess it is perhaps too fast if you don't already know the story.

The cast all fit their characters perfectly. To me they were all unknowns, but they all perform with aplomb making the characters leap off the pages of the novel. Dr Manhattan (Billy Crudup) is suitably detached from everyone; Dan (Patrick Wilson) is a slightly nervous, trustworthy average Joe, Rorschach (Jackie Earl Haley) is brilliantly unforgiving and gritty, and Adrian Weidt (Matthew Goode) is confident and suave without being cringeworthy. To name just a few. I'm not sure a better cast could have been found, and casting a huge named actor/actress would definitely have been a no no, as that would have risked not believing that character is from the novel

Obviously the design of the film was taken from the book, there are so many shots in the film that are exactly as they appear in the graphic novel. Even when there are several pictures from the novel that progressively move out or into a scene, these are translated as panning/zooming shots, which all looks fantastic. There are also many little references to the graphic novel (Dan is getting new locks on his door: Gordion Knot reference; posters advertising The Black Frieghter, The (Gunga?) cafe) which means there is plenty of detail to keep fans of the novel interested, without getting bogged-down, and all the while not losing site of the main plot. This all allows for a thoroughly entertaining story with a very rich-environment.

Having spent time telling you how accurate the film is to the book, there is one major deviation: the end. However, I don't really have an issue with it. In the book, huge aliens are zapped to various locations over the globe using Dr Manhattan-type technology developed by Adrian Weidt. This seeming "invasion" brings the world together and prevents nuclear war. I think that this would be hard to realise (not taking anything away from the ability of the director), and would run the risk of looking a bit silly. So the decision to go with nuclear blasts with the characteristics of Dr Manhattan allows the pitfall of potential sillyness to be circumnavigated, without taking anything away from Adrian's end game. The use of the nuclear detonations also ties in with the rest of the nuclear arms race theme of the story.

I could probably go on for ages about how great this movie looks (real credit should go to Zak Snyder and director of photography Larry Fong), and about the nice touches (eg Dan always doing a bit of a double-take every time he sees Rorschach on the street without his mask on, and the Rorschach image left in the snow in Rorschach's blood after Dr Manhattan has killed him), but I really shouldn't. Suffice to say that I think this is a great film, though at 2 hours 20 min, not a short one, but justice had to be done for the source material. All of the music is also perfect, though a lot of it is mentioned in the book; it's really as if Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons were expecting this to be made into a film one day! I think this is a great film (in case you hadn't got that by now!), one that becomes more enjoyable each time you watch it.

One last thing I would like to draw attention to is the shot at the Comedian's funeral in the rain. A very mute, almost grey palette is used in the shot, and as the camera pulls away from the graveyard under the wrought iron gate we see the legend "Cemetery". A very similar shot can be seen in the Sucker Punch trailer see here as the car approaches Lennox House. Is there a similar shot in 300? Maybe I'm being silly, thinking it as a trademark shot!

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

From Russia with Love

Dancing woman shaking tassels during credits? Check

Blofeld stroking white fluffy cat? Check.

Wrestling gypsy women? Check.

Periscope built into the structure of the Russian Consulate? Erm, Check!

What more could we want?

From Russia with Love, as the name may suggest, finds Bond very much cooking in a Cold-War, espionage stew. SPECTRE (more specifically Number 5: Kronsteen) devises a plan to get the British Secret Service to acquire a Lektor Decoder from the Russians, which they will then appropriate and sell back to the Russians. A plan is whisked up involving Russian cipher clerk Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi) who convinces the British that she wants to defect along with the Lektor Decoder. She is recruited by Rosa Kleb a SMERSH operative (unbeknownst to Tatiana, she is actually SPECTRE Number 2). Tatiana must butter up Bond, so that when assassin Donald Grant (also recruited by Kleb) kills Bond, she can return the Decoder to Kleb. Simples.

From Russia with Love learns from Dr No and builds on it. Sean is as dapper as ever, and growing into his role as Britain's most eligible secret agent, armed this time with his trusty attaché case. Though throughout the movie I feel Bond is more led along the mission rather than the make-it-up-as-you-go-along plan of the first film. This is not important though as the intrigue of the plot is kept up as it twists and turns like a twisty turney thing (Blackadder).

                                 Shexy Shean! Seacking Wallpaper!

Right from the top we are wondering what's going on. Not only is there action before the opening titles (which goes on to be synonymous with 007 films) but it looks like James has come a cropper already! Of course this is just all training for the soon-to-be-hired-by-Rosa Kleb assassin, at which point we are treated to the titles accompanied by a woman shaking her tassels all over the place!

The first scene following the credits could instantly be as anti-climactic as Subway bread as we knead our way into plot exposition territory. Fortunately, the mystique of Dr No's voice was remembered, but now we have the quintessential villain pulling the shots: the feline-fondling Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Though (if I'm remembering correctly) we aren't given a name, he's just known as Number 1. As Kleb and Kronsteen are lightly roasted, we realise that though they may have great criminal minds, it is crazy cat man who is really pulling the strings.

The meat and potatoes of the film simmer between wonderful scenes such as the fight on the Orient Express where James and Donald Grant throw each other around a cramped booth, or the banter developing between M, Moneypenny and 007; and the slightly superfluous (though entertaining) visit to the gypsy camp, or the boat chase towards the end of the film. The boat chase gives an exciting climax to the escape, but I wan't sure who was chasing Bond (I was tired on Sunday night, but now I find it was Morzeny (Numberless SPECTRE agent?) who was trying to correct Grant's failure (Hoorah for the DK James Bond Encyclopedia - Oh Yes!)).

Nice idea to have poisoned spiky shoes, but I couldn't help but think of Austin Powers: "Who throws a shoe? Honestly! You fight like a woman!"

As a complete film I think I preferred Dr No, but I loved the Cold War feel of this, and the long journey on the Orient Express I thought was a great section, full of continental chic! I don't think 007 is the complete 3 course meal until the next film, but From Russia with Love gets him pretty damn close!

Sunday, 6 February 2011

The Damned United

In 1967 Brian Clough (Michael Sheen) was the manager of Derby County when they were drawn against Leeds United in the FA Cup. At the time, Leeds were enjoying a very successful run under their manager Don Revie (Colm Meaney) and were at the top of the first division (back when it was the top division in England). However, they were not an attractive team to watch. They had the reputation of being hard men and would regularly kick teams off the park.

So when Leeds visit bottom-of-the-second-division Derby, as well as being a lucrative tie, Brain Clough sees it as an opportunity to put his team "on the map", a validation of his managerial skills, and to befriend the great Don Revie. Leeds beat Derby in a very dirty cup game, then when Don Revie doesn't shake Brian's hand, and doesn't stay to have a drink, Brian loses all respect for Don and becomes quite hostile towards him.

Over the next season or two, Brian, along with his insightful assistant Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), signs a few key players (not always in agreement with the man holding the financial reigns of the club: chairman Sam Longson (Jim Broadbent)) and Derby begin their rise to the top of the second division, eventually winning promotion to the first division. Brian still focusses on his feud with Don Revie, and now they can play them as "equals" in the first division. Initially the first division is hard going, many games are lost (particularly to Leeds), but against all odds, Derby win their first league championship in 1972.

Just when everything seems to be going so well, Brian gets a bit over-confident with how important he is to the club and threatens the resignation of not just himself but his assistant Peter Taylor as well, if they are not granted more secure positions. The board of directors call his bluff and let them both go. Both are shocked, but after a brief campaign by the players who don't want them to leave, a replacement is found, and Brian and Peter are on their way out of the Derby door. To Brighton! Brighton and Hove Albion agree to pay the fees that Brian and Peter are wanting, as well as paying for a holiday for both of their families in Mallorca.

It is while on this holiday that Brian is approached to take over as manager of Leeds Utd, as Don Revie has just been chosen as the new England manager. This is too good an opportunity for Brian, but Peter won't go with him, he feels he now has a commitment to Brighton. Brian has a bit of a tantrum and shouts at Peter telling him he would be nothing without him, and he leaves to go to Leeds alone.

Right from the start Brian irritates the Leeds players by telling them they can forget everything they have won because in his eyes they haven't won them fairly! Things go from bad to worse, as Leeds lose game after game, until after only forty days or so Brian is sacked, but not before he wangles a large severance deal. Brian is wracked with guilt about how he behaved to Peter, so he drives down to Brighton to apologise.

The film essentially ends there, but the epilogue tells us that Brian and Peter join together again to manage Nottingham Forest, who they also transform from lower-league club to first division champions and a two-time European Cup-winning club. We also find out that Don Revie was not a terribly successful England manager, and went to manage in the Middle East, where he was involved in financial scandals.

Phew! What a synopsis. I guess it is a bit complicated, to explain, not to understand. The film is hugely enjoyable (even my wife was getting into the film after only 10 min, and she doesn't really like football). Michael Sheen is as good as ever, getting across the charisma and sheer bloody-mindedness of Brian Clough, as well as being able to portray the more human side of him. Though Peter Taylor is a lesser role than that of Brian, Timothy Spall performs it in such a way that he is seen as being just as important as his more dominating colleague.

The football itself is kept to a minimum, often the scores of a games are shown at the bottom of the screen just after the team has run out onto the pitch. If on-the-pitch action is shown it is often to demonstrate how "physical" Leeds were as a team under Don Revie, blending historical footage of games (Billy Bremner punching Kevin Keegan) with some acted scenes that look no less real.

See time = 2:50 in this video for some quality Billy Bremner tackling!

Director Tom Hooper shows with this film the talent that serves him so well in The King's Speech. He demonstrates that he can deliver great drama with real passion, humanity and humour. I also think that the cinematography in The Damned United was Damned good. It may only have been a film about football, but some of the shots were framed beautifully. Cinematographer Ben Smithard is big fan of big skies in this film; Brian and Peter's argument in Mallorca takes place under a huge azure Mediterranean sky; some shots of football are taken from down by the players legs and pointed up at the sky, making the players seem like giants; and the final shot of the film as Brian and Peter head indoors from Peter's front garden in Brighton is framed so that the characters are dwarfed at the bottom of the shot by Brighton beach-front sky. This all gives the film a brilliant wide-open space feel to it, adding to the atmosphere.

Overall, I though it was a great film; but I also think it is very enjoyable even if you don't like football, so don't be put off it that's the case.