Sunday, 27 November 2011

The Prestige (2006)

Exact science, Mr Angier, is not an exact science.

Two magician friends are reaching the climax of their show, when the final act goes horribly wrong resulting in the death of the beautiful assistant. The assistant just happens to be the wife of one of the magicians (Hugh Jackman), and this accident causes irreparable damage to his friendship with his partner Christian Bale. So begins a war of attrition as both magicians try to upstage the other with the newest trick. However, not is all as it seems.

Filmed with typical flair, The Prestige has all the hallmarks of director Chris Nolan. Clever script, non-linear timeline, great cast, beautiful photography, and the feeling that something is not quite right. Nolan favourites, Christian Bale and Michael Caine, are both great with Bale particularly giving a brilliantly accomplished performance, something that he never quite manages in Batman; and Wally Pfister's photography is once again glorious. Hugh Jackman is also great, and displays the kind of screen presence that works so well in the X-men films. David Bowie is a strange choice as the electricity-obsessed scientist Nikola Tesla. His performance is good, and Bowie is enigmatic enough to pull off the role; but he does look like the love-child of Ricky Gervais and David Bowie! Quite disturbing! To add more weird, his assistant is Andy Serkis!

A very enjoyable film, especially knowing next to nothing about it. Chris Nolan continues his ability to craft very intelligent films and get big movie stars to turn in down-to-earth, no-nonsense, yet excellent performances.

The Sunday Scene #2 The Godfather

This scene is another of my all time favourite scenes. I think that The Godfather is an amazing film in its entirety, but this scene sums up everything that is great about it. It is the scene that really announced Al Pacino to the world; where he "made his bones" in the parlance of the 1950s New York mafia. I'm talking of course of the scene in Louis Italian American diner where Michael Corleone shoots Sollozzo and McCluskey in cold blood.

The lead up to the scene is wonderfully atmospheric too, making sure that their car doesn't have a tail, Sollozzo being a bit suspicious of Mike when he asks if they're going to New Jersey. Al Pacino is simply supberb. In the diner he is obviously nervous; even before he goes to the bathroom, he is obviously not comfortable, and he has to switch from Italian to English so that he can think straight. When he returns from the bathroom there is a great shot of Sollozzo and McCluskey over Michael's shoulder; and then when he sits down it is all about Michael's eyes. As Sollozzo continues to talk, we slowly zoom in to Pacino's eyes; they are all over the place. He's not listening to Sollozzo, he is psyching himself up, waiting for the best opportunity, not believing what he is about to do. There is so much emotion conveyed simply by his darting eyes.

Then as Sollozzo's voice begins to fade, the sound of a passing train get louder and louder, echoing Michaels turmoil, and then Bang, Bang, Bang. The look of surprise on McCluskey's face is priceless. Contrary to most of my favourite cinematic moments, there is no music here at all, it is all about Pacino; and he is amazing. I think I remember hearing on the DVD extras that this was Pacino's audition scene. As soon as Coppola had seen this performance, he knew that he had found Michael Corleone; and a star was born. Amazing scene, and a fantastic film.


Saturday, 26 November 2011

Thelma & Louise (1991)

Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon are perfect as Thelma and Louise, two women embarking on a road trip to escape their boring repetitive lives. Both are very headstrong characters, and the relationship between the two actresses is completely believable. Ridley Scott managed to surround these two main characters with a really good supporting cast; Harvey Keitel is the policeman chasing down the two girls but always has the girls best interests at heart; Michael Madsen against type is a caring and confused boyfriend to Louise; but it is Christopher McDonald as Thelma's husband Darryl who steals the show. His over-dependence on Thelma is the complete inverse of how strong-willed and  independent Thelma actually is when she gives herself half a chance, plus he is very naturally funny. The film is also famous for introducing Brad Pitt to the world.

It's a very interesting story seeing these two girls who are just out for a jolly until everything starts to fall apart; it doesn't take long until the girls' sense of morality has shifted, and we all know what eventually happens to them at the end. A cool film that has a nice twist on the usual sort of road trip story.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Moonraker (1979)

M:  One of our shuttles is missing!
007:  A Moonraker Sir?
M:  Yes, they are constructed by Drax Industries. Start investigating immediately.
007:  Drax, he must be a baddie, the name proves it! I’ll start by visiting Drax in California; then I think I’ll swing past Venice for some shenanigans. Perhaps Rio next, and then on to the Amazon on the pretense of finding a plant, but actually so that I can use my boat again (perhaps my old pal JW Pepper will be there). Finally I’ll try and get aboard one of the Moonraker shuttles (shouldn’t be hard, I’ve heard that the security is none-existent) to find out what this Drax fella is really up to.
M:  No need to be sarcastic 007, that all sounds highly implausible.
007:  Well of course it does, but we’re eleven films into this franchise, let’s just see if we can get away with a real load of old shuttle!

So, enough with the exposition. The pre-title action is pretty dramatic, the sky diving is shot really well; unfortunately whatever drama is created is soon belittled by Jaws flapping his arms like wings as his parachute wont open! The title song sung by Shirley Bassey is not bad, but forgettable, and sounds rather You only Live Twice-ish.

What then follows is a case study of camp, over-the-top ludicrousness; though it is somehow not completely un-enjoyable. No doubt it’s all nonsense and there are not many redeeming features, but it’s not as insipid as Diamonds are Forever or as stodgy as Thunderball. You almost have to feel a bit sorry for Roger Moore; I think that he tries his best (cheesy one-liners aside), it’s not his fault that the story and set pieces are so ridunkulous!

For example: there’s a fairly unnecessary scene shooting grouse, followed by a beautifully shot scene where Corinne Dufour (Corinne Cléry) is chased through woods by some big dogs; very atmospheric with a lovely score by John Barry. Brutal end to Dufour though! Then in Venice it all goes to shit: a knife thrower in a coffin; a speed-boat gondola; no, sorry, a hovercraft gondola, and a pigeon doing a double take! At this point the film makers are just taking the piss.

But it’s not over, there is also a security pad that only opens when the Close Encounters of the Third Kind tune is played. This kind of thing was almost expected in a post Star Wars world where everyone was jumping on the band spacewagon, so there was a painful inevitability to the laser gun battle in orbit around the space station. They really shouldn’t have. There is also a very undramatic cable car fight, more like a high school drama lesson on how not to act. Where Eagles Dare this is not. And to add insult to injury, Jaws then finds a blond pig-tailed mini-mate.

I’m sure Follow the Lemur will have a lot more to say about the science of Moonraker, but two quick points. Following analysis of the nerve gas 007 manages to swipe from the lab in Venice, Bond declares: “It’s the chemical formula of a plant”. WTF? How can he possibly say that? It looks like a couple of aromatic rings (I’m no chemist); but that’s just an organic molecule, not the structure for a plant; and it’s certainly not the genome for a plant! For comparison, this is one possible structure of lignin, a compound that is important in plant cell wall structure. Rather more complicated than the "structure for a plant" shown below. Oh, and the radioactivity sign in the Venetian lab is upside down.

However, there are a couple of redeeming features. Ken Adams again produces some great set designs. Even the room below the shuttle launch pad looks cool:

Drax is a pretty good villain as played by Michael Lonsdale. He never seems to be particularly out to get 007; to him Bond is just an irritation that needs to be gotten rid of. He clearly has his mind on other things. And I’m not surprised, his goal is none other than to replace God; to have “order in the heavens” in some sort of eugenic dream that will be started using extras from Logan’s Run; while encircling earth with a “necklace of death”! And all while being dressed as Chairman Mao. Exhausting! Well that’s Moonraker for you.

Order of Preference so far:

The Sunday Scene #1 TGTBATU

This is the first post of a spanking new FilmsrRuss feature. In true High Fidelity style, I have often thought about what my favourite cinematic moments are; so I thought that this would be excellent material for a series (plus all the cool kids are doing this kind of thing!).

So this is the first of (hopefully) many in a series I will call The Sunday Scene. No, not descriptions of arguments around the Sunday dinner table! Each week I will introduce a scene from a film, one that sums up everything that is great about the film and say why I think it is so cool (or perhaps naff). So, without further ado, I will launch into my first scene.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

I completely love this film, especially the last half an hour; but to pick one scene I would have to have go with the final standoff between Blondie, Angel Eyes and Tuco. Everything about it is just brilliant. For a start there is another of Ennio Moricone's wonderfully atmospheric compositions:

Ennio's music is as synonymous with the spaghetti westerns as Clint himself. Setting the confrontation in a graveyard is very fitting given that someone is likely about to die; the mass of untidy graves a reminder of the "many men wasted so badly" as Blondie observes earlier in the film.

Leone's shooting style comes to a climax during the final shootout; he cuts between all three characters, firstly portrait, then head shot, then the gun belt, then behind the characters, before closing into the faces and finally the eyes. As the music speeds up, the cutting between the characters also become more frenetic, cranking up the tension. All the hallmarks of Leone; and it's ace!

Without doubt Eli Wallach's "Tuco" is the best thing in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. Blondie is cool, Angel Eyes is mean, but Tuco is always desperately trying to assess the gravity of the situation, with his shifty eyes constantly looking for his best way out. The shoot-out is no exception. Every time the camera focusses on his eyes, they are open wide constantly trying to second guess the other two protagonists. The look that he gives Angel Eyes as he lowers his pistol on a bit of string is fabulous; letting him know that this isn't just a two-person shoot-out; do not underestimate Tuco.

When the climax finally comes, the end result is perhaps not so surprising, but everything is done in Blondie's cool, inimitable style that you don't feel cheated by the result. The scene really demonstrates that some of the most memorable moments in cinema don't have to be complicated; here the characters are filmed, not speaking, not moving very much, and a great music score is played, and that's it. But it works so perfectly.

Fantastic film, and a fantastic scene that makes me grin stupidly every time I watch it.

You see, in this world there's two kinds of people my friend. Those with loaded guns, and those who dig. You dig.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

The Searchers (1956)

That’ll be the day.

Comanche Indians attack Aaron Edwards’ homestead, killing the whole family, except young Debbie, who they kidnap. Aaron’s brother Ethan (John Wayne) and Aaron’s adopted son Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) set out to find her on what turns out to be a rather epic journey. Often referred to as John Ford’s finest and most emotionally complex film (so I’ve read), there is no doubting its scope, or John Wayne’s performance, but I felt a little underwhelmed by it all.

Filimed in Monument Valley (John Ford’s favourite shooting ground), the film is stunning to behold, and beautifully composed. However, by limiting the shoot to pretty much one location (the occasional snowy scene was filmed in Colorado), the film felt a little claustrophobic to me, rather than the expansive epic it purports to be. As a slight aside, the film is meant to be set in Texas - despite even the trailer announcing that it was filmed in Arizona! Now I’ll accept that for various reasons some movies need to be shot in locations vastly distant to the intended setting; but when your scenery is as iconic as Monument Valley you can’t pretend it’s anywhere but Arizona. Of course, my claustrophobia here could be solely due to the fact that I have driven around Monument Valley in a couple of hours, and spent the film spotting familiar rock formations.

Of course this “cramped” location means that the editing has to be done well, which it is, and the photography is top notch; there are lots of nice shots of John Wayne posing in front of buttes and mesas. John Wayne is easily the best part of the story; his Ethan Edwards is cranky, bloody-minded, prejudiced, yet 100% committed to the cause; and Wayne mostly manages to bring all these traits together successfully. Unfortunately I feel that this focus on Ethan’s character means that all of the others were forgotten about. Jeffrey Hunter is mostly alright as Ethan’s primary companion, but he is given to the occasional drama-queen moment; as can be said for most of the female cast.

An enjoyable western, but I feel perhaps that it hasn’t aged well; a lot of the acting is wooden and shouty, and features an atrocious Irish (I think) accent. Also, the passage of time was not slickly illustrated - it did not ring true that they spent five years looking for Debbie (judging by the scenery they had been going in circles for most of that time). The searchers also seemed to have very short memories; being chased by Comanche one scene, and then not knowing where to find them the next. John Ford’s direction for the most part is great, but it felt a little sloppy in places. I’ve obviously been spoiled with more modern westerns; but there was very little plausible emotion beyond Wayne. I realise that this is supposed to be one of the finest westerns made, and I still want to see more Wayne/Ford collaborations, but The Searchers was not as fantastic as I expected.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

The Adventures of Tintin, The Secret of the Unicorn (2011)

When Tintin buys a toy ship (The Unicorn) at a market, he soon discovers that he has stumbled into a mystery that traces back hundreds of years. The original Unicorn was deliberately destroyed by its captain, rather than let pirates capture the extraordinary amount of gold that he was transporting. The pirate captain was known as Red Rackham, and now his descendant, Ivanovich Sakharine (Daniel Craig), is trying to solve the riddle of the Unicorn to finally recover the lost treasure. However, Tintin (Jamie Bell), and his faithful dog Snowy, become acquainted with Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), who just happens to the last descendant Sir Francis Haddock, captain of the Unicorn, and together try to stop Sakharine from recovering the lost treasure.

I have never read any of the Tintin stories before, but that didn’t stop me absolutely loving the film. I thought that it was pure Spielberg, and put me very much in mind of Raiders. Perhaps the plot wasn’t as crazy as Indy, but some of the action sequences, particularly that involving a motorbike, a tank and a falcon were absolutely outrageous; and I just sat that with a big grin on my face, loving every minute of it!

Of course essentially being a cartoon, there were several editing devices that were possible that wouldn’t be in live action (yet - based on this I’ll be interested to see how PJ interprets The Hobbit), including several inspired transitions between scenes/flashbacks etc. Of course great animation doesn’t make a good film, but it was phenomenal; lip syncing, and details around the eyes and hands was all tremendous. What does make a good film is a plot with excitement and intrigue, but without being completely ridiculous, and great characters. Clearly we should thank Hergé for the great characters, and the story; but the combined efforts of Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish and Steven Moffat should not be forgotten. I had feared that too many great cooks may spoil the broth, but that fear was unfounded; the scenes progressed naturally and nothing seemed contrived; well perhaps except for the mention of the Sumatran rat (monkey), which PJ manages to shoehorn in whenever he can. The voice cast are all perfect too; Jamie Bell as Tintin works really well, Daniel Craig is spot on as the smooth Sakharine, and of course only Andy Serkis could be the inebriated and enthusiastic Captain Haddock. A supporting cast featuring Toby Jones, Mackenzie Crook, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, all add to the scope of the film. Oh, and the 3D was fine, though I’d be interested to see it in 2D to see how much it really mattered.

Great adventure, amazing graphics, interesting story, the whole thing can really be summed up in two words: pure Spielberg! Now why wouldn’t you want to see that!

Sunday, 6 November 2011

USA 2011

When we planned our holiday around Utah this year we didn't intend it to be particularly film-centric, we honestly didn't realise how many movies had taken advantage of the amazing scenery. We had been invited to a wedding in Houston, Texas; but thinking there wasn't really anything interesting to see in Texas (and judging by our 25 hour train journey through it, we were right) we decided to do a bit of a tour of the National Parks in Utah beforehand. Like I say, it wasn't meant to be so cinema related.

Having picked up the hire car in Salt Lake City, we immediately left and drove straight to Moab. Our first port of call was Arches National Park where amongst other things the beginning of this was filmed:

There were also some Thelma and Louise scenes filmed in Arches, but the famous driving off a cliff scene was filmed under Dead Horse Point; the view from which looks like this:

This viewpoint also features in 127 Hours as a brief sunrise scene. The cliffs under this viewpoint are also the cliffs that Tom Cruise climbed in the opening scenes of Mission Impossible 2, but you don't get to walk under there, so I don't have any photos.

After Dead Horse Point we did Canyonlands National Park, which hasn't appeared so much on the silver screen, but some of 127 Hours was filmed (on account of Aron Ralston getting his hand stuck under a rock in another part of Canyonlands), and some of The Greatest Story Ever Told was shot at Green River Overlook:

Next we headed off down to Monument Valley. Now it really would be unrealistic of me to try and list all of the films that have been shot here. If you have ever seen a couple of westerns in your life, there is a good chance that at least one of them was shot here; especially if it had John Wayne in it, or made by John Ford. In fact this is the view from what is known as John Ford's Point:

Now, I have never seen a John Ford film, or a John Wayne film for that matter (hides head in shame); but it's not like John Ford had the exclusive rights to this view. This is Once Upon a Time in the West:

Sergio Leone obviously also a fan of this scenery.

Of course this isn't just restricted to Westerns, just stick a DeLorean in front of those Buttes and Mesas:

And for those of you with a British sci-fi leaning, this is where the Doctor meets Amy, Rory, and River at the beginning of the last series of Doctor Who:

Then just after we'd taken this picture (or one similar), we turned around, got back into the car and saw this:

We weren't even trying, and the movie locations kept ambushing us!
Following Monument Valley we headed to Zion; not much filmed there, though Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was filmed not too far away. Next stop was Bryce Canyon, and then Grand Canyon. Nothing terribly much was filmed at either of these locations, and I've wittered on far too long already.
I hope that you liked my photos, and if anyone wants to go to the States but doesn't know whereabouts to go, or anyone who lives in the States and has never been, I thoroughly recommend visiting south Utah, it is truly spectacular.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

The Ides of March (2011)

Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) is a crucial and very pro-active member of staff on the election campaign for democrat candidate Mike Morris (George Clooney) currently trying to win the Ohio Primary. Along with campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Stephen is a direct confident of Mike and has a very idealistic view of politics. However, when Stephen is approached by the Republican campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), and at the same time starts a relationship with an intern in his own staff, his ideology is ultimately brought into question, and his career is drastically altered.

For a mainstream political intrigue, the film works well; a detailed knowledge of the United States political system is not required, and I don’t think that repeated viewings would explain anything I didn’t get in one viewing. This is a strength of the film, but perhaps also its weakness. I enjoyed the film, I thought that it was well paced, beautifully shot, had a great script and a fantastic cast. It’s just that it could have been a lot better, I felt that there was something missing that would have made it a great film. I’m not even sure what I think was missing, some of the skeletons that come out of the closet along the way are fairly shocking, I just felt a trick was being missed.

But anyway, The Ides of March is very enjoyable; Clooney demonstrates that as a director he is as smooth as he is an actor; he doesn’t spoon feed everything to us, yet we know exactly what's going on (I’m thinking of a scene where Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character receives devastating news in the back of a car. We don’t see it though: he gets in the back of the car and the camera just films outside the front of the car in an alleyway for 60 seconds before PSH gets out). There are also a couple of key scenes between two characters which are shot in such a way that half of their face is in darkness; is George trying to highlight the two-faced nature of politicians?

I’ve already mentioned it, but the cast is excellent. Clooney is as smooth as ever, but the film really belongs to Ryan Gosling and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Ryan is smooth (not as much as Clooney though), very sure of what he wants and how to go about getting it, but then is also very good when everything he stands for is called into question. PSH is completely excellent, always in charge of every scene he’s in, and Paul Giamatti is very good as the minor antagonist of the film. Jeffrey Wright is cool and calm in his minor role as Senator Thompson, though strangely reminded me of Lando Calrissian!

A very enjoyable political drama, well written, superbly acted, quite close to being a great film, just not quite for some reason I can’t put my finger on. I would still highly recommend it though.

       (not in the film, but I can't get the tune out of my head!)