Sunday, 25 December 2011

The Sunday Scene #6: The Two Towers

You Shall Not Pass!

I should start by wishing you all a Very Merry Christmas! I should then quickly point out that of course this is a scheduled post! I have definitely not written this on Christmas Day!

So on to the second of my LOTR trilogy scenes. Whereas I had to discount some great scenes when trying to pick my favourite from Fellowship, I have absolutely no problem with The Two Towers. For me, the opening scene was breath-taking; I think my jaw was on the floor of the cinema when I first saw it.

The film starts beautifully with aerial shots over the Misty Mountains, with perfectly scored music from Howard Shore enhancing the feeling of wonder and grandeur of these imposing peaks. Then we are thrust into the mountain to see Gandalf tell the Balrog where to go (Back to the shadow! What were you thinking?). Again we see Frodo's distraught face as Gandalf is dragged off the bridge by the Balrog's whip. Then suddenly we are plummeting into the abyss after Gandalf, as he hacks & hews at the Balrog, and the music becomes very operatic. After much fighting and gnashing of teeth while falling, there is a wonderful shot of a cave; then we see the scale of the cave as G and the B look tiny, falling towards the water at the bottom. Then as the battling duo finally hit the water there is a perfect cut to Frodo crying out for Gandalf as he wakes somewhere in the Emyn Muil.

I've talked previously about how amazing the opening scene of Star Wars is, but I think that The Two Towers is even more awesome. I'm not a fan of the word awesome, it gets far too overused for things that really aren't awesome (like a nice packet of biscuits for instance!), but the intro to TTT really is awesome, and my brief description really doesn't do it justice. The shot of G and the B falling into a massive cave always reminds me of the shot in Alien when Kane descends into the massive alien ship, and the tiny figure of John Hurt is completely dwarfed by the scale of the cavernous ship.

So there we go, a truly spectacular opening to The Two Towers. Helm's Deep is a great action sequence, but the intro is such a statement of intent regarding the film, we really don't get a chance to gather our thoughts before the film begins. Now, I just have to try and find my favourite scene from ROTK for next week!

Sunday, 18 December 2011

The Sunday Scene #5 The Fellowship of the Ring

A friendship with Saruman is not lightly thrown aside.

It's that time of year again; it's cold outside, dark for most of the day, it must be time to read Lord of the Rings again! Fabulous books, yes I'm a total LOTR nerd; I think that I've probably read the books about 8 times! At work I organise all of my experiments by naming them, and for this project they all have names of characters from the First Age of Middle Earth! Scared you all off now? Of course I also love the films; so I thought I could dedicate the next three Sunday Scenes to these fantastic films. First up, The Fellowship of the Ring.

I watched this again last night, I must admit it has been a while, but I had forgotten how gorgeous the film looks. There are so many beautiful exterior shots, many of which are only a couple of seconds long if that (Frodo & Sam walking through The Shire, a few random poses of Ringwraiths, panoramic shots as The Fellowship travels South), but they all add to the epic feeling of the film.

However, my favourite scene ties together a lot of the amazing special effects, production quality, and Peter Jackson's vision. After Gandalf is held hostage by Saruman and trapped at the very top of Orthanc, there is a brilliant cinematic moment showing exactly where Mithrandir is.

The camera begins outside the walls of Isengard showing the patrolling Orcs, before leaping over the walls revealing a ruined landscape comprising a model of the surface and CG gears of war & Orcs beneath. A CG moth then flies into shot and we follow as it flutters up to the top of an incredibly detailed "bigature" (not miniature given the size of the models) of Orthanc showing a CG Gandalf at its summit. Then quick as a flash, as the moth makes a pass over Gandalf, the CG wizard is replace by a live Sir Ian McKellen. Gandalf then speaks Moth to, well, the moth, before the camera plummets down the far side of model Orthanc right into the furnaces where live action Orcs are busy forging weaponry. The scene then culminates with the "birth" of an Uruk-Hai whose first action in life is to strangle a nearby Orc, as a terrified Orc who always reminds me of Alice Cooper looks on!



It would be an impressive shot if it was all CG, but the fact that it is CG combined with models combined with live action makes it even more amazing, because it is all so seamless. Having said that, I always feel a little disappointed that it is not one continuous shot; there is a tiny 4 second shot of the moth on G's hand which slightly spoils it. Moon on a stick eh!

So I think that's my favourite scene in Fellowship; though it was tough discounting the fight with all the Orcs and the Cave Troll in Moria, or the Balrog, or Aragorn fighting Lurtz or...

Friday, 16 December 2011

For Your Eyes Only (1981)

Following the orbital nonsense of Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only is refreshingly down to Earth. Though Moonraker was very successful at the box office, the Blogalongabondoliers were harder to win over. This must have been the reason that Albert Broccoli decided to get back to 007’s roots and to what made him so good in the early years: Bond relying on his infinite resource & sagacity.

The film opens with 007 visiting the grave of his wife, tempting us with the possibility of an emotional performance by Rog. Unfortunately this thought is almost immediately dismissed by some silly shenanigans involving a remote controlled helicopter, and dispatching Blofeld, again! (though at least this time he doesn’t get glooped a la Fun House). Then the title music starts off, at first fairly meh before getting to a rousing chorus as Sheena Easton belts out the title.

The film gets going properly when we see a British ship carrying some fancy new gizmo: an Automatic Targeting and Attack Communicator (ATAC) sunk by a landmine. Evidently the Soviets are interested in the ATAC and have contracted out the task of recovering it to the usual crew of inept villains and henchmen. 007 must first track down the St. Georges (the ship that was carrying the ATAC) as MI6 don’t know precisely where it was sunk, and ultimately prevent the gadget from falling into enemy hands.

Sadly, Bernard Lee passed away the year that FYEO was made, so James Villiers was brought in as Tanner, to hold down the MI6 fort. Sadly the rapport between Lee and Llewelyn will never again be the highlight of the stuffy wood panelled London offices.

I think that there are two take-home factoids about FYEO. Firstly, it is fairly gadget-free; though having said that, we see almost immediately that Moneypenny has a gadget! Albeit it’s only a mirror in a filing cabinet! Clearly Q thought that it was important for Moneypenny to make sure her lippy was perfect as she searches for important documents. Possibly the only gadget that 007 uses is the watch that displays a digital message telling him to contact HQ. Of course he only “uses” it by giving it to a parrot, who then talks to Margaret Thatcher! *Head-desk*

The second noticeable thing is how great the stunts and action sequences are. Between second unit director Arthur Wooster, driving stunt arranger Rémy Julienne, and stunt arranger Bob Simmons, the action is full-on, magnificently cut together, and really puts the viewer in the heart of the action. First up there is a very enjoyable car chase involving a Citroen CV; Melina (Carole Bouquet) really looked as though she was enjoying herself, and the whole sequence was only slightly marred by the classic Roger Moore double-take and raised eye-brow!

The other highlight is the chase down the snow-clad Italian Alps, involving skiing, motorbikes, a ski jump and a bobsleigh/skiing/motorbike combo. It is really impressive; majestic scenery, all edited really well, and only very occasionally a blue screen superimposition shot. The action/stunt guys really did an amazing job. One other highlight was the rock climbing as 007 infiltrates St. Cyril's monastery, perched high on a precipitous cliff top (all a bit Where Eagles Dare). Rick Sylvester was the climber, and for the shot where 007 gets pushed off the top, he fell 300 ft! That’s a hell of a fall, one can only imagine how much his harness dug in as he reached the end of the fall!

Speaking of being uncomfortable; aspiring Olympic ice-skater Bibi Dahl (Lynn-Holly Johnson) is 22 when FYEO was released in 1981, Rog was 53! That’s all kinds of wrong. At least 007 does look uncomfortable as Bibi is throwing herself at him. A few other notes on the cast: Rog was Rog, Carole Bouquet was pretty good as Melina, I liked her. Julian Glover was alright as Aristotle Kristatos, but I couldn’t get past the fact that he is Donovan in Last Crusade; Topol was suitably mysterious as Columbo; and John Wynam as Eric Kriegler should not be allowed to wear these pornographic shorts!

Order of Preference so far:

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Local Hero (1983)

When the American Oil Company, Knox International, wants to develop a pipeline from Scotland, the head of the company Felix Happer (Burt Lancaster) dispatches MacIntyre (Peter Riegert) to a small village on the North East coast to convince the residents to sell up. MacIntyre slowly falls in love with the village though, and despite the residents being very enthusiastic about selling up, moving away and becoming millionaires, the pipeline depot idea is shelved and the area is saved.

This is one of those films that is nothing spectacular, but captures the imagination of viewers and has become lodged in the hearts of fans. The picture that it paints of Scottish rural life in an isolated community is fairly twee, but never pokes fun at it; the heart of the story being driven by great characters. Peter Riegert is good as MacIntyre, the oil executive charged with going out to Scotland because of his "Scottish heritage". He certainly isn't the fish out of water that he might be expected to be, and is as quick witted as he presumably has to be in the oil industry back in Houston. Dennis Lawson is great as Gordon Urquhart, who runs the local hotel and is the accountant for the village. MacIntyre's local contact Danny Oldsen, played by Peter Capaldi, is perhaps the stand-out character though. Though he is Scottish, he is a city boy, and is far more the fish out of water than MacIntyre, and watching him bumble around the shoreline trying to win the affections of marine biologist Marina (Jenny Seagrove) is hilarious. This is about as far removed from his character in The Thick of It or In the Loop as he could be.

Surprisingly for a story where a multi-national oil company wants to buy an unspoiled part of Scottish coastline and turn it into a pipeline hub/processing plant; the local residents are all on board. You might expect the regular arguments about "having lived here for generations"/"my whole livelihood is here", but this is restricted to Fulton Mackay's character. Don't get me wrong, I hate seeing multi-nationals buying up local areas/companies, but in term of Local Hero, the accepting attitude of the residents allows for a far more jovial atmosphere rather than an antagonistic one.

A heart-warming and enjoyable film, great characters and well made. By the time the credits roll, along with Mark Knopfler's iconic tune, you wish that you were part of this small community.

The Sunday Scene #4 Gladiator

What we do in life, echoes in eternity.

When I first saw Gladiator at the cinema I turned up late and had to sit right in the front row. I thought that I might be annoyed by this; what I hadn't expected was to be sucked into the opening battle scene! To say that the battle is great is an understatement. Ridley Scott seems to have become very proficient at producing amazing action sequences (Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, Kingdom of Heaven).

The atmosphere of Germania is wonderfully shot thanks to cinematographer John Mathieson; you can completely imagine how the average soldier must feel; freezing cold standing around in mud for hours until General Maximus turns up. Maximus is a character who commands great respect among his army, a great warrior but Russell Crowe also allows him to be down to earth and to understand people; when Quintus says "People should know when they are conquered", Maximus replies "Would you, Quintus? Would I?"

Of course after this all hell is unleashed, and the battle commences. The action is brutal, bloody and downright spectacular; and being sat right at the front of the cinema made it all the more disorientating and confusing, which I can only imagine is what it might be like in the midst of such a battle.

While all this carnage is unfolding, another of Hans Zimmer's brilliant scores is playing (which hopefully you're listening to now). Taking enormous great wodges of inspiration from Holst's The Planets: Mars, the music is suitably dramatic for the battle; but given that Mars is the Bringer of War this is entirely appropriate.

Adding everything together produces a tremendously cinematic opening to a epic film.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Buried (2010)

Ryan Reynolds is Paul Conroy, an American truck driver working in Iraq. Following an attack on his convoy he is kidnapped, and the film begins with Paul waking up in a coffin, buried 6 ft under. Director Rodrigo Cortés has made a remarkable film, he has managed to make a 90 minute film about one man in a box; and he has made it exciting and gripping too! Via some ingenious film-making and engineering techniques (apparently seven coffins were built), Cortés really leaves no part of the coffin un-explored. There is quite a tremendous moment when the camera tracks 360° round Reynolds, yet the coffin walls are all intact when we view the side opposite; very clever.

I have only recently seen Reynolds in Green Lantern, where I thought he looked bored most of the time; and a long time ago I saw him in Van Wilder: Party Liaison. In Buried he's fairly brilliant; it's just him, a phone, a Zippo, some glow-sticks and a torch for 90 minutes. He starts out desperate, and becomes increasingly desperate throughout the film; he is intense, very convincing and you don't for a second of his performance imagine that a camera and half a dozen people are looking in on him.

The situation is reminiscent of 127 hours and of James Franco's performance. However, where Franco's "journey" was edited along with flashbacks and self-analysis, there is nothing of the sort for Reynolds and nowhere for him to hide. Don't get me wrong I think Franco's performance is phenomenal too, it is just down to the different styles of story telling of Danny Boyle and Rodrigo Cortés.

Buried is really a wonderful example of inventive film-making: being able to make one man in a box fascinating is quite a challenge. Not just for director and actor, but DP, cameraman, sound department, everyone involved. The likes of Michael Bay could learn a thing or two; you don't need to just blow shit up to make an exciting film. Buried is a very tense, exciting and very well-crafted thriller, with quite an unexpected, memorable ending too.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

The Thing (2011)

This version of of The Thing is a prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 classic; though it is still called The Thing, just to confuse people. It succeeded too. Is it a prequel? Is it a remake? Well it’s both! It is only really a prequel in that the story ends exactly where JC’s film begins; but otherwise it is a remake! Comparisons will always be made with the 1982 version, but the fact that it is almost a scene by scene remake doesn’t help. Most of the characters look as though they are lifted right out of JC’s Thing as well. Because of all this, rather than being an enjoyable (which it is) stand alone film, it invites criticism upon itself; and comparing it to the 1982 classic is never a good thing.

If JC’s The Thing had not been made, this would be a great film. Having said that, I have just this minute finished watching the 1982 movie, and strangely it has made me appreciate the 2011 version more. There are various things that happen in the Norwegian camp (axe gets stuck in wall, creature crashes through walls/ceilings leaving big holes) that are all there when Kurt Russell et al., visit in JC’s film. To me this demonstrates that at least director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. has really studied the previous version and made an effort to really fit in to the cannon.

In terms of the atmosphere of the film there is a goodly amount of tension, and the characters looked suitably terrified and had no idea what’s going on. This to me was the make or break of the film; zero tension would have ruined everything that was so good in the 1982 film. However, I didn’t feel that it was as claustrophobic as it could have been, which would have ramped the tension up even more. The “looking at each others fillings” scene was not nearly as tense as the hot wire blood test either. I didn’t think that Mary Elizabeth was a great leading actor though; she was fine, but didn’t have the leadership qualities or presence that Kurt Russell did (See, I can’t help but compare it to JC’s film).

A lot of the special effects were suitably gooey, but there was also some unnecessary CG, particularly the end sequence. Another scene that looked a bit cartoony was the guys heads merging together. Though I did like this scene because it is a really horrific, gross idea, and again it ties in nicely with the other film as it is this burned creature that MacReady brings back to the US Outpost. I think the only CG in 1982’s version is this:

and all the better for it. That does lead me to another point that my wife made: the 2011 version can’t obviously be dated. The computer images above clearly date the film to the early 80s, but the 2011 film doesn’t really have that. Rather than have a computer model of cellular imitation, we see it occurring down a microscope; this only dates the film to a time when such microscopy visuals could be generated for a film, but doesn’t date it the same way as having a chess wizard computer!

So, I did really enjoy the film. I expected crap actors, no tension, and all CG effects; so I was very impressed. Tense, mostly practical-looking effects, mostly good cast, and well integrated into the classic The Thing mythology. Overall an enjoyable updated though perhaps unnecessary film. Comparisons to JC’s film are unfair but inevitable.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

The Sunday Scene #3 Star Wars

I was only 1 year old in 1977 when Star Wars was released in the UK, so I was not fortunate enough to be completely blown away by the opening scene on the big screen. I can only imagine how amazed people must have been. My Dad assures me that he took me to a double bill of Empire and Jedi, but it's possible I didn't see A New Hope on the big screen until the Special Edition in 1997.

So the opening scene of A New Hope is also in my top 3 favourite cinematic moments. The iconic text crawl, followed by the camera panning down to Tatooine is cool in itself; then a big spaceship (the Tantive VI Corellian Corvette to get all geeky!) flies overhead, Wow! As if that wasn't enough, a truly monstrous spaceship (the Star Destroyer Immortal) fills the shot. All the while John Williams' amazing score firstly fills you with wonder, and then suddenly becomes ominous as the size of the Star Destroyer becomes intimidating.

Various criticisms can be levelled at George Lucas in terms of losing sight of great characters, or his incessant tweaking and meddling in a much loved series of films. However, in 1976 he certainly knew how to shoot an action sequence and how to start a film!