Monday, 28 May 2012

Alien Resurrection (1997)

Ripley has been cloned, along with the Queen that was inside her in Alien 3! Finally, the scientists have got hold of her, extracted the Queen, and with the help of human cargo from the crew of the smuggling ship The Betty, are breeding Aliens. What could possibly go wrong? I actually quite like the start of the film, the idea that the Company (see later) has finally got their hands on the prize and are trying to investigate this new species. Ignoring the ludicrous idea of cloning Ripley and the Queen, it is the unexpected crossover of human/alien traits (giving Ripley super-strength and acid-blood); that provides the interest in the film. Is she human? Is she Alien? Where do her loyalties lie? Under these ambiguities I thought that Sigourney does a good job of rediscovering herself.

But then The Betty turns up and the film goes to pot. Who cares about this crew? I don’t! Never mind them bringing the human cargo, they should have been the human cargo and been impregnated themselves! Written by Joss Whedon, the film could have been so much better. Indeed it should have been had Fox not told him to re-write his script to include Ripley! To hell with the fact that she’s dead. So in his attempt to shoe-horn Ripley in (and fair enough Ripley’s character is interesting in a different way) I think he forgot to write much about the other characters. Within 5 minutes of meeting the crew of the Sulaco in Aliens we already know their dynamic, who the jokers are and who the hard-asses are. Within 30 minutes of meeting the crew of the Betty, I still couldn’t tell you any of their names, and I’m struggling now even having watched the extras!

I also think the choice of director was wrong. Jean-Pierre Jeunet had made Delicatessen and City of Lost Children up to this point and was working on Amelie. An Alien film is nothing like any of these; so why? Danny Boyle was initially approached to take the helm, and I can’t help but think that he would have made a more appropriate Alien film. JPJ tries to introduce too much humour which I don’t think has any place in an Alien film. Ripley saying “Fuck” instead of “Fork”, General Perez poking in the back of his head to pull a bit of brain out (was the alien pausing for this comedy moment?), and the whole “Ripley, I thought you were dead!” “Yeah, I get that a lot!”. None of this should be in an Alien film.

There are plenty of other silly, inappropriate and just plain wrong moments in the film. Please indulge me three. The film is set 200 years after the events of Alien 3, and we are told fairly near the beginning that “The Company” Weyland Yutani no longer exist. Walmart bought them! Yes, Walmart! Another attempt at humour I think. This is just stupid, there is absolutely no place for anything contemporary in an Alien film; it lowers the tone, in fact it ruins any tone there was. It’s as bad as Todd from Home and Away offering Death Sticks to Obi-Wan in Attack of the Clones!

Also near the beginning, the Captain of the Betty (Frank according to IMDB, I’m damned if I could remember his name) is talking with Perez and observes that whatever is going on cannot be very legal because the spaceship is operating in unregistered space. Unregistered space from which Earth can be reached in under 3 hours on 49% engine power? That seems unlikely. My final gripe is as Brad Dourif is explaining to Ripley her origin, he says that they cloned her from blood ffrom Fury 16. Fury 16?! It was Fury 161! Did the writers/director/cast even watch the previous film? Grrr.

So what did I like? Well, like I say, I did like the idea that the scientist have finally started to breed the aliens in an attempt to study them, I thought that was a good jump off point for the disaster that would inevitably ensue. I was also impressed by the underwater sequence, especially having watched the extras and seen how it was made. Ripley’s character is also a plus point for the film, not knowing how she would react to the other characters at any one point. For me though, these minor points can’t save the mess of this film. Shoddy story, inappropriate direction and forgettable characters. Ripley has a good character arc, as does Winona Ryder’s character Call; but the rest are just packing material, even the usually memorable Ron Perlman. Of course Brad Dourif is always watchable. I shall finish with a quote from producer David Giler when he first read the script: “This is going to ruin the franchise, this just doesn’t work at all”. We would have to wait 15 years before hearing another peep from this franchise.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Real Steel (2011)

For a film about boxing robots, I really enjoyed Real Steel. Rather than concentrating on the action and the huge robots, the heart of the film is the relationship between Charlie (Hugh Jackman) and his son Max (Dakota Goyo). Charlie abandoned Max and his Mum while Max was still very young. Fast forward 11 years and Mum is now dead after an accident, but before her sister takes custody of Max, Charlie wants to spend one summer with him. Little do they know that this summer Max will find Atom, a sparring robot that will help cement the father-son relationship as they take him to fight the big time.

Hugh Jackman is good as the father who wants to do one thing right in regards to his son; he also has the physique and presence to be great as the ex-boxer turned robot boxer. Evangeline Lilly is fine as Bailey Tallet, the daughter of Charlie's old trainer, and essentially the love interest. The real surprise is the performance from Dakota Goyo. It is a very strong performance from one so young and put me in mind of Hailee Steinfeld's in True Grit; assured, slightly cocky, and more than able to hold his own acting alongside Hugh Jackman. It is very much a role-reversal relationship between Max and Charlie, with Max often telling his Dad what they're going to do, his eye on the big picture rather than Charlie's short-term outlook on life. Dakota is fine with this, his way of dictating to his Dad is never forced, and provides a lot of humour in the film.

The design of the film is also really cool. Rather than go with lots of CG robots, all of them were actually built, leading to a production that is very "realistic". Therefore lots of the robot effects were done in camera, which always looks better than anything post-production, and it gives the actors something to react and respond to, leading to a better performance. Of course a lot of the fights would have CGI, but the option was there to use a "real" robot for the slow or static shots. All of the little gadgets are all nicely designed as well, mobile phones and the controllers for the robots; all are very slick and help to place the film in the future, but not too far.

Essentially this is Rocky, particularly the end fight, with one advantage: everyone is a better actor than Stallone, even the giant robots. A fun film with a great dynamic between the two main characters, great design and a big heart. I enjoyed it much more than expected.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Battleship Potemkin (1925)

In 1905 as the Russian Battleship Potemkin was sailing back to its home port of Odessa, the crew rose up against the Tsarist officers; just one of the many incidences of revolution that was starting to spread across Russia. When one of the sailors dies in the uprising he is temporarily laid to rest on the dock in Odessa to demonstrate to the city the oppressive rule that they live under on-board. Hundreds of locals come to see the body and show their support for the revolting sailors. However, this enormous gathering of civilians is ruthlessly dispersed by Tsarist soldiers who open fire, killing many. Finally, the Potemkin is to be escorted by a squadron of ships, but it turns out that the ships in the squadron are also supporters of the revolution, and the film closes with thunderous applause.

I have seen The Artist, but I think that this is the first real silent film I've ever seen. With cue cards providing select dialogue and also introducing some of the main players, it relies on the music to help drive the story forward. While the music did its job as it was playing, the transitions could be quite jarring, sometimes with a sudden change within a scene. There is no doubting director Sergei Eisenstein's vision for this film, and the scale of the film impressed me. However, I'm watching this 87 years later and there were some scenes that bugged me, and others where I just couldn't figure out what was going on! I think because of the dingy cinematography and not so great editing, it took me a full minute into to the Odessa steps scene to realise that the reason people were fleeing and falling over in the street was that they were being shot at by militia!

I'm certainly glad I watched Battleship Potemkin (you can too here if you want), however being a silent, subtitled, black & white film it's not a particularly accessible film and lacks a lot of the impact that it presumably had 87 years ago.

Monday, 21 May 2012

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

As this will be my 200th post I thought that I would do something a little different and talk about a new project. At the end of March my contract came to an end on my current job; 4.5 years working as a Microbiologist for the University of Aberdeen. As a leaving present I got some wine, some beer, a framed photo and this rather enormous book:

So when I say "new project" I mean in a sort of life-project kind of way! I am under no illusion that I would ever manage such a feat; still it would be nice to make quite a dint in the list. At a quick count I've seen 160 on the list. So just 841 to go then! Organised  in chronological order the book ranges from Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon) from 1902 directed by Georges Méliès, all the way to the Coen Brothers True Grit in 2010. There are all the classics that you would expect to find, as well as (to me) surprise entries such as Groundhog Day, This is Spinal Tap, or Young Frankenstein.

There is a nice checklist at the beginning of the book which I shall keep on top of, but I will also now label all films I watch with 1001 Movies (and probably retrospectively label others) to keep track of them. So here's to watching lots of great films, and many thanks to everyone in my lab who contributed to the gift.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Robocops (1987-1993)

Once again our excellent Picture House cinema The Belmont was showing a classic film, this time as part of the Culture Shock series. So it was that I was very much looking forward to seeing Robocop for the first time ever on the big screen (I was only 10 when it first came out). I had been thinking about reviewing all three Robocops for a while now, and this gave me the ideal opportunity to start. So here are three brief reviews of a classic 80s film and two not-so-classics!

Robocop (1987)

Director: Paul Verhoeven.
Writers: Edward Neumeier, Michael Miner
Starring: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Miguel Ferrer, Kurtwood Smith, Paul McCrane

Peter Weller is Murphy, a cop in the Detroit police force; left for dead when a notorious gang of criminals shoot the hell out of him, he is saved and re-incarnated as a cyborg who is out for revenge. Director Paul Verhoeven did a great job in creating an iconic hero, and a brutal action movie. By making it a bit tongue-in-cheek and ever so slightly hammy he managed to make Robocop a cult classic.

Helping out is a solid cast. Peter Weller and Nancy Allen are fairly convincing partners; Miguel Ferrer is great as the epitome of 80s yuppy corporate culture, and Kurtwood Smith (That 70s Show), & Paul McCrane (ER) in particular are great criminals. Everything adds up to create a fun, brutal and cool movie that could have been instantly forgettable, but instead is actually pretty great.

Things you might like: Seriously violent; lots of blood; great 80s sleaze performances; badass Robocop; eminently quotable; great score from Basil Poledouris; Paul McCrane being melted by toxic waste!

Things you may not like: Stop motion animation on ED209; ED209 growling and squealing like a pig.

Rating: 4 jars of baby food out of 5

Robocop 2 (1990)

Director: Irvin Kershner
Writers: Edward Neumeier, Michael Miner, Frank Miller
Starring: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Tom Noonan, Gabriel Damon

Robocop is on the trail of a notorious gang of drug dealers who are peddling the designer drug Nuke. When the leader of this drug ring, Cain, is killed; through various nefarious deals of questionable morals, OCP re-incarnate him as Robocop 2 - a cyborg that Murphy must eventually have a showdown with.

Astounded as I was when I noticed that Empire Strikes Back director Irvin Kershner was at the helm of this project, he couldn't save it from being a very mediocre film. The over-riding story of OCP ruining Detroit so that they can start construction on Delta City is good enough, (it's the same writers throughout the trilogy + Frank Miller for 2 and 3) but the execution just isn't good enough. I think Kershner et al tried to distance themselves from the "I'd buy that for a dollar" feel of the first film, but playing it straight just didn't work; especially when Robo was re-programmed. Shudder.

Tom Noonan was fairly forgettable as Cain, though I was a little impressed with Gabriel Damon's performance as Hob, he's not bad for a kid, though I've seen a lot better. The other problem is that the special effects used are not up to much; Robocop vs a very obviously stop-motion animated Robocop 2 just doesn't cut it. Imagine Tony Stark vs The Dude at the end of Iron Man, but crap. In the first film the main bad guy was a man, not a robot, which worked great. Trying to up the ante by having a robot vs robot climax just didn't work for me.

Things you might like: Robocop saying "Isn't this a school night?" to a bunch of kids in an arcade; OCP being desperate to control Detroit; at least Peter Weller, Nancy Allen and Robert DoQui as the Sergeant are still there!

Things you might not like: Re-programmed Robocop; paper thin bad guy characters, un-convincing climactic battle; fairly lazy un-imaginative direction.

Rating: 2 out of 5 canisters of Nuke.

Robocop 3 (1993)

Director: Fred Dekker
Writers: Edward Neumeier, Michael Miner, Frank Miller
Starring: Robert John Burke, Nancy Allen, Rip Torn

OCP have finally gone too far and are employing a brutal Rehab squad to clear people out of their houses to make way for construction of Delta City. Robocop sympathises with the underground resistance to these Nazi-style clearances, and follows them to their hideout. OCP are being taken over by Kanemitsu, a Japanese company who have a vested interest in Delta city; but when the CEO of Kanemitsu learns of Robocop's defection and the resistance to rehabilitation he sends over his highly trained assassin. Yet another mess for Robocop to sort out.

For the third outing, Monster Squad director Fred Dekker was chosen to run the show. Robocop 3 was his fourth and final film as a director. Nuff said. Again, the story of OCP (now run by a new CEO played by Rip Torn) trying to control the whole city is a fair one, but the plot is lame, the script bad and the acting for the most part woeful. Rip Torn is about the only good performance, he has quite a commanding presence. Even Peter Weller couldn't be tempted back for the 3rd instalment.

There are far too many stupid plot holes and daft bits to list, and the less said about the rubber-faced Japanese assassin the better. In some vain attempt to boost audience numbers, the rating was dropped from the 18 certificate of the first two films to a 15. Consequently, there is none of the brutal action of the first films; indeed the action in Robocop 3 is probably more TV A-team than anything else. A real whimper of a film to end a trilogy that started with such a bang, indeed several bangs of shotguns.

Things you might like: erm... Rip Torn?

Things you might not like: Robocop's silly arm accessories, awful script, generally bad acting, little or no real action, Jet-pack sequence!

Rating: I wouldn't buy that for a dollar.

Final thoughts

It's a shame that since the first film is so enjoyable, the follow up films taint Verhoeven's 80s classic. Taking the three films together, the one thing I do like is the overall theme of corporate evil. OCP are clearly in big business to make as much money as possible, and as they become bigger their scruples become fewer. The ends justify the means, even if the means demand exploiting people and destroying lives. This theme is as relevant to day as it was 20-25 years ago; it takes an effort to not buy anything today that has either a Unilever or Nestlé label on it. Huge corporations are here, and though they might not be building destructive robots, their ethics are often very questionable.

Monday, 14 May 2012

The Thing (1982)

I was lucky enough that our local Picture House cinema The Belmont were showing John Carpenter's classic The Thing last night. An absolutely fabulous film, that hits all the right notes of horror and tension. Anyway, I've reviewed it before so here's a picture of Kurt Russell looking cool, and a section of Ennio Morricone's wonderfully atmospheric score for you to listen to.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

The Sunday Scene: Alien

It has been quite a while since I did a Sunday Scene. I could come up with an excuse and say that I've been really busy (which is true-ish), but then it doesn't take too long to write these anyway; so who am I kidding. Anyway, on with this weeks scene.

Given that I'm really excited about the release of Prometheus in a few weeks, I decided that I could watch all four Alien films first, and I started this week with Alien (review to follow soon). A fantastic film that is full of wonderful scenes, but there is one in particular that I think has gained a certain notoriety; of course I mean the chest-burster scene.

Poor Kane (John Hurt) was daft enough to look directly into an Alien egg and received a face full of face-hugger for his troubles. After the parasite has fallen off, Kane seems fine and just wants some food before the crew go back into hyper-sleep. Poor Kane never gets back to sleep, because the thing that was implanted inside him now bursts forth in dramatic style.

The scene is wonderful for several reasons. It is the point in the film where everything starts to go horribly wrong; up to this point there are some clashes of personality between the crew, but from now on there is open hostility between them. It also consolidates the sexual horror of the Alien life cycle. Kane essentially has his face raped by an alien thing, and in this scene he gives birth (John Hurt's words). The chest-burster itself is very reminiscent of a very specific part of the male anatomy.

What really sells the scene is the reaction of the cast. There is a moment of real shock and surprise, as they are as horrified as the viewer. A persistent rumour is that none of the cast knew what was about to happen. Not quite true. They had all seen the chest-burster so they knew what they were reacting to, never mind that there was a guy under the table with the thing on the end of stick to poke it through dummy John Hurt's chest; and of course they all knew the script. What they didn't know was that there would be mini explosive pellets under Kane's shirt that would help the bursting effect, and they weren't prepared for the amount of blood that was going to be used. So when the initial thrust of the chest-burster happens, the reaction of the crew is completely real, and that really seals the scene.

Immediately following the bursting we see some of the different responses from the crew. Parker immediately grabs something to attack the thing, but Ash doesn't want it touched. Indeed, as the alien scuttles away, everyone looks horrified apart from Ash who looks curious more than anything.  I know he's the scientist and should be curious, but it looks more ambiguous than that. Excellent scene from an excellent film; everything about it is so visceral, and here's hoping that Ridley Scott will be as visually astonishing in Prometheus.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Law Abiding Citizen (2009)

Immediately following Taken on Film4, Law Abiding Citizen was shown, and I feel I should be forgiven for thinking that I was about to see a re-run of the very same plot. Gerard Butler is Clyde Shelton, who seems to be your average Joe Public. In the very first scene two guys get into his house, stab Clyde, stab and rape his wife, and kill his daughter. Clyde survives, but he sees everything that is wrong with the law when lawyer Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx) makes a deal with one of the killers which sees him only get 5 years inside, while the other guy goes to death row. Clyde is therefore out for revenge.

Based on that, you may think that this is hardly different from any other revenge plot, but actually this film isn't like that at all. I don't really want to say any more, otherwise I will completely spoil the rest of the plot. The brief synopsis above is essentially only the first 5 minutes of the film; the rest is not what you would expect from this genre. That's not to say there is a massive twist (he's not Kaiser Soze), and it is not a fantastic film, just quite a cool gruesome crime thriller that is different enough from the norm to stand out from the crowd.

Butler is good as the main protagonist, he is the perfect actor to play the calm, manipulative and vengeful Clyde. Foxx is fine, but he doesn't own the character, and there are many other actors who could have played Nick Rice. There are plenty of fairly shocking moments, and director F. Gary Gray manages to keep up the tension and intrigue until we find out what has been going on in the final act of the movie. If you like your crime thrillers, then I would recommend Law Abiding Citizen; nothing amazing but it was good enough to stop me going to bed past midnight!

Taken (2008)

I'm retired, I'm not dead!

I get the feeling that it was Taken that really started Neeson's re-branding as a badass action star; and it's easy to see why. At the start of the film Neeson's character - Bryan Mills, a retired CIA agent whose wife (Famke Janssen) left him for another guy - is trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter. He's still quite an intense guy and finding it hard to let go of his previous life. When his daughter goes on holiday to Paris and is kidnapped by a human trafficking organisation Bryan's old instincts kick in, and he doesn't waste a second tracking down the abductors. And my god he goes for it!

As soon as he hits Parisian soil, Mills is completely brutal and has absolutely no compunction about beating up, torturing and killing anyone. Neeson is amazing in this role, single-minded, determined and indomitable. For a big feller he can fairly move and he seems to be a natural in his action scenes. The action is very slick, and is filmed so that it is all very fluid and dramatic; I guess director Pierre Morel has learnt a few things about action when he was camera operator and DOP for two of The Transporter films.

Having just seen Famke Janssen squeezing the life out of people with her thighs in Goldeneye, it was quite nice to see her act here. Even in the X-men I don't think she gets to do much, but I was quite impressed by her here. She was very believable being exasperated by her ex-husband, and was suitably crushed when learning of her daughters kidnap. She only had a small role but was very good in it.

An action-packed, brutal thriller that is dragged kicking and screaming into the class of great films by Neeson's tremendous performance. It has taken (!) me a while to get around to seeing this film; I say it like this because I've been aware of people raving about it for quite some time. I have to say that the recommendations weren't wrong. No wonder Neeson was fairly hot property after this.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Goldeneye (1995)

Despite the Berlin Wall coming down 6 years previous, and the end of the cold war, the intro credits leave us in no doubt that it is a traditional foe who are the enemy here. What is surprising is that Bono and The Edge wrote the title song, performed with typical gusto by Tina Turner. No Shirley Bassey, but far better than the 80s cheesefest that was Gladys Knight’s Licence to Kill.

The film’s opening scenes are all pretty dramatic; 007 bungee jumps down a dam, 006 is callously shot in the head, and then Bond drives a motorbike off a cliff to escape in a nose-diving plane. It’s a fair statement of intent for the series now featuring many new faces both in front and behind the camera. Pierce Brosnan is the most obvious newbie; and after the hard-hitting Dalton performances, Brosnan’s Bond is more of a return to the suave Sean Connery days. However, when Brosnan tries too hard to be suave, I think he often comes across as arrogant. No doubt that 007 is arrogant, but Brosnan’s Bond almost has an arrogant arrogance!

Judi Dench is making sure she carves her own M, and during her brief screen time is very hard-nosed. Introduced as an accountant (I’m not actually sure what the ideal qualifications would be to direct MI6) she does have great banter with 007. I thought it interesting that following Licence To Kill, M specifically tells 007 not to go off on a personal vendetta to avenge the death of 006. I guess this is as close as we get to continuity of stories from film to film, other than the same actors recurring as different characters, or the occasional nod to the fact that Bond was married once.

Sean Bean is, well, Sean Bean; but he is good as long as he’s not trying to do a plummy accent. Of course his “death” at the beginning sets alarm bells ringing, and within the first 5 minutes of the film we know there will be a reveal later on showing him as the villain of the piece. It is Sean that has the best line in the film “I might as well ask if all the vodka martinis ever silenced the screams of all the men you killed; or if you find forgiveness in the arms of all those willing women, for all the dead ones you failed to protect.” Ouch baby!

In fact 007 comes in for quite a few reality checks. Alec (Sean's character) also refers to him as “Her Majesty’s loyal terrier” (good dog), and M calls him a "sexist, misogynist dinosaur!" Then Natalya tells him that being a hero and being so cold is what keeps him alone. Brosnan can’t portray his emotion the same way that Dalton could, but he has to deal with a lot of criticism of his character here.

Famke Janssen is a pretty good henchwoman. OK, she has a fairly ludicrous name, and an over-the-top way of dispatching people(!); but I liked her Zorin-like glee in the way she killed people. Now here’s a nugget of information that has been lodged in my brain for years. The woman who stunt-doubled Famke was Eunice Huthart, and I remember that she was a champion of Gladiators! Yes, that! For some reason I must have caught the show when she returned as a champion or something, and she mentioned how she’d had to wrap her legs around Pierce Brosnan! Now I’ve told that story maybe I can mercifully forget it!

In term of action, there are some pretty impressive set pieces. The first is the stunt at the beginning involving the bungee jump (at the time the world’s highest from a fixed position) and 007 launching himself off a cliff on a motorbike so that he can freefall and climb into a crashing plane. The other spectacular scene is 007 tearing up St Petersburg with a tank. With a budget over twice that of any other Bond film (presumably not inflation-adjusted) the sets that the tank charges through are tremendous, if indeed lacking some mortar.

Director Martin Campbell successfully managed to take 007 in a new direction. By concentrating on the story Goldeneye is a solid entry into the franchise. Indeed Campbell focuses on the plot so much that there are noticeable swathes of the film without 007 at all. When he does appear, Brosnan’s Bond is very committed and really looks like he cares about finding the Golden McGuffin. At the same time the writers are trying to keep the edge to Bond that characterised the previous two films, by slagging him off a few times and giving in him a slap in the face by having someone he considered a friend to be a two-faced megalomaniac. Let’s see where Brosnan’s hunted 007 goes from here.

Order of Preference so far:

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Alien (1979)

I can’t remember when I first saw Alien, and so watching this again as a countdown to Prometheus, the story holds few surprises. Kind of like Empire Strikes Back, I can’t remember not knowing that Darth Vader is Luke’s dad, I can’t remember not knowing that Kane will “give birth” during dinner! However, that doesn’t mean that I can’t enjoy it, because the film is magnificent.

One of the things that makes the film so great is the setup. What makes the setup so good is that the crew of the Nostromo are just ordinary folks, they just happen to live and work on a spaceship. Bret and Parker are concerned about how much they are going to be paid, Ash is more interested in the distress call, and as Captain, Dallas is trying to get everyone to work together. As the camera moves around the ship, we see how grimy, functional and lived in a lot of it looks, and the fact that all of the sets were built makes it all the more real. In fact all of the rooms in the Nostromo were built as one big complex, so the cast couldn’t just pop in and out of a room for filming, they had to wind their way through several other rooms and corridors of the Nostromo to get to where they had to be. This just enhanced the feeling of claustrophobia and in turn affected the performance of the actors.

As well as the design of the sets, the design of everything alien is amazing. Unsettling as a lot of H.R. Giger’s work is, anything else just wouldn’t have been, well, alien enough. Not only does the alien look creepy and macabre, the life cycle is horrific too. Playing on our fears of rape and not being in control of our bodies, the host is impregnated, the alien then gestates inside the body before the victim eventually “gives birth” to the creature. As the creature matures and starts picking off the crew one by one, the tension mounts and is helped by not really seeing the alien very much. Rather, we only see flashes of it, and it is lit in such a way that we can’t really tell what we’re seeing, only that it’s gruesome yet elegant, but lethal.

Ridley Scott is often credited with being a very visual director, and for Alien he story-boarded the whole film himself so he knew exactly where he wanted to put the camera. The result is a film which really puts the viewer right in the drama, and is often a visual feast. One thing in particular that I noticed on this viewing was the amount of lens flare, very often there are obvious lights shining directly at the camera; years before J. J. Abrams thought of doing it.

The cast is all amazing. Tom Skerritt brings a sense of authority to Dallas despite being a laid-back captain; Yaphet Kotto is larger than life as Parker, but his facade of bravura soon falls following the chest-burster’s appearance. Of course the star of the show is Sigourney Weaver, carrying the final 20 minutes of the film all by herself (well there’s Jonsey as well but he doesn’t say very much). She’s quite an unlikely hero in this first film where the situation is thrust upon her; here she is not the ballsy Ripley that we see in the later films. Where she is fantastic as the kick-ass Ripley, she is equally great as the warrant officer who is overtaken by events out of her control.

An amazing film, with so many iconic scenes, putting a new spin on what is essentially an isolated haunted house story. Combine this with Ridley Scott’s style and some amazing visual effects, and Alien is rightly considered a classic that is up there with the greats of cinema history.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Labyrinth (1986)

I wish the Goblins would come and take you away! Right now!

Our local Picture House cinema The Belmont, is currently showing several classic 80s films. Back to the Future and American Werewolf in London have been and gone, and the next in line was Labyrinth. I know a lot of people talk about The Princess Bride as being a childhood adventure favourite, but I didn't see it until I was in my 20s so didn't really get the appeal; for me Labyrinth is the iconic childhood adventure (as well as The Goonies naturally).

Despite being 26 years old Labyrinth is still great fun. Bowie is hilariously camp, Jennifer Connelly is pretty good as Sarah, and of course all the creatures are nicely brought to life by Jim Henson studios. In fact it is the puppets that save the film from looking too dated. Because there is precious little blue screen (the little that there is doesn't look good), and all the puppets are right there with Jennifer, it still looks pretty great. The story is very straightforward, but since the focus is getting lost in the labyrinth and meeting fantastic creatures the film really scores. I had never realised before that George Lucas was the executive producer, so that explains why it is all so fantastic and outrageous fun; the highlight of which is the Bog of Eternal Stench!

A truly daft film that has no right to be as entertaining as it still is. Lots of detail and great little touches (e.g. 2 bottles of milk outside the door to the Goblin Palace!). And let's be honest, The Princess Bride doesn't have David Bowie in tights does it!

                                                                   Truly terrifying!

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Never Let Me Go (2010)

Never Let Me Go is one of those films that I either don't remember putting on our LoveFilm list, or my wife did. Either way, I knew nothing about it other than Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield were in it. This probably explains why I felt it was so hard-hitting and emotional; if I had known what the story involved I would have been prepared for it. As it was I was completely caught off guard, and the impact of the story was so much more brutal than it would otherwise have been.

I'm not going to mention the plot at all as that would spoil everything. If you don't know the story, keep it that way before you see it. It isn't far into the film that we find out the crux of the plot and from there we kind of know where the film is likely to take us, but that doesn't make it any easier to handle. Carey Mulligan gives a typically mature and excellent performance as Kathy, Andrew Garfield is good as Tommy, and Keira Knightley is OK as Ruth. Actually, Carey Mulligan is perfectly cast as she has really sad eyes, and she often looks like she is about to burst into tears. Her face really is a reflection of the atmosphere of the film as a whole. The relationship between the three main characters is the driving force of the film, and as such the leads all work really well together. If their performances or their chemistry hadn't worked, then the film would not have been as emotional as it was.

A very beautiful yet haunting film, both aspects of which are enhanced by the music which I half expected to have been composed by Warren Ellis and Nick Cave (The Road; The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). Well made and very well acted, Never Let Me Go is definitely worth seeing, just make sure you have someone to cuddle up to near the end.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

The Avengers (2012)

The Avengers (or to give it its stupid title Avengers Assemble) is one of the most entertaining films I have seen in quite a while. Managing to avoid the pitfalls of making a ensemble film, Joss Whedon has managed to weave together the heroes and personalities from several great films into a tapestry of non-stop action, which never-the-less still has a heart. It is also more jam packed with humour than a lot of comedies I’ve seen.

The one main advantage that an Avengers film was always going to have was that it didn’t have to explain the genesis of any of its characters. Thanks to some great films over the years we know what an arrogant playboy Tony Stark is, we know how Steve Rogers became Captain America and why a Second World War soldier is still just as young today, we know the relationship between Thor and his brother Loki, and we know that there’s some weird blue energy than ties them all together. The flip side of this was balancing all these characters out, giving them all enough screen time to shine, and making them all connect in a believable way. And Joss Whedon did it perfectly.

A lot of the humour comes from Robert Downey Jr who once again demonstrates that only he could play Tony Stark; and while his relationship with Captain America, Thor, or Mark Ruffalo’s excellent portrayal of Bruce Banner isn’t the heart and soul of the film, it’s these connections that help make the film so enjoyable. Tom Hiddleston is fantastic as Loki. I know a lot of people thought his performance in Thor was really good, but in all honestly I didn’t really think it was that noticeable, but here he is superb. In film of great acting talent, Tom’s is perhaps the standout performance.

The action of course is all tremendous. I saw this in 2D, and couldn’t see how 3D would have made it any better. The final part of the film is non-stop action (actually most of the film is), but it was never boring or repetitive, and the camera moves were fluid enough so that it was never confusing. I also liked the several little Joss Whedon touches that really made the film his. For example I thought that the shuttle that the Avengers fly had more than a passing resemblance to Serenity; and there were also quite a few quick zooms and jerky focusing like in Firefly. On a different note, I thought Loki’s helmet must have been modelled on Hellboy!

Great cast, great action, great story, great film. I’m sure there is a lot more to discuss, but 1) I’m sure other people will do it anyway, and 2) I want to see it again so that I can notice more detail!