Saturday, 28 July 2012

Live Hangout Film Review: Black Hawk Down (2001)

Many thanks to Steve and Jaina for taking part in the second film review hangout. This time we really pulled apart Ridley Scott's excellent war movie Black Hawk Down! Or perhaps not! Anyway, see for yourselves.

Happily this time my internet connection remained intact, so I can bring you the entire conversation. Enjoy!

Friday, 27 July 2012

The World is Not Enough (1999)

Following the cool reception of TND by my fellow Blogalongabonders, I’m expecting a frosty one for The World is Not Enough. Having said that, I quite liked TND, so what do I know?

A plot involving competing oil pipelines through the Caspian has 007 tracking the progress of Elektra King (Sophie Marceau), daughter of Robert King, who is a close friend of M. Playing the victim, Elektra is actually working with known terrorist for hire Renard (Robert Carlyle) and has a plan to detonate a nuclear device near Istanbul, rendering competing pipelines useless, so all oil must flow through the King pipes.

Once again, the action can’t be faulted, Vic Armstrong again showing us how inventive he can be. His remit for the boat chase was simply that Bond’s boat would leave MI6 pursuing a female assassin, and that the Millenium Dome and a hot-air balloon had to be involved! After this dramatic boat chase along the Thames, there is one of the series best opening songs. The World is Not Enough is belted out by Shirley Manson, the only trouble is, it doesn’t get better than this.

Brozza is fine, and Judi Dench is as good as ever; but everyone else is either pointless or disappointing. Carlyle has the potential to be a brilliant villain, but pulls his punches too much; Renard has none of the edge of Begbie or the psychopath from Cracker. Sophie Marceau also has potential as Elektra, but her performance is just vapid. My James Bond Encyclopedia says “With Elektra, Bond thinks he has found Tracy (from OHMSS) but he’s really found Blofeld.” Erm, didn’t get that at all; Elektra is about as Tracy as Christmas Jones. Speaking of which, there have to be few Bond Girls as pointless as Denise Richards. Why does 007 let her hang around (beyond the obvious)? She’s a nuclear physicist, once she has disarmed the bomb in the pipeline she has no other function. She’s just a hanger-oner. Then there’s a mute heavy that hangs around Elektra, at least Stamper had some function in the plot of TND; and the less said about John Cleese’s appearance as Mr Bean the better.

In the midst of all this I did enjoy the recurrence of Valentin Zukovsky, Robbie Coltrane is almost always worthwhile; and Goldie was fun as Bullion, one of Zukovsky’s stooges. But this really is like finding a pound coin in a dog turd. Most offensive was the ludicrously idiotic idea to build a pipeline on a glacier. I had to rewind several times to make sure I had seen correctly!

I also thought it was very silly of M to travel out to see Elektra, simply because Bond hadn’t made her a post-coital breakfast. She’s head of MI6, doesn’t she see

In case you hadn’t noticed, I didn’t really like TWINE. A nice idea using the world’s dependence on oil as a tool for the villain, but of course 6 months after the completion of the pipeline, the glacier will have shifted enough to break the pipe and we won't get any oil at all thanks to a contaminated Bosphorus! Fantastic action set pieces, but far too many under-developed or pointless characters to make this any more than a mediocre film.

Order of Preference so far:

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Stardust (2007)

One thing Matthew Vaughn can't be accused of is being typecast.  Having started his directing career with the brilliant Layer Cake, he next made the fantastical Stardust before going on to the brutal Kick-Ass then X-Men:First Class. What's more, he has excelled himself each time. 

This fantastical story is about our hero Tristan trying to find a falling star to impress the girl of his dreams.  Turns out that the fallen star is actually a person - Yvaine - who is also being sought by the remaining sons of the King so that they may prove their worth to succeed the throne; AND by three witches (one of which is Michelle Pfeiffer) for whom the star will bring eternal beauty!  Based on the book by Neil Gaiman, it is fairly convoluted but tremendous fun, and all made with Vaughn’s inimitable style.  There are lots of sweeping camera moves between scenes, in particular there is a great one from the village of Wall all the way to the palace in Stormhold (a magical land on the other side of the wall, for which the village of Wall is named) and straight through the roof onto Peter O'Toole's bed where he lies dying.

Again Matthew Vaughn has managed to attract a hell of a cast and though the main character Tristan (Charlie Cox) is unknown to me, he is excellent and his relationship with Yvaine (Claire Danes) is believable and very sweet.  I think it’s a really nice touch that Yvaine starts to shine (she’s a star remember) when she’s happy and in love, but she actually starts to shine when she’s with Tristan before either of them realise that they’re falling in love.  There's no way to go through all of the cast (just check here) but Mark Strong as one of Peter O'Toole's sons trying to claim the crown is wonderful; as is Robert De Niro's camp pirate Captain Shakespeare (his ship sails the skies!).

I must admit to hearing of this film when it was first released and not paying the slightest bit of attention to it, thinking it was probably a bit of a girly fantasy film.  I put Stardust on my lovefilm list purely on the basis of Matthew Vaughn being the director, having become more familiar with his work over the past few years.  I'm very glad I did.  Stardust is great fun, looks fantastic, is funny, clever, sweet and the cast are all perfect. I really shouldn't have avoided it for so long.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Spider-man - Amazing and Regular (2002 - 2012)


I must admit that when I first heard about The Amazing Spider-man project I was intrigued. Andrew Garfield sounded like an interesting choice as Peter Parker, and I wondered how 500 Days of Summer director Marc Webb was going to handle the super-hero genre. When I saw the trailer however my thought was “aren’t they just rehashing Sam Raimi’s genesis story from 10 years ago?” What’s the point in that? Won’t it be completely redundant? Well, yes and no.

First of all, Peter Parker. Andrew Garfield is certainly a better actor than Tobey Maguire, but perhaps almost too good. I feel that Peter Parker works better as an awkward geek (just my opinion from the films, I’ve never read any of the comics), and Garfield comes across as being too confident and almost a bit cocky; Tobey is far more awkward and this makes his transformation into a physically stronger super-hero more convincing. The relationship between Parker and Gwen was good (perhaps this is Marc Webb’s forté), but again I felt that it was a bit too familiar. This of course is explained by the history between Gwen and Peter. Compare this to MJ not really knowing who Peter is despite him living next door, and Peter only gets the confidence to talk to her once he has his alter-ego. Both of these scenarios are valid enough I guess, I just prefer the route of the geeky awkward PP.

The transformations themselves were dealt with differently, and again, I think I prefer that of regular Spider-man. Like I’ve already said, I’m not familiar with traditional Spider-Man canon, but to me it makes more sense that one of the abilities that is conferred having been bitten by an engineered spider is being able to spin webs. Having to make your own web-slingers is rubbish! Though I preferred Peter going home, feeling rotten, falling asleep and then finding everything had changed; I did like the apologetic way that Garfield’s Peter beat everyone up on the Subway! However, I don’t remember Garfield’s spider-sense ever tingling; not very amazing.

I feel like I’m continually dissing the Amazing Spider-Man here (only purely in comparison to Sam Raimi’s film), but Rhys Ifans’ Lizard is nothing compared to Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin. Ifans certainly doesn’t have the presence or gravitas that Dafoe does. There was even a scene in the sewers as Dr Curt Connors (Ifans’ character) argues with himself about taking another dose of whatever it is that makes him the lizard, clearly mimicking the brilliant scene in Spider-Man when Norman Osborne has the schizophrenic argument with his Green Goblin persona.

I could maybe compare more, but I feel that I’m really slagging The Amazing Spider-man, which isn’t my intent. There is much to like. I’ve already mentioned that I think Garfield is a better actor than Maguire, but the choice of Martin Sheen as Uncle Ben was also a good one. He breathes far more life into his brief screen time than Cliff Robertson does. I also liked the character of Captain Stacy (though I want to say his name in a Cap-tain Scar-let kinda way!), he gave Spidey an internal ally as well as a verbal sparring partner when they first meet. However the conclusion to this scene is Parker’s reveal to Gwen, which I thought was all too sudden and impetuous.

“Wristslap”; I’m being negative again. The Amazing Spider-man is a good film, it is a great cast, cool story, and lots of great action (thanks to Vic Armstrong), and there are some nice camera moves & first person web-shooting/swinging. The mistake I’ve made is watching Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man immediately afterwards, and I just prefer the decisions made in this film compared to the Amazing one, that’s all. That’s, just, like, er, my opinion man!

Saturday, 14 July 2012

The Pink Panther (2006)

I was lent this film by a friend, who said that it was a bit of daft fun. I'm sorry Dave, but I wouldn't wish this film on anyone! I've never been a fan of Steve Martin, but here he is just embarrassing! His performance is based on the worst kind of slapstick, and no matter how many times he says "I would like a hamburger" in a stupid accent, it just isn't funny. The whole premise of the humour seems to be that it is funny when an American does a bad French accent, who then goes to New York and becomes an American doing a bad French accent trying to speak "American". It really isn't funny. I sniggered after 21 minutes, and again at 33 minutes! Yes, I made a point of noting when I "laughed". I would much rather watch 90 minutes of the English policeman who thinks he can speak French from 'Allo 'Allo!

Perhaps the only silver lining to this turd of a film is that Kevin Kline is good as Charles Dreyfus, the chief of police who counts on Inspector Clouseau failing, ie the villain of the film; and I really can't imagine what Jean Reno's agent was thinking! Otherwise this is a ghastly film, and I really can't think of anything else that needs to be said.

Actually there is one more thing to say; I'm staggered to find out that Shawn Levy who directed this abomination also directed Real Steel!

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

13 Assassins (2010)

Taking more than a little inspiration from Seven Samurai, 13 Assassins tells the story of a group of samurai who, under instruction from the Shogun Sir Doi, set out to kill the evil Lord Naritsugu. Naritsugu is out of control, and since he is about to enter the political arena, the Shogun fears that the country would be plunged into chaos.

The first half of the film is very much plot-oriented, and if I’m quite honest; I had trouble keeping up with all the different characters. Having said that, the plot is straightforward, so trying to remember the important characters doesn’t disrupt the plot at all. With the stage set, and the assassins ready to ambush Naritsugu in a village that he is travelling through, it just remains for the trap to be sprung. The second half of the film is essentially the battle between the 13 assassins and the 200 samurai protecting Naritsugu, though I’m sure more than 200 were killed! The action is all fantastic, very well choreographed at times very brutal; and some of the traps set in the village are very inventive including a stampede of flaming cows!

Visually, the film has a sepia look to it, perfect for presenting medieval Japan; this also makes the blood and explosions stand out all the more. Director Takashi Miike is inventive in his style creating a dynamic, stylish and brutal (sort of) revenge movie.

The Angels' Share (2012)

Every once in a while a film comes along which you don’t know much about, but it turns out to be a feel-good film which leaves you with a spring in your step. Of course it helped that it only cost me 50p to see! The Muppets was also a feel-good film, but we all knew essentially what was going to happen. In The Angels’ Share, Robbie (Paul Brannigan) has a history of of drug use and violence, but when his girlfriend gives birth to his son he is determined to change his life for the better. Encouraged by his community service officer Harry (John Henshaw) Robbie discovers the pleasures of whisky, and it turns out that he has a very good nose for it. When an opportunity arises to witness the auction of a very rare whisky, Robbie and some friends from the community service group travel to the distillery with a view to procuring some for themselves, the sale of which could really help Robbie and his new family.

Despite Robbie’s history, and the local thugs that are trying to get back at him, the film is very light-hearted and whimsical, and what little violence there is just adds to Robbie’s emotional journey. Paul Brannigan and John Henshaw are both very good in their roles, as is Gary Maitland as Albert who provides a lot of the laughs. More importantly it is the way that the characters work together that gets the viewer involved in the story; and the cast all work perfectly together resulting in a very enjoyable, funny and uplifting film.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Hulk (2003)

This is the first time that I’ve seen this, and having heard a lot of criticism, I really expected to dislike the film. I was pleasantly surprised. There are certainly problems with it, but nothing so fatal as to deserve some of the vitriol poured on to it. Sandwiched between the wonderful Crouching Tiger, and the audacious Brokeback Mountain, Hulk was a very interesting playground for director Ang Lee; and he certainly brings a certain style to the film.

The most obvious technique is the use of split screens to give the feel of a comic book. This works particularly well near the beginning of the film, especially when the same scene is shot from several angles. Some of the transitions between scenes were also very slick, and put me very much in mind of Ugly Betty (confession!). Most of the action is pretty good, in particular I thought the scene where Hulk is pulling apart the tanks was quite impressive; however the fight with the mutant dogs was a bit silly. Not as bad as I had imagined, having read about it, but underwhelming. Think King Kong fighting three T-Rexs, but on a much smaller scale!

I felt that the cast were a bit of a mixed bag. I’ve never read any of the comics, so the only Bruce Banner that I can compare Eric Bana’s to is Mark Ruffalo’s in The Avengers; however, Bana isn’t a patch on Ruffalo. Bana just looked bored and bemused for most of the film; he did look like he was getting a handle on things and looked more emotional when he returned to human form after a transformation, but then continued to sleepwalk his way through to the next appearance of the big guy. Jennifer Connelly was great as Betty Ross, she was a pleasure to watch, especially when she had scenes with the excellent Sam Elliott who plays her father. Nick Nolte is fairly crazy as Banner senior, and becomes even more crazy at the end, I just felt that more could have been made of his mutation. Certainly the best characters are the Ross father and daughter team, and if Connelly and Elliott hadn’t been as good as they are, the whole film could have been a total bust.

But this film is about the Incredible Hulk yes? So what of it? Well, he looks fairly cartoony, I don’t know whether this was a design choice or the CG just wasn’t that thorough; either way he looks pretty good. Except for the face. I’m not sure why, but when Bruce Bana (see what did there?) turns into the Hulk his face becomes that of a 14 year old boy! Actually looking at a picture now, I think he looks like an angry Harry Potter! I found this quite off-putting. The other problem came when he was jumping around, he really had no mass and he looked like a jelly bean or something just bouncing around Arches National Park. The size of the Hulk was quite inconsistent too, he seemed to grow or shrink depending if he had to look particularly intimidating or fit into some small tunnels.

Clocking in at 138 minutes Hulk isn’t a short film and while the pace didn’t bore me it could have easily lost 38 minutes and still been fine. Usually a longer film allows the exploration of the characters some more, but since we don’t find out that much of Banner’s history until later in the film, the extra time isn’t really necessary. Then after 130 minutes of story, Ang Lee obviously gave the script to a drunk monkey, because the end is very confused and silly! Banner senior bites a large power cable and transforms into some sort of huge energy monster. Hulk then drags him off to a lake somewhere, which freezes and then doesn’t, then both are contained in some big bubble which is then nuked by the military. Huh?

Having said that I did enjoy the film despite all its flaws: a couple of great performances, some good action scenes and a great style to the film. I’m now interested to see Louis Leterrier’s interpretation.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

Now, I know there are all sorts of Westerns, but if someone starts talking about this genre, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is what I automatically think of.  Few other westerns have the same dynamism of a Sergio Leone western. They are full of action, have amazing characters and are beautifully shot.  Having said that, I'm really looking forward to Django Unchained in 2013.

Having wowed the world with his dynamic, violent style in Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More, TGTBATU is the icing on the Sergio Leone cake.  It's a film that is in no hurry.  The first half an hour are spent slowly introducing the characters: Tuco (The Ugly) is evidently often a wanted man, but is perfectly capable of looking after himself.  Angel Eyes (The Bad) is a real mercenary and will stop at nothing to get his hands on as much cash as possible. Finally there's Blondie (The Good), still quite the mercenary, but with more scruples than Angel Eyes.  It's typical of Leone that even the "hero" (The Good) is a morally ambiguous character.

After these introductions we get into the story proper, these nefarious characters are trying to track down a cash box buried in a graveyard.  Of course it's not as simple as that, they get there via various altercations and encounters with the Unionist and Confederate armies, as well as each other.  However, when the graveyard is reached, the climax to the movie is 25 of the best minutes ever committed to film.  Leone's style is most evident here as the camera slowly gets closer to the protagonists using static shots of faces, eyes, hands and guns.  I have talked more about this in my Sunday Scene; quite simply, it's superb.

Behind all this wonderful direction and editing is an amazing score from Ennio Morricone.  Perhaps it is the theme music from the film that is most famous (perhaps even the most famous music from a Western), but The Ecstasy of Gold and "The Trio" showdown music are truly magnificent.

The three stars are quite brilliant.  Lee Van Cleef is the perfect embodiment of The Bad; the piercing blue eyes, the mousey smile, all played with such gleeful recklessness.  I know that Clint's character is meant to be the main hero, and Blondie is the epitome of cool, but it is Eli Wallach's portrayal of Tuco that is the highlight of the film.  He has the best lines: "If you're gonna shoot, shoot! Don't talk!", and the scene in which he "buys" a gun in a shop is pure genius.  Tuco is very much an adolescent character trying to survive in a man's world, and as such always seems to make it through by the seat of his pants.  Eli Wallach always manages to make his beady eyes full of wonder at the possibilities available to him, but at the same time terrified by what might happen to him.  This is no better demonstrated than in the truel at the end of the film: his beady eyes searching, his mouth twitching as he tries to second guess his opponents, and his gun on a piece of string! He could win so much, but he could lose everything.  Superb.

I’ve only really scratched the surface of what makes this a fabulous film, and I know I haven't done credit to how excellent TGTBATU really is.  Cast, action, music, style, composition of shots, script (have I forgotten anything?) all completely excellent, and one of my all time favourite films.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Mission: Impossible III (2006)

Following on from Brian De Palma's first film and John Woo's second, J.J. Abrams takes the helm for his first feature film to bring us a third instalment of Ethan Hunt's IMF activities. MI:III is a very slick and stylish film with some tremendous action sequences; stunt director Vic Armstrong designed the stunts so that Tom Cruise could do them all, and he did! This only egged Philip Seymour Hoffman on to get involved too, and so the final showdown fight is actually Tom and PSH throwing each other through doors and windows. This all adds a certain amount of realism to the proceedings.

Tom is fine as usual as Ethan Hunt; more than anything else he is an action star, and for this he is just right. PSH is an unusual choice as a baddie, but his gravitas really works and gives his character Owen Davian much greater depth. I had to look up his character's name on IMDB, and that's perhaps a criticism of the film; you don't really feel that you bond with any of the characters. I mean, we know Ethan, but I don't feel that we get to know any of the other characters or know the justification for their actions.

However, MI:III is an action film first and foremost, and as such completely succeeds. Competently directed, well acted and some thumping action.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (AJJ) does exactly as it says on the tin, but does so in a truly spellbinding way. The film charts the final days of Jesse James’ life (Brad Pitt) following his last train robbery, his descent into paranoia & depression and finally his murder by Bob Ford (Casey Affleck) who has ingratiated himself into Jesse’s gang before his ultimate betrayal. Brad Pitt is as excellent as he usually is, but it is Casey Affleck’s performance that stands out. He really nails the nervous determination of Robert Ford; in the scene just before he kills Jesse he looks truly terrified as if he’s about to throw up. Surrounding these two main players are an impressive support cast including Sam Rockwell and Jeremy Renner.

Robert’s character is quite an interesting one; rather than being a coward, as the youngest member of the James gang, he is butt of all the jokes and never taken seriously. It is this insecurity and desire to prove himself that drives him to murder Jesse. This is despite the fact that he worships Jesse. For years Robert has collected comics of the adventures of Jesse, and at one point Jesse says to him that he doesn’t know if he wants to be just like him or to be him. There is never any mention of the fact that he could be gay, but the way he constantly glances at Jesse certainly raises that possibility. Actually Robert is no less cowardly than Jesse himself, as during his descent into paranoia Jesse takes an ex gang member “for a ride” and shoots him in the back!

The movie is beautiful, really stunning. Andrew Dominik’s direction is sweeping, yet simple; and the cinematography by Roger Deakins is as amazing as usual and gives the film an epic feel. The pace is slow, but perfect for the film, and a shorter run-time would make everything feel very rushed. Complementing the bleak, melancholic feel the film has is the beautifully haunting, lugubrious soundtrack composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, who bring an incredible atmosphere to the film. These are the guys who composed the soundtrack to The Road, so you can imagine the ambience, but the AJJ soundtrack is easier to listen to. For those with Spotify: Jesse James

A really interesting film, with amazing scenery, great cast, beautiful music and tremendous atmosphere.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

“People scare easier then they’re dyin”

The subtitle for Once Upon a Time in the West could easily be How the Wild West Ended. Everything about the film suggests the end of an era, or at least the end of something. Harmonica’s tune is like a death rattle, we feel ultimately that it will build to a dramatic crescendo, but it takes time to get there; it is reminiscent of a tortuous death. Indeed Jason Robards’ character, Cheyenne, goes even further and suffers a long drawn out death; having been shot off-screen it takes him a full 20 min at the end of the film to die. If the pace of the film and the music wasn’t enough to suggest last gasps, the central theme is stated by Harmonica when he explains that Man is an ancient race, and that businessmen will come along and kill it off. It is the rise of the businessmen and the expansion of the railroad that is ending the time of the outlaw.

There is plenty of fabulous scenery and many sweeping crane shots, revealing huge sets and hordes of extras in the rail gangs. Of course being a Sergio Leone film there are lots of close ups of the characters, concentrating in particular on their eyes. I’ve never seen either Charles Bronson or Henry Fonda in anything else, but here they both look like real mean bastards! Leone also has an eye for the stylish and dramatic, and this is no more evident than the very start of the film. There is 10 minutes of three guys waiting at a railroad station, barely any dialogue, a squeaking windmill and a buzzing fly; but it is phenomenal. A very brave way to start a film, it sets the pace for the rest of the story perfectly. Of course on top of Leone’s inimitable style, Ennio Morricone’s score is as fabulous as ever.

All of the main characters are flawed. Like I say, Harmonica (Bronson) and Frank (Fonda) are both ruthless men; Harmonica is out for revenge, and Frank is just evil. Cheyenne (Robards) is a likeable rogue, but by no means a good guy; even Jill McBain (the gorgeous Claudia Cardinale), the traditionally “good” character, is an ex-whore. Whereas in other Westerns there is a character that the viewer routes for (usually Clint Eastwood in Leone films), in OUATITW there is no-one really. We hope that Harmonica gets his man, though we don’t know what injustice he suffered in the past; but that’s different to empathising with a character. In terms of performances I think Cardinale and Fonda are the two that stand out. Cardinale manages to switch emotions from excited and hopeful, to horrified and scared very well, yet she always seems to be in control. Fonda is perfect as Frank; playing against his usual type, he seems to really enjoy playing a real villain.


A superb, beautiful film, with some typical, but none-the-less excellent, stylish direction from Sergio Leone, and very atmospheric music from Morricone. I hesitate to mention the tempo of the film, which can sometimes feel like it’s dragging, because the slow pace is an intended feature of the film. This doesn’t detract from the epic scale of the film, and it hasn’t stopped me from seeing it many times.