Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Forbidden Planet (1956)

The central premise of Forbidden Planet, that there is a darkness in all of us, lends itself perfectly to Sci-Fi; but for all the excellent sets and realised alien landscapes, I thought that I would have been more whelmed!

It was not the ravages of time that got to me (though it was particularly un-dynamic the way everyone shot at the Disney-rendered monster), rather that I just didn't buy the key relationship.  Of course Robbie the Robot is the real star of the show, his whirring and blooping is completely brilliant and the real stuff of Sci-Fi legend.  Walter Pidgeon is good as the stand-offish Dr Morbius and Anne Francis is suitably naive and uninhibited as Altaira.  An unrecognisable Leslie Nielsen is uncharismatic as Commander Adams, and it is the relationship between him and Altaira that just wasn't believable.  And that's rather crucial in terms of plot resolution.

This, and a rather ponderous tour of some excellent Krell technology means that Forbidden Planet fell short in my expectations of this cult classic.  But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.

Monday, 30 June 2014

War of the Worlds (1953)

I'm sure that War of the Worlds is a story familiar to most, whether from H G Wells' novel, the various radio broadcasts, this interpretation or Spielberg's updated version (2005).  What's great about this version, directed by Byron Haskin, is the sense of helplessness of the humans.  No matter which approach is tried: reasoning, scientific or military; it all comes undone, either by the Martians or ourselves.  Additionally, the sounds created are iconic, in particular the weird pulsing noise that the 'eye' makes, just before it disintegrates someone.

There is always an undercurrent of religiosity, as I think was deemed necessary by movie studios in 50s Sci-Fi.  Most obvious is that love interest Sylvia’s uncle is Pastor Matthew Collins (though the poor guy’s attempt to to “come in peace” while carrying his Bible high is meet with disintegration).  There is also the comment that the aliens could take over the world in 6 days (from this arbitrary point after several days of destruction already) which leads Sylvia to comment that this is as many days as it took to create it!  The climax of the film sees Dr Forrester running from church to church to try and find Sylvia, and in the final narrator’s voice over tells us that the “Martians were destroyed and humanity was saved by the littlest things, which God, in His wisdom, had put upon this Earth.”

Great to see that the main character is a scientist who everyone respects (he was even on the cover of Time magazine), and the military doesn’t automatically shut him out.  And the scientist gets the girl!  Of course even though the scientists are integral to the fight against the Martians, they fall foul of the the public as they panic and commandeer their vehicle, destroying lots of important equipment as they do it.

Not as spectacular as Spielberg's 2005 version, but far more character-driven and no less threatening with a great atmosphere, helped by an introduction making us feel rather insignificant in the Solar System, and some brilliant sound effects.  But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.

The Dam Busters (1955)

I had watched a documentary a few months ago about Barnes Wallis, the engineer who developed the bouncing bomb.  It was a fascinating programme, and featured some willing pilots who attempted to recreate dropping the bombs.  So I was really pleased that the movie wasn't just about the training and the mission, but also had Wallis' development of the idea and the frustrations he had trying to bring it to fruition.

The film then nicely integrates Wallis' testing of the bomb with the inception of a special RAF squadron that will carry out the mission into enemy territory.  By the end there is little else Wallis can do but wait alongside the commanders as the pilots leave to destroy the targeted dams.  At this point in the film there is some nice aerial photography of the aircraft and their encounter with enemy fire, juxtaposed against the silent anxiety back at base; clearly the inspiration for the attack on the Death Star at the end of Star Wars.

I enjoyed the hell out of this film, not least for several inspirational Star Wars moments, but because the film wasn't a run-of-the-mill war story, rather it was the story of a fantastic scientific idea from its inception to its devastating conclusion, that helped the war effort immeasurably.  But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Life of Pi (2012)

A spectacular film, Life of Pi is told in retrospect as the titular character, Piscine, tells his story to a journalist.  As a young man he suffered a life changing event which found him adrift in a lifeboat with some animals from his father's zoo, a story which he explains to the journalist will make him believe in God.

I've not read the book, but I'm sure the screenplay didn't come easy, so credit is due to David Magee and Ang Lee for having the vision to bring it to the screen.  More than anything it is a film with moments of sheer beauty, in a similar way to Into the Wild (2007); Claudio Miranda fully deserving the Academy Award for cinematography.  It almost makes the leap to a work of art as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) does, but isn't quite there.  The kid Ayush Tandon is really very good considering it must have been him in front of a green screen for most of the shoot.

There were a few moments where a continuous shot would have been brilliant and to me, obvious; so their absence was a bit of a shame.  Also the final "make you believe in God" bit, felt suddenly thrown in like it had been forgotten about.  But these are only minor quibbles, overall the film is truly spectacular, visually stunning and completely engaging. I really wish I'd been able to see this on the big screen that it deserves.  But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

The Witches (1966)

More a thriller than one of Hammer's more traditional Horrors, the first hour of The Witches excels at generating an air of "what the hell is going on?".  Miss Mayfield (Joan Fontaine) is employed as the new headmistress of the primary school in the idyllic village of Heddaby; but with strains of The Midwich Cuckoos and decades later Hot Fuzz (2007), Miss Mayfield realises something sinister is going on.

Joan Fontaine is really good as the innocent incomer, and is our window into the peculiar goings-on.  As a large part of this mystery, the two main kids Ingrid Boulting and Martin Stephens are both very good, and the surrounding support cast also help weave a sinister tapestry of deceit.  Perhaps most deceitful of all is the dodgy doctor played by Leonard Rossiter (Rising Damp (1974-78); 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968); Barry Lyndon (1975).  He is a microcosm of the the weird village and as such is perfect; he just seems to have a natural air of conspiracy about him.

I’m finding that the more famous of these Hammer films (Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958) excepted) are a bit underwhelming, whereas the more obscure ones (The Nanny (1965), The Plague of the Zombies (1966), and now The Witches) generate far more atmosphere and are far more entertaining & enjoyable.  But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Ghostbusters (1984)

30 years on there's not much I can say about Ghostbusters that hasn't already been said, so I'm going to say it with tweets instead.
It's been a long time since I saw Ghostbusters (though I'm sure I've seen it since I first saw it in the Wrexham Hippodrome in 1984), and I don't think I'd appreciated before how funny the throwaway comments were.  There's the obvious "If someone asks you if you're a God, you say YES!", but it's the little (mostly Bill Murray) quips that embellish the already great film.

Though there are four Ghostbusters, and despite being written by Akroyd and Ramis, this is really Bill Murray's film.  His performance is superbly dead-pan and he clearly had so much fun with Peter Venkman.  The role was initially written for John Belushi, but it's hard to see how anyone could brought the film alive as much as Murray.

From flattops and large glasses to Rick Moranis' yuppy stereotypes and Ray Parker Jr.'s theme tune, Ghostbusters really embraces it's 80s style.

We don't. We feel exhilarated, alive and thoroughly entertained.  The fun of the film is infectious, and I can remember coming out of the theatre feeling like I could take on the world.
Winston's final exclamation is the perfect release for the dramatic finale and sums up what an exiting and fun adventure it has been.  But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Reanimator (1985)

If Frankenstein was the modern Prometheus then Reanimator is the modern Frankenstein.  Except that the hard work has been done and all Dr West has to do is inject some luminous yellow liquid into the brains of dead people to bring them back to life.

Based on H P Lovecraft's story Herbert West: Reanimator, the film is very much in the 80s splatter movie style of Scanners (1981), The Evil Dead (1981) or Bad Taste (1987).  Full of Dark humour and quite outrageous scenes, Reanimator is great fun despite being essentially daft and looking rather dated.  The special effects, however, don't look dated.  In the great tradition of practical horror (American Werewolf in London (1981), The Thing (1982), Evil Dead or Evil Dead 2 (1987) and even Aliens (1986)) the effects are all tremendously gooey and as far as I can tell all done in camera, which all adds to the fun.

Perhaps not so horrific by today's standards, Reanimator is more of a Sci-fi romp than anything else, more frenetic than atmospheric; but this doesn't detract from it at all.  But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Godzilla (2014)

To be honest it wasn't the fact that Godzilla was being remade that I was bothered about, it was that Monsters (2010) director Gareth Edwards was making it.  Monsters is easily one of the more interesting, atmospheric and thought-provoking sci-fi films of recent years (along with the superb District 9, 2009), and the guerilla seat of the pants production made it all the more impressive.

One of the key themes of Monsters is that nature should be allowed to take its course, and none of the creatures are naturally aggressive; it is only when humans attack them that they retaliate.  In one of the final scenes, two monsters are engaged in a display of courtship, and the two main characters (the only two characters!) appreciate how beautiful these beasts actually are.  This idea of nature being left alone is revisited in Godzilla, eloquently put by Ken Watanabe's character: "The arrogance of men is thinking nature is in their control, and not the other way around".

And herein lies a flaw in the film.  Laudable as it is to let nature get on with it, this translates into Godzilla and his antagonists having an almighty smack down in the middle of San Francisco, destroying half the city (a contractual obligation in these sorts of movies nowadays it seems) and all the human characters are completely inconsequential.  The military have plans involving nukes, but are frustrated at every turn; and though a human element is introduced as (having just watched his father die) soldier Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is trying to get home to his wife (Elizabeth Olson) and son; but it's all fairly banal.

This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy it, because I really did.  Gareth Edwards is a creative director and there were several stylish moments that had no particular reason to be, they just serve to enhance the film.  He also manages to create a sense of tension on several occasions, even though we essentially know how things are going to pan out.  Consider the scene where Ford Brody and the other marines are HALO jumping; we see the character’s claustrophobic eye view through the mask, seeing only snippets of the monster and the devastation below, all the time hearing only his breathing.  Simple, yet effectively done.  Rather than do his own cinematography, this time Edwards managed to secure the services of Seamus McGarvey (Atonement, 2007; Avengers, 2012), and consequently the film looks suitably atmospheric; nicely contrasting the dusty orange glows of a city being destroyed with the bright clear lines of the military installations.  Adding to the atmosphere is a pretty great score from Alexandre Desplat, which is suitably big and thumping.

I also really liked the traditional design of Godzilla, reminiscent of the 50s and 60s Japanese movies and indeed the cartoon I remember watching when I was a kid.  I also like the design of the two MUTOs, I thought they were very much like the Klendathu “Bugs” from Starship Troopers.  There is therefore much to enjoy and celebrate in Godzilla, not least that Gareth Edwards demonstrates that Britain continues to produce some excellent directors; and the fact that the human element is rather inconsequential (other than a mechanism for us to witness the events) isn’t enough to reduce the impact of this Gojira.  But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

To a new world of Gods and Monsters

I feel I’m starting to become a bit of a connoisseur of Frankenstein movies.  Though, as I’ve said before, I was spoiled early on by seeing Danny Boyle’s stage production starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller.  Both versions (the two leads swapped roles of Frankenstein and the monster) were fabulous and were closer to the source material than any of the movies I’ve seen yet.

The Bride of Frankenstein is the sequel to the original 1931 Frankenstein, again starring Boris Karloff as the monster and Colin Clive as Henry Frankenstein.  The film begins with some rather unnecessary exposition involving Mary Shelly, her husband and a Lord Byron who is ridiculously pompous and overacts.  The point is to remind us of the events of the first film, but despite some nice camera transition zooms, it’s a rather clumsy way to start the movie.

When the story properly begins it follows on immediately from the first film and we discover that the monster isn’t dead.  There is a certain amount of knees bent running about involving some more rent-a-lynch-mob action; but crucially the victimisation of the monster is far more convincing than in the first film.  The introduction of speech increases this misunderstanding.  Apparently Karloff thought that if the monster spoke it would ruin its “charm”, but I feel that the introduction of the blind man that helps him begin to communicate helps create empathy with the creature as he becomes more self aware.  In this scene in particular I thought Karloff showed his skill and really managed to create a sense of sadness and generate sympathy with the monster.

Aside from Karloff, the other crucial characters are Henry Frankenstein (still don’t know why he was renamed) played by Colin Clive, and Ernst Thesiger as Dr Pretorius.  Colin Clive has a great manic energy that he continues from the first film and improves on; even when he is refusing to do the experiments his guilt is rather eccentric.  Dr Pretorius is a calm collected counterpoint to Frankenstein, and is the driving force behind the new experiments.  His introduction is a touch bizarre; he shows Henry several live homunculi he has created, complete with individual personalities and squeaky voices.  It sounds better than it actually is, but I can understand the reason behind introducing Pretorius’ skill, and at least the special effects are surprisingly good.  Clive and Thesiger work really well together, and it is their relationship that helps drive the film to its conclusion.

This conclusion is of course the creation of the monster’s bride, and is a wonderful blend of glorious sets, brilliant lighting and dynamic direction.  As in the first film, James Whale makes excellent use of light and shadow, and nowhere is this better seen than when lightning is striking the creation. Frankenstein and Pretorius are filmed from above (looking down at them from the gods?) in shadow and their excited faces are suddenly lit by flashes of lightning.  It is a far more dramatic creation scene than the first film, and indeed Hammer’s Curse of Frankenstein.  It then culminates in Colin Clive’s iconic “It’s alive!”.  After all this superbity (new word), the final scene is a bit of a let down, and a self-destruct lever in the lab seems like a quick fix end to the film.  Shame.

A vast improvement over the first film, apart from a clunky beginning and a quick fix end, The Bride of Frankenstein captures far more of the spirit of the novel; both Frankenstein and his monster are victims, and Karloff’s performance generates real sympathy with the misunderstood creature.  The story demands less leaps of faith than the original film, and James Whale’s direction is sharper and more creative than before.   But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Senna (2010)

I’ve never cared for Formula 1 at all, but the strength of Senna is such that for 100 minutes I did care.  Though I was aware of the final outcome, the way the story is told; Senna’s rivalry with Alain Prost, as well as showing the politics of the various teams, was engrossing.  The documentary is made completely with historical footage of races, interviews and home videos; but there is also interview voice over if the footage is silent.  In this way, Senna is more akin to The Imposter rather than a Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock film, which perhaps results in a less biased documentary, but I’m not the person to know.  I’m not familiar with anything else that director Asif Kapadia has made, though on the strength of BAFTA-winning Senna I quite fancy seeing Odyssey, and his forthcoming Amy Winehouse documentary could also be interesting.

A fascinating insight into a sportsman I knew nothing about, told with skill and emotion, Senna is definitely worth seeing, even if you hate F1.  But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.