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!

Sunday, 27 November 2011

The Prestige (2006)

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

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

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

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

The Sunday Scene #2 The Godfather

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

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

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


Saturday, 26 November 2011

Thelma & Louise (1991)

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

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

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Moonraker (1979)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Order of Preference so far:

The Sunday Scene #1 TGTBATU

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

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

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 13 November 2011

The Searchers (1956)

That’ll be the day.

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 6 November 2011

USA 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sergio Leone obviously also a fan of this scenery.

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

The Ides of March (2011)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 28 October 2011

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

With time running out for this month's Blogalongabond, I decided to type as I watched The Spy Who Loved Me. There are maybe a few post-viewing additions, but generally these are the thoughts that tumbled out of my noggin as I watched.

The pre-title sequence is fairly well done; a great double entendre from M; “Tell him to pull out”, a bit of nuclear submarine disappearance exposition, some well shot (apart from the close ups) skiing action, and some quality 70s wacka wacka music (that was a wah wah pedal btw). This is followed by the very understated but cool title song, Nobody does it better.

I do love the way that for all of the sophisticated technology on display, the route of the submarine is displayed on an etch-a-sketch map, and overlaid with tracing paper to show that someone is now able to track the route.

The Spy Who Loved Me introduces us to Jaws, perhaps (to me anyway), the most iconic of evil henchmen. Portrayed by the giant Richard Kiel, no metal bars or locks can contain him; though his vampiric way of dispatching people (and sharks) is rather unconvincing. Speaking of iconic, the car is that wonderful white lotus that I remember getting free with cornflakes or something; and it is quite a cool shot as it drives out of the water onto the beach.

The first half of the film is concerned with tracking down some microfilm McGuffin, as Jaws tried to bump off anyone connected to it. At least the search leads them to some tremendous locations including the Pyramids at Giza and Karnak. Though it’s quite a trek from Cairo to Karnak, only to then get a boat back to Cairo, but then end up in Abu Simbel which is in the opposite direction (if my geography and google maps research is right)! The second part of the story sees 007 and Vin Deisel agent XXX, tracking down the evil Karl Stromberg who is hiding out in his very own Atlantis, and ship courtesy of Ken Adam’s set design. The ship even comes complete with a set of red-shirts ripe for the killing; the whole battle towards the end is rather reminiscent of YOLT, though rather less haphazard.

Great score by Marvin Hamlisch, I liked the mysterious themes around Karnak, and then I suddenly realised the Lawrence of Arabia theme as 007 and XXX walk around the desert. Though I wasn’t sure about the French music in Sardinia. Some of the music sounds really quite 70s and dated, but it is still quite groovy and works well within the film.

Once again Roger seems to be enjoying himself, having a bit more spring in his step than in The Man with the Golden Gun, though his one-liners got cringeworthy quite quickly: “All those feathers and he still can’t fly!”. Though amazingly there is actually a reference to 007 being married before! Barbara Bach is reasonably alright as Major Anya Amasova (Agent XXX), she seems fairly strong headed and in control; that is until Roger flashes his huge nipples at her and suddenly her tit-tape is straining at all her skimpy tops! Curd Jürgens is good as the evil Karl Stromberg, a marine biologist with designs on starting a new world order. His gravely voice is the dominant force in every scene that he is in; though I was surprised how quickly he died. Obviously having being shot several times, he would die quickly; rather I am surprised that Bond just shot him, with no daft slapstick punch up and slow motion.

TSWLM is more of a return to the fun and intrigue of LALD after the rather more linear story of TMWTGG. Great locations, groovy music, iconic car and henchman, Roger seems to still be enjoying himself; the only fly in the ointment is perhaps the naff one-liners.

Order of Preference so far: (this is starting to get difficult)

You Only Live Twice, Goldfinger, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Live and Let Die, The Spy Who Loved Me, From Russia with Love,  Dr No, The Man with the Golden Gun, Diamonds are Forever, Thunderball

Thursday, 27 October 2011

In-flight movies

The one advantage of long-haul transatlantic flights with KLM was the very impressive range of films available for in-flight entertainment. Of course, this is tempered by having to watch them on a screen slightly less impressive than this laptop, and having to press the naff earphones into my skull to hear much over the noise of the 747. Before I give any more excuses for these briefest of reviews, this is what I watched.

Green Lantern (2011)

One of the main selling points of Green Lantern was the special effects, and given that I was watching on a tiny screen, they were lost on me. This meant that I could concentrate on mundane things such as acting, script, and character development (so old school!). I thought Ryan Reynolds was both bored and boring, he was a bit of a cocky Maverick type initially (his first 20 min of the film was essentially Top Gun, but nowhere near as good), acted like he couldn't care less when he went to Oa, and I don't really feel that he became humble or redeemed himself by the end (despite defeating Megamind Parallax). I thought Mark Strong was completely wasted, and Peter Sarsgaard's character was just plain weird/rubbish. I realise that this "origin" kind of film required a lot of exposition, but I think it could have been done so much better; and given that the Green Lantern can summon anything he can imagine, I thought the film really lacked imagination.

Rango (2011)

This was really quite fun; quirky story, excellent animation, really good voice actors. I felt that the actors would be obvious and over the top as they can sometimes be in animations, (I was worried about Johnny Depp in particular), but they weren't. Rather than model the characters on the actor, I felt the actors really tried to fit the characters, which is how it should be really. In addition to the animation being first class, the use of high contrast in the desert, and the use of shadows indoors gave it a very different feeling to most of Pixar/Dreamworks offerings; it felt more gritty and somehow more real. Perhaps this is because Roger Deakins was a visual consultant on the film, and also having ILM do the animation probably helped. The music by Hans Zimmer was pretty cool too. A very enjoyable animated adventure from Gore Verbinski.

The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

Director George Nolfi's first film is an interesting take on the idea that we don't have free will, and that our lives are predetermined. Matt Damon is running to be elected as the mayor of  New York, when he meets dancer Elise (Emily Blunt). They get on really well, but they are not destined to be together. There is an organisation whose job it is to make sure that everything in the world proceeds according to plan, and Matt Damon's career is far to important to be distracted by Elise. The organisation is the Adjustment Bureau, and via some high-tech gizmos, as well as the ability to open doors (literally) to anywhere, they set about adjusting the world (well New York anyway) so that humans don't destroy themselves. Matt Damon is alright, as is Emily Blunt; far more interesting were John Slattery and Terence Stamp as members of the Bureau. The film was very interesting and had a very Matrixy feel to it. Of course it was rather the wrong kind of film to watch on the plane as there was a lot of dialogue that was difficult to hear. It will definitely be going on my LoveFilm list though.

Battle Los Angeles (2011)

I started watching this because I couldn't get to sleep, and I thought it might help! Unfortunately it was better than I expected and I didn't fall asleep at all. If I was grading it in Hogwarts I would definitely give it an EE; it exceeds expectations. Aliens are landing all over the world and the film follows a squad of marines in Los Angeles as they attempt to resist the invasion. Aaron Eckhart is an unlikely hero, but he does well enough, Michelle Rodriguez is probably the other most interesting character, but this is hardly a character driven film. Director Jonathan Liebesman has made an okay action movie, probably because he chose to position the camera very close to the marines to give it an almost documentary feel that is very reminiscent of Black Hawk Down. The aliens are pretty cool as well. Not as bad as expected, but hardly a great movie.