Sunday, 30 January 2011

Black Swan

Natalie Portman plays Nina Sayers, a ballet dancer who gets her break when she is cast as the lead in Swan Lake by company director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel). Nina initially can play the White Swan role in the ballet perfectly, but being able to play the Black Swan requires her to "let go" of herself during her dancing. However, as she "lets go" during performances, she also finds herself letting go of life generally, and (quite literally) becoming the Black Swan.

From very early on Nina discovers scratches on her back (the beginnings of wings), and her skin occasionally ripples with a poultry-like texture! Psychologically, having been raised by an overbearing mother (a failed dancer), Nina finds herself rebelling slightly; wanting privacy at home, going out drinking late with fellow dancer (and understudy for lead Swan) Lily (Mila Kunis). She also starts begins to fantasize, having sex with Lily, and imagining that Lily is trying to get Nina out of the picture so that she can have the title role. This culminates in the final performance when Nina believes that she has stabbed Lily to death in her changing room. Nina then dances the Black Swan perfectly, but before the show's climax realises that she has not stabbed Lily but herself! In the final act of the ballet when the White Swan jumps to her death, the gut wound she inflicted on herself is suddenly obvious and Nina dies having finished the "Perfect" dance.

I don't know anything about ballet, and did not know the story of Swan Lake, though a very neat summary is given by Vincent Cassel towards the beginning of the film. Natalie is very good, I'm not familiar with all her work but I guess this could be her biggest lead role, and she carries it very well; completely erasing any Star Wars doubts. She did have a major role in V for Vendetta, where I also thought she was very good, but it wasn't really her film; and I'm not sure about Closer as I haven't seen it. Black Swan perhaps is her most mature performance, proving that she can cope with demanding roles.

Vincent Cassel has an influential role, but not a major role; yet still seems to have quite an off-screen presence that drives Natalie's character in a particular direction. It was slightly disorientating seeing him in this because I am half way through watching Mesrine: Killer Instinct, in which Vincent Cassel plays a notorious French gangster. My review will follow later as there are actually 2 parts to the film, and I've only watched the first. Consequently, the confusion remains: French Gangster, or Ballet instructor?!

Technically, Darren Aronofsky like using mirrors in this film. A lot. It does work, showing the two sides of Nina's character and how it is becoming fractioned and disjointed. Most obviously of course when dancing in the studio, and the reflection of Nina continues dancing for just second after she has actually stopped dancing. I did think on occasion that half of the special effects budget must have been spent on removing the reflections of the camera crew as Natalie danced around the studio in front of loads of mirrors!

(A fly on the wall watches Natalie get ready)

Actually, there are scenes demonstrating Nina's transformation to a Swan, where she pulls at a raggedy finger nail and rips a huge bit of skin off her finger! Very reminiscent of Brundle-fly! Seeing Natalie dressed like this reminds me; near the beginning of the film there is a shot from the stands of the studio looking down on all the dancers training as Vincent Cassel approaches; really reminded me of Enter the Dragon as the competitors first arrive on Han's Island and they look down on hundreds of people practising their Kung Fu! Mmmm. There were lots of mirrors used there too!

Anyway! Russ recommends seeing it. Black Swan that is. Possibly even deserving of an Academy Award. Also see Enter the Dragon if you haven't!

Thursday, 27 January 2011

I am Iron Man!

Iron Man was on telly the other week, and then what should pop through our letterbox from LoveFilm but Iron Man 2! So I thought that I'd review them together; two birds, one stone and all that. I'm guessing that most people are aware of the story so I will quickly blast through the plot.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) of Stark Industries (arms suppliers) is the son of the company founder, robotics genius, and all round suave guy. While demonstrating the latest weaponry in Afghanistan he is kidnapped by terrorists, during which he is wounded in the chest. To prevent shrapnel from burying into his heart and killing him a device is planted in his chest. Tony uses this to power a suit of armour to affect his escape. Back home, Tony uses his robotic skills to upgrade the chest piece and the suit of armour, adding fire-power and much computer wizardry. He then uses the suit to fight evil, starting with the corrupt head of Stark Industries: Obadiah (Jeff Bridges).

When I first heard of this film I assumed it was a version of the novel by Ted Hughes I read as a kid. When I found out this wasn't the case I was first disappointed, and then, having seen all the hype about the film, very wary, and stayed away. Hype does that to me, I didn't see Moulin Rouge for years for the same reason. When I finally did see Iron Man, I was very pleasantly surprised. Robert Downey Jr is perfect for this role, smooth and arrogant without being smarmy and annoying. Jeff Bridges is great as usual, and great support from Gwyneth Paltrow as well.

                                                         Was that my White Russian?

While watching the beginning of the second film, actually I might say up to about 45 min or something, I thought it was a bit flat. I thought that this could be because for a lot of these hero-style films, the first film is usually more interesting as the main character discovers their super-powers. Mmmm. I was about to back up that statement with examples, but could only come up with Spider-man really. X-2 better than X-men, Superman 2, Hellboy II!

Anyway, I thought the first 45 min were a bit aimless, until Sam L Jackson showed up and told Tony to stop arse-ing about. At that point the film developed some plot and became a whole lot more enjoyable, though I was confused with why they replaced Terrence Howard with Don Cheadle as Rhodey. Jon Favreau has done a great job with these two films, including a massive cameo for himself (actually I think it goes beyond a cameo).

Best bits:

Mickey Rourke slicing Grand Prix cars up in Monaco with his electric tentacle things.

Tony creating a Small Hadron Collider in his apartment to create a new element!

Any section of film with AC/DC playing in the background.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

The King's Speech

On the face of it, a film about a guy with a stammer and his struggle to overcome said speech defect so that he can speak in public, doesn't sound like it would particularly get bums on seats. But make the guy Prince Albert of York (soon to be King George VI), get Colin Firth to play him, and fill the role of the elocution teacher with the excellent Geoffrey Rush; then play the film against the backdrop of George V's death, the abdication of Edward VIII and imminent war with Germany in 1939 and the result is a great film full of many dramatic and funny moments.

Essentially; Prince Albert has suffered from a stammer from a young age, but now that he is expected to make public appearances and speeches, his difficulty in speaking is quite a hindrance. Having seen many speech therapists his wife Elizabeth (played by Helena Bonham Carter, who is also excellent) finds a therapist with some unorthodox methods. This therapist Lionel Logue (Rush), finds it hard to get to know "Bertie", but following the death of his father George V, he starts to open up to Lionel.

With the Death of George V, Bertie's brother Edward (Guy Pearce) becomes King, but his desire to marry a twice-divorced woman (not favourable in the eyes of The Establishment) results in his abdication of the throne. Bertie is therefore crowned King, not as Albert (considered to Germanic to be appropriate in 1936) but as George VI.

The new King struggles to find confidence to speak at his coronation, but doesn't have to say very much anyway. His big moment comes when he is to be broadcast live to the country and all the colonies following the outbreak of World War 2. This is the climax of the film, and of course he gets through the speech without stammering, but also not without dramatic pauses as he struggles for control.

I really did enjoy this film. The cast is superb. Colin Firth does deserve his Golden Globe, but I think Geoffrey Rush is at least as good as Firth. Helena Bonham Carter is also great (quite a departure for her, not being in a Tim Burton film!). She really seems to wear the trousers in the first part of the film where Bertie comes across as being a bit self pitying. Derek Jacobi puts in a solid performance as Archbishop Cosmo Lang, but is only ever a minor character. And I must not forget Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill, with surely an award-winning scowl if ever there was one!

I feel the cinematography is worth a comment. The overall palette of the film was very mute, even in some of the very opulent rooms inevitable in a film about Royals. I'm not sure if this was to reflect Bertie's overall mood as he is constantly struggling against his speech impediment; or rather to reflect the mood of the time leading up to war with Hitler. Or maybe neither and I haven't a clue what I'm talking about.

There were also a noticeable number of scenes (particularly if characters were sitting down) which were framed so that their heads mostly occupied the lower middle and left part of the screen. This left a lot of wall in the background which was made far more obvious. And I really can't think of a reason why some scenes would be shot like this. Maybe this is just me being weird, or perhaps I need my eyes corrected! But did anyone else notice this? Danny Cohen does have a BAFTA nomination for this work, so maybe no-one else did notice it!

Despite my potential weirdness I thought the film was excellent. Fantastic that us Brits can make a film about something so quintessentially British, and do it bloody well! What ho!

Monday, 17 January 2011


Having never forked out for a Bond boxed set (they just keep making 'em!) I watched Dr. No on video! Yes, one of those old fashioned mechanical type things with tape in them and everything! What's more it wasn't even a bought video, it was taped off TV years ago when ITV had a "Double O Heaven" season. Still, the quality wasn't all that bad, and it certainly didn't spoil my enjoyment of this classic film at all.

First thing to notice is that there is no title song. This of course makes sense being the first film, the songs wouldn't really get going in terms of James Bond themes until Goldfinger, though I'm certainly not forgetting the mellifluous voice of Matt Munro's From Russia with Love. The credits start with the James Bond theme, before degenerating (sorry) into some sort of Latin drum beat thing over which we see silhouettes of dancing women, soon to become a staple of 007 film intros. This then becomes a reggae version of Three Blind Mice!!! WTF?! Oh I see, the film starts with three "blind" guys. Still, a tenuous link, and a bit of a comedown from the dramatic James Bond theme of a minute ago.

There were two things that really struck me about this film. Firstly, how slick it was. The plot moved effortlessly on, gliding from one one location/encounter to the next. This was all helped by the fact that Bond is always one step ahead of the villains, and of the viewer I felt sometimes! Now I'm no expert in 60s films, but I imagine that in 1962 this slickness could have been quite striking, to me it is reminiscent of Bullitt, which would not be seen for another 6 years.

The second thing was just how perfect Sean Connery is as Bond. He just slips right in there like a hand into an expensive Italian leather shoe. No, just me? Moving swiftly on. It also made me realise that Daniel Craig's Bond is much more of a return to the "Thinking on his feet" Bond rather than the "Rely on invisible cars and explosive watches" Bond that we were becoming accustomed to. I had thought that this was a reflection of the popularity of the Bourne films, but now I see that is how Bond used to be (and he's better this way I think). In Dr. No, Bond is constantly reading every situation, monitoring all the players, and dispatches henchmen very efficiently, hardly breaking sweat; except for when a big hairy spider is crawling up him.

I also think it's great that Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress) is no-one in particular (not a secret agent, or a nuclear physicist, or some billionaire's wife who's just being mischievous) she's just out, on the beach picking up shells; Honey: Are you looking for shells too? Bond: No, I'm just looking. That is of course before she gets caught up in all the adventure.

The other two things I thought were great were: the first time Bond says: "Bond, James Bond", it sounds completely natural and not clichéd or unnecessarily shoe-horned in. And also I'd forgotten what SPECTRE was an acronym for. SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion. Fantastic!

Saturday, 15 January 2011

127 Hours

Aron Ralston's story of having to hack his own arm off after he became trapped in the Utah Canyonlands was presumably very well known, even before the great Danny Boyle got hold of the story to make into a film. The plot doesn't really need that much explaining, but I must stress that my view is based on the film, as I haven't read Aron's book "Between a Rock and a Hard Place" yet.

Essentially, Aron went away for a weekend to go mountain biking, hiking and climbing in Canyonlands in Utah. After having spent an afternoon with two girls he met while hiking they head off their way and Aron continues on his way to a big "Drop-off", where a smaller canyon opens out into a much larger canyon.  However, as he quickly descends into a narrow gorge he slips, dislodges a large rock which, when he lands on the canyon floor, traps his right hand against the canyon wall. Aron is stuck, completely isolated, low on food and water and unable to free his hand. So after 5 soul-searching days (127 hours in fact) of trying one way or another to shift the rock, he finally amputates his own arm so that he can get home.

The majority of the film is just Aron (James Franco), in a canyon, experiencing various emotions from disbelief, through anger, frustration, despair, desperation, and finally determination. Wow! James Franco is fantastic. There isn't a minute when you don't believe that he is there experiencing all of this. I thought the film-making was also phenomenal to make this story so gripping (a man stuck in a hole for 5 days!), and I don't think there was a single camera angle that Danny Boyle didn't use!

The story was well spaced out with flashbacks of family, past girlfriend, and how he feels he has let people down; perhaps that's too strong but certainly the impression is that he feels he has not given those close to him the love that he can give. Finally it is the thought of his family, and the desire to start his own family that cements in his head that he must amputate himself to get out of there. I think I have heard of some people feeling very sick and grossed-out by the amputation scene. Maybe I've seen too much horror, but I thought is was subtly done, far worse for me was before he fell into the canyon knowing that something awful was going to happen. Much like Touching the Void.

The other very similar part to Touching the Void was Aron getting the music to Scooby Doo in his head! This is because the girls he had met on the first day had mentioned that they were throwing a party that night and there would be a huge inflatable Scooby Doo there. So part of the delirium Aron experience was having the Scooby Doo music going round and round his head. Very much like Joe Simpson thinking he was going to die to "Brown Girl in the Ring" by Boney M!

Anyway, I thought the film was great, brilliantly made, a great example of how filming one man in isolation can still be gripping. I've heard great things about Buried as well, and if it's half as good as this is, it must be a good film.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

For "F"s Sake!

I may have been slow on the uptake here, but is Hoodie Thriller a new genre?

If so it's the best thing since Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was rated with "Mild Horror and Fantasy Spiders"!

Friday, 7 January 2011

Season of the Witch

Nicolas Cage seems to be perplexed by something off in the middle distance, completely unaware that a fiery pentangle is attached to his chest!

Still, at least Ron Perlman is in it. Silver lining and all that.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Casino Royale

Now before I start, I should state that I think of course Sean Connery was the best Bond. That doesn't mean that I don't enjoy any of the other Bonds; even of late I enjoyed Pierce Brosnan in Goldeneye and Tomorrow Never Dies. However, after the terribleness that was Die Another Day, with some shocking cg, an instantly forgettable theme tune and plot, the world was crying out for Daniel Craig and Casino Royale. Well, I was anyway.

The plot is based around baddie Le Chiffre, a stock market player for the evil and corrupt. He invests money in an airline stock so that when the shares crash (he plans to blow the brand new flagship plane up to guarantee this) he will make a killing. However, when 007 prevents the plane from blowing up, Le Chiffre is $150m out of pocket. He plans to win this back in a high stakes poker game in Casino Royale in Montenegro. Of course Bond is financed by HM government to play in the game and wins all of the money.

Behind the scenes, everything is contrived by a criminal "Organisation", this is all we know it as. So when Le Chiffre kidnaps bond and his female accomplice (Vesper Lynd, played by Eva Green), after some pretty brutal torture, Mr White from the Organisation turns up and kills Le Chiffre, allowing Bond and Vesper to go free. However, as 007 and Vesper fall in love, we find out that the Organisation had previously contacted Vesper and her boyfriend, and the only way the boyfriend will be left alone is if Vesper was planted with Bond with a view to acquiring the poker winnings (I think, all very confusing!).

Anyway, James finds Vesper withdrawing all of the money from the winnings, and this leads to a final shootout in Venice wherein Vesper drowns. But before her death, she did leave a message on her phone to James, giving him the name Mr White and a phone number. The film ends with 007 tracking down Mr White, and saying his name is Bond, James Bond! Quantum of Solace follows on directly from here.

I really do think this is a cracking film. A very gritty begining showing Bond's first kill. Great title sequence with a great song from the man with and incredible voice: Chris Cornell. A tremendous action sequence at the beginning as 007 tries to keep up with a free-running gun-for-hire bomb-maker. A very nicely set up poker game, with enough intrigue in between hands, so we are not just watching a game of cards for 30 mins; and a very interesting plot, not your usual baddie looking for domination over something (world/media/oil).

Gone are all the gadgets, and instead 007 has to think on his feet a lot more; this is a reflection of the popularity of the Bourne series I think. I did like the gadgets (especially in the Sean Connery era), but I think the franchise ended up relying on them too much; on the feet thinking led to a much more fluid story, rather than one that was contrived around some fancy piece of tech. There are a few moments of more familiar bond: telling Vesper that her cover name is Stephanie Broadchest.

Judi Dench is still great as M, being initially indignant at Bond for finding out where she lived, her login for the MI6 network, and her name! But later she is more encouraging, and positively gets behind him in the next film. Daniel Craig as Bond I think is great. He has a roughness to him that a man who will do anything to get the job done should have. He also plays the arrogance part of the character well, as well as managing to be smooth enough when he has to be. I know some people think it's silly to have a blonde haired, blue eyed James Bond, but I don't care, why should it matter? And anyway, Daniel Craig is from the same city as me. Imagine that, I was born in the same city as James Bond! How cool is that?!

Tuesday, 4 January 2011


After the disappointment of UP, WALL-E has restored my faith in Pixar. The two main characters WALL-E and Eve were superb, both in their animation and their sound design. Neither of them really spoke, apart from their names, so almost all of the communication and emotion was done either by the squeaks and bleeps that they made (all thanks to none other than Ben Burtt) and the body language of the characters; no small feat given that they are both robots!

The film starts on Earth about 700 years in the future. All human life has left earth because the amount of waste that we all produce has swamped the planet and made it inhospitable. Humans have therefore left Earth to go and live aboard an enormous luxury liner space ship called the Axiom. Here humans will never have to walk again as everything is provided for them by droids, and they move about the ship on reclining chairs that hover around.

All that is left on earth are robots (and cockroaches) programmed to clean up all of our mess. WALL-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter - Earth class) is one of these robots. WALL-E's routine of compressing junk into small cubes and collecting interesting or useful items from piles of rubbish is shattered when a huge space rocket lands. The space rockets deploys a probe droid and then swiftly departs. The probe droid is called Eve, and where WALL-E is square, clunky and grimy, Eve is clean, white, and smooth. Her directive is to catalogue everything she comes across until she finds evidence of life on Earth.

WALL-E is initially terrified of Eve but as the relationship blossoms, he comes to really like her. Then, back at WALL-E's house (a steel storage unit) he shows Eve the plant that he had collected the other day. At this point Eve's directive takes over; she has found life on Earth! She quickly grabs the plant, stores it within her torso, and then promptly shuts down to await collection by the returning space rocket.

WALL-E of course doesn't understand what has happened, and spends days by Eve's side, sheltering her from rain and generally looking after her. Then the space rocket returns to collect Eve. As Eve is taken back on board, WALL-E manages to grab on to the outside of the rocket to follow her. It turns out that the rocket is returning to the human space ship Axiom, and Eve is just one of many probes that have been sent out to look for signs of life on Earth again so that the humans can all return.

When WALL-E and Eve arrive on the axiom we see that in the 700 years since humans arrived on board they have all got fat because they  haven't walked or exercised since! However, when Eve returns the plant to the captain, amidst his surprise that life has been found, and trying to figure out what to do next; the droids on board (primarily the Auto-pilot) activate a long dormant programme to make sure that humans never return to earth.

There are various adventures on the ship but eventually the captain turns off the Auto-pilot, WALL-E and Eve manage to get the plant to the Holo-detector. This immediately activates the ships navigation to return to Earth, hyperspace is engaged and before you know it the humans are stumbling out into the sunshine again. Eve and WALL-E then live happily ever after.

As I already said, WALL-E and Eve are done so well that you forget that you are watching computer generated robots. The sounds of all WALL-E's motors, as well as the little noises they both make, easily make up for the fact that they don't really talk. Back in 1977, you could mostly figure out what R2D2 what "saying" from his various bleeps and bloops, but here Ben Burtt has excelled in producing sounds that communicate a whole range of emotions.

Some of the sounds that WALL-E make did remind me a lot of the security turrets in Portal (Fantastic game by the way; so simple and yet so good).

Perhaps the only very very minor let down with the film is the very end. Humans return to Earth, having wrecked it 700 years ago, and yet there is no indication that they are going to do anything different this time! So we can destroy our planet, bugger off for 700 years, come back when it is starting to recover, and bugger it all up again! To have a little moral to the story (this is Disney we're talking about after all), it wouldn't have been too difficult to have some human characters say that this time we will do things differently, and take better care of our environment.

Like I said, very minor point, which does not detract at all from a great film. Fabulous animation, amazing sounds, a solid (primarily love) story line (thought still not as good as Monsters Inc, which I think is a story hard to beat for twists and inventive-ness), and characters that are brilliantly realised with whom you can really empathise. Brilliant. Hoorah for Pixar! Now, I really should see Toy Story 3.