Saturday, 30 April 2011

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Raiders of the Lost Ark is the kind of film that is absolutely ludicrous, but is absolutely brilliant. On paper, the idea of trying to locate the Ark of the Covenant and rescue it from Nazis really shouldn’t work; but if you get Steven Spielberg to direct it, George Lucas to produce it (and to help with the writing), get a great cast, and it all works perfectly! So perfectly that “Raiders” is one of the most entertaining films ever made; even George Lucas admitted that it was the most fun he had making a film! Just to convince you of its greatness, here’s 5 things you probably already knew.

Harrison Ford
In 1981 Harrison Ford had made his mark as Han Solo and worn some excellent glasses in Apocalypse Now; but he was yet to solidify his position in film history. Between Indy and Decker he was assured of it. Indy is very similar to Han, only this time he is the main character. Some of the sex appeal that Han had is written into the character, and some of the cockiness removed, throw into the mix some archaeo-sleuthing skills and we have cinematic gold.

Steven Spielberg
Always a proponent of the “More is More” school of thought; Spielberg doesn’t hold back in Raiders; and we all reap the rewards. After the initial exposition, the action is almost non-stop, over-the-top, and often ludicrous; but always brilliant. Spielberg’s inspired, outlandish set-pieces are perhaps typified by the opening scenes: the bag-of-sand-idol swap and the boulder escape are so iconic that there few action scenes before or since are so memorable.

Supporting Cast
Inspired. John Rhys-Davies is wonderful as Sallah “Asps! Very Dangerous. You go first!” Karen Allen is a great love-interest/companion; girly enough to squeal when thrown into Indy’s adventures, but ballsy enough to take on the Nepalese at drinking games and stand up to the Nazis (to an extent). Paul Freeman is intense and condescending as Belloq; Ronald Lacey is perfect as the weird, sinister Toht; and a very young Alfred Molina is cool as the tarantula-covered soon-to-be-spike-impaled Satipo.

Shadow Acting
As if to prove that he is not just about fighting, explosions, and elaborate action sequences, Spielberg gets very creative in Raiders. There are many bits of scenes shot with shadow. Not least the first few minutes of the film where we only see the silhouette of Indy; probably the most iconic silhouette in history (not just in cinema!). There are also several shots of other characters talking towards the camera and Indy’s shadow behind them, far more dramatic than just filming two people talking. Also neat how some of the shadows in the Egyptian tombs seem to reflect the two-dimensional carvings on the walls. All very cool, and all serve to make a hugely enjoyable film even more fantastic.



Melting Nazis
It’s always good to see the bad guys get their comeuppance, and even better when they melt! Having made a cast of Ronald Lacey’s head, the sfx guys coated the inside of the mask with various layers of wax; the effect was then achieved by melting the face plus hat plus glasses with a hairdryer! Fairly low-tech, and quite laborious when it requires more than one take, but it still looks pretty great 30 years later! Of course if it was done now it would be all done in a computer, and doubtless wouldn’t look half as good. I’ve argued this before, but when effects are done “in the flesh” they always looks better and more convincing than “pretty” effects done in a computer.

So there we go, 5 reasons to love one of the best action adventure films ever made. Of course there are countless more reasons why Raiders is so good, but then this post would go on for ever! Indy shooting the big guy with swords because he had the runs; the cheesy maps with dotted lines showing where Indy is travelling to; the girl’s eyelids with “I love you” written on them; storing the Ark of the Covenant in a huge warehouse; Toht looking like he’s getting an implement of torture out but it’s actually a coat hanger; and... and...

Saturday, 23 April 2011

The Beckoning Silence

The Beckoning Silence is based on Joe Simpson’s book of the same name. It is shot as a documentary including interviews with Joe, as he talks about his influences and what made him start climbing. His main influence is the tragic and compelling story of Toni Kurz and Andreas Hinterstoisser as they tried to be the first people to successfully scale the North Face of the Eiger (their story is brilliantly told in the film Nordwand). The Beckoning Silence features four climbers acting out the drama of Toni, Andreas and the two Austrian climbers also involved; this is interspersed with Joe climbing on the Eiger at some of the crucial points of the fateful climb in 1936.

The film is very well made; there are some stunning shots of the Swiss Alps, and it is quite authentic as director Louise Osmond shot as much as possible on the Eiger. Joe is as engaging in front of the camera as he is when he writes. Understandably the focus of the film is the story of Toni Kurz et al, whereas the book is far more about Joe’s thoughts on climbing: he talks about how he has lost some of the drive to carry on climbing now that many of his friends have died pursuing the same goals that he once did. This still does come across in the film, just to a lesser extent.

It would be interesting to know what Joe thought of the film Nordwand, because The Beckoning Silence actually came out the year before. This is a great, short film (only 75 min) telling a truly tragic tale. Made even more tragic as Toni died on his fifth day on the mountain; and this guy climbed it in just under 2 hours 50 min!

And this record has just been broken by 20 min!!!

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Oranges and Sunshine

This is one of those films that I really knew very little about before I saw it. Emily Watson plays Margaret Humphreys, a British Social worker, who by accident finds out about an international scandal. She discovers that 30 or more years ago the British and Australian governments were complicit in the forced migration of children from the UK to Australia. The children were said to be orphans (though often their parents were very much alive at the time), and so they would be given a fresh start in a new country. It turned out that a lot of the children were essentially used as a slave workforce when they arrived. Margaret sees it as a personal challenge to get to the bottom of what really happened, and soon receives the backing of the Social Work office that she works for. Over the course of a few years, Margaret manges to re-unite many children (by now in middle age) with their parents back in the UK.

Directed by Jim Loach (son of Ken), this is quite an emotional film, but is saved from being overwhelming by the way the story is told and the main cast of three: Emily Watson, Hugo Weaving and David Wenham. Waston is great as the driven social worker; it is strange how sometimes she can be very emotional (especially with her children and husband), but when she is present at parent/”orphan” re-unifications she is strangely distant. This probably is due to trying to maintain some professional distance between herself and the people involved; but her blank face was often a bit odd. Of course then her family get the full brunt of what she is really feeling.

Hugo Weaving, despite only having a relatively small role, is fantastic. Even though his character is quiet, he still has a tremendous presence on screen. He is brilliant in the very emotional scene where he discovers that his mother only died within the last year; despite thinking for all these years that he was an orphan. David Wenham has more of a role to get hold of. His character, Len, is initially very sceptical of what Margaret can actually achieve by interfering; he has tried years ago to find his mother and failed. His attitude therefore is quite aggressive towards Margaret. However, his character mellows as Margaret helps him to find his mother, and by the end of the film he is one of the closest friends that Margaret has over in Australia.

A very interesting, well-crafted film starring a cast that is quite understated in their roles, but who nevertheless are all great. I should add that the reason we saw this was to support out local art-house cinema, The Belmont, as it was in danger of being closed due to lack of funding by our city council. I am very happy to say that it has now been saved. Hoorah! It also resulted in seeing this great movie which otherwise would have passed me by; and that’s the great thing about independent cinemas; finding a gem of a film that otherwise I may not have heard of.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Sucker Punch

Like a lot of people I was really looking forward to Sucker Punch. The trailer gave us a glimpse of something that could be as visually stunning as we have come to expect from Zack Snyder but with a really interesting story to it. Well, this was half right.

Baby-doll (Emily Browning) is committed to an insane asylum by her stepfather, right after her mother dies and she accidentally shoots her sister! She is scheduled for a lobotomy in four days. She then descends into her own subconscious and imagines that she is in some sort of 50s style dance parlour (no explanation). This is where she meets fellow dancers/patients Sweet Pea, Amber, Rocket and Blondie. They decide they are going to escape and to do this they require a map, fire, a knife, and a key. Baby-doll distracts whoever is holding the desired item by dancing. As soon as she starts dancing, she and her companions are transported to another imaginary world which includes guns, robots, dragons, steam-powered soldiers and loud music! In each fantasy there is a wise old man to tell them what to do (Scott Glenn), who is a bit like a games-master Columbo: “Oh, and one more thing: don’t wake the mother!” The girls complete the task and return with the item (sounds like the Crystal Maze on LSD!).

It all sounds fairly nuts, and it is. I should start by saying that it looks glorious, with Snyder’s style being very obvious; particularly in the train fight where the girls are fighting with lots of shiny robots reminiscent of I Robot. The scene is stunning with lots of the slow and zoom camera style that Snyder uses so well. It almost looks like a single shot for a lot of it, but I’m sure that’s not the case. There are many scenes where live action, CG, and miniatures all blend flawlessly to give each fantasy enormous scale. Also worth a mention is the set piece where Baby doll fights three enormous mechanical Samurai; the scope and style are stunning.

A lot of the other set pieces are also stunning, but that’s where it all stops. For a start, the fantasy scenes are just set pieces joined together with some filler. A lot of it is just a jumble of ideas, with no real coherence. For all the ideas in the film (crazy, amazing, confusing and weird), they seemed to run out when entering Baby-doll's fantasy worlds, because every transition was the same: starts dancing, camera pans around her head and suddenly we’re somewhere else.

One of the main problems is the lack of character development. We have a vague bit of background of Baby-doll, but nothing of any of the other girls. Consequently, when they are in danger (though you never really feel that they are) we don’t really give a shit about any of them, because we don’t know them. Possibly the only character who develops at all is Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac), the baddie of the film; the warden of the mental institute/pimp of the parlour. This film really proves that you can have a great-looking flick, but if you don’t have decent characters, then you’re dead in the water.

A lot has been said of this film being misogynistic. I’m not sure that’s the case; I think it is just misguided. This is the first thing that Snyder has really written and directed (300 and Watchmen were both graphic novels, Dawn of the Dead was written by George A Romero). So I’m surprised that no-one really said “Whoa Zack! This doesn’t make any sense!” If this is what happens when he tries to write then perhaps he should stick to directing only. Well, he hasn’t written Man of Steel, so let’s see what becomes of that.

After all my negative points I did enjoy the film; like I say it looks amazing, and there is some great action. It’s just that you come away from it feeling a bit disappointed and hollow. Kind of like eating a Pot Noodle! It’s a guilty pleasure and you really fancy one; but at the end of it you don’t feel satisfied at all! For all its style I don’t think I’ll be buying it on DVD.

Monday, 18 April 2011


After the giddy heights of Goldfinger, Thunderball is a bit of a damp squib. It starts out well enough with a pre-credit scene where James punches a woman in the face! But, Oh, James thinks that dude looks like a lady (or something), and so a good scrap ensues, involving the classic Bond move of pinning his assailant to a wall with a chair! Having won the fight, 007 then escapes using a jetpack covered in tin foil and proudly showing a lovely helmet!

The great song is then belted out by Tom Jones (though he did manage to sound quite effeminate at times), before we are transported to SPECTRE’s hideout to find out (#2) Emilio Largo’s cunning plan.
                                                You just wouldn’t sit down would you?

The plan is to hijack a plane carrying two nukes, and use them to extort £100,000,000 out of NATO (but essentially the British Government). Largo (Adolfo Celi) is a really nasty piece of work: inviting Bond aboard his yacht; inviting him to dinner; all this time of course James is trying to locate the nukes. Helping him in this is Domino (Claudine Auger) Largo’s bit of stuff, so naturally Bond seduces her. When Largo is moving the nukes from their safe storage to the handover point in exchange for his ransom, 007 is there, (of course!), along with a lot of aqua-soldiers to have some sort of underwater knees-bent running about fight! Largo escapes, Bond follows for a dramatic finale aboard his yacht (the Disco Volante) where Domino shoots him in the back with a harpoon!

If FRWL was all about the Orient Express, then Thunderball is all about the ocean; and it looks great. Factoid: Lamar Boren who was the underwater cameraman, was DOP on the 1964 Flipper TV series! The only downside of this is that it is harder to act underwater (presumably). The underwater fight at the end is essentially 10 minutes of silent movie, with the occasional thwunk of a harpoon, and some over-acted deaths that would give a lot of Zulus a run for their money! I think that perhaps it is this focus on underwater action that gives the film a slightly surreal feeling and so the pace of the film suffers.

Sean is of course as suave, unflustered, and great as ever; “Yes, I thought I saw a spectre at your shoulder. - What do you mean? - The spectre of defeat.” Claudine Auger’s Domino is perhaps the finest Bond Girl yet (can of worms?) Honey Ryder didn’t do much; Tatiana was pretty, but pretty pathetic; and Pussy had a great name but not much more. Domino is sexy, vengeful, puts up with a bit of torture and then shoots Largo with a harpoon! Adolfo Celi is good as Largo, but he must have turned up on set on the first day and thought they were having a laugh when they told him to wear an eye-patch!

There are a few more gadgets in this outing: Jetpack, hoses and bullet-proof shield on Aston Martin, Geiger counter watch, re-breather, jam trousers (no wait that was an Eddie Izzard sketch). Of course they were all needed for the mission.


Thunderball has a lot going for it; I think its main problem other than the underwater-ness slowing it down a bit, is that it is coming hard on the heels of Goldfinger which was a great film. Probably whatever fourth film was made, it would never have lived up to Goldfinger.

Order of preference so far:
Goldfinger, From Russia with Love, Dr No, Thunderball

Sunday, 17 April 2011

The Godfather

The Godfather (1972) is tremendous film. Not for nothing is it Empire’s number 1 movie in their top 500 movies of all time. The novel by Mario Puzo is excellent, but to have been able to transpose it to the screen so well is a remarkable achievement. Of course this was helped by Mario Puzo being involved in writing the screenplay, but of course the ultimate control rested with Francis Ford Coppola.

For those who don’t know the story, stop reading and go and watch the film; but if you insist on reading on, this review will obviously contain spoilers. The Godfather tells the story of the Corleone family, based in New York, from 1946 onwards. Vito Corleone (the great Don) is brought to life by Marlon Brando, and his son Michael (who eventually takes over the family business when the Don dies) is played by Al Pacino. Through various nefarious dealings, not least with narcotics dealer Sollozzo (Al Lettieri), the power of the Corleone family is reduced, until at the climax of the film Micheal “settles all the family’s debts”, and the Corleone family are once again the most powerful of New York’s Five Families.

Of course the plot is far more involved than that, but I really can’t do it justice in a brief blog post. At almost three hours long it is by no means a short film, but it doesn’t drag at all, the pacing is perfect. The beginning of the film goes against what a lot of people would consider great wisdom; that is to have a huge set piece near the start to hook the viewers. However, the first act (presumably at least 30 minutes) is set at the Don’s Long Beach house, celebrating the wedding of his only daughter; Connie (Talia Shire). During the wedding we are introduced to a lot of characters as people turn up to ask Don Corleone for a “favour”. I feel I am at an advantage because I have read the book, so it is easier to keep track of all the characters, and know more of their history which was necessarily cut for the film.

But even so, the film doesn’t hurry. The very first shot is of Amerigo Bonasera; an undertaker whose daughter has been cut up by some local chavs. The justice system has let him down so he has come to Don Corleone for his justice. The camera moves away from Bonasera extremely slowly; no rush. Then after a couple of minutes, as Bonasera is breaking down with emotion, Marlon Brando’s right hand appears on the screen, subtly gesturing for someone to take the unfortunate man some water. All so understated, all so controlled, all so perfect.

There are other scenes where the camera moves very slowly. The piece de resistance of the film is when Al Pacino announced himself to the world. There is a scene in Louis Italian American Restaurant, where Michael is having dinner with Solozzo and the police captain McCluskey. Because Sollozzo is responsible for an attempt on Vito Corleone’s life, and McCluskey broke Michael’s jaw, the plan is for Michael to shoot them both in the small family restaurant. Just before Michael stands up to shoot them both, the camera is slowly zooming into his face, and Al Pacino is magnificent. He is uncomfortable, shifty, his eyes keep darting all over the place; Sollozzo carries on speaking, but his voice fades out just as it would for Michael as he is not paying any attention. It’s like an orgasm; the tension builds and builds, and then BANG; Michael stands up, shoots them both, and then leaves the restaurant. Amazing. Nothing fancy, just put a camera on Al Pacino and let him do his thing; and he does it brilliantly.


The rest of the cast is also superb. While George Lucas was busy making Star Wars with a bunch of randoms, Ford Coppola filled The Godfather with stars. Marlon Brando is fabulous; he is quiet but forceful; he manages to have an amazing presence on screen; whenever there is a scene with him, you know it’ll be great. Not only does he have a cruel understated cool, but all the mannerisms that he injects into the Don are just perfect. James Caan is just perfect as the hot-headed Santino Corleone (Sonny), the eldest of Vito’s sons. The second eldest son Fredo (Michael is the youngest) is played well by John Cazale, but he doesn’t have so much to do as his character has far less screen time than the other Corleones. Diane Keaton is good as Kay Adams, Michael’s girlfriend/wife, but like Fredo she doesn’t have that much screen time for her to shine. Robert Duvall is fabulous (I’m running out of superlatives) as Tom Hagen; the German/Irish lawyer-come-counsellor to Don Corleone. I’ve not seen that many films with Duvall in them, but I really think Francis Ford Coppola gets the best out of him, because he is also phenomenal in Apocalypse Now. I should also mention Richard S. Catellano who plays Clemenza one the Caporegimes (a commander of troops - in its loosest terms). This is a character that is fleshed out so much more in the book, but the way Richard plays him is just spot on.

I think my only issue with the film would be the ending. At the climax, as Michael is being Godfather to his sister’s baby, we see five guys shot as Don Michael is regaining the Corleone’s upper hand. Four of these guys are the heads of the other four New York families, the other is Moe Green who owns a hotel in Las Vegas that the Corleone’s are interested in. So that’s fair enough bumping of the heads of the other families, it doesn’t happen like that in the book, but that’s fine; I’m not going to be a snob about it. My problem is that 1) we have only met two of the family heads very briefly, at a meeting organised by Vito Corleone about two thirds of the way through the film. 2) When Philip Tattaglia is gunned down in his bed, we see the girl that he is bed with very clearly, but we really only see Philip's eyebrows! The upshot of these two points is that we are left thinking “Who the fuck are they?” To me this rather spoils the ending. Following this, the murder of Carlo Rizzi (Connie’s husband) is really brutal; but looks great (as murders go!).

I could probably go on mentioning brilliant things about this film as I remember them, but I have to draw a line somewhere. Short summary: one of the best films ever made. If you haven’t seen it already and you are still reading this, try and forget everything I’ve said and see it as soon as possible. Superb cast, understated camera work allowing the actors to shine through, brilliant story, an epic film in more ways than one, that never drags despite the patient way it is made.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Body of Lies

Body of Lies is a good, solid action-thriller. Leonardo diCaprio is Roger Ferris: a CIA field operative initially based in Iraq, but then moved to Jordan. His main contact is through the Langley-based office agent Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe). The main plot involves trying to capture a well-known terrorist leader by any means possible. This involves sacrificing various “assets”, liaising with the Head of Security in Jordan (Hani; played by Mark Strong), manipulating Hani; and then eventually Hani manipulating Ferris to get to the terrorist.

This all sounds really simple but everything is so much better than that. There is plenty of intrigue to keep us wondering what is actually going on; despite knowing the end game. Leo is really good as the main character, putting his life on the line everyday, taking it personally when he has to betray people; whereas Russell Crowe is safe in Langley not giving a shit about the trust that is being betrayed on the ground. I did initially find Russell’s accent a bit weird; I thought it was really going to annoy me, but in the end it was fine. Wow what a pointless comment that was! I really liked the juxtaposition of Leo in Jordan being shot up and knackered, swearing down the phone to Russell as he is picking his kids up from school/giving his kids breakfast etc.

Of course what really makes this film, is Ridley Scott’s direction. He shoots a lot of the action scenes very close in with the characters, giving it a very intense feeling; very similar to Black Hawk Down. He also has a very good eye for detail, as there are many bustling streets and crowded market places involved with the story (action and explosions!). There are also some great sweeping desert shots, adding to the grand feeling of the story before the satellite image zooms in to centre on diCaprio.

This was another of those LoveFilm DVDs that a friend had put on our list; so I had no idea what it was about. I think perhaps this is one of the best ways to see a film, with no preconceptions at all. So I can say perfectly analytically that I enjoyed Body of Lies. Well developed characters; twisty-turney story, and very well put together. I would recommend it to a friend!

Thursday, 14 April 2011


Submarine is the story of Oliver Tate (played by Craig Roberts), a 15 year old school boy. In this coming of age film he discovers his first love: fellow classmate Jordana (Yasmin Paige); and is determined to rekindle the relationship between his Mum and Dad while destroying the relationship between his mother and ex-lover Graham (a new age psychic type).

Directed by Richard Ayoade (IT Crowd, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace) and based on the novel by Joe Dunthorne, this is a very funny, slightly kooky, sometimes sweet film. Craig Roberts is great as the awkward teenager trying to find his place in the world. He completely over-dresses when he invites Jordana over to his house hoping to sleep with her (wearing and old tweed jacket!); he looks very awkward and doesn’t know how to react when Jordana wants him to go and visit her dying mother in hospital. Oliver’s thoughts/imagination are brilliantly realised by Ayoade. At one point Oliver imagines his life as a romantic home movie, and for a while the film is shot in Super 8. Ayoade also knows when less is more: Oliver stands up to bully at school telling him to leave Jordana alone; quick cut to Oliver all on his own slumped against the wall with a bloody nose!

Overall, a brilliantly funny, very original film from a guy who writes great TV comedy and has really scored with his first feature film.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Event Horizon

Event Horizon is unlike any other Sci-Fi film I know. The premise is that a new kind of spaceship (the Event Horizon) which can travel massive distances in an instant (because of an experimental gravity drive), has been missing for years and then suddenly re-appears in the orbit of Neptune. A search and rescue ship is sent out to find out what happened to the Event Horizon. It turns out that it has been to another dimension (not a nice one), all the crew are dead, and now the crew of the rescue ship (the Lewis and Clark) are becoming victims of whatever life-force is now aboard the ship.

I say that it is unlike any other Sci-Fi film (except perhaps Sunshine?), as there is no alien or monster, just a very sinister presence on the ship that preys on the worst fears/nightmares of the crew; leading to some very tense moments. The horror is very psychological. I remember the first time I saw this at the cinema being terrified as Justin is trapped in the airlock without a suit; suddenly the evil leaves him, he becomes himself again and realises the imminent danger he is in. I thought the look of terror on his face and imagining what is about to happen was horrible, and an image that has really stuck with me over the years.

Added to this are lots of spikey ways to die in the engine room; some unusual deaths, a possessed Sam Neil (definitely NOT the lovely character he plays in Jurassic Park!); and some rapid, flashed up images of people ripping each other apart. It really is quite a horrific film, but a very good one.

WARNING! Only click this link if you don't mind seeing gross pictures! You have been warned.

The cast are very good. The two main leads are Captain Miller (Laurence Fishburne) and Dr Weir (Sam Neill). Both are very accomplished actors, and Fishburne in particular has a real presence on screen. He really seems to command the scenes that he is in, in the same way that he does in The Matrix. Jason Isaacs is very intense and plays the role of DJ, the medical officer, brilliantly. A little bit of comic relief is provided by the pilot Smith (Sean Pertwee), and Cooper (Richard T. Jones). The characters all work very well together and act like you imagine a crew on a ship would do.

Director Paul Anderson (of future AVP fame/infamy) does very well creating a claustrophobic atmosphere that really cranks up the tension. Along with cinematographer Adrian Biddle, Anderson creates some very dramatic shots. There’s a great shot near the beginning as the camera zooms out from Dr Weir to show how large the low-earth orbit space-station is. There is also a pan around the Lewis and Clark before closing in on Smith in the cockpit which is very slick (very reminiscent of Serenity, but not as good). There is also a nice homage to Alien as Kathleen Quinlan’s hand reaches up from the top of a ladder; very Ripley.

The only thing that isn’t so good are the CG at the beginning of the film as we move around the Event Horizon; as there is no gravity there are various objects floating round: a book, a watch, a bottle etc. These are all computer generated, but don’t look great. The thing is, none of this impacts on the story, and there are no other bad special effects throughout the film, so it really doesn’t matter too much.

Overall I think this is a great film, though very scary. The reason I re-visited it is because I had recently watched two episodes of Dr Who: The impossible Planet, and the Satan Pit. The tension and a lot of the ideas of The Impossible Planet are straight out of Event Horizon; though Event Horizon is far more horrible. Great cast, great production and a great idea that the worst evil is the evil inside us! Far better than having an unrealistic alien.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011


Aliens is one of those films that is just pure entertainment. For me I think the only film that could beat it for balls-to-the-wall fun is probably Raiders of the Lost Ark. But where to begin in trying to review it, when it has probably all been said before? I think I’ll just give some of the reasons that I think make it so entertaining.

James Cameron’s vision
Following the tension and horror of Alien, James Cameron decided to make a shoot-’em-up version, and I believe that anything else just wouldn’t have worked. To have tried to copy the formula of the original, and deliver as many shocks would have appeared unoriginal, and perhaps would have devalued the sequel. By taking all of the Alien “history”/life cycle from the original, as well as turning Ripley into a real heroine and making her the driving force of the film, the writers delivered a really positive plot. Throw in a load of cannon fodder with big guns, and what James Cameron created was the perfect foil to the original while remaining true to the back story.

He also had the ability to create a film with as many iconic scenes as the first film:

The Alien rising out of the water behind Newt as Ripley and Hicks are cutting through the flooring above:

The Queen emerging from the landing gear of the drop ship having just ripped Bishop in two:

and of course those smart guns:

He also did a great job in getting James Horner to write the music. The story itself may be full of action, but the music, particularly the opening title, is very delicate, mysterious, and really captures the feeling of the unknown universe. The music here is very understated, which works perfectly. Of course there are times when big bold themes are needed, and Horner delivers this too.

The Script/Story
Two of the great things that Aliens manages to do is: 1) deliver us great characters. Whether we love them (Hudson), hate them (Bourke), want to see them kick ass (Drake & Vasquez), die horribly (Bourke again), or just watch them being cool (Apone); they are all well written, quickly & effectively introduced, and we become emotionally involved with most of them. 2) make us feel that the film is constant action from the moment they set down on LV426; but in actual fact there are only two main scenes where the marines fight with the aliens! Obviously there is plenty going on during the film, but in terms of alien confrontation, only twice. This shows the power of great editing and Ray Lovejoy (2001: A Space Odyssey; The Shining) does a superb job.

The evidence of the great script is also in the fact that the film is infinitely quotable:

Apone: OK Sweethearts, you heard the man and you know the drill, Assholes and Elbows!

Hudson: We got tactical smart missiles, phase-plasma pulse rifles, RPGs, we got sonic electronic ball breakers! We got nukes, we got knives, sharp sticks...

Hudson: Hey Vasquez, have you ever been mistaken for a man?
Vasquez: No. Have you?

The Special Effects
James Cameron has always been at the cutting edge of SFX. For a long time he was always “James Cameron (Titanic)”, which annoyed me as clearly T2 was a superior film all round, the SFX were groundbreaking at the time and haven’t really aged at all. The same can be said of Aliens. Even though it preceded T2 by 6 years, the effects still look great (give or take a couple of blue-screen shots); because everything is there. Before the dawn of CGI, Aliens was made by making everything. The Aliens are all suits; a huge animatronic Queen was constructed; the dropship, tank, marine outfits, weapons were all made; by people not a computer! I’ve mentioned this before in my review of The Thing; some of these older films (The Thing was 1982, Aliens 1986) still look a lot better than some special effects from modern films, mainly because they are there, they were actually filmed. When watching Alien 3 you may almost be forgiven for thinking that it was made before Aliens (maybe even before Alien for that matter) the CG Alien looks so bad! Anyway, Alien 3 is a completely different kettle of fish for other reasons. However, the effects team are right on target here. Ripely’s distended stomach as she dreams of the chestburster looks great, the Aliens unfurling and coming out of the walls looks phenomenal. The Queen looks amazing, even when out of her lair and fighting Ripley in the loader.

Along with the visuals, I must also mention the audio. The sounds are as iconic as much of the scenes. The scuttling of facehuggers, the noise that the doors and hypersleep chambers make, the pneumatics of the loader, the pulsing/clicking of the motion trackers, and of course the smart guns. Perhaps a lot of this praise stems from having played the original AVP game on the PC (the single most terrifying game I’ve ever played); all of the sounds were pitch perfect from the film and the atmosphere was unbearable!

The Cast
I don’t think that a fault can be found with the cast. Sigourney Weaver really steps up from the unlikely heroine of Alien to the confident, not going to take any shit, driving force heroine of Aliens. Her character obviously develops more in the director’s cut, as we learn that she had a daughter who she has now outlived thanks to hypersleep. This accounts for her drive in not leaving Newt behind. Michael Biehn is just right as the loveable “normal person” marine; William Hope plays the inexperienced new Lieutenant Gorman very well, Paul Reiser as the despicable Bourke, Lance Henriksen as the synthetic Bishop, Al Matthews as the cool Apone, and of course Bill Paxton as Hudson (who inevitably dies - don’t all Paxton’s characters?). The whole cast just work together perfectly.

Things I don’t like
Mmmm tricky. Come on, there’s usually something not to like in a film, no matter how small. It always irritates me a bit that Gorman doesn’t explain to the marines why he has to collect their armour piercing rounds. If he just told them about the risk to the nuclear fusion cooling systems they might understand! Also, after Ripley has set off the fire alarm in the Med Lab so that the marines come to shoot the facehuggers; why does she stand in the middle of the room with Newt? Surely you should press your face against the glass so that the facehugger can’t get at your face? These two points are really scraping the bottom of the barrel aren’t they? There really isn’t much to not like about Aliens.

So there you go, there’s my brief deconstruction of why I think Aliens is so good. Probably one of the two best action films ever (IMHO), certainly in my top ten films of all time list (I’ve never thought what the other 9 might be). Is it James Cameron’s best film? T2 is perhaps a bit slicker. But that’s an argument for another day.

Monday, 4 April 2011

500 Days of Summer

500 days of summer is, essentially, your average Rom Com; though, the narrator does say at the beginning of the film that it is a story about boy meets girl, but it is not a love story! The boy (Tom; Joseph Gordon-Levitt) meets the girl (Summer; Zooey Deschanel), in the office of the greeting card company that they both work for; Day 1. The days then jump backwards and forwards between 1 and 500 (although the film doesn’t actually start on day 1), so that we jump between the developing relationship of Tom and Summer, and then Tom pining/complaining to his friends, or getting relationship advice from his younger sister! Ultimately (Spoiler!) they split up; Summer meets someone else and very quickly gets married to him. On day 500, Tom meets someone else just before a job interview.

I enjoyed the film; there are far worse ways to pass 90 minutes, but it is just a Rom Com. Even if you were a connoisseur of Rom Coms (which I’m most definitely not), I’m not sure what would make this stand out from the crowd. I’m now desperately trying to think of a Rom Com that would stand out from the crowd! Does Happy Gilmore count? Four Weddings and a Funeral? There’s Something about Mary?

There are some nice touches; the fact that the plot does jump around (in a way more reminiscent of Sliding Doors than Pulp Fiction), works well and stops the story from becoming too predictable. I did particularly like the scene after they have first slept together: Tom has that great morning after, everything-is-wonderful-with-the-world feeling, he looks at his reflection in a car window to fix his hair, and his reflection is that of Han Solo! The narration at the beginning of the film gave it an almost Amélie feel; and I also liked the way that split screen was used: to show Tom and Summer growing up for example. Also at one point Summer invites Tom to a party and the split screen is used to show Tom’s hopeful expectation of events and crushing reality at the same time.

In this way Director Marc Webb (soon to be of The Amazing Spiderman fame), is quite inventive but doesn’t do anything amazing; but I suppose Rom Coms aren’t the arena to be revolutionary. Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are both good as the main characters, nothing fantastic, but both are believable enough and never appear cringe-worthy (certainly no Andie MacDowell from Four Weddings). As I said, an inoffensive way to spend 90 minutes, with some novel-ish ways of telling the story; but then Rom Coms are not my thing.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Cinema Paradiso

Set in post-WW2 Sicily, Cinema Paradiso is the story of Salvatore and his love of cinema. As a young boy (Salvatore Cascio) Salvatore (known as Toto) is constantly sneaking away from his mother to get into the local cinema (Cinema Paradiso) and pester the projectionist Alfredo (Philippe Noiret). When one day the celluloid in the projector catches fire and the projector explodes in Alfredo’s face blinding him, Toto saves his life by pulling him from the burning cinema. When the cinema is rebuilt Toto becomes the new projectionist.

Toto grows up (Marco Leonardi), remains as projectionist until he moves away for military service. He remains close friends with Alfredo, but on his return Alfredo tells Salvatore to leave town, make something big of himself and never look back. Salvatore eventually leaves for Rome and becomes a director (I think) and only returns as an adult (Jacques Perrin) for Alfredo’s funeral. Upon his return he finds that his beloved cinema hasn’t been used in years and is about to be demolished to become a carpark!

A very funny, moving and beautifully made film, Cinema Paradiso was made even more poignant by the fact we were watching at our local independent Picture House cinema that is in danger of being closed by our local joke of a city council!

The young Toto (Salvatore Cascio) is absolutely fabulous. He is cheeky, loveable and a great actor for one so young. I was quite disappointed when suddenly he grew up and we were confronted with a different actor! The developing relationship between Toto and Alfredo is done really well. It could have been rather awkward trying to portray a friendship between a 7-year-old (?) and a middle-aged guy; it might just not have worked if the dynamic between to two actors wasn’t right, at worst it could have come across as being creepy. However, it’s just perfect. Initially Toto is just being cheeky, and pestering Alfredo; but this gives way to genuine friendship as demonstrated when Alfredo surprises Toto by turning up at the cinema to visit after he has been blinded. There are many friendships in films that really don’t work involving actors far older than 7!

The story is told in retrospect and this works really well. The film starts with adult Toto hearing of Alfredo’s death; he then remembers how they became friends, and so the story is all told through his eyes. The film occasionally returns to the adult Toto along the way, until at the end he returns to Sicily for the funeral. I think perhaps if it was simply a linear story it may have been slightly rambling, but because of the events being in the past it makes it clear where the story is going; though there are still a couple of surprises at the end.

As well as the main story there are many sub-plots running through the film:
- The guy that always falls asleep and snores (people waking him up in increasingly amusing ways).
- The upper class twit on the balcony who always spits down on people (who eventually get pelted with food).
- The drunk homeless guy in the main square declaring “This is my square!”
- The priest who rings his bell whenever there is kissing/nudity on screen, so that Alfredo must cut and splice the film without it. This is really brought home at the end of the film. Toto is told that Alfredo has left him a gift, which turns out to be a roll of film. He waits until he is back in Rome before playing it in his cinema; to discover that it is all of the “romance” scenes that Alfredo had to cut from many and various films over the years!

A great film that I thoroughly enjoyed. Funny, moving, and very charming thanks to the great relationship between Toto and Alfredo. Sweet and a bit quirky, well worth seeing if you haven’t already.