Saturday, 31 March 2012

Tell No One (2006)

While Alexandre is on holiday with his wife Margot in a cabin on a lake, Margot mysteriously disappears. When her father IDs a body as Margot’s, Alexandre is stricken with grief, but the case is closed. Now 8 years later Alexandre receives an email with a link to a live video feed showing Margot healthy and very much alive, and the message: Tell No one.

So begins an enjoyable thriller as Alexandre tries to find out the truth about what happened 8 years ago. It is an enjoyable film, the highlight of which is a very spectacular car crash. Unfortunately, when the final truth comes it is an over-complicated stodgy explanation that involves too many characters, and ultimately is not satisfying. There are some nice touches, like the tree Alexandre always re-visits in his mind that is of sentimental relevance; until he is finally reunited there with his wife. However it is the complicated exposition that for me prevents this film from being a really cool French thriller.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

The Hunger Games (2012)

Very reminiscent of The Running Man or Battle Royale, the Hunger games pits 24 children between the ages of 12 and 18 against each other in a last man standing competition.  The film is set in a dystopian near future world where people live in one of 12 districts each concerned with a distinct contribution to society, e.g food production or mining.  Once a year 2 children are selected at random from each district to compete in the Hunger Games, a competition to remind the population how lucky they are to live in this society.

The film is not just concerned with actual games themselves, there is a lot of build-up showing the training the kids go through, as well as the huge media coverage they get before they go into the arena; all very Big Brother (of the reality show variety, not 1984).  This all adds to the scope of the film, and brings in a larger cast.  Most notably is a good performance from the jaded, whisky-soaked past winner Woody Harrelson.  Stanley Tucci plays Davina Caesar Flickerman, the talk-show host who plays a large part in promoting all of the kids.  Alongside him is Toby Jones who is disappointingly underused.  It is part of this promotion of the "tributes" (as the contestants are called) that is one of the issues I had with the film.  There is a lot of chat about the "sponsors" that the tributes need to help them survive, but we never see much evidence of it. Jennifer Lawrence' character Katniss, receives a few parcels by parachute while in the game, but is that all the sponsors were about?  For all the chat it was a bit nothing really.

Lawrence was good as Katniss, from whose point of view we see the Games.  She manages to be strong-willed and determined, yet  also conveys the fear felt by the children as they are selected for the games.  Josh Hutcherson plays Peeta, the other tribute from district 12.  The romance that he has with Katniss seems to be a way to make the viewers like them more, but then it is never resolved by the end of the film.  Are they really going to stay together?  These are probably issues that may be resolved in future films (it is a trilogy of books I understand), just like I expected more of a backlash from the viewing public back in the districts after Katniss had buried the younger girl.

I did really enjoy The Hunger games; well acted, beautifully shot lush forest location, and it had a great scope.  But honestly, the most memorable thing was all the crazy hair!

Friday, 23 March 2012

The Others (2001)

Pitched somewhere between an isolated haunted house and an M Night Shyamalan film, The Others is a very intrigue-ous film which never really delivers any of the scares that it's trying to deliver. Set in 1945, Grace (Kidman) lives with her two children in a huge mansion, while her husband (Eccleston) is fighting in the war (presumed dead). One of the children, Anne, has a very creative imagination, always hearing things or seeing people who aren't really there. Then when three housekeepers arrive un-announced on the doorstep, events take a turn for the inexplicable. Kidman does well as the protective mother who becomes increasingly exasperated, though I found her plummy accent a bit too much at times. The kids are quite good, especially James Bentley who plays Nicholas, he gave some brilliant terrified expressions. For me the main disappointment (other than the fact that I laughed at what were presumably meant to be the scary bits) was the very brief time that Christopher Eccleston was on screen, and when he was he had nothing to work with to show how great he is.

Overall it was a film that passed the time more than anything else. The atmosphere of the house was nice, lots of gas lamps allowing contrasts of light and deep shadows, and all the exterior shots of the house were very moody as it was always foggy; but it is not edge of the seat stuff. When the twist at the end comes, I felt "Oh right, fair enough", rather than "No Way! I have to watch it all again right now to pick up on everything!".

Monday, 19 March 2012

The Living Daylights (1987)

Following the highs, lows and extended run of Roger Moore as 007, the series needed an enema; even Roger by his own admission was too old for this role. Whether he likes it or not Timothy Dalton was the enema. Interestingly, though Dalton was Cubby Broccoli’s first choice for the role, he was initially unavailable and it looked as though Pierce Brosnan was set to star. However, with some jiggery pokery in shooting schedules, Dalton was eventually able to take the role.

The story is almost a hark back to the cold-war espionage plot of From Russia with Love, involving apparent Russian defectors, fake kidnaps, arms deals, diamond smuggling, Russian occupation of Afghanistan and of course the KGB. For all of that, I thought that the plot was easier to understand than a lot of the recent films, which generally required a serious suspension of disbelief or a leap of faith. Directing his fourth of five James Bond films John Glen has managed to take a fairly convoluted plot, make it accessible as well as shoot some tremendous action scenes.

Not only is there the pre-credit sequence in which actually Timothy Dalton clings on to the top of a Land Rover for dear life; there is a substantial sequence in the Alps (though not as impressive as For Your Eyes Only) which though sometimes ridiculous is perfectly executed; and (according to my James Bond Encyclopedia) a climactic battle that is still the largest ever in a Bond film.

Timothy Dalton injects real verve into a character we last saw about to keel over. Dalton brings a real sense of immediacy and action to 007. Plus he makes a very convincing green-eyed Arab!

The only girl of any note is Kara Milovy (played by Maryam d'Abo); a cellist-come-sniper whom Bond scares the living daylights out of. She’s not particularly feisty, not really annoying, she’s just, well, kind of just nice really. You could imagine taking her home to meet your Mum; perhaps not really Bond girl material though.

The bad guys are a strange bunch: a Dutch Russian (Jeroen Krabbé), an English Russian (John Rhys-Davies), and an American, well, American (Joe Don Baker). Rather than one of these guys being in the background pulling all the strings, all three are very involved in the action. Koskov (Dutch Russian) is fake-kidnapped, Pushkin (English Russian) is fake-shot, and Brad Whitaker (American American) has a mysterious force-field on his gun which makes secret agents at the top of their game only shoot directly at the shield!

Hooray for Timothy Dalton, once again James Bond is dynamic, up for adventure, quick-witted and ready to take decisive action. I'm thinking that the next change of Bond will not be as momentous as this one. Blogalongabond will return in Licence Revoked To Kill.

Order of Preference so far:

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Captain America (2011)

My main concern with anything called Captain America was that the film would be too much Team America "Hell Yeah". Actually the only parts that could be taken to be all-American are the publicity drives to garner support for the war effort, which help explain the genesis of "Cap". Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a small skinny guy who repeatedly tries to sign up to the army to do his duty for his country in World War 2, but his stature always goes against him. That is until Dr Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) overhears his desperation and manages to get Rogers into an experimental program (watch out for the science) which involves injecting him with muscle regenerators and then exposing him to "Vita Rays".

                                                          Vita-Rays courtesy of Stark senior

Steve is transformed into a muscular Adonis, who is immediately called into action because an agent of the mysterious Nazi Hydra cult has infiltrated the experimental facility, and manages to kill Dr Erskine before escaping. Steve chases after him and apprehends him; a heroic feat that catapults him into the public domain and makes him an ideal candidate for USO fund-raising drives. While in occupied Europe he tries to rescue his old friend who has been captured, the mission goes wrong, and Steve is determined to track down and destroy the mysterious Red Skull: head of the Hydra cult. A hero is born.

I liked the way that the film just starts. Strange thing to say I know, but there are no credits what-so-ever. No "A Joe Jonhston film", no "Captain America: The First Avenger", it just starts. Nothing amazing I know, I just thought it was quite noticeable. I also liked the way that some Allies were featured. A lot of planning happens in the British war rooms, and there is a Brit and a French guy in Cap's immediate entourage. This may be quite insignificant, but the Allies are usually largely forgotten about in these kind of films e.g. Saving Private Ryan. Aside from all this, the film had two different feels. All of the Red Skull laboratory sections had a very vibrant feel, there is a lot of shiny metallic equipment on show, all very modern, the blue glow of the power source adding to the bright photography.

Compare this with much of the war-torn exterior shots which are all very muted and sepia.

The film is played straight down the middle. It could have been very campy if the titular character had spent the movie in a red, white and blue lycra costume; but as Bryan Singer managed with X-Men, the film is well-grounded. Apart from the time spent on USO fund-raisers, Cap's costume is fairly understated, and though clearly not your usual uniform, doesn't stand out that much; it's not like he has a big target painted on his chest. Oh, wait, that's on his shield! Not to worry though, because he uses his shield as a very effective weapon, and it looks very cool as he does.

All of the cast work well. Chris Evans plays the skinny kid who wants to make something of himself convincingly, Tommy Lee Jones is very likeable as the curmudgeonly army general, but Hayley Atwell's character is just an attempt at eye candy to give Steve a bit of a female emotional investiture. Stanley Tucci's role is over far too briefly which is a shame, and Toby Jones plays the exploited and unwilling scientist well, but again doesn't have the screen time to really shine. Of course Hugo Weaving is a great Red Skull, whether he is wondering at the power he has discovered, gleefully vaporising fellow Nazis, or simply standing imposingly in front of his window on to the Alps. Of course Samuel L Jackson is Samuel L Jackson, but with an eye patch, and with the improbably cool name of Nick Fury! Nice cameo from Argus Filch as well.

Overall a very enjoyable and accessible film, no over-complicated exposition. Indeed probably the most enjoyable part of the film was the initial genesis, seeing how Steve becomes this amazing fearless warrior. Good cast, great visuals, and now I'm really looking forward to The Avengers this summer.  Come on Joss, don't let us down!

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Monsters (2010)

There are many many creature features in the world, so for today's audiences these kind of films have to be done a little different. The likes of Troll Hunter and Cloverfield have really nailed the POV found-footage genre, and if you can stand the shaky cam then they are really effective. Super 8 makes the kids the main characters, seeing the creature through the eyes of these budding film-makers making their own movie. Attack the Block makes the "heroes" real anti-heroes and puts a real modern spin on things. Monsters is something different again; the monsters are really secondary, where the focus of the film is the growing relationship between Sam and Andrew; and that's before I mention how it was made. More on that later.

Having discovered Alien life within our Solar System, NASA try to make contact by sending up a probe, which then breaks up while re-entering earth's atmosphere over Mexico. New life forms soon started appearing in Mexico, and half of the country is then quarantined as the "Infected Zone". Journalist photographer Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) is told by his boss to get his daughter, Sam (Whitely Able), out of hospital and out of Mexico. Unfortunately a nice ferry trip over the Gulf of Mexico is out of the question after Sam has her passport stolen; cue a journey through the Infected Zone.

Like I mentioned, there are far fewer monsters than I expected from a film called Monsters. It is really a case of less is more; so we see the occasional tentacle pulling a fighter jet underwater, or blurry news footage on a TV in the background. For the most part the film concentrates on the human drama as Andrew and Sam try to make their way North through Mexico and back to the US. It's quite a cool film, not edge of the seat stuff or horrific at all, but the two main actors are very good at conveying the wonder, fear and uncertainty of their journey. Just like Sam Neill, Laura Dern et al. in Jurassic Park, Scoot and Whitney are very good at reacting to the situations they encounter. This culminates in a scene near the end as they realise that the aliens are actually quite beautiful and just doing their thing; they only become aggressive as mankind tries to control and eliminate them.

While it is a good film, arguably far more interesting is how Monsters was made. With a crew of only 4 as well as the two main actors, the film was really made by winging it! A lot of filming was done in central America, and the crew would simply drive around, leap out of the car if director Gareth Edwards saw something interesting, and then they would just start filming! There would only be the vaguest idea of what would be happening in a particular scene, so the actors would just improvise most of the time. Any extras that were in the film were randoms that just happened to be there as they were filming. Real guerilla film-making. I did know beforehand that the special effects had been done by the director himself, which also makes this a fairly unique film. I believe that he only used software that you or I could buy off the shelf! So it's pretty impressive that all the CG effects look great.

Of course this remarkable seat-of-the-pants way of making the film should in no way rose-tint my view of the film itself. The movie is pretty cool but nothing amazing, though it scores well in terms of the actors giving great performances of "normal" people being thrown into dangerous situations. Unfortunately there are a couple of plot holes, I guess an inevitable result of the way the film was made: not actually having a strict plot! Overall a good film with an interesting idea, well acted, occasionally beautifully shot and actually more than a passing resemblance to a post-apocalyptic movie than a creature-feature.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

The Woman in Black (2012)

The Woman in Black is a good old haunted house on a hill ghost story. There is a goodly amount of suspense, and several jumpy moments; two of which are really good. When Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) is sent by his firm of lawyers to tie up the estate of the recently-deceased owner of a mansion, he catches sight of the mysterious Woman in Black. Unfortunately, whenever she is seen, children in the local village start dying, seemingly of their own volition.

Very sinister indeed, and the film does well generating suspense and a real sense of mystery. Practically shot in monochrome, the film feels very edgy; enhanced by the villagers' superstition and inherent distrust of anyone that shows any interest in the mansion. I think that it will be a while until Daniel Radcliffe can shake Harry Potter, but he does quite well here; helped by the fact that he doesn't speak very much. Though every time he took a slug of whisky I kept thinking "But you're still at school!" Ciaran Hinds was excellent throughout as the only skeptic in the village; and the scenes between him and Radcliffe were always very good. Ironically enough the woman in black is played by Liz White!

Overall The Woman in Black was an effective and chilling Hammer Horror with a classic haunted house plot. Well acted, and despite using a lot of the old tropes associated with the genre, a genuinely spooky movie. The suspense was fairly constant for much of the film, but actually perhaps not as tense as something like The Grey.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Another Year (2010)

One of the keys to a film which depicts the relationships and dynamics between a group of people is being able to relate to the characters. Almost, the viewers need to know and understand the characters to the extent that we can predict their reactions to situations. Another Year does just that; as it charts a year in the life of a family and their friends. Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) are a middle-aged couple who really love their gardening, and the film follows their emotional ups and downs over the course of a year.

Director Mike Leigh seems to excel at getting actors to give really convincing, awkward, nervous performances. Abigail's Party was particularly cringe-worthy, but essences of those performances are on display in Another Year too. In this respect Lesley Manville as Mary (family friend & work colleague of Gerri) is particularly great. Her character never stops talking, is socially unaware, and is borderline psychotic. Nowhere is this clearer than her relationship with Tom and Gerri’s son Joe (Olivier Maltman). Having been childhood friends she flirts with him a little too much the wrong side of playful. Quite clearly Joe has no interest, so when one day he turns up with a new girlfriend and Mary happens to stop round for tea: bang! Mary practically shuts down, she suddenly stops talking, can’t look anyone in the eye and pounds even more red wine than usual. All the little facial nuances of Mary’s emotional state are spot on; this example being one of the instances we know exactly how the character will react.

Another character worth mentioning is Ken (Peter Wright). In his first real scene having dinner with Tom and Gerri, he is stuffing his face with food, glugging the red wine, then the John Smith's, probably smoking (I can’t remember), all the while mopping his brow with a napkin because he is sweating profusely (he’s quite hefty). I expected him to have a heart attack then and there! It’s cringe-worthy because he is obviously so unhappy with his life; but when his amorous moves on Mary are soundly rebuffed, the uncomfortable level goes up to 11! There is also a great turn by David Bradley as the recently widowed Ronnie, though he doesn’t say very much. It is his silent stoicism as Mary is desperately trying to talk to him that is excruciating yet wildly funny at the same time. Compared to everyone else Tom and Gerri, far from being cartoon characters, are the emotional rocks that everyone else can count on; Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen are both perfect for these roles.

Breaking the narrative into the four seasons of the year allows each section to have a different feel. In particular Winter is very monochrome, especially fitting as this is when the funeral for Ronnie’s wife is. Given the subject of much of the film, Mike Leigh manages to keep the ambiance away from doom and gloom. A lot of the scenes have an edge to them, but not so much that it’s oppressive. The final scene is a good example of this. Set at a dinner table the camera pans slowly around as we see everyone there; Tom is telling a story, nervous laughter from those present; until finally the camera stops and lingers on Mary before fading out. I think perhaps for the first time we don’t know what she’s thinking: she laughs at the appropriate points, she glugs her wine, but her eyes dart between everyone at the table; and I’m not sure if she’s trying to come to terms with her lot in life, does she want out, or is she scheming?

A film unlike anything I’ve seen before (apart from maybe Abigail’s Party), quirky, squirmy, well crafted and superbly acted by all involved.