Saturday, 28 April 2012

Terminator Salvation (2009)

I had seen this before, many years ago, and all I could really remember was the bad CG Arnie towards the end. Actually it exceeded my expectations, it was a lot better than I remembered. Though there was no direct time travel involved this time, all of the action being set post-Judgement Day, the story still had enough intrigue and originality while still being fairly true to the original canon.

Let's be clear, this is no James Cameron brilliance, but director Joseph McGinty Nichol (McG) does seem to have an eye for directing the action here. There was one scene in particular that impressed me. John Connor climbs out of an underground base, and from this point the camera tracks him. It tracks him to a helicopter, watches him get in, take off, when he is hit by a missile the camera whips into the chopper to just behind his seat as he crashes, and then when John unbuckles his seatbelt, he falls upwards. A nice touch. Not finished though, the camera tracks round him as we see the huge machine that destroyed his helicopter, and then he is finally confronted by a Terminator. For a film I was expecting to simply be milking the Terminator cash cow, I was fairly impressed by the scope, and design of the film.

Christian Bale is good and fairly dependable as John Connor, and Anton Yelchin is fine as a young Kyle Reese; but that's about as good as we get. Michael Ironside phones in a performance as General Ashdown, which is a shame as he can be so much better. His character is very much a bit part though, so he doesn't get the opportunity to be memorable. All of the rest of the cast are background really, apart from Marcus Wright who is played by the personality-less Sam Worthington. Spoiler Alert! OK, so I know he's actually a machine, but come on, even Arnie managed to have some personality when he was a Terminator; and if he couldn't manage it then he wisely didn't say very much! Sam Worthington's character speaks far too much for a guy who can't act!

Having said that, I still enjoyed the film more than I expected to. This is probably down to a half decent plot, and fairly solid and inventive direction from McG. Not a classic, and possibly an unnecessary addition to the Terminator franchise, but certainly better than the third film. It's just a shame that Brad Fiedel's wonderfully iconic score is ruined by Danny Elfman.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

For the final film that Kubrick made he returns to a theme that he addressed in one of his earliest. However, where Lolita was more concerned with sexual repression and awkwardness, Eyes Wide Shut is far more a journey of sexual discovery. The film also investigates the strong bond that exists between two people in a marriage.

Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) and his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman) have been happily married for many years and have a daughter about 7 years old. The Doctor seems very content and is used to his daily routine, Alice also seems happy but she feels that her life is less fulfilled as she plays the role of housewife. Then one night as the two are smoking pot before they go to bed, Alice drops the bombshell that she once fantasised about a guy she only caught sight of once in a hotel. This sounds like quite an insignificant story, but the performance of Kidman in that scene is really vulnerable, emotional and gripping, and she really sells the story convincingly. Which is just as well as this is really the key scene in the film as it sends the Doctor into a jealous turmoil.

Bill is immediately called out (the same night still) to console a widow who had just lost her husband, but when he leaves spends the rest of the night in a state of sexual confusion. A night which sees him visit a hooker’s house (doesn’t have sex), meets an old friend who turns out to play the piano for exclusive orgies, goes to get a costume for the orgy that night (while at the costume shop it is revealed that the shop owner’s daughter is having fun with two other guys), and then finally goes the orgy!

The film is really split into two halves, the first being the journey of sexual discovery, the second being more of a mystery as Bill struggles with his guilt about the previous night as well as trying to get to the bottom of what he witnessed. To this end the two halves have very different feels to them; where the first section is filled with light, lots of red (passionate colour?) and beautiful music, the second half is rather more subdued and the music in particular is very jarring. Essentially the music is a few notes played over and over on the piano and is very discordant; at points just one note! It does add to the guilty, haunted feeling that the Doctor is feeling, I just felt that it was ironic since it was a pianist that helped him out in the first half of the film.

Of course one of the key scenes in the film is the orgy that Bill visits. There was a risk that this could have been either fairly tasteless, or by skirting round the issue it wouldn’t have had the impact that it needed to. Naturally Kubrick executes it perfectly. Again rich colours and a very opulent setting are used to indicate that this is not only passionate but also luxurious rather than seedy. Most of the scenes are filmed in slow graceful tracking shots which really give the impression of a dream - indeed the title of the book that the film is based on translates from the German “Traumnovelle” as Dream Story.

I’ve already mentioned that Kidman is good, especially in that key scene, but Tom is equally good. Nothing completely spectacular, but always very believable whether he being a professional doctor, jealous of his wife, or being guilty and paranoid. In his most important scene along with Sydney Pollack, Tom is actually very good; even as he denies what happened last night, his eyes tell a different story. This scene demonstrates that Tom is far more than Maverick or Ethan Hunt, and when pushed he really can act.

Certainly not his best film, and not really one of my favourites, Eyes Wide Shut is none-the-less a fascinating story of discovery, and is beautifully filmed. Well acted by the two leads, and a typically striking music score, the film has an atmosphere that stays with the viewer well after the credits have rolled.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Full Metal Jacket (1987)

There are many cynical Vietnam films, but few are as instantly brutal as Full Metal Jacket. The very first scene is a steady-cam shot that follows drill instructor Sergeant Hartman around the recruits’ digs as he verbally abuses them as he introduces them to Parris Island boot camp. I mean he really lays into them; within that first steady-cam shot there are 4 swear words 1 of which is fuck, and in the whole scene he swears 37 times 16 of which are fuck! Needless to say not all of the recruits can cope with Hartman’s tough love, in particular Private Leonard Lawrence (Private Pyle) doesn’t, and with disastrous consequences.

The whole film is told through the eyes of the Joker (Matthew Modine), both in the boot camp and then in Vietnam. As a war correspondent he is sent off to cover a story and ends up tagging along with a squad of marines which includes one of Joker’s friends from his days in boot camp. Of course as the film progresses the number of marines in this squad drops and drops, and it climaxes with a scene where Joker has to come to terms with killing face to face; he has to finally confront his demons as well as the mixed messages on his uniform.

There are quite a few tracking shots which gives the film a very fluid feel, which almost counteracts some of the confusing, disjointed battle sequences. The action is all superb and very well edited, though never over the top. One aspect I particularly liked was the tanks firing; usually filmed from behind we would see the tank fire, see the impact in the distance, and then hear the explosion. Exactly correct, I just thought that it was a nice subtle touch. Otherwise there were some beautifully framed shots as I have come to expect from Kubrick.

The main cast are all great, each with their little idiosyncrasies. Joker makes jokes to cope with the awful situation he finds himself in, Cowboy is a good soldier but lacks the conviction to lead when he is thrust into that situation. Lawrence (Vincent D'Onofrio) is really good as the persecuted and slightly unhinged private Pyle; but special mention must be made for Lee Ermey’s drill instructor. Gunnery Sergeant Hartman is an amazing character, he is just so brutal it is hard to imagine anyone being able to maintain that intensity for as long as he does. There is also an appearance of a very young looking Adam Baldwin as Animal Mother, a gung-ho marine who, as his name suggests, is fairly intense and likes nothing more than charging head on into battle.

At one moment in the film Joker explains that the conflicting messages on his uniform (Born to Kill and a peace symbol) are highlighting the duality of man; and the film itself has many examples of this. The marines are effectively brainwashed to become killing machines at boot camp, but the drill instructor explains that they are not robots, they need to remain men. It is implied that the Vietnam war is not a popular war with the American public back home, yet Joker is told to rewrite one of his stories with a confirmed kill at the end so that it appears that the marines are being successful. Of course finally, despite maintaining throughout the film that he is a killer, Joker finds it hard to look into the eyes of the enemy and actually pull the trigger.

Hard-hitting and brutal, Full Metal Jacket is another cynical look at an unpopular war, but is actually perhaps more subtle about it (boot camp excepted) than the other classic Vietnam movies. Great acting, completely absorbing, and with Kubrick’s ability to know exactly where to put the camera make Full Metal Jacket a truly memorable film.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Saw (2004)

This is not a film that I ever thought I would be interested in seeing.  I only decided to watch this (on E4) because over the course of reading other blogs over the past few years I'd heard that it was very good.  I am quite happy to watch horror films, though I usually prefer those that are either particularly tense or psychological rather than any torture-porn movies that are gross for the sake of it.  For this reason I was surprised and impressed by Saw.  The story is very well thought out and executed; it quite reminded me of Tomb Raider, trying to solve puzzles!  The twist at the end was quite shocking, and completely unexpected, but I found myself wondering whether it was really likely.

The two main characters who find themselves chained by the leg to opposite walls of a grim disused bathroom are perfectly good for the film.  Both characters seem fairly likeable, then we find out their history in flashback and realise that neither are exactly saints.  The actors Leigh Whannell and Cary Elwes are both fine, nothing exceptional, but equally not awful.  A surprise casting of Danny Glover was clever and worked really well, though I did keep expecting him to keep complaining that he was getting too old for this shit!  Writer/director James Wan created an interesting modern horror which builds the mystery and tension well by putting the audience in the same situation as the victims, completely clueless as to what's going on.  Given how surprised I was with this far more psychological horror than I was expecting, I might be tempted to see a sequel or too.

The Shining (1980)

I think perhaps that this could be the most un-Kubrick film in the collection so far. Rather than being an out-and-out artistic masterclass, The Shining concentrates even more on the characters and the building tension. That’s not to say that it isn’t pretty to look at. Right from the word go there is some beautiful aerial photography, and there are myriad iconic scenes scattered throughout. 

The main reason to see The Shining is Jack Nicholson; he owns this film like a boss. He is wonderfully eccentric, and increasingly manic as his mental state deteriorates. He is so gleeful as he is talking to Mr Grady (Philip Stone) and accusing him of killing his wife and daughters; not to mention his wonderful three little pigs story culminating in Heeerrrre’s Johnny! He is really fascinating to watch in this role. Alongside Jack is Shelley Duvall as his wife Wendy who is very subdued compared to her husband, and spends the last third of the film in tears. As a character, Wendy is quite polar to Jack’s, but despite all the screaming and tears has a fairly strong resolve; she whacks Jack with a baseball bat when he gets too close, and is quick to cut his hand with a knife as he tries to unlock the bathroom door.

The tension is ramped up slowly as the film progresses. A particularly effective method is following Danny (Danny Lloyd) as he rides his trike around the hotel; this allows for the sudden disturbing appearance of the murdered twins, or a suddenly open door (scarier than it sounds!). The atmosphere is helped along by the music (which actually reminded me a lot of Scanners). I also like the way that as Danny was having one of his premonitions, a high pitched whining noise would build and build until eventually the screen would cut to an information card that said “Tuesday” or whichever day it was! Expecting something awful to happen as the music builds the viewer is then completely thrown.

A gripping thriller that is perfectly paced, beautifully made (I sound like a broken record reviewing Kubrick’s films), and wonderfully acted by the main man Jack Nicholson. The Shining isn’t a traditional horror film, but as a story of a man whose descends into madness brought on by the isolation of The Overlook Hotel, it’s pretty terrifying.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Barry Lyndon (1975)

Barry Lyndon is a period drama (18th Century) which tells the story of Redmond Barry. Born in Ireland to a relatively poor family, he is forced to leave the comfort of his village while still a teenager, because of a duel with a British officer over the hand of a woman. Barry first travels to Dublin, joins the British army, fights on the Continent during the 7 Years War; then through various opportunities eventually marries a very wealthy high society woman: Lady Honoria Lyndon. However, Lady Lyndon’s son by her first marriage despises Barry, and it is he who is his ultimate downfall.

I’m really surprised that I like this film so much. I don’t really go in for period dramas, and to be quite honest, nothing that exciting happens in the film. What makes the film so good is its look, style and atmosphere. Once again Kubrick has made a work of art. The film is just beautiful. Not the people, they are actually all very plain, not least Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal); but the scenery, the countryside, even the battles during the 7 years war are all stunning.

There are many occasions that the camera is focussed on a character, before it slowly withdraws revealing the glorious setting they are in. All of these wonderful vistas give real scope to the epic story unfolding. I must not forget the indoor photography either. For most of the indoor scenes, only natural light was used, and no artificial light was used for any of the indoor candle-lit shots (explains the copious use of candles in some scenes). I remember when I went to see a Stanley Kubrick exhibition in Berlin learning that he used a new technique for filming these scenes. A quick check on IMDB tells me that Kubrick used a lens designed by Zeiss (German company who make very good microscope lenses - amongst other things) for NASA which had a very large aperture and so could be used to film in low light situations. The results are magnificent, and with help from cinematographer John Alcott (who won an Academy Award for his efforts) Kubrick has delivered one of the most sumptuous films that I’ve ever seen. Actually the most dour moment of the entire film is Redmond’s marriage to Lady Honoria Lyndon.

The plot is helped along by narration by Michael Hordern, whose voice is perfect for this film and introduces quite a bit of humour. The acting is fine overall, but nothing amazing. I couldn’t really decide if Redmond Barry was always meant to be a bit distant or whether Ryan O’Neal just wasn’t that good in the role. The most memorable characters were probably Captain John Quin (Leonard Rossiter) who looked absolutely terrified when duelling with Barry; Captain Grogan (Godfrey Quigley) a friend from Ireland that Barry meets again in the army while in France; and the financial advisor Graham, played by Philip Stone who seems to be a favourite of Kubrick (he was a tremendously nervous Dad to Alex in Clockwork Orange).

Again the music is an integral part of the film, the main theme is Sarabande, and seems to fit almost any occasion depending on how it is played. The film is split into two parts, almost the rise and then fall of Barry Lyndon, and as such is just shy of three hours long. The story, though not exciting in the traditional sense, is interesting enough that the film doesn’t drag, and if the story doesn’t entertain, then you can always just appreciate how gorgeous the film is.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

7 x 7 Link Award

Many thanks to both Claire over at Cinematic Delights and Maynard at his Horror Blog for passing this award on to me. I should also apologise to Claire because she sent it to me about 3 weeks ago and I'm only just getting round to writing! From my point of view it was silly to wait this long, one of the stipulations of this award is to pass it on to 7 other bloggers, and now of course most of the cool people I know have already received it. Bugger.  The rules are as follows:

Rule #1:
Tell everyone something that no-one else knows about you.

One of my first film-related memories was being terrified by the wicked witch in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs! This would be early 80s so one of the Disney re-releases, and I would have been 6 or 7.

Rule #2:
Link to one of the posts that you personally think best fits the following categories:

Most Beautiful Piece:

I'm not sure that any of my posts have been beautiful per se, but given how stunning the film is, I'm going to say my review of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Most Helpful Piece:
I've never written anything with hints, tips, or tricks, but my Game of Shadows review helped someone discover how amazing the BBC series Sherlock is!

Most Popular Piece:

With almost 5000 views there is no doubt that my review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 has the most hits. Though it was only really when part 2 came out that the page views started rolling in.

Most Controversial Piece:
I don't think that any of my writing is particularly controversial; the only thing I could think of that would fit this category is my quick deconstruction of the Burly Brawl in Matrix Reloaded.

Most Surprisingly Successful Piece:
When I watched 4 films during 2 long-haul flights I quickly wrote a paragraph about each one, more for completeness sake rather than anything else (you can't really appreciate a film on a plane), but it generated a lot of interest.

Most Underrated Piece:

I really love Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, so I really enjoyed writing this review, but it has only ever has 69 views!

Most Pride-Worthy Piece:
This was difficult, I couldn't think of anything that I was particularly proud of, but it occurred to me that it's always fun to really rip into a film that you didn't enjoy.  Because of this I chose my Dark of the Moon piece, a really sucky film!

Rule #3:
Pass this award on to 7 other bloggers

Tom at Movie reviews by Tom Clift
Tom Gooderson-A'Court over at At The Back
D. B. Borroughs at Unseen Films
M. Hufstader at The Smoking Pen
Paragraph Films
Bubbawheat over at Flights Tights and Movie Nights
Nostra at My Film Views

Friday, 13 April 2012

Tucker and Dale vs Evil (2010)

The idea of a group of college kids getting away from it all, blowing off steam but falling foul of some crazed killer is a well used one.  Perhaps most famously done in Evil Dead, and most recently in Cabin in the Woods, the concept has been done to death in all kinds of ways in between.  By making the hillbillies the victims, and all the events a series of accidents and misunderstandings, Tucker & Dale vs Evil completely turns the genre on its head.

Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and  Dale (Tyler Labine) have recently acquired a log cabin that they want to clean up and make their holiday home.  One night a bunch of college kids - who are on holiday in the same area -  go skinny dipping and Allison (Katrina Bowden) slips off a large rock.  When she doesn't resurface, Dale jumps in to rescue her and takes her back to the cabin to recover.  However, Allison's friends think that she has been kidnapped!  So begins a story of mistaken retribution.

Central to the film is the sweet developing relationship between Dale and Allison.  Tyler's Dale is sweet and bumbling, just unintentionally fearsome-looking; Katrina's Allison is also very sweet as she grows to like Dale, but in contrast is typically movie-college-kid smoking hot.  Alan Tudyk is perfect as Tucker, and the chemistry between him and Tyler is brilliant and provides a lot of humour.  Beyond the three main characters who all play off each other wonderfully, the film is hilariously funny and suitably gory for the genre (but not over the top).  I don't really want to say any more because I would spoil all of the best bits.  Great characters, sweet, very funny and suitably gruesome, Tucker and Dale vs Evil is well worth 80 minutes of anyone's time.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Licence to Kill (1989)

As the only 15-rated Bond movie, Licence to Kill promised a darker, grittier, more violent side to 007. Clearly it was decided that Dalton was the man capable of exploring this aspect of Her Majesty’s Government’s most eligible bachelor, and where Connery was suave and Moore was comic relief, Dalton is really able to convey Bond’s stretched emotions.

Set against the backdrop of Felix Leiter’s wedding, Bond, Leiter and the DEA go after notorious drug lord Franz Sanchez, culminating in an understated but impressive stunt as 007 is lowered onto Sanchez' cessna from a moving helicopter. With Sanchez’ plane captured, Bond and Leiter then parachute into the wedding; the 'chutes making longer trains than the bride’s. However, when Sanchez is sprung from capture he comes after Leiter, feeds him to a shark and kills his new wife. Distraught by his close friends’ fate, 007 goes on a mission of retribution to get Sanchez.

The revenge story allows 007 to be far more callous than usual. In particular he is quite brutal when he pushes Killifer into the water with the shark, and very brutal when he sets Sanchez on fire; you can really see the hatred in his eyes. Actually he shows nothing but contempt for anyone associated with Sanchez' organisation. He also shows barely contained contempt for Her Majesty’s government when he is told that he is not allowed to avenge Leiter and his wife. This follows on from his "Sod my orders" attitude in The Living Daylights. All of these feelings are conveyed so well by Dalton, who is able to communicate so much with his eyes and a tilt or shake of the head.

Carey Lowell as Pam Bouvier is a strong character for a Bond girl; when we first really meet her she is in a seedy bar armed with a shotgun. Bond tries to marginalise her by telling her to buy something pretty as his executive secretary, and constantly telling her to go home; but she persists and uses her own initiative to infiltrate Sanchez’ lair towards the end (with the help of Q of course). Talisa Soto’s character (Lupe) is also quite well written; though little more than Sanchez’ decoration, she is weaved into the story in such a way that when she finally falls for 007 it doesn’t feel forced at all. Though the “I love James SO much” line is a bit naff, as Pam sarcastically imitates.

Robert Davi is pretty good as Franz Sanchez the drug lord. Despite his clearly cliched 80s wardrobe, he manages to be a calm and relaxed psychopath. It seems strange that he is willing to throw everything away at the end (I’m sure a fire blanket would have helped control the initial fire at the processing plant), announcing that it is only money; but then you remember that he prizes loyalty over money and then everything about his character makes sense. Equally he punishes disloyalty, and Davi is calm but ruthless as he deals out his justice. Davi actually had his script translated into Spanish to learn his lines with the proper cadence; according to my 007 encyclopedia anyway. The other villain of note is a young Benicio del Toro, who manages to impress even as just a henchman; it’s not often such a good actor is cast as a stooge.

Not quite up to the high standard of The Living Daylights, but the film benefits from a simple linear plot, strong characters all round, some massive explosions and of course Timothy Dalton. Now that John Barry had left the series it was up to Michael Kamen to provide the score, and if I’m honest, I hardly noticed it. When I did notice, it sounded quite 80s with a bit of a hispanic twang. I think the only trouble I had with the film was the explanation of recovering the cocaine from gasoline. I’m sure it is a perfectly feasible process, but I’m also sure that letting it dribble from a burette through an empty funnel into a beaker, and then filtering it through blotting paper isn’t the way. Sanchez actually says “Do you want us to tell you all our secrets?”, it would have been better if they hadn’t. I’m only mentioning this because I find it difficult to take my science hat off when watching films; actually Licence to Kill is one of the better Bond films. Good solid plot, strong characters, all of which are performed very well, and some excellent action. When writers Michael G. Wilson and Richard Maibaum along with John Glen’s directions get it right, the last two films show that they really do get it right; unfortunate there were a couple of turkeys along the way. It’s wholesale change of cast and crew for the next exciting installment of Blogalongabond though.

Order of Preference so far:

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists (2012)

The latest Aardman film follows a group of pirates as they help their Captain (inventively called The Pirate Captain) win the covetous Pirate of the Year award.  This is achieved via meeting Charles Darwin, Queen Victoria and discovering that the ship's parrot Polly is actually a Dodo!  Being Aardman, the jokes are fairly constant and more often than not very daft; from the initial argument between two pirates as to whether the looting or cutlasses are the best things about being a pirate; to the "Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate", a female pirate with a sponge for a beard.

Of course all of the animation is top notch, and the amount of detail in almost every scene is phenomenal; it's just a shame that you can't pause the film in the cinema to take it all in.  The voice acting is also excellent and perfectly cast.  Of particular note are Hugh Grant as The Pirate Captain, Martin Freeman and the Pirate with the Scarf, Brendan Gleeson as the Pirate with Gout and David Tennant as Charles Darwin.

Despite everything being as good as you would expect from Aardman, I found my eyes struggling to stay open after a while, as did my wife.  This wasn't due to a hard day at work either because I hadn't been to work.  I think after a great setup but before the climax, the middle of the film kind of dragged a bit.  This is no Wrong Trousers or Close Shave, and it's difficult to keep up that quality and frenetic pace for a full 90 minutes.  Despite these minor pacing issues "Pirates!" is still mostly great fun; typical whacky characters, ludicrous situations, great voices and incredible detail.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Clockwork Orange (1971)

Set in London in an alternative future (future at least to 1971) when society is terrorized by vicious gangs of thugs, Clockwork Orange tells the story of Alex, the leader of a typically belligerent gang and his desire to be cured. The film really deals with how the government and society fail younger people, and the ineffective and sometimes drastic measures that are used to try and tackle the issue.

Clockwork Orange has always had a bit of a reputation as being a very violent and unsavory film; actually I would say that there is minimal violence. OK, so kicking someone in the legs and stomach while they're on the ground and then raping their wife isn't very nice, but none of it is graphic. I don't think that The Hunger Games is any less violent, and either version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is far more graphic and grim. Clearly there is perspective to this, and to 1971 sensibilities, Clockwork Orange was obviously more than a lot of people could handle.

So why should you watch this? Mostly for Malcolm McDowell; he is just brilliant. His portrayal of Alex is such that you cannot imagine anyone else playing that role. He is unpredictable, gleeful, strangely polite, repentant, but has the ability to always be slightly intimidating. Of course it helps that Kubrick’s screenplay based on Anthony Burgess’ novel is equally brilliant; if Alex didn't speak in his mock Shakespearean way (Nadsat apparently), then the film probably wouldn't have worked so well.

While clearly not in the same league as 2001 (few films are), Clockwork Orange nevertheless still has moments of beauty. Whatever the subject matter, Kubrick really knows how to set up a shot, and some of the sets (designed by Star Wars set designer John Barry - no, not that one) are oddly cinematic.

Similar to 2001, Kubrick decided to use a classical music score, but here it is often incongruous to what is happening on screen: Alex singing "Singing in the rain" as he is beating and raping, Rossini’s “The Thieving Magpie” while fighting Billy Boy and his gang in the old casino, or of course the use of “Ludwig Van’s 9th” which eventually drives Alex mad! Again this music elevates Clockwork Orange to a level where it is more than just a film. I think that with any other director at the helm it would have been a fairly ordinary film, but Kubrick crafted something more than that; an experience whose atmosphere really permeates the viewer and stays with them for long after the credits roll.

If anyone ever had doubts about seeing this because of its notoriety and potential content, I would recommend them to take the time to see it, I’m sure it is not what they would expect. Bold, iconic music, a compelling performance from McDowell, and occasionally sumptuous visuals, is definitely worthy of praise.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Gentlemen Broncos (2009)

Every now and then a film comes along that either you "get" or you don't.  For every blockbuster there's a Napoleon Dynamite; for every thriller there's a Mars Attacks; and for every (yet another) Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson "comedy" there's a Science of Sleep.  Gentlemen Broncos is certainly one of those films that is either going to appeal to your sense of humour or not; rather like Vic Reeves Big Night Out or more recently Noel Fielding's Luxury Comedy.

The story focusses on early teen fantasy novelist Benjamin (Michael Angarano).  He travels to a writers convention where he meets his idol, novelist Chevalier (Jemaine Clement - Flight of the Conchords).  Benjamin submits his latest novel "Yeast Lords - The Bronco Years" into competition that Chevalier will judge.  However, Chevalier thinks the novel is so good that he steals the idea, changes the names and publishes it as his own.

As this vague storyline is playing out, the film is interspersed with the story of The Yeast Lords.  Sam Rockwell is Bronco the Yeast Lord who must make his way to an enormous yeast factory, while avoiding capture by cyclopses (plural?), or being destroyed by battle stags.  The style of this story changes depending on whether we are hearing Ben's story, Chevalier's version, or a low-budget movie version produced by Ben's "friends" Tabatha and Lonnie.

This is a very hard film to review, because it is so damn strange.  The only thing I can really say is that I enjoyed it, and Jemaine Clement is superb as Chevalier, no-one could have played that character as he does.  Otherwise Gentlemen Broncos defies reviewing or recommendation, you just need to see it to decide whether you like it or not; or wonder what the hell it is all about.

5 subtle details that make The Lord of Rings so good

The Lord of the Rings is certainly one of my favourite series of films.  One of the reasons is because the sets, the characters and the world that is created is so rich and detailed.  Of all this detail the LOTR geek in me loves those that are not that obvious, and those that are references to the books and the wider history of Middle Earth.  As I say, the films are rich in detail, but here are my five favourite subtle details that help make The Lord of the Rings such a wonderful series.

5. Thror's Map

As Gandalf visits Bilbo prior to the Birthday party he noses around Bag End. One of the things he sees are the maps that Bilbo has drawn of his travels. One of these maps is Thror's map from The Hobbit, showing the Lonely Mountain. Down the side are some Dwarvish runes, which translate as: “Five feet high the door and three may walk abreast”. Thror is father of Thrain father of Thorin Oakenshield. All should become clear in December.

4. Legolas walking on top of the snow over Caradhras

I still can’t believe that I didn’t notice this the first time I saw the film. As the fellowship are crossing over the Caradhras mountain pass, they are making hard work of ploughing through the deep snow. All of course except for Legloas; as a fleet-footed Elf he is able to walk across the surface of the snow with no effort.

3. The Púkel-men

As Elrond rides up to Dunharrow to present Aragorn with Anduril, we see him ride past a curious statue.  This is one of the so called Púkel-men, a crude and ugly representation of a race known as the Drúedain.  In the book the Drúedain are crucial as their leader Ghân-Buri-Ghân helps Théoden and the Rohirrim bypass an outpost of Orcs when they are on their way to Minas Tirith.  If Ghân-buri-Ghân had not helped them, then the Rohirrim would not have come in time to the fields of the Pelennor. This statue in the film is a nice nod to the Drúedain.

2. The Ring of Barahir

Aragorn has a long history, and his ancestry is very illustrious. The Ring of Barahir is an heirloom that he wears, as a reminder of his connection to the Elder Days. In the first age of Middle Earth the Elf-lord Finrod gave a ring to Barahir, a man who had saved his life. Though Barahir lost the ring when he was killed by Orcs, his son Beren recovered it and the ring became an heirloom of his family. Initially passing to his son Dior, the ring was taken to Númenor by Elros son of Elwing daughter of Dior, but was saved from the destruction of Númenor by Amandil. The ring passed down the line of Kings to Isildur and finally to Aragorn son of Arathorn. A long history indeed.

Check here for extreme LOTR geekery!

1. Éomer talks to horses

Following the Rohirrim’s encounter with Aragorn, Legloas and Gimli, Éomer lends them two horses to help them on their way. However, rather than getting someone to bring the horses across, Éomer whistles and calls out the names of the horses “Hasufeld! Arod!” and the horses dutifully trot over. Blink and you'll miss it.

Bonus detail: PJ’s cameos

One of the other things that makes LOTR so cool is the daft cameo appearances that Peter Jackson makes. This is a bit of a trademark for him. In Fellowship he is just standing on the street in Bree eating a carrot!

In The Two Towers he is involved in the defence of Helm’s Deep, throwing a spear down upon the Orcs with the battering ram.

Finally in Return of the King he has a fabulous death scene as he plays a Corsair who is shot by Legolas.

Those are my choices, what about everyone else?  Is there any that I've forgotten about?

Thursday, 5 April 2012

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

The film that Kubrick made after Dr Strangelove was 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it couldn’t be more different.  Where Strangelove was character driven nuclear madness, 2001 is a celebration of film-making.  Based on Arthur C. Clark’s novel The Sentinel, the story is concerned with the idea that our evolution may have been driven by some intergalactic race, as well as being about our over-reliance on technology. Though you might be forgiven for not paying too much attention to the plot because the whole film looks glorious; it’s like watching a work of art.

The most obvious topic for discussion are the visuals. As I say, it’s about as far removed from the gloomy pictures of Dr Strangelove as it could be; the images are dynamic, crisp and it essentially looks as though the crew were actually filming in space, especially the opening shot of the sun rising over the Earth and Moon.  Phenomenal cinematography from Geoffrey Unsworth.  Though the camera is static for most of the film (I can only specifically remember the shot of Frank Poole jogging around the circular drum of Discovery as a moving camera), Kubrick always manages to position it in such a way that he can convey elegant motion.

I think that one of the reasons it all looks so phenomenal is because the shots are long, slow and deliberate.  If shots are rushed with lots of fast edits (Michael Bay) then it is possible to get away with less than perfect effects; but here everything looks spot on.  For example there is a moment just after an hour into the film when Dave and Frank move from a stationary corridor into a rotating module before climbing down a ladder upwards! It’s hardly an important scene, just two characters moving about the ship, but it looks so natural and effortless. If a director has bothered to make these incidental scenes so amazing then it all adds to the magnificence. In this case it really was the director, as Stan designed as well as directed all of the special effects shots.


As well as being a treat for the eyes, 2001 is also a treat for the ears. The music is all fabulous. Most notably Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz beautifully complements the dance of the spacecraft docking with the space station, and of course Thus Spake Zarathustra which is synonymous with this film. It also features Aram Khachaturian's Gayane ballet suite, which I would never heard of if James Horner hadn’t used elements of it in the main titles of Aliens!

In complete contrast to all the music, I also love the eerie silence as Dave Bowman is trying to rescue Frank. Of course as well as being dramatic, it is scientifically accurate as sound doesn’t travel in the vacuum of space. To borrow the tagline from another famous Sci-Fi film “In space no-one can hear you scream”. During this sequence all we hear is the hum of the EVA pod and Dave breathing in his helmet; but only when we see Dave's point of view.

The last 15 min are a bit of an indulgence as Dave travels into the monolith "Star Gate" orbiting Jupiter. Queue lots of psychedelic images, swirls and smoke; all rather like Ellie travelling through time and space at the end of Contact, but less coherent! Or rather Contact is like 2001!  In fact there were a few moments when I realised that George Lucas borrowed quite a bit from the visual design of some of the sets.

                              I'm sure the Millennium Falcon just blasted its way out of there!

Perhaps more a work of art than a film, 2001 looks absolutely phenomenal, and is an absolute joy to experience.   That statement comes with a warning though.  I know that this kind of film isn’t for everyone; my wife for one finds it very boring. It’s almost two and a half hours long and no fantastic action sequences or meaty dialogues between great actors getting their thesp on!  It’s an experience rather than a regular film, but I for one think it’s wonderful.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Dr Strangelove (1964)

Gentlemen you can't fight in here, this is the war room!

Kubrick’s darkly satirical take on the threat of nuclear war in the 60s and some of the anti-Russian sentiments of the time is an absolute delight.  Released two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the film must have touched a raw nerve, and I could imagine some people being less than enthusiastic about some of the characters involved.

Brigadier General Jack Ripper (an excellent Sterling Hayden) puts his air base on condition red and sends signals to all the B-52 bombers stationed around Russia to proceed to their targets and carry out a nuclear strike. This is not an official order, and as soon as US President Merkin Muffley is alerted he calls all the top military minds to the War Room in the Pentagon. He then tries to avoid World War 3 by diplomacy; but one plane is not recalled...

At the heart of all the madness is a great cast. Peter Sellers is again fantastic as Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake (an RAF officer desperately trying to talk sense into Jack Ripper), President Merkin Muffley (desperately trying to calm down the Russian Premier over the phone) AND the bizarre Dr. Strangelove who seems to be a German expat but whose right arm has a mind of its own and keeps giving Nazi salutes. Where I said yesterday in Lolita that it was Sellers that stole the show, I feel that this time it is two of his supporting actors that are the highlights. Sterling Hayden (better know to me as McCluskey from The Godfather) is absolutely brilliant as the deranged Jack Ripper. Though Ruskie-hating seems to be endemic in the US military, Jack takes it one step further imagining that the Commies are after his bodily fluids! Clearly this is because humans require water to replenish their bodily fluids, whereas all the Russians drink is Vodka; and the conspiracy runs as far as putting fluoride in the water which saps his essence! He manages to play the role with all the gravitas of a commanding officer and a has a great screen presence.

George C. Scott is just fantastic and hilarious as Gen. 'Buck' Turgidson, the military head who reports the bad news of the imminent nuclear strike to the president. As well as being gung-ho about war with Russia, he is also like a schoolboy trying to hold on to his beliefs; attempting to plant a secret camera on the Russian Ambassador and worried that once the Ambassador is allowed unprecedented access to the war room that he will see the “Big Board” which tracks all of the bombers. Like Hayden he plays the role straight down the line, not even a hint of irony in his performance. It is much of Turgison’s script that provides the LOLs in the film. I must also mention Slim Pickens (no really, that’s his name) as Major “King” Kong, the pilot of the B-52 bomber. It is he who rides the nuclear bomb as it falls towards its target, and has become the iconic image from this film. Among Slim’s crew is a very young James Earl Jones; he doesn’t get much screen time, but is still effortlessly cool.


Another aspect of the film is the idea of the constant races between the US and Russia, the one-upmanship that both nations strive for, and the fear that there will be a gap in their knowledge with respect to the other. Both the space race and the arms race are mentioned, but when the Russian ambassador mentions that they have developed a Doomsday weapon the US president is horrified; until Dr Strangelove announces that they also have such a weapon as they feared a Doomsday gap! Equally, as the risk of nuclear fallout is discussed, the possibility of furnishing a deep mine shaft so that people may survive a holocaust is mentioned, a conversation that leads Gen. Turgidson to blurt out “We must not allow a mine shaft gap!”

A wonderful film full of great performances, and wonderful clashing images. The photography was all very gloomy, but I’m not sure if this was intentional or whether the transfer to DVD just wasn’t that great. Highly recommended, and at a snappy run time of 90 minutes, a thoroughly brilliant film to fill a short gap in anyone’s schedule.