Sunday, 31 March 2013

True Grit (1969)

Far more traditional and technicolour than the Coen brothers' excellent 2010 remake, this version is never the less a great western.  Not a hotel chain.  There is some glorious cinematography of amazing landscapes, a rousing if repetitive score and a great performance from John Wayne.  Even Matty Ross is really good despite reminding me of a very young Prof Brian Cox!  I really expected her to be fairly wooden in light of how brilliant Hailee Steinfeld is in the 2010 film, so I was impressed with how effortless Kim Darby's performance is. 

                                              An early still from Wonders of the Universe!

Having not been too enamoured of Wayne's performance in The Searchers, here he gives us a far more understated, and in my view a more convincing one.  Rooster Cogburn is a cantankerous US Marshall who spends half his hours drunk; who'd have thought that all-American John Wayne would have been excellent at this.  Rooster is far more of an anti-hero than John's character in The Searchers (and I imagine a lot of his other roles), which is probably why I prefer it.  Rooster is far more in the mold of The Man with No Name from Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns than John's usual American hero image.  Glen Campbell is good as Le Boeuf, and the banter between him, Rooster and Matty is sharp and witty.  The film also throws up a few cast surprises in a very young Dennis Hopper and Robert Duvall, both of who do very well in their minor roles.

Like I say, this isn't quite in the same class as the Coen brothers film, but is still a very enjoyable movie. At the heart of the film is the relationship between the three main characters.  John, Glen and Kim are great together, and it is their quick, witty interaction that drives the film, making it a cut above similar westerns.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Blade (1998)

I must admit that the reason I got the Blade trilogy boxed set is that I was most interested in seeing Guillermo del Toro's Blade 2.  I hope it was worth it, because Blade isn't really.  Actually there are several things to like, it's just that the overall result is a bit meh.

Wesley Snipes is good as Blade, he is able to do the martial arts required, able to be gruff and deliver his aggressive lines well; well some times.  Actually Blade is rather like a terminator; he seems to be fairly indestructible and is belligerently violent and aggressive, which admittedly does take any tension out of the film.  I thought Kris Kristofferson was ok as Whistler, though I'm sure there are plenty actors who could do just as good a job.  The same goes for Stephen Dorff who is Deacon Frost, the main antagonist; he's a fairly unconvincing bad guy.

The story itself is well paced; it sets up Blade's character well at the beginning and waits until a natural break in proceedings to give us more background; which leads to a surprise near the end.  This is all thanks to David S Goyer's writing, this is the guy who is half responsible for giving us the story behind the superb Dark Knight trilogy.  He also wrote the story for the next two Blade films, so there should be some consistency between them at least.

However, I'm not sure if he's responsible for one of the things that bugs me about the film, and that's the inconsistencies there seems to be with vampire lore.  Why is silver important, isn't that werewolves?  The pure-blood vampire, Dragonetti, (the head of a vampire "family") starts to smoke when he's taken to watch the sun rise even before he's been stripped, yet all the others are fine wearing biker gear.  Then Frost happily talks to Blade in the middle of a sunny day because he's wearing sunblock!  On his eyeballs too?  I don't know if this is lore from the comics, but it just looked sloppy and inconsistent in the film.

The main problem though is Stephen Norrington’s direction.  It is uninspiring, and unimaginative; he just generally seems to point the camera, and it’s usually static.  Given what's generally happening on screen he could have been been much more dynamic; the initial reveal of Blade could have been so much better; and given that the chamber for creating the blood god is a tall cylinder, so much more could have been done with sweeping, diving camera moves.  With a little more imagination this could have been a very slick movie.  That being said, I did like the speeded up nightfall and the sharp shadows cast on the skyscrapers, I thought that was very effective.

When you consider that The Matrix came out the following year, there are some particularly ropey special effects towards the end with some blatantly computer generated blood.  Though I did really like the way the vampires all died by turning to cinders and skeletonising.  For all my slagging, Blade is a watchable film, I just feel with a better cast (Underworld managed to get Bill Nighy and Derek Jacobi for goodness sake!) and some more inventive direction, it could have been very cool.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

The Big Sleep (1946)

Humphrey Bogart is Philip Marlowe, a private detective hired by General Sternwood (a retired and ailing old man) to investigate blackmail, but the case quickly becomes far more involved.  Soon enough, people start being killed and Marlowe starts to think that the General's daughters Vivian and Carmen may be involved.  The plot is certainly very complicated and it really has to be seen twice (I watched it once with subtitles because everyone speaks so fast), and you really can't stop concentrating for a moment.  It sounds like hard work, but it's great because if it slowed down, any over explanation would just seem clunky and would really kill the film.

At the heart of the film is a brilliant performance from Bogart, it's like he never stops talking, but as everything he says is pure gold, you really don't want him to stop.  His Marlowe is quick, witty, sharp and passionate.  He absolutely dominates every scene he's in, except those he shares with Lauren Bacall who plays Vivian, the General's elder daughter.  The on-screen chemistry between these two is just wonderful; their verbal sparring always left me with a smile on my face, it is a joy to watch.  Surrounding them is a solid support cast, perhaps most notably John Ridgely as Eddie Mars, but there is no doubt that this is Bogey's film.

I think this can be classed as a film noir, but most of the sets are brightly lit, and I think it only rains a couple of times, two things that for me go hand in hand with the genre (though I haven't seen many).  It's hard to appreciate the probable other nice touches in the film because you get so engrossed in the story, impressed at the razor sharp script, and above all, captivated by Bogart's performance, even after a second viewing.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Transformers (2007)

I think I probably said in my review of Dark of the Moon, that I was a massive Transformers nerd when I was a kid.  Consequently I couldn't wait to see this film when it came out. Obviously I'd seen the animated film with Orsen Wells doing the voice of Unicron; but a live action film, wow!  And with Steven Spielberg as Exec Producer too!  As a result this is a real guilty pleasure.  By rights it has no business being as entertaining as it is; it could have almost been another Michael Bay abomination, but unlike the over blown endurance tests of the next two Transformers films, the first one succeeds in being fun and even good.

I think the key is that we can relate to Sam; all he wants is a car and a girlfriend; and the fact that he becomes a nervous mess when he first meets Mikela makes him more endearing to us.  He is then suitably astonished and full of wonder when he meets the Autobots.  Shia really sells the character and makes the situation relatable to.  The film is also genuinely funny, ok so the scene when the Autobots are hiding around the house as Sam looks for the glasses is fairly cringeworthy, but there are plenty of other good moments.  John Turturro and Anthony Anderson are great at breaking up the action with light hearted relief.  The voice actors are also important, Hugo Weaving giving life to a Megatron who isn't actually present for much of the film, and of course Peter Cullen is perfect as Optimus Prime.

Far from Michael Bay's self confessed film style of "fucking the camera" which make the Bad Boys films and the next two movies of this franchise so unwatchable, Transformers actually has moments of style.  The initial attack on the air force base by Blackout was trouser-shakingly good (the volume in the cinema was cranked up!), Ironhide somersaulting over a screaming woman while avoiding rockets is very nicely done, as is Starscream jumping all over the F-16s in flight.

On top of this, Steve Jablonsky's score creates a suitably epic atmosphere while at the same time managing to echo some of the awe and wonder that Sam experiences.  It's possible that the score is better than the film, and it's one I listen to regularly.

As I say, this is a real guilty pleasure and it's not like there aren't things wrong with it.  During this latest viewing I was painfully aware of Bay's insistence on getting military hardware or lingo into scenes as much as possible; no doubt he was off camera getting his rocks off every time there was a helicopter nearby!  However, despite his penchant for blowing stuff up, there is a section in the middle that is strangely calm.  But since Bay doesn't know how to direct calm, it drags quite a bit when the Autobots are hiding round the house, until John Turturro arrives.

For me though, these faults aren't enough to spoil what is a fun film. It manages to weave a story that is fairly concise, with a central character we can relate to, into a film about giant alien robots. Excellent special effects, great action sequences (where we can actually see what's going on) and a great rousing score.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Limitless (2011)

Eddie Mora (Bradley Cooper) has an opportunity to try an exclusive new drug called Limitless which allows you to use all of your brain rather than the 50% we apparently normally use.  The consequence is vastly increased intelligence and the ability to see things before they happen; however, it is not without its side effects and Eddie is by no means the only person talking Limitless.

This is an example of a film that takes a fairly simple idea and runs with it, and also manages to weave an interesting story around its central premise.  It's not the most cerebral film, but at the same time it's not completely mindless.  Bradley Cooper is very good as the main protagonist Eddie; he is suitably surprised at having increased intelligence, but manages to be very suave with it.  Robert De Niro is also very good as Carl Van Loon, the chief exec of the firm Eddie ends up working for.

The film is bright and the palette is full of colour, especially when Eddie is talking Limitless, at which point there are some very cleverly edited zoom transitions to convey his heightened sense of awareness.  I also liked the way that seemingly unrelated events were linked and everything could be traced back to Limitless.

A very enjoyable film whose story builds nicely on its basic premise, until everything becomes connected.  Well acted and stylishly shot, Limitless is well worth a look.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Forrest Gump (1994)

I remember really not liking this film in the past, but I have to say that this time it bullied me
into thinking it was alright. There were some nice moments of editing and
cinematography, and Tom Hanks is OK; but the whole thing is just too contrived to make it
that enjoyable. The way he comes up with the "Shit happens" phrase, or teaching Elvis
how to dance, basically getting Forrest involved in everything ingrained into the American
psyche; it just all constantly jars.

It's really a story about living the American dream if you just bimble along in life; ok so your
wife is a junkie tramp who dies of AIDS, but it seems that's what you get for standing up for
what you believe in and creating your own path. I think as I'm writing this I'm liking the film
less and less; I'd like to see it again to appreciate the film making more without
concentrating on the stupid story. I did like the way that essentially Forrest is sat on a
bench at a bus stop telling his inane story to whoever will listen, and we keep cutting back
to that, but otherwise there's not much to write home about. Robert Zemeckis is just
directing by numbers with a couple of set pieces thrown in. In fact, the best thing about
Forrest Gump is this:

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Frankenstein (1931)

Having enjoyed Mary Shelly's novel, and having seen and loved both versions of Danny Boyle's stage production, I was really looking forward to what I think is regarded as the definitive film version.  I'm afraid to say that I was quite disappointed.  I'm really not sure why the story had to be so much of a departure from the book.  One of the key aspects of the story is that the monster is a victim, he didn't ask to be created, and we should feel sympathy towards it; something wonderfully conveyed by both Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller on stage.  This is mostly missing from Boris Karloff's performance; but I think this is mostly due to a wayward script.  There is a moment when the monster encounters a young girl playing by a lakeside, and her reaction is not one of revulsion, rather she sees him as a person; but that's really the only moment of empathy I had with it.  Dr Frankenstein should also be a victim, but of his own ambition as he regrets ever going down the road to his reanimation experiments.  There is some regret in Henry's character but it is by no means explored fully.

I also couldn't understand why the main character (Dr Victor Frankenstein) was renamed Henry, and his friend was renamed Victor!  At least Elizabeth retained her name.  I also couldn't understand why "Henry's" father Baron Frankenstein, kept referring to his son as Frankenstein!  Not Henry, or son.  There is also a moment when a father finds his murdered daughter (of course killed by the monster, but he doesn't know that), yet he turns up at the Frankenstein residence demanding justice, and a hunt is organised for the monster.  We don't see anyone find out about the monster, but magically everyone instantly knows that it killed the girl.  I feel this is just sloppy script writing.

What I did like was the way that James Whale used light to create shadows throughout the film.  When we first see the monster walk into a room towards Frankenstein, there is a huge shadow cast by a hidden light, in such a way that the ominous shape towers over Henry.  There are many other instances of this (such as steep staircases disappearing into shadows) , giving the film a very striking visual style.

Unfortunately I think that for all this style there is too little substance.  All of these Universal classic horror films are about 70 minutes long, and while The Wolfman managed to tell a great story I can't help but feel that if Frankenstein had been longer then a better approximation of the source material could have been reached.  This would have made a far greater impact and made a much better film in my opinion.