Tuesday, 17 December 2013

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009)

Adapted from the novel by John Godney, The Pelham 123 is a train that leaves Pelham at 1:23 pm, and the taking of it is by a terrorist called Ryder.  I’m not sure whether Tony Scott developed the same affinity with trains later in his career as he has with Denzel Washington, as they were both involved with his next film: the insufferable Unstoppable (2010).  Also starring Denzel Washington, The Taking of Pelham 123 starts as an enjoyable thriller as Washington’s rail network-coordinating character happens to be at his desk when Ryder (John Travolta trying to reprise his Swordfish persona but woefully wayward) hijacks the train.  The banter between these two is lively and really drives the first half of the film, however when Washington sets off to deliver the ransom to Ryder (hindered by some lazy writing and inept police) the plot becomes formulaic and boring.  By the time the climax is reached (with more incompetent police) I really didn’t care how it turned out. But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

The Polar Express (2004)

I'm under the impression that a lot of people love this film in a romantic Christmas kind of way. And that's what I expected and hoped for.  However, I rather think that director Robert Zemeckis was trying to channel the spirit of his earlier action adventure films into this, and this is not the Christmas spirit.  Action sequences akin to those in Romancing the Stone (1984) or the Back to the Future series (1985-1990) are completely incongruous, and just seem to be padding in a film which should be about the magic of Christmas.

However, when it comes (in the last 15 minutes of the movie) instead of magic, we are bludgeoned over the head with a pseudo-religious "I want to believe" message!  OK, I get that the kid doesn't believe in Christmas at the start of the film, but by the time he's seen the elves and present factory etc, you think he might have cottoned on.  Instead we are repeatedly told that he wants to believe, until he can finally hear the sleigh bells.

There are a few nice touches, including one when the camera follows the fate of a train ticket all in one shot.  Until you remember that this is a cartoon and you can do what you want with a camera; and the whole reason for the ticket flying about is a stupid bit of plot that had me screaming at the telly!  I am no Scrooge when it comes to Christmas, but The Polar Express did not fill me with a warm glowy feeling; rather like Blackadder in his Christmas Carol I became increasingly annoyed.  But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Gravity (2013)

Sci fi is always most effective when it says something about the human condition.  Whether it’s fear of new powerful technology (2001: A Space Odyssey; 1968, and Westworld; 1973), environmental concerns (Silent Running; 1972), or the fear of male rape (Alien; 1979).  In the case of Gravity, the themes explored are of human fortitude in extreme isolation, and how terrible circumstances can be overcome.  These are by no means unheard of situations as told in the true stories of Aron Ralston trapped alone in a Utah canyon in 127 hours (2010); Joe Simpson left for dead on a mountain in Patagonia (Touching the Void; 2003) or the Antarctic expedition of Ernest Shackleton as portrayed by Kenneth Branagh in the TV movie Shackleton (2002).  The fact that we can relate to Dr Ryan's predicament (less mainstream than hiking in the desert or climbing a mountain) I think is a testament to writer/director Alfonso Cuarón.

Of course the most striking aspect of the film are the visuals, and they are simply stunning.  The first shot, the one that lasts 20 minutes, is simply phenomenal.  There are some tremendous continuous scenes in Children of Men (2007), and also some clever camera work in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), but in Gravity, Cuarón’s vision is out of this world.  These extremely long takes I think really help the story.  In that first shot, Alfonso gives us the backdrop, introduces the principle characters, gives us the background to a potential problem, and then bang!  It happens, and we are spinning off into space.  The fact that it's all one shot, apart from being amazing, makes us feel like the director is holding our hand and guiding us slowly through an environment with which we are not completely familiar.  I think this makes the film far more accessible and coherent than it would if there were lots of fast edits; Gravity is far more elegant.

Needless to say Clooney is great, his suave persona is perfect for Matt Kowalski, the astronaut who stays calm and initially takes control of the situation.  Arguably one of the best achievements of Gravity is the discovery that Sandra Bullock can carry a film almost by herself.  Dr Ryan Stone is almost the opposite of Kowalski, nervous, initially unsure of anything outside her comfort zone and sometimes has trouble keeping her food down on a spacewalk.  We can all relate to this, and Bullock epitomises this unease brilliantly.  She slowly realises that she is capable of taking control of her situation, and while she isn’t ballsy like Ellen Ripley, she is determined enough to do what she has to.  I don’t claim to know all of Bullock’s roles, but I don’t think that she often gets to do anything this intense; except for perhaps Crash (2004), so I was very impressed with her here.

Gravity is proper edge of the seat stuff, there are few films that engross the viewer as much as this.  Certainly part of this success is due to the sound design and score.  Having helped edit music alongside Hans Zimmer for Batman Begins and Howard Shore for The Two Towers and Return of the King, we can assume that composer Steven Price knows a thing or two about film scores.  For Gravity, Price has demonstrated restraint, in the knowledge that less is more.  In the quiet moments in space, his music has an almost ethereal quality, full of wonder, reminiscent of James Horner’s score for Avatar.  As the action builds up so does the music, almost as a distorted heartbeat echoing that of Ryan, until rather than reaching a crescendo, the music drifts off into space again.

Ultimately, this story of human resolve and fortitude has a happy ending, as perhaps the more memorable stories often do.  Ryan has been through a terrible ordeal and comes out the other side with a new outlook on life.  Sandra Bullock is very good at conveying all these emotions; coupled with an amazing vision from Alfonso Cuarón and incredible, flawless special effects; Gravity is one of those films whose impact remains long after leaving the movie theatre. But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.