Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Nightcrawler (2014)

Nightcrawler is one of those films that gets under your skin; indeed it crawls into you and makes you feel slightly dirty for enjoying it so much.  It is a film that I thought was very much inspired by Drive, and indeed Jake Gyllenhaal is as unpredictable at the titular character from Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 film.

Jake himself is superb; a wiry, gaunt, intense anti-hero; he is singular in his purpose & determination, and though the first few scenes demonstrate what he is capable of we are forever worried about just how far he is prepared to go.  As Lou Bloom, Jake is quite unpredictable; the scenes with Rene Russo often bristle with tension and anticipation and we're never sure where the conversation will go.  He also gives a superb soliloquy as he is giving his demands to Rene Russo’s news editor, and certainly deserves his BAFTA nomination for Best Leading Actor.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Science in the Movies

As scientists we get a pretty hard time of it.  If we’re not struggling for publishable results, or being misquoted in the press about our research; then we’re being portrayed as über-geeks in The Big Bang Theory or with cinema-screen foreheads and clipboards in adverts (I’m looking at you Tefal).  Some of my non-science friends still call me boffin. If that isn’t enough, our subject matter, our interest, nae, our passion can be treated with such cavalier contempt in films.

As I see it, there are several issues to address here.  There is a fair amount (as you might expect) of bad science in movies; however there is also some good science (or at least the director has made an attempt to grasp some basics).  Quite often the scientist is the voice of reason (though the incidence of anyone paying them any attention is rather less); more often than not however, the mad scientist is the preferred flavour.  Finally I shall give some thought to the stereotypes that are perpetuated in the movies and whether there is any likelihood that it may change.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Interstellar (2014)

Does it say something about my taste in movies that the two movies I really wanted to see this year were purely because of the director?  The first was Godzilla.  I was so impressed by Gareth Edwards’ debut Monsters (2010) that I was really excited with what he’d do with Japan’s most famousest monster.  The only other film on my definite hit list was Interstellar.  I’ve been a fan of Christopher Nolan ever since I first saw Memento (2000) and was desperate to see a film of his out in space; especially since Gravity (2013) blew me away last year.  I wasn’t disappointed.

I should point out that there are a couple of spoilers in this review.  I generally try not to spoil anything in my writing, but if you’re anything like me, you won’t read anything to do with a film that you want to see and form your own opinion on.  So, to infinity and beyond!

Friday, 31 October 2014

Insidious (2010)

Best known for directing the the inventive torture horror Saw (2004), James Wan’s haunted house ghost story lacks the teeth of his first success.  Starring Patrick Wilson as Josh and Rose Byrne as his wife Renai, Insidious tells the story of their family moving house for a fresh start.  This all turns sour as their son mysteriously falls into a coma; provoking thoughts of possession etc.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Fury (2014)

With events that take place in the final months of the second world war, Fury tells of the exploits of a tank crew and the hell they have to endure.  Having fought their way from Africa, through France and Belgium, the crew of the Fury commanded by Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) are now in the lion’s den and are fighting their way through Germany.

Many war films concentrate on how horrible war really is, and though few have the impact of those first scenes in Saving Private Ryan (1998), Fury is none the less very visceral and hellish.  However, when he does it right, director David Ayer creates some very dramatic, tense battles.  There's a tremendous sequence when four allied Sherman tanks face off against a singular but far superior German Tiger tank; I think I really did hold my breath.

Brad Pitt is Brad Pitt; his tank commander a toned down version of his character from Inglorious Basterds (2009).  Though despite enjoying the killing, Wardaddy does still like behaving like a human, as witnessed in the scene with the two German girls in their flat.

Perhaps not a revelation, Shia LaBeouf shows again that he can be good, as he was in Lawless (2012).  As gunner Boyd “Bible” Swan and resident pastor, he's a well written character and the most memorable along with Wardaddy and Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) the newbie to the crew, through whose eyes we see the world of Fury.  Norman is very wet behind the ears, thrown into a situation he never thought he'd be.  His first task is to clean out the remains of the guy he's replacing: finding half a face by your seat is enough to make anyone throw up.

Steven Price who composed the excellent score for Gravity (2013) is the maestro here as well; though to be honest I don’t really remember the music as the percussion of firing tanks and artillery provide most of the accompanying sound.  There isn’t as much gore and viscera as I expected and that’s probably a good thing otherwise it may have strayed into sensationalist territory.  However, since the film was essentially about 5 men in a tank, I had hoped for better focus on the characters with more of a cabin fever vibe to proceedings.

Having said that, I thought this was a great film, with some very tense moments, made all the more real as so little computer imagery was used.  I think I remember reading/hearing that the only CG used was for the tracer fire from the guns.  But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.

Direction  Star 1.gifStar 1.gifStar 1.gifStar 1.gif
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OVERALL Star 1.gifStar 1.gifStar 1.gifStar three quarters.gif

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

What We Did on Our Holiday (2014)

Following on from their success with Outnumbered (and Drop the Dead Donkey), writers/directors Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin now bring us What We Did on our Holiday; a suitably sad, funny and uplifting film that places the kids at the centre of all the events.

With an ailing father (Billy Connolly), David Tennant takes his family (including estranged wife Rosamund Pike) to Scotland to celebrate his Dad's 75th birthday. Both Tennant and Pike are solid as is Ben Miller - Tennant's brother. Billy Connolly plays Billy Connolly, but that's no bad thing, and as it happens there's probably no one else who could encapsulate this character better.

Of course it's really the kids who are the crucial part of the film, and as such are spot on. They are obviously the primary source of the LOLs early on, including the youngest who has stones and breeze blocks as friends; but as the story progresses, the kids are the driving force behind the unfolding drama. You always hear that you should never work with children or animals when making a movie; but whatever experience Hamilton and Jenkin have with working with kids on Outnumbered, pays off here. They manage to get spontaneous, funny, yet sometimes nuanced performances out of these children

There are some glorious shots of the West coast of Scotland, so much so that it could almost be a visit Scotland advert. The landscape provides a beautiful backdrop for this dysfunctional family's tragedy, as well as a world inhabited by lovely peripheral characters such as Celia Imrie and Annette Crosbie.

The movie is typical in terms of its tragedy, humour and general upliftyness, very much in the style of Waking Ned (1998), The Dish (2000) or The Angels’ Share. But that's no bad thing, and it's certainly that little bit different as the kids are the focus of the movie. But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.

Friday, 17 October 2014

The Batman Trilogy (2005 - 2012)

Certainly one of the most celebrated trilogies of recent years, The Dark Knight films are not only some of the best superhero films, they are some of the best films.  Chris Nolan has brought incredible vision, production and outstanding performances to these movies about Gotham's most famous son.

Batman Begins

As far as genesis stories go, I think that this could be my favourite.   I really like Sam Raimi’s Spider-man (2002), but seeing Bruce Wayne overcome his fears and then channelling this fear to terrorise his enemies is magnificent.  Where many stories are desperate to get to the action, Batman Begins really takes its time, and I think it must be almost an hour before we actually see the Batman strut his stuff.  A lot of this superbity is due to excellent writing by David S. Goyer, as well as Chris Nolan’s wonderful interpretation.

Christian Bale is a very good Bruce Wayne, suitably playboy-ish, but able to be grim and violent when necessary.  In fact, everyone is great; Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy and Gary Oldman; but then we wouldn't really expect this cast to be anything but excellent.

The slow start takes time to set up both Bruce's background (which we essentially know) showing how disenchanted he's become with Gotham, the justice system as well as his wealth.   It also sets up The League of Shadows; not only crucial for the final third of the film, but also a recurrent theme that reaches a climax in Dark Knight Rises.

The Dark Knight

The second film in a trilogy can often be a tricky one to judge, but The Dark Knight is a stunning sequel to BB, and this can probably be largely attributed to a dazzling display by Heath Ledger as The Joker.  Freed from the yoke of introductory exposition, TDK gets straight down to business; though you could be forgiven for thinking that you were watching Point Break’s Dead Presidents as the opening robbery begins.  Until of course The Joker is revealed, then everything becomes unpredictable.  Alfred tells Bruce “...some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money.  Some men just want to watch the world burn”, and that’s exactly what The Joker is about, and Heath Ledger owns that role like a boss.

Sequels are always trying to be bigger than the first installment, and TDK is no different.  Filming key sequences in IMAX was one way Nolan upped his game, and (though I haven’t experienced IMAX at all) the amount of effort that went into working with these enormous cameras is incredible.

I always remember George Lucas gushing about the increasing number of digital effects shots in the Star Wars prequels like it was a good thing.  In TDK, Nolan and crew insert much more action than BB, but unlike GL, a lot of the effects they did were in camera.  Incredibly including flipping the massive lorry that the Joker is driving, as well as the helicopter crash; both down actual city streets.  Not to mention of course the hospital explosion.

It is often the case that a sequel is bigger and better than the initial film (Terminator 2, 1991; X-men 2, 2003; Spider-man 2, 2004; Hellboy 2, 2008). What Chris Nolan has done with TDK is produce a sequel that doesn’t feel like a sequel, rather a continuation of the story.  Can he continue that ambience into the final chapter?

The Dark Knight Rises

Truly a fitting finale to the trilogy, and once again Chris Nolan ups his game.  With an amazing cast and literally hundreds of extras, the scope of TDKR is enormous.  There are so many reasons why this is so good a film, but here are just a few.

We didn't think we'd see another tremendous performance like Heath Ledger's Joker; but in Bane, Nolan created another memorable villain, and casting the brilliant Tom Hardy was inspired.  Tom would have had the ability to create a phenomenal presence anyway, but the physical size of him makes him even more dominant.  The scene where he beats up Batman in the sewer is so excellent, both Tom and Christian are fantastic (actually them fighting), and the harsh down-lighting created by Wally Pfister enhances the brutality of this key scene.

In Anne Hathaway we have Nolan’s interpretation of Catwoman, though she is never referred to as such.  Selina is an accomplished thief trying to survive in a post Dent-act society. Her story arc is fairly predictable, but it is done well; especially the way she is initially unopposed to what Bane is doing but then is distraught by the amount of chaos he has actually created.

The only problem I have with TDKR is the music.  In itself it is another great score from Hans Zimmer, but it's mixed wrong and is far too loud at times.  There is one scene in particular (there are actually several) where Commissioner Gordon is meeting some resistance support in a basement and the music is loud and tense when it doesn't need to be.  So loud that I struggle to hear what Gary Oldman is saying.  There are several other instances of not hearing Commsr Gordon, Bane sometimes too, which is a pity as it slightly spoils what might otherwise be a perfect film.

Final Thoughts

Having recently become quite a fan of some of the Batman graphic novels, it was nice to see some referential moments.  There’s a lovely moment when two cops in a car are chasing Bane et al.; then when Batman reappears, they slow down and one says “You’re about to see something real special”. Straight out of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.  Also the randoms dressed as Batman at the beginning of The Dark Knight are a nod to the Sons of Batman.  David S Goyer did read a lot of graphic novels while planning Batman Begins, so it’s not too surprising that there are these moments in the films.

The plot throughout the trilogy is a classic genesis, fall and rise story with each film addressing different themes.  There is really very little to fault in these films at all, they are all superbly crafted, with incredible attention to detail and amazing practical effects.  Chris Nolan has proved he can direct and produce enormous films without dumbing down to the lowest common denominator. I am very excited about the films he will make in the future.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Brighton Rock (1947)

I was very sad to hear the news of Richard Attenborough's death, and at the same time slightly unnerved that LoveFilm had delivered Brighton Rock not long before.  Hopefully it wasn't some strange premonition by the Amazon company; anyway I felt that watching the movie would be a fitting tribute.  Based on the novel by Graham Greene and directed by John Boulting, Brighton Rock is the story of Pinkie Brown (Attenborough) a small-time gangster in Brighton who has just become the new leader of a small-scale mob gang.

Make sure you're paying attention from the start, if you're still making a cup of tea/pouring a pint you'll miss the lightning pace exposition.  However, once the intro is over it slows right down, as Pinkie and his gang follow their primary target, charting his every move around town before disposing of him in Dante's Inferno (a ghost train ride!).  It's a beautifully choreographed scene, and you might be forgiven for thinking that nothing goes unnoticed in Brighton by Pinkie's gang.  The film settles down when Pinkie meets Rose (Carol Marsh), though the relationship is driven by Pinkie's need to suppress any evidence Rose can give against him.

I admit that the only time I've seen Richard Attenborough in front of the camera before is as Richard Hammond or Big X in The Great Escape.  So to see him as a devious gangster takes some getting used to; this is helped by the fact that he's so great.  Sometimes he may not say much, but his thoughts are conveyed via the medium of shifty eyes!  He often reminds me of Al Pacino in The Godfather.

Pinkie never really seems in control but Dickie's brain is always working behind those shifty eyes, looking to exploit a situation or looking out for anyone that may cross him.  At the start of the film it is actually a while until Pinkie finally speaks, and then he suddenly explodes, all the stress of suddenly being de facto leader boils over.

Surrounding him are characters that trust Pinkie as much as Muldoon trusts a Velociraptor, who are all played by an accomplished but unknown to me cast (apart from a pre-Dr Who William Hartnell).  Carol Marsh is pitch perfect as Pinkie's naive and scared girlfriend; always jittery, but drawn to the sharp-dressed bad-boy image.  Hermione Baddeley seems to have got lost on the way to a Carry On film, but she is functional enough in her sleuth role.

The first time I watched Brighton Rock I enjoyed it, though I was very sleepy.  I watched it a second time yesterday and loved it.  Richard Attenborough is fantastic, I was able to follow the exposition better, and everything flows smoothly.  Some may find the final scene a little cheesy, but for me it works perfectly.  But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Quatermass and the Pit (1967)

Making my way through my Hammer boxed set, I’ve discovered some real gems (Plague of the Zombies, The Nanny), but also some fairly forgettable productions (The Reptile, She).  Oops, I’ve said this before!  I really shouldn’t repeat myself.  Oops, I’ve said this before!  I really shouldn’t repeat myself.  Quatermass and the Pit definitely falls into the second of these categories.  Other than the novelty of seeing a very young Grand Maester Pycelle, there is nothing that really stands out.

The eponymous Professor Quatermass (Andrew Kier) has been tasked to help Colonel Breen (Julian Glover) with the development a new rocket programme.  Their first collaboration is interrupted when they call by to check on an incident in Hobb’s End underground station.  They soon unearth an alien spacecraft; a craft that has been there a very long time.

Director Roy Ward Baker (A Night to Remember, 1958), is a steady pair of hands which are never-the-less tied by a forgettable story and wandering plot.  There is the interesting idea that the human race is a result of experiments carried out on our ancestors by the insectoid Martians 5 million years ago (a theme also explored the following year in 2001: A Space Odyssey), but the concept of the race memory is a step too far.

Sure, I like the way that the opinion of the scientists are trusted, and the fact that we see some lab research (spurious science notwithstanding).  But nothing memorable happens, apart from a very rushed ending involving a floaty psychic alien (ghost?) thing which is destroyed by crashing a crane into it!  Perhaps not exactly a Deus ex machina, the resolution only occurs to Quatermass in the final few minutes of the film.

I realise that in terms of special effects, a Hammer production can’t really compete with those of Planet of the Apes or 2001: A Space Odyssey (both of which were released the following year), but I feel those in Frankenstein Created Woman (1967) or even The Plague of Zombies from the the previous year are better than the cardboard insects on offer here.

Generic thriller sci-fi with little to recommend it, or indeed little to remember.  Competently directed with a good cast and some nice ideas in the story, let down by some more ridiculous ideas and some spectacularly bad special effects.  In fact the most interesting thing could be this line from the parents guide in IMDB: “The giant locusts could be frightening to some viewers even though they are dead”.  Locusts or viewers?  Says it all.  But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.

Friday, 1 August 2014

First Blood (1982)

OK, so I'm 37 and I've never seen a Rambo film until now.  Does that make me a bad movie nerd?  I've seen Son of Rambow which is brilliant, but I don't think that really counts.  The whole premise of First Blood, that a Vietnam vet is treated badly by the Sheriff's Office of some small town so he runs into the woods and takes revenge, is fairly ridiculous; but it is a testament to the direction by Ted Kotcheff that the film is so much fun.  It's all a bit A-Team as I don't remember many people dying despite all the explosions and violence, but it doesn't suffer because of it.

Probably one of the reasons I've never made an effort to see a Rambo film is that I've never been a fan of Stallone.  If I'm honest, I've always preferred Arnie; he seems to feature in more films I'm interested in (I hate boxing, so Rocky is wasted on me), and even if Schwarzenegger isn't a great actor, at least I can understand him when he speaks!

Having said all that, Stallone was perfectly watchable as John Rambo; and though he isn't the most eloquent, the fact that I really routed for his character helped a lot.  It does feel like the first part in a series, and I've no idea whether First Blood Part II was already planned, but as First Blood works great as a stand alone film, it really doesn't matter.

The only other main player of any real note is Brian Dennehy, who is great as Sheriff Will Teasle, the guy who arrests John for being a bum; even when he realises he's bitten off more than he can chew he belligerently goes after Rambo.  All the other cops are fairly incidental; Richard Crenna plays Rambo's previous senior officer when in 'nam, but really only turns up at the end as more of a link to the next film

First Blood doesn't do anything particularly special, other than cement Stallone as a bona fide action star and convince me that he isn't all that bad. Well paced, and some brutal action, First Blood is very enjoyable. But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Aliens Double Bill

Perhaps Aberdeen is not the centre of the cultural universe, but as long as the excellent Belmont Filmhouse keeps putting on events and screenings of classic films, then I'll be happy.  My cinema going isn't as frequent as it used to be, but in recent years I've enjoyed an Indiana Jones double bill, Metropolis, Nosferatu, Labyrinth, The Thing, Robocop, Tron, The Big Lebowski Wii ten pin bowling night and now an Aliens double bill.

When I first saw the advert for the event, there was nothing that was going to stop me going.  I've seen Alien before on the big screen, I think it was on the 25th anniversary (I was only 3 when it was first released); but I've never seen Aliens in large format.

Needless to say, both films were utterly brilliant; seeing them on the big screen shows up a level of detail that is lost on TV, and in Aliens in particular the practical effects look tremendous.  The sound design in Aliens (that freaked me out so much playing AVP on the PC in the dark) is superb and so atmospheric at volume, as is James Horner's score.  Being part of an audience who are all fans enhances the viewing; there is almost palpable excitement as the Alien logos come up on the screen (sublimely understated), and a lot of humour that is lost when viewed at home suddenly works like you're seeing it for the first time.

Of course this was an event as much as a showing of two amazing films, and as such was a great success.  Posters and T-shirts had been kindly provided by the excellent Last Exit to Nowhere, and before each film, Dallas (Marketing and Events manager at The Belmont - not actually beardy Tom Skerrit) asked Alien-related questions handing out Alien Kinder eggs as prizes.

Having simply worn a dressing gown and sandals to the Big Lebowski night, I thought I'd make more of an effort this time, and through a combination of old clothes, charity shops and eBay, I thought that I came up with a fairly convincing Brett costume.

Dallas (centre, complete with chestburster) thought so too, and I am very thankful for my complimentary Filmhouse tickets and my Blu-Ray boxed set of the 4 Alien movies + Prometheus prize.

Brilliant event, a great time had by all, and I'm looking forward to the Back to the Future Trilogy.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Top Gun (1986)

During our stay in Lawers this year, amid glorious weather we went to the excellent Birks of Aberfeldy cinema.  A brilliant and very friendly community-owned cinema.  There was no real question of what we wanted to see: having never seen it on the big screen Top Gun was the obvious choice.

There is little I can really say about Tony Scott's classic tale of fast planes, fast living and homo-eroticism.  Sure I could mention the fantastic cast featuring Tom Skerrit, Daryl Revok Michael Ironside, Mr Strickland James Tolkan as well as the up and coming Tom Cruise.  Or I could mention how great the aerial photography is, and how amazing the soundtrack is (it won Academy, Golden Globe and BRIT awards).  I could also witter on about the excellent pairing of Anthony Edwards and Tom Cruise, and how they play perfectly off each other; as well as how quotable the whole film is. But I thought I'd be lazy and simply embed the Facebook conversation I started just after we seen it.  So without further ado, here it is.

For all the realism of the movie, I can't help but think that Goose's polaroid of the MIG wasn't quite as good as this selfie:

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Forbidden Planet (1956)

The central premise of Forbidden Planet, that there is a darkness in all of us, lends itself perfectly to Sci-Fi; but for all the excellent sets and realised alien landscapes, I thought that I would have been more whelmed!

It was not the ravages of time that got to me (though it was particularly un-dynamic the way everyone shot at the Disney-rendered monster), rather that I just didn't buy the key relationship.  Of course Robbie the Robot is the real star of the show, his whirring and blooping is completely brilliant and the real stuff of Sci-Fi legend.  Walter Pidgeon is good as the stand-offish Dr Morbius and Anne Francis is suitably naive and uninhibited as Altaira.  An unrecognisable Leslie Nielsen is uncharismatic as Commander Adams, and it is the relationship between him and Altaira that just wasn't believable.  And that's rather crucial in terms of plot resolution.

This, and a rather ponderous tour of some excellent Krell technology means that Forbidden Planet fell short in my expectations of this cult classic.  But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.

Monday, 30 June 2014

War of the Worlds (1953)

I'm sure that War of the Worlds is a story familiar to most, whether from H G Wells' novel, the various radio broadcasts, this interpretation or Spielberg's updated version (2005).  What's great about this version, directed by Byron Haskin, is the sense of helplessness of the humans.  No matter which approach is tried: reasoning, scientific or military; it all comes undone, either by the Martians or ourselves.  Additionally, the sounds created are iconic, in particular the weird pulsing noise that the 'eye' makes, just before it disintegrates someone.

There is always an undercurrent of religiosity, as I think was deemed necessary by movie studios in 50s Sci-Fi.  Most obvious is that love interest Sylvia’s uncle is Pastor Matthew Collins (though the poor guy’s attempt to to “come in peace” while carrying his Bible high is meet with disintegration).  There is also the comment that the aliens could take over the world in 6 days (from this arbitrary point after several days of destruction already) which leads Sylvia to comment that this is as many days as it took to create it!  The climax of the film sees Dr Forrester running from church to church to try and find Sylvia, and in the final narrator’s voice over tells us that the “Martians were destroyed and humanity was saved by the littlest things, which God, in His wisdom, had put upon this Earth.”

Great to see that the main character is a scientist who everyone respects (he was even on the cover of Time magazine), and the military doesn’t automatically shut him out.  And the scientist gets the girl!  Of course even though the scientists are integral to the fight against the Martians, they fall foul of the the public as they panic and commandeer their vehicle, destroying lots of important equipment as they do it.

Not as spectacular as Spielberg's 2005 version, but far more character-driven and no less threatening with a great atmosphere, helped by an introduction making us feel rather insignificant in the Solar System, and some brilliant sound effects.  But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.

The Dam Busters (1955)

I had watched a documentary a few months ago about Barnes Wallis, the engineer who developed the bouncing bomb.  It was a fascinating programme, and featured some willing pilots who attempted to recreate dropping the bombs.  So I was really pleased that the movie wasn't just about the training and the mission, but also had Wallis' development of the idea and the frustrations he had trying to bring it to fruition.

The film then nicely integrates Wallis' testing of the bomb with the inception of a special RAF squadron that will carry out the mission into enemy territory.  By the end there is little else Wallis can do but wait alongside the commanders as the pilots leave to destroy the targeted dams.  At this point in the film there is some nice aerial photography of the aircraft and their encounter with enemy fire, juxtaposed against the silent anxiety back at base; clearly the inspiration for the attack on the Death Star at the end of Star Wars.

I enjoyed the hell out of this film, not least for several inspirational Star Wars moments, but because the film wasn't a run-of-the-mill war story, rather it was the story of a fantastic scientific idea from its inception to its devastating conclusion, that helped the war effort immeasurably.  But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Life of Pi (2012)

A spectacular film, Life of Pi is told in retrospect as the titular character, Piscine, tells his story to a journalist.  As a young man he suffered a life changing event which found him adrift in a lifeboat with some animals from his father's zoo, a story which he explains to the journalist will make him believe in God.

I've not read the book, but I'm sure the screenplay didn't come easy, so credit is due to David Magee and Ang Lee for having the vision to bring it to the screen.  More than anything it is a film with moments of sheer beauty, in a similar way to Into the Wild (2007); Claudio Miranda fully deserving the Academy Award for cinematography.  It almost makes the leap to a work of art as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) does, but isn't quite there.  The kid Ayush Tandon is really very good considering it must have been him in front of a green screen for most of the shoot.

There were a few moments where a continuous shot would have been brilliant and to me, obvious; so their absence was a bit of a shame.  Also the final "make you believe in God" bit, felt suddenly thrown in like it had been forgotten about.  But these are only minor quibbles, overall the film is truly spectacular, visually stunning and completely engaging. I really wish I'd been able to see this on the big screen that it deserves.  But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

The Witches (1966)

More a thriller than one of Hammer's more traditional Horrors, the first hour of The Witches excels at generating an air of "what the hell is going on?".  Miss Mayfield (Joan Fontaine) is employed as the new headmistress of the primary school in the idyllic village of Heddaby; but with strains of The Midwich Cuckoos and decades later Hot Fuzz (2007), Miss Mayfield realises something sinister is going on.

Joan Fontaine is really good as the innocent incomer, and is our window into the peculiar goings-on.  As a large part of this mystery, the two main kids Ingrid Boulting and Martin Stephens are both very good, and the surrounding support cast also help weave a sinister tapestry of deceit.  Perhaps most deceitful of all is the dodgy doctor played by Leonard Rossiter (Rising Damp (1974-78); 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968); Barry Lyndon (1975).  He is a microcosm of the the weird village and as such is perfect; he just seems to have a natural air of conspiracy about him.

I’m finding that the more famous of these Hammer films (Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958) excepted) are a bit underwhelming, whereas the more obscure ones (The Nanny (1965), The Plague of the Zombies (1966), and now The Witches) generate far more atmosphere and are far more entertaining & enjoyable.  But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Ghostbusters (1984)

30 years on there's not much I can say about Ghostbusters that hasn't already been said, so I'm going to say it with tweets instead.
It's been a long time since I saw Ghostbusters (though I'm sure I've seen it since I first saw it in the Wrexham Hippodrome in 1984), and I don't think I'd appreciated before how funny the throwaway comments were.  There's the obvious "If someone asks you if you're a God, you say YES!", but it's the little (mostly Bill Murray) quips that embellish the already great film.

Though there are four Ghostbusters, and despite being written by Akroyd and Ramis, this is really Bill Murray's film.  His performance is superbly dead-pan and he clearly had so much fun with Peter Venkman.  The role was initially written for John Belushi, but it's hard to see how anyone could brought the film alive as much as Murray.

From flattops and large glasses to Rick Moranis' yuppy stereotypes and Ray Parker Jr.'s theme tune, Ghostbusters really embraces it's 80s style.

We don't. We feel exhilarated, alive and thoroughly entertained.  The fun of the film is infectious, and I can remember coming out of the theatre feeling like I could take on the world.
Winston's final exclamation is the perfect release for the dramatic finale and sums up what an exiting and fun adventure it has been.  But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Reanimator (1985)

If Frankenstein was the modern Prometheus then Reanimator is the modern Frankenstein.  Except that the hard work has been done and all Dr West has to do is inject some luminous yellow liquid into the brains of dead people to bring them back to life.

Based on H P Lovecraft's story Herbert West: Reanimator, the film is very much in the 80s splatter movie style of Scanners (1981), The Evil Dead (1981) or Bad Taste (1987).  Full of Dark humour and quite outrageous scenes, Reanimator is great fun despite being essentially daft and looking rather dated.  The special effects, however, don't look dated.  In the great tradition of practical horror (American Werewolf in London (1981), The Thing (1982), Evil Dead or Evil Dead 2 (1987) and even Aliens (1986)) the effects are all tremendously gooey and as far as I can tell all done in camera, which all adds to the fun.

Perhaps not so horrific by today's standards, Reanimator is more of a Sci-fi romp than anything else, more frenetic than atmospheric; but this doesn't detract from it at all.  But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Godzilla (2014)

To be honest it wasn't the fact that Godzilla was being remade that I was bothered about, it was that Monsters (2010) director Gareth Edwards was making it.  Monsters is easily one of the more interesting, atmospheric and thought-provoking sci-fi films of recent years (along with the superb District 9, 2009), and the guerilla seat of the pants production made it all the more impressive.

One of the key themes of Monsters is that nature should be allowed to take its course, and none of the creatures are naturally aggressive; it is only when humans attack them that they retaliate.  In one of the final scenes, two monsters are engaged in a display of courtship, and the two main characters (the only two characters!) appreciate how beautiful these beasts actually are.  This idea of nature being left alone is revisited in Godzilla, eloquently put by Ken Watanabe's character: "The arrogance of men is thinking nature is in their control, and not the other way around".

And herein lies a flaw in the film.  Laudable as it is to let nature get on with it, this translates into Godzilla and his antagonists having an almighty smack down in the middle of San Francisco, destroying half the city (a contractual obligation in these sorts of movies nowadays it seems) and all the human characters are completely inconsequential.  The military have plans involving nukes, but are frustrated at every turn; and though a human element is introduced as (having just watched his father die) soldier Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is trying to get home to his wife (Elizabeth Olson) and son; but it's all fairly banal.

This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy it, because I really did.  Gareth Edwards is a creative director and there were several stylish moments that had no particular reason to be, they just serve to enhance the film.  He also manages to create a sense of tension on several occasions, even though we essentially know how things are going to pan out.  Consider the scene where Ford Brody and the other marines are HALO jumping; we see the character’s claustrophobic eye view through the mask, seeing only snippets of the monster and the devastation below, all the time hearing only his breathing.  Simple, yet effectively done.  Rather than do his own cinematography, this time Edwards managed to secure the services of Seamus McGarvey (Atonement, 2007; Avengers, 2012), and consequently the film looks suitably atmospheric; nicely contrasting the dusty orange glows of a city being destroyed with the bright clear lines of the military installations.  Adding to the atmosphere is a pretty great score from Alexandre Desplat, which is suitably big and thumping.

I also really liked the traditional design of Godzilla, reminiscent of the 50s and 60s Japanese movies and indeed the cartoon I remember watching when I was a kid.  I also like the design of the two MUTOs, I thought they were very much like the Klendathu “Bugs” from Starship Troopers.  There is therefore much to enjoy and celebrate in Godzilla, not least that Gareth Edwards demonstrates that Britain continues to produce some excellent directors; and the fact that the human element is rather inconsequential (other than a mechanism for us to witness the events) isn’t enough to reduce the impact of this Gojira.  But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

To a new world of Gods and Monsters

I feel I’m starting to become a bit of a connoisseur of Frankenstein movies.  Though, as I’ve said before, I was spoiled early on by seeing Danny Boyle’s stage production starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller.  Both versions (the two leads swapped roles of Frankenstein and the monster) were fabulous and were closer to the source material than any of the movies I’ve seen yet.

The Bride of Frankenstein is the sequel to the original 1931 Frankenstein, again starring Boris Karloff as the monster and Colin Clive as Henry Frankenstein.  The film begins with some rather unnecessary exposition involving Mary Shelly, her husband and a Lord Byron who is ridiculously pompous and overacts.  The point is to remind us of the events of the first film, but despite some nice camera transition zooms, it’s a rather clumsy way to start the movie.

When the story properly begins it follows on immediately from the first film and we discover that the monster isn’t dead.  There is a certain amount of knees bent running about involving some more rent-a-lynch-mob action; but crucially the victimisation of the monster is far more convincing than in the first film.  The introduction of speech increases this misunderstanding.  Apparently Karloff thought that if the monster spoke it would ruin its “charm”, but I feel that the introduction of the blind man that helps him begin to communicate helps create empathy with the creature as he becomes more self aware.  In this scene in particular I thought Karloff showed his skill and really managed to create a sense of sadness and generate sympathy with the monster.

Aside from Karloff, the other crucial characters are Henry Frankenstein (still don’t know why he was renamed) played by Colin Clive, and Ernst Thesiger as Dr Pretorius.  Colin Clive has a great manic energy that he continues from the first film and improves on; even when he is refusing to do the experiments his guilt is rather eccentric.  Dr Pretorius is a calm collected counterpoint to Frankenstein, and is the driving force behind the new experiments.  His introduction is a touch bizarre; he shows Henry several live homunculi he has created, complete with individual personalities and squeaky voices.  It sounds better than it actually is, but I can understand the reason behind introducing Pretorius’ skill, and at least the special effects are surprisingly good.  Clive and Thesiger work really well together, and it is their relationship that helps drive the film to its conclusion.

This conclusion is of course the creation of the monster’s bride, and is a wonderful blend of glorious sets, brilliant lighting and dynamic direction.  As in the first film, James Whale makes excellent use of light and shadow, and nowhere is this better seen than when lightning is striking the creation. Frankenstein and Pretorius are filmed from above (looking down at them from the gods?) in shadow and their excited faces are suddenly lit by flashes of lightning.  It is a far more dramatic creation scene than the first film, and indeed Hammer’s Curse of Frankenstein.  It then culminates in Colin Clive’s iconic “It’s alive!”.  After all this superbity (new word), the final scene is a bit of a let down, and a self-destruct lever in the lab seems like a quick fix end to the film.  Shame.

A vast improvement over the first film, apart from a clunky beginning and a quick fix end, The Bride of Frankenstein captures far more of the spirit of the novel; both Frankenstein and his monster are victims, and Karloff’s performance generates real sympathy with the misunderstood creature.  The story demands less leaps of faith than the original film, and James Whale’s direction is sharper and more creative than before.   But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.