Monday, 27 January 2014

Sherlock Jr. (1924)

Over the past couple of years I’ve managed to increase (albeit only slightly) the number of silent movies I’ve seen.  For the most part I’ve loved them, both Metropolis and Nosferatu were magnificent as was The Artist; and while I appreciated the impact and relevance of Battleship Potemkin I really didn’t get on with it.  However, despite Buster Keaton being quite a legend of silent cinema, I’ve never seen any of his films.  Until now.  Many thanks to Tom over at At The Back for mentioning this gem in his “Top ten ‘New to Me’ Films of 2013”; and also thanks to the internets for being able to watch this for free!

Made in the middle of Keaton’s “golden era” between 1920 and 1929 (though actually his 22nd of 31 films in that time!), Sherlock Jr. is the story of a theatre projectionist who is framed for a very minor theft.  While he is in the projection booth that evening his mind starts to wander and he imagines himself as super-sleuth Sherlock Holmes solving the mystery of some stolen pearls.

This sounds relatively mundane, but therein lies Keaton’s genius.  The short (only 45 min) film contains so many inventive gags that despite seeing this 90 years later I was still surprised and laughed out loud.  Often a joke would start off as fairly routine only for there to be a sudden unexpected twist, leaving the viewer giggling and admiring the downright creativity of it all.  Naturally, being a silent movie, all the jokes are slapstick; not your custard pie in the face humour; but slick, perfectly choreographed and clever visual jokes.  All his escapades are carried out with the same deadpan face (a trademark of Buster Keaton), with perfect timing and seemingly with a cavalier disregard for his own safety.  Apparently during a particular scene involving a water tower at a railway stop, he broke his neck, but only realised later on!

Perfectly judged slapstick comedy, I thoroughly enjoyed Sherlock Jr., and I want to see more Buster Keaton films sooner rather than later. But, well, you know, don’t just take like, er, my opinion man. Watch it yourself here:

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Stormbreaker (2006)

Based on the novel of the same name, Stormbreaker is an adaptation of Anthony Horowitz's teen espionage thriller.  School kid Alex Rider (Alex Pettyfer) still coming to terms with the sudden death of his uncle, is thrown into his secret spy world, and trains (very briefly) to become an agent himself in a bid to track down the killers.

The premise is interesting enough; helped by a star-studded cast (as well as Jimmy Carr) and some well designed scenes by director Geoffrey Sax, the movie begins strongly enough.  Unfortunately it doesn't sustain, and by the time Alex has picked up his Bond gadgets from his Q (Smithers; a trying-too-hard-to-be-like-Desmond-Llewelyn Stephen Fry), the film has become predictable and stale.  Plot points are set up to give an obvious payout/henchman comeuppance, and even the eccentric Mickey Rourke doesn't impress as the villain of the piece.  Alex Pettyfer is fine as Alex Rider, nothing spectacular; it is really only Bill Nighy as Alan Blunt (head of MI6) and Damian Lewis as mercenary for hire Yassen Gregorovic, who save the film, the other members of the supporting cast are shamefully wasted.

There is a whole series of Alex Rider books, so I’m sure all involved in the movie were sure they were onto the next big franchise cash cow; except that Stormbreaker was so brazenly average, that no other films were ever mooted.  But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Cosmopolis (2012)

What was that all about?

I’m afraid that this was just lost on me.  Body horror virtuoso David Cronenberg (Scanners (1981), Videodrome (1983), The Fly (1986), and Existenz (1999)) directs an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel Cosmopolis.  Following 28 year-old billionaire Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) across town in his luxury limo just so that he can get a haircut (encountering his new wife, riots, a terrorist threat, sexual encounters with other women and horrendous traffic due to a Presidential visit) the film is generally concerned with the perils of capitalism (I think), but I just didn’t get it.  A lot of the dialogue was really mumbled, and without subtitles on I really would not have had a clue what Pattinson was talking to Paul Giamatti about.  The narrative was really confusing; I thought at the time that the story was very non-linear, but by the end I realised this not to be the case and everything was just very disjointed.  

The one thing I did enjoy about this film was Robert Pattinson.  I’ve only seen him before in Twiglet and Harry Potter but this shows that he has the chops to carry a serious (if random) film.  Actually there was a second thing I enjoyed, the design of the limo and the way the sense of space inside was created was cool, as was the lighting by regular Cronenberg collaborator, cinematographer Peter Suschitzky (Existenz, A History of Violence, Crash and even The Empire Strikes Back).  Speaking of previous collaborators, Howard Shore composed the music, but to be honest I hardly noticed any music in the film.  Confusing, boring, aimless and hard going, I really didn’t get on with Cosmopolis, though at least Pattinson was good.  But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Dracula (1958)

Having previously been disappointed with Tod Browning's Dracula (1931) I was very keen to see Terence Fisher's vision starring a young Christopher Lee and a slightly less young Peter Cushing.  I wasn’t disappointed.

Where Lugosi's Prince of Darkness has designs on moving to London (and Mina's "beautiful neck"), writer Jimmy Sangster shuns Stoker's source material to a degree and crafts a story similar to Nosferatu in that all the action takes place in Germany (Karlstadt, only a few hours coach drive from Castle Dracula).  The familiar names are all there, but the relationships have often changed. Jonathan Harker is engaged to Lucy, who is Arthur's sister and Mina is Arthur's wife!  Dracula and Van Helsing are of course the same, but despite all these changes they do not grate the same way it did in Frankenstein (1931).

It goes without saying that Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing are fantastic.  Despite Dracula being one of the roles most synonymous with Lee, this is actually his 33rd film (I think) which is fairly incredible!  Where Lugosi was enigmatic and stilted, Lee is charismatic and full of energy; his Dracula is very active and physical which leads to a very dynamic movie as he desperately tries to stop Van Helsing.  Lee actually says very little.  Beyond welcoming Jonathan Harker to his castle and getting him settled in, he doesn’t actually say anything.  Which surprises me more that apparently he refused to say any lines in the script for Dracula: Prince of Darkness, as his Dracula is hardly verbose anyway.

Of course, where Lee is very physical, Cushing can match it.  Despite him looking not too far off Grand Moff Tarkin age, he is able to mix it with Lee in running around the excellent Gothic sets and fighting him off for a dramatic climax.  That’s not to say he is just “knees-bent running around”, most of the time he is the perfect Van Helsing using brain rather than brawn and displaying the same cold logic that he portrayed so well in Frankenstein Created Woman.  An honourable mention should go to Michael Gough (will later be Alfred in Tim Burton’s Batman films) who plays Arthur; he fits his story arc perfectly as a grieving family man who comes to realise the horror (slowly) of the situation and is then determined to protect those he loves.

I've already mentioned the Gothic sets, which are brilliantly created by production designer Bernard Robinson, who will become a Hammer Horror regular, working on the classics as well as Dracula: Prince of Darkness, Plague of Zombies, The Reptile and Rasputin: The Mad Monk to name a few.  Actually some of those were filmed back to back on the same sets; so he knew how to save some pennies too!  Terence Fisher’s direction is smooth and accomplished.  He seems to favour fluid tracking shots across a room, moving past pillars, columns and such like.  This way he shows off the great sets and creates a sense of scale that a static camera wouldn’t do; as well as mirroring the dynamic performances from the two main leads.

One of the happiest improvements over 1931 Dracula, is the moment Van Helsing explains that Dracula's ability to change into a bat or a wolf is a myth.  So no stupid rubber bats, or even armadillos (I'm still not sure why there were armadillos!) which instantly enhances the film’s credibility.  Great performances, smooth direction, smart story and wonderful sets.  I really enjoyed Dracula.  Now I’m looking forward to Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein and The Mummy.  But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Wanted (2008)

In a post-Matrix post-300 world, Nochnoy Dozor writer/director Timur Bekmambetov brings us a flash, funky, duplicitous tale of assassins, family values and curving bullets.  Yup, you heard that right; curving bullets!  Wesley (James McAvoy) is an average nobody in a dead end job, until someone tries to kill him in a supermarket and Fox (Angelina Jolie) suddenly appears to improvise a rescue.  Wesley soon learns that he has a historical connection to the "Brotherhood" of assassins to which Fox belongs.

When Wesley's world is turned upside down James McAvoy immediately turns the air blue and I feared he wasn't going to be right for the role at all.  However, he soon settles down and was actually pretty good.  Whether the fact that he is the best thing in a film that stars Morgan Freeman, Terence Stamp and Angelina Jolie is because he’s a better actor or because the others don’t bring their "A" game is probably obvious, though McAvoy does prove he can mix it with some of the best.

Released in the same year as (the inferior) Max Payne, Wanted has more of a resemblance to the Matrix-inspired computer game (2001) than the Wachowski Brother's game changer itself.  This is not as bad as it sounds; it means that some logic is given for the assassins' ability to slow time down and make a single fatal shot at an otherwise impossible angle; and since Mitchell Arundel is DOP (Transformers, Mission Impossible III and Ghost Protocol) it looks pretty cool too.  However, because there have been other films with slow-mo effects, Wanted doesn’t really do anything new, which lets it down and left me wanting more.  Having said that I found it entertaining enough to keep me awake to past 1 o'clock in the morning, which is saying something.  But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.