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.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Senna (2010)

I’ve never cared for Formula 1 at all, but the strength of Senna is such that for 100 minutes I did care.  Though I was aware of the final outcome, the way the story is told; Senna’s rivalry with Alain Prost, as well as showing the politics of the various teams, was engrossing.  The documentary is made completely with historical footage of races, interviews and home videos; but there is also interview voice over if the footage is silent.  In this way, Senna is more akin to The Imposter rather than a Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock film, which perhaps results in a less biased documentary, but I’m not the person to know.  I’m not familiar with anything else that director Asif Kapadia has made, though on the strength of BAFTA-winning Senna I quite fancy seeing Odyssey, and his forthcoming Amy Winehouse documentary could also be interesting.

A fascinating insight into a sportsman I knew nothing about, told with skill and emotion, Senna is definitely worth seeing, even if you hate F1.  But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)

I think in my head Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was similar to a Herbie film, so I wasn't really expecting a great deal.  What I certainly didn't expect was a slew of 007 connections.  For a start, the novel was written by Ian Fleming, with a screenplay created in part by Roald Dahl (You Only Live Twice) with additional dialogue by Richard Maibaum (various screenplays from Dr. No through to Licence to Kill); and the production design was by the mastermind of the volcano base - Ken Adam.  It was even a Cubby Broccoli production!

I’m not even on to the cast yet.  The nasty Baron Bomburst is none other than Goldfinger himself: Gert Frobe; Desmond Llewelyn makes a cameo appearance as Coggins the garage owner who is selling CCBB, and even Vic Armstrong (seasoned 007 stuntman - later stunt coordinator) is involved.  Phew, I think that’s it; answers on a postcard (or in the comments if you prefer) if you think I’ve missed any Bond connections.

As far as the movie itself goes, well, I'm the first to admit that I don't like musicals, but I actually rather enjoyed CCBB.  For two reasons probably.  The first is Dick Van Dyke.  His cheery eccentric inventor is quite an infectious character (and surely the inspiration for the most famous of inventors; Doc Emmet Brown - even his dog is called Edison), his personality perfectly encapsulated by the name Caractacus.  I know him primarily as Dr Mark Sloan, and I was aware that he could sing, but I didn't realise how well.

Which brings me to the second reason I enjoyed the film; the songs aren't that irritating.  Even the main song which is reprised endlessly is rather a fun ditty.  Those tunes that aren't so good are for the most part completely forgettable, so can't get lodged in your head and drive you mad (Suddenly Seymour I'm looking at you).  The children were for the most part pretty good and not so whiney and annoying, the introduction of the sinister child catcher keeps them on edge and if anything allows Caractacus and Truly Scrumptious (yes that's actually the name of the love interest) to act like children themselves.  Speaking of Scrumptious, Sally Ann Hayes is a good counterpoint to zany Caractacus, even if she doesn't do women drivers any favours by repeatedly driving into the same pond.

Apart from all the obvious (dance numbers, nice special effects on CCBB) Ken Hughes' direction isn't too shabby either.  The camera work is usually quite fluid, and was creative enough even during the slower songs.  Choreography of the dances was very good, in particular the performance in the circus was quite amazing, not least because it must have been really hard for DVD to have been half a move behind everyone else at the beginning.

So there we have it; I don't think I'm particularly becoming a convert to musicals by any stretch, but given the right cast, choreography and tunes I can quite enjoy them.  But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

In all honesty, The Winter Soldier wasn't one of the two films I was looking forward to seeing this year.  But since its enforced hiatus, Agents of SHIELD has been really good, so I was really wanting to know how the latest movie fit in.

I've not been aware of anything else that the Russo brothers have done, and, apart from the sequence on the ship at the start of the film which gave me a headache because the camera was all over the place, the direction was fine.  Nothing particularly fancy or inventive, but not ham fisted either.  Just fine.  However, the direction was probably helped by a great story.

I'm certainly not a Marvel fanboy, though I have recently been sucked into this Universe.  I guess that may make me slightly biased, but I've probably only been sucked in due to the, generally, great quality of the films.  With that in mind; I thought the plot couldn't really be much better.  It hit all the right points, tied in nicely with Agents of SHIELD, answered the questions I had, raised new ones, subtly referenced the other Avengers films and even Pulp Fiction!  Sure there were a few plot fail moments, but they can be easily forgiven.

For their part, the cast all hit the right notes too.  Chris Evans has the right chiselled jaw to be the all American hero and the chops for all the action too.  He may be becoming typecast as a superhero, but while he’s doing it, he’s doing a grand job.  Scarlett Johansson reprises her Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow role and is just as kick-ass as she is in The Avengers; very good.  Joining these two is Anthony Mackie (took me ages to figure out why I recognized him: The Hurt Locker, 2008; The Adjustment Bureau, 2011) who becomes a significant ally as The Falcon.  He’s fine, but doesn’t seem as natural in a full on sci-fi actioner such as this.  Surrounding the main three is an impressive array of talent including Toby Jones, Cobie Smulders, Robert Redford, and of course Samuel L. Jackson.  Also good to see Alan Dale pop up again, clearly it’s been a while since he was onscreen as a high-ranking pulling-the-strings character.

Naturally, a film such as this is heavy on the special effects, and they are top-notch, as would be expected from ILM.  I can imagine there are sequences that were done digitally which could have been done in camera, though you don’t notice at all.  The only obvious moment was the youngification of Captain Rogers, but I thought it looked superb; perhaps not the Winkelvii from The Social Network, but better than Jeff Bridges in Tron: Legacy.

I think the only Henry Jackman score I’ve heard would be X-Men; First Class, but I can’t remember that at all.  I felt that this score was equally subtle to the point of absence; I’m sure it worked perfectly within the movie, but I didn’t notice it at all.

I thought Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a great adventure and terrific fun.  A great cast which work well together, interesting story and great production all round, continuing the Marvel Cinematic Universe trend.  But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Bridesmaids (2011)

From the minds of Kristen Wiig, Annie Mumolo and presumably producer Judd Apatow (40 Year Old Virgin, 2005; Knocked Up, 2007), Bridesmaids sounds like it should be a Chick Flick but it is far from that.  Proving that it can mix it with the best gross out movies, and that women can be just as indecent and obscene as men, it features a great cast that play off each other really well.  Though we assume Annie’s life (Wiig’s character) is going to be on the up by the end of the film, we never the less become invested in the character and care for her predicament.  True also of Chris O’Dowd; he isn’t IT Crowd’s Roy, but his character is a grounded foil to Annie’s self-destructive persona, and though it isn’t a huge role we completely empathise with his reactions.

A very different and uproariously funny comedy that surely passes the Bechdel Test.  There are some great characters, and some tremendous set pieces; perhaps the story is resolved a little quickly at the end, though this is quite a minor criticism.  But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.