Sunday, 31 July 2011

The Bourne Trilogy

Back in 2002, the espionage genre must have felt a little like Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne at the start of this trilogy, floating unconscious in the Mediterranean Sea with a bullet in the back after the abysmal CGI tsunami of Die Another Day and the shallow, clichĂ©d hotchpotch of Mission Impossible 2, although they may have envied Bourne’s lack of memory. Thank the heavens then for the metaphorical fishing vessel of star Damon, director Doug Liman and writer Tony Gilroy for bringing this energetic affair to the screen, both setting up Damon as a bona fide action star and throwing the gauntlet at the feet of Bond and Ethan Hunt to step it up a gear (both of whom willingly accepting the challenge with Casino Royale’s gritty realism and MI3’s intelligent action).
Utilising a frenetic handheld camera style, an impromptu approach to weaponry (could you kill someone with a biro? I don’t even like writing with one) and almost an entire cast who seem to be as much in the dark about what’s going on as we are this is a new approach to blockbuster entertainment.
Whilst Identity leaves the ending without anything approaching a satisfying conclusion (forgivable in the setup for a series), Supremacy takes it further by blowing up anything associated with its predecessor anyway, before Ultimatum has the inspired audacity to stage most of its content between the last two acts of the second film. The latter two films, with Liman having handed the reins to United 93’s Paul Greengrass, are even more frantic than the first, showcasing free running, high speed chases around European cities and Bourne getting one over on the agents pursuing him. It’s also nice to see that this ‘malfunctioning thirty million dollar weapon’ is not infallible; there are some T-1000s to his T-800. Also, the Bourne trilogy should be rewarded for naming its films alphabetically, so DVD collections worldwide can run chronologically (damn you, Bill & Ted!), something surely to be ruined by the upcoming Bourne Legacy.
The Bourne Identity Choose film 7/10
The Bourne Supremacy Choose film 8/10
The Bourne Ultimatum Choose film 9/10

Diner

Overshadowed by the more successful, identically plotted yet inferior St. Elmo’s Fire for its starrier cast (back then anyway), this follows six friends as they joke, laugh, date and above all talk through their situations and lots in life as one of their number gears up to get married in a few days time. The cast of then near unknowns includes Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Mickey Rourke, Paul Reiser, Tim Daly, Kevin Bacon and Ellen Barkin, most of whom are fine in their roles, particularly Guttenberg as Eddie, the highly-strung groom-to-be who insists his fiancĂ© must pass a football test or he’ll cancel the ceremony, and Stern’s Shrevie, the sensible, married member of the group who has discovered he has nothing to talk about with his wife (Barkin). Only Reiser is left without much of a character of story arc, left merely to pop up now and then with a well timed joke or put-down, something the comedian is more than equipped to do. Some of the dialogue seems to have been lifted from an unused Steven Seagal script (“I’ll hit you so hard I’ll kill your whole family”), but the 50’s soundtrack, featuring such artists as Bobby Darin, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry help to make this an 80’s classic, even if it’s set in December 1959.
Choose film 6/10

Thursday, 28 July 2011

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage

With my pre-existing knowledge of Italian horror auteur Dario Argento – admittedly mostly garnered from watching Juno - I watched this apprehensively, ensuring the girlfriend – who scares easily – was out of the flat, and a sick bucket and towels were close to hand, lest the television begin leaking the copious flow of blood that would soon inevitably be filling up the screen. It is with a relieved sense of disappointment that I can confirm this is not a horror, more a suspense thriller, following a down on his luck American writer seeking inspiration in Italy, who witnesses an attempted murder whilst he is trapped between two sheets of glass. Discovering the attack was the handiwork of an active serial killer, he becomes obsessed with the case, up to the point where he is hunted by those who’d rather the killer remain unknown. Mostly following the standard crime whodunit formula, this effectively cranks up the suspense, but the goriness and brutality of the occasional murder jars with the largely sedate tone of the rest of the film. There are nice comedic touches – tracking down the man in the yellow jacket – and a collection of memorable oddball supporting characters including a stuttering pimp and a reclusive cat eating art collector, but this is little more than a sporadically bloodier version of A Touch of Frost.
Choose life 5/10

All That Jazz

Anyone seeking a straightforward musical, like Grease or Chicago, as was expected by this reviewer, would do well to seek elsewhere. A semi-autobiographical tale from director/writer/choreographer Bob Fosse, this shows musical director/writer/choreographer/everything else Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) as he discusses his life with angel of death Jessica Lange. There are occasional songs and dance numbers, and parts of his life are exaggerated and dramatised on stage. To use the description given to one of Gideon’s own performances (a very surprising sequence referred to as Erotic-Air), this film is “interesting, very interesting...unusual, very unusual.” It is difficult to decipher which parts are really from Gideon’s life and which are distorted and rewritten via his own limitless, unburdened imagination, from his own growing up in a burlesque house, being teased by barely clad women from an early age, to becoming a pill-popping, heavy smoking, heavy drinking perfectionist self-proclaimed liar who is “generous with his cock,” through to ruthlessly directing himself on his death bed. This ambitious, and possibly achieves what it set out to do, yet you leave the film unsatisfied, unsure of what you’ve seen and what to make of it.
Choose life 4/10

Anvil

In the summer of 1984 some of the biggest names in rock music, including Whitesnake, Bon Jovi and the Scorpions all performed at the Super Rock festival in Japan, to vast audiences of screaming fans. Also playing was a band that has proven to be an inspiration to a pantheon of rock and metal bands since, such as Metallica, Motorhead, Anthrax, Slayer and Guns ‘n’ Roses, yet you’ve probably never heard of them, unless of course you’ve seen this real-life Spinal Tap rock-doc, in which case sacn to the end and move on, you’re done here. The band in question is a four piece Canadian metal outfit known as Anvil, still performing with two of their original members; singer Steve ‘Lips’ Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner, but instead of basking in huge mansions, making records with big name producers or performing sell-out tours to millions, they are working dead end jobs and playing gigs at tiny sports bars, occasionally not even getting paid. This brilliant film tells their story, directed by their former roadie Sacha Gervasi, and tries to ascertain why such a talented, influential band could have failed so fantastically, and follows their attempt to relaunch their stalled careers in a music industry where the landscape has changed.
Choose film 7/10

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Batman Begins

As the title suggests, this predominantly covers Batman’s origin story, from the death of his parents after he becomes scared at the theatre, through his training by Liam Neeson’s Ducard, his development of a crime-fighting persona and his confrontation with his former mentor in a city ridden with toxin-crazed criminals and madmen. This is arguably the most realistic, or at least vaguely plausible comic book movie ever made, with the only real superpowers on display being a gas that makes people insane and a ridiculously vast fortune to funs Bruce Wayne’s double lifestyle. Granted, the secret passage in Wayne Manor is operated by hitting a coded sequence of piano keys, but this can be forgiven, and is at least a variation from the classic sliding of a secret book on a shelf.
The film has become criminally underrated since the release of the cinematic behemoth that was the Dark Knight, but Begins gives more room for Christian Bale’s Batman to breathe, as opposed to battling for screen time with the Joker and Two-Face. Not that Begins is light on villains, as alongside the aforementioned Ducard there is Tom Wilkinson’s mob boss Carmine Falcony and Cillian Murphy’s malicious Scarecrow, whose mask is genuinely unsettling. Padding out the good guys are Morgan Freeman’s tech-wiz Lucius Fox, Gary Oldman’s police commissioner Gordon and, of course, Michael Caine’s introduction to a new generation of fans as Wayne’s butler Alfred.
Certainly at times it is easy to lose track of who’s hitting whom in the fistfights, director Chris Nolan’s Batarang approach to plotting seems to suit the film better than it does the audience and somebody really needs to tell Katie Holmes to just stop being in films, but this is still one of the better superhero films in an ever increasingly crowded genre. You should await the forthcoming Dark Knight Rises with a barely concealed level of glee.
Choose film 8/10

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Spiderman 1 & 2

Never has a film been more squarely aimed at the nerds and outsiders of the world (OK, maybe Revenge of the Nerds), the guys with the smarts but not the brawn, good looks, athletic bodies and hot girlfriends. Fortunately, this description neatly encapsulates the majority of the superhero genre’s existing fanbase.
Tobey Maguire is Peter Parker, the afore-mentioned science nerd with a prolonged crush on Kirsten Dunst’s girl-next-door MJ, but lacking the confidence, wealth, strength and social standing required to do anything about it. After being bitten by a radioactive spider during a class field trip, he acquires some of the spider’s abilities, including wall crawling, mild precognition, shooting webs from his wrists, a vastly improved body and the ability to dangle from the ceiling into your mouth while you sleep. In real life, spider’s shoot the webs from an aperture closer to their posterior. This would have made for a much stranger film, I feel.  Unfortunately, Parker’s transformation occurs around the same time as Parker’s lazy rich kid best friend Harry’s businessman father trials a new super serum on himself, with predictably disastrous results, transforming him into a suped-up madman, terrorising the city in the form of fan favourite villain the Green Goblin.
This is noticeably a genre finding its feet, being one of the earlier modern comic book films (better than Joel Schumacher’s Batman travesties and Daredevil, not as good as X-Men), as it spends more time dealing with the inevitable origin story and too much soppy character drama, something improved upon by the sequel, as with no back story to cover the action gets to kick off straight away. Yes, back stories can be done well, see Batman Begins and Iron Man, but they were both able to learn from Spidey’s mistakes.
Spiderman 2 features a much more memorable and iconic villain in the form of Alfred Molina’s Dr. Otto Octavius who, after another botched experiment (this time involving fusion), he receives four prehensile multi-functional metal arms grafted to his spine, thereby becoming ‘Doc Oc’. As before, Maguire is justifiably bland as Parker, allowing the audience to project themselves onto him, and Dunst is still perfect as the dream girl, now tantalisingly within reach. Director Sam Raimi revels in some nice little in jokes (the chainsaw), casting regular Bruce Campbell as a ring announcer in part 1, a snooty usher in 2 and a helpful French waiter in 3 (not appearing on the list), as well as his brother Ted Raimi in a tiny role. J. K. Simmons is absolutely spot-on casting as J. Jonah Jameson Jr., editor of the Daily Bugle, making the films worth watching for his too few scenes alone.
Fun fact: Alfred Molina has the most incarnations of himself in Lego form, for his roles in Spiderman 2, Prince of Persia and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Ok, not that fun.
Spiderman Choose life 5/10
Spiderman 2 Choose film 7/10

Monday, 25 July 2011

4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days

I’ve finally offered myself up to the Gods of Lovefilm, kneeling at their alter and pledging my sacrifice of hard-earned readies and how am I rewarded? With a Romanian abortion film. Brilliant. Shot with an unflinching, rarely moving style, after the initial tracking shot around a dormitory in search of Kent cigarettes and black market Tic-Tacs, this shows the totalitarian regime of Romania in the late 80s, where abortions were banned for women under the age of 40 who hadn’t already had four or more children. The three main characters; the timid, fearful, naive and unexpectedly pregnant Gabita, her capable and confident roommate Otilia and the man found to perform the illegal termination, the callous, barbaric yet business-like Mr. Bebe are all played admirably, but some of the shots and topics discussed – the proper disposal method of an aborted foetus, whole or chopped, don’t always make for entertaining viewing.
Choose film 8/10

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Speed

100th film! Although really I’d have preferred it to have been the 50th, seeing as it’s about a bus, rigged with a bomb that activates once the bus reaches 50 miles per hour, detonating should the buses speed drop below 50. The planter of the bomb is Dennis Hopper’s vengeful psychotic ex-cop Howard Payne, angry at Keanu Reeves and Jeff Daniels’ foiling of his first elevator-based hostage situation and eager for a paycheck he feels he’s been cheated. But you don’t care about the motive or who’s behind it, as Payne tells Reeves’ Jack Traven, “Your concern is the bus.” Whenever the film detracts from this central conceit, be it following the non bus bound cops trying to track down Payne or Hopper himself watching the action unfold on the ever present media, the pacing immediately slackens, so enticing is the central plot.
Physics and logic take a back seat in this crowd pleasing actioner (It’s the kind of film where the only by-the-book police procedure results in carnage), with the infamous bus jump being the most forhead-slappingly annoying, and the subway-set finale is a bit of a letdown, but the supporting characters, including Alan Ruck’s sight-seeing tourist (“The airport? I’ve already seen the airport.”) and Beth Grant’s hysterical commuter easily outshine the largely wooden performances from Reeves (once again earning his nickname of ‘The Wall’) and Sandra Bullock as a fellow passenger/love interest.
Choose life 6/10

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

The Silence of the Lambs

It’s easy to forget just how impressive Silence of the Lambs is as a film; receiving the ‘Big 5’ Oscars (Actor, Actress, Picture, Director, Screenplay) back in 1992, an accolade since rusted by the diminishing returns of the sequels/prequel. When remembered, the image brought to mind is of a motionless Anthony Hopkins stood eerily in the centre of a jail cell, awaiting Jodie Foster’s FBI student Clarice Starling, the conversations that ensue regarding Hopkins’ incarcerated Hannibal Lecter assisting the FBI with psychological analysis of an active serial killer, and certainly Hopkins’ aggressive, manic yet restricted delivery of oft-quoted and even more so parodied dialogue. Admittedly Hopkins turn, equal parts refined and ruthless, educated and insane, psycho-analytical and psychopathic, is remarkable, before Ridley Scott’s Hannibal turned him into some kind of dandy rogue (albeit one who feeds Ray Liotta his own brain), but it is so overpowering that it overshadows the rest of the film, feeling his absence whenever he’s not on screen, staring directly into the soul of the viewer. Not to diminish the rest of the production, with Jodie Foster being another highlight, her twig-like rookie about a foot shorter than all the other male recruits, all of whom have no problem checking her out as she walks by, seeing her not as an equal, but simply as a girl. Ted Levine (Monk, Heat) is also incredible as the killer Buffalo Bill, keeping his victims alive in a well before skinning them to make himself a suit. Criminally he was not even considered for a supporting actor nomination, yet his portrayal is arguably more chilling than Hopkins’, delving deep into a twisted, scarred psyche and throwing the shattered remains at the screen. The third reel reveals, both examples of fine editing and cinematography, also deserve mentioning, keeping you guessing long after you thought you knew what was happening.
Choose film 8/10

Sunday, 10 July 2011

A Room with a View

Featuring an unexpected amount of penises for a period film (or any other for that matter), this tells the story of Helena Bonham Carter’s upper class Lucy Honeychurch, who finds herself having to choose between two suitors; her betrothed, oily, irritatingly snobbish Cecil (Daniel Day-Lewis, over enunciating to grating effect) and Julian Sands’ playful, liberated yet of a lower social standing George. Obviously Lucy will choose the less pretentious and by all means friendlier George, overcoming the general repression of the times (a break-up is ended with a simple handshake), but the supporting cast makes this a worthwhile watch, from Maggie Smith’s unobtrusive Aunt Charlotte, Dame Judi Dench’s romance novelist, Simon Callow as the local vicar (and owner of one of the aforementioned phalluses) and Denholm Elliot as George’s forward thinking father. With so much talent surrounding them, it’s no wonder Bonham Carter and Sands struggle to shine, proving themselves to be merely audience ciphers.
Choose film 6/10

Leon

After the murder of her uncaring parents and innocent four year old brother at the hands of a pill-popping, Beethoven loving Gary Oldman, Natalie Portman’s 12-year old Matilda is taken in by her stoic, lonesome ’cleaner’ (a hitman to you and I) Leon. Leon’s skills as a contract killer are evidently impressive, shown early on by his one-man takedown of a drug dealer and his crew, disappearing into the shadows like the breath of a ninja, yet his skills as a human being and fully functioning member of society are less so, eking out a solitary existence with his milk laden fridge and beloved yucca plant. The introduction of Matilda into his life changes everything, as she requests training to avenge her brother’s death, in exchange becoming Leon’s assistant and tutor in reading and writing. Director Luc Besson shows a style and directorial flair seen previously in Nikita (where Jean Reno’s character first briefly appeared) as more recently in the decidedly more Hollywood-ised the Fifth Element (again featuring an intense, cackling turn from Oldman in villainous form).
Choose film 6/10

No Country for Old Men

In this most bleak and convoluted offering from the Coen brothers you rarely witness a characters ultimate destiny, although they are hinted at enough to make a fair assumption. Josh Brolin’s Llewelyn Moss, a welder out hunting deer in south west Texas, stumbles upon a botched drug deal and, finding a suitcase full of money, goes immediately to the authorities before returning home to his wife and living a largely uneventful life. No, of course not, he legs it, instigating a game of cat and mouse with Javier Barden’s Anton Chigurh, a ruthless, near robotic hitman with an unusual and extreme set of morals, himself pursued by Tommy Lee Jones’ small town sheriff Ed Tom Bell. Featuring a stellar supporting cast including Woody Harrelson, Stephen Root and Kelly Macdonald, some incredible scenery, lensed by Oscar winning regular Coen cinematographer Roger Deakins and highly memorable dialogue lifted directly from Cormac McCarthy’s seminal novel of the same name, this is a truly inspirational and unique film. Bardem in particular completely embodies his character, becoming one of the most iconic villains to grace our screens in modern times. Brolin however strikes me as an actor from the ranks of Shia LaBoeuf and Sam Worthington, snapped up and promoted by big name directors without having the talent to back up the expectations, flooding the cinemas with frankly mediocre acting ability.
Choose film 8/10

Monday, 4 July 2011

Strictly Ballroom

You don’t really need anyone to tell you this is a Baz Luhrmann film. Focussing on a stage-set pastime (ballroom dancing) with fantastically over the top characters and a very Australian film, this is distinctive Luhrmann through and through. Focussing on a ballroom dancing prodigy (Paul Mercurio, though you’ll swear blind its Guy Pearce), shunned from the ballroom world after using his own moves in a competition, left with only a dowdy aspiring dancer as a partner he must re-infiltrate the dancing competition to regain his place. Ignore the sequinned backdrop, this is a genuinely hilarious movie, if only for the ridiculous levels of devotion the characters have for their hobby.
Choose film 7/10

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Jack Nicholson, in an arguably career best (so far) performance, is R.P. McMurphy, hopes to complete a short prison sentence without resorting to hard labour, and therefore pleads insanity and is transferred to a psychiatric hospital run by the steely Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher).  Ratched’s treatment methods, including humiliation and a mind-numbing daily routine appal McMurphy, as he realises the other patients are more focused on their fear of her than of functioning in the outside world. Although the main two performances are excellent, both winning well deserved Oscars, the film remains memorable more for the supporting cast that makes up the other inmates. Each has a specific and instantly recognisable personality, be it Brad Dourif’s stutteringly naive suicide risk Billy, Danny DeVito’s childlike Martini or Christopher Lloyd’s crazed loose cannon Taber, used whenever anyone is required to awake to a surprise situation, as Lloyd owns the greatest instant ‘what the Hell’ face on the planet.
The film is remarkable, not only for the acting but also the depths to which the story plunges, with an ending both horrific and genuinely surprising. Throughout the film it is obvious that McMurphy will be discovered as a fraud (something never actually stated during the film), and will of course be sent back to prison where he belongs (the sentence he is attempting to avoid is the statutory rape of a 15-year old girl), but the fate in store for him is far worse than could possibly be imagined. It also features possibly the most elaborate plan to have sex ever, hijacking a busload of patients, commandeering a boat and teaching said loons how to fish.
Choose film 9/10

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Total Recall

I‘m not really a fan of Dick (prolific 60’s science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, of course). I’ve never made it through Blade Runner without falling asleep, admired A Scanner Darkly purely for its innovative visual style and, though I’ve read several of his novels, I find his spontaneous approach to plotting unsatisfying, but I appreciate his visionary concepts and radical yet plausible predictions of the progression of then-modern culture.
Total Recall is based on one of his short stories, We Can Remember It for You Wholesale. In the year 2048, technology has advanced to allow people to be implanted with memories of lives and vacations they otherwise could never experience. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s frustrated Doug Quaid undergoes such a treatment, only for something to go wrong. He awakes to discover the memory he requested may well be of a life that’s already his, but pleasingly this is left slightly open-ended come the conclusion of the film. There are some memorable touches, including robotic taxis, a confrontation behind a giant x-ray, the infamous triple-breasted hooker and a mutant creature growing on a man’s chest, but the overcomplicated plotting, featuring too many twists, betrayals and switched allegiances, leaves the movie far too close to one of Dick’s own novels for my liking, and the cars look as though they were rendered on a PlayStation. That being said, Michael Ironside is gloriously unhinged as bad guy Rictor.
Choose life 6/10

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

A kind  of working class Alfie, this tells the story of twenty-something factory worker Arthur Seaton, spending his weekends getting fall-down drunk, chasing women and sleeping with a stiff co-workers bored wife. Seaton is played with an animal intensity by Albert Finney in a breakout role, captivatingly bitter and indignant (check out the primal glare he gives his opponent in an early drinking contest), but some of the supporting cast are terrible, notable Shirley Anne Field as Arthur’s latest fancy Doreen. Predictably plotted and having aged terribly (One character dreams of “a new house, with a bathroom and everything!”) this is notable for Finney’s portrayal of a man confined by his own sense of self, but little else.
Choose life 5/10