Friday, 29 June 2012

Rope (1948) - Review

Having just received an Alfred Hitchcock collection as a gift, the first film I choose to watch was Rope. And here are some thoughts on it.....

The central thing with Rope is whether or not Hitchcock's decision to present it as one long take comes off. My feeling is that Hitch struggles in the early stages to generate the tension that fills the film's better, later moments. In these early moments we see (homosexual?) roommates Brandon and Phillip murder their close friend David. The reason for the murder, it is explained, is that Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger) believe killing to be an artform. Part of the crime, then, is also the presentation and so to add paniche to their evil deed, the two men stage a party and invite the dead man's parents, lover and former teacher (James Stewart). Now, the danger with long, masterful takes is that it can feel like the actors are merely reading their lines and, in the immediate aftermath of the murder, Rope buckles under the weight of having to give an enormous amount of exposition with very little on-screen action. It feels like a play. 

But as the party gets going, so does the movie. The arrival James Stewart signals an improvement in fortunes, as the inquisitive, suspicious and highly intelligent teacher suspects that something is amiss. It's here that the single-shot technique comes into its own, allowing Hitch to rest upon Stewart's marvelous performance. The stand out moment is surely when, after being angered by a chicken throttling anecdote, Phillip briefly loses his cool and the camera rests on the teacher's face; we can practically see the cogs whirring.

Long takes aside, the movie's premise encourages perhaps one of the greatest displays of dramatic irony - all secondary school english students should take notes - that you'll ever see. And its use of the one location really adds to the claustrophobic, insulated nature of the two men's relationship. So although Rope does feel like an experiment, its strong hypothesis that the 8 minute takes would generate intensity ensures that it still deserves to be seen. 

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Scars of Dracula Review

Next on my list of Hammer films to get through was the 1970 Scars of Dracula, here are some thoughts....

Early on in this re-hash from Hammer we are treated to an attack on Dracula's castle by the villagers of the small town he is terrorising and the result is, for a 1970 production, fairly spectacular. Fire is used to good effect and their is a palpable sense of tension. Sadly, this early set piece proves to be the highlight as what follows never lives up to its beginning. 

After the villagers fail in this early attack, we are introduced to wild child Paul Carlson (Christopher Matthews) as he is being chased down for his promiscuous behaviour. Soon he finds himself lost in the woods and then ends up on Dracula's doorstep. The film's trouble begins with these important moments of exposition because they are hamstrung by the clunky script, which needed far more work from veteran screenwriter Anthony Hinds. And things only get worse when Paul, after meeting Dracula, disappears and the rest of the film is spent with his brother Simon (Dennis Waterman) and his fiance Sarah (Jenny Hanley). The dialogue between these two lovers is just woeful. In fact, the performances throughout range drastically from the sublime (Lee, obviously) to the truly dire (Hanley).

Also, did you only hear the famous count's name in relation to the other characters here? That's because the plot, like so many Dracula adaptions, seems unsure what to do with its titular villain and instead just relies on excessive sex and violence to pull through. Which is surprising because director Roy Ward Baker has previous pedigree with Hammer (Quartermass and the Pitt is on his CV) but sadly, he can't rescue this one. That's not to say there are no merits, Dracula's hand pulling back a red curtain to advance upon the film's primary maiden is extremely effective. While the sets are as beautifully designed as ever.

The school play-like prop bat that revives Dracula at the start rather sums up the fortunes of this poor Hammer Horror film. Cheap, lazy and, unfortunately, nothing new.
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Monday, 25 June 2012

A Matter of Life and Death (1946) - Review

I'm currently working my way through a boxset of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's movies. Today, I looked at A Matter of Life and Death, a film that many consider to be their finest piece of work, and here are my thoughts....

It's little wonder, after the enormous carnage of the Second World War, that Powell and Pressburger's next project would focus on what becomes of us after death. But this is not the film's only focus, A Matter of Life and Death's secondary motive (or perhaps its first, it's hard to tell) is to encourage Americans and Brits to reconcile their differences and disregard historical prejudices. The result achieves more than these two aims, however, because what you get is a story about love that will be re-shown to generations.

In an opening that, in retrospect, seems to have influenced J.J Abrams' Star Trek, we are introduced to British aviator Peter Carter (David Niven) and American war volunteer June (Kim Hunter) conversing over the phone as Peter is plummeting to his doom. The two form a connection over phone-line and quickly fall in love but Peter, due to his subsequent crash, is on his way to death. However, he avoids it due to the angels missing him on the way down. The angels are not too happy with this and promptly try to explain to him that he needs to come with them to make up the time. Needless to say he refuses and so Peter & co. proceed to play a game of chess with the forces of the universe. He's helped along the way by Doctor Reeves (Roger Livesey) and the peace-brokering dead Frenchman named Conductor 71 (Marius Goring). And so the film sets up two worlds, the first one is our planet as we know it, the second is a version of the afterlife.

Full of fantastical elements, this is bold stuff from the filmmaking team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. And, like all of their work, A Matter of Life and Death is full of the odd little touches, such as a a point of view shot of Peter's eye closing comes to mind, that really suit this kind of film. Indeed, the climatic act features a courtroom drama over nationalistic ties that remains truly unique. Direction, as always, is superb; with the Archers choosing to shoot the earth scenes in glorious technicolour and the death scenes in black and white, perhaps to show the unhappy nature of this afterlife, or maybe to just remind us that it might actually all be in our aviator's mind.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Ratatouille - Review

Pixar are the best, they're at the top of the animation world, there's no doubt about it. Yet, they are not looking down on the likes of Shrek because of their animation skills, although, these are also sublime; no, the reason Pixar have dominated for nearly 20 years now is because storytelling is always at the heart of each piece of work that bears that little lamp's glow. For more evidence of this, check out Andrew Stantons recent, excellent TED Talk.

Ratatouille is an example of Pixar storytelling at its finest. At face value, the story seems to take quirky to levels too high for adults. Rural rat Remy (That's right, I said rat, the vermin) has a deep passion for cooking that is being stifled by his father. But, when Remy's colony is forced to flee into the sewers, he is separated and suddenly finds himself in Paris.The big city, for Remy, is a liberating experience, it expands his possibilities. It is here he meets the hapless Linguini, a struggling garbage boy in the swanky kitchen of the great Gusteau and the two end up forming a strange partnership. Remy can cook but doesn't have the opportunity, Linguini can't cook but has the opportunity. So, in a narrative device that teeters dangerously towards the unbelievable, the film makes Linguini Remy's puppet through the use of his hair.
All this in the first 45 minutes. Good job the direction is zippy, especially in manufacturing action sequences out of very little. This, in fact, continues throughout as Bird makes excellent use of his Parisian location. Sure, it's very much a tourist's view of Paris, the eiffel tower is on show as often as possible, but this isn't what makes the movie's use of the city effective; instead it's the detail. A chase along the river Seine later in the day exposes the level of research the animators went into here. If you wanted to go all subtext, you could also argue that Paris is a beauty that is only attainable when we are brave enough to follow our dreams; but it's also there to look pretty too!
Unfortunately, not everyone is happy with Linguini's subsequent elevation into cooking stardom and the remainder of the film is a sort of mix of suspense thriller with a bit of romance thrown in for good measure. But, turning away from the narrative for a moment, this movie is about so much more than cooking. It's about ego, jealousy and staying true to yourself.

Quick word on the voice work: outstanding, as always. Patton Oswalt and Lou Romano are likeable enough as Remy and Linguini respectively. But the star that really shines, however, is Peter O' Toole's sneering critic Anton Ego (pictured left). You see, Ratatouille is also a smart critique of criticism itself, a dispelling of snobbery everywhere. Let me tell you, the famous starring system doesn't come out of proceedings too well. And O' Toole's character suggests that critics need to put down their pens and enjoy things a bit more. It also, more importantly, makes the point that a critic should always be looking to champion the new and the different, instead of constantly ostracising the successful.

"I'm not talking about cooking, I'm talking abouts guts" Remy's father says to him towards the film's joyous climax.

Well, Pixar had guts, lots of them. And boy, did it pay off.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) - Review

I hate films that are too long, it's the greatest sin a movie can commit. And nowadays movies, generally, are far too lengthy for their own good. I saw a Cameron Diaz movie the other month that went on for 2 hours, inexplicable. You can imagine my dismay, then, when I discovered that a film I had been anxious to watch for quite some time, Powell and Pressburger's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, stretched to 2 hours 36 minutes. I needn't have worried because within half an hour I was lost in the story.

The movie tracks British soldier Clive Candy (Roger Livesey) across a lifetime of service between 1902-1943. We see him take part in three major conflicts; The Boer War, The First World War and The Second World War. Each period is immaculately recreated, especially considering the date of the film's production.  The 1902 german bar, for instance, is sumptuous. Through his service Candy meets many people that make an impact on him, none more so than the German soldier he is forced to duel in 1902, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook). And though propaganda may be the movie's body, its heart and soul is the strength of the cross-country friendship between these two men. So much so that Winston Churchill despised it and wanted it banned. This is all helped along by the performances, which are first rate. Livesey anchors everything, and manages to portray Candy's swaggering youth, in 1902, and his reluctant recognition the ageing process in 1943. Of course, this was a British funded second world war movie and so a strong pro-anglo stance on the conflict is taken; really hammering home the fact that this war, due to the uniquely evil threat Nazism poses, is very different from all previous encounters and so requires a suspension of English gentility. However, when compared with, say, the Archer's A Canterbury Tale, Colonel Blimp's propaganda element never gets in the way of the narrative. 

On the film's wikipedia page, the great Stephen Fry says that what interests him about the movie is its addressing of the question "What does it mean to be British?". I would like to hijack this comment, for Mr.QI has hit the nail on the head, what makes this film special is that it captures a sense of what being a member of the British nation means. And it celebrates it. I wrote a review of the footballing documentary One Night in Turin last week and concluded that it would be a perfect injection of patriotism ready for Euro 2012. True though that statement was, Colonel Blimp is a more thoughtful, reasoned reflection on British character and so, consequently, it shows itself to be a more patriotic watch.

Frankenstein Created Woman (1967) - Review

I'm currently working my way through the 1950s-1960s output of British studio Hammer. The most recent Hammer DVD I've seen is Frankenstein Created Woman and, like most of the movies produced by this fabulous studio, I was rather impressed. Here's why.....

Frankenstein Created Woman is the third in the series of Hammer adaptions (using the word pretty fast and loose, I know) of Mary Shelley's famous 1818 novel. In this one, the chief premise of the film is asking what the relationship is between the body and the soul when, after Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) is revived back to life by his assistant Doctor Hertz (Thorley Walters), he becomes obsessed with "defeating death". And the major feat achieved by the film is that, amongst all this heavy meta physical exploration, the story keeps its feet firmly on solid narrative soil. The plot contrives in astonishing ways - in the form of a middle act court room scene - to provide a wonderfully twisted, Frankenstein-themed rendition of Romeo and Juliet. As our two star crossed lovers, Hans (Robert Morris) and disabled Christina (Susan Denberg), fall foul of fate in their attempts to be together.

There are extras, of course, in the form of the three aristocratic bullies who populate the film's more violent scenes. The three men - looking, and sounding, remarkably like the Droogs of A Clockwork Orange (FCW predates Kubricks classic by four years) - are the main villans of the piece, thereby allowing Fisher to explore the darker, more intriguing desires of Baron Frankenstein. Cushing is as on form as ever, playing the same cold, calculating Baron that has populated so many beloved Hammer pictures.

Fisher, despite his always subtle direction style, conjures up some striking images and keeps things moving fairly briskly for a Hammer production. While Bernard Hamman's score has a growing presence, becoming far more menacing as proceedings darken into what would, in modern day terms, be described as a slasher movie.

Of course, the script is also exploring class conflict and the nature of sexuality. But let's leave that to the academics and just enjoy Susan Denberg, in her one, notable screen role, advance on some poor chap, meat-cleaver in hand.
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Thursday, 14 June 2012

Manhattan - Review

I've written before on here about how I want to try and see more of certain directors' work. Woody Allen is one such director and so, the other night, I settled down to watch Manhattan; here are some thoughts......

To me, and it can't be stated strong enough how much of a newcomer I am to Allen's work, he just seems to have a way of creating characters that are believable. Yet, at the same time, they are perfect for populating the gorgeous cinematic landscapes he creates. Manhattan is an excellent example of this. In the film Allen plays Isaac, an iteration of the same scrawny, neurotic, insecure intellectual that populates his other recognised masterpiece, Annie Hall. The movie follows Isaac through a period of his life living in - yep, you guessed it - Manhattan. Isaac is always picking out things about the city that irritate him so as to avoid addressing the real issues in his life. We witness him go on about how the tap water is brown, while his love interest is demanding answers from him. And, despite the amusing nature of these idiocracies, what drives the story is the love interests. Isaac is drifting through his life, dating a 17 year old girl (Mariel Hemingway), when he falls for his best friend's mistress (Diane Keaton).

Visually, the film's depiction of the ensuing drama is just beautiful. It's hard to think of adjectives that can effectively summarise it. The best thing is to do is to look at the image above, and then just trust me that Manhattan is chock-a-block filled with these kinds of moments. The remarkable thing is that this film is totally dialogue driven and yet the composition of each shot is taken with such care. Allen also wisely shoots in black and white, allowing him to light the faces of his characters more effectively while at the same time emphasising the difficulties of urban life. An uneasy cinema scene is the film's best example of this and also the stand-out moment for this reviewer; each character's face is impeccably lit by the glow of the cinema screen, a modern, urbane technology, and each face squirms with the awkwardness of the situation.

At its heart, however, Manhattan is a movie about moral dilemas. Early on, Allen's character Isaac says as much "if you saw a guy drowning in the freezing water, what would you do?". Its not preachy, as Isaac tries to avoid in his novel during the opening narration, but is instead endearing. Allen's wit and elegance infuses his direction, to the extent that it carries Manhattan through these big themes.

Worth every second.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Prometheus - Review

Like many millions of people, this week I saw Ridley Scott's hugely anticipated Prometheus. Now, my knee-jerk reaction to the film as the lights were coming up was "Need to see that again". Having already been charged a fortune, however, that was not a possibility so here are my thoughts on the first viewing....

Two words: Fantastic experience. Honestly, that's how Prometheus can be summed up, but we'll return to that in a minute. Better explain the plot, don't fret if you have not had chance to catch the film yet, this review will contain no spoilers. It's the year 2089 and a team of explorers are searching for the origins of mankind on a distant planet, but what they find is not particularly nice. There, that's all the plot summary you need because the best way to go into Prometheus is exactly the same way those explorers arrived on that planet; excited, nervous and, above all, oblivious to what's ahead.

First things first, Michael Fassbender. He is proving himself to be the finest actor of his generation. His David - a robot, by the way - is a cold, calculating creation who is obsessed by the David Lean film Lawrence of Arabia. That movie's protagonist is fixated by that most difficult of questions "Who am I?". And Fassbender prooves very effective at conveying this same struggle within David over what he is; his end of the day conversations with Shaw are especially chilling "Doesn't everyone want to murder their parents?".

Scott has always been an impressive world builder and Prometheus is no exception to this rule. The original designs by H. R Giger have been used, of course, but Scott has shaped an entire planet around them. And the enormous sets on display ensure you believe in the world completely, although the 3D hinders this slightly. Its too dim by far, especially considering the darkness of Giger's designs.

When you consider how much of recent science fiction output has been action orientated - I'm looking at you, Lockout - it becomes apparent that Ridley's latest is a breath of fresh air. Prometheus dreams big, really big. Its querying who made us and why. Not an original question, I know, but the results it conjures from asking this question are thought provoking and awe-inspiring. This is what sci-fi - good sci-fi, anyway - needs to be doing.

There are, however, more issues than just poor 3D. The script seems hammy in places and some scenes are just baffling. One moment involving Charlize Theron and a squeezebox playing Idris Elba bears no relation to either character or plot. And, aside from David and Shaw, the crew are hard to really get behind. Elba and Theron seem underused and why in god's name did they cast Guy Pearce as a man who's ancient? He just looks absurd under what appears to be an entire bucket of make up.

But, despite feeling uneven, Prometheus remains a big, fat, spectacular science fiction experience. Who, with any justice, could have asked for more than that?

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman - Review

Today, by lucky chance, I managed to see the latest addition to the Snow White canon in the form of Rupert Sanders' Snow White and the Huntsman. Here are some thoughts....

This iteration of the Snow White fairytale is, interestingly, the second of the year after the much maligned Mirror Mirror (presumably someone, somewhere, has made a big mistake). Yet SWH is decidedly different from the above Julia Robert's vehicle, this ones an all-together darker beast. Its also an all-together good one.

The Huntsmen (Chris Hemsworth - Bizarrely Scottish in this?), after having been ordered to execute Snow White (Kristen Stewart), has a change of heart and suddenly becomes her protector against the forces of darkness marshalled by the evil Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron). This twist of the legend means that the film turns into a Star-Wars style, must fight against the evil emperor, fantasy romp. And that's just fine.

Rupert Sanders is on direction duties and, no doubt due to his advertising background, his prowess at creating stark imagery elevates the whole show. Early on our villain bathes in some sort of milky substance in order to enhance her skin? Her powers? We are never sure, but the image is striking. As is the darkness of the script, the relationship between Ravenna and her brother (Sam Spruell) has incestuous undercurrents that will sail over youngsters heads but, for the adults, makes their relationship   beyond creepy.

It doesn't all work, Stewart leaves a lot to be desired - she can't play Bella forever. And the dwarfs (played by an amalgam of top British actors, Bob Hoskins and Ray Winstone among them) are just plain jarring and unnecessary. Also, let's be honest, it has a middle act that's saggier than the evil Queen's face. But its still enjoyable because you totally believe in the world that Sanders and his team have created and, in terms of fairy tale movies, that's the fairest factor of them all.   

One Night in Turin - Review

Euro 2012 is en route and so to pump up the patriotism I thought now would be the best time to watch a documentary that has long been sitting on my shelf, One Night in Turin. Here are some thoughts...

The documentary tells the story (and it is very much a story) of the England football team's 1990 Italian World Cup. And, well, its just excellent. Yes, the reconstructions leave a lot to be desired - theres only so many times you can watch staged boots kick grass - but this documentary's heart is firmly in the right place. It works hard to highlight the way social and political issues can surround the game of football; the way that a discursive atmosphere is set up around tournaments by the media. We see the effect of the Poll Tax riots, the blundering nature of politicians in sport and, most importantly of all, hooliganism.   The real aim, however, is to show that on the pitch none of this really matters and, as a result, this footie-doc hits all the right notes.

Gary Oldman's narration is spot-on, soberly reading Erksine's perfectly poised script; England's backline is "creaking, buckling" apparently. Erksine's showing of Waddle's last, tragic spot kick wisely never leaves the player and is shown as one, long take during which it becomes clear that footballers are heroic. In this current climate of sexual scandal and enormous salaries, One Night in Turin is, or at least should be, a wake up call. One scene, if thats the right word, is utterly heartbreaking. The lip-reading of Bobby Robson's consolations to Paul Gascoigne during the preparations for penaltys will make you weep like 'Gazza' himself.

Some reviewers at the time bemoaned the documentary for lack of original insights. My sense is that if you are a die-hard football fan who spent the tournament glued to the screen this may ring true. But if, like this reviewer, you weren't alive in 1990 and so never witnessed this amazing story, One Night in Turin is an excellent way to prepare for Euro 2012.     

Monday, 4 June 2012

Happy-Go-Lucky - Review

Happy-Go-Lucky (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Mike Leigh is high on my list of filmmakers who's work I want to see more of. So last night I sat down to watch Happy-Go-Lucky and here are my thoughts....

Happy-Go-Lucky follows Poppy (Sally Hawkins), an eternally optimistic Londoner, for a small portion of her vibrant life. Her enthusiasm and unwaveringly sunny outlook starts to irritate those around her, most notably her new driving instructor Scott (Eddie Marsan).

A Mike Leigh film is always character driven and Happy-Go-Lucky is no exception; its very much Poppy's story. But that's fine, because she's a truly wonderful creation. Leigh famously works one on one with his actors trying to develop each of his characters and, in this case, I would've loved to have been a fly on the wall. Poppy is constantly bursting with laughter and yet remains endearing throughout. All credit to Hawkins, not many could've pulled this off with such ease. Having seen her in different roles since this turn it's remarkable how believable she is and how much she carries this movie.

The film itself matches Poppy's optimism, this is much lighter stuff than some have come to expect from Leigh. The message is very much "Life is what you make of it", even amongst all the economic and social constraints that can be placed upon a person. Early on, a bird is invoked as a metaphor for Poppy, an association that remains with the film till its end. Leigh's camera flys with Poppy through London, pausing, as a bird does, at the perfect places; to linger on an abused child's face, to show Scott's racist paranoia. One minor gripe is that, when Leigh does stop, sometimes the dialogue isn't quite up to the task. A few of Poppy's conversations, the long stop with a homeless person for example, clash with the realism.

That aside, Happy-Go-Lucky's exquisite moments and colourful characters ensure it remains a joy from start to finish. Highly recommended.
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London Boulevard - Review

London Boulevard
London Boulevard (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
One night last week, some friends and I decided to put a film on. Some fool (me), suggested London Boulevard. I was wrong; heres why........

In a nutshell, its all over the place. Oscar winning screen-writer William Monahan (The Departed) makes his directorial debut here and, unfortunately, he fails to bring any of his previous work's cohesion to this Brit-gangster pic. The film follows the comings and goings of ex-con Mitchell (Colin Farrell) as he struggles to go straight. Soon after his release from prison, Mitchell is hired by a celebrity named Charlotte (Kiera Knightley) to protect her from the paparazzi. Mitchell's attempts to stay on the right side of the law and his association with Charlotte leave him out of favour with local ganglord Gant (Ray Winstone).

If that plot summary seems to lack a narrative drive, its because that's exactly what the film struggles with the most. Watching a former criminal go straight is a good start, but there needs to be more to it than that. Michell's relationship with his sister (Anna Friel) is boring and lacks focus, while David Thewlis' stoner is bearable but given little to actually do. To go with his poor story, Monahan also wastes his enormous - it must be said- talent pool. Winstone is the only highlight of the film and he fails to make an appearance until fairly late in proceedings, despite being crucial to the story. Actors like Eddie Marsan and Stephen Graham are given such little time its a miracle they even appeared on set. And Kiera Knightley manages to make her performances in the Pirates of the Caribbean series look award winning.

Wasteful scripting and direction, then, turn London Boulevard into a loss for Monahan, hopefully his next will see him return to The Departed style form.
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