Thursday, 28 January 2016

The Running Man (1987)

"I told you I'd be back."

It would be easy to praise this film for its prescience about such things as reality TV cruelty, ratings cynicism and the use of television to politically dumb down the populace. But (with a nod to The Year of the Sex Olympics) this was all done much more intelligently, and with much more metatextual wit, in a 1985 Doctor Who story called Vengeance on Varos. Unfortunately this has probably caused me to underrate The Running Man which is, to be fair, a rather good film of hilariously '80s at times.

It's that far-flung future year of 2017 when a tyrannical government has removed all civil liberties and political rights, replacing them with arbitrary rule and brainless television to whip up the reactionary fervour of the masses- a bit like Fox News but not as evil. 

It's a problem to believe in the future they present, unfortunately, because of the film's sheer Eightiesness. The hairstyles and computer screens date it instantly, and even the opening titles are uncannily like the video to M.A.R.R.S.'s "Pump Up the Volume". It's also a very cyberpunk, dystopian future, which was very much in the zeitgeist at the time, as was this particular sort of scenario, as shown by the above mentioned Doctor Who story. One thing was prescient, though: a stalker called Sub-Zero decades before Mortal Kombat.

Arnie is, well, Arnie, not so much acting as doing his stuff, and Jessie Ventura hand it up delightfully as Captain Freedom. It's a surprise to see Mick Fleetwood and Dweezil Zappa as members of the resistance but they acquit themselves well. 

It's s good film, I admit. It's just that it's hard to entangle from much of the other stuff that was in the zeitgeist at the time and it just doesn't come across as being very original. Worth watching, though.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Citizen Kane (1941)

"If I hadn't been very rich, I might have been a great man."

At the age of 38 I've finally seen this film, and feel a little bit more cultured than I was. It's far too dense with signifiers and crammed with meaning to add much to the decades of critical discussion after just one viewing, yes, but at least I can say what I thought. Essentially, it's exactly as good as people say it is. Sometimes you can go into a film with sky-high expectations and end up a little deflated that it turns out to be merely excellent rather than sublime. I suspect my expectations were lowered a little by the fact that Citizen Kane no longer tends to sit at the top of all these "Top 100" lists as it used to but, well, it should. 

Yes, the whole "rosebud" thing turns out to be a fairly facile revelation about the loss of childhood innocence, but there's a lot more going on than that. Plus the direction is incredible courtesy of a young Orson Welles, and his performance as Charles Foster Kane is spellbinding: a man of depth, wit and charisma and who never quite lets you in. 

The script, too, is as philosophical as a nineteenth century novel, with a line on memory that's redolent of Proust and a clever examination of the newspaper industry's loss of innocence, paralleling Kane's own. Most clever, though, is that Kane is only ever seen through the memories of others, never on his own terms; perhaps we have the cinematic equivalent of the unreliable narrator.

Oh, and at last I get the references in the White Stripes' "The Union Forever".

This is a truly great film and worthy of far more than a hurried blog post written on the 16.09 from Birmingham New Street to Coleshill Parkway. If you haven't seen it, you should bloody well do so.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Fantastic Four (2005)

"A few days in space. It'll be great. What's the worst that could happen?"

I can't remember where, but I recently read an interview with Stan Lee (he's 93, you know) in which he expressed the view that this film was excellent, really captured the four main characters and the dynamic between them, but that the use of Doctor Doom as a character was misconceived. This blog post is essentially me agreeing with him. Who am I to contradict the great Stan Lee? And, moreover, he's right.

(Incidentally, I love Stan's cameo in this film playing Willie Lumpkin, for once not only an actual character from the comics, but one he created).

The four main characters are perfectly written and played. Special praise has to go to Michael Chiklis as Ben, a perfect piece of casting, but Chris Evans as Johnny is also superb, and a very different performance from the same actor's portrayal of Captain America.

However, while Julian McMahon plays the role he's given very well indeed and even wears the costume at the end, this is not Doctor Doom but an entirely different character, which is a shame. That isn't enough to stop the film being very good, but it's a definite black mark.  

Still, I like the way the origin is not dwelt upon, and the script portrays all of the characters exactly as they should be. The relationship between Ben and Johnny, in particular, is perfect. This isn't the best Marvel film adaptation ever, but it's certainly a decent attempt.

The War of the Worlds (1953)

"The Martians can conquer the Earth in six days."

"The same number of days it took to create it!"

Oh dear. This film seems to be well liked. Sorry, but I'm about to give it quite the spanking. Oh, it looks good; the Martians and their craft look great. But this film is a badly written piece of crude religious propaganda with shockingly poor characterisation and hammy acting. Yes, I know it's a melodrama, but it isn't even amusing or gun to watch on a MST2000 kind of way. This is not the worst film I've seen all year, but it is the most disappointing.

Things start on a bad footing with Cedric Hardwicke, narrating and acting as the voice of H.G. Wells, gives us a tour of the Solar System that is shockingly inaccurate even for a time before space probes. Apparently Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune are not gas giants, Mercury is the only planet with no air, and Venus doesn't exist. Yes, that's right. They seem just to have forgotten it.

But then the film itself starts. And it gets worse. Oh, it's essentially just Wells' novel transplanted to McCarthy's America, but the film presents a grim picture of California in 1953, where the only thing to do on a Saturdsy night is a "square dance", whatever that is, with Coke instead of proper drink and, you know, fun. Life for these people can only improve under their new Martian overlords.

And then there's the stifling and crudely overdone Christian element, far too blatant to be a subtext. Now, I may be a Godless heathen myself, but I have no objection to religious subtexts in films. But this is about as subtle as a punch in the face- even the final defeat of the Martians by bacteria is portrayed as a divine miracle. And I get no sense of any true religious feeling; this is churchgoing as enforced respectability and conformity.

So... yeah. I didn't like this film much. Sorry. Still, I have high hopes for some of the films I have lined up...

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Goldfinger (1964)

"Some things just simply aren't done. Like drinking Dom Perignon '53 at above 38 degrees Fahrenheit. Or listening to the Beatles without earmuffs."

Well, Bond's taste in music is pants, then.

Let's get one thing straight, first: I liked this film a lot. But... well, I like the James Bond films. I've seen most of them, some several times, but not all them. I haven't seen Goldfinger before for instance. But I'm vaguely aware that the received opinion of this film is that it's amongst the best. But, well, I liked it very much but I liked it's predecessors better.

Why? I'm not entirely sure. Perhaps it feels smaller in scale? Perhaps the locations aren't as big or exciting, with long scenes in golf clubs and dull cells, and Bond spending much of the last part of the film as a prisoner? I think it's mainly that Gert Frobe is ok but not all that good or charismatic. Even the "No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!" moment underwhelmed me. Has popular culture led me to expect too much?

Still, Connery is awesome as ever.and the full on gadgetry emerges with the gadget filled Aston Martin and a glimpse into "Q" branch. There are done good set pieces, too, most notably Jill Masterson being killed from asphyxiation after being covered in gold paint, as so splendidly debunked in Mythbusters.

Honor Blackman is suitably icy as the deliciously named Pussy Galore, but.. well, the sexual politics of the Bond films have raised a good number of eyebrows up until now, with all the slapping and somewhat unreconstructed attitudes, but Bond quite unambiguously subjects Pussy to sexual assault. It isn't depicted as rape, with Pussy clearly shown to be yielding... but that in itself is troubling.

Still, it has the best theme tune so far and possibly ever. And is still a bloody good film.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Waterloo (1970)

"My God, Sir! I've lost my leg!"

"My God, Sir! So you have!"

There are three striking things about this superb film: Rod Steiger's electrifying, extraordinarily charismatic and career-defining performance as Napoleon, the incredible scope and accuracy of the battle scenes, and the fact that it was made in Brezhnev's Soviet Union with an international cast. That just seems bizarre.

Still, it's an extraordinary piece of cinema and one of the most accurate historical find ever made; even the dialogue is mostly documented from real life and I recognised a few of Wellington's. The only inaccuracies I could spot were the constant references to "Belgium" (not a country until 1830) and the slight musical reference to the modern German national anthem as Blucher's Prussians arrive to save the day. This is anachronistic; the tune existed at the time but it's lyrics were a paean to Emperor Franz of Austria, hardly a friend of Prussia. The Habsburgs were hardly friends of pan-German nationalism, which in any case wouldn't really become a thing until after the revolutions of 1848. Anyway, the film...

 Steiger steals the show as Napoleon, a charismatic genius refusing to give in to the failing health of his body, but Christopher Plummer also deserves high praise for his unflappable and blunt Wellington, refusing permission to have Napoleon assassinated ahead of the battle as such things are Simply Not Done. The opening scenes are extraordinary, though: Napoleon rants and raves like Hitler in Downfall before finally abdicating, only to escape from Elba with but 1,000 troops and suede power again through sheer magnetic charisma. It's eyebrow-raising here to see a somewhat corpulent Orson Welles in a cameo as Louis XVIII.

This is a true epic in scope, both thematically and visually. If you haven't seen it.. sorry for the spoiler, but Napoleon loses. Sorry.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)

"Deep penetration!"

What? It's just a line in the film. What?

I loved this film when I saw it first at the Cannon Cinema in Hinckley, Leicestetshire at the tender age of fourteen, and watched it many times during the course of the '90s. It has a real nostalgic power for me. And yet. X it's still a good film. Very good even. And yet... it's dated a little, hasn't it?

At the time the special effects were amaaaazing. They were what made the film look awesome. Looking at the T-1000 twenty-five years later, though, and it's just... early CGI. And without the wow factor of the special effects the film stands revealed. It isn't really a suspense thriller like The Terminator; it's more a straight-up action film, a film pretty much made up of a series of set-pieces bolted together. It works, don't get me wrong, but the first film was better.

It still works well as an action film, though, and the many set pieces that make up the film are extremely well made. It's even sweet to see Arnie's T-100 as a surrogate father to John. It's interesting, too, that this very testosterone heavy action film gets a fair bit of narration from Sarah Connor, both part of the narrative and it's chorus. This a female predictive gets done degree of apparent control over the narrative. I also like the visual parallels to the first film at the beginning and end. We even get a bit of social commentary on sexual abuse in mental institutions.

Not as interesting as its predecessor, then, and it's dated a bit, but it still needs to be watched every now and again because nostalgia. Always worth a revisit.

Friday, 15 January 2016

Leave 'Em Laughing (1928)

It's a little odd, these days, to see a cinematically released comedy short that is but 21 minutes long, shorter than an episode of the typical sitcom even on commercial television. But this is bloody brilliant; the best of physical comedy which was never the same again for the generations of performers who grew up with sound. 

The visual comedy here is first class, from the slapstick of the concluding road dodgems sequence to the early scenes with Stan's aching tooth. Laurel and Hardy are geniuses without sound as much as with. This is bloody brilliant; obviously it's out of copyright so just watch it on YouTube if you've twenty minutes to spare and fancy a chuckle. Silent comedies just haven't dated in the way that some comedy from later on has done.

Well, the nurses have flapper hairstyles, the cars are 1928 vintage and have cranks, and our two stooges sleep in the same bed with nary an eyebrow raised, but you know what I mean...

Monday, 11 January 2016

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

"My family's always been in meat..."

This is the template for a certain kind of slasher and, surprisingly, whereas the budget is obviously limited, it's rather better than both of them, the film being full of incident and suspense. It's also notable that, while there are a few brief and therefore effective moments of gore, the film relies much more on the suggestion of blood and gore than in showing it in any great detail. This kind of slasher is never going to trouble the "best ever" lists, but it's one of the best of it's kind.

Much of this comes from a clever plot structure and the device of having one of the characters be a wheelchair user. The kids are picked off at regular intervals throughout the film, providing us with regular bursts of excitement, and the early scenes with the hitchhiker give us some early incident and foreboding.

It matters not that we know perfectly well that the hitchhiker will turn out to be one of the baddies, or the petrol station owner. Predictability is the point. This is a well-executed film which, while part of a genre which is somewhat limited and reliant on simple melodrama in the absence of any extra little metatextual touches, justifies its status as a pioneer within that genre.

From Russia with Love (1963)

"Red wine with fish- that should have told me something!"

Two films in and we still haven't quite hit the formula as it would be. There's another perfect, fully-formed Bond villain- a cat-stroking head of SPECTRE whose face is unseen and who is, as yet, unnamed- and this time there's a rather extensive gadget, handed to Bond by Major Boothroyd of Q branch (not "Q"), this time played by Desmond Llewelyn. It's early days still, though: it's 1963, and in the final sequences Bond even wears a hat.

It's a good film though, making the most if it's glamorous Istanbul location with a set piece in the Hagia Sophia, although this contrasts somewhat with the cramped surroundings of the Orient Express.

The film is again carried by the remarkable Sean Connery, although another acting highlight is the rare appearance of George Pastell in a film not featuring Egyptian mummies. Pedro Armendariz gives us a likeable, worldly-wise Karim Bey, although it's obvious from an early stage that he's going to die. Such is the rhythm of films like this.

Daniela Bianchi is a rather passive and restrained Bond girl; that's a tradition which had still to evolve. At this point the films are still reasonably faithful adaptations of the novels, even to the absurd point of the clearly Scottish Bond being referred to as an "English gentleman. It is again, though, a bloody entertaining film.

Friday, 8 January 2016

Taxi Driver (1976)

"Some day real rain will come and wash these scum off the streets."

What to say about Taxi Driver that hasn't been said already? That it's a towering cinematic study of loneliness and of the kind of dangerously alienated outsider who will one day explode horribly, that Robert De Niro's performance here is one of the greatest performances ever?

There's not much new to say about this justifiably acclaimed film, really. But I'll try.

Travis isn't just alienated and alone- he talks to lots of people but connects with none of them- he's stuck in a dead end job with no hope, probably a virgin, and left with nothing but his macho fantasies, his dislike of what he doesn't understand and his need to find people to whom he can feel superior. The taxi, with its separation from the passengers, is a fitting metaphor for Travis' disconnection from the world.

There are some superb performances from a young Jodie Foster and Harvey Keitel, but the film relies on De Niro as much as any production of Hamlet relies on the actor playing the Dane, and he's just as good here as any of the best screen performances in that role. It's something about his eyes, his delivery. He inhabits Travis, perhaps the most frightening character in cinema, a character who is wound up tight and inevitably going to unravel.

The film gives us a surprising and unexpected "happy" ending as Travis escapes in caught from his clumsy attempt at political assassination and instead ends up lauded as a fifteen minute hero for violently rescuing the twelve year old Iris from her pimp, but even this makes us uneasy. Travis' life is no better than before. He's snapped before and he'll snap again. We end the film with all the tension of a time bomb waiting to happen.

As usual for Scorsese we get a superb soundtrack and impeccable direction for this art film about working class alienation, which sounds almost Marxist for a Hollywood film. 

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Sherlock: The Abominable Bride

"I fear she has branched into literary criticism by means of satire. It is a distressing trend in the modern landlady."

Well, wasn't that superlatively brilliant? Oh, the present day scenes were a little pointless in terms of content (I hate Sherlock's "mind palace", too) but I suppose they had to be there to justify this episode happening. Everything else was awesome.

There's a lot here for fans of Conan Doyle's original stories by delightfully mashing A Study in Scarlet with A Study in Pink, introducing us to Sherlock with Victorian trappings. It's a real treat; all of the characters as portrayed by the actors we know work just as well in a Victorian setting, as well they should, and we have lots of fun with all of them, including Mrs Hudson. Even Mycroft (Mark Gatiss in a fat suit) and Molly Hooper (er, in a moustache, but nicely illustrating the episode's themes) make appearances.

The central image is delightfully grotesque, too- a gun totin' and bloodied bride, reminding me of the character from Kill Bill. So too is the use of Watson's stories for the Strand magazine, and the suggestion that there's a distinction between the "real" Holmes and the one who appears in the stories.

It's well directed, as everything by Douglas Mackinnon invariably is, with plenty of Sherlock's trademark visual storytelling tricks, a magnificent escape from dull realism as well as being extraordinarily clever.

There are plenty of nods to the canon, from the acknowledgement that The Blue Carbuncle is a bit pants to the five orange pips (and the use of Klan like hoods at the end ties into this, if I may spoil a century old short story). The ghostly figure haunting Sir Eustace through the mist even calls to mind The Hound of the Baskervilles. Most intriguing is the mention of Itene Adler, and the hint that the "real" Holmes has a more complicated reason for lack of interest in women than the canon version. And then there's the cocaine. And Reichenbach. Yes, even Moriarty works in this context.

The big reveal- that behind all this are a protocol-female just secret society out to get votes for women and punish abusive men- is both wonderful and a satisfying payoff to the wry commentary on gender politics as seen throughout the episode.

And then it's the present day. And Moriarty's back. Not that he isn't dead or anything, but he's back anyway. And we probably have years until the next episode...

A Man for All Seasons (1966)

"You lay traps for me!"

"No. I show you the times."

This is, obviously, an excellent film even if, like myself, you're somewhat sick of the excess of Henry VIII; can't historical dramas show a bit more interest in other periods. But we should pause and remember that this film is somewhat biased; there's a reason why it's one of the Vatican's official favourites. This is, quite literally, a hagiography. And, while I will leave the sectarian tiresomeness to those whom believe in God, I have to point out that Sir Thomas More himself tortured (personally!) and burned people at the stake because their religious beliefs did not accord with him. This makes his death seem rather less unjust; indeed, he died rather less painfully than most of his victims. More was no saint, whatever Pope Pius XI may have said.

But what of the film? Well, it's superb. To start with, look at the cast. Standing out is an excellent (and very young) John Hurt as the slimy and ambitious Richard Rich. Susannah York is excellent as Meg. Orson Welles, no less, plays Wolsey. But best of all is Paul Scofield himself, whose extraordinarily subtle and dignified More may be the highlight of his distinguished screen career.

But the script is the real star. The theme is of the rule of law, and how it protects us from both arbitrary tyranny and Hobbesian chaos. More's undoing, of course, comes because Henry, Cromwell and Rich are not as unscrupulous as he is, and will happily cut corners. The contrast is between More and Rich; More is willing to die rather than lie before God on an oath, while Tich casually perjured himself- and sacrifices More's life- for the sake of a petty little promotion.

More is forever cautioning people to avoid condemning themselves through what they say; careless talk at Henry's court cost lies. More believes that the age old religious tradition of dissembling will save him, but it does not. We proceed inexorably to his inexorable death, his world slowly narrowing; I love the shot of seasons and time passing as seem through More's tiny cell window. The end finally comes, the axe falls... and fade to black. Superb.

Saturday, 2 January 2016

Dredd (2012)

"Life without parole? That's a deal you're offering?"

This film, unfortunately, exists in the shadow of a much bigger and distinctly awful film made in 1995 and starring Sylvester Stallone who (shock horror) removes his helmet. This film, on the other hand, tells a tale on a much smaller scale and, in Karl Urban, has an actor good enough to entirely subsume his ego beneath the helmet. He's sublime.

There's a monologue at the start establishing judges, Mega City One and the Cursed Earth, but this is essentially set entirely in one tower block controlled by one criminal gang. Dredd is the Dredd we know, hardly a character with depth or development potential, so he's paired with rookie Judge Anderson, a pysychic who is put through a baptism of fire before finally (and understatedly; no sentiment here!) passing her assessment. Olivia Thirley is essential in a much-needed past to add character and drama, not to mention oestrogen. Lena Headey is similarly excellent as Ma-ma, the big bad.

The world of the comics has been thoughtfully recreated for cinema. Given the grotesques and slightly cartoonish artistic style of the comics, a slavish recreation would not have worked, but its spirit remains even though there has been a necessary injection of realism. The grotesquerie and dark satire is all present and correct, and Dredd even gets a kick-ass speech. The effect of the slo-mo drug is achieved with particular creative brilliance in what is an extremely well-directed film. Dredd is nothing less than a triumph, with the decision to go small-scale completely vindicated.

I, Robot (2004)

"Can a robot write a symphony? Can a robot turn a canvas into a beautiful masterpiece?"

"Can you?"

This is the only film, as far as I know, that's been adapted from an Isaac Asimov story. And, Ironically, it's based on one of the few pieces of Asimov's SF writing that I've never read. I've read all the Foundation stuff, the Elijah Baley stuff, The Stars, Like Dust and sequels, and all of Asimov's work after 1980 that reads like very good Isaac Asimov fanfic. But I've never read any of the Susan Calvin robot stories. Oops. I suppose I'm not overly qualified to blog this film. Oh well.

While there's a low of fascinating philosophical stuff on both the Three Laws and the prospect of robots nicking people's jobs (very topical), this is fundamentally about the question of what if a robot was to exhibit sentience- what these days we call the Singularity. The theme is essentially the same as Short Circuit, but done with some intelligence.

The script is superb. I've no idea how faithful it is to the source material but it's certainly faithful in spirit to Asimov. Will Smith is excellent casting, charismatic and likeable as the technophobic, irreverent yet philosophical Spoon, while Bridget Moynahan is also excellent as the icy Susan Calvin, in personality almost a robot herself. Sonny the robot, incidentally, is voices by Joss Whedon favourite Alan Tudyk.

The design is also a triumph- the robots look great, and the world of 2035 is just futuristic enough to convince without being futuristic enough to alienate. It's a very contemporary view of the future, with none of the gleaming silver corridors of yore; instead we get a post-Cyberpunk, post-Blade Runner, lived-in future.

There are big action sequences, yes, but this film dares to be, at its heart, intimate and philosophical, and is all the better for that.

Friday, 1 January 2016

Happy New Year...

...and all that. I'm somewhat drunk.