8 April, 2009
Unlike me, Randall Munroe noticed that it's the tenth anniversary of the release (er, Australian; it was 11 June here in the UK) of 'The Matrix'. Wow. Ten years.
Somehow, I missed any hype around the film and went into the cinema 'cold' (so what tempted me to go?). I was so blown-away that I returned the very next evening – the first and, to date, only time I've ever done that.
"Too bad they never made any sequels." Well, apart from 'The Animatrix', of course.
[Nah; the sequels were okay, in a mindless way; just poor in comparison to the original.]
31 December, 2008
Top 250, V
In February 2004, I participated in the top 250 films meme, which involved copying the list of the IMDB's top 250 films (as voted by users) and highlighting those I'd actually seen. Almost two years later, I repeated the exercise in December 2005, again in December 2006 and yet again last December. Here we go again.... Note that the top 250 changes rapidly and the following list is today's (31/12/08), quite different to those used before.
In Feb. '04, I'd seen 102 of that 250, 109 of the updated list in 2005, 129 of the 2006 list and 165 last December. At the end of 2008, it's 197/250 (79%), which can be divided as 97 from the top 100 and 100 from the remaining 150. That's quite a jump, but as I mentioned last time, I'd deliberately added as many of my omissions from the 2006 list to my Amazon DVD Rental queue as were available. Most of the remaining omissions were already in that queue (now at LOVEFiLM), yet to be despatched, and I've added all but one of the remaining films.
As always, the lower rankings are more volatile than the 'core' top 100 which changes little year-to-year (though two of the top 50 are brand new). I was disappointed to see some of my favourites drop out....
Using the 2004-2007 lists, I've now seen 96 (43 more), 98 (39 more), 99 (29 more) and 99 (8 more) of their top 100s, but 102 (48 more), 109 (60 more), 107 (75 more) and 106 (32 more) of their lower ranges; overall, that's 198/250, 207/250, 206/250 and 205/250 respectively.
As I said last time (though it's worth repeating): I'm a little uneasy about this exercise as renting films I don't expect to enjoy, simply to tick them off a list, would be pointless, trainspotter-type completism. It's about enjoying films and broadening my knowledge, which has certainly succeeded. The extra prompt of films being on a 'hit list' has meant I've seen some good films I'd already planned to see but hadn't 'got round to', some I hadn't even heard of, and yes, some I enjoyed despite negative expectations. There have also been some I haven't enjoyed, but surprisingly few.
4 July, 2008
Wow. Tartan, the UK's leading, certainly most influential, independent film distributor, has gone into administration.
The Guardian's report suggests the company overreached itself and the result wasn't entirely unexpected within the industry, but from the point of view of a, er, viewer, I'm aghast: what am I going to do now? It's quite possible that Tartan has been the single greatest (okay, of several) provider of contemporary films to my DVD player.
23 April, 2008
Random queries no. 138
One of a series of genuine search engine enquiries which successfully brought visitors to the Ministry. Can I help?
"angel-a" english language dub Luc Besson
If reading subtitles is too much like hard work, this film is not for you. It's a French film from a French director, with a French cast (er, Rie Rasmussen is Danish, but the character speaks French). The dialogue is in French. Not English – that'd be a different film.
I'm pleased to say I'm unaware of a version dubbed into English and, as always, would definitely avoid one if it did exist.
This isn't empty snobbishness (though I can't deny a certain contempt for people who demand to be spoon-fed mere entertainment). The spoken language is an integral part of a film, providing the vocal rhythms of that language and the performance of the original actors – dubbing can only diminish.
And don't mention Anglophone remakes.
5 February, 2008
FiLM loves Amazon
Uh oh. It seems Amazon is in the process of selling its DVD rental business to LoveFilm.
Unsurprisingly, they describe the shift as beneficial to 'film lovers', as LoveFilm "has Europe's widest range of titles to choose from, with over 65,000 films and games in its collection" (a headline figure which curiously masks the number of films alone, but never mind). However, existing Amazon customers will need to transfer accounts at some point, and I suspect I mightn't do so well.
Recent customers might be okay, but I joined in 2005, when different terms were available. Specifically, I receive DVDs on a six per month, three at a time basis which is no longer offered; the nearest current arrangement costs half as much again. I also qualify for the 10% discount on DVD purchases from Amazon which was offered in 2005, whereas that allowance was subsequently dropped (for new customers) to 5%.
Of course, if Amazon is shedding its DVD Rental service outright, rather than transferring administration of an Amazon-branded service to LoveFilm, I expect the discount on Amazon purchases will be lost altogether. I initially though that the convenience of being able to add an film to one's rental list directly from that item's page in the main webstore would go too – trivial but annoying – but LoveFilm's announcement implies otherwise.
2 February, 2008
Review: Title Temporarily Unavailable (2008)
I can't help agreeing with these reviews at LoveFilm; I found it literally unwatchable too.
4 January, 2008
Catching up with the flow, IV
In March 2005, I joined Amazon DVD Rental. Four months later, I commented on those I'd seen, and repeated the exercise in December 2005 and 2006. In 2007, I rented:
Paths Of Glory – Reviewed here.
The Sea Inside – Excellent, humanising the difficult issue of euthanasia.
Psycho – The 1960 original, obviously, not the bizarrely pointless 1999 remake. Nowadays it's obviously impossible to watch this without preknowledge of the central event, but I rather wish I could have done. I hadn't realised that the film begins with an entirely different plot; the events at the motel must have been genuinely surprising to the 1960 audience.
Vertigo – Very impressive writing and execution, if a little disturbing in places.
Manhattan – I'd always thought Woody Allen's screen persona was something of a caricature, but at one point I had to stop the DVD and watch the scene three times. The man can act. More generally, the film dragged, and I kept glancing at the clock, but it's stayed with me, and would reward a second viewing.
La Belle Noiseuse – Very slow (a four-hour character study) and a little depressing, but if you are inclined to brave it, be aware that the film is spread over two DVDs – rent both!
Death In Venice – I rented this simply because I had a holiday in Venice booked, and I wanted a little background viewing. Ugh. Stultifying. The content was rather good, but could have been conveyed just as effectively in half, even a third, of the time. Much might be made of the sumptuous costumes & settings and overall lush visuals, but Visconti's direction lingered on these elements for far, far too long. And Venice itself was barely shown – most of the film takes place in the Lido.
The Piano Teacher – As soon became apparent, this was another film by Michael Haneke, director of 'Caché' ('Hidden') – the visual and narrative styles were very similar, and similarly the audience was expected to work hard to interpret the characters and even key plot details. I hadn't realised any of this when I rented the DVD; I'd heard of 'La Pianiste' as an examination of power-transfer and psychological domination in relationships, though I'd better stress that it couldn't be further from vacuous bdsm p*rn! There were a couple of graphic, frankly grotesque, moments, but they were the exception in an otherwise extremely internalised, thought-provoking film.
The Insider – Very good. This is what I'd hoped for and expected from 'All the President's Men': a dramatisation of specific events, but with wider applicability to general themes of moral integrity. Well-told, too.
La Dolce Vita – Maybe I was in the wrong mood, but I couldn't get past the perception of this supposed classic as a sequence of barely-linked set pieces; it totally failed to hold my attention, and I gave up after about an hour. I rather regret that now.
Love And Human Remains – Certain people will understand why I rented this, but it's not great: moderately interesting characters and a certain darkness elevate it from the mere farce it superficially seems to be, but not far.
Wings Of Desire – The Anglicised title's awful; a direct translation of 'Der Himmel über Berlin' as 'The Skies (or Heavens) over Berlin' is far more apt. It would be accurate to say it's about an angel, one of many dispassionately watching humanity, who wishes to experience rather than merely observe. However, that summary doesn't adequately describe a film which itself needs to be experienced. Incidentally, apart from the central concept, it's entirely dissimilar to the US 'remake', 'City of Angels' – direct comparison flatters neither film.
All About Eve – Far better than I'd expected: my expectations, that it was a light, frothy film, were entirely incorrect. Recommended.
The Thirteenth Floor – Reviewed here.
Fanny And Alexander – I hadn't expected a TV mini-series filling two DVDs, and may have missed some of the subtilties of 19th Century Swedish society, but extended insight into characters and family life transcended the specific setting, and was very compelling.
Chinatown – I wasn't entirely sure about this initially, as I haven't liked some of Roman Polanski's films and think Jack Nicholson has been dangerously close to self-parody at several points in his career. However, those preconceptions were misplaced here, and I enjoyed this noir-ish film. I particularly appreciated the nature of the ending, though I can't state why, obviously.
Ran – Visually stunning, not only for the famous burning castle but also for the general cinematography and stylised structure; it was like watching a very mannered stage play or succession of narrated paintings. However, my overwhelming impression was that the middle of film was drastically too long; I thought it had to be drawing to a close after about 1hr40' of the 2½-hour film.
Incidentally, this is sold/offered for rental on two discs, but it's safe to rent just the first if one only wants to see the film.
Saw II – The original was an excellent, self-contained film, but this seemed to be a classic 'we-didn't-think-we'd-need-to-write-a' sequel lacking the tight focus and strong, rules-based internal logic which had sustained the first film. The acting, or perhaps characterisation, was clichéd and the plot was weak until the very end, when it suddenly did match the earlier standard. It's almost as if that was written first and everything else was filler leading to the twist.
On The Waterfront – Excellent, particularly the electrifying and justifiably famous 'contender' scene. Afterwards I found it interesting to read about the context in which the film was made; it would probably be possible to do that research beforehand without ruining the story, and hence perhaps gain greater appreciation whilst watching.
Battlestar Galactica: Season 2 – The 13-episode series (very good, though not as good as the first series) was provided on five discs of the 6-DVD set; in hindsight I could have omitted the sixth, which merely contained justifiably deleted scenes.
Eros – Three short films on the theme of erotic love by three prominent directors. The first, by Wong Kar Wai, was as good as I expected and very much in the style of 'In The Mood For Love' and '2046'. The second, by Steven Soderbergh, was a noirish tale which didn't really grab me. The third, by Michelangelo Antonioni, was merely embarrassing: an old man's self-indulgence.
Dekalog – I had problems renting part of this 4-DVD set and enjoyed one of the ten films, so decided to buy my own copy. Which I haven't got round to watching yet....
Sympathy For Mr Vengeance – Heart-rending: the first of Park Chan-wook's 'Sympathy' trilogy certainly inspires sympathy for pretty much every reluctant participant in the novel, convoluted sequence of events.
Casanova – This TV mini-series featured attractive costumes. Unfortunately, I can't think of much else in its favour, and it certainly didn't earn three full hours of my attention.
X-Men 3: The Last Stand – Yawn. A sequel too far. Plenty of shouting and explosions, and as forgettable as that implies.
The Incredibles – Pretty good story and interesting technically.
Volver – Few other directors could elevate this story from farce, but Almodovar managed to provide a touching insight into the lives of four (no, five) women.
Killing Me Softly – I'm not entirely sure why I rented this.
The Bridge On The River Kwai – Very good, particularly showcasing Alec Guinness's acting. I hadn't realised that his was a supporting character, so was slightly disappointed by the focus on the American escapee/saboteur, particularly the slightly comedic subplots, but that's a very minor criticism.
As Tears Go By – An entertaining example of Wong Kar Wai's earlier writing & direction. Recommended.
The Manchurian Candidate – For once, I can't decide whether I prefer this, the 1962 Frank Sinatra original, or the 2004 Denzel Washington remake. Both are good.
Days Of Being Wild – What could be better than existentialism and compelling characters, performed well, in an excellent production with excellent direction (from Wong Kar Wai)? It's not quite so 'heavy' or pretentious as that suggests; the pace is... contemplative and the interlinked plots initially obscure, but I did enjoy it, and once one spots the narrative structure, the artistry is clear.
All Quiet On The Western Front – It took me a while to become accustomed to the dated, very American colloquial manner of the characters (which would presumably have been naturalistic to the 1930 audience, adding impact) and the plot development seemed very obvious, even heavy-handed, by modern standards but for all that, the quality and message were no less poignant.
Smokin' Aces – Initially, this looked like an Americanised cash-in on Guy Ritchie's 'Lock, Stock...' subgenre, but it failed in every respect – a bit of a mess.
Million Dollar Baby – I rented this expecting a retelling of the 'Rocky' story with overlaid gender issues, and wondering why that'd have attracted such critical acclaim. I was totally mistaken: this wasn't what it seemed, and the twist was genuinely affecting. Excellent.
Seven Samurai – It's a credit to the storytelling (visual, too) that this rather long film didn't feel long. I haven't been able to say that for many Kurosawa films.
The Crow - Salvation – 'Rent, don't buy' might seem to be faint praise, but if you liked the original film, give this, the third, a chance. It's not not great art (so what?) and not radical progression of the concept, but it's a huge improvement on the second film.
Babel – Stunning: the interlinked (and intercut) stories of four families in as many countries and languages were fascinating, leaving me eager to see Alejandro González Iñárritu's other films.
Great music, too – I added the soundtrack album to my Amazon wishlist immediately.
Metropolis – I'd expected this to be hard work, more of an education into the history of film than real entertainment. Wrong! The image quality was also far better than I'd expected, being the result of a painstaking renovation project, itself explained on the 'bonus' DVD.
Casino Royale – My observation about the opening credits applied to the rest of the film: many of the standard elements of Bond films from past decades, particularly the casual sexism and OTT gadgets/locations were toned down in this 'back to basics' return to the original Bond story, yet it was markedly more physically violent. It was still very much a Bond film, though, occupying an affluent world bordering on decadence, and product placements similarly bordering on laughable. Attempts were made to develop the James Bond character, but mainly through exposition – a better screenplay would have shown, not told. Perhaps that was expecting too much; on a shallower level, I did enjoy the film, though the parkour sequence towards the start was the highlight.
Great Expectations – Very pretty (and very green), with an excellent cast and soundtrack, but I'm not sure whether this loose translation of Dickens' classic story to modern Florida and Manhattan really captured the full emotion of the novel; I enjoyed it, but somehow wanted slightly more. I suppose if it drives a viewer back to the book, that's a good thing.
The Passenger – A journalist, bored with his life, swaps identities with the dead man in the hotel room next door, who happens to have been an arms dealer. The beginning of a Hollywood thiller? Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, no. Very contemplative and internalised (and hence slow-paced), but also rather beautiful. It was also good to see Spain (particularly the parts of Barcelona I've visited) in 1973, before mass-tourism.
State Of Play (2 discs) – This political detective thriller was entertaining and fully held my attention through the six hour-long episodes. It was certainly a case of excellent storytelling, acting and production, as in hindsight the story itself wasn't that memorable.
City of Industry – According to the DVD extras and the IMDb, this shows a 'real' – mundane – Los Angeles rarely seen in films. As such, perhaps the hackneyed 'heist-betrayal-revenge' plot was merely a carrying medium. That, and the fact that I've never had a fascination with a city I perceive as soulless and lacking in history, meant I abandoned the film after an hour, bored and slightly irritated.
The Black Dahlia – It was good to see a modern interpretation of the classic noir production style (over-elaborate plot and all), but it felt a little self-conscious, and having not heard of "the most notorious murder in Hollywood history" before renting the DVD, it had no especial cultural resonance for me. Ultimately, sumptuousness and a mass of detail were no substitute for real substance: I wanted more.
Neverwhere – The complete BBC series on one DVD, with a couple of... 'okay' extras. I'm more than a little familiar with the story and production history (cut-price TV series then excellent novel, with a graphic novel adaptation later) and knew this was the weakest version, but it was still worth seeing; dodgy acting, wobbly sets, bull-with-prostheses (really) and all.
Cronos – Slightly disappointing, this felt more like an episode of a TV series than a substantive feature film. One for Guillermo del Toro fans; those interested in the point from which his international career developed.
Fellini's 8½ – Whilst watching, I thought this was very shallow, even trite, but it left me thinking, which can't be bad. I'm not certain I fully understood it, though.
8½ Women – I suppose it helped that I watched the Peter Greenaway film immediately after the Fellini film which supposedly inspired it, but I still couldn't quite grasp the entertainment or artistic value of what seemed to be a feeble comedy. That said, there were a few interesting concepts and powerful moments; Polly Walker's acting was particularly admirable.
Fur - An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus – I'm not sure what I was expecting, but this wasn't it. I suppose it was entertaining enough, but I wouldn't rush to see it again, nor particularly recommend it to others.
The Fountain – Excellent sci-fi/fantasy from the director of 'Pi' and 'Requiem For A Dream' – if you've seen those, you'll be anticipating original writing and presentation, and won't be disappointed. The overall message was particularly disturbing. Recommended.
The Prestige – A dark film which demands a second viewing. Not because it's remotely difficult to follow – it's an extremely accessible Hollywood film – but because once one has spotted the twists (or seen the end of the film, which clarifies them), watching it again one sees an entirely different film. For this reason, I strongly recommend seeing it before reading any review containing a hint of a synopsis.
The Libertine – Visually evocative of late 17th Century England, with lots of mud, naturalistic lighting (filmed by candlelight/daylight) and of-its-time makeup/clothing, this was far less sanitised than the average BBC costume drama (which is a reason I find the BBC's efforts unwatchable). However, I'm not sure whether the plot, direction or acting matched that standard of production....
Hotel Rwanda – I'd been expecting something Americanised (sanitised and with a certain socio-political stance) or deeply worthy, and in hindsight the former criticism does rather apply, but it did offer at least some insight into a monstrous situation which should have received greater attention at the time (and I certainly don't exclude myself from the complacent ignorance).
300 – Technically and visually stunning. One could criticise the hyper-macho story (totally plot-led and with two-dimensional characters) as too like a comic strip, but that's kind of the point.
La Haine – Excellent. Very tightly focussed on a brief episode in the lives of three youths from a Parisian sink estate, this covered topics of importance to the characters in a way the characters themselves would appreciate (i.e. it's a very male film: visually-impressive with limited externalised emotion). This made for a powerful, rather immersive experience.
The Departed – Reviewed here.
2 January, 2008
Review: The Departed (2006)
I wasn't sure whether I wanted to see this, as I resent the idea that 'Mou gaan dou' ('Internal Affairs'), a wonderful 2004 film which just happens to be in Chinese, needed to be remade for an Anglophone audience too lazy to read subtitles.
This is the bit where I say "actually, it was pretty good", right?
And it was. Because the original was pretty good. The American version had a big-name director, but that didn't disguise the fact that it was the same film, merely moved from Hong Kong to Boston and reduced to a showcase for big-name Hollywood stars (who, frankly, merely provided their standard, well-established performances). Well, with the graphic violence turned up a notch, and the ending totally ruined by 'closure'.
I think its carbon-copy nature is my main problem with 'The Departed': it doesn't complement 'Infernal Affairs', it replaces it; if you've seen one, there's little reason to see the other. No doubt most people (outside Hong Kong/China) will choose the Martin Scorsese movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, et al. over the Wai-keung Lau/Siu Fai Mak film starring Andy Lau and Tony Leung, thereby burying the latter (deservedly in the IMDb Top 250, 'Infernal Affairs' is currently 193 places below 'The Departed'). And that's a great shame: money will take precedence over originality.
This is the bit where I hope to fight back a little. Watch 'Infernal Affairs'. Avoid the rip-off. Not 'only' as a matter of respect to the original film-makers, but because theirs is the better-realised setting, offering greater insight into the characters' inner turmoil (with no simplistic resolution) – and two good sequels.
30 December, 2007
Top 250, IV
In February 2004, I participated in the top 250 films meme, which involved copying the list of the IMDB's top 250 films (as voted by users) and highlighting those I'd actually seen. Almost two years later, I repeated the exercise in December 2005, and again last December. Time to do so again. Note that the top 250 changes rapidly and the following list is today's (30/12/07), quite different to those used before.
In Feb. '04, I'd seen 102 of that 250, 109 of the updated list in 2005 and 129 of the 2006 list last December. At the end of 2007, it's 165/250 (66%), which can be divided as 90 from the top 100 and 75 from the remaining 150. That's quite a jump, but as I mentioned last time, I'd deliberately added as many of my omissions from the 2006 top hundred to my Amazon DVD Rental queue as were available. Most of the remaining omissions are still in the queue, yet to be despatched, but I've also added several from the new 101-250 range.
As one would expect, the lower rankings are more volatile than the 'core' top 100 which changes little year-to-year. It was particularly noticable that most of the new entries in the 101-75 range this year were 2007 releases, which might drop as initial enthusiasm wanes.
Using the 2004-2006 lists, I've now seen 87 (34 more), 89 (30 more) and 92 (21 more) of their top 100s, but 85 (31 more), 82 (33 more) and 77 (19 more) of their lower ranges; overall, that's 172/250, 171/250 and 169/250 respectively.
I'm a little uneasy about this exercise as renting films I don't expect to enjoy, simply to tick them off a list, would be pointless, trainspotter-type completism. Yet it's about enjoying films and broadening my knowledge, which has certainly succeeded. The extra prompt of films being on a 'hit list' has meant I've seen some good films I'd already planned to see but hadn't 'got round to', some I hadn't even heard of, and yes, some I enjoyed despite negative expectations. There have also been some I haven't enjoyed, but surprisingly few.
29 September, 2007
That's alright, then
I sat down to watch the latest James Bond film, 'Casino Royale', a few minutes ago, but had to pause the DVD to share an observation.
The iconic naked dancing girls seen in the opening credits of the foregoing twenty Bond films have gone, understandably. Instead, the silhouettes are all male, in stylised combat scenes. Within three minutes, two are shot, four are stabbed and three fall to their evident deaths. In addition to those fatalities, three are merely punched/kicked unconscious.
Nine deaths. But no nudity, which is obviously more important.
29 September, 2007
Final final cut
It seems Ridley Scott plans to release another, 'final' director's cut of 'Blade Runner', completing the job he feels he'd only half-done in 1992 by correcting technical errors and re-editing scenes which had originally been extended to accommodate the voice-over, itself excised in 1992.
Will I buy it again? Probably; depends how it's packaged i.e. whether there are worthwhile DVD extras. I'll certainly rent it.
Point is, Wired have an interesting interview with Ridley Scott about the film and its evolution.
24 September, 2007
Review: TRON (1982)
I watched this on TV last night, slightly amused by the pretext under which BBC 4 (the BBC's 'arts' channel) showed it. The previous programme had been a documentary on Jean Giraud aka Moebius, the French comics artist. He'd designed the set and costumes for 'TRON', so....
This review will be brief, as I only want to make two observations:
The visual designers showed real ingenuity in making the best use of limited computer graphics technology. A remake might look more spectacular, but would probably have a shiny ordinariness rather than the original's stylised originality.
Like the other Disney-funded sci-fi film of that time, 'The Black Hole', the script was awful, in exactly the same ways. The dialogue wasn't great, but in particular, the plot was too abrupt, as if over-edited. There was no sense of gradual development, whether in plot or characterisation; one was dropped straight into an under-explained existing situation, then carried along having to interpret conceptual elements for oneself. Fair enough, the target audience was presumably rather young, but still....
I may be misjudging the approach – it could have been a revolutionary attempt to reproduce the effect of reading a novel, in which the words on the page are elaborated by the reader's own imagination rather than being stated outright. Maybe.
23 August, 2007
I tend to be sceptical about the merit of remaking 'classic' films – if the originals was so good, why not just watch them? There have been exceptions, such as the 1998 remake of 1968's 'The Thomas Crown Affair' (both are excellent, but I prefer the newer one), but others seem pointless, even anathematic (an Americanised 'Oldboy'? Nooo!).
There could be value in readaptation, though. A good example would be 'The Wizard of Oz'. Though an acknowledged classic, I don't particularly like twee musicals and I've always thought the L. Frank Baum novel deserved a darker treatment.
Whoa. Perhaps not this dark. It seems a film of Todd McFarlane's 'Twisted Land Of Oz' interpretation is in development. That's Todd McFarlane, the creator of 'Spawn', who reimagined Dorothy (link arguably NSFW) as "a bondage queen", Toto as a nightmarish giant toad and the Wizard as a steampunk dandy (actually, that one's pretty good). I'm not sure whether there's more to this reimagination than the (frankly, unimaginative) character designs, and I agree with the project's writer, Josh Olson, that "'Harry Potter' dark" would be more appropriate than "'Seven' dark", but this looks promising.
29 July, 2007
Review: 'Klimt' (2006)
Incoherent, diminishing in coherence over almost two hours.
I suppose it was fairly pretty, and an interesting view of emerging modernity in fashions, but not recommended, I'm afraid.
One point which might help to know beforehand – I'd have approached it differently if I'd realised sooner – is that it's not really a biopic, but more intended to be a stylised reflection of Klimt's mindset, even aesthetic, involving symbolic composite characters.
24 July, 2007
Review: 'Curse of the Golden Flower' (2006)
Sumptuous, expansive... and that's just the anachronistic décolletages*.
2002's operatic 'Hero' and 2004's 'House Of Flying Daggers' are amongst my favourite films, if only in terms of visual production and cinematography (towards the end of the latter, the plot is less than wonderful). Hence, when A. informed me that it was being shown at The Dukes, I was immediately interested to see Yimou Zhang's latest Chinese 'historical' epic, 'Curse of the Golden Flower'.
Maybe those earlier films had raised my expectations too far, but I found it disappointing. No; on reflection, I do think the film itself was flawed.
A major part of the earlier films' visual appeal was the use of simple blocks of colour: whole scenes in which everything was, for example, a deep red or a vivid blue. Hypersaturated colours were used again here, but in more complex and ultimately less satisfying combinations. One scene, in which a black-clad 'ninja' (in 10th Century China?) crept along a corridor was unintentionally comic, as plain black was the worst possible camouflage against the brilliantly-coloured, near-psychedelic pillars and walls. The coloration and extensive use of gold certainly conveyed opulence, even decadence, but also a lack of taste.
That may have been my initial source of disappointment, but the main problem was a two-dimensional sterility in the characterisation. All the characters seemed like shallow puppets, or models in the other sense, being little more than a means of displaying costumes and jewellery. Admittedly, the actors played characters themselves playing formal roles, but even in private and when that outer layer was shattered, the audience learned very little about any of them as people.
In particular, the Emperor and his third son were cyphers, the former too well hidden behind his ceremonial demeanor (which is understandable) and the latter less prominent than servants until almost the end of the film.
I'm certainly not saying the acting was poor – far from it: Yun-Fat Chow, Li Gong and Ye Liu were particularly good, but they portrayed generic, or at least underdeveloped, characters well.
The film was based on a well-known play, but I understand that was set in a different social context. Transposing it to the sterility of the Imperial court obviously increased the opportunity for visual opulence, but sacrificed the chance for the characters to behave as genuine humans rather than ceremonial performers. An obvious theme was that the Imperial family was glorious on the outside but rotten inside. Regrettably, that assessment could be extended to the whole film.
Conversely, I was impressed by the depiction of the sterile, stultifying rigidity of ritual court routine, which may have justified the outward actions of the characters (certainly the Emperor). The film was punctuated by announcements of the hours, a stylistic device more familiar in Peter Greenaway's highly structured 'art-over-narrative' films. In fact, early scenes of court servants' daily preparations were also reminiscent of Greenaway's work – even at the time, I wondered whether it was a deliberate allusion.
This wasn't solely a stylistic device, though; it added impact to a major plot point. Immediately after the climactic battle scene in the palace courtyard, another army, of servants, replaced the crushed flowers, rinsed the blood off the steps, and laid fresh carpets, all before the next hour announcement. Preserving the illusion of eternal calm was beyond question.
Yes, there was a battle scene, but despite the title, setting, genre convention and the foregoing two Yimou Zhang films, this wasn't really a kung-fu or 'adventure' film, being a somewhat Jacobean/Shakespearean tragedy focusing more on family intrigues than physical combat. That said, there were some fights, with the expected high standard of choreography and a literally spectacular scale. The aforementioned courtyard battle apparently took over twenty days to film, on the largest set ever built for a movie in China.
It didn't help that the film was out-of-focus again. I did complain, but from the back of the auditorium, and hence the projection room, it didn't look too bad. Nothing was done.
From my seat, four rows from the front, the entire right side of the screen was blurred (strange that it was only one side) and the subtitles had a ghost double-image. Close-ups were okay, but intricate patterns – something of a feature in this film – were smears of colour and in wide shots faces were unrecognisable. It wasn't disastrous, and I didn't leave, but it was rather like watching on VHS with dodgy tracking, when I don't think it unreasonable to expect something closer to DVD quality, count-the-pores-in-Yun-Fat-Chow's-nose, pin-sharp clarity.
So, what am I saying? (I often wonder...)
If you enjoyed 'Hero' and 'House Of Flying Daggers', 'Curse of the Golden Flower' is worth seeing, but I do think it's the weakest of the three (not that they're a trilogy) and could have been better. Very much a case of style over substance.
*: Cheap joke, but unexpectedly accurate.
23 April, 2007
I've rented 'Saw II' to watch later in the week, so I thought it'd be a good idea to watch the first film again, er, first, tonight. There's quite a package of bonus features on the DVD:
- The music video for a song I don't recall being used in the film.
- The unrated version of the music video.
- A 'making of' of the music video.
- At last! A featurette about the making of the film itself. Lasting 2½ minutes.
And that's it.
31 March, 2007
Review: 'The Thirteenth Floor' (1999)
A 'Matrix' clone without the PVC (damn).
That's not an entirely fair summary, but if you were interested by the Wachowski brothers' exploration of layers of artificial reality, this is an alternative take on the same broad concept.
'The Thirteenth Floor' has a slightly dodgy script in places (especially some dialogue), and some of the effects look oddly dated, but the premise is good, and if it hadn't been released only two months after a certain genre-redefining film mentioned above, I imagine this would have been considered an above-average 'B'-movie. As it is, it seems to have been virtually forgotten.
It's undeniable that direct comparison with 'The Matrix' is unflattering. In my initial draft of the foregoing paragraph I wrote "... but the premise is intriguing,... " before reflecting that I couldn't honestly say that; the Wachowskis had already addressed the 'is this reality or a simulation?' issue earlier in 1999, reducing the novelty.
Actually, 'The Thirteenth Floor' is far from being a rip-off or a clone, being an adaption of Daniel F. Galouye's 1964 novel 'Simulacron 3'. It's only the timing of the release that was unfortunate.
Well, sort-of; this fares badly against 'The Matrix' in several other respects: it's pretty good, but not in the same league in terms of screenwriting, direction, acting or production (maybe cinematography), not to mention special effects. Yet that's like comparing haute cuisine with Chinese takeaway, and there's nothing wrong with the latter. I'd definitely rank 'The Thirteenth Floor' above 'eXistenZ', yet another 1999 film about layered reality.
Certain films redefined the standards of presentation in sci-fi films, genuinely advancing the genre. 'Stars Wars' was one, whilst 'The Matrix' was another. It's always interesting to see films made on the cusp of such changes, but that didn't help 'The Thirteenth Floor' critically or financially. Audiences had already seen the next level, so a reasonably respectable film made to the earlier standards just didn't cut it any more. However, that doesn't make such 'transition period' films bad.
The cast were good, if better known as supporting actors than stars; faces one might recognise without being immediately able to place the names. I'm not sure what I thought of their performances – I'd need to see the film again before criticising what could have been simply understatement, and my immediate impression was that they did their best with a flawed script. In places, the dialogue was just plain bad, and characters' reactions to discoveries which shattered their very perceptions of reality weren't credible. Then again, catatonic loss of sanity mightn't have been exactly cinematic.
To expand on my other main criticism from the second paragraph: the special effects weren't great, and not merely because this film's budget was a quarter of 'The Matrix's. Even without 'bullet time' cinematography and wire-work stunts, 'The Thirteenth Floor's effects seemed dated. Key transitional scenes involved a 1970s-style light-curtain (which didn't even seem relevant to the technology), and wireframe in films is so Eighties (yes, I'm being flippant, but it did detract). The digital reproduction of 1937 Los Angeles was impressive and, importantly, unobtrusive, but one can only be so impressed by what amounts to 3D matte painting.
Not that this was an 'effects movie' anyway (thankfully); I mean that those which were used could have been better.
So. Premise: good, if overshadowed by possibly the best Hollywood film of the year (no shame in that). Script: flawed, though not disastrously. That leaves plot, which was... okay. Ostensibly a murder mystery, even a sci-fi noir, the story held my interest for the full 100 minutes. Yet major plot twists were very predictable, and the only real suspense was in how they'd be introduced.
Incidentally, I'd better stress that though 'The Matrix', 'The Thirteenth Floor' and 'eXistenZ' all address the same concept, their stories are entirely different.
Evidently, even writing this review hasn't helped me to decide what I thought of 'The Thirteenth Floor'. I did enjoy it, and intend to watch it again some time. I also recommend it to others, not only because it has been unduly overlooked. It's worth seeing, but no cult classic.
I don't know whether to be proud or ashamed about noticing this, but the apartment occupied by Douglas Hall, the protagonist in this film, seemed remarkably similar to that of 'Blade Runner's Deckard – and it was: both were filmed in the same Frank Lloyd Wright building. I presume this was a deliberate reference, as the core theme of both films is whether artificial entities are 'real'.
Oh, and one scene does feature PVC. So that's okay.
16 March, 2007
Sorry about the pedantry, but for some reason it irritates me to read of "Ray Harryhausen's 'Jason and the Argonauts'" or "Ray Harryhausen's 'Clash Of The Titans'", a wording which implies he was the director – some journalists say so outright. He wasn't.
His revolutionary achievements were technical, especially in the use of stop-motion special effects. Not to diminish the creativity involved in that, he wasn't also the director of those famous films; the nearest was creditation as 'associate producer'.
It's not a perfect analogy, but would one speak of "John Gaeta's 'The Matrix'" or "John Dykstra's 'Star Wars'"?
3 March, 2007
Released in a limited number of US cinemas following its Academy Awards nomination, 'Das Leben der Anderen' ('The Lives Of Others') apparently made a respectable profit. However, winning the 'Best Foreign Language Film' Oscar clearly demanded further action.
No, not a wider release of the German film – that's too obvious, and obviously too much like hard work for the popcorn-munchers. It's to be remade in English; "overhauled as a Hollywood thriller", even.
Nein, danke. Vergessen Sie es.
15 February, 2007
It's partly my own fault for not checking, but it wasn't until I started watching 'La Belle Noiseuse' that I realised the full 4-hour version is split over two DVDs, rather than the film being on Disc 1 of the 2-DVD set and bonuses on Disc 2 – which I hadn't rented. Argh!
I won't review it now, as I'm obviously only halfway through the film, but if you enjoy it, you might like to try the 2-hour 'La Belle Noiseuse – Divertimento' edition too. That's assembled from entirely different footage, focuses on different characters, and seemingly features rather less contorted nudity from Emmanuelle Béart (not that the latter aspect is a selling point).
5 February, 2007
Close to home
Well. That was poignant.
I've just returned from the cinema, having seen Nick Broomfield's 'Ghosts'. It's the story of Chinese illegal immigrants coming to the UK and struggling to subsist whilst paying-off their debts to people-smugglers and support their families in China. I'm not spoiling the plot by revealing that it culminates in their deaths – that's the whole point.
The striking point is that the film was directly based on real deaths which occurred within half an hour (by bicycle) from here, exactly three years ago tonight. Though it took weeks to establish the precise number, 23 illegal immigrants drowned whilst picking cockles in Morecambe Bay in poor weather.
Having overheard a conversation with an usher, I discovered that at least one group of tonight's audience members, who appeared to be Chinese, had limited command of English. It'd be tempting to draw the obvious conclusion, but I have no way of knowing.
Broomfield is famous for his documentaries, in which he appears on-screen as an active participant, but unlike 'Fetishes', 'Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer', et al., 'Ghosts' is a feature film (Broomfield's second). It's nominally fictional, though based on the facts of the Morecambe Bay tragedy and Hsiao-Hung Pai's undercover reporting for The Guardian, and unscripted performances by non-professional actors recorded on hand-held cameras* had a realistic feel.
Though the film was about the overall experience of immigrant workers, initially in Norfolk then Morecambe for the key sequence, rather than focusing on the tragedy itself, it was that section (actually filmed in the Bay) which affected me most.
Though the film did feature a couple of time-lapse sequences earlier, I'm almost certain that the speed of the incoming tide wasn't artificially accelerated. Having lived at the edge of Morecambe Bay for approaching 14 years, and having grown up a similar distance from the Dee Estuary, I've seen for myself that the wave front can move that quickly. At the mouth of the River Lune, high tide can be 10 metres above the low water mark. Imagine that: the water surface can rise 33' vertically within six hours. On almost entirely level mudflats, picture how much more land is immersed by even 1 cm rise in water level, and the actual rise averages almost 3 cm vertically per minute. Think you could outrun that, whilst avoiding invisible patches of quicksand and deep, fast-flowing gullies? Terrifying.
Leaving the cinema, I was briefly tempted to cycle out to Hest Bank, the point where the bodies were brought ashore, but soon dismissed the idea as it's a bitterly cold night. Says it all, really.
*: One sequence in a supermarket seemed to have been filmed covertly, which could have been for effect, but I can certainly imagine the company declining authorisation – a reminder that the supermarket chains are (no doubt inadvertently) secondary employers of underground immigrant labour wasn't exactly a marketing opportunity.
1 February, 2007
More free films!
Last August, I linked to a site which itself collates links to online streams of old films which have fallen out of copyright. It didn't occur to me to check whether the Internet Archive offers something similar.
It does, of course, as downloads in a variety of formats and resolutions. Far more convenient than having to watch in my lunch breaks* via my employer's better-than-broadband connection.
Even though I seem to be achieving download speeds of ~160 kb/sec at present, I've gone with 256kb mpeg4, which equates to ~200 Mb for a feature film. Mpeg2 files are available too, but they're ten times larger.
Right now, my USB pen drive contains 'Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari' (1919), 'Nosferatu' (1922), 'Battleship Potemkin' (1925), 'The General' (1927), 'M' (1931) and 'The 39 Steps' (1935). As those links suggest, each is available for purchase and/or rental from Amazon, but downloading is a useful way to experience acknowledged classics which, frankly, one mightn't wish to pay to try. If I don't like'em, I don't have to watch 'em, and won't have lost anything (but time).
I hope it's clear that I'd only do this for out-of-copyright material; I'm still entirely opposed to freely downloading copyrighted music and films via BitTorrent et al., regarding that as theft.
*: Not that I tend to take lunch breaks anyway.
30 January, 2007
In an opinion piece, Michael White, the Guardian's (ex?)political editor (not a professional film critic, but then again, nor am I), seems to celebrate the claim that French 'art house' films are declining in popularity with French cinema audiences. He makes especial reference to the deliberately static 'Caché' ('Hidden'), saying that he failed to spot the significant elements in the closing minutes (how?):
I had been warned there were a few crucial plot frames in the last minute of the film, so I looked out for them - but missed them. No one has satisfactorily explained to me since what exactly they were trying to say.
Maybe that was the point.
None of the reviews I read make anything much of this, except to say that the director throws these questions back at the viewer. Thanks chaps, but I paid £6.50 for him to do the work.
Noooo! You total, ****ing idiotic philistine!
If you want to be spoon-fed, stick to 'Jurassic Park'
, and perhaps buy a copy of the study notes beforehand. Take a colleague, to explain any big words you might encounter.
It is not the director's 'job' to explain everything, and to gently ease a pampered audience out of the cinema vacuously entertained but unchallenged. Each viewer should leave the cinema thinking, perhaps even frustrated, occasionally.
A good film isn't a manufactured pop song, mildly diverting for a while but merely inspiring the thought 'that was fun; what's next?'. It should stay in the mind, at least for tens of minutes. It might sound pretentious, but the very best (and I wouldn't really say 'Caché' qualifies) can change people.
29 January, 2007
Another top 250(ish)
Halliwell's Film, DVD and Video Guide, 'widely recognised as the biggest and the best film guide available' (says Amazon) uses a famously stringent rating system. A film needs to be noteworthy in order to receive even one star; the vast majority of films earn the indifference of no rating at all. The highest rating, four stars, is only applied to about 1% of the 23,000 films listed.
Chewing Pixels has compiled those 247* top-rated films into an alphabetised summary list, linked to the appropriate pages at Amazon UK for those interested in buying or renting them.
I've taken a slightly different angle: the following is merely a summary of the summary, indicating those films I've seen (in bold), plus those currently in my Amazon Rental queue (in italics).
|À Bout de Souffle (Breathless) (1959)|
The Adventures Of Robin Hood (1938)
After Life (1999)
Aguirre: The Wrath Of God (1972)
Alexander Nevsky (1938)
All Quiet On The Western Front (1930)
All That Money Can Buy (1941)
All the President’s Men (1976)
American Beauty (1999)
An American In Paris (1951)
And Then There Were None (1945)
Andrei Rublev (1965)
Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)
Annie Hall (1977)
Ashes And Diamonds (1961)
Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987)
Bad Day At Black Rock (1955)
The Band Wagon (1953)
The Barbarian Invasions (2004)
The Battle Of Algiers (1966)
Battleship Potemkin (1924)
Begone Dull Care (1949)
Belle De Jour (1967)
La Belle Noiseuse (1991)
The Best Years Of Our Lives (1945)
Big Business (1929)
The Birth Of A Nation (1915)
The Blue Angel (1930)
Bonnie And Clyde (1967)
Breaking The Waves (1996)
The Bride Of Frankenstein (1931)
The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957)
Brief Encounter (1945)
Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid (1969)
The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari (1921)
The Chant Of Jimmy Blacksmith (1978)
Cinema Paradiso (1989)
Citizen Kane (1941)
The Cure (1917)
David Copperfield (1969)
A Day At The Races (1937)
Day For Night (1973)
Days Of Heaven (1979)
The Dead (1987)
Dead Of Night (1945)
Destry Rides Again (1939)
The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie (1972)
Doctor Jekyll And Mr Hyde (1920)
Dr Strangelove; Or; How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1963)
La Dolce Vita (1960)
Don’t Look Now (1973)
Double Indemnity (1944)
The Driver (1978)
Duck Soup (1933)
E. T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Easy Rider (1969)
Easy Street (1917)
Les Enfants du Paradis (1945)
The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser (1974)
Face To Face (Ansikte Mot Ansikte) (1976)
Fanny And Alexander (1982)
Festen (The Celebration) (1999)
Foreign Correspondent (1940)
The Four Feathers (1939)
The French Connection (1971)
The Gay Divorcee (1934)
The General (1927)
The Godfather (1972)
The Godfather Part II (1974)
The Golden Age Of Comedy (1957)
Gone With The Wind (1939)
Gosford Park (2002)
The Graduate (1967)
The Grapes Of Wrath (1939)
Great Expectations (1946)
A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
World Of Comedy (1962)
Henry V (1944)
High Noon (1952)
His Girl Friday (1940)
The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1923)
The Hustler (1961)
I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932)
In the Heat Of The Night (1966)
In Which We Serve (1942)
Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1978)
The Invisible Man (1933)
It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
The Jazz Singer (1927)
The Jolson Story (1946)
Jules et Jim (1960)
The Kid Brother (1988)
A Kind Of Loving (1962)
King Kong (1933)
King Of Comedy (1982)
Kings Row (1942)
The Knack (1965)
LA Confidential (1997)
Lacombe Lucian (1974)
The Lady Vanishes (1938)
The Last Metro (1979)
The Last Picture Show (1971)
The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)
Lawrence Of Arabia (1962)
The Leopard (1963)
The Letter (1940)
Listen To Britain (1942)
Little Caesar (1931)
London Can Take It (1940)
Lost Horizon (1937)
The Lost Weekend (1945)
Love Me Tonight (1932)
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
A Man For All Seasons (1966)
The Man In The White Suit (1951)
The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
A Matter Of Life And Death (1946)
Mean Streets (1973)
Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Le Million (1930)
Les Misérables (1935)
Mr Smith Goes To Washington (1939)
Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953)
The Music Box (1989)
The Naked City (1948)
A Night At The Opera (1935)
North By Northwest (1959)
Oh Mr Porter (1937)
The Old Dark House (1932)
Oliver Twist (1948)
On The Town (1949)
On The Waterfront (1954)
Once Upon A Time in America (1984)|
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
The Passion Of Joan Of Arc (1927)
Passport To Pimlico (1949)
Pather Panchali (1954)
Paths Of Glory (1957)
Pelle The Conquerer (1988)
The Philadelphia Story (1940)
The Piano (1993)
Picnic At Hanging Rock (1976)
The Player (1991)
The Prisoner Of Zenda (1937)
Raging Bull (1980)
Rear Window (1953)
The Red Balloon (1955)
The Red Shoes (1947)
San Francisco (1936)
Saturday Night And Sunday Morning (1960)
A Short Film About Killing (1988)
Singing’ In The Rain (1951)
Snow White And The Seven Dwarves (1937)
Some Like It Hot (1952)
Sons Of The Desert (1935)
Southern Comfort (1981)
Star Wars (1977)
Sullivan’s Travels (1941)
Sweet Smell Of Success (1957)
Target for Tonight (1940)
Taxi Driver (1976)
The Thief Of Baghdad (1940)
Things To Come (1935)
The Third Man (1949)
The 39 Steps (1935)
This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
Throne Of Blood (1957)
The Tin Drum (1980)
To Be Or Not To Be (1942)
Tokyo Story (1949)
Tom Jones (1963)
Top Hat (1935)
Touch Of Evil (1958)
Toy Story (1985)
Triumph Of The Will (1934)
Trouble In Paradise (1932)
The True Glory (1945)
Twelve Angry Men (1957)
Two Tars (1928)
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
United 93 (2006)
Viskningar Och Rop (Cries And Whispers) (1972)
Way Out West (1937)
The Way To The Stars (1945)
West Side Story (1961)
When Harry Met Sally (1989)
Whisky Galore (1949)
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
Why We Fight (1943-5)
The Wild Bunch (1969)
Wild Strawberries (1957)
Wings Of Desire (1987)
The World Of Apu (1960)
As Simon says at Chewing Pixels, one might agree or disagree with the specific films chosen and omitted, and the list largely reflects the opinions of one editor (pre-1945 films seem to be favoured disproportionately), but it's still a useful starting point for one's own choice of viewing.
I've seen 62 of the films, with a further 21 booked for rental. You?
*: Simon says there are 257, but I calculate it as 247.
21 January, 2007
A week of films
Eight days, six films, four at the cinema. I'm slowing down....
'El Laberinto del Fauno' ('Pan's Labyrinth', if you must use the inaccurate, English title – I'm not sure why that irritates me, but really; the film simply has nothing to do with Pan).
A fairy tale for adults? Perhaps, in the sense that classical European fairy tales were thinly-veiled allegories about violence and politics. This was very violent in places; most instances were appropriate in context, though I'm not sure the 'sewing' scene was strictly necessary.
Initially released via arts cinemas in the UK, word of mouth seems to have caught the attention of mainstream cinemas, and the film is still attracting growing audiences (it's already no.114 in the IMDb all-time top 250). I'd be pleased to add to the effect by strongly recommending you see it, though definitely not with children.
'A History of Violence'
I've never been a fan of David Cronenberg. I have absolutely no objections to sex and violence in films, but Cronenberg's use of such elements is gratuitous: the very definition of p*rnography. 'A History of Violence' was characteristic in places (one instance of utterly irrelevant full-frontal nudity was particularly annoying), but on the whole, the story and execution were good, and I enjoyed the film. Though I didn't think it was as insightful as other reviewers have suggested, it's certainly far superior to the standard 'Hollywood' treatment of such material.
'Children of Men'
Alongside 'El Laberinto del Fauno', this is one of the best films I've seen recently. The acting, story and execution were all excellent, and I needn't comment further on them, but I was particularly impressed by the setting: a very credible depiction of near-future Britain, somewhat chillingly matching my own perceptions of where social surveillance and anti-immigrant hysteria are heading. The impression was of the real 2006 world aged into the future. For example, the cars looked slightly different to those of 2006 and featured proximity-detectors with head-up displays, but they looked like the natural progression of contemporary car design rather than being 'futuristic'.
I'm not sure whether non-Brits would quite appreciate the impact of seeing dramatic events in repurposed familiar (to Brits; not tourist-famous) locations. A key sequence depicts military-vs-'insurgents' combat, the results of which have become familiar in genuine news footage from Iraq, but this is in mainland Britain; sleepy Bexhill-on-Sea, in fact.
The film would certainly reward repeat viewings. Many of the background details, if not necessarily advancing the plot, fleshed out the fictional world and were simply interesting. There were also a couple of remarkable continuous shots, which apparently involved substantial technical innovation. In context they were impressive without being obtrusive, but I'd like to study them again.
I'm one of the few people I know who liked Sofia Coppola's previous film, 'Lost In Translation', but this was far less substantial. The use of an Eighties pop soundtrack as a comment on the young queen's 'party' lifestyle might have been a good idea in theory, but it's a rather insubstantial, obvious device, and not really worth pursuing. Similarly, one of the defining points in Marie Antoinette's place in history, being misquoted as having said that starving peasants should 'eat cake', was trivialised as 'tabloid journalism'. Another key moment, her execution, was omitted altogether. Kirsten Dunst's portrayal of the queen as an occasionally well-meaning Californian airhead failed to carry the film, and failed to illustrate whether Marie Antoinette was a victim of her circumstances (as the cited source material apparently suggests) or genuinely decadent. I'm not sure whether I'd even call this 'history lite', and I came away with no greater insight into the person or era; the film just didn't seem to say anything.
Coppola had an unrivaled opportunity to film actually at Versailles; it's a pity more wasn't made of it.
'Paths of Glory'
Stanley Kubrick's 1957 'breakthrough' film is certainly a powerful comment on the ludicrous concept of 'glory' in WWI, in which men were discarded by generals as mere game pieces. It's certainly notable as a Hollywood film which unrelentingly suppresses any hope. However, I'm not entirely sure why it's ranked within the IMDb all-time top 50 – it's good, but not that good. I suppose it's been influential on other films, which might explain its supposed 'must-see' status.
'The History Boys'
18 January, 2007
IMDb search censored
BoingBoing reports that the IMDb has imposed an 'Adult' filter on search results, arbitrarily rendering some sexually explicit films slightly difficult to find. I'm not interested in outright p*rn (honest), but more mainstream films are being hidden too, which I don't want.
I'm not going to rant about 'child protection' (I've already said that it's parents' responsibility, not that of content providers), so I'll merely say that those with IMDb accounts can readily switch-off the filter via the 'Search Preferences' page.
17 January, 2007
Review: 'The History Boys' (2006)
I don't know.
I'm sure it was an excellent stage play, but film is a rather different medium, and a direct transfer (rather than translation) of the former into the latter came across as far too contrived. I don't exactly object to cerebral content in films, but this lacked subtlety, and seemed merely clever.
For a large proportion of the film, I thought it drastically too wordy and hence superficial, with incredible (literally, not credible) dialogue failing to convey any real intimacy. A very English apparent sterility, perhaps.
It didn't help that the characters were similarly stylised. I've certainly never encountered eighteen-year-olds so knowledgeable, self-assured or even simply so motivated.
However, as in most of Alan Bennett's writing, one was given isolated glimpses of deeper emotion through the intellectual barrier, and by the end I'd been at least partly drawn in to appreciate the central characters as people. By that point I was was wondering* whether the under-emoted approach hadn't been correct from the start.
Well; almost by the end. Without revealing too much, there were two false endings, which suddenly reimposed the contrived structure and as A. said, schmaltz. I feel the first 'extension' could have been simply omitted without harming the story, and the epilogue probably worked better in the theatre.
Overall, I think I enjoyed it, despite my frustration. I'd have adapted the material very differently (if I had the ability!), turning it from a stage-play-on-location into a 'proper' film. It was disappointing that every aspect of the film could have been portrayed equally well on stage – an opportunity to do more was missed.
That said, I can't work out what I'd do differently.
*: Reading this review, I'd be tempted to tell myself to stop over-analysing and just lose myself in the film. However, that's precisely the point: the very fact that I was consciously analysing it whilst watching is some indication of the film's failure to properly absorb me.
11 January, 2007
Once it's released on rental DVD, I wonder how many young families choosing something gentle for an evening's viewing will mistake Guillermo del Toro's 'Pan's Labyrinth' for Jim Henson's 'Labyrinth', resulting in years of traumatic nightmares.
I'd highly recommend 'Pan's Labyrinth', but know what you're getting. The Pale Man certainly terrified this thirtysomething, not to mention the Captain's almost casual brutality.
Incidentally, my inner pedant can't help emphasising that the correct title is 'El Laberinto del Fauno' – nothing whatsoever to do with the Greek god. I know the IMDb lists the faun's name as 'Pan', but that's incorrect, and neither the film nor the end credits give the character any name but 'Faun' – in fact, that's a plot point.
25 December, 2006
Catching up with the flow, III
In March 2005, I joined Amazon DVD Rental. At the end of July, I commented on those I'd seen in the first four months, and repeated the exercise in December 2005. Since then, I've seen:
All The President's Men – I was hoping that its rating within the IMDb all-time top 250 meant this was an excellent film even for those without prior knowledge of and, frankly, interest in the Watergate scandal. Unfortunately not; it remains very specific throughout and in saying little about more general investigative journalism and government corruption felt rather dated.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – I've never been a fan of Westerns, perhaps as a result of being bored by seeing too many on TV when I was too young to appreciate them. However, having 'forced' myself to watch this, I rather enjoyed it.
It may be a sign of my age and cinema inexperience that, seeing the film was in black & white, I unquestioningly presumed it was made in the 1950s, rather than its actual 1962.
Firefly - The Complete Series – Four DVDs containing, as the title suggests, the entire TV series (13 episodes, I think, one of which was feature-length). Excellent. Initially, it was a total mystery why such a good sci-fi series was cancelled just as it was beginning to really get going, but a little research suggests it was because the episodes were first shown in the wrong order, thereby failing to capture enough of a fanbase to justify continued production of an expensive, CGI-intensive series. In short, it wasn't because it was bad, and I strongly recommend it.
I also recommend seeing the TV series before watching 'Serenity', the feature film which ties up some loose ends and requires knowledge of the characters' back stories for full effect. It really isn't a standalone film, nor a lead-in to the series.
Four Rooms – Very mixed, as one might expect from a portmanteau film with multiple stories and directors. The linking element was Tim Roth as a hotel bellboy/night manager, and much of my dissatisfaction was due to his overplayed, sub-Chaplin performance. Madonna in latex was some compensation. Ahem.
Notorious – My first ever Hitchcock film, I think, and also my first to feature Claude Rains. I think I've only seen one other featuring Ingrid Bergman, for that matter. Rather good; a thriller in which one identifies with the stereotype-defying characters, including the ostensible 'villain'.
Garden State – I'm not a fan of 'Scrubs', the 'zany' US TV comedy, so I was a little wary of a film by and starring Zach Braff. However, it had received favourable reviews from people whose opinions I respect, and I enjoyed it immensely. Ostensibly, it's a comedy, but of the bittersweet, rather dark type, and far more substantial than the trivial froth of 'Scrubs'. Good soundtrack, too.
Snatch – A 'Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels' clone (not sequel) from the same people, but that's not entirely a criticism; there's still a lot of entertainment value and potential for novelty in the sub-genre. I only rented the film itself (the bonus disc would have been an additional choice counting against my monthly allocation), so can't comment on the extra features.
Equus – Rather good, if (needlessly?) surreal in places. I hadn't seen many films featuring the iconic Richard Burton, so it was good to encounter one centred on him (alongside a distractingly young Peter Firth). For some reason, one of the only things I 'knew' about 'Equus' beforehand was that it's supposedly erotic. That wasn't the reason I rented it, which is lucky, as the eroticism eluded me.
Heavy Metal – Reviewed here.
Mr and Mrs Smith – Why did I rent this insipid Hollywood trash? (Ah yes; Angelina Jolie as a dominatrix).
Stalingrad – I'd received the impression this was in the same vein as 'Das Boot', and there were similarities, but I'm afraid I was nowhere near as impressed. Large sections of 'Das Boot' were actually rather dull, but that came across as atmospheric and contributed to character development and audience immersion (no pun intended). In contrast, 'Staningrad' just felt under-edited. Good in parts.
Cecil B Demented – I've never really 'got' John Waters' films – the sheer density of references to American kitsch culture tends to alienate me. I'm afraid this was no different, with the added requirement that an audience would need to know more than me about US-style independent filmmaking.
Fear City – Strangely unsatisfying. Despite including a lot of nudity, violence and a serial killer plot, and being directed by the usually-acclaimed Abel Ferrara, this seemed, well, mundane; a standard thriller of almost 'made-for-TV' standard.
Before Sunrise – Ethan Hawke & Julie Delpy walk through the streets of Vienna and talk. That's it. And that's all that's required – a wonderful film.
2046 – Reviewed here.
Cube 2 – The first was excellent, the third pretty good, but the second was a bit of a mess.
The Third Man – Not quite what I'd expected, but certainly an excellent film in terms of story, setting and suspense. The only slight weakness might be characterisation: the Austrians were rather two-dimensional, Joseph Cotten's lead character was annoyingly arrogant and despite the build-up, Orson Welles' Harry Lime was surprisingly petty.
Seeing this, especially seeing it soon after 'Before Sunrise', makes me want to visit Vienna.
Complicity – Oddly, an accurate adaptation of the excellent novel which somehow stripped out the excellence.... If I hadn't already been familiar with the book, suspense might have carried the film a bit better, but as it was, casting and direction which contradicted the way I'd imagined the characters and story simply jarred. I presume it was filmed in the actual locations in which Banks set the novel, which was a bonus, but not really enough for me.
Fantastic Four – Some adaptations of classic Marvel superhero comics work; the first 'Spiderman' and 'X-Men' films spring to mind. Others are by-the-numbers cash-ins, and utterly forgettable. This was the latter.
Chungking Express – Again, not what I was expecting, and the first of the two stories seemed unrelated to the second (in terms of narrative, anyway), but the strongly character-led approach was very compelling, even charming.
The Draughtsman's Contract – I associate early Peter Greenaway feature films with arty visuals at the expense of coherent storytelling, but this, his first, evades that accusation rather well. Recommended.
Dancing At The Blue Iguana – Reviewed here.
Stalker – Reviewed here.
Raging Bull – I'm afraid I found this rather boring. I suppose that's the risk of renting a biopic merely to watch the technical or more abstract storytelling aspects, without having an interest in the central character himself. Perhaps it'd mean more to someone with greater awareness of the history of boxing, and Jake LaMotta's significance within it. Again, I only rented the film itself, omitting the bonus disc – maybe the accompanying documentaries could have added something.
The Black Hole – Reviewed here.
Time Regained – Maybe it was just my mood, but I found this utterly stultifying, and gave up within the first hour.
Dune – Perhaps I've been spoiled by high-budget series made for US TV, featuring excellent CGI, but this mini-series looked cheap, especially the awful matte painting backgrounds. The 'arty' block-colour lighting certainly didn't help. The extended running time (288 minutes split into three episodes) should have produced something closer to the book than David Lynch's 130-min feature film, but somehow the latter seemed closer to the spirit of the novel, with a visual design I drastically preferred. Disappointing as this was, I'd still recommend the sequel.
Domino – Another case of wondering why I chose to rent this. It didn't seem like the sort of film I'd like, and I didn't. Perhaps I added it to my rental queue thinking it was something else, or after reading an article about some technical innovation which I subsequently forgot and hence failed to notice.
War of the Worlds – Reviewed here.
Stage Beauty – Rather good, and not remotely as superficial as it first appeared. Billy Crudup was also startlingly compelling as a female impersonator – good casting.
Audition – Don't believe the hype. Takashi Miike's psychological (and gory in places) horror film isn't quite so extreme as its reputation suggests. It's also either too specifically Japanese for me to fully understand or merely slightly incoherent.
Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children – Knowing almost nothing about the series of computer games, the backstory of this film was a total mystery, so I'm pretty sure I missed a lot. However, I was primarily watching for the technical aspects, particularly progress made towards photorealistic CGI of humans. They're getting closer – very impressive. Once into the story, and back-references diminished, the film itself was pretty good, particularly the 'big reveal' (which I won't, though it was hardly a surprise).
Vampire Hunter D - Bloodlust – Apparently a remake of an anime classic, this was an odd mix of gothic vampire fantasy and techy, almost post-apocalyptic sci-fi. The cel-animation and English dubbing (for some reason, the original Japanese soundtrack and English subtitles were unavailable – I suspect this was a 'made for USA' edition) rendered this a poor contrast to 'FFVII', but if I hadn't seen them in close succession, 'Vampire Hunter D' would have been respectable, if not exactly an all-time great.
Cinema Paradiso – Strangely, writing this several months later, my primary memory is of an over-long, over-sentimental film, yet I know I enjoyed it, at least enough to buy my own copy. I think I'll have to watch it again.
Rear Window – Excellent. I rarely use the cliched word 'masterpiece', but this deserves it.
Incidentally, how did I reach my current age without realising Grace Kelly was gorgeous?
Me Without You – I'm afraid this film, following the lives of two girls/women through the 1970s and 80s, failed to engage me. After pausing the DVD to take a phone call about halfway through, I didn't return to it.
Goodbye Lenin! – A major reason for renting this was that I'd visited Berlin recently, and I was curious whether it'd show locations I'd visited. It didn't, really, but I still enjoyed the film enough to watch it twice (I'm not sure why....).
A Zed And Two Noughts – Very visual, very precise, very... odd. I'm not entirely certain what Greenaway meant to say, nor whether he managed to do so.
Nathalie – A fascinating, fairly intense film with an excellent cast: Fanny Ardant, Gérard Depardieu and Emmanuelle Béart looking at least a decade younger than her actual age. It's lazy to criticise Hollywood superficiality, but the US studio system really couldn't match this sort of film.
Memoirs Of A Geisha – Interesting enough, but not remotely as good as the novel, and it was somehow distracting to hear Zhang Zihi performing in English.
Underworld: Evolution – Not remotely as good as the original, its confused story adding very little to what had been a compelling (if not exactly novel) concept in the first film. However, it features Kate Beckinsale in a latex catsuit. 'Nuff said. [Digression: do reviewers really not know the difference between latex and PVC?]
Malena – An interesting idea explored by the director of 'Nuevo Cinema Paradiso': that a woman (Monica Bellucci) can be too attractive to live in a close-knit small town. Like pretty much every Italian film I've seen, this starts as somewhat comedic yet becomes much darker.
Battle Royale – An excellent concept, explored fairly well by a teenage cast and Takeshi Kitano. It's a pick-and-mix of several other 'deadly gameshow' films crossed with 'Lord Of The Flies', and necessarily violent, but I recommend it.
Incidentally, I also watched the sequel (on TV) a couple of weeks later, so you don't have to. Don't bother with it. Just don't.
Appleseed – Released in 2004, this is a much better adaptation of the Masamune Shirow manga than the 1988 attempt. It's still no 'Ghost In The Shell', but worth watching. Unlike the former, the latter will make some sense to those unfamiliar with the manga, though those who have read it will appreciate it too.
Groundhog Day – The concept has become something of a reference point in several aspects of popular culture, so I thought I'd better see the film itself. Somehow I was expecting the infuriating community-orientated schmaltz of 'It's a Wonderful Life', and I'm not an especial fan of Bill Murray's pre-2000 films, but I was pleasantly surprised.
Heaven – A Krzysztof Kieślowski screenplay adapted and directed by Tom Tykwer should be good, and indeed it was. After returning the rental copy, I bought my own and have already watched it twice more within the last three months.
Before Sunset – Jesse & Celine from 'Before Sunrise' meet again nine years later, in Paris, and talk again. Again, it's 'just' a conversation on a pretty walk, but again, no more is required.
House Of Cards Trilogy: House Of Cards – I enjoyed this mini-series immensely when it was first shown in the 1980s, not least because it was timely – it's about a fictional Government Chief Whip scheming to become Prime Minister, and was broadcast at about the time of the real-world 'coup' against Thatcher. Either that, or I'm just drawn to Machiavellian plotting.
House Of Cards Trilogy: To Play The King – The excellent sequel to the above, and also somehow timely, with clear real-world references (the fictional king is transparently Charles Windsor).
Whatever happened to Kitty Aldridge?
House Of Cards Trilogy: The Final Cut – Somehow, the real-world references went sour in this final mini-series, bordering on mere parody, and a possibly deliberate sense of the squalor and decadence in parliamentary politics rendered it less enjoyable. However, I think the twist at the end saved the series.
Azumi 2 - Death Or Love – I saw and enjoyed the first film on TV a few weeks ago, so added the sequel to my rental list. It featured the same manga* samurai (more ninja, actually) stylised characters and action, but somehow lost the plot – literally.
*: Yes, manga, not anime – it's specifically analogous to the comic strip genre rather than animated films.
Rebecca – Hitchcock again. Pretty good, not least for Joan Fontaine's performance. Strangely, the characters seemed to have greater depth in the film than in the novel, though I'm bound to have been drawing on supplementary knowledge from the latter when watching the former.
Once Upon A Time In Mexico – The third 'El Mariachi' film was excellent (though I still prefer 'Desperado') and unexpectedly funny.
Hidden Fortress – If I hadn't already known that this inspired 'Star Wars', I doubt I'd have made the comparison. There are similarities, but the latter (as filmed, anyway) isn't merely a sci-fi adaptation of the former which, considering Western adaptations of other Kurosawa films, I'd expected. It was okay, but not one of my favourites by Kurosawa.
Sunset Boulevard – the 1950 film which inspired the 1993 stage musical, but not itself a musical (as my mother had thought). Excellent, with the added frisson that the real lives of Gloria Swanson (still striking 30 years after the peak of her career) and Erich von Stroheim were mirrored by those of their characters.
Gwendoline – This could have been a genre classic: a John Willie strip cartoon adapted into a feature film by the director of 'The Story Of O'. Instead, it was deliberately made as an 'Indiana Jones crossed with Barbarella' lightweight farce. Very disappointing.
The Maltese Falcon – An undeniable classic, not only for the iconic Hollywood noir cast.
V for Vendetta – I haven't seen a big-budget modern Hollywood 'blockbuster' for a while. This was a pleasant surprise; perhaps I'd have been less surprised if I'd known beforehand that it was made by much the same team as 'The Matrix'. I suppose it helped that the setting coincided with the way I believe the UK really is heading.
Lucky Number Slevin – Excellent. I started to write a full 'standalone' review, but realised that I couldn't say anything worthwhile without revealing too much. Highly recommended – it's a deeply satisfying film which holds the attention. It seems to be one thing at the start then totally changes, and there are a number of 'WTF?' moments, but everything is resolved and ultimately makes perfect sense.
Razor Blade Smile – Poor. Low-budget is one thing, but the acting, direction and, most of all, script were just plain substandard. In hindsight, the vaguely compelling ideas (and, er, latex catsuits) that had drawn me to the film in the first place were insubstantial and underexplored.
Children Of Dune – Actually covering both 'Dune Messiah' and 'Children of Dune', this is much better than the first 'Dune' miniseries, partly because of the considerable increase in the use of CGI (itself looking a little dated already), partly because the producers seem to have responded to specific criticisms of the 2000 series, and partly because there's no direct comparison to the Lynch film.
Note to self: don't repeat this exercise annually. It's not easy to make meaningful comments about films seen 10-11 months ago.
24 December, 2006
Top 250, III
In February 2004, I participated in the 'top 250 films' meme, which involved copying the list of the IMDb's top 250 films and highlighting those I'd actually seen. Almost two years later, I repeated the exercise last December. Time to do so again. Note that the top 250 changes rapidly and the following list is today's (24/12/06), quite different to those of February 2004 and December 2005.
In Feb. '04, I'd seen 102 of the 250, and 109 of the updated list in 2005. At the end of 2006, it's 129/250 (over half, at last), which can be divided as 70 from the top 100 and 59 from the remaining 150.
As one would expect, the lower rankings are more volatile than the 'core' top 100 which changes little year-to-year. Of the 2004 and 2005 lists, I've now seen 68 (17 more) and 69 (10 more) of their top 100s, but 70 (21 more) and 67 (17 more) of their lower ranges; overall, that's 138/250 and 136/250 respectively.
As I said in 2004, a list of films others rate highly is of limited relevance to me, but I do respect the opinions of others and treat the list as at least a guide to my future viewing, so I've added as many as possible of my omissions from the top hundred to my Amazon Rental list. A year after discovering that Amazon didn't offer several highly-rated films for rental, I'm glad to say that's changed, and all but the Chaplin ones are now in my queue.
I suspect I might reconsider doing that, as it means I'll be renting films I don't expect to enjoy (e.g. 'It's a Wonderful Life', 'Singin' In The Rain' and 'Some Like It Hot'), simply to tick them off a list, which strikes me as pointless. It's about enjoying films and broadening my knowledge, not engaging in trainspotter-type completism.
10 November, 2006
Like 'Stalker', which I rented in May, the original (Tarkovsky) version of 'Solaris' is distributed on two DVDs. I don't mean that it's a 2-DVD set, with the film on one and extras on the other; the film itself is split over two DVDs *.
That's okay if one is buying the complete package, but when renting on a 'per disc' basis, and Amazon DVD Rental reports despatching Disc Two with Disc One to follow at an unspecified date, that's not so good.
*: It's 'only' 159 minutes long, so I don't really see the need to divide the film.
2 October, 2006
That's odd. Apparently, each DVD of 2005 sci-fi 'blockbuster' 'Aeon Flux' comes with a copy of Dalí & Buñuel's 1929 film 'Un Chien Andalou'.
Well, what else could be meant by 'eye-popping featurette'?
16 September, 2006
Cheap DVD (heavily packaged)
I was really impressed by Wong Kar-Wai's 'Chungking Express' and '2046' when I saw them via Amazon DVD Rental, and bought my own copies almost immediately. Hence, I was rather interested to see a TV advert last night which informed me I could buy a copy of 'In The Mood For Love' (of which '2046' is a sequel) from my local newsagent for a mere £1.30 today. If you're in the UK: quick; rush!
The only down side was that it came with an annoying amount of packaging, a veritable brick of paper. I glanced at that long enough to establish that it seems to be a copy of 'The Times', but that guarantees my disinterest, and it's gone straight to my recycling pile otherwise unopened. I wonder why the distributors thought it'd be a good idea to give away a free newspaper with a cheap DVD.
Joking aside, I do consider these 'free-DVD-with-the-weekend-newspaper' offers are ludicrous. I must be the absolutely least welcome type of customer, and I rather doubt I'm alone: I bought solely for the DVD and genuinely have dumped the newspaper unopened. Maybe the distributors only want a one-day spike in sales, but if they hope to capture new longer-term readers I think it's seriously poor marketing.
10 September, 2006
Review: 'The Notorious Bettie Page' (2005)
I suppose the significance of Bettie Page in post-1980s popular culture arises from the 1950s photos rather than the woman herself, so there wasn't much to really say about that period of her life.
In fact, in portraying her as an easy-going innocent, the film objectifies her as much as the original magazines did. She doesn't come across as an active participant who understood what she was doing; it seems that if she hadn't happened to be there at the time, the Klaws and John Willie could easily have worked with another model, and if it wasn't for her distinctive physical appearence, Page wouldn't be remembered fifty years later. A failing of the film is that I have no greater insight into whether that's accurate than before I went into the cinema. Essentially, this is the story of the photographs rather than of Page herself.
Aside from the thin narrative and overall lack of substance, the film looks good: casting Gretchen Mol as Page was an inspired decision, and filming in black & white with interludes of hypersaturated colour provides a strong sense of the time. I suppose the very omission of sexuality, which weakens the story, was evocative of 'wholesome' (aka sanitised) 1950s films, too.
Not awful, but not really recommended, either.
2 September, 2006
Review: 'Angel-A' (2005)
It'd be unlike me to recommend a sentimental romantic comedy, but that's precisely what I'm doing.
Luc Besson's penultimate feature film (he said he'd direct ten in the course of his career and, including 'Nikita', 'Léon' and 'The Fifth Element', he's now made ten. I hope he reconsiders.) explores a very simple premise. André, a failed fraudster, is driven to suicide by his debts. At the final moment, when he's already on the wrong side of a Parisian bridge parapet, an angel, Angela, appears and, as the film progresses, tries to teach him to like himself.
The casting was excellent. Jamel Debbouze made a perfect gnome-like Algerian immigrant with 'sad puppy' eyes and Rie Rasmussen, over 6' tall in heels, was suitably inhumanly attractive. André's rumpled raincoat mirrored his personality, whereas Angela's tiny black dress was... startling. That itself was a valuable device, emphasising her sexuality as a metaphor of considerable, apparent yet barely restrained, power over others (which itself can be one definition of sexuality, of course).
Incidentally, there's a stereotype that supermodels can't act, other than as clothes horses. I have no complaints about Rasmussen's performance; I wasn't aware of her acting being acting, which has to be praise.
Ostensibly in very different genres, I suppose there are thematic similarities between this and 'The Fifth Element', and they're both centred on supernatural female leads played by supermodels. As André says, it's easy to talk about inner beauty if you've already got external beauty covered, and 'Angel-A' is even closer to the line between worship and objectification. To be fair, that analysis only occurred to me afterwards – perhaps I'm being more cynical than the film deserves.
Angela is unmistakably a male creation, but arguably that fits the situation. André desperately needs to experience beauty, and this isn't 'It's A Wonderful Life' – André isn't about to respond to familial love, comradely friendships or community spiritedness, and a somewhat homely angel like Clarence really wouldn't get through to him.
The film is set in the most picturesque parts of central Paris, and I suspect the local tourist board are very pleased with Besson. The city does indeed look beautiful, as André gradually realises. Curiously, apart from those people André & Angela specifically meet, the streets are almost deserted, even around major landmarks. The film already acquires a stark intensity from being in black & white, but the empty spaces and lack of human distractions magnify the effect.
A suspension of cynicism is required, never mind suspension of disbelief. It is an obvious film, and the subplots are almost formulaic. For example, one wonders whether Angela really is an angel or just usefully delusional, and the issue is addressed directly. I can imagine that if it caught me in the wrong mood, the film's lack of convolution and darkness might annoy me, but somehow it simply works, and is totally enchanting. I'm not complaining.
11 August, 2006
Wow. I don't know why this hadn't occurred to me already, but some of the acknowledged classics of cinema have fallen out of copyright by now, so can be distributed for free in the public domain.
JonHs provides an index of links to 209 (and counting) of them*, streamed by various websites.
I think I might start taking lunch hours for a while, though still at my desk.
*: Well, 209 films, of which some are acknowledged classics.
[Via today's UserFriendly LOTD].
22 June, 2006
Review: War Of The Worlds (2005)
That was odd. For a lightweight blockbuster, it was almost experimental, but in my opinion, the experiment failed.
I haven't read the original book, so I don't know whether H.G. Wells took the same approach, but the film describes an alien invasion from the point of view of one man, a New Jersey dock worker with no government or military contacts and hence no understanding of the overall situation*.
In theory, that's a nice idea, and the audience could become immersed in the 'everyman' experience. Unfortunately, the execution doesn't match the concept. The intention seemed to be to focus on character instead of spectacle, whilst remaining led by the visuals. Maybe one can have it both ways, but Spielberg didn't manage it here.
When a significant part of that experience is struggling through fleeing crowds or hiding in a cellar, it's not particularly thrilling, and puts extra pressure on the script/direction. For a superficial Tom Cruise vehicle directed by Steven Spielberg (i.e. written by committee, edited by focus group and lowest-common-denominator all the way) marketed as an 'action movie', that's a problem.
I don't have some snobbish objection to films which solely entertain without challenging an audience to think; visceral, emotional responses are as valid as intellectual ones, and pure entertainment is fine. Yet this didn't entertain. Even by the standards of a modern blockbuster with a skeletal story linking set-piece CGI showcases, the plot is weak and diminished by intrusively unlikeable characters. That doesn't leave much.
*: I think Wells' narrator was a journalist with official contacts, which justified greater exposition. Lacking that, the film struggled.
31 May, 2006
Review: The Double Life Of Véronique (1991)
Two identical women, Weronika and Véronique, lead entirely separate lives in Poland and France.
It's lazy to criticise the Hollywood stereotype, but there are only so many ways one could imagine the US focus group-led studio system developing that concept, and none of them would match the direction taken by Krzysztof Kieślowski.
Typically for a Kieślowski film, 'La Double Vie de Véronique' is strongly character-led and internalised (yet visually intricate and precise – every teabag swirls beautifully). Though there is a clear plot, that's not what the film is 'about'. The narrative is secondary to emotional reaction to events which, taken alone, might seem slightly trivial. Kieślowski doesn't spoon-feed the audience, who need to interpret the characters' motivations and inner emotions for themselves.
This seems to have eluded some reviewers at Amazon, who rated it 'very disappointing' and even 'rubbish', but I strongly feel that reflects the reviewers' mistaken preconceptions and inability to engage with the characters, not a genuine failing of the script, direction or acting.
Far from it. As with Juliette Binoche in 'Three Colours: Blue', it doesn't hurt that I find Irène Jacob physically attractive, but the film heavily depends on her understated performance as the two lead characters, for which she deservedly won the 1991 'Best Actress' award at Cannes.
Actually, much of my earlier review of '... Blue' applies to this film too, especially the first two paragraphs and including the part about not entirely understanding it. The wonderful thing is that that doesn't matter – I'll understand more next time I watch it, which I certainly will. I've read 'La Double Vie de Véronique' described (fairly) as 'transcendent or somnolent, depending on one's orientation'. Clearly I'm in the former group.
26 May, 2006
Review: 'The Princess And The Warrior' (2000)
It's a dilemma. The best films tend to be the unhyped ones, which one can approach afresh, yet one has to hear about them somehow in order to watch them at all.
A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky enough to spot that though I hadn't heard of a film about to be shown on TV, 'The Princess And The Warrior' was by Tom Tykwer, the director of 'Lola Rennt' ('Run Lola Run'), and starred Franka Potente (Lola herself). That was reason enough to video it, and I watched it last night.
Excellent; recommended. It was slower and more introspective than the frenetic 'Lola Rennt', and the gradually-revealed backstories of the lead characters were as important as the plot, but both aspects were very compelling. It helped that both lead characters were likeable, even pitiable, and played by good-looking actors; as a hetero male, I consider Benno Fürmann handsome, and Potente is unconventionally attractive.
The title evokes a fantasy or mediaeval romance, and the DVD cover image screams 'chick flick', but that's misleading. Set in modern-day Wuppertal, Germany, the film's 'princess' is a psychiatric nurse excessively adored by the inmates of her secure ward, whilst the 'warrior' is a damaged ex-soldier. On one level, it is a romance, but is well-grounded.
The visual effects were wonderful, using digital techniques solely to realise impossible shots without making them look even slightly fake or ostentatious effects-for-the-sake-of-showing-off-the-software. One vertical pan over a motorway bridge was a genuine 'wow!' moment (in a good way), and a key scene left me wondering whether Potente really did undergo an emergency tracheotomy for the film. The cinematography was equally good, and many well-framed images would work well as stills. Several scenes used the full width of the widescreen format; annoyingly, it wasn't broadcast in widescreen on this occasion.
Whilst checking a few details for this entry, I see that Tykwer's current project is a film of 'Perfume', the 1976 Patrick Süskind novel. Apparently, the book was, and is, a major bestseller in Germany and achieved underground, word-of-mouth acclaim here in the UK. I thought it was excellent, but curiously all of the friends to whom I recommended it found it disturbing, even repellent. I'm certainly looking forward to the film.
*: The original title is 'Der Krieger und die Kaiserin', but I think Tykwer made the right decision in insisting on the existing English title; 'The Warrior and the Empress' doesn't have the right resonance in English.
18 May, 2006
Review: The Black Hole (1979)
This was one of my formative cinematic experiences when it was first released. Though a Disney film, with overly cute robots, it's also the first Disney film to have received a 'PG' rating, and my parents may have been slightly misled about its suitability for an eight-year old child. At that age it rather scared me, and I still remember it with visceral unease, but seeing the film was also a landmark event probably determining my subsequent interest in sci-fi (another was reading Robert Westall's 'Futuretrack 5').
In hindsight, it's a very Gothic film, both visually (the cathedral-like spaceship Cygnus, the silent, robed 'undead' and the lighting/colour scheme) and in the overall bleak melancholy. A major theme is the acceptance of death and the aftermath.
Having watched it for the second time last night, over 26 years later, I found that my memory had exaggerated the 'trippiness' of the ending and consequently the fear it inspired (though I recalled the scene leading into it with perfect clarity – and heart-in-the-mouth anticipation). I'd also missed/forgotten the blatent religious imagery of that sequence.
Disney's investment in the post-'Star Wars' sci-fi boom is reflected in the big-name cast, featuring Maximillian Schell, Anthony Perkins, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Forster and the voices of Roddy McDowall & Slim Pickens (who famously rode a nuclear bomb in 'Dr. Strangelove'). At least the first two were probably cast because of their somewhat sinister manner and associations. I've always though there was something creepy about Ernest Borgnine, too.
John Barry's eerie, slightly grandiose score didn't soften the impact on the childhood me, either. One other, unrelated, observation after hearing it again: the music doesn't remotely fit the action in key scenes. I wonder why.
The special effects, in terms of miniatures, matte painting and even CGI were excellent for the time. The IMDb reports that (though clearly influenced by 'Star Wars') they were ground-breaking and nominated for Academy Awards.
Good cast, atmosphere, visual design and effects. To that, I'd add that the overall story and concepts are excellent.
The screenplay, including the script, and the acting drastically undermine the good points. I won't itemise the instances of bad science, but hardcore sci-fi purists would have... problems. The plot is annoyingly abrupt, as if natural development has been compressed to fit the available space and time. A bit like entering a black hole – nah; it can't have been deliberate.
Far worse, the dialogue is hideously stilted and delivered in a seemingly-amateurish manner. Apparently, nearly all of the spoken material was re-recorded after filming, which can't have helped; many lines do sound as if being read rather than really acted.
However (again), that's merely an acknowledgement of the weak aspects, and I do think the story and overall 'feel' more than adequately carry the film as a whole.
So; seriously flawed and far from a classic unless one has a prior emotional attachment, but still worth seeing.
Incidentally, it was slightly embarassing to realise last night that when I was playing childhood games which involved imagining sticks to be guns (precisely the sort of games the spoilsport adult me wouldn't approve of), the image I had in my head was the guns from 'The Black Hole'!
11 May, 2006
I don't know about other companies, but Amazon DVD Rental operates on a 'per disc' basis, whereby one rents a certain number of individual DVDs per month (six, in my case). A two-disc set counts as two choices, not one. Hence, there's an obvious temptation to only rent one disc of each set, watching the film (usually Disc 1) without the bonus documentaries, deleted scenes, etc. (usually Disc 2).
The point of this entry (yes, there is one) is to warn people not to do that with the Artificial Eye edition of Tarkovsky's 'Stalker'. I suspect the DVDs were derived from a TV version, as the 163-min film is in two parts, ~65 mins on Disc 1 & ~95 on Disc 2. The (limited) extras are on both discs. Don't be caught out with only 2/5 of a film!
'Stalker' itself is pretty good; I suspect it'd grow on repeat viewing, too. It's very slow – it is a Tarkovsky film, so that's no surprise – but after the first ~30 mins one becomes accustomed to the contemplative pacing, which helps one absorb the subtexts and certainly sustains one's attention.
It's sci-fi, but in a literary sense rather than the typical Hollywood interpretation of the genre, which too often means an action movie with a few token spaceships amongst the explosions and shouting. Anyone expecting a high-energy plot would be seriously disappointed. Think more of three bald men going on a existential, even spiritual journey, as much in their heads than in the physical world. By definition, it's the journey that matters, not the destination, and that applies to the viewing experience too.
10 May, 2006
Jim Emerson, editor of RogerEbert.com, proposes a list of the 102 most influential 'must-see' films in cinema history (from a US point-of-view, of course). It must be stressed that these aren't supposed to be the 102 best films, or most enjoyable, but specifically the most influential: those one 'needs' to have seen in order to participate in an informed discussion of the topic, and to spot and understand references made in subsequent films.
They're the common cultural currency of our time, the basic cinematic texts that everyone should know, at minimum, to be somewhat 'movie-literate'.
You can't fully understand a contemporary work of art or pop culture unless you know at least something about its heritage – just as Robert Altman's 'The Long Goodbye' would be meaningless without the classic private eye movies and films noir it invokes and subverts. It's like jazz: You have to know the notes Altman isn't playing to understand how he's riffing on and around the familiar melody of the generic private detective movie.
Those in bold are the ones I've seen. How about you?
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
The 400 Blows (1959)
8 1/2 (1963)
Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)
All About Eve (1950)
Annie Hall (1977)
Apocalypse Now (1979)
The Battleship Potemkin (1925)
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
The Big Red One (1980)
The Bicycle Thief (1949)
The Big Sleep (1946)
Blade Runner (1982)
Blue Velvet (1986)
Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Bringing Up Baby (1938)
Un Chien Andalou (1928)
Les Enfants du Paradis (1945)
Citizen Kane (1941)
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
The Crying Game (1992)
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
Days of Heaven (1978)
Dirty Harry (1971)
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)
Do the Right Thing (1989)
La Dolce Vita (1960)
Double Indemnity (1944)
Dr. Strangelove (1964)
Duck Soup (1933)
E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Easy Rider (1969)
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
The Exorcist (1973)
Fight Club (1999)
The General (1927)
The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II (1972, 1974)
Gone With the Wind (1939)
The Graduate (1967)
A Hard Day's Night (1964)
It's a Gift (1934)
It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
The Lady Eve (1941)
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Mad Max 2 / The Road Warrior (1981)
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Modern Times (1936)
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
North by Northwest (1959)
On the Waterfront (1954)
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
Out of the Past (1947)
Pink Flamingos (1972)
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Rear Window (1954)
Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
Red River (1948)
The Rules of the Game (1939)
The Scarlet Empress (1934)
Schindler's List (1993)
The Searchers (1956)
The Seven Samurai (1954)
Singin' in the Rain (1952)
Some Like It Hot (1959)
A Star Is Born (1954)
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Taxi Driver (1976)
The Third Man (1949)
Tokyo Story (1953)
Touch of Evil (1958)
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
Trouble in Paradise (1932)
West Side Story (1961)
The Wild Bunch (1969)
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
That's 33; not many, though I'm being fairly strict in only noting those I have seen and remember; I'm pretty sure another 5-6 have registered on my retinas without entering long-term memory.
Must try harder....
5 April, 2006
As I said, I've seen five films at the cinema within in the past fortnight, and one was 'Brokeback Mountain'. The others were:
A Bittersweet Life (2005): This was very superficially similar to 'Oldboy' in that it's Korean, rather violent and tightly focussed on a single character; since the latter was the only other Korean film I'd seen before, I couldn't avoid the comparison. The narrative seemed more straightforward, bordering on derivative, but the ending can be interpreted a number of ways, which means one was left thinking and re-evaluating the experience for days.
Blow Up (1966): A wonderful film about the nature of perception.
Made forty years ago, it's certainly dated (40 years seems startling, though – it's not that dated), but it's 'period' nature is almost added value rather than a problem. In particular, it highlights the aesthetics of the time: at 24 years old, David Hemmings looked remarkably like Terence Stamp (who was apparently Antonioni's first choice for the leading actor), and in street scenes, the camera lingers on (then revolutionary) Modernist high-rise buildings that'd be ignored or considered ugly nowadays.
Sympathy For Lady Vengeance (2005): Though not as novel a story as 'Oldboy' (another of Park Chan-Wook's 'revenge' trilogy), the sheer innovation of the film's execution was fascinating. The use of special effects was particularly striking, in extending shots beyond the physically possible and conveying nuances of the plot and characterisation that I don't recall seeing before. So far as I'm concerned, this is what digital imaging is for.
Hidden (2005): The audience and lead characters are in the same position, of being presented with footage & events and having to interpret them for their/ourselves. As soon as I got home, I rang Helen to discuss it, and it's almost as if we'd seen different films.
Predictably, my view was that the surveillance videos were the product of a dispassionate outside observer, and that the subsequent events followed from the characters' reactions to it, whereas H. thought the videos had been produced by one (or more) of the characters in order to deliberately provoke specific actions. It's the difference between people's own memories and guilt driving their responses to an outside, itself entirely neutral, event, and someone attempting a deliberate act of impassioned revenge.
Incidentally, though I said earlier that the 'shared communal experience' aspect of going to the cinema isn't important to me, the collective gasp at one key moment was delicious.
5 April, 2006
Selling from the mountain
I've been to the Dukes cinema five times in the last fortnight. On each of four occasions, as soon as everyone had taken their seats, the auditorium doors closed, the lights dimmed, and the film began immediately. One was different.
Yesterday evening, I saw 'Brokeback Mountain' (which was excellent). The lights dimmed as usual, but instead of the standard censors' certificate then the film, the first thing on the screen was an advert for adverts (literally), then a car ad. Then a perfume ad. Then at least five more (two for an entry-level ISP and ~3 others I've successfully blotted from my memory). Then an advert for trailers, even though the Dukes doesn't show trailers. Then a "piracy's bad, m'kay?" advert. Then the film certificate and film itself.
Yes, I realise this is absolutely routine in 'mainstream' (I don't mean that as a criticism) cinemas, but it's unusual at The Dukes, Lancaster's, er, 'non-mainstream' cinema. It was plainly imposed by the distributor, not the venue's decision; the Dukes rented an entire package and set of conditions, not just a film: "we'll let you show our film if you boost the commercialism and assert our anti-piracy message". I presume the ad revenue went to the distributor too, not to the cinema.
In fact, I strongly suspect that being forced to show adverts decreased the cinema's income, as the film had to be shown especially early in order to fit in the 134-min film and extras before ~20:10, leaving time to set up for the next film at 20:30. I personally know that several people who would have attended a ~18:00 start couldn't make it from work for the 17:45 start – that's lost ticket sales.
I don't really know what I'm saying here, beyond merely observing the contrast between common practice in mass-market 'Hollywood' film distribution and the less interventionist approach of non-mainstream film distributors. I certainly know which I prefer. As that anti-piracy advert said, cinema is all about the experience*, so back off, Entertainment Film Distributors Ltd., and let the cinema define its own atmosphere.
*: Defined as the communal experience of sharing the moment with a crowd. Needless to say, I disagree.
2 April, 2006
Occasionally, in a subtitled non-English film, the dialogue switches to a third language. I wonder if there's a good way to handle this within the subtitles.
For example, one scene of the Chinese film '2046'¹, which I watched last night, features a woman talking to herself in Japanese. The audience is intended to know immediately that she's not speaking Chinese, but a non-Chinese audience mightn't realise that until a couple of minutes later, when the voice-over narrative mentions it. Luckily, I can distinguish the two languages (without actually understanding either!), so I was okay, but otherwise it would have detracted from the film. Should the Japanese section have been left unsubtitled, putting the audience in the same position as the lead character, overhearing the speaker without understanding her words? Perhaps, but her words are relevant to the plot, and omitting their translation would have detracted too.
All I can think of is colour-coding, but I'm not sure the standard 'overlay'-type subtitling technology can do that, and audiences mightn't understand why the text has suddenly changed colour – it's not an established convention. The only time I've seen colour-coding work was in 'Nochnoi Dozor' ('Nightwatch') a Russian film intended for foreign viewing, which incorporated subtitles into the initial production (as opposed to being made for a domestic audience, with subtitles subsequently overlaid for foreign distribution). In that instance, colour-coding and animation added to the atmosphere, but that's not quite what I mean, as there wasn't an issue of translating multiple languages whilst indicating that they were different languages.
Has anyone seen this done successfully?
1: '2046' was excellent, in terms of acting, (convoluted) story and visual appeal (rich, almost stylised colours, excellent period details of 1960s Hong Kong, understatedly futuristic sci-fi elements, and the female leads (Zhang Ziyi, Faye Wong and, briefly, Maggie Cheung) were gorgeous ;) ). Having rented it from Amazon, I've bought it from eBay (£19.99 at Amazon – I don't think so!)
Oh; and something that seemed obvious to me, but which seems to have eluded reviewers at IMDb and Amazon: the title is 'two-oh-four-six', not 'twenty-forty-six', and doesn't necessarily refer to the year². It's a hotel room number, and the name of a fictional city in a book written by Mr Chow (Tony Leung).
2: Within the story, anyway. There is a real-world significance, as the Beijing government has promised to let Hong Kong remain as-is until 2047, 50 years after the UK surrendered the ex-colony.
2 March, 2006
Quick film quizes
You're given stills from films; can you name them?
Guessing a few, I managed 26/30 on the first quiz, but the second was drastically easier, and I got 27/30 as quickly as I could type in the titles, without having to guess.
25 February, 2006
Review: Heavy Metal (1981)
'Heavy Metal' is an animated portmanteau film, eight short stories framed and interlinked by a ninth. It has a notoriously bad script, and didn't fail to disappoint. It seems the concept of an 'adult cartoon' hadn't fully evolved by 1981, and the target audience must have been juvenile stoners for whom nudity and trippy visuals would adequately carry the feeble story. In that sense, it was dire.
However, I rented it for two reasons, both basically just curiosity.
Firstly, I knew that one of my favourite contemporary illustrators, Christos Achilléos, worked on the project. It's probably deeply unfashionable to like his work, as he is best-known for 'swords n' sorcery' fantasy and pin-ups which could easily be described as sexist. Irrespective of whether he 'should' do it, I think he does it well, and I found his images useful anatomical references when I learned to sculpt in the early 1990s. Unfortunately, apart from the iconic poster, he only worked on character design and concept drawings for 'Heavy Metal', which were radically simplified by others before being animated, so no Achilleos artwork appears, merely unrecognisably crude (in both senses...) adaptations of it.
Secondly, I was interested to see an example of late-70s American-style animation, which had broken from the sanitised Disney tradition but had yet to assimilate Japanese anime. Numerous artists/animators worked on the various segments, but I kept spotting references to Robert Crumb's drawing style, or underground comics like the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. This impression was so strong that it has to have been deliberate. Many elements were highly detailed, and a bit grungy – nothing was sanitised or pretty; even the caricatured nude women were earthy rather than conforming to the modern androgynous supermodel ideal. Much of the artwork seemed to have been completed in monochrome, including shading, then overlayed with blocks of colour. The colours themselves conformed to the trippy underground style, with frequent juxtaposition of bluish green, orange and purple. Wild, man.
So, interesting (hence this review), but not really recommended unless you're into the history of animation, or two-dimensional nipples.
18 February, 2006
Less 'wow!', please
In his 'Ten Best Sci-Fi Films That Never Existed', David Wong makes an excellent point about the 'Star Wars' prequels:
Thank you, CGI
. Thank you for letting the director project the most expansive reaches of his imagination into a bright, neon digital rendering that doesn't for one second look like a universe you could live in.
Don't get me wrong; when I saw that space battle in 'Revenge of the Sith' I did turn to my friend and say, "damn, those are some phat-ass effects!" Which was nice, but when I saw the barge scene from 'Return of the Jedi' 20 years ago, all I could think was, "I wonder how Luke is going to get out of this one!"
Agreed. I feel that ideally, CGI should make the impossible-to-film utterly believable. If one sees the effects as
effects, even if one admires them that's something of a failure.
13 February, 2006
Review: 'Aguirre: The Wrath Of God' (1972)
The opening scene, of an expedition decending a near-vertical Andean path, was visually stunning, but from then on....
This was rated by IMDb users as one of the top 250 films of all time (no.220), the greatest of Werner Herzog's collaborations with Klaus Kinski, but I really don't understand why.
It could have been an excellent film, but the minimalist production was far too raw and intrusive; the sound production was seriously flawed (disjointed and mismatched), and the practicalities of filming in a South American jungle were too visible. A couple of examples:
In the climactic scene, the movement of the camera clearly indicates that it's mounted on a speedboat. As the camera moves around Aguirre for the reverse angle, the boat's wake is in full view. Considering this was supposed to be a moment of great isolation, and in the 16th Century, this was too much disbelief to suspend.
Even that stunning opening scene featured a rather irregular pan (i.e. it didn't feel like the eye naturally panned down the cliff; rather, it looked like a camera moving on a tripod), and could have been edited much tighter. Indeed, the laxity of editing is another major criticism of the whole film.
It may seem I'm dwelling on technical aspects too much, but that's my point: the technical aspects were far too apparent, and continually interposed themselves between the viewer and the story.
There was very little plot. That's not inherently a problem, but it increases the pressure to make the ambience and characterisation especially compelling. However, the acting was somnambulant, even amateurish – don't look at the camera, you fools!
The sole exception was Klaus Kinski's performance as Aguirre himself, which was too internalised for the context. Sometimes a glance or small gesture can convey a lot, but only if the audience has already been drawn in.
Script: fine. Location: excellent. Performance: poor. Production: crude.
8 February, 2006
I rent DVDs from Amazon, six per month. I'm not going to overtly advertise the service, but I like it, and have recommended it to friends.
In at least two instances, I've been surprised to encounter resistance to the very concept: "if you want to see a film why not just buy it?"
Either that means the objectors have drastically more disposable income than me (to buy as many DVDs as I rent would cost ~£720 pa rather than £119.88), or that they only watch films that they're confident of liking enough to buy outright.
That's a remarkably disappointing attitude, restricting oneself to safe choices and closing oneself off from experimentation. What about the films about which one is merely curious, or 'classics' that could inform and broaden one's cinematic experience but which one mightn't actually wish to see twice?
Perversely, it's the same people who express incredulity that my rental list would include a Korean film: "why would you spend money on that?".
Exactly my point: I wouldn't be inclined to take that risk 'cold', and spend £6.97 on Oldboy (£19.99 in a high street shop), but £1.67 is more than reasonable. Having seen it, yes, I would want my own copy! At a rough guess, I'd say I go on to buy about one in twenty of the films I rent.
I don't think it's that these people are merely uncritical consumers of the latest overhyped, demographics-driven mainstream pap – they may be that too, but I suspect there's more to it.
Rather, it seems the underlying objection is to the very culture of renting; that owning outright is somehow superior, and renting is somehow a bit tacky, even squalid.
30 January, 2006
A week in film
I'm not a fan of TV in general, but I do watch quite a few films. Last week (Mon-Saturday) I saw five: one at the cinema, two on DVD, one on TV and one on video, recorded from TV.
The Brothers Grimm
Disappointing. In pretty much every respect except the script (which was weak), the whole production was overdone: too 'busy', too dramatically acted (I don't quite mean 'over-acted' – I think the actors performed as they were requested, odd accents and all) and generally too visually intense. Even a huge cinema screen felt cluttered with inconsequential details, which masked important ones and detracted from the overall feel. In a way it was interesting to see the conflict between Terry Gilliam's Python-era 'mediaeval squalor' visual style and Bob & Harvey Weinsteins' mainstream Hollywood urge to sanitise.
'Brazil' and 'Twelve Monkeys' were Gilliam films. 'The Brothers Grimm' is a film which happens to have been directed by Gilliam. There's a difference.
It's one of those 'must see' classics of modern cinema, but I couldn't really see the attraction – at the time. By the apparent end, I'd pretty much written it off as a depressing, well-acted but ultimately inconclusive social commentary. Yet that wasn't the end, and the final few minutes totally changed my opinion.
It is indeed a 'must-see', and very thought-provoking. I've been discussing it with J. in the office and friends online all week, and the multiple interpretations (was it partly hallucinatory? If so, at what point in the narrative did reality give way to fantasy?) have added to my appreciation, though not, it has to be said, enjoyment. It's not easy entertainment.
At two points, this was hilarious, and laughing impeded my breathing. However, that accounted for 2-3 minutes of a ~90-min film, which can't be regarded as a success. The rest was pretty dire, really.
As is ITV's annoying habit, the film was interrupted for half an hour for the 22:30 news bulletin, then resumed for the final 20 mins. I didn't bother watching the second segment; I doubt I missed much.
An antiquated Elvis and a black JFK combat an ancient Egyptian mummy preying on a rural Texan retirement home. It's a wild comedy, right? Well, no. I didn't find it remotely funny, and the dominant topic of 'life' in rest homes, where inhabitants are abandoned to die by uncaring relatives, was deeply depressing. It was an affecting film, but I can't say I enjoyed it.
It's worth seeing, but don't expect the obvious, as the comedic setting is merely a frame for a much darker, serious film.
I've been interested in the idea of 'virtual people' for at least a decade, so the theme of this film intrigued me. The approach wasn't quite what I expected, and I nearly dismissed the first hour as an insubstantial farce. However, it gradually started to say something at least passably meaningful about the nature of celebrity, Hollywood marketing and people's need for social acceptance, so in retrospect I rate it fairly highly, except for one point.
I don't regard myself as some geeky nit-picker, but my suspension of disbelief did take a serious knock when a cutting-edge CGI editing desk was trashed by a virus inserted on a 5¼" floppy disk....
31 December, 2005
Review: The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe (2005)
As mentioned, I saw this at the cinema last night. It was excellent, not least because two of my minor concerns were unfounded:
- I'd heard (frequently) that the screenplay had amplified the christian subtexts of the book into barely-veiled references. That wasn't the case, and it would be possible to watch the film without even noticing the allegory, as is appropriate. The themes are still there, of course, but no more overtly than C.S.Lewis wrote.
- I'd suspected that Edmund's selfishness would be distorted into a promotion of community/conformity and criticism of individualism. It wasn't; Edmund was just plain selfish and petulant, as in the book.
So, congratulations to the screenwriter(s) for avoiding the imposition of ideology onto the production. Considering that Lewis' stepson was co-producer, I suppose it's not entirely surprising.
The effects, locations and costumes/makeup were excellent, being both entirely believable and well designed. I was particularly impressed by Mr. Tumnus, the faun. The archetype required that he have tiny horns and goat's legs, but he also had goatlike nostrils – a nice extra touch. If I had to criticise, I'd say the animal characters (in particular, Fox, Aslan and the wolves) were over-anthropomorphised, and hence a little too cartoony for my taste; I'd have preferred absolute photorealism. I suppose the chosen approach assisted identification with the characters, an understandable compromise for a child-orientated film (damn; that sounds unintentionally patronising).
I've since discovered the film was 140 minutes long, but I wasn't at all aware of time passing – which has to be considerable praise!
26 December, 2005
Catching up with the flow, II
In March, I joined Amazon DVD Rental. At the end of July, I commented on those I'd seen in the first four months. Since then, I've seen:
Romeo Is Bleeding – A film starring Gary Oldman and Lena Olin seemed promising, but didn't quite meet my expectations.
Rollerball – Visually a little dated, and the way the dystopian concepts are expressed reflects the feel of 1970s sci-fi, but it's still a very compelling film. I can understand why it was chosen as a remake project, but I'd have updated the appearence and general feel to 2002 standards without touching the underlying story or even the script. From the well-known critical response to the remake, I doubt that was done, which is a pity, as it could have been good. Whatever; I recommend this, the original.
The Day After Tomorrow – I'd already seen this in the cinema last year, and thought it ludicrous. However, I was in New York a few months later and recalled that the film features some of the locations I visited, so I watched it again. I still think it's laughably implausible (in the details, not necessarily the overall concept) and not even well-written, but to that I can add criticism for reorganising the layout of key buildings and even the very street plan of Manhattan merely for effect. Worth watching on TV if you've nothing better to do, but don't spend money on it!
New Dominion Tank Police – I've been aware of the Shirow Masamune manga for years, though I've never actually read it, so I rented the anime series as a bit of a shortcut. It was okay, but not exactly challenging, and I didn't spot any 'grand concepts'.
Closer – Excellent. A very good story and narrative structure, with characters one cared about (if not necessarily liked).
A Perfect Murder – Why did I rent this? It was nothing special, which was exactly as I'd expect of a Gwyneth Paltrow/Michael Douglas film. Maybe I confused the title with that of a different film, and really intended to add that to my rental list. I wonder which.
Troy – Reviewed here.
Ghost In The Shell – Stand Alone Complex – Disappointing. 'Ghost In The Shell' (both the original manga and the anime film) is one of my favourites, but this TV series merely borrows the same characters in a slightly simplified context, totally ignoring the back story established by the 'parent' works and omitting anything thought-provoking. The fact that the lead character, Major Kusanagi, is depicted in some sort of swimsuit throughout probably indicates the intended 'undemanding fanboy' audience.
Hana-Bi – Good, though it took me a while to settle into the slower-than-expected pacing. Very much an internalised film, and I'm not sure I fully understood important cultural references and motivations.
Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind – Surprisingly good (I don't know why 'surprising'; maybe I'd associated Jim Carrey with vacuous manic comedies, which this wasn't) – an odd, but compelling concept, developed using excellent yet understated special effects.
Code 46 – Reviewed here.
Constantine – Reviewed here.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – Somehow I missed seeing this at the cinema. I thought it was rather good; though the sheer novelty of depicting Hogwarts, quidditch, etc. was used-up in the first two of the series, there was still plenty to hold one's attention without special effects burying the plot.
Anathema – Were You There? – I don't particularly like videos of concerts, so I treated this one as if a live CD and simply listened to it, rarely glancing at the screen. In that manner, I enjoyed it.
Throne Of Blood – Not my favourite Kurosawa film. At the time, I thought my inability to engage with his relocation of 'Macbeth' from mediaeval Scotland to feudal Japan was simply due to my over-familiarity with the play. However, I also thought the film was drastically under-edited and hence even less compelling: at each stage I knew precisely what was coming, and it took too long to arrive.
Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones – It may be unfashionable to say so, but I think this is my favourite of the prequel trilogy, despite the dodgy dialogue and acting.
Miller's Crossing – Very good, as much for the cinematography as the acting and slightly frustrating story. Good music, too.
Blood The Last Vampire – Reviewed here.
Wild Wild West – I saw this a while ago at a friend's house, and had been mildly impressed by what I could discern of it between interruptions and conversations. However, the second viewing was less rewarding; another to watch on TV if bored, perhaps, but not one to seek out.
Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle – Not good. The first was insubstantial but fun; the sequel was just insubstantial. Oh, and grossly implausible.
Dolls – It's extremely rare for me to give up on a film midway, but I'm afraid this was such an occasion. The characters didn't interest me, the pace was less than compelling, and I could see where the multiple storylines were heading (I presume). I'm not saying it was a bad film, but I simply lost interest after the first hour and couldn't be bothered to invest more time in it.
Citizen Kane – critically acclaimed as the 'greatest film ever'. It was good, but not that good. I could see that the technical aspects must have been ground-breaking in 1941 and influential subsequently, but the dialogue has dated to an extent that's a little annoying. Still recommended, though.
Oldboy – Reviewed here.
The Manchurian Candidate – the 2004 remake. Good. I must see the 1962 original some time.
Elektra – Reviewed here.
Baraka – I'm afraid this caught me at the wrong time. Every few months, I'm briefly in the mood to watch 'a tour of the planet's natural wonders and humanity's encroachment upon them'. Philip Glass' music for 'Koyaanisqatsi' and 'Powaqqatsi' certainly helps. However, ordinarily I'm too cynical to be preached at, and 'Baraka's music wasn't in the same league, so I returned this to Amazon having only watched 3-4 mins. A poor choice, not to my taste.
Radiohead – 7 Television Commercials – This highlights the value of DVD rental: I was mildly interested in seeing Radiohead's promo videos, but couldn't imagine wishing to do so twice, and certainly not by buying a full-price DVD with a running time of ~30 mins.
Les Diaboliques – Good, though one character's 'feminine frailty' was annoyingly overplayed. I can certainly imagine this having an impact on 1950s cinema goers, and even by the standards of 2005, I wasn't entirely comfortable watching the climactic scenes on my own in a darkened house!
Bulletproof Monk &ndash I must have read something about this and added it to my rental queue, but by the time it actually arrived, I had no idea why I wanted to see it. It's okay, in a lightweight, unmemorable entertainment sense, but nothing special. I'll have to double-check my rental queue, in case there are more of these ill-considered choices.
19 December, 2005
Four quick reviews
I've seen numerous films recently, but want to comment briefly on four:
Oldboy (2003): Top film. I could comment on the excellent technical aspects at length, but the main point to stress is the quality and originality of the story. It's just a damn good film, overall. Presuming you're over 18: watch it.
Oh dear. I've just read at the IMDb that a US remake of the Korean original is 'in production'. That's rarely a good idea anyway, but in particular, I don't see how the central sexual and violent themes could be incorporated into a US film in the current moral environment; it'd need to be an entirely different film, not a true remake. 'Oldboy' isn't as graphically violent as its reputation suggests (unless you happen to be an octopus), but it is an essential element, and a puritan minority would also take offence at the climactic explanation of the whole story.
Nightwatch (2004): Wow. That was stunning. I suppose the nearest analogue would have to be 'The Matrix', in terms of pace, grandiose back story and in being a fantasy action-thriller (not sci-fi). The visual style is similarly impressive, too, though rather darker and 'grittier' than 'The Matrix'. It's in Russian with English subtitles, but the subtitles are part of the presentation, rather than merely a subsequent overlay. They interact with on-screen activity, and some are colour-coded. A nice idea.
Okay, beneath the frenetic action, the plot's fairly simple, and there's little time available for character development, but that's hardly an unusual criticism of the genre and, importantly, one doesn't notice these weaknesses until afterwards.
I'll definitely watch the sequel(s). Ordinarily, I'd be pessimistic about the chances of a Russian film reaching Lancaster, but the cinema was reasonably full, and it seems the screening had been eagerly awaited by the local goth/sci-fi fans, so The Dukes would be pretty much guaranteed a good-sized audience.
Elektra (2005): Utterly disposable. Don't bother.
Chetyre (2005): What the ****...? That was... odd, and at least five people walked out of the cinema – considering it was in Russian and shown at The Dukes (Lancaster's arts cinema) on a Sunday evening, that means about a sixth of the audience (predisposed to er, challenging films) left early. It started very well, with three strangers simply talking in a bar, but degenerated into sub-Lynch weirdness. Something like 5-10 minutes were devoted to a woman simply walking across muddy fields. That could have made a good short film in itself, but in a larger feature, I don't think it worked so well. That'd be my wider criticism: most of the individual shots were 'arty', but the combined effect was of the director trying too hard.
17 December, 2005
Top 250, II
In February 2004, I participated in the 'top 250 films' meme, which involved copying the list of the IMDb's top 250 films (as voted by users) and highlighting those one has actually seen. Almost two years later, I might as well repeat the exercise. Rather than reuse the same list from 22 months ago, the following is based on today's:
In Feb. '04, I'd seen 102 of the 250. Now it's 109, but to restate: I used the Feb. '04 list then, and the Dec. '05 list now. Different films have entered the list, at the expense of others. Using the 2004 list, I've seen 17 more of those films than I had then, but ten that I had seen are no longer in the top 250. There seems to have been greater volatility in the lower rankings, as one would expect, so I've actually seen no more in the range 101-250 than in 2004. That obviously means I've seen seven more top-100 films (59 of them).
I've added several of the omissions to my Amazon Rental queue, but a surprising number of highly-rated films are unavailable i.e. not included in the rental scheme. Maybe that's deliberate, and Amazon wish to force people to buy the big-name classics.
However, other gaps in my viewing are likely to remain. For example, 'Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King' is at no.4, but I have no interest in seeing it, and films like 'It's a Wonderful Life', 'Singin' In The Rain' or 'Some Like It Hot' really aren't my thing.
[Update: the exercise was repeated again in 2006.]
12 November, 2005
Review: 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being' (1988)
I wrote this series of rather disjointed thoughts about The Unbearable Lightness of Being several months ago (July?), but somehow never went back to redraft a coherent review. I don't know when I'll find the time/motivation to do that, so I'll just post it as-is.
I think I'd recommend this film; I did like it, but I wouldn't rate it as a favourite. The acting was good, with a well-known cast looking very young (especially Juliette Binoche). Daniel Day-Lewis looked as self-satisfied as always (to be fair, the character demanded that), and I've always found Lena Olin attractive, but in the cases of both her and Binoche, their attraction is a matter of poise and apparent life experience, so I think both have improved with age. The Binoche of 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being' isn't the Binoche of 'Chocolat' or, in particular, 'Three Colours: Blue'. Maybe the character of Thereza demanded a certain gaucheness, but age seems more likely.
In order to get the most out of certain films, viewers need to put in some effort, but there's a fine line between either patronisingly spoon-feeding an audience, with every emotional nuance stated outright, or leaving too much for the audience to infer. Unfortunately, I felt this was to close to the latter. Many of the most important insights into the motivations and thoughts of the characters were conveyed by little more than meaningful glances. One sequence, in which Thereza and Sabine photograph one another, then Franz arrives unexpectedly, was done particularly well, and I think I grasped the intended messages, but the apparent purpose of other scenes eluded me.
Consequently, I could understand how some viewers, perhaps more accustomed to mainstream, plot-led movies (sorry; that sounds patronising!) might find this an unrewarding, boring film – it's more about people than events, and I'd agree that the plot alone is insufficient to sustain interest.
Another potentially negative point: it was 171 minutes long. I doubt the character development could have been compressed much further, but I can't deny that it did feel like nearly three hours.
One reason I chose to watch this film was that I visited Prague in June, but in retrospect it was rather foolish to expect that a film set in Czechoslovakia at the time of the 1968 Russian invasion and released in 1988, the year before the fall of Communism there, would have been actually filmed in Prague. I've since discovered that it was filmed in France (plus Geneva and the USA, for the scenes set there), with artificial backdrops, set dressing (e.g. the distinctive red Prague street signs) and similar locations (e.g. a flight of steps somewhat resembling the Zamecke schody). However, I'm certain that some brief sections, perhaps accounting for a minute in total, were filmed in Prague, presumably without government knowledge of their intended use.
The inspiration for this review was a technical factor: the overall look, primarily dictated by the film emulsion (I think; I know very little about analogue colour grading). Though filmed in the 1980s, the picture quality mimicked that common in the 1970s; in particular, the colour cast seemed a bit too blue, which wasn't entirely flattering to skin tones. I presume it was a deliberate effect, rather than the producer having simply bought a load of old film cheap! I wonder whether it was done to seamlessly integrate footage from a number of sources – those images of Prague, perhaps, and the genuine documentary footage of the invasion. Maybe it was stylistic, for atmosphere, in which case I thought it interfered with suspension of disbelief. Maybe it was totally accidental, or even merely a poor transfer to DVD.
7 November, 2005
Review: 'Blood: The Last Vampire' (2000)
If anyone's tempted to watch this anime film because of the connection to Mamoru Oshii (Ghost In The Shell, Avalon), as I was, there are two points of which to be aware.
Firstly, it arose from a masterclass 'student project' supervised by Oshii; it's not really his film. In the 'making of' documentary, the writer, Kenji Kamiyama (who went on to direct the disappointing 'Ghost In The Shell - Stand Alone Complex' series) mentions that he held down a day job whilst working on 'Blood', and 'pulled all-nighters' to meet deadlines. Considering those circumstances, it looks remarkably professional.
Secondly, it's a technical exercise, integrating the standard 2D hand-drawn anime style with rendered, approaching photorealistic, 3D. Effectively, backgrounds and unchanging objects (e.g. vehicles) are in 3D, with a virtual camera able to interact with them, whilst characters and action are in 2D. It's a valuable technique, which I'm certain will develop, but 'cutting-edge' isn't always 'good', and at this stage of the evolution, the effect is rather obtrusive. Nice try, but....
There are two further consequences of the project's nature.
At 46 mins (including extensive credits) it's an extremely short film. Judging it by the standards of the major studios, I'd expected at least 90 mins, and was astonished when the end of the first act turned out to be the end of the whole film.
The story is extremely thin. There's negligible character development (no, that's inaccurate: there's no character development), insufficient exposition (told you it wasn't an Oshii film) and a skeletal plot. It's enough to hold the technical elements together, but not in itself a reason to watch. Lacking backstory and ending inconclusively, it feels like a short story. Viewed in that context, it's okay, but I hadn't been forewarned so expected more.
The IMDb says that the original plan was to make three films, but only the middle episode received funding. That explains a lot, and is a pity. This fragment could have been the middle of a good story.
I suspect animation students and technical enthusiasts would get a lot from this film, and the story itself is a mere carrying medium. For everyone else: rent, don't buy.
8 October, 2005
Review: Constantine (2005)
If one doesn't expect too much, one can't be disappointed.
On those terms, this was a pretty good film - on those terms.
'Damned with faint praise', eh?
7 October, 2005
Shot in the foot
The Guardian* asks the entirely reasonable question that, since professional critics have unanimously ridiculed 'Revolver' as a truly awful film, how is it that the film posters feature a quote from the Sun saying it's "Brilliant... Guy Ritchie back to his best!"? It's an interesting point, which offers some insight into how such accolades are generated for any film.
To save you reading the full story, the poster's small print conceded that the quote is from the tabloid's website, not the printed newspaper. The word "brilliant" can be traced to a topless model (who appears in the film) attending the premiere, whilst the "... back to his best" part is drawn from the introduction to an interview with the director, published before the film was released – anticipating a successful release.
That interview is the objectionable part. Further research by the Guardian reveals that the interview itself was commissioned by a PR firm, not the Sun itself. Hence, the film's own publicists are generating their own quotes, to be merely validated by being published under the mastheads of their 'media partners'. This may seem a strange thing to say, considering it's the gutter press, but this sort of thing can only damage the Sun's credibility – if readers can't trust that their favourite film critics really provided the praise cited, it defeats the point of reviewing films at all.
*: I know I've been addressing a lot of Guardian stories recently, but don't worry; it's not deliberate, and won't last indefinitely!
23 September, 2005
Review: 'Tape' (2001)
Sometimes, one can discover a good film, book or album 'cold', knowing nothing whatsoever about it and hence avoiding all hype. It's difficult to believe now, but for me, 'The Matrix' was one; when I first saw it at the cinema, I had no prior knowledge or expectations, so was blown away from the opening shot.
Another, somewhat less extreme, example was 'Tape', a film shown on TV on Wednesday. I hadn't heard of it, didn't know it was on, and only stopped flicking through the channels because I consider Ethan Hawke to be a fairly compelling actor.
It's a rather minimalist film, shot on digital video (hence, it looked more like a TV drama than a typical Hollywood film), set entirely in one motel room, and featuring only three actors: Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard and Uma Thurman. It's based on a stage play, and felt like it. If the camera angles hadn't changed (disorientatingly, on occasion), it could have been a stage play.
The acting was good, and emotions were generally conveyed subtly, but, much like a traditional stage play, it was a little heavy on exposition, and I can imagine some would find it too verbose to be realistic. Then again, it is about a conversation between two old friends, with a third joining them halfway through.
I won't ruin it by summarising the plot, but various themes were explored, such as how much (and little) people change with time, and how perceptions/memories of events differ, a subjectivity which ultimately leaves the audience ignorant of the true story.
If this one 'slipped below your radar' too, I'd recommend it.
18 September, 2005
Review: Code 46 (2003)
I don't remember when I heard about 'Code 46', nor why I added it to my Amazon DVD Rental queue; when it reached the head of the list and Amazon notified me it had been despatched, I didn't even recognise the title. However I came to see it, I'm glad I did.
It adopts the style of sci-fi I enjoy most: not phallic spaceships, distant planets or massive testosterone-fueled explosions (I wish that image hadn't occurred to me...), but realistic people in a realistic setting, realistically living with the implications of certain specific changes in society. In this case, two themes are explored, both related to genetics:
- Human cloning is widespread, and therefore it is possible that two strangers might be too closely genetically related to be permitted to have children. 'Code 46' is the statute regulating this.
- Genetic predisposition to disease, etc., is already of relevance to insurance. In the film world, this dominates daily life. Any significant activity requires 'cover'; for example, if one doesn't have travel cover, one can't travel. If a car's driver doesn't have cover to carry a passenger, the passenger can't get in. The overall effect is that those granted cover have privileged lives, those without are outcasts, reduced to begging at checkpoints outside cities.
There's an element of social control: people receive cover to visit a specific destination for a specific time period, so freedom of travel is somewhat limited, and attempts to subvert the system are punished by withdrawal of cover.
More fundamentally, this is genetics as fate; genetic determinism. If one's genes render one uninsurable for a specific activity, or if one falls in love with someone with excessively similar genes, no amount of ambition or effort will enable one to participate in that activity, or to consummate that relationship. The boundaries of one's entire life are fixed at conception.
Aside from the central themes, additional elements add credibility:
- 'International English' has developed, and assimilated common words from Mandarin, Arabic, Spanish and other languages. It's a nice idea, if a little laboured in execution. I'm sure slang terms would lead such evolution, not more formal ones, and would be integrated better. The language would be a denser amalgam of multi-lingual phrases and grammar, as in 'A Clockwork Orange', not merely standard contemporary English with a few words substituted e.g. 'gracias' used instead of 'thanks' in an otherwise entirely English exchange. Strangely, Samantha Morton (the female lead) adopts a slightly odd, vaguely Dutch/Scandinavian accent. This may be an attempt to indicate that regional accents have been blurred, but if so, why is she the only person speaking that way?
- Ozone depletion has rendered direct sunlight dangerous; anyone having to cross a street in daylight does so at a run, covering his/her head with a jacket. This has caused a fundamental change in society: 'daily' life is conducted at night, and people sleep during the day. Streets are totally deserted during the day, and bustling at night.
- Apparent technological advances are primarily in biomedicine; consumer electronics and architecture look much as they did in 2003, so, thankfully, the film contains no flashy CGI. I have no objection to CGI in general, but it would have been obtrusive in this film. The cinematography itself conveys sufficient futurism, not via CG landscapes but by filming in carefully-chosen ultramodern yet real locations.
The concept of a 'Big Brother' global administration is well developed, into more of a 'Big Mother'. This isn't the standard futuristic dystopia, and one can understand the unpalatable necessity of a central authority managing the genetic 'stock books', regulating peoples lives for the good of wider society (and, to an extent, the welfare of individuals, if not their free will) not for military or corporate benefit. It's not as simple as 'man vs. faceless bureaucracy', as the bureaucracy's motivations are comprehensible and, in theory, justifiable.
There's an obvious parallel with the plot and setting of 'Gattaca', another film about genetic determinism. 'Code 46' also shares the visual beauty of that film, though not the latter's deliberate clinical sterility. In fact, in mentioning 'Code 46' to J., I summarised it as "a less-accessible 'Gattaca'", which somehow failed to sell it to him....
The primary difference is that the plot of 'Code 46' is almost secondary to the people and setting; the viewing experience is far more about emotion and atmosphere. It's about the characters, but not so much what they do as who they are. I've (over-)described the setting, but that's incidental to an exploration of what it's like to live in a world credibly extrapolated from current environmental and social trends. As I said, I find that far superior to shouty people randomly waving guns in generic post-apocalyptic ruins or a galaxy far, far (but not far enough) away.
I don't want to overstate the point, but there are strong resemblances to 'Blade Runner', too. For example, Tim Robbins plays a type of police detective or insurance investigator using virally-enhanced intuition to identify insurance fraudsters, whilst Blade Runner's Deckard uses a more mechanical, but comparable, technique to identify replicants. Plot elements are similar, too (I won't reveal them!), but it's worth mentioning the the directoral approach is very different, and 'Code 46' is not remotely a 'Blade Runner' clone.
Overall, it's a very understated production. Much like 'Lost In Translation', to which 'Code 46' has been compared, not very much actually happens, and even that is at a pace best described as 'contemplative'. If there's passion in the central relationship, it's internalised. The actors have been accused of underplaying their roles and demonstrating insufficient on-screen chemistry, especially Robbins, but that's missing the point: it's not a demonstrative film, and the relationship is supposed to develop within the viewer's own mind. The lack of exposition might annoy some viewers, but one doesn't really need to know the structure of the fictional society or its history; it just is.
One of the extras provided on the DVD is the film's trailer. It's appalling. If you've seen that and decided not to see the film itself, please reconsider. Some trailers reveal the entire plot and best scenes of a film, but at least one can't make that complaint here, as it seems some marketing executive reedited incidental shots from the film, totally out of context, to produce a trailer for some sort of B-movie action thriller, all confrontation and menace. I wouldn't have been interested in seeing that hypothetical film, and I doubt the director would have, either.
Above all, it's not a 'popcorn movie' (thank ****). Fans of 'Star Wars' or Tom Cruise would loathe it. Seriously: I can easily imagine someone hearing that it's a sci-fi film, having preconceptions about how a sci-fi film 'should' be (a big-budget, plot-led Hollywood production addressing the eye rather more than the brain), and being disappointed. This is a British-made film (the casting of Tim Robbins is the sole US element), on a limited (but not tiny) budget, from a writer and director with no background in sci-fi (it was written during the making of '24 Hour Party People'). The sensibilities aren't those of a stereotypical Middle American focus group. Michael Winterbottom is quoted as having wanted to make a film reminiscent of 'Brief Encounter'. Not having seen that film (yet), I can't say whether he was successful, but it does match my perception of its plot and very mannered style.
The soundtrack, by Michael Holmes was good; pleasant without being intrusive. It's pity about the Coldplay track towards the end. It's not that I dislike Coldplay, it's more that a recognisable song – any recognisable song – interfered with the immersive experience of occupying the fictional world, which was more important than the story itself.
In short (too late...), I can't imagine this being many people's favourite film, and it's not mine. I enjoyed it, and would watch it again, but probably wouldn't pay to do so.
10 September, 2005
Review: Troy (2004)
Having watched this last night, I really can't be bothered to expend more than three words in reviewing it (not counting this preamble, obviously):
Lightweight. Throwaway. Yawn.
19 August, 2005
Today's Guardian suggests that:
Blockbusters are dying at the box office. Is our taste for reality killing the big-budget epic?
I don't know; as I don't watch 'reality' TV programmes, I couldn't comment with confidence on any change in public preferences.
However, my explanation for the alleged cinema slump is simpler: that this summer's films are extraordinarily uninspiring. It's been months since I saw a trailer which vaguely interested me, or even fixed the film's title in my mind. Everything seems formulaic and throwaway; nothing has a 'hook' suggesting novelty.
In short, I doubt audience tastes have changed, it's just that the current selection of films is less than compelling.
4 August, 2005
Review: 'Rashômon' (1950)
I don't get it. This was the first Japanese film to reach European film festival audiences, and apparently had a tremendous impact. Presumably the novelty value contributed to the acclaim, but 55 years later, having seen numerous Japanese films, including three others directed by Akira Kurosawa, I really didn't see anything extraordinary in it. It's good, but not Kurosawa's best, as has been suggested. This was Toshirô Mifune's breakthrough film, in which he was said to display 'extraordinary vitality'; I thought his continual manic laughter was just annoying.
That was my first impression, anyway, written within an hour of watching 'Rashômon'. Fourteen hours later, my respect for it has increased a little. There were some excellent, innovative uses of camera/lighting effects, and on a purely technical level, the film must have astonished contemporary audiences.
Perhaps I was under-impressed because it's been so heavily imitated. When I first saw 'Alien' in the mid-Nineties, at least 15 years after it was released, I didn't think it was anything special, as I'd seen it all before in numerous other films copying the exact same formula – it's too easy to forget that 'Alien' and 'Rashômon' defined the formulae.
At the time, I didn't especially rate the narrative style, either; so many other productions have adopted the 'one story from multiple, conflicting viewpoints' approach that it's no longer inherently novel – perhaps it was in 1950.
The fact that the true version is never revealed felt a little unsatisfying at the time, but I now think was an advantage, leaving the audience to consider the nature, or even importance, of subjective/objective truth.
I often like to read a film's entry at the IMDb, often after writing my own review. I see that Kurosawa famously said that "'Rashômon' is a reflection of life, and life does not always have clear meanings". I think this hints at the source of my initial misunderstanding: I hadn't expected a philosophical discussion on human nature, and failed to engage with it on those terms.
Just an observation, not in any way a criticism: I could imagine this being a successful stage play. The narrative structure, small cast, limited number of enclosed scenes and stylised, slightly OTT acting gave the film a theatrical feel, in any case.
31 July, 2005
Catching up with the flow
Since I signed up to Amazon's DVD Rental service in March, I've seen quite a few films, quite apart from those on TV or at the cinema. I haven't had time to comment on many, but if only for my own reference, these are the films I've rented from Amazon over the past five months:
Spider-Man 2 – Reviewed here.
Lost In Translation – I'd recommend people rent it, but it's not one I'd buy myself. It's vital to know that it's about the characters, not the plot. Some have criticised the film because "nothing happens", but that's missing the point.
Layer Cake – Okay. I'd watch it on TV, and probably enjoy it, but in hindsight I wouldn't say it's worth paying to see.
Incidentally, the stockings & suspenders used to promote the film are false advertising, and barely appear. Damn.
The Crow: City Of Angels] – Reviewed here.
Requiem For A Dream – Very powerful. Not easy viewing or exactly 'enjoyable', but worth seeing.
Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow – Somewhat disappointing. Many have criticised it by comparing it to modern films, but it deliberately emulates the appearence, scripting and plot of 1930s 'cliffhanger' serials like 'Flash Gordon', and should be judged against those. However, even on those terms, I don't think it quite succeeds.
Resident Evil: Apocalypse – very good.
Body Shots – not great. I was expecting more, somehow, and it's too 'American' for my taste.
Hero – Excellent. I ordered my own copy almost immediately. A truly beautiful production, and an almost fairy tale, though novel, story. Good acting, too.
Run Lola Run – Reviewed here.
Opeth - Lamentations – I don't particularly like music DVDs, but I rented this for the hour-long documentary on the making of the 'Damnation'and 'Deliverance' albums, featuring Steven Wilson. I didn't watch the concert itself.
The Ages Of Lulu – I saw this about ten weeks ago, and barely remember it – not a good sign. It was okay, but I wouldn't really recommend it.
The Last Samurai – Rather good. I might buy my own copy if I see it in a sale some time, as I enjoyed the film and would be mildly interested to see the bonus disc (Amazon DVD Rental treats bonus discs as separate, additional choices, so I didn't order it).
Macross Plus - The Movie – I was told this was a 'must-see' example of anime, but I thought it very ordinary, in terms of story and execution.
Secretary – Disappointing. The idea that those engaged in a power relationship are emotionally handicapped or mentally ill was unnecessary and rather offensive.
Three Colours: Blue – Reviewed here.
Charlie's Angels – As insubstantial as expected, but enjoyable – which is absolutely fine, of course!
Spirited Away – Very odd, but good. I only rented the film itself, but at some point I'll buy my own copy, and watch the bonus disc too.
Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! – Somewhat stylised and farcical (that's a description of the genre, not a value judgement). It was okay, but I don't understand why it's generally so highly rated.
Kagemusha – Very good.
Saw – Reviewed here.
The Unbearable Lightness Of Being – Reviewed here.
Three Colours: White – Excellent.
Three Colours: Red – I returned this unwatched since, having particularly enjoyed 'Blue' and 'White', I bought the boxed set of all three films and a documentary disc.
Cypher – Reviewed here.
Cube Zero – Very good; similar to the excellent first film, with better acting and an added perspective on the controllers of the death-trapped prison.
25 July, 2005
Review: 'Cypher' (2002)
There are some things one just can't polish....
I really liked 'Cube', its less-than-wonderful dialogue and acting carried by a stunning concept. The necessities of a low budget also accentuated the claustrophobia without highlighting the fact they could only afford a very restricted set!
However, on the strength of 'Cube', I watched 'Cypher', the next film from the same director (Vincenzo Natali), on DVD last night and encountered the opposite problem. The acting (Jeremy Northam, Lucy Liu) was more than passable (not that the script demanded great emotional intensity) and the use of CGI was good, if a little flashy, but the story and execution were awful. I can imagine that Her Majesty's Plausibility Inspector (what? How could you doubt he exists?) required a period of sedation, even therapy after viewing even minor details.
Aside from the ludicrous central premises, the most illustrative example was a tiny one.
Access to a vast (why so big?) underground data vault was via a lift (elevator) concealed in the middle of a remote field. A camouflaged panel slid aside, the head of the lift shaft rose up like a gleaming missile (no; no other phallic shape suggested itself, whatsoever) and a door opened about two metres above the ground. Steps then slid out. Why not, say, open the door at ground-level?
Magnify that trivial point to a 95-min film, and you understand my overall criticism.
Incidentally, this is the first time I've seen Nigel Bennett in a film, but I recognised him instantly, as he's the star of an ice cream advert shown before every film scheduled at Lancaster's Regal cinema since at least the mid-Nineties; the ad itself has become a local joke, and certainly added to 'Cypher's inadvertent comedy value.
1 July, 2005
Review: 'Three Colours: Blue' (1993)
I saw this a couple of nights ago, and frankly didn't 'get' it. It seemed a little slow and inconclusive. However, it's stayed with me more than most films, and in retrospect I'd strongly recommend it.
It's the story of a woman, Julie, waking in hospital after a car crash in which her husband and daughter died, and the ensuing period of dissociation from her previous life.
As I've implied, not much actually happens, but the way not much happening is depicted, largely from the emotional point of view of the widow, is impressive. It's a very internal film; Juliette Binoche's depiction of, well, not suppressed grief, but undemonstrative, is hauntingly subtle, yet intense. Krzysztof Kieślowski's well-known attention to tiny details was used well to supplement the stillness of Binoche's own remarkable performance. By the standards of Hollywood sentimentality, this could be seen as as sterile intellectualism, but such an impression really is a failing on the part of an audience accustomed to being spoon-fed.
The cinematography is astonishingly beautiful; not only the lighting, colouring and depiction of the locations, but particularly of Binoche, who is absolutely gorgeous throughout, in a purely aesthetic, non-sexual sense (Florence Pernel, though...). All credit to Sławomir Idziak (Director of Photography) for adding visual beauty to Kieślowski's otherwise stark visual narrative.
I've just discovered that Idziak has since worked on such major Hollywood films as 'King Arthur' (dire, but pretty), 'Black Hawk Down' (haven't seen) and 'Gattaca', which I already admire for its unconventional use of colour.
Few of the other technical aspects of 'Blue' are conventional.
Most noticeably, fades-to-black are used to indicate momentous decisions in the middle of scenes, rather than the passage of time between scenes, as is normal visual shorthand.
The music, by Zbigniew Preisner, is only used within the context of the narrative, as Julie hears or thinks of it, or as a surrogate for the otherwise minimal dialogue. It's certainly not just a generic ambience.
The plot, so far as it exists, has many branches and implied subplots, some seemingly irrelevant, few of which are clearly resolved. Indeed, unless one watches the final ten seconds very closely, for the tiny shift in Binoche's expression, one might gain the wrong impression about the outcome of the whole film.
Incidentally, knowing that the 'Three Colours' trilogy relate to the French national flag and associated revolutionary ideals of Liberty, Fraternity and Equality, some commentators have ascribed one value to each film, and claimed that 'Blue' is about Liberty. If that's true, it's a novel aspect: liberation of a woman from her pre-existing life.
However, my understanding was that the bands of the Tricolore don't individually relate to distinct values; rather, the flag as a whole signifies all three, and hence each film might be expected to address all three. If anyone knows otherwise, about the flag and/or the films, I'd be interested.
26 June, 2005
Review: 'Saw' (2004)
I don't like supernatural horror films, particularly the 'slasher' or 'monster' types, so it's perhaps surprising that several of my favourite films are in the psychological 'serial killer' horror genre: 'Cube', 'Se7en', 'The Cell', and now 'Saw'.
Apart from the specifics of the story, 'Saw' adheres quite closely to the conventions and look of the genre; superficially, it could be accused of being a 'Se7en' clone. Yet it's clear that the writer enjoyed defying the stereotypes of standard film shorthand, and the ending is the one I've always wanted to see. This definitely isn't a standard Hollywood movie!
As is fairly usual, the protagonists begin in ignorance and gradually unpick their situation, which means I can't reveal much without ruining it for you. For that same reason, I'd recommend avoiding too many reviews and the IMDb entry until after watching it, as there are too many inadvertent spoilers.
Two men, Adam and Lawrence, wake in a dark, filthy room. They don't know how they got there, nor why they are chained by the ankle to pipes at opposite ends of the room, with the body of a third man in a pool of blood between them. When they discover that they've been provided with hacksaws, not to cut the chains but to amputate their own feet (if they become sufficiently desperate) Lawrence realises they're the prospective victims of a serial killer who doesn't kill; he/she merely establishes situations wherein victims have to mutilate themselves or kill others, or die.
That description implies it's a gory film, but virtually all of the violence itself is implied or off-camera.
Though seemingly an independent production (it cost $1.2 million to make and was filmed within 18 days, but doesn't look low-budget!), 'Saw' features well-known actors, including Danny Glover and Cary Elwes, but Elwes' co-star as joint-lead actor is an unknown, Leigh Whannell (actually, the IMDb says he was in 'The Matrix: Reloaded'), who turns out to have been the author of the screenplay and who also receives a slightly cryptic credit implying he was co-director. His is an impressive performance; no writer's cameo, he plays Adam, at the centre of the entire film.
That might be an opportunity to observe that in hindsight, character development isn't all that great, and even the protagonists remain somewhat two-dimensional. However, 'Saw' is almost wholly plot-led, and the limited characterisation is entirely adequate in that context.
I'd acknowledge that this isn't going to be to everyone's taste, but if you enjoyed the films in the first paragraph, I'd certainly recommend this one.
25 May, 2005
Review: Lola Rennt (Run Lola Run) (1998)
I may be one of the last people in the world to have seen this. It's considered a 'must-see' film not only for stylistic reasons, but simply because it's an extremely good film. I knew virtually nothing about the plot beforehand, which improved the experience, so I won't say much about that. Given an opportunity to read a synopsis, don't (warning: the reviews on the Amazon entry linked above contain several). This should be sufficient:
Partly because Lola failed to pick up her boyfriend, Manni, on time, he lost 100,000 DM belonging to a gangster. Unless Lola can find 100,000 DM and meet Manni within twenty minutes, he'll be killed.
Considering the major stylistic conceit of the film (which becomes apparent soon enough – I won't reveal it here!), it's a little surprising how intently one is drawn to the characters and cares about their welfare. There are times when the viewer has foreknowledge of coming events (or thinks he/she does...), and I repeatedly found myself willing Lola to run faster – or, indeed, slower.
One of the first impressions received was of the excellent pacing. Though the characterisation and dialogue are good, this is no leisurely exploration of peoples' souls; from the outset, the action is frenetic, driven by a techno pulse (actually, the concepts of sampling and remixing are somewhat relevant to the whole film) but with skillful use of dramatic pauses.
The subtext so glaring as to be barely 'sub-' is that the interactions of tiny everyday events (importantly, including random ones) can have life-changing impacts on eventual outcomes. This even extends to the supporting characters. Some are only seen for a few seconds as Lola brushes past them in the street, but an inventive flicker of polaroids summarises the rest of each's life after that encounter, all within a few seconds.
The production has a small cast and presumably a fairly low budget, but that's no criticism – the plot didn't require many expensive special effects, and since the majority of the film is set on the streets of Berlin, filming there accentuated realism. Even the music was by the director, with vocals by Franka Potente (Lola).
Suspension of disbelief was further assisted by most of the cast being unfamiliar, allowing one to concentrate on the characters instead. Moritz Bleibtreu (Manni) was vaguely familiar (I may have seen him on Polish TV), but don't associate him with any specific role or context. Franka Potente has subsequently appeared in 'The Bourne Identity' and 'The Bourne Supremacy', but I haven't seen the former and paid little attention to the latter when it was shown in-flight from New York last November, so it was as if I'd never seen her before.
Incidentally, I'd been slightly concerned by reviews saying "Franka's a babe" or similar, as an oddly-proportioned supermodel or polished starlet would have been entirely wrong for the part, but I was glad to find her 'humanly' attractive (Lola's scarlet hair may be iconic, but it did little for me).
20 May, 2005
Those (like me) who use Amazon UK's DVD Rental scheme may be interested to know that there's now a 'Rent this DVD' link from each eligible page of the IMDb &ndash yes, from the IMDb to Amazon.co.uk, not .com. I find that useful, as I tend to visit the IMDb entry before adding a film to my waiting list, so this simplifies a route I already take.
Those who don't use Amazon's DVD Rental scheme should. I recommend it, anyway.
29 March, 2005
Review: A Very Long Engagement (2004)
Now that's quality cinema. Compared to the Hollywood trash I sat through last week... well, it doesn't compare.
I can't point to specific indicators, but 'Un Long Dimanche de Fiançailles' was unmistakably a film by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Some of the street scenes were reminiscent of 'The City Of Lost Children', and the way sentimentality was diffused by apparent surrealism (which actually all made perfect sense) was characteristic.
The basic plot outline (established early or even in promo material, so I can safely reveal it) is that a woman's fiancé is missing, presumed executed in the First World War, but she has doubts and searches for more information. In a typical Hollywood movie, that'd be enough to clearly categorise the genre and leave the audience in no doubt of an obvious outcome (that she's bound to find him alive and well), but not this time. I was aware of barely breathing through the final minutes, right until the closing second.
Essentially, this was a detective story, and as is conventional, the story unfolded to the audience and Mathilde at the same time, each time she discovered something new, mainly by speaking to the various witnesses of certain key events. The same key scenes were repeated from their individual viewpoints; no one person had seen it all, so each conversation added more, and occasionally corrected mistaken earlier interpretations.
Audrey Tautou was excellent as Mathilde, childlike in innocence and stubbornness, without being childish. She easily carried the story, but she primarily provided a central thread through very much an ensemble film. Even minor characters had fully-rounded subplots, and just enough was conveyed to let one know a little about each as a person, without the plot being bogged-down in digressions. That can't have been easy.
Regular Jeunet cast-member Dominique Pinon had a relatively minor role, but provided essential support as Mathilde's uncle. Other familiar faces (Denis Lavant, Tchéky Karyo, Jean-Claude Dreyfus, Elina Löwensohn) are little-known by Anglophone audiences, though one cast member obviously set the audience thinking "isn't that.... no, it can't be...". It's a distraction, but a minor one.
I don't speak French, and understand little more, so I can't comment on the original dialogue, but the quality of the translation was high, reproducing an elegance to the wordplay even in the subtitles.
The special effects were excellent. There were more pyrotechnics than a typical Hollywood action movie, yet nothing felt grandiose and what could only have been CGI fitted unobtrusively. All too often, the effects scream "look at me! aren't I clever?!", but this was an instance of CGI filling in the unfilmable, yet reproducing reality.
I do have one fairly major criticism, but I can't comment without spoiling the suspense. It's a matter of tone; I'll leave it at that, and merely mention a related issue. In places, I thought the production was a little too pristine and pretty. For example, in an early scene in a muddy trench, the mud remained underfoot; props and uniforms seemed a little too clean. There were spectacularly uncompromising exceptions, but they were exceptions, and I feel a little of the true squalor and ongoing horror was understated. Then again, several other aspects were similarly understated, and the light touch worked perfectly. At least three moments were genuinely erotic, because they weren't explicit. I'll certainly praise the production for it's contemporary 1920s feel, in part because it was filmed with a slight sepia colour cast, which also added a warmth rendering even the merely quaint beautiful.
25 March, 2005
Review: 'The Crow: City Of Angels' (1996)
'The Crow' set the standard for dark, violent comic-book film adaptations in 1994 and rapidly became a cult classic, not least for giving Goths an action (anti-)hero. The acting, at least of the leads, and atmospheric production style successfully carried a strong, if rather simplistic story, whilst subplots added humanity. Even if only for the visual side, it's a 'must-see' film.
'The Crow: City Of Angels', though....
I rented it expecting a sequel, and it was billed as such, but beneath the specifics, this was essentially a remake of exactly the same story: a man is murdered alongside a loved one, then returns from the grave, kills his murderers one by one (the ritual element is lost in the second film), and has a final showdown with the murderers' more mystical boss. In the first film the man was Eric Draven, the loved one his fiancée; in the second, Ashe and his son. There is a linking element: in 'The Crow' Eric befriends a child, Sarah, who inherits his cat. In the follow-up, Sarah is an adult, and still has the cat. However, otherwise it could be a straight remake with weaker direction, worse acting and a visibly lower production budget. The IMDb reports that the original version of the film was somewhat different, but was recut by the studio to more closely resemble 'The Crow'; I'd say they went too far, and made a clone.
There's a certain caché in casting both Iggy Pop and Ian Dury, but it didn't really help. The former was just manic and could have been anyone (an actor mightn't have been a bad idea...), whilst the latter was underused. Dury's character had the potential to draw a little humanity out of the lead characters, in much the same way as the policeman did in 'The Crow' – a likeable 'real world' bystander dragged into an outlandish situation, and hence someone to whom the audience could relate.
Somehow, this reminded me of '9½ Weeks' in the sense that it tried that little bit too hard to be 'arty'. In places it felt like a music video, and I could dismissively say that the director, Tim Pope, is better known for such work, but that's no excuse. The director of 'The Crow', Alex Proyas, directed music videos too, before the success of 'The Crow' elevated him to projects such as 'Dark City' and 'I, Robot'.
I'd be mildly interested to hear the rationalisation of why this was made (apart from 'to make money'), and who thought it necessary to release a low-budget remake only two years after the original. I discovered something else at the IMDb: there's a third 'Crow' film, 'The Crow: Salvation', which, for some reason, went straight to video in 2000 and vanished without trace....
20 March, 2005
Review: Alexander (2004)
As I said, I saw this film at the cinema last night. Though this review is probably influenced by the poor circumstances of its showing, I do think my inability to suspend disbelief and be drawn into the narrative was primarily a fault of the film itself.
In summary, I didn't rate the film at all, and rather regretted giving it three hours of my life.
Firstly, its coverage of significant events was less than cursory. For example, there was a jump from Alexander attaining adulthood straight to the climactic battle for Persia some years later, his army having already conquered the countries bordering the Mediterranean. Later parts of the campaign were similarly glossed-over. There was negligible sense of events unfolding, or of any human elements; the audience were just told, bluntly, by a voiceover.
Conversely, certain individual episodes were given far too much screen time, which isn't the same thing as their having been explored too deeply – that's the last thing I'd claim about this superficial treatment of the story. No doubt his actions in the battle of Gaugamela, risking comrades in pursuit of his personal obsessions, conveyed important information about Alexander as a man, general and king, but the interminable battle was a very inefficient way to do so. I didn't time it, obviously, but I suspect this one battle accounted for twenty minutes – a ninth of the entire film – and it felt like no more than a gratuitous action sequence.
You'll notice that I said 'conveyed important information' in the foregoing paragraph, not 'conveyed important facts'. Like 'JFK', a blatent fantasy presented as truth, 'Alexander' was directed by Oliver Stone, and similarly demonstrates a limited respect for historical facts. I don't have a problem with fiction involving genuine people and events, so long as it's clear that that's what it is, but I prefer dramatic yet accurate reconstructions of established facts. Fiction masquerading as fact merely invites contempt.
Much has been made of the fact that Stone took inspiration from a biography by Prof. Robin Lane Fox, who actually appears, uncredited, in the film, but being able to name-check an Oxford historian doesn't mean Stone necessarily listened to him, nor that the screenplay stuck to the verified research.
Angelina Jolie's distinctly Slavic accent was a strange element. Some have mocked her failed Greek accent, but personally I don't think think she was trying for Greek – her character wasn't Greek, and Macedonia neighbours overtly Slavic nations. My criticism isn't of the accuracy of her accent, but the fact that she was the only actor to affect one relevant to the region. The concept of Macedonian characters using Irish accents to distinguish them from Greeks using English accents is a good one (that's the rationalisation, anyway; I suspect a truer reason is that it accommodates Colin Farrell's natural accent), but either all actors should have attempted Macedonian or Greek accents, or none of the actors should have attempted region-specific accents – including Jolie. The way it was used, her accent was merely excessively-crude emphasis that her character was a foreigner.
In fact, though her role probably wasn't immensely challenging, I think Jolie's performance was amongst the better ones in the film. Unfortunately, Farrell was somewhat erratic as Alexander, which was something of a problem in a film focusing on him.
20 March, 2005
I enjoy going to the cinema – the non- 'popcorn-and-hollywood-movies' Dukes cinema, anyway – but sometimes it goes wrong, in a way TV or DVDs don't. The massive screen and surround sound are great, but a DVD is manufactured to work perfectly every time, whereas cinema involves fallible human intervention.
Last night I saw 'Alexander' at The Dukes (more about the film itself in a separate posting). As often happens, the first few seconds were slightly out-of-focus. No problem; the projectionist usually corrects that immediately. This time, he/she didn't – the entire film remained out-of-focus. It was okay for close-ups, where objects and faces were so large that the blurred proportion was minimal, but for wider shots, especially crowd scenes, faces were unrecognisable. In overviews of thousands of tiny figures in battle scenes, it was difficult to even follow the action.
This issue was compounded by another. A couple of minutes in, the surround sound failed, leaving only the central (front) channel playing. Again, this was just about adequate to convey events occuring directly in front of the audience, but ambient noise was lost, and anything off to one side, normally covered by lateral channels with a little fill-in from the centre, was very quiet – we only heard that fill-in. After a while, became accustomed to hearing the film rather quieter than is normal, and in mono, but towards the middle of the film it fluctuated, tantalising the audience with 5-10 seconds of full sound every few minutes.
It was substandard, and I ought to have left. However, there was always the thought that 'the staff must be just about to notice and fix it, any moment now', and the terribly British audience sat through the full 175 minutes without a single person leaving. As I cycled home afterwards, I was writing-off the experience as 'it happens', but in retrospect, I think the cinema could have done better.
To be fair, if the audio equipment failed, I doubt it could have been repaired immediately, even if the management took the drastic step of stopping the film. However, the film simply shouldn't have been out-of-focus. It would have taken seconds to correct, but it seems the projectionist wasn't paying attention. That's cause for criticism in itself, but there were cinema staff in the auditorium, watching the film with the paying audience – they ought to have alerted the projectionist.
13 March, 2005
Review: Spiderman 2 (2004)
I signed up to Amazon's DVD Rental scheme last week (four DVDs per month for £7.99 is pretty good), and watched my first this evening: 'Spiderman 2'.
It's a fun, moderately spectacular film which I found quite compelling (though I wouldn't say more than 'moderately' and 'quite'). On the other hand, the number of holes in the plot is only exceeded by the annoyingly improbable science. I'm not the sort to obsessively evaluate movie physics and spot miniscule inconsistencies, but these were particularly blatent. To an extent, one could argue that it's just 'a film of a comic', and a loose interpretation of reality is in keeping with the genre, but at least I found it a turn-off.
Surprisingly, the CGI footage of Spiderman himself looked particularly false. I suppose it's inevitable that a figure in a bright red, skin-tight costume was going to look contrived, but it was more than that; there was something not quite right about the ambient lighting and surface opacity, which made Spiderman look like a digital sprite superimposed onto a background – suspension of disbelief was totally ruined.
Dr. Octopus was depicted well, if not quite as I remember him from the comics (a mismatch probably explained by my not having seen a Spiderman comic for about twenty years!).
There's room in a 'comic book movie' for angst, and the concept of Spiderman losing his powers due to psychological problems was promising, but the execution was disappointingly dull. I don't know for sure, but I suspect the same issues were introduced to readers of the comics gradually, the character of Peter Parker/Spiderman evolving over a matter of years. That slow process of character development is obviously incompatible with the time available in two-hour films, and regretably I feel the paraphrasing/compression attempted by the screenplay achieved very limited success.
The "with power comes responsibility" subplot was effective in the first film, but having already made the point then, it felt merely laboured in the sequel.
In summary: fun, but lightweight and ultimately disposable.
13 March, 2005
Review: The Aviator (2004)
I saw 'The Aviator' last night, at The Dukes, and enjoyed it. I didn't know much about the era, so found that interesting, and both the production and acting were good. One minor negative point was the repeated use of an odd lighting effect reminiscent of theatre lights brightening at the start of a scene in a stage play; I presume there was some deliberate stylistic reason, but I'm afraid it eluded me.
If I'd left it at that, I would have come away with an undiminished favourable impression of the film (and Howard Hughes, for that matter). However, as I left, I picked up the Dukes' programme notes (a photocopied page from, I think, 'Time Out'), which argued that it was somewhat superficial, presenting a 'Boy's Own' adventure rather than greater insight into the undeniably darker aspects of the real man's life. Once it was pointed out, I had to agree.
I was impressed by Cate Blanchett's portrayal of Katherine Hepburn (or rather, I liked it; I'm not familiar with Miss Hepburn or her films, so I can't truly comment on the accuracy of the representation), so, if only to remind myself of how the real version looked in the 1930s/40s, I looked her up in the IMDb, which led me on to Howard Hughes' entry, and more specialised sites. These expanded summaries of his biography not only provided details of his later life (of limited relevance to the film, which leaves the story in 1947, 29 years before his death) but highlighted omissions, aspects glossed-over and changed timings.
Concatenating events is a standard technique in making biopics or films of preexisting novels, but it's not one I like, and when a story purports to be true, changing chronologies (and hence emphases) diminishes confidence in narrative accuracy. For example, an early scene shows Hughes hiring Noah Dietrich on the set of 'Hell's Angels' in 1928, whereas they'd really worked together since 1925; trivial in this context, yet it makes one wonder what else is changed, and whether any of the story can be accepted as true. Wider reading also gives the strong impression that the 1947 Senate hearings weren't as simple as 'Hughes vs. Senator Brewster (and hence Pan-Am)', though simplification makes it more confrontational and hence cinematic.
One shouldn't compare such minor tweaks with the gross distortions of true events in 'JFK', but those excesses of Oliver Stone do (unfairly) make one less trusting of Martin Scorcese's 'The Aviator'.
So, having watched the film, I enjoyed it, but having investigated further, I think less of it. Reviewing changes the reviewed.
1 December, 2004
Review: The Village (2004)
Just back from the having seen 'The Village' at The Dukes. I know, I know; the rest of the world probably saw it months ago, but it's fairly easy to predict which films will eventually reach The Dukes, and I prefer to wait and watch films on the biggest screen north of Manchester. I've never understood the need to have or see the latest big thing at the very earliest opportunity.
'The Sixth Sense' and 'Unbreakable' built up public expectations for another M. Night Shymalan film, which didn't seem to be satisfied for some people, but I went in relatively ignorant (deliberately) of the hype, and thought it pretty good. Much of the story seemed rather underdeveloped, but it was well acted and worked well overall. The female lead, Bryce Dallas Howard, was particularly impressive in her first major role.
As one might expect, there are a couple of major twists in the plot, none of which I anticipated by more than a minute or so. I can't say much without spoiling the story, so I'll just recommend it.
Unlike the trailer. I do recall seeing that in June or July, but what I remember of it was a poor representation of the film itself. If you found the trailer off-putting, don't worry: this isn't some sort of 'slasher' horror movie or Blair Witch clone - I wouldn't have gone if I'd thought it was. Conversely, if you liked the trailer and want a horror movie, you're going to be disappointed, understandably.
So, expectations were raised artificially by the very fact this is a film from the writer and director of earlier, highly-rated films, and the trailer could be considered a misrepresentation of the content. That's considerable baggage, and it's hardly surprising people have been disappointed.
It's been rated a mere 6.5/10 at the IMDb. If people were able to judge it afresh, without preconceptions, I'd suggest many would rate it higher. I do.
[Addendum 12/01/06: I saw another Shymalan film last week: Signs. Wow. That was seriously bad. Avoid it, but if you have seen it, don't let put you off seeing his other films.]
30 July, 2004
Xmas gets earlier every year
The first trailer for the 'Batman' prequel, 'Batman Begins' is out. The film itself is released in the USA on 15 July, 2005 - a fortnight less than a full year away.
Now that's advance hype.
It's not a bad trailer, though, implying that the film makers might get the characterisation right this time.
27 July, 2004
Quite a comeback
A forthcoming film, 'Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow', is to feature Sir Lawrence Olivier (1907-1989) as the villain. Yes, he died fifteen years ago, but archive footage of Olivier will be accompanied by new dialogue spoken by another actor. A strange idea, and one has to wonder whether it's a gimmick (which worked: both the BBC and the Guardian have covered the story and hence publicised the film, months ahead of the UK cinema release), though naturally Jude Law, the film's star, cites artistic reasons, saying 'no living actor possesses the same gravitas and authority'.
In other respects, the film looks quite promising (and I do mean the 'look', the visual styling - the characterisations and plot synopsis mightn't be great): retro sci-fi in an art-deco version of Manhattan. That's retro-sci-fi in the style and spirit of the 1930s 'Flash Gordon' cliffhanger serials, and intentionally about as naturalistic.
It's also interesting that the director, Kerry Conran, has never visited New York, even for the film, and the production digitally recreates the city from old photographs. This is bound to have affected the whole feel of the fictional city, potentially distilling and skewing the essence of the place more than mundane reality could.
29 June, 2004
Review: Paycheck (2003)
I visited J and Fiona on Saturday, ostensibly to watch a DVD with them, but mainly to just catch up with them after their holiday in Ontario. For some reason, I found the title of their chosen DVD, 'Paycheck', misleading, even discouraging. I think I somehow equated it with 'Phone Booth', a film I have no particular interest in seeing.
Yet some of my favourite films have been those about which I knew virtually nothing in advance, no preconceptions raising expectations to be disappointed, nor plot details revealed out of sequence. It's difficult to believe given the subsequent acclaim, but when I first saw 'The Matrix', I knew absolutely nothing about it, and was totally blown away; I went back to the cinema the very next evening, which I'd never done before, nor since.
'Paycheck' isn't great, but I did enjoy it, and recommend it to others. It's slightly odd that I hadn't heard anything about it beforehand, which rather implies it went 'straight to DVD' here in the UK. If there's any purpose to this review, it's to bring the film to wider attention.
It's a sci-fi film, but not overwhelmingly so; it would be as accurate to describe it as a decent contemporary action thriller directed by John Woo, with the visual style/pacing that implies. It has a '12' certificate in the UK, so is obviously less graphically violent than earlier Woo films.
To reveal much of the plot would destroy the advantage of approaching 'blind', as mentioned above, but merely to set the context: Michael Jennings is a brilliant freelance electronics engineer, played by Ben Affleck (okay, okay; bear with me), hired by international corporations to reverse engineer the cutting-edge products of their rivals. This is obviously top-secret, so each project ends with Jennings' memory of it being erased. After an extra-special job, he finds that three years of memories are gone, including why he forfeited the $90 million paycheck, only accepting an envelope containing trivial items he doesn't even recognise.
If I hadn't known this was based on a Philip K. Dick story, I might have guessed, as there's a very similar feel to that of 'Total Recall', not only in the central premise that the lead character has lost his memory, but in the whole feel of a little man being pursued by an omnipotent corporation, an apparently ordinary person who finds himself extraordinary when pushed. Both films are presented from the perspective of that oppressed character, the audience discovering clues at the same time as the protagonist. As in 'Total Recall', Jennings' main ally is his omniscient former self.
The casting seemed a little odd, particularly the leads, Ben Affleck and Uma Thurman. However, suspension of disbelief was assisted by good costumes. Dr.Porter was a convincing research biologist, not merely Thurman in a labcoat, whilst the 'villain', Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart), appeared entirely credible as a company CEO. Ben Affleck is a little too heavily-built to truly pass as an engineer, but his suit and hair fitted the corporate image well, to the extent that parts of the film had a somewhat 60s/70s feel.
With a small number of specific exceptions, technology and the urban setting seemed entirely contemporary, which is the type of sci-fi I like: realistic people reacting credibly to a small number of high-tech changes in a realistic world. Once a film gets into spaceships, warp speeds and light sabers, I slightly lose interest.
In case I'd missed anything obvious in writing this review, I just checked the film's entry at the IMDb, and see the consensus rating is 5.9/10. I'd give it an 7 or 8, but apparently there are numerous technical errors, particularly in the way handguns really operate (that in itself is an aspect of John Woo's style!), which seem to have ruined credibility for some. Now it's been pointed out, one is particularly glaring, but ultimately doesn't matter to me.
Definitely one to rent, but probably not buy. It'll be on TV eventually, anyway.
22 April, 2004
Review: Yojimbo (1961)
In my account of the key incident, I mentioned I was on my way to the cinema. The film was 'Yojimbo', shown at the Dukes. A subtitled Japanese black & white film made in 1961, it's unsurprising that I went alone, but to those who have heard of Akira Kurosawa, it's considered one of his best films, so the cinema was about half full; pretty good for a Tuesday evening.
This is possibly the most westernised of Kurosawa's films (feel free to contradict; I'm interested in his work, but have limited knowledge of it, so I'm a little uncomfortable about that sweeping statement!), and is particularly accessible. However, there were elements of the production which seemed stylised, implying that a peculiarly Japanese visual shorthand was being used which might give a greater (or more immediate) insight into characterisation for those familiar with it.
Apart from the 'samurai-with no-name' himself (Toshirô Mifune), everyone seemed slightly caricatured: the obsequious town guard, the old innkeeper despairing about lost values, the grotesque gamblers/henchmen, the giant (literally; the actor had acromegaly) bodyguard, the bestial gang lieutenant, the well-groomed, pistol-armed chief adversary (who had lived away from the town and therefore represented the introduction of alien values into the closed little world), and the two near-identical gang lords.
A primary reason for the Western aspects is that the story is an adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's novel 'Red Harvest' and deliberately borrows stylistic elements from US films of the 'wild west' genre. Kurosawa plainly made a convincing attempt to capture that feel, as 'Yojimbo' was itself borrowed (aka plagiarised; there was a court case) by Sergio Leone and remade as the immensely famous 'A Fistful Of Dollars' (1964; released 1967 because of Kurosawa's copyright litigation), launching Clint Eastwood's film career, defining the 'spaghetti western' genre and giving the world the iconic 'man with no name'.
I've read a few reviews of 'Yojimbo', plainly written by fans who rate it as 'a masterpiece' and even 'one of the most important films of the second half of the 20th Century'. Watching it myself, I thought it very good, but not overwhelmingly so - it wouldn't appear on my personal list of all-time greats (if I was the sort of person to think in lists), and I haven't rushed to Amazon to buy the DVD. I don't mean it has dated, but I suspect some of it's impact has been blunted for an audience who has seen the films derived from its influences before seeing the original film itself. I felt the same way about 'Alien' (1979). Having watched several low-budget, low-creativity clones in the mid-eighties before seeing 'Alien' itself in about 1990, that film didn't seem so revolutionary as it might had I seen it first.
One of the most important influences of 'Yojimbo', which I'm proud to say I noted for myself before having it confirmed by reviews, was the amorality of the story. Previously, the western (i.e. 'wild west') genre had been defined by strong and absolute morality, 'good' versus 'bad'. In Kurosawa's town, both warring gangs are equally grotesque, so the audience has no guidance about taking a moral view.
Likewise the samurai's motivation is self-interest; he doesn't mind killing, so long as he's paid, and makes no judgement on which side has greater moral justification. This is no wandering knight administering justice to the needy; he's happy to maim, kill and provoke further conflict merely to drive up the price of employing him in an eventual battle. Crucially, the audience is made complicit in his actions from the very first scene, in which the viewpoint is that of the samurai (ronin, to be pedantic) himself.
Whilst remaining amoral, he stands above the conflict and is safe, but the samurai's one act against injustice (freeing a woman and reuniting her with her child and husband) is almost his downfall, triggering the climactic showdown, itself an act of personal revenge rather than someone doing the 'right' thing.
19 March, 2004
Review: Cold Mountain (2004)
I rather enjoyed this film last night, though it did feel long, at 152 mins. I haven't read the book yet, so can't comment on the quality of the transition, but as a 'standalone' film, I thought it worked fairly well. It certainly wasn't flawless, but nothing particularly detracted from my overall enjoyment. For example, there was little suspense about the eventual outcome, but somehow that didn't matter. It was a bit 'pretty' in places. In particular, Nicole Kidman's makeup, hair and tailoring were a little too perfect.
I'd be interested to hear how a native of North Carolina regarded the accents: of the lead and main supporting actors, Kidman is Australian, Brendan Gleeson is Irish, and both Jude Law and Ray Winstone are British, yet at least to a Brit's ears, they seemed to sustain suitable Southern US accents.
In the last couple of films in which I've seen her, Kidman seems to have acquired a mildly annoying mannerism: a little head shake, perhaps signifying puzzlement, which somehow seems distinctly contemporary Californian (I've no idea why I make that association) and also looks vacuous, somehow . I hope she (ahem) shakes it off. George Clooney similarly displays the same mannerisms irrespective of the roles he plays, and his signature head-tilting and -bobbing really detracts from his performances.
The balance of sound playback in the cinema was good: gunshots and explosions (not that it was an action movie!) were deafening, but that's appropriate, whereas the volume of all other content was about right.
The cast was good, with established names in relatively minor supporting roles, including Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman and, particularly impressive, Natalie Portman.
In a couple of places, the ages of the characters seemed wrong, which was distracting: Winstone's seemingly psychotic main 'henchman' (Charlie Hunnam) looked to be exactly the right age to be in the army, not the home guard. In retrospect, his lines repeatedly referred to this alleged youth, so maybe the character was supposed to be rather younger (mid-teens?) than the actor (twenties?), but that wasn't sufficiently obvious - if that was the intention, why not use a younger actor? Secondly, there was some confusion about the interval between the climax of the film and the epilogue. The sudden appearence of a young girl implied some years have passed, but there was no attempt to make the actors, particularly Kidman, seem at all older.
Incidentally, that pale-but-not-albino (maybe he was supposed to be?) home guardsman seemed to be the film's main incongruity - his bleach-blond hair, mannerisms and phrasing seemed far too modern.
Coincidentally, at the same time as I was watching Richard Brake playing a supporting role in 'Cold Mountain' ('Nym'), he was in the same building 'for real', playing the lead in The Duke's stage production of Sam Shepard's 'True West' in the 180-seat studio theatre next door.
NP: The Flower Kings, Würzburg, 1996
14 February, 2004
Top 250 films
Okay; I'm participating in another meme. This is the one where people copy the list of the IMDb's top 250 films (as voted by users) and highlight those they've actually seen. Using today's list, here goes:
102 out of 250.
I'm not entirely sure what this says; a list of films others rate highly is of limited relevance to me. That said, I certainly respect the opinions of others (I just reserve the right to ignore them...) and this exercise is likely to inform my future choices of rental videos.
[Update: the exercise was repeated in 2005, in 2006, and again in 2007.]
25 December, 2003
Review: Belleville Rendez-vous (2003)
Belleville Rendez-vous was BBC2's main early-evening film for christmas day; a French/Belgian/Canadian/British animation with very little dialogue, and that mostly in unsubtitled French. I mightn't have watched it if it hadn't been recommended by Al, who saw it at The Dukes cinema a couple of weeks ago.
It was indeed a compelling film, very well executed. The animation style seemed unusual, having the look of 'traditional' hand-drawn cel animation yet with complex layering, shadows and shifting viewpoints I don't expect from that technique; an evolution of the genre, I suppose. The rendering of water and fire were clearly computer-generated, a mismatch I don't particularly like - one suspends disbelief to enter a 'cartoon' world, and photo-realistic fluids are a distraction.
I noticed from the credits that the film had been constructed by animation studios in France, Belgium and Latvia, each taking a major section of the film. Having read that, I do recall a number of distinct styles, but mainly in terms of setting and lighting; the central characters provided continuity and the overall result was clearly the product of a single imagination, French director and comic-strip artist Sylvain Chomet.
The biggest difference between this and the ubiquitous American/Japanese style of 'cel' (digital, really) animation was the amount of caricature and grotesquery, closer to the political cartoons of a newspaper than a typical animated feature film. Many aspects were massively exaggerated for emphasis. For example, professional cyclists were stick-thin, with bulging thighs and calfs; the French mafia bodyguards were rectilinear monoliths on tiny legs, their shoulders well above their heads, who drove long, low sports cars based heavily on stereotypically French 2CVs; ships had their superstructures and decks high in the air on extremely tall hulls tapering to almost nothing at the waterline; and scenes in a thinly-disguised New York were populated by huge, grossly obese people, including the Statue of Liberty herself.
Although fairly endearing, there was very little cuteness, particularly in the details; elderly women had liver spots, a group of frogs included one deformed, presumably by pollution (which made the fact that the frogs were subsequently caught and eaten even less pleasant), an establishing shot of a dingy tenement building included a blocked toilet, and virtually every character had inhumanly distorted facial features. No-one was physically attractive, most were elderly, infirm, or both. The result was somewhat similar to early Terry Gilliam films, which I found striking in their depiction of squalor; there was something slightly disturbing about the overall effect.
I haven't commented on the plot, partly because I was primarily drawn to the visual and technical aspects and partly because it's a simple, slow-paced story, often wildly implausible, but strongly character-led and easily sustained by an essential warmth. It's a mistake to categorise this as a film for adults or for children; I don't think it's aimed at either, but would appeal to both.
Incidentally, 'Belleville Rendez-Vous' is the title used in the UK, but it's distributed in other territories under its original title, 'Les Triplettes de Belleville'.
NP: Bass Communion, 'Bass Communion II'.
21 December, 2003
Review: The Lord Of The Rings (2001-3)
I haven't had reason to mention it in the blog yet, but I design, sculpt and paint miniatures, aka 'toy soldiers' in my spare (ha!) time; okay, I've won awards for it. Because they're in a sci-fi, occasionally fantasy, genre, people keep mentioning the 'Lord Of The Rings' (LOTR) films. To forestall such enquiries about 'The Return Of The King', here's my review:
I haven't seen it, and have no wish to see it. Perhaps when it reaches TV, I'll video and watch it in sections, but there's no way I'll spend time and money seeing it in a cinema.
I really like the book; I can't honestly call it a favourite, as the prose style and dialogue aren't wonderful, but the story itself shines through. I think I've read it all about four times, and dipped into certain sections more frequently. From the first reading, I'd memorised the story, characters, etc.; not to the extent that I could quote Tolkien's precise words (I don't have that type of memory), but nearly.
I wanted to see a film of LOTR, but I mean exactly that - I wanted a director to take the book, and follow it page by page, without deviation.
Okay, that's unrealistic, as editing would be needed for pacing and length, but I'd wanted that to be strictly a process of editing, perhaps removing unnecessary elaboration and omitting events or characters that aren't really necessary to the main story. What I didn't want is the insertion of new events and over-expansion of the roles of secondary characters, which changes the story. I can (grudgingly) understand a need to do that to some extent, particularly to expand the presence of female characters in a very male-centred book, but I feel any changes absolutely, non-negotiably, had to stay within the rigidly-defined limits of the story itself.
I genuinely feel Jackson went too far, particularly in the second film, which was changed from a film of 'The Two Towers' to a film based on 'The Two Towers'.
How could he change the outcome of Helm's Deep? A vital plot point is that the siege is ended by the Ent-led Huorn forest - a mysterious primal force, implying the land itself absorbs and exterminates the orc army. Not a last-minute cavalry charge down a cliff; very cinematic, but simply not what Tolkien wrote. That's the point where I gave up, and realised I have no interest in the third film.
I'd been a bit concerned when I first heard that Peter Jackson was to direct the trilogy, when a magazine interview revealed that he wasn't an especial fan of the book; he'd read it in his youth, but not for several years before taking on the project, and it's not a film he'd always dreamt of making. Presumably to him, and undoubtedly to many of his audience, it was just another fantasy novel, just another sword'n'sorcery film, so any changes didn't really matter. To many, that's probably true, but not me. I like LOTR, but I'm not at all a fan of the wider genre (particularly the style most popular in the 80s, when I was into D&D) - I rather like Michael Moorcock's writing, and his 'Eternal Champion' multiverse is an excellent creation, but the novels of Eddings, Brooks, LeGuin, etc. and Conan-type films bore me rigid.
I watched the first film with a friend who'd been making oh-so-amusing jokes about rings/sphincters, and Jackson's treatment of the material was indeed up its own arse. Though A. was new to Tolkien, he knew I like the book a lot, so I was distinctly embarrassed by the film. I could easily imagine him turning to me after the plodding first half hour, saying "you like this?". No, I don't.
I was deeply disappointed that such a rich story had been rendered merely boring, but at least it didn't directly deviate from Tolkien's narrative. 'The Two Towers' was different. Important events were cut, but worse, totally new ones were invented for no reason. I've already mentioned the changed Battle of the Hornberg, but in the other main plot thread, what the **** was Frodo doing in Osgiliath? It's not a minor point: if Frodo had put on the Ring that close to a Nazgûl at the height of its powers, Sauron would have known his location immediately, and the story would be over.
From what I've heard, 'The Return Of The King' is a good film, though some have expressed doubts about the realism of the special effects (I thought the CGI Gollum was overrated in 'The Two Towers').
But it's not 'The Lord Of The Rings'.
11 November, 2003
Review: The Matrix: Revolutions
I was at the cinema last night, to see 'The Matrix: Revolutions'. The original is one of my favourite films, but I've yet to hear a good review of this, the second sequel, so my expectations weren't high.
It's a bit of a mess. Certainly spectacular, with a distinct comic book feel. A problem for me is that key scenes looked artificial and studio-based. One of the main things that really grabbed me about the first film was that these were originally ordinary people, doing extraordinary things in basically ordinary locations. It was largely filmed on location, in realistic settings, with an element of, well, dirt making it seem more real. The artificiality of some settings in '...: Revolutions' was probably deliberate, with valid narrative reasons, but that sacrificed realism, and hence made suspension of disbelief harder. For example, Neo's big confrontation with Smith at the end of the film is set in a stripped-down version of the Matrix city - there are streets and buildings, but minimal street furniture and the buildings are just shapes, with minimal details or texture. The rain, though a very nice parallel with the famous cascading green text, somehow doesn't look like real rain. The lighting doesn't seem quite natural, either. This might all make some sense - Smith is in control of a collapsing Matrix, (itself mirroring a disintegrating Zion) and his contempt for the human environment is well-established - he mightn't even know, or care, about maintaining the realistic little details of a street scene, so the Matrix doesn't render them. Maybe. Whether or not it can be justified, it looks a little false. Another unrealistic scene was rather surprising - the closing image of the whole film, a sunrise over a city skyline, just looks totally fake - a yellowish light behind a matte painting. I can only presume it was deliberately artificial, but the reason eludes me.
My first criticism, only a couple of minutes into the film, and sustained throughout, was that the dialogue is bad - trite, cliched, and unconvincing. People just don't talk that way, and compared to its somewhat verbose predecessors, the dialogue of the second sequel was surprisingly poor.
A key element in the success of the first film, for me and many others, was the creation of a fascinating fictional world, and exploration of the core concepts that it raises. I don't think that was adequately sustained in the sequels. 'The Matrix Reloaded' had confused and confusing philosophy, and the motivations for much of the plot were under-explained i.e. characters went off on 'a mission' without adequate understanding (on the part of the audience or characters!) of the reason for the mission. In 'The Matrix: Revolutions', the reasoning was a little clearer, or less relevant, but to an extent it degenerated into a series of set pieces and linking elements, with a rather poor overall story. The interesting conceptual elements were gone, or at least sidelined.
The first film was well thought-through, making good use of existing and novel philosophies to intellectually engage with the audience. The sequel made a bit of a mess of attempting to follow that; having watched The Architect's exposition three times, I still don't really 'get' it, and can only see the glaring holes in its logic and alleged chain of causality - to be fair, in the second sequel, The Oracle does say that The Architect's world view is severely flawed. However, I can only describe the underlying philosophy of 'The Matrix: Revolutions' as a trite reworking of christian mythology, with the Architect as God, The Merovingian as Lucifer (the efforts to stress his role as 'fallen angel' of the machine world and ruler of the Matrix's corrupt/'darker' side are a bit too obvious to take seriously - even his wife is named after the Ancient Greek queen of Hades), and Neo very overtly as a sacrificial christ. The climactic battle in the Matrix is the bittersweet triumph of blind (literally, at one point) faith over the personification of atheism. Somewhat crude, once the flashy presentation is stripped away.
I was a little disconcerted that an extended block of the film seemed a sideline, totally irrelevant to the overall plot, introducing an interesting new setting and character but not really going anywhere. The idea of a limbo between the machine world and the Matrix, controlled for The Merovingian by a separate program entity, The Train Man, and the visit to The Merovingian to bargain for Neo's return, were interesting in certain respects, but had that entire section of the film(s) been omitted, the overall film wouldn't have been very different.
One element I did like, though the implications were subtle (perhaps not even intended!) was the mirroring of the rave/sex scene in '... Reloaded', which strongly emphasises the raw, organic humanity of Zion's inhabitants, with the fetish club of '...: Revolutions', a somewhat dehumanised version (that's not a criticism - perhaps I'll return to this theme in another blog post) of very similar situation.
Still, I did enjoy it; it's a 'big', fun film, and on the most part the 'look' is excellent.
7 October, 2003
Limited release for 'Underworld'?
Has anyone in the UK seen this vampires 'n' werewolves film?
Don't get me wrong; I've yet to hear a favourable review of it, and probably wouldn't go to see it (though Kate Beckinsale in latex has an undeniable attraction...). It's just that I haven't seen the slightest hint of it having released in the Lancaster/Morecambe area. It seems 'Calendar Girls' is doing well, and is being given extended runs at local cinemas, but in the age of multiplexes I'm surprised films get totally displaced from the schedules.
NP: Opeth, Washington DC, 21/07/03