Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Troll Hunter


Released towards the end of 2011 in the UK, Norway’s Troll Hunter (Trailer Herewas one of the more pleasant surprises of the year for me. I originally came across the film on an impromptu visit to our local art house cinema and have since watched the Blu-Ray. I was blown away both times. The film uses the found footage formula which is often hit or miss but the mokumentary style works well within the confines of this story. The footage is shot by three university students who are investigating illegal bear poaching in Volda but stumble across Norway’s best kept secret - Norway is home to trolls and there is one single man whose job it is to keep the human population from discovering their existence.

Much of the film could be used as a tourist advert for Norway. The scenery is amongst the most beautiful in the world and provides an impressive backdrop to the darkly comic story. Just watching the film made me want to travel around Norway, visiting every mountain, lake and waterfall… That is, until the trolls make an appearance. The film features several different variations of trolls, from a three headed Tosserlad to smaller Mountain Kings and the 200 foot Jotnar. Each troll species has its own distinct look and personality and despite the odd dodgy bit of CGI are impressive and menacing. For the most part the CGI is very good given the budget.


One of the films best scenes


The film is packed full of great comedic lines, often delivered dead pan by a terrific cast of comedians and relatively unknown actors. The acting feels natural and the cast do a fine job of displaying first amusement then later fear, excitement and confusion. Otto Jespersen in the role of Hans the Troll Hunter is absolutely brilliant. He plays the role with an air of resentment towards the Government and you really get the sense that despite his respect for the trolls and dedication to his job he has had enough. In one scene he complains about receiving no extra pay for working nights which is hilarious given the nature of his job. A scene on a bridge featuring a metal suit and sheep had me in stitches.

The world which the film creates is full of very nice little details. For example, you may think that power cables are there to deliver electricity across the countryside but the film comes up with a genius alternative explanation. Other little details such as the Governments hilarious attempts to cover up troll activity using bears add to the world created by the film. Many of the films ideas come from troll fairy tails such as their aversion to light and attraction towards Christians. This second idea is used to comedic effect when one character asks if being Muslim will be a problem, to which the hunter replies “I have no idea, but we’ll find out”. The film is full of little ideas and bits of dialogue which help to make the film the stunning success that it is. The way the film is shot keeps the audience on their toes. There is a well balanaced mix between the students being in control of their film and total panic when they are confronted with the trolls. 


"Lets have a look in that dark, abandoned mine"


The film is quite unique, or at least it is at time of writing. As per usual a Hollywood remake is in the works so look forward to a US set film coming in the next couple of years which will more than likely take the heart and soul from this film and have trolls ransacking Los Angeles with Tom Cruise hot on their tails in a helicopter. *Sigh*

One great part of the film for me was the choice of music over the end credits. I was introduced to what is now one of my favourite current bands, Kvelertak. The use of their song Mjød works very well and it’s a great song. I advise anyone with a puncheon for Scandinavian death metal to check them out.

While not perfect, Troll Hunter is a fantastic monster movie which keeps both the genre and the found footage style fresh. It is full of funny lines, great action and suspense and creates a world which I’d be thrilled to visit again.

Moral of the story – Christianity = uhoh.

9/10

The Immigrant


Charlie Chaplin’s 1917 short film The Immigrant features Chaplin’s Tramp character aboard a ship to America and later penniless on a New York street before a final set piece in a restaurant. Along the way he meets Edna Purviance, also an immigrant, and the two strike up a relationship.

The film’s most enduring scene features The Tramp and other immigrants being herded like animals and cordoned off as they arrive in America. During this scene, Chaplin kicks an immigration officer, something which was later held against him when he was accused of Communism and anti-American sentiment during the McCarthy era.


The immigrants corralled by the authorities in an overtly political scene

Although only twenty minutes long, the film features some tremendous sight gags and stage direction and Chaplin’s Tramp is a fully formed character by this point in his career. The makeup is also fantastic. I am a big fan of the white face/dark eye makeup of early cinema. Another area where the film is superb is in its direction and cinematography. Despite being fairly new to moving pictures, Chaplin’s mastery of the camera is clear to see. This is especially so in a scene in set aboard the boat featuring the whole cast eating soup in which Chaplin slides across a slippery floor as the ship rocks from side to side. Suspense is built towards the end of the film when The Tramp after seeing a man beaten for being 10c short on his bill, realises he has lost his money. His attempts to find money and or escape while under the watchful eye of a burly waiter are comic genius.

On the downside some of the scenes on the ship are a bit stale. These were actually filmed later than the final scenes as the film was written and performed as and when Chaplin came up with the ideas. The card game was boring but it did allow Chaplin to give Purviance’s character his winnings, thus introducing himself to her. I unfortunately watched a 1946 print of the film which contained some very annoying sound effects associated with the era. By the 40s with silent films long out of fashion, many earlier silent films had annoying sound effects added to them to give them a more up to date feel. This almost ruined the film for me. Most of the effects appear to have been produced using kazoos and slide whistles and are unnecessary and irritating. I also have a feeling that the film was lacking its original score. It’s a good idea to try and source early films without added sound effects and with their original musical accompaniment.

For Chaplin fans, this film is a must watch, however if you only have a passing interest in him or the films of the era then perhaps you’d be better off searching out the kick scene on YouTube.The film can be watched for free on YouTube here.

7/10

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Room in Rome

WARNING : Adult Content



Room in Rome is a Spanish (albeit with English dialogue) erotic/romantic drama starring Elena Anaya and Natasha Yarovenko. Anaya plays Alba who meets and seduces Natasha (Yarovenko) in a club in Rome and persuades her to accompany her back to her hotel room. Despite protesting that she is not gay, Natasha agrees. What follows is a whirlwind affair which takes place over the course of a single night, within the walls of Alba’s hotel room.

While at its heart the film has a very good romantic story, this takes a back seat because of the characters sex and the amount of sex within the film. Although loosely based on a Chilean film about a mixed sex couple, Room in Rome’s protagonists are both female and that brings a whole new audience to the film. I think people who wanted porn would feel disappointed and people who wanted a good romantic drama would feel equally as disappointed. The film unfortunately falls between the two. Both actresses spend almost the entire film naked. While I didn’t mind this on an aesthetic level (they are both incredibly beautiful) it is slightly off-putting. There are whole swathes of the film in which the characters have sex but while this is titillating to watch, the story itself suffers. The last third of the film deals with what will happen in the morning; will they go back to their separate lives? Could they be together? Do they want to? By the time it gets interesting you have already sat through 90 minutes of soft core lesbian porn interspersed with poignant romance by which time you have forgotten about the plot.


It isn't easy to find suitable photos of this film!

Much of the dialogue feels fake and forced. Both the actresses and the director are working in their second or third language and I think that being a Spanish film, it may have worked better in Spanish with the Russian character speaking Spanish. This wouldn’t be a stretch. As it is she speaks Russian, English and Italian during the film. Why not try Russian, Italian and Spanish? Both actresses are fine in their roles. They play the emotional scenes well and the sex scenes ‘convincingly’. If I had to pick then I’d say Anaya comes out on top (if you excuse the pun). Elena Anaya is an actress who I shall always be interested to see after she gave a wonderful performance in The Skin I Live In.

Although their relationship became interesting towards the end of the film, for the first two thirds the two women tell each other lie after lie in order to hide their true identities from one another and I found this very tiresome after a while. The film keeps the audience waiting too long to discover who the women really are, by which time they have lost interest.

An example of the beautiful cinematography

I really feel that the film would have been improved had it not contained so much explicit sex. While these scenes are great for showing the passion and heat between the two women, they detract from the story as a whole. The most intense scenes in the film aren’t those which are overtly sexual in tone. The film is at its best when the two are talking quietly, maybe stroking a thigh or back or looking into each others souls.

The ending is fairly ambiguous and for once I actually wished for a ‘Hollywood Ending’. I suppose this shows how invested in the love story I was and how well the film showed the passion and love between the characters.  It also has to be said that as well as the beautiful naked women, the film also has some beautiful cinematography but in the end the sex got in the way of the story.

6/10  

Monday, 27 February 2012

Beginners


Beginners is a wonderfully sweet and sad film from writer/director Mike Mills who is perhaps better known as a Graphic Designer and Music Video Director. His past comes across in a very pleasing way in Beginners, a film which doesn’t shy away from unusual ‘arty’ cinematography and surprising pop up images. The film follows the lives of Oliver (Ewan McGregor) and his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) mostly towards the end of Hal’s life and shortly after his death. After the death of his wife, Hal comes out as being gay at the age of 75 and wants to experience a lifetimes worth of homosexual activities in the short time he has left. Oliver is mostly supportive of his father but feels distanced from him as a result of their lack of time together in the past. There is also an undercurrent of animosity towards his father as a result of seeing his mother’s unhappiness throughout their marriage.

For the entirety of the film I either had a huge smile or sad look on my face. The film is full of emotion at both ends of the spectrum. There are some incredibly light and happy moments which often come with the interaction of Oliver and his dog or Oliver and a woman he meets, Anna (Melanie Laurent). Their love affair is filled with the same diametrically opposed emotion as the film itself. As is so often the case, this film features more laughs than most out and out comedies. There is subtle humour woven throughout and it boils over into full on laugh out loud moments on a number of occasions.


All three principle actors are superb. Melanie Laurent, in her first English language role is both frothy and seductive but has a deep lying cheerless existence while her accent is very appealing. Ewan McGregor is equally as good playing a depressed graphic artist. His American accent is also much better than his English accent! He shows emotional depth which I haven’t seen from him before. While the two aforementioned actors are both excellent, it has been Christopher Plummer who has drawn the most critical acclaim, winning both the BAFTA and Oscar awards for Best Supporting Actor. His performance is sublime. He manages to convey his excitement for his new life as well as the sadness that his life is coming to an end when it is only just beginning.



The film is full of hopeful optimism as well as gloomy sadness and is directed and acted wonderfully throughout. I thoroughly recommend it.

8/10

Rampart


I’d been looking forward to Rampart for some time after hearing rumours of an excellent performance from Woody ‘cooler than Sam Jackson in a fridge’ Harrelson but left the cinema feeling a little disappointed. Harrelson stars as Dave Brown, an LAPD Cop who is from a different era and gets embroiled in scandal after scandal. He is considered a dinosaur by colleagues and friends for the way he goes about his police work and has no qualms about placing evidence on suspects, beating them or even killing them. We follow Harrelson as his character spirals ever deeply into trouble with both his family and the police department through a series of ill judged moves.



I felt that the film was quite boring. Despite a fantastic central performance from Woody Harrelson I didn’t really care what happened to him and it was obvious from the outset that there would be no way back for him. The film looks great. I am a big fan of the kind of beauty in urban decay shots found here and in films such as Tyrannosaur, Coriolanus and Lebanon. You get the sense of a never ending battle that the police are facing in both the visuals of the film and the actions of its characters. But as I said, I felt bored and the film seemed much longer than it was.

Woody Harrelson is fantastic as the bent cop, Brown. He is from a different era, the last of the renegade cops who sees nothing wrong is doing anything he has to in order to clean up the streets. His self destructiveness shows no bounds and he goes out of his way to piss off and alienate those closest to him. This is especially so with the female characters such as his partner and ex wives. The supporting cast is all good. Sigourney Weaver and Ice Cube are excellent and could have done with a bit more to do. There is a brief cameo from the always excellent Steve Buscemi but Ben Foster is the standout in the supporting cast as he wonderfully portrays a down and out, homeless Vietnam Veteran. He is quite superb in his few scenes.


Both Harrelson and Foster excell

Overall this is a film with a great cast, equally good acting and there is an interesting story in there somewhere but it just doesn’t seem to take off. Some of the director’s camera work was off-putting and for the most part it was dull. It’s a shame as the story and cast involved should have produced a much better film. While it isn’t terrible, it isn’t particularly good either.

6/10

Friday, 24 February 2012

The Woman in Black



The Woman in Black stars Daniel Radcliffe in his first post Potter role as Arthur Kipps, a young widower solicitor who travels north from London to a remote village on the North East coast where he has been tasked with handling the estate of a recently deceased woman. When he gets there, Kipps finds the locals to be unfriendly and wary of him but he finds a friend in a local landowner Sam Daily (Ciarán Hinds) and begins the process of going through the paperwork of the estate. It is not long however before Kipps gets caught up in paranormal goings on at the old, cut off house of the deceased.

I must admit that I have probably seen fewer horror films that any other genre, including to my shame romantic comedy. I am not a huge fan of the genre and don’t particularly enjoy being scared. This being said, I really liked The Woman in Black and thought that it was one of the scariest ghost-horrors I’ve seen. The films great strength for getting scares comes from its use of sound and reflection. As in all horrors, it’s what you don’t see which is scariest and the film makes good use of glimpses in mirrors, shadows and reflections. The sound and music heighten the tension and come to a crescendo in time with the audience’s gasps and leaps from their seats.



The fact that it is so scary had my wondering why the BBFC had rated it as a 12-A, especially given its lead actor’s previous work. I can imagine that there will be some parents who will see the 12-A certificate and Daniel ‘Potter’ Radcliffe and take their young children along. Had the film been a 15, this would be avoided. I’ve heard Radcliffe say in interviews that he strongly believes that no one under 12 should see the film but with the 12-A rating, it is more than likely that some will. My other age related problem comes with the casting of Radcliffe as a father of a four year old. I understand that families began younger in Edwardian times than they do today (not including Lancashire of course) but in part due to his past and his youthful looks, he just didn’t pull off the ‘adult’ character. I think that Radcliffe is showing promise as an actor though as he was much better in this than in the Potter films. I also think that his choice of project was wise.

The Woman in Black could be seen as a throwback in many ways to the horror films of the past. We have become used to the torture style Saw films and Paranormal Activity type of thing (90 minutes of suspense, BANG! Thanks that’ll be £8 please) and I’d much rather watch this type of horror to those aforementioned. The atmosphere is menacing, helped in a great way by the isolation and fantastic period sets. The story has an arc and a purpose rather than just being gruesome set piece followed by gruesome set piece. The story itself is interesting and the reason for the Woman’s existence, satisfying.

Overall this is a chilling horror that should have you reaching for loved ones (my girlfriend’s fingers still hurt) and jumping out of your seat and should be successful in scaring modern audiences who are more used to gore than chills.  
7/10

Tyrannosaur


Tyrannosaur is the fantastic debut film from actor Paddy Considine. The film focuses on the lives of two people who are bought together through their mutual loneliness and apathy towards life. Joseph (Peter Mullan (NEDS)) is an unemployed drunk, a violent man who is on a path to destruction. After killing his dog in a fit of rage he seeks shelter in a charity shop where he meets Hannah, (Olivia Coleman) a Christian charity worker for whom life seems good but as we learn more about her we discover that she is just as damaged as Joseph, if not more so.

This is not an easy film to watch. It is most definitely not a Friday night popcorn kind of movie. It features abuse, degradation and violence from the onset and that sets the tone for the rest of the film. Some scenes are very upsetting and difficult to watch. Despite the despair and humiliation on screen, the film looks very beautiful. The shots of council estates on cloudy days are stunning. Considine has found beauty in a place which is known for being ugly and grotty and that is a testament to him.



The acting is tremendous. There has already been a lot written about Olivia Coleman’s award snubs and having seen the film, I couldn’t agree more. I’d also put forward the case for Peter Mullan who is equally sublime here. Both actors are incredible throughout and that is what makes the film so great. I don’t know whether the film would have been so good had they not been involved. I really feel that it is a travesty that neither has been nominated for any major awards. This being said, both have won awards but it’s their lack of BAFTA and Oscar nominations that has surprised everybody, me included.  

This is a film which can hardly be described as enjoyable but is powerful and incredibly well acted.

8/10

The Skin I Live In

Antonio Banderas doing his Cary Grant impression

The Skin I Live In, the winner of the Best film not in the English Language at this years BAFTA awards is the latest dark and twisted thriller from critically acclaimed Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar. Antonio Banderas plays plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard who has successfully created skin which cannot burn. Although claiming to have conducted his experiments on mice, it is revealed that he has in fact been experimenting on a woman who is locked in his house. I don’t want to give much more away that that but the film deals with loss, betrayal, revenge and madness in a thrilling two hours that will leave you saying ‘but… huh?’

Banderas is charismatic and sinister and pulls off the role of a lonely, slightly unbalanced but focussed doctor well. He is joined by the ridiculously beautiful Elena Anaya who plays her difficult role with conviction. She can be seen in another strong, although sexually explicit role here. The film features a wonderful score from Alberto Iglesias which helps to create a sense of entrapment and suspense. The setting and internal sets are beautiful and contrasting. One the outside you have the rugged, unkempt city of Toledo and its surroundings whereas on the inside everything is ordered and clinical. This helps to create the feeling of separation from the inside and outside.

*Swoon*

It is difficult to talk about one of my problems with the film without giving away any major spoilers but while I was satisfied with the physical transformation, I felt the film in no way explained the vocal transformation. This is only a small issue however and on the whole the film is full of intrigue and suspense and is extremely twisted and bizarre.

7/10 

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Attack the Block


When I first saw Attack the Block, I’d made up my mind before even seeing it that I was going to love it because I am such a fan of writer/director Joe Cornish. (Stephen!) Having now watched the film for a second time and this time and ignoring my love of Cornballs Cornish I still found that I enjoyed it a lot.

The film is set on a South London Council Estate and follows a group of local teenagers over the course of a single night during which they are subject to an alien invasion. The film begins with them mugging a nurse (Jodie Whittaker) as she walks home from work. From there the gang discover an alien, destroy it and parade around the block showing off their kill. What they fail to realise however is that their alien is only the first of many and the others will be looking revenge.




The film is shot and directed so that the audience feels like they are watching an alien planet or space ship and not a council estate. Cornish uses unusual angles to give the tower blocks the look of space ships from the outside and an alien space station from the inside. The effect is to give the film an eerie, other worldly look which is appropriate for the subject matter. The aliens themselves are well designed and look real enough to be scary but not too real as to escape from the 80s feel that Cornish was aiming for. The whole film is like a love letter to the Spielberg esque monster movies of the 1970s and 80s. Their ultra black fur and luminous blue teeth are an impressive creation and their parcours style movement is both scary and unnerving.

The acting on the whole is impressive. Whittaker gives a good performance as the terrified nurse, Nick Frost is on hand to play the shlubby local drug dealer and Luke Treadaway is impressive as a middle class student who tries to use slang to fit in with the teenage thugs turned heroes. The teenagers themselves are all well defined and written. The slang they use feels real and unforced and while some lines are a bit cheesy, on the whole they sound like real South London teens. Their acting is also very good and together they seem like a real gang rather than actors thrown together to make a film.


'Check yo' self blood or we murk you innit'

My only real problem with the film is that despite their partial redemption, I still found the majority of the gang unlikeable. In the films opening scene we see them mug a nurse at knifepoint and they are responsible for the alien problem too so it is hard to feel love for them. Cornish tries to combat this by showing us inside the leader, Moses’ world and perhaps letting us in on why he is how he is, but it isn’t enough to forgive him for the malicious acts he commits during the film. This however doesn’t detract from an otherwise fine film which is a fantastic debut by Joe Cornish and proof that Britain can handle sci-fi B-Movies as well or if not better than their American counterparts.  

8/10  

No Strings Attached


This is yet another sex friends romantic comedy, a genre that has become far too popular in the last couple of years. Emma (Natalie Portman) and Adam (Ashton Kutcher) keep bumping into one another over a period of fifteen years and eventually have sex. Emma is afraid of relationships and commitment etc so they decide to forgo any relationship and just have no strings attached sex. Predictably things don’t stay sweet for long and when Adam wants more from their relationship, Emma decided to break it off only to realise that she really does love him after all. Maybe I should have started this paragraph with ‘Spoiler Alert’ but anyone with an IQ higher than that of a Satsuma could guess how things are going to go.

After winning her Oscar for Black Swan it would appear that Portman is taking time off from acting by appearing in both this and Your Highness in the same year. I hope her sabbatical ends soon because she is wasted in these roles. Ashton Kutcher plays the Ashton Kutcher character, something he plays well but he is an annoying screen presence who sucks the life out of any movie he appears in. Some of the supporting cast are ok but there are far too many of them so no one character gets more than a few lines of dialogue. The character of Adam’s father, which was quite a large role, served no purpose and the father and son back story went nowhere.

Kutcher proving he can bench press 90lbs
The story is so unbelievably dull and predictable that my girlfriend (who made me watch the film) suggested turning it off half way though. I think it is trying to be clever by using the female character as the one who is afraid of commitment but this is hardly a new idea and the sex-friends angle has been done numerous times recently in films such as Love & Other Drugs (review here) and Friends with Benefits both of which are far sweeter and funnier.

The film did have one or two good lines and I laughed once and chucked a couple of times but it falls well short of the Kermode five-laughs-or-more-makes-a-comedy rule which I Adhere to. I also felt no compassion for Portman’s character who we are meant to feel sorry for when she realises she has made a mistake. It’s her own stupid fault.

This film should be avoided at all costs. If you really want to see a fuck buddies comedy then try one of the films mentioned above instead.

3/10

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Outbreak


Outbreak came at a time before infection type disaster movies were the mainstay of Hollywood. Since 9/11, film makers have shied away from the terrorist type disaster movies of the 1980s and 90s and films such as 28 Days Later, Rec and Contagion have taken over from the likes of Die Hard and The Siege. So Outbreak was perhaps slightly ahead of its time. I am too young to remember its initial release in 1995 but I can imagine that its actors were as big a draw as they are today with some of them at the height of their careers. Morgan Freeman features, a year after The Shawshank Redemption, Cuba Gooding Jr was a year away from his Oscar win for Jerry Maguire and Kevin Spacey had appeared in Seven and The Usual Suspects in the same year. With the additions of Dustin Hoffman and Donald Sutherland, this film is the definition of an all star cast.

The film is about a virus that is found in Zaire which later turns up in a small town in California. It has mutated and infected the town’s population and a team of military scientists which includes Dustin Hoffman and Cuba Gooding Jr must battle both the virus and the military to save the town and possibly America itself.

The plot is fairly formulaic with few surprises. Due to the nature of the story there is also little peril. At one point, the President orders the infected town to be bombed but you know this will never happen in a mainstream Hollywood movie. In another scene, Hoffman and Gooding Jr are in apparent danger when a plane is on course to hit their helicopter but again, you know this won’t happen. I think this is where films such as 28 Days Later and Children of Men have an edge as the danger feels more real and the characters more at risk. The film also features a lot of plot explanation which gave me the feeling that the writers thought the audience was too dumb to understand certain parts of the script. There was one very good plot device in which the outbreak of the virus in the Californian town happened in a cinema which I thought would have increased a cinema audience’s fright/enjoyment.



Kevin Spacey after being shown the finished film


Considering the film contained such an esteemed cast I didn’t feel like any one of them excelled. Either they cancelled each other out, weren’t trying very hard or the script and direction didn’t allow for any great performances. I have a feeling it is down to a mixture of the last two.

The film hasn’t aged too badly considering it is now seventeen years old and one of the two countries in which it is set no longer exists but this is a nuts and bolts disaster movie with a cast that promises a better film than it delivers.

5/10 

Gladiator


“The General who became a slave, the slave who became a Gladiator, the Gladiator who defied an Emperor”.  Gladiator is the story of Roman General Maximus (Russell Crowe) who seeks revenge for the murder of the Caesar and of his own family at the order of new Caesar, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix).

The story is enthralling, and the battle scenes, epic. The impressive sets and locations are a reminder of the great historical epics of the 1950s and 60s. It is a joy to see real places at a time when CGI is often used instead. Talking of the CGI, it has held up to scrutiny very well and despite being twelve years old at the time I’m writing this, it looks as good as all but the best 2012 has to offer. The wonderful images are joined by a great score by Hans Zimmer. 



The main characters are well defined and attention-grabbing. Crowe’s Maximus is a man on a mission who shows little emotion while in battle but a great deal of love and emotion towards those he loves. Crowe is opposite one of the most hateful characters in all of cinema history. To me, Joaquin Phoenix often comes across as unlikeable but he takes this to new heights as the villain of the piece, Caesar Commodus. The supporting cast that includes Derek Jacobi, Djimon Hounsou and Connie Nielson are all very good but the stand out is Oliver Reed who unfortunately died during filming, making this his last film. His scenes were completed at a cost of $3.2m using motion capture and CGI, money well spent in my view as it is difficult to spot.

The whole film itself seems fairly inexpensive when compared to its contempories. It cost $103m in 2000 whereas Titanic cost $200m three years earlier and Kingdom of Heaven cost $147m five years later. I think you get a lot of film for your buck with Gladiator. (This is especially so when you compare it to Pirates of the Caribbean 4 which had an estimated budget of $150-250m and is a poor excuse for entertainment).

Occasionally the film gets a bit repetitive. Maximus is forced to fight one opponent after another in the Coliseum and after a while this begins to get tiresome. Each new battle introduces new elements such as chariots or wild animals which help it to keep fresh but you do get the feeling you are just watching the same thing over and over again and waiting for the final battle between the central characters which will obviously be coming. This being said, on the whole Gladiator is a great historical epic which should keep you entertained for over two hours and is better than similar films such as Troy and Alexander in a genre that it helped revive.  

8/10

Thursday, 16 February 2012

The Muppets


The Muppets is a reboot of the classic puppet show that has been on a twelve year hiatus from the big screen. The story follows brothers Gary (Jason Segal) and Walter (a Muppet born character) to Los Angeles where they are meant to be celebrating Gary’s ten year anniversary with Mary (Amy Adams). While in town they take in a tour of the old Muppets studios, only to find that the evil Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) is planning to tear it down and drill for oil. In order to save the studio and the Muppets themselves, Walter must persuade Kermit to get the gang back together…



I have to be honest and admit that I have never seen a Muppets movie before but due to how much they have penetrated modern culture, I was able to name over half of them on sight. Despite never seeing a Muppet movie, I am a big fan of puppetry and love Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. The puppetry in the film was incredible. There was so much emotion in their faces, more than Orlando Bloom for instance and it is a feat of direction that the film makers managed to have so many puppets on screen at one time.


The first third of the film was amongst the funniest I have seen in the cinema. I had a constant smile on my face as gag followed gag at a frenetic pace. Had it continued for the entire film I’d be putting it up with This is Spinal Tap as one of my favourite comedies. The number of jokes and laughs inevitably decreases as the film progresses in order to focus more on the plot but there are still more laughs to be had than in even the funniest of films I’ve seen recently. The screening I was in had a real mixture of young children, teenagers and adults and all were laughing, often at the same time and sometimes on their own, but everyone seemed to be enjoying what was on screen.

The film’s songs were excellent and so obviously the work of Flight of the Concords Bret McKenzie. Each one had a Concords ring to it and was funny and catchy. There were also some pretty good cameos in the film, and Jack Black. I’d expected a little more from the cameos having heard about the massive stars the Muppet Show used to attract but most were funny. The main human cast was ok. Amy Adams was her usual fluttery, singing self and although Jason Segal wasn’t great, he has written a very funny film so I’ll let him off. The stars of the show though were of course The Muppets. Kermit and Miss Piggy are at the centre of the story but it is Animal who gets the most laughs and each main character is given at least a couple of chances to shine for a few seconds.

My one complaint with the film is the shameless advertisement for the film Cars. On no less than three occasions we saw a billboard for the film. They might as well have just had Kermit say “You know what guys? We should go and see Cars when we’re finished” and be done with it. I expect this came down from somewhere in Disney rather than from James Bobin but it was disappointing so see so often. I hate to see targeted or semi-subliminal advertising, especially when it is aimed at children.

The Muppets will have created a whole new audience for the fuzzy puppets and I expect we’ll see much more from them in the next few years. The film is a very accomplished comedy that is not afraid to reference itself or even break the forth wall and overall is incredibly enjoyable, funny and sweet.

9/10  

Sleeping Beauty


Billed as an erotic drama and far removed from the fairytail which bares the same name, 2011s Sleeping Beauty is more like a confusing first draft of an interesting if not a little seedy idea. Emily Browning plays college student Lucy who in search of extra cash is drawn into the sordid world of erotic entertainment. At first she is required to act as a lingerie clad, silver service waitress but as things progress they take a more squalid turn and she ends up being drugged to fall asleep and have men spend time with her, under one provision – no penetration.

The film is slow, quiet and bare and features little music or dialogue. The story is played out at a deliberate pace in purposeful scenes that are full of subtle emotion. Despite the large amount of nudity and sexual language, I wouldn’t class the film as erotic. It is actually quite depressing. Browning’s character has few friends and spends her evenings craving attention and affection from strangers. She also takes part in humiliating acts of medical experimentation and partakes in drug abuse, possibly to escape ‘herself’.


The film is a brave choice for Emily Browning who was last seen in Sucker Punch,(reviewed here) a film with a very dodgy attitude towards women. In this she is rarely clothed on screen and has to deal with some quite degrading scenes. She is much better here than in the aforementioned crime against narrative cinema however and lets her face and body do the acting. Her face is often expressionless and she appears to be floating through it and life, even when she is not drugged. Despite a better performance here, and a more natural one too, I think the jury is still out as to whether she can successfully move into less grubby cinema.  

My main problem with the film is that it is just really lackluster. The idea is fairly interesting and it has a pleasing minimalist and blank look to it which compliments Browning’s own looks but it wasn’t in the least bit exciting or interesting to watch. The emotional scenes are not and one scene in particular in which an old man tells a very long story had me reaching for my phone to check twitter, this despite also having a nude Emily Browning in shot. The ending is unsatisfying and confusing and by that point I’d completely lost interest. To be kind to the film, it is shot very beautifully and has an interesting concept but it is disappointing in its execution.

4/10

The Lives of Others


The Lives of Others is a fantastic thriller set in 1980’s East Germany. Stasi officer, Weisler (Ulrich Muhe) is ordered to spy on playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) by his superiors. Dreyman’s apartment is bugged and Weisler sits upstairs for hours on end, listening to everything that is said and done below him. Weisler soon discovers that the surveillance is down to one of his superiors infatuation with Dreyman’s girlfriend, the actress Christa Sieland, but nonetheless continues with his round the clock surveillance. Weisler, married to his job and with no life outside of it becomes intrigued by the lives of the artists who he is listening to, hearing literature and music which is completely new to him. He begins to suspect that the whole operation is an abuse of power and has to choose whether to continue to be honest in his accounts of what is going on in the apartment below him.


The film is acted with great aplomb. Muhe gives the standout performance however. He is mostly stoic and expressionless which makes the very occasional outbursts of emotion that much more unexpected. His performance reminds me most of Gary Oldman’s in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It is the merest movement of a lip or raising of an eyebrow that gives away his feelings and emotions and is a wonderful performance. Sebastian Koch is also very good, playing the playwright who is under observation and Ulrich Tukur and Thomas Thieme are both well cast as the archetypal villains of the piece, playing the roles of a senior Stasi officer and Government official respectably.  



The film’s great strength is its subtlety and the way the tension creeps up on the audience without being obvious. Again, I have to compare the film to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in this respect. There is little in the way of action but the audience are kept waiting, on the edge of their seats for the story to play out. It is masterful story telling that is wonderfully directed by von Donnersmarck.  

Additional – For a review of a tragi-comedy film featuring the same events click here.

10/10

The Taking of Pelham 123


2009’s The Taking of Pelham 123 is a remake of the 1974 film of the same name. I haven’t seen that film so I can’t comment but the remake is a let down. A man by the name of ‘Ryder’ (John Travolta) takes control of a Subway train in New York City where he and three fellow hijackers take several hostages and demand $10m for their freedom. Ryder is in contact with a NYC train dispatcher called Garber (Denzel Washington) and the film follows his attempts to control the situation and stop any hostages from being killed.

The film starts off with an annoying frame rate which is reminiscent of watching strobe lighting. Thankfully this technique ends with the opening credits but it was a bad start to a poor film. At times it had my heart pounding, thanks in most part to a thumping techno soundtrack, but for the most part it was lifeless and dull. It is difficult to get excited about the film when the majority of the dialogue takes place via radio with Garber in his control room and Ryder in a Subway tunnel. When the action is taken outside these confines towards the end of the film, it picks up somewhat but by then it is too little too late.


I've got a goatee, and I'm not afraid to use it!

Denzel Washington does his thing of the everyman caught up in an extraordinary situation but John Travolta is completely unconvincing as a bad guy. Even with a gun to a passenger’s head he seems more like he’s playing a man who is a little bit naughty than the part of a deranged psycho with a score to settle. The supporting cast featuring John Turturro and James Gandolfini are given little to do and Gandolfini’s character of the Mayor takes off half way through the film, seemingly with a plan in mind, never to be seen again. It didn’t make a lot of sense. Perhaps the edit messed up his character’s arc…

The film’s ending seemed rushed and was disappointing but to be fair even a fantastic ending wouldn’t have prevented the film from being just mediocre.

5/10  

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Good Bye, Lenin!


I first attempted to watch this film eight years ago when it was shown to us on my first day of University. Unfortunately that day there was a problem with the projector and the film cut out half way through. Here I am, eight years later having finally finished it with a review.

I think that the idea behind the film is brilliant. It is 1989 in East Berlin and a hard line Communist mother watches as her son is arrested for taking part in a reunification rally. Upon seeing his arrest, the mother has a heart attack and falls into a coma. Eight months pass by during which the Berlin Wall falls and capitalism sweeps through East Berlin, which is now reunified with the west. When the mother eventually wakes up she is in a very fragile state and her son is told that any excitement or surprises could kill her. He then has to try to maintain the lie that East Berlin is still under control from Moscow in an attempt to keep his mother alive.


The film is quite funny in places and interesting throughout. I felt that about fifteen minutes could have been cut from the middle third as it sags slightly there but then it builds up to a tremendous final half hour. Some of the lengths the son goes to, to maintain the lie are extraordinary but two in particular stand out. He uses his budding film director friend to make up eight months of news and also borrows an ex-Cosmonaught turned taxi driver for an emotional and loving scene.

The acting is very naturalistic. The whole cast seem very at ease and almost unaware that the camera is on them. East Berlin (one of my favourite places) looks great. We don’t see much of it but what we do see are the brutal Communist buildings that give it its signature look.

Part of what remains of the wall today. Taken by me in 2010

Overall, Good Bye, Lenin! Is an interesting film with some funny moments and a lot of heart. There is enough politics in there for people who are interested in the reunification but not too much so that it would overpower it for those who are not.

Aditional - For a review of the Oscar winning The Lives of Others, which has shares a time and place with this film, click here. 

7/10

Monday, 13 February 2012

A Dangerous Method

David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method is a visual joy that charts the birth of Psychoanalysis in the early part of the 20th Century. Michael Fassbender stars as Carl Jung, the father of analytical psychology opposite Viggo Mortensen’s Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis. In between these great historical figures is Keira Knightley who plays Sabina Spielrein, a young Russian woman who is sent to Jung for analysis as she is suffering from hysteria.

Cronenberg is known for intertwining the physchological with the physical and in a way that is the shortest description of this film that one could conger up. The relationship between the psychology and the principle characters personal and physical relationships are wonderfully played out here. Cronenberg’s use of focus is masterful. He is able to create a better 3D effect that I have seen in even the best 3D films. Quite often, and especially when two people share a scene, the focus is set on the actor in the distance with the actor closest to the camera out of focus. Occasionally, this setup is reversed. The rest of the frame is in very soft focus and this can also include the actor’s clothes. The audience’s eyes are drawn to the actor’s faces in an exceptionally clever and visually pleasing way. The background is always beautiful but Cronenberg wants the audience to know that it is what is being said is the focus, not where they are saying it.


An example of the soft focus used by Cronenberg

The story itself is fascinating and rekindled my interest in psychology which first developed during my A Levels. I felt as though I could listen to Freud and Jung talk for hours or even days. I understand that the subject matter is not for everyone however and this is perhaps why we had to travel to our local Art House Cinema rather than our usual multiplex. In addition to the absorbing psychological debate the audience are also treated to a magnificent personal story which revolves around Jung and Spielrein. It has anticipation, romance and heart and is full of twists and turns.

Many scenes are shot with unusal acting positions
All three principle actors are fantastic. Keira Knightley delivers a wonderfully outrageous and over the top performance as the confused and frenzied Spielrein. She is as accomplished as I have ever seen her. It was a pleasant surprise to see her push her physical acting abilities in ways which I had not seen in the past. Fassbender gives a somewhat subdued performance but he too is more than competent. Mortensen’s Freud is understated but occasionally vicious and calculating. His voice is both relaxing and seductive, a cross between John Hurt and The Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland. Mortensen and Fassbender are at their best when sparring opposite one another. The three leads are joined by an able supporting cast which includes an all too brief cameo from Vincent Cassel who is excellent here as the sex addicted Otto Gross.



I am unable to think of a single facet of this film which I didn’t enjoy or thought could have been improved in some way and am utterly delighted that I took the time to see it. It has been one of the highlights of an already stellar couple of months at the cinema.

9/10