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A Field In England (2013, UK)

04/07/2013

Director: Ben Wheatley     Starring: Reece Shearsmith, Michael Smiley, Peter Ferdinando, Ryan Pope, Richard Glover, Sara Dee, Julian Barratt

a field in englandThe window between a movie’s cinema release date and its subsequent availability has long been a bone of contention within the industry. In the old days (back when you had a choice between VHS and Betamax – anyone under a certain age would benefit from Googling those) you could expect it to take a year or two from when a film hit the cinema to its subsequent release on rental video tape, never mind retail. As for TV forget it. It could often take years for a film to find its way onto cathode ray tube (again, kids, look it up) and when they did it was often a big deal.

Fast forward twenty years and the world of home entertainment is a very different place. The rental window pretty much doesn’t exist anymore. Films become available on DVD a few months after their runs in the cinema (depending on the stature of the film of course – don’t make much money at the cinema and you make it to DVD all the quicker). The debate has raged for a while now as to whether there should be a release window at all between cinema screen and TV (or indeed, computer) screen.

That’s why the release of Ben Wheatley’s latest film, A Field In England, is a bit different. You might even say it’s as bold and unusual as the film itself. You see, A Field In England is released on Friday simultaneously to cinema, home video and internet services and is also being shown on Film 4 on Friday night. A risky strategy perhaps? After all, why pay to see it in the cinema or on DVD when you can just watch it on TV? I have to say I largely approve and hope it pays off – after all not all films (particularly not independent works like this) get a general cinema release, so it gives you choices if you want to see the film at the same time as everyone else. Also, it allows people to try out a film without having to resort to illegal downloading. It is, after all, an unconventional work and so by offering it up on television it gives people the opportunity to fall in love with it and then buy a copy for repeated (ad-free) viewing.

Telling the story of a group of ragtag refugees from a battle during the English Civil War, it focuses on the sinister events that befall the group when they stumble upon a mystical mushroom circle in a field. Eating a stew laced with the mushrooms and under the influence of a deranged alchemist, the group experience nightmarish visions that bring them to the brink of disaster.

a field in england 2

It’s a fantastic film. Compact, low budget and all the better for it, it’s driven by the performances and exactly the kind of disconcerting imagery and editing you’d expect from the director of the fabulously dark and disturbing Kill List. The League Of Gentlemen’s Reece Shearsmith carries the brunt of the burden as the cowardly astrologer who has been tasked to track down a villainous alchemist who has raided his master’s library, himself played by Kill List’s Michael Smiley both of whom are fantastic. Shearsmith particularly feels like a product of 17th century England, the convoluted, archaic dialogue which should be impenetrable coming naturally to him.

Shearsmith doesn't just look the part, he seems completely at ease with the period dialogue and the overwhelming sense of foreboding.

Shearsmith doesn’t just look the part, he seems completely at ease with the period dialogue and the overwhelming sense of foreboding.

Performances aside it comes down to how Wheatley incorporates the landscape as another character with his impressionistic, black and white imagery creating a sense of a power more ancient than the minds of men, a deep, inherent force of nature that catches these men in its grip and refuses to let go. It’s the kind of agrarian horror that features so prevalently in films like The Blood On Satan’s Claw and The Wicker Man but stripped back to its elemental basics and allowed to grow within the hearts of the characters.

A Field In England is one of those films you don’t so much watch as experience. It engages the senses more than the brain, its hallucinogenic visions defying rationale and narrative in favour of a more emotional, primal response. I can’t wait to see it again, the only question is, which way will I watch? After all, for the first time probably ever, I actually have a choice…

Man Of Steel (2013, USA)

17/06/2013

Director: Zack Snyder    Starring: Henry Cavill, Michael Shannon, Amy Adams, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne

man of steelI suppose it was only a matter of time, given Marvel’s success with their joined-up movie-verse and the stratospheric popularity of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy that D.C. would attempt some sort of similar in-house consistency with their cinematic efforts. Clearly the lessons of Batman have been learned (not to mention the Green Lantern movie. I suppose mistakes are only bad if you fail to learn from them!)

It comes as little surprise then that Nolan has been recruited, along with his Dark Knight collaborator David S. Goyer, to inject a new lease of life into D.C.’s other figurehead, Superman. And boy does it show. This is a much more serious treatment of the character than we’ve seen on screen before, a darker, edgier approach to the story that we are all so familiar with. You know, like Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Only with Superman. And herein lies the problem. Man Of Steel suffers from a sever case of over earnestness, the sort of dead pan, po faced grimness you’d expect to find in a serious drama and not in a big budget comic book adaptation. Aren’t comics supposed to be fun?

It’s not to say the film is without its merits, there is plenty on show here to enjoy. The young Clark Kent coming to terms with his enhanced abilities is a nice touch, the cast are pretty solid and I like the treatment of General Zod as a misguided zealot rather than a purely evil dictator (and Michael Shannon’s performance is a glimmer of hope, a chink of carefree light in the darkness of deadly seriousness). I like the production design, breathing new (and somewhat more credible) life into the oh so familiar Superman suit, and some of the action set pieces are pretty spectacular as Kal-El and Zod battle it out to determine the fate of Earth.

Michael Shannon is one of the best things about the film and I love the treatment of Zod as a character. Now, tell me again how a yellow Sun let's him shoot lasers out of his eyes?

Michael Shannon is one of the best things about the film and I love the treatment of Zod as a character. Now, tell me again how a yellow Sun let’s him shoot lasers out of his eyes?

But it has its problems. Serious problems. I’m actually quite shocked about the reliance of CGI for pretty much every single special effect in the film, given Nolan’s influence and his history of using computers sparingly and then only to enhance mechanical and in-camera effects. Snyder has gone to town with the digital jiggery-pokery which has left huge swathes of the action set pieces rendered almost unwatchable, or at least an indistinct mess as one blur of pixels knocks lumps out of another blur of pixels until a building falls down and things get going again. I realise we are talking about mortal combat between two god-like beings here, and that things would happen quickly, but there must be a better way to represent that on screen than sequence after sequence of blurry action. And the lens flares, please don’t get me started on the lens flares. I think they must have hired J.J. Abrams as lens flare consultant given their sheer quantity and intrusiveness.

So many lens flares. Cos you know, he gets his powers from the Sun. The Sun. See? Geddit? The Sun.

So many lens flares. Cos you know, he gets his powers from the Sun. The Sun. See? Geddit? The Sun.

I could definitely have done without the endless attempts to explain just why exactly Earth’s yellow Sun imbues Superman with his super powers. With each passing expositional speech about radiation, gravity, different atmospheric conditions, etc, etc, etc. you get the feeling the hole being dug can’t get any deeper. Let’s be honest, the premise that a different Sun could result in superhuman abilities is pretty preposterous, but as a concept you can pretty much accept it with some careful suspension of disbelief. Look at Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman movie and they get away with it by just mentioning it in passing and then forgetting about it, getting on with the story instead (and might I add with humour and fun). In Man Of Steel, the desperation for this concept to be taken seriously is just embarrassing for all involved. By constantly referring back to it, and worse – trying to support it with pseudo science – just reminds you of how silly it is and seriously impedes your ability to simply accept it.

You know what? There's a bunch of messianic imagery and allusions to Jesus in there too that I just can't be arsed with. As much as I love The Last Temptation Of Christ it's not a huge amount of fun...

You know what? There’s a bunch of messianic imagery and allusions to Jesus in there too that I just can’t be arsed with. As much as I love The Last Temptation Of Christ it’s not a huge amount of fun…

There are endless internal logic problems in the film as well, too many to mention here. I think in different circumstances I’d be willing to let them slide but the constant insistence that the film be taken seriously, that its some kind of realistic interpretation of the comic amplifies the inconsistencies and almost acts as a challenge to spot flaws in their theories and anything that could undermine the project. And so we come full circle, back to that awful over-earnestness that Man Of Steel wears round its neck like a chunk of cinematic Kryptonite. Like I said, there are quite a lot of things to like about the film, but all of these things are beaten into submission by sheer humourlessness.

Texas Chainsaw 3D

31/05/2013

Director: John Luessenhop   Starring: Alexandra Daddario, Dan Yeager, Trey Songz, Scott Eastwood, Tania Raymonde

texas chainsaw 3dWhen I realised that the new Texas Chainsaw (3D) movie was not merely another reboot of Tobe Hooper’s 1974 original but was in fact being billed as a direct sequel to it, I felt inclined to be a little bit more optimistic than I would otherwise have been about its prospects. After all, Hooper’s film ends rather abruptly, leaving many unanswered questions in its shrill, blood spattered wake. The prospect of a film that picked up from where it left off, that examined the aftermath of the events of that film, was actually quite a tempting one.

If only that’s what Texas Chainsaw (3D) was, everything might have been okay.

The ’74 Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of my favourite horror movies (in fact, it’s one of my favourite movies full stop – why not listen to me rave about it in my Horror-geddon podcast ) for many reasons but mostly because it’s one of the few horror movies that actually never fails to quicken my pulse and set me on edge. Even now, after many years and many viewings there’s a visceral impact to the film that delivers again and again and again. It’s one of those films that you would swear was full of graphic violence and gore but when you examine it closely it isn’t really, relying on careful structuring and implied action to trick your brain into thinking it’s witnessed some pretty extreme stuff. It disorientates you with its outlandish and abrasive sound design. In short, it’s pretty much as close to perfect a film as any film deserves to be.

So, with such a blueprint to work from, how have all the sequels that followed it been so damnably awful? One factor at play is the notion of the cult villain. Look at some of the major horror franchises from the last few decades. Freddy Krueger is a great example. After the success of the first Nightmare On Elm Street, sequels were made, and with each sequel the emphasis grew more and more towards using Freddy as the main draw and to hell with the story, other characters and everything else that makes for a good movie. He ceased to become a nightmare character. Years of exploitation by lazy film makers and merchandise pushers clipped his trademark claws. Somehow a depraved child murdering paedophile made the jump from horror villain to cult favourite. And with that he ceased to be scary.

Nothing says "Happy Halloween" like dressing your bairn up as a sadistic, claw handed child molester.

Nothing says “Happy Halloween” like dressing your bairn up as a sadistic, claw handed child molester.

Texas Chainsaw is a bit like that. Well, the whole franchise is, because at the end of the day there seemed to me to be a vibe that Leatherface, the chainsaw wielding, other person’s face wearing psycho from the original film, suddenly became the selling point for subsequent movies. Now if you’ve seen the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, you will probably realise (and possibly be disappointed) that he doesn’t feature an awful lot in that movie. Sure, he kills a few people, but he’s very much a feature of the story, not the centre of it. The problem is that the writers seem to be relying pretty much entirely on the mere presence of Leatherface, without bothering to write anything more about him. Who is he really? Why does he kill? Why does he wear other people’s faces? All good questions raised by the original and all of which are simply avoided in the sequel.

As if this wasn’t bad enough there are more issues surrounding the writing that really need to be addressed. The premise is that after the ’74 massacre the local townsfolk lynched the family of cannibals and burned them alive inside their macabre house, save for one tiny baby who was adopted (well, actually, stolen) by a childless couple who formed part of the vigilante mob. When the little girl is all grown up her biological grandmother dies and she inherits her house, a house which comes with a little something extra in the cellar. This is far less interesting than it would have been had the story been about Sally in the immediate aftermath of the original massacre, or even if it had taken place (as this does) in the present day with Sally suffering from the aftermath even all these years later.

Instead they try to feed us nonsense about Leatherface escaping the fire and being kept in check by Granny in her wine cellar. None of which really makes sense. When the baby is found, the couple that take her make a big deal out of concealing the fact she was even there in the first place. With no witnesses to them taking her, how did her granny know where to look for her? Or even to seek her out in the first place? Why would she include someone in the will she would have been forced to assume was dead? And that’s just the hook to get the story going!

Then consider the casting. The group of youths unwittingly road tripping to their doom have clearly been selected for aesthetic appeal rather than acting talent. The guys are all chiselled abs and catalogue model looks, the girls, top heavy, super-skinny stripper types. The repeated use of low camera angles when one character, Nikki, gets out of the van resulting in a close up of her ass every single fucking time sets out the film’s agenda quite nicely. Why worry about characterisation when you can have a close up view of (3D) hot pants every couple of minutes. In the original film, I actually found the youngsters who end up in trouble quite amiable. Here, I was willing them to die after about thirty seconds of screen time. Even the inconsequential, on screen for two seconds, checkout girl who works with Nikki in a supermarket has that stripper look, as if all the women in the world were the same pneumatically breasted, fake tanned horror shows. It seems out of place and very unnatural as does their wardrobe, which constantly fails to create a convincing vibe for the film.

"All our market research shows that if you run around for the whole movie with your shoulders back and your chest out the punters will love it."

“All our market research shows that if you run around for the whole movie with your shoulders back and your chest out the punters will love it.”

No 3D horror film would be complete without the addition of a couple of over the top affectations that give everyone a chance to “be amazed” at shit seeming to poke out of the screen at them. In this case (Nikki’s cheeks aside) they seem to be mainly focused around chainsaws (of which Leatherface seems to have access to hundreds of specialised variants) hurtling towards the screen for various unconvincing reasons. But then I was too busy shuddering at all the ham-fisted call backs to the original Chainsaw Massacre movie to really care too much about the overblown chainsawing. Someone should have mentioned that simply copying and pasting a few details from the original movie does not an homage make. While they’re at it, if they could let J.J. Abrams know the same thing I’d be grateful.

Gratuitous Tania Raymonde in her underwear shot.

Gratuitous Tania Raymonde in her underwear shot.

The thing that really proves disappointing is the same mistake I see time and time again in contemporary horror films, the confusion that sometimes arrives in film maker’s minds where they make the mistake of equating “gory” with “scary”. The two things are very different and while not exactly mutually exclusive they are certainly not the same thing. The blood and guts on show in Texas Chainsaw may well look realistic and gruesome but they lack the power to shock that the ’74 version possesses. They deliberately avoided too much blood in the original movie, mainly because they were afraid the film would be cut for release. This worked to their advantage in the end, because it makes  the horror much more inferred than explicit. It’s significant that the most horrifying scene in the original movie is when Sally is sat at the Sawyer family dinner table and grandpa Sawyer is trying to kill her with a hammer, but failing due to his frailty in old age.

It’s a genuinely grotesque moment, the tension from it is practically palpable. It certainly eclipses everything in Texas Chainsaw. No amount of dismembered torsos on meat hooks and bloody limbs lying about the place can make up for a lack of any kind of sense of what is scary and what’s not.

I'm still disturbed by this scene, even after having seen the film many, many times.

I’m still disturbed by this scene, even after having seen the film many, many times.

All of this is compounded when you consider Rob Zombie has already done a massacre/aftermath combo in the form of House Of 1,000 Corpses (itself clearly inspired by the original Chainsaw) and its follow up The Devil’s Rejects, which follows directly on from the first film and deals with the consequences of the psychotic family’s behaviour all of which begs the question, what exactly was the point? I don’t think I’d have even minded if the story (including its “twist”) hadn’t been so damn stupid, but it is, and I do. At best, this was a wasted opportunity, at worst a cinematic tragedy that should really be erased from existence.

So much for optimism.

DVD/Blu Ray New Release Round Up Monday 25th February 2013

24/02/2013

A glut of lower key releases has meant that there simply wasn’t enough time this week to view everything that is coming out on Monday. Sorry PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4 but you just didn’t make the cut (here’s a quick review anyway – after an hour and a half of shaky home video footage where nothing of any interest happens and that is largely indistinguishable from PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 1, 2 or 3 the realisation sets in that yes, you really did just choose to sit through that). It’s good that after last week’s SKYFALL induced wasteland there are actually a few new movies out to see, so let’s see what they have in store for us.

the corridorTHE CORRIDOR is one of those science fictiony, horrory, independent films in the vein of DONNIE DARKO or perhaps CHRONICLE which sees a group of friends head out to an isolated mountain cabin to pay their respects to the departed mother of Tyler, one of the group who has just been discharged from a mental hospital where he was treated for psychosis brought about by the circumstances of her death. There’s something else on the mountain though, and it brings with it unusual powers that will test their kinship to the limits. It’s a thoughtful film, carefully paced as the pressure mounts on the friends, pressure which leads to some fantastic practical effects when rationality gives way to the mysterious forces at work. All told it’s pretty good, although it gets a little bit vague in places, especially when it comes to the who and whys but that does at least serve to get the brain working. If that’s your thing, you should get a kick out of this.

for a good time callI fully expected to hate phone-sex-centric comedy FOR A GOOD TIME CALL. I’ve seen a slew of dreadful so-called comedies over the months (NEW YEARS EVE I’m looking at you!) so I have learned to approach them with basement level expectations but this one happily exceeded them with its bawdy (as opposed to simply crude) humour and upbeat tone. Katie (Ari Graynor, channelling early Streisand – think FOR PETE’S SAKE) and Lauren (Lauren Miller) are two former college enemies forced into being flat mates by circumstances outwith their control. To make ends meet they start up their own phone sex line, a bonding experience which helps them overcome their former animosity. Utterly predictable it may be, but it’s one hell of a lot of fun and good hearted to boot. The jokes work well, Graynor and Miller have great chemistry and the inevitability of each plot point actually seems to work to the film’s advantage, allowing you to concentrate on the fun stuff which to be fair there’s plenty of. They even manage to squeeze a couple of high profile cameos into the brisk eighty five minute running time, both of which manage to be pretty funny. On top of the laughs, there’s an interesting take on feminism and female sexuality that’s pretty refreshing, especially when you consider so many of these sex-based comedies are basically thirteen year old boy fodder that feature women almost solely as sex objects (attainable or otherwise).  When it comes to comedies you can only really judge them on one thing – do they make you laugh, and on that basis this one is a success.

Not sure if it's the clothes, the attitude or if she just looks like her, but there's something about Ari Graynor that reminds me of a young Barbra Streisand...

Not sure if it’s the clothes, the attitude or if she just looks like her, but there’s something about Ari Graynor that reminds me of a young Barbra Streisand…

 

killing them softlyA film that could do with a bit more fun is KILLING THEM SOFTLY, where Brad Pitt is the man called in to deal with some unruly miscreants who have knocked off a mob card game and need to have some summary Mafia justice dispensed to them. Mr Pitt is joined by some real heavy hitters – James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins and ANIMAL KINGDOM’s Ben Mendelsohn – but sadly their talents are squandered in a film that is trying so hard to be clever and worthy that it forgets to be entertaining. It has its moments, certainly, and the parallels it draws between the collapse of the local criminal economy when the loot gets robbed and the broader economic collapse of the global financial crisis are of moderate interest, but there just isn’t enough of a solid foundation to get everyone through to the end. Perhaps my expectations were too high (the trailer looked good, the cast looked promising) but for me this was the hitman movie equivalent of CABIN IN THE WOODS – all clever ideas executed with a cold smugness that I completely failed to connect with. Mendelsohn turns out to be the best thing about the film, his mentally unstable Aussie crook is a definite highlight (although Gandolfini is pretty good too to be honest) but the whole fails to live up to the sum of its parts, leaving it feel like a missed opportunity.

premium rushIf you’re looking for something a little less high brow PREMIUM RUSH might be more your cup of tea. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Wilee, a New York City based cycle courier who finds himself pursued by some dodgy characters when he’s enlisted to deliver a special package across town. Fair warning – it’s an extremely silly film, sort of like THE FAST & THE FURIOUS only for people who prefer push bikes to customised cars. Writer/Director David Koepp (who can list INDIANA JONES & THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL amongst his writing credits, take from that what you will) has assembled a film that proves to be utterly ridiculous but surprisingly good fun as it tries to convince us we’re getting the inside track on the world of Manhattan’s cycle couriers. Particularly amusing is Wille’s “Google-streetview-vision”, presumably designed to convey the lightning speed with which he determines his route as he’s zipping through the busy city streets but which is the source of a lot of hilarious moments (I still can’t decide if these are meant to be as funny as they are or not, although clearly someone’s tongue is in their cheek somewhere). The bike stunts are actually pretty smart, even the stagier ones, but full marks go to Michael Shannon (BOARDWALK EMPIRE, TAKE SHELTER) who hams it up as the villain of the piece, and a dementedly fine villain he makes. It’s all very silly but surprisingly entertaining and I was getting a kind of CRANK vibe from it, only without the fighting.

frankenweenieThere will come a point in any conversation I have about Tim Burton where I will lay down the gauntlet and challenge people to name anything he made after ED WOOD which was actually any good. Apart from a few stalwart SLEEPY HOLLOW supporters, evidence is thin on the ground that Burton actually has any ideas left in him. None of this of course has been an obstacle to a highly successful career as being the director of choice for undiscerning Goths who think his aesthetic style is all you really need and probably believe THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS was all his own work. FRANKENWEENIE, a stop motion, feature length remake of a 1984 shrot film by Mr. Burton is yet another style over substance footnote in an increasingly dissatisfying career. The idea itself isn’t a bad one – young Victor’s pet dog (and best friend) Sparky gets hit by a car before being resurrected by Victor using the power of science, much to the suspicion and hatred of those around him is superb, even if it is just a direct lift from (sorry, homage to) Mary Shelley, but in its execution it becomes yet another exercise in the trademark Burton aesthetic as he tacks on as many tributes to classic horror and monster movies as he can. Maybe I’ve just been spoiled by the excellent PARANORMAN (which is not just vastly superior in terms of story and character but also in animation too) but FRANKENWEENIE just doesn’t cut the mustard. Like the reanimated pets that pepper the story, it’s a bit soulless, a hollow facsimile of the classic films it’s attempting to homage. If you are a fan of Burton’s work you will doubtlessly enjoy this as much as anything else he’s done in the last ten years, but it really doesn’t do it for me. At all.

He had to get a swirly spiral in there somewhere, didn't he?

He had to get a swirly spiral in there somewhere, didn’t he?

 

rust and boneWhich brings me to this week’s PICK OF THE WEEK. Jacques Audiard’s (writer/director of the spectacular A PROPHET) latest film, RUST AND BONE, is a slab of French social realism that is not to be missed. A nightclub bouncer who finds himself caught up in an illicit bare knuckle boxing ring is equally drawn to a woman he meets while at work and when she suffers a traumatic accident they find themselves strangely dependent on one another. Matthias Schoenarts and Marion Cotillard (who you may remember from such films as CONTAGION and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES) shine in the leads, both carrying off characters who are crumbling under the weight of their problems and who are clinging to each other for dear life with complete conviction, as Audiard delivers another film that packs a punch on an emotional as well as social level. It’s a film about damage and the things that people do to try and overcome, or at the very least mask the symptoms of, that damage. Moving, sometimes funny and occasionally gut wrenchingly emotional it forces you to empathise without ever resorting to cheap, mawkish theatrics. Essential viewing.

New Release DVD/Blu Ray Round Up Monday 18th February 2013

17/02/2013

It’s one of those weeks this week where a mammoth release from a single studio is enough to get everyone else running for the hills. This time the honour goes to one of the biggest films of last year (and one that looks set to be just as gargantuan on its home video release), the 23rd instalment of the official James Bond franchise, Skyfall. As it’s also being released in a box set along side Daniel Craig’s other outings as Bond I thought this would be a great opportunity to talk about the last three Bond films in one fell swoop (for more Bond related shenanigans, check out my Bondageddon podcast).

When Daniel Craig took over the mantle of the world’s most famous secret agent it had been four years since the last Bond film, DIE ANOTHER DAY, which if we’re all honest was a low point of a franchise that had seemed to reach a particularly low point of self parody with its invisible cars, dire Madonna theme and all round vapidity. Sure, Brosnan may have proved himself a half decent Bond but boy was he saddled with a bunch of substandard films that pushed the Moore era formula to breaking point and lacked any real teeth. When Craig was announced as his replacement I wasn’t convinced, at least not until I saw the entertaining LAYER CAKE which showed that maybe he might have what it would take to fill the enormous shoes of the legendary 007.

casino royaleI first saw CASINO ROYALE in the cinema, back in 2006 and with a completely open mind. From the pre-credits sequence alone, a noirish, black and white segment that are, in my opinion, four of the most exciting and impactful minutes of the entire franchise, I knew I was watching something different, that Bond had evolved. The brutality of Bond’s first kill, the icy calm with which he executes his second in order to earn his double-oh status, were unlike anything that had come before. Sure, Dalton touched on the professional murderer side of the character way back in THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS and LICENCE TO KILL but here Craig completely nails the notion of a professional killer unencumbered by petty concerns like conscience or regret.

What follows is two and a half hours of so of a Bond pared down to the bare essentials. Gone are the frivolous gadgets and idiotic attempts at humour (whoever thought John Cleese was a sensible addition to the Bond universe needs their head examined) and instead we have a bold, exciting and – dare I say it – edgy rendition of the character as Bond leaves a trail of bodies in his wake as he pursues international terrorist financier Le Schiffre (played by the superb Mads Mikkelsen on fine villainous form). Clearly taking its cues from the highly successful  THE BOURNE IDENTITY, the action is more brutal, more realistic and more vital than anything seen in a previous Bond. An early chase scene has Bond pursuing a bad guy through a construction site, his quarry effortlessly negotiating obstacles with finely tuned Parkour skills. In a wonderful bit of action choreography, Bond gives chase in his own style, far less graceful but no less inventive as he takes a route that suits his skills. It’s subtle but exciting and it’s the sort of dynamic set piece that characterises the rest of the film.

Bond claims his first kill in the opening sequence of Casino Royale. The brutal, visually stylish sequence represents 4 of the most exciting minutes of cinema from the entire franchise, setting the tone for the rest of the film.

Significantly, although 007 is his usual womanising self, it feels out of place in the twenty first century. In fact, the film seems to take a disapproving stance to some of the more ridiculous elements of the series (see the disdain both Bond and his Treasury babysitter/Bond girl in chief Vesper Lynd have for her cover name “Stephanie Broadchest”). It either plays with or outright ditches many of the Bond clichés in favour of something more modern. Its references to the earlier movies (witness the understated appearance of a 1964 Aston Martin and an arrogant country club member who mistakes Bond for a parking valet and who bears more than a passing resemblance to Auric Goldfinger) are subtle and welcome, clearly affectionate nods by filmmakers who have a love for the films of the past but who clearly were on a mission to bring the franchise kicking and screaming into a modern age.

The only weak points in the film are the “climactic” poker scenes where James faces off against Le Schiffre over a poker table. Poker is hardly cinematic, and the constant, expositional commentary by one of Bond’s allies might be useful for members of the audience who don’t know how to play the game but they are hardly dramatic. It’s a minor quibble (and completely forgivable given the quality of the rest of the film) and as it’s a pivotal part of the story I’ll let them off, but I can’t help but wonder if there might have been another way to  play these scenes out that would have felt less mechanical.

quantum of solaceThe follow up, 2008′s QUANTUM OF SOLACE is a film that didn’t fare quite so well as its predecessor. It’s a film that seems to be slammed almost universally as something of a let down, I would say somewhat unfairly. It does seem a little more lightweight than CASINO, that’s for sure, but I wonder how much of the derision pointed at it is a result of unfairly high expectations in the aftermath of CASINO ROYALE. Personally, I feel there’s a lot to like in the film, which continues in the tradition breaking (which I suspect lies at the heart of most of the criticisms levelled at it) vein of CASINO, not the least by being a direct sequel to the earlier film. It carries on from the moment CASINO leaves off, with an exciting, bullet riddled car chase that is full of promise for what lies ahead. I’m particularly fond of a knife fight between Bond and a bad guy that sees our hero get slashed in as realistic a fight scene as you’re ever likely to see within the franchise and that ends with Bond failing to hide his impatience as he waits for his assailant to die, knife plunged deep into his femoral artery. Could it be this callous indifference from Bond that turned people against the film? I suspect it may be part of the problem.

The continuity between the two films is a first for the franchise, and while there has always been a very loose continuity (maybe consistency is a better word) from film to film over the decades, there hasn’t been such a direct follow up to any of the films. I love this as it gives everyone the opportunity to explore the shadowy Quantum organisation whose existence is briefly revealed at the end of Craig’s first film and then explored more here. Of course, Quantum is the twenty first century equivalent to S.P.E.C.T.R.E. and seem to share similar goals to Bond’s traditional foes (world domination, the pursuit of power and wealth) only without the comic-book style overlord. In fact, the story arc across the two films echoes the involvement of S.P.E.C.T.R.E from the earlier movies, with Bond seeking vengeance for the death of his beloved at the hands of the secret organisation, going “off the reservation” to achieve his ends. This isn’t the only callback to earlier instalments. There’s a death that evokes the woman-painted-gold trick from GOLDFINGER and Bond’s escape from his fellow S.I.S. agents is straight out of LICENCE TO KILL, even down to his semi-sanctioned getaway courtesy of M. These references work for me in much the same way as the ones in CASINO did, recalling memorable characters and incidents from the franchise without ramming them down your throat with big neon signs saying “LOOK AT ME I’M A REFERENCE”.

Olga Kurylenko is very much in the independent and capable camp when it comes to Bond girls. Beautiful, deadly and not in the least bit simpering.

Maybe the stumbling block for QUANTUM is its lacklustre conclusion that comes straight out of the classical Bond movie playbook. There are only so many remote, exotic bad guy’s lairs that Bond can blow up before the novelty wears off and the explody bits at the end of QUANTUM feel a little bit out of place. It’s got one of those twists that isn’t really a twist and I suppose comes as a bit of a comedown after all that has transpired before. This weakness stems from the writing, likely a symptom of a script that was being polished on the fly. That said, I think it’s more or less compensated by the good stuff. I’d take the fiery conclusion of QUANTUM over the painful “Confessions Of A Spy”, Scottish Laird segment of ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE for example, any day of the week.

skyfallWhich brings me onto the latest addition to the James Bond canon, SKYFALL. I desperately tried to manage my expectations for SKYFALL. I carefully avoided too many previews and trailers, I tried not to speculate on what delights it might have in store. The thought of Javier Bardem as a Bond villain was an exciting one, the idea of Sam Mendes directing not so much. On the basis of Daniel Craig’s previous films though, the prospects were good. Then came early plaudits from people who managed to see it before me. “Best Bond Film Ever” they said. The word on the street was Q was back. People were bandying around phrases like “a return to form”. And I got worried.

As it turns out, my misgivings were far from unfounded. A lacklustre theme song follows a by-the-numbers opening and suddenly all the good work, all the progress made over the previous two films is thrown out of the window as Mendes drags the franchise back in time, as far back as the Moore era with its patronising approach to women and overblown ridiculousness. Clearly, as I appear to be very much in the minority here, this would seem to be the Bond film that “the people” actually want (something that would explain the lukewarm at best reception to QUANTUM OF SOLACE), but for me it just took everything that made Daniel Craig’s tenure as Bond great and threw it out the window.

Lessons learned from SKYFALL: Women can’t cut it in the field, they make better secretaries. Computer hackers can (somehow) cause gas explosions. Helicopter gunships can operate in Scottish airspace unmolested. CGI Komodo Dragons look shit.

Compared to CASINO and QUANTUM there is a severe lack of danger during the action sequences. It’s all been done before (even the actually not bad conclusion is lifted from HOME ALONE) and for the most part it’s been done far better. There are occasional moments of interest – Bond’s backlit, neon fistfight in Shanghai at least looks interesting, even if it doesn’t quite pack the same punch as his battles from earlier instalments. The evil henchman being eaten by a computer generated lizard is awful though. They aren’t even well animated. It’s indicative of a general lack of subtlety that has tainted the entire film.

The Shanghai assassination sequence is one of the highlights of Skyfall, aesthetically at least.

The references to earlier films are the worst. There’s the good old Aston Martin DB5. Not just a DB5, but the DB5, revolving number plates and ejector seat et al (the source of some risible repartee between M and Bond). “What did you expect, an exploding pen?” quips Q when he issues Bond with his kit. All very smug, all very knowing, all totally unnecessary. They feel like big placards declaring the mission statement – to purge the modernity from the franchise and rehash the outmoded ideals of the past. Maybe that suits the film’s theme, that of Bond as a relic of a bygone age, a blunt instrument, physical media in a digital age. It’s all done with computers now. Q is a hacker. Silva, the film’s villain, is a hacker. The peril comes in the form of misappropriated information. Very good. Somewhere along the line though (as Bond himself points out) a trigger has to be pulled. Of course the conclusion proves the old ways are the best. That’s at least true in respect of the story, not so much for the film.

And here lies a major issue with SKYFALL. There are no exciting action films about computer hacking. There are decent films about hacking – SNEAKERS and WARGAMES spring to mind, I’d even give you THE SOCIAL NETWORK – but there are no decent action films about computer hacking. If you don’t believe me, try to sit through DIE HARD 4.0. One problem is that cinema is tragically prone to exaggerating the capabilities of hackers, under the same sort of misapprehensions that led people to fear the Millennium Bug that somehow access to a computer allows you to control every aspect of the world. The other is that they tend to overlook the fact that by its very nature, hacking is un-cinematic. Some wee guy, sitting on his own, tapping away on a keyboard does not an exciting plot device make, never mind a convincing one.

The real tragedy of the film is the sense that by the end, Mendes’ work is complete. All the things I loved about CASINO and QUANTUM have been erased, and that there’s been a complete return to the archaic formula that made the Brosnan movies so tiresome and CASINO so fresh and exciting for breaking. It bodes ill for future instalments, especially given the success of SKYFALL, hopes of further innovation dashed under the commercial realisation that multiplex audiences apparently resent change. Most unforgivable of all is its concluding “gag”, a reference back to the classic Bonds that is the final nail in any sense of modernity in the franchise, a definitive indicator that all hope is lost. I won’t spoil it for you, you’ll know it when you see it.

That said, I’ll be buying it tomorrow. I need it to fill the empty space in my Bond box set….

DVD/Blu Ray New Release Round Up Monday 11th February 2013

11/02/2013

madagascar 3Everybody knows that Dreamworks are pretty much a solid second place in the world rankings for producers of quality, family friendly CGI animations (and considering the holders of first place are the mighty and pretty much unwavering Pixar that is much more of an accolade than it sounds). If you’re in any doubt that they deserve the second place rosette just compare something like ICE AGE 4 to  MADAGASCAR 3: EUROPE’S MOST WANTED, the latest instalment of the popular franchise that follows the adventures of a gang of animals who are trying to find their way back the to Central Park Zoo from which they escaped waaaay back in 2005. With the law of diminishing returns almost always applying to sequels it’s only reasonable to expect some deterioration in quality by the third outing but Dreamworks have managed to keep the decay to a minimum and deliver a kids animation that is funny, a little bit heart warming and, visually, wonderfully vivid. As far as rip roaring chases across Europe with anthropomorphised animals who join a travelling circus go, it’s pretty darn entertaining. One word of warning though, you are likely to be singing Marty’s Circus song for some considerable time after viewing.

savagesSAVAGES sees Oliver Stone take the helm on an action thriller centred around marijuana cultivators Ben and Chon (yes, Chon…) and their oh-so-Californian shared girlfriend O (short for Ophelia) as they are forced to take on a Mexican drug cartel headed by the ruthless Elena (played by Salma Hayek, presumably in a nod to real life Medellin Cartel kingpin Griselda Blanco who turned the South Florida cocaine business into a bloodbath during the eighties). Its main stumbling block stems from risible writing (“I have orgasms, he has wargasms” she declares – via tedious voice over – of her ex Navy SEAL lover Chon) and the clumsily handled Ying/Yang nature of peace loving hippy Ben and psychotically violent Chon’s relationship. Redemption is almost found in the form of Benicio Del Toro sporting a fabulous mullet/quiff combo as the dementedly murderous cartel enforcer Lado, and the action scenes are passable (some of the scenes involving the cartel’s punishments are particularly gruesome) but this feels more like it’s been cobbled together by a sub-par Tarantino, rather than the man who brought us Platoon.

PusherRegular readers will know how much admiration I have for Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, so I was extremely curious at how the Richard Coyle starring, English language remake of Refn’s first film PUSHER would turn out. The short answer is, actually pretty well. Mid level drug dealer Frank (Coyle) finds himself in a bit of a predicament when police interference causes the loss of a large quantity of drugs and the money he was supposed to sell them for. His supplier, the superficially affable Milo (Zlatko Buric, reprising his role from the Danish original) is not happy that he won’t get the money he’s owed from Frank which sets him off on a frantic attempt to raise the cash by other, even less legitimate, means. It’s a pretty straight remake but like all duplicates, it’s lost a little bit of the quality of the original. If Refn’s movie had never existed, or I hadn’t seen it, I’d have probably enjoyed it more but it lacks a lot of the punch of the Danish version. The attempt to recreate Refn’s frenetic movie with its thudding techno soundtrack and maniacal editing is partially successful but has lost a little bit of its intensity in translation. The biggest loss is the replacement of the tremendous Mads Mikkelsen as Frank’s sidekick Tony with Bronson Webb. It’s not that Webb isn’t any good (he is), it’s just that he can’t touch Mikkelsen’s performance in the original. A bit watered down then, but still a decent watch, especially if you haven’t seen the original.

sinisterEthan Hawke stars in SINISTER, a horror from the makers of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY and INSIDIOUS, as a true-crime writer who has moved his family into the house of the family at the centre of his latest, gruesome book. It very nearly lives up to its name, especially when it comes to the rather fiendish, Super 8 movies that chart the grizzly story behind the horrific multiple murder he’s investigating which are actually pretty effective, but these are the highlight of a film that is strained by its own silliness. For every moment of tension and atmosphere there’s some flailing loose end that doesn’t make sufficient sense to sit comfortably within the story, critically breaking the atmosphere as your brain struggles to reconcile the lack of basic logic. This is a shame as some of the ideas the film explores are quite interesting (not the lifted from THE SHINING hard drinking, struggling author plot thread though) but just don’t feel sufficiently thought through to make the film work as a whole. Horror fans should get a kick out of most of it though, especially those freaky 8mm “home movies”.

beasts of the southern wildMajestic. That’s the word that springs to mind when I consider my PICK OF THE WEEK, the universally acclaimed BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD. I can’t help but be suspicious of films that are this hyped having been burned too many times in the past by high expectations that have been mercilessly dashed by average movies but in this instance the praise is well deserved. Six year old Hushpuppy lives with her father in The Bathtub – a community on the edge of the New Orleans bayou that seems to exist outside the straightlaced restrictions of normal society. Her life is turned upside down though when her father succumbs to a mystery illness and the water level rises, setting Hushpuppy on a journey of discovery and survival. It’s quite a difficult film to pin down, a whimsical almost fairy-tale like affair that’s cut through with drama and comedy and imagination. It hinges on the excellent performances, none more so than the stupendous turn from Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy. It’s mythical quality put me in mind of the equally brilliant Thai film UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES, a film it feels like it has a lot in common with, not least the way its relatively humble story is enhanced by folk tradition and wild imagination. Great stuff, that no doubt has set BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD up for some serious award season silverware.

DVD/Blu Ray New Release Round Up Monday 4th February 2013

03/02/2013

taken 2I think I’m just about the only person in the world who wasn’t particularly taken by the first TAKEN, the Luc Besson produced Liam Neeson vehicle that amounted to little more than a poor man’s MAN ON FIRE. It’s sold tons on DVD, has proved a massive hit with the viewing public and seems to have established Neeson as a bona fide action hero. TAKEN 2, therefore was something of an inevitability. This time around, the family of the Albanian people traffickers that former C.I.A. killer Bryan (Neeson) dispatched in the first film have come after him and his family for a spot of revenge. Cue lots of running about, calm cell phone conversations whilst under extreme duress and a bunch of violence as Bryan once again has to keep his family safe from evil non-Americans. This time the action seems to have been toned down somewhat (presumably to secure a more financially lucrative 15 certificate) which is a tragedy as the action sequences were one of the strengths of the first film. Here, they’ve been fast cut to within an inch of their lives, and returning helmsman Olivier Megaton disappoints by employing undercranked cameras to fake a sense of dynamism in the fight scenes. This would be less frustrating had they not proved themselves capable of more in the previous film. I have serious issues with the story too. As implausible as the original TAKEN was, this one makes less sense. The villains have been seriously under-written, especially the vengeful father of the people smugglers, in fact the whole film suffers from a general lack of a script. What little there is to pass as a story is just a flimsy framework upon which to hang the action set pieces. Had they been better, they might have pulled it off. Special mention must be made of Maggie Grace in her turn as Kim (Bryan’s daughter) who looks every one of her thirty years of age which wouldn’t be an issue if she wasn’t playing a nineteen year old. Never since Steve McQueen’s turn in THE BLOB has an actor been so creepily mis-cast as a teenager.

hotel transylvaniaSpeaking of older than they should be teens, HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA sees Dracula’s daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) desperate to explore the outside world on her one hundred and eighteenth birthday, much to her father’s horror. He built the titular guest house as a safe haven for all monsters where they could be protected from the rampaging mobs of humans determined to pitchfork and burning torch them into oblivion. Released hot on the heels of last week’s marvellous PARANORMAN, its timing couldn’t be worse as the film strains under the burden of comparisons to that vastly superior movie. The animation is pretty mediocre, the story dull and there are a couple of dreadful songs thrown in for good measure (the closing musical number is particularly cringeworthy) all of which drown out the occasional funny jokes. The realisation that this was directed by the normally excellent Genndy Tartakovsky (you may be familiar with his body of work which includes THE POWERPUFF GIRLS, SAMURAI JACK and STAR WARS: CLONE WARS) is an extra kick in the guts as his stuff is normally top notch. Even so, I think younger kids should get a kick out of it and there are a few jokes thrown into the mix for adults that are actually quite funny but it lacks a lot of the charm and grace (and sheer aesthetic beauty) that made PARANORMAN so enjoyable.

anna kareninaAesthetics and affectation triumph over story and character in Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Tolstoy’s ANNA KARENINA. Set in 19th century Russia it’s a period drama centred around a scandalous affair between Anna (Kiera Knightley) and the dashing and affluent Count Vronksy (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). I don’t really go in for period dramas much, and films like this are pretty much the reason why. Oh, I’m sure it’s a fascinating essay into the hypocrisies and idiosyncrasies of the Russian aristocracy (and on this evidence it’s little wonder the rest of Russian society rose against them) but really, for me, it was just a slow grind to nowhere. Sure, it’s aesthetically rather charming and the theatrical production design might even at times seem a bit clever, but for a film about tragically fated love it doesn’t seem to have much in the way of heart. All the parts seem to be in place – decent cast, decent writer, even director Joe Wright has got form for this sort of thing, but they don’t really form a cohesive whole. No doubt it will be Oscar fodder, it all feels very worthy and artistic, but ultimately it feels very hollow.

UntouchableThe same (thankfully) cannot be said for this week’s PICK OF THE WEEK. In THE INTOUCHABLES (a.k.a. UNTOUCHABLE in the U.K. for reasons that don’t seem clear), wealthy tetraplegic Philippe (Francois Cluzet) engages the services of the straight talking if a little bit rough and ready Driss (Omar Sy) to be his live in assistant. It’s one of those films that manages to be heart warming without being saccharine or patronising, Philippe and Driss’s ODD COUPLE style behaviour and ribald banter proving to be both funny and touching. It’s part comedy, part love story, part drama and it manages, like so many French films seem to do, to pull it all off with real class and style. It’s nice to see stories about people who can see through the bullshit of existence and get to the actual hearts of people, in this case real people with the film being based firmly on real life. As if all that wasn’t enough, it also has a bad ass funk and blues soundtrack that complements the film wonderfully. Check it out.

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