What We’ve Been Watching – Issue #2

Paths of Glory4.5/5

Stanley Kubrick’s intimate World War I film ranks amongst the best war films of all time. Dissimilar to most in the genre, this is less worried about epic battle scenes (although there is one continuous shot of soldiers advancing into battle which is mesmerizing) and more about personal relations of people and consequences of certain of their actions, even if the result of those actions is not necessarily their fault or intention.

Kirk Douglas, working with Kubrick three years prior to their legendary collaboration with Spartacus, is astonishing as a man who does everything he can to stop the execution of three soldiers who are unfairly prosecuted for retreating from battle. There is a clear sense that Kubrick and Douglas were on the same level when making this film, the camera, guided by Kubrick, just seems to work completely in tandem with Douglas. As much of a master that Kubrick was this is as much Douglas’ film as it is his, with the performance of him taking the centre stage just as much as Kubrick’s directing expertise does.

A group of people singing together is usually and supposed to be a happy thing. But the song at the conclusion of Paths of Glory just makes us feel all the more saddened by what has happened throughout the coarse of the film. Kubrick was indeed a master and Paths of Glory ranks amongst his best. – ROSS

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Movie Review: The Dark Knight

**Updated with SarahG’s review at bottom**

By Ross Miller

It must be at least 18 months since the hype machine was started up for The Dark Knight. It may not have appeared on the average movie goer’s radar until a couple of months before the movie was actually released but for people who spend half their life on the Internet this was followed meticulously from photograph to photograph, new trailer to new trailer, and it got to a point where it seemed no matter how good the movie was, it wouldn’t live up to the hype and expectations.

Well, I’m here to tell you, like so many others before me, that The Dark Knightlives up to all of that, delivering the quality that everyone wanted and a plethora of unexpected aspects thrown in for good measure. This is expansive yet meticulous filmmaking; an epic, all-enveloping crime tale hidden under the disguise of a comic book movie.

Carrying directly on from Batman Begins, The Dark Knight sees Batman and Lieutenant Gordon join forces with newly appointed DA Harvey Dent to take on a psychopathic criminal known as The Joker. Simultaneously they have to combat other forces, such as the mob, which are still persisting as the core problem within Gotham City, whilst The Joker’s crimes grow more and more deadly.

With Batman Begins, director Christopher Nolan took a pretty much dead franchise and breathed fresh life into it. He managed to make people forgive the movie making industry for the atrocity that was Batman & Robin and we were free to have faith in the character and all it has to offer once again. It was gritty, realistic, and showed the true, dark nature of the character with none of the colourful candy layered on top that some of the previous films had. However, Nolan and company have done what I didn’t think was possible — they have surpassed the quality set by the predecessor and made not only the best comic book movie ever made, but a film that transcends the genre and could more accurately be described as an epic, expansive crime story that just happens to have a comic book character in it.

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What We’ve Been Watching – Issue #1

Apocalypto – 4/5
Whatever you may think of Mel Gibson as a person – you have to admit as a filmmaker he really knows how to get into the nitty-gritty of things. Even though I very much dislike his ludicrously over-praised Braveheart, I still can admit there was an honest brutality in his portrayal of the events that happened. Same goes for The Passion of the Christ – the brash mentality of showing every suffering in full detail was a sight to behold, even if you don’t agree with it.
Apocalypto was always going to be a hard film to accomplish but Gibson does it very well. He continues his brutal mentality, showing everything from human sacrifice to a jaguar tearing at the face of someone and many other shocking events that I am unable to safely describe.
The film starts of fairly unexciting and pretty uneventful; to be honest for the first 25 minutes or so I really didn’t care for it. However as the runtime goes on and the momentum starts to builds I found myself extremely involved in the goings on. There is an extended chase sequence towards the end of the movie that lasts at least 15 minutes and is as heart-pounding and exciting as a chase sequence is likely to get. Gibson gets right in there, showcasing every little detail of the jungle as we watch this one man running literally for his life. It’s not always as frantic and fast-paced as this but for when it is it’s worth watching for that aspect alone. – Ross
My Blueberry Nights – 3/5
My second viewing of Wong Kar Wai’s first English language film proved to be worthwhile. Although it still wasn’t at the level I had heard from a few people, it still had improved from how bad I remember it being back when I saw it at the beginning of the year.
The performances are the best aspect of the film; Norah Jones, in her first ever film role, is very watchable and the camera obviously loves her face. Jude Law is the weak link here, seemingly only in there for the ladies and to put on an abysmal Manchester accent; he’s charming, I guess you’d say, in that Jude Law kind of way but he’s basically the same as he is in most of his roles. However it’s in the supporting performances where the film truly shines; David Strathairn can do no wrong in my book and knocks the bitter, drunken mess role right out of the park here, Rachel Weisz, although a little over-the-top, is confident and convincing and Natalie Portman puts in a fun performance in the last half hour. Unfortunately the film has little else to commend it for.
To me Wong Kar Wai’s dream like, poetic dialogue does not work in English but only in his native language. You just have to look at films like In the Mood for Love and 2046 to see how well his style works but when translating that into English it comes off as forced and downright cheesy. On top of that the movie seems to have no point and it isn’t apologetic about it. We end up effectively right back where we started with too little wowing elements along the way. However it’s worth at least a watch for the impressive performances. Oh and the cinematography ain’t bad, either. – Ross
Fargo – 4.5/5
Oddly I’m a complete newcomer when it comes to the cinema of Joel and Ethan Coen. This is only the third film of theirs that I’ve seen, the other two being Oh Brother Where Art Thou? and the brilliant No Country for Old Men, which I loved from last year. After watching this and my opinion on No Country, I really must search for other DVD’s by them because, what I’ve seen so far have a uniqueness about them, originality; which is key to any successful film.
Fargo is based around true events and set in 1987 in Minneapolis. Most of the characters are based around the actual people around those events but names have been changed. This immediately sets you thinking as a viewer about what exactly are you about to watch, This adds a touch of realism to the sequences that follow and you really start to believe each and every thing that happens. The characters in Fargo, feel like real people and not in any way manipulated by the writers to be something they’re not. You really feel that this sort of thing could happen to anyone at any given time. The main lead, played by the very underrated William H Macy, was doing something I’m sure any one of us could understand, given the recent economic problems in the US and the UK. You feel that what you are happening mirrors that of your own life in some respects….
Fargo has to be one of the great crime dramas I’ve seen. I must now watch more Coen Brothers films! – Sarah
Rebecca – 5/5
Having seen the majority of a least most of Hitchcock’s films I felt I had to check out Rebecca, which I should have seen many years ago. Rebecca is as great as everyone says it is and should be considered a UK film and not USA, but at the time Hitchcock went to Hollywood and was given American funding for most of his work in the late 1940s, so perhaps this was to be expected. Still an awful shame considering the majority of the cast are English, as was the director, locations and bits and pieces of the script contains dialogue that is associated with English people. But that’s a small annoyance that I have.
Rebecca was nominated for eleven Academy awards back in 1941, and won 2 of them. Three were for acting, which was well deserved. Laurence Olivier, with his English charm and gives out  an instant attraction to the viewer that immediately makes you sympathise with the character of Maxim De Winter and feel what Fontaine’s character feels for him throughout the film. Both leads Oliver and Fontaine are just breathtaking to watch. You feel this instant affiliation with them both and want their marriage to work, despite the problems encountered in the first part of the film. Fontaine, who’s work I haven’t seen an awful lot of, has this innocent youthfulness in her, which Maximum does mention, which instantly makes you feel for her and in some ways, relate to. Great supporting role by Judith Anderson as the sinister Mrs Danvers, obsessed by the previous Mrs De Winter, delivers a marvellous performance which leaves you feeling scared, just like Fontaine’s character.
Rebecca is an absolute masterpiece and is one of my favourite Hitchcock films. Now for The Lady Vanishes at some point in the future. – Sarah

Movie Review: Mamma Mia! (2008)

20 year old Sophie (Seyfried) is preparing to marry her boyfriend Sky (Cooper) at her mother’s hotel on an island in Greece. She seemingly has it all; a carefree life, loving boyfriend and happy friends but one thing has been missing all her life; a father.

I have to admit that when we decided to see Mama Mia!, my family and  I wasn’t sure what I would make of it at all. I know Abba songs like the back of my hand, never saw the musical but was sure I might dance a long at some stage. For sure I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did. Mama Mia! has a certain charm to it that you can’t ignore and I’m sure it will be one of the biggest hits of the summer.

The appeal of Mama Mia! is set in the songs and the brilliant cast. All the songs tell Sophie’s story well and you begin to like the characters a lot, but most likely Meryl Streep’s character Donna. Donna is unaware of her daughter’s actual father, any of the 3 leading men we see in the film; Colin Firth, Pierce Brosnan and Stellan Skarsgård. All three do sing in the film and at times it can be quite funny. I’m sure not everyone wants to see the last James Bond actor sing his heart out to SOS or Stellen Skarsgard sing Take a Chance on Me, but really folks forget all that and just enjoy a fabulous film. I know Brosnan took a year of singing lessons and doesn’t sound bad at all. Not so sure about the paring of Streep and Brosnan but that was only a minor flaw.

 

The set for Mama Mia!, that being in the Greek Islands looks lovely on screen and some great shots of the actual island on helicopter which really gives you that “summer feeling” and actually made me forgets seriously analysing this film, if you see what I mean. Naturally the choreography is brilliant, most notably with Dancing Queen which, If I had the chance, I would have danced near my seat. Meryl Streep can certainly dance around, as can Julie Walters even though they are both in their late 50’s.

Now for the acting. To be honest I think the acting fitted well to the story. I felt most of the actors played a more laid back approach, as indeed this is not a serious film and shouldn’t be taken as to be. Julie Walters was brilliant to watch and lights up every scene she’s in, including her hilarious rendition of “Take a Chance on Me.” Colin Firth doesn’t really do an awful lot but does sing, which wasn’t that bad. Stellen Skarsgard, as most of the cast aren’t that bad either.

The script is a plain and simple story but very funny  and very well done indeed. For sure a lot of it was directed at die hard Abba fans but I certainly enjoyed it a lot. What’s great is that the film is very funny and can divert your attention away from any pretentious bits that might annoy you, as not everything is going to break into song.

I can’t recommend this enough. If there’s one film that you should see it’s Mama Mia! Can’t tell you how much fun I had watching this.

Movie Review: WALL·E

It goes without saying that Pixar are the greatest animation studio in the world – fact, not opinion. And even though as narratives I find a few of them overrated, as far as pure animation quality goes they simply cannot be faulted. WALL·E is their latest and arguably greatest cinematic outing, a film of such visual wonder and flawless animation that one wonders whether or not the world shall see the very rare event of an animated film making an appearance in the Best Picture category come Oscars 2009.

Hundreds of years in the future mankind has abandoned earth due to the amount of rubbish that has accumulated, which has made it uninhabitable for humans, and robots are left to clean up the mess. As time as has gone on the only robot who has bothered to continue their work properly is WALL·E, or Waste Allocation Load Lifter · Earth Class. While obediently carrying out his instructions, one day another robot known as Eve is sent to earth to look for any life and WALL·E soon follows her back to the space colony where the remainder of mankind has been living ever since they left earth.

A risk that Pixar has taken with their latest offering is having no dialogue for at least the first 20 minutes of it. We follow WALL·E as he goes about his work, searching through the rubbish and keeping things he finds worth in. The only noise comes from the things that our little mechanical protagonist causes such as a fire extinguisher spraying or the rubbish crushing together, accompanied by his beeps and boops that substitute, for the most part, as some sort of voice. It’s in this section of the film that a lot of its charm is conjured from; there’s just something so endearing and cute about watching this little childish looking robot watching his favourite movie (Hello Dolly!,a strange and obscure choice by Pixar if you ask me) or even something as simple as trying to decide into which section of the drawer his sporks should go. I admire Pixar for being as brave as to make the film dialogue-free during its introduction and it certainly pays off.

However a plot is needed to carry the film further than this so in lands Eve, a slicker and certainly more advanced robot that WALL·E instantly is enamoured with. Forget the robot stuff for a second, this is somewhat a basic “guy trying to impress girl” story that provides some hilarious scenes, so we not only have these wonderful visuals and the charm factor but it’s also very, very funny. Multiple factors that work are key in a film like this.

I won’t go into specifics of how we go from earth to space but once we’re there the film takes on a whole other life. Some would say the charm we have gotten from the introductory section is somewhat lost once we get to this space colony and get in amongst the humans and I could say that’s a fair argument. However for me it added a much needed element to the film – interaction. Since all WALL·E and Eve say to each other is, well, WALL·E and Eve (in their own distinctive voices) I think the addition of some human interaction and dialogue takes the film to a more purely enjoyable level. You move from being simply in awe of the visuals and charmed by the title character to being enjoyably overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of this human space colony. 

The film does slightly get lost in itself with a quite unnecessary subplot involving the robots on board the ship but it’s not enough to weigh it down by a noticeable amount. Even when you feel the story might not fully have you in its grasp you can still fall back on the technical animation and just begin again to be awe inspired by what you see on screen.

The film has an obvious ecological message but it doesn’t allow that to get in the way of anything else. It simply acts as a catalyst for events, and if you choose to you can look at it from the eco-friendly side of things, but never really hits you over the head with it or points the finger. It also has some references to other space-oriented films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien, which should have a lot of the adults in the audience smiling from ear to ear. It’s another example of Pixar having aspects for both kids and adults to take in and appreciate without either of them feeling cheated or left out.

WALL·E works as many things: a flawless example of technical animation, a charming love story, a limitlessly enjoyable adventure film, and a more than decent sci-fi story, amongst many others. It represents arguably Pixar’s greatest achievement since they had the word “toy” in the title and is undoubtedly one of 2008’s best films so far.

(First published on BlogCritics and Movie World)

Movie Review: Lady in the Water

With things like The Sixth Sense and Unbreakableon his resume you have to hope that writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, when given basically a blank slate to create a movie, could come up with something inspiring and enthralling. Unfortunately the descriptions that apply to the mess that is Lady in the Water are more along the lines of “pretentious,” “ridiculous,” and even just “downright terrible.”

When apartment building superintendent Cleveland Heep rescues who he thinks is a tenant from the pool he soon finds out she’s a creature from an old bedtime story that is trying to make her way back to her home known as The Blue World (rolling your eyes yet?). Mr. Heep and the rest of the apartment tenants must band together to help her achieve her safe return back by fighting off another creature who is determined to keep her in our world.

Shyamalan’s problem that he is a better director than he is a writer is more evident here than in all of his work (including the recent The Happening). Although there is a certain admirability about the fact that he’s trying to do something unique, the problem is the result is still that damn bad, originality or no originality. It’s not even so bad that it becomes good in that sort of guilty pleasure kind of way; it’s just outright bad. And it’s a shame as there are aspects, such as the background story of the main character and just the overall mythology, that shine of potential had they been applied in a different way or perhaps in a different film altogether. I have no doubt the movie world would be far better off if Shyamalan had just immediately walked way from this one the minute he put the first word on paper.

Lady in the Water could readily be described as the opposing side of The Happening’s coin. They share the inconsistencies, the countless examples of misdirection, and lack of trademark Shyamalan elements, particularly the twist we have come to expect from him. But in the case of The Happening there is far more going on to get enjoyment out of, there are at least some intended moments of horror or mystery that somewhat work. But here it just misfires on almost every single note throughout the entire film; it comes off as laughable when it should be awe-inspiring (such as when we get told different descriptions of various different mystical creatures), it causes you to roll your eyes when you should be enthralled or amazed, and it makes you shake your ahead in disbelief of how the heck this movie was allowed to be filmed much less for people to pay to see it in on the big-screen (or on DVD for that matter).

I just cannot fathom how Shyamalan could have been writing this script and not see that it’s embarrassing and laughable. I would struggle to count the moments on four hands the amount of times I thought, “Did they actually just say those words?” Lines such as, “He’s hearing the voice of God through a crossword puzzle!” and “My mom told me more of the story before she threw a cushion at me,” that inspire unintentional snickering from the viewer. One starts to think whether or not the humour was intentional, however the rest of the film is so intent on playing out its ideas with such conviction that I think the laughs come very much unintentionally.

Aside from the pretentiousness of Shyamalan actually making this film and thinking anything he does will be pure gold (because, of course, he’s the guy who made The Sixth Sense, right?) there is one plot point that is all sorts of condescending and pretentious. He appears himself in the film in a small role (as he usually does) but, according to him, an important one. He deems it fit to put himself in his own movie as a writer who this “lady in the water” tells that in the future he will write a book that will effectively change mankind. He actually thinks making himself a sort of writer of “the new Bible”, as the film might as well call it, inspires admiration. Well it doesn’t; it comes off as indulgent and self-loving, an added element that doesn’t help when the rest of the movie is as bad as it is.

There is very little reason to even bother spending any amount of time on this film. Paul Giamatti is at least watchable (and when is he not?) and there is a book and film critic character that does invoke a few comedic moments but that’s about it really. It saddens me when a film has me struggling to think of elements that make it anywhere near worthwhile; I would love it if it was always the other way around.

One of Lady in the Water’s many, many core problems is the fact that it just assumes we’ll buy into this mythology that it’s created from the beginning onwards. The problem is it rushes into it within the first ten minutes, running with the mystical storyline but never allowing us any time to start believing in it ourselves. If it had done exactly that maybe we could forgive some of its ridiculous elements that we come across later on. However seeing that it’s more interested in doing exactly what it wants to do and less interested in engaging its audience the result is one dreadful motion picture.

(Originally posted at Blog Critics)