Dave and Rachel's movie reviews.

*THERE WILL ALWAYS BE SPOILERS*

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Scrooged

Year: 1988
Running time: 101 minutes
Certificate: PG
Language: English
Screenplay: Mitch Glazer, Michael O'Donoghue
Director: Richard Donner
Starring: Bill Murray, Karen Allen, John Forsythe, John Glover, Robert Mitchum, Alfre Woodard, Bobcat Goldthwait, David Johansen, Carol Kane

His terrible dandruff problem had ruined another outfit.
Bill Murray brings his own unique style of comic brilliance to Dickens' age-old story of changing your ways before it’s too late, A Christmas Carol. What results is a cracking film about Murray’s mean TV producer Frank Cross, who gets to relive his life and see how his future will turn out if he doesn’t start being nicer to people. There are more ‘classic’ versions of the story available, but for a comedy take this is up there with The Muppet Christmas Carol.

Murray's Cross is one of the most greed-driven highly-pressured misers ever dreamed up and he is a huge amount of fun to watch.  Setting a classic tale in a modern-day setting is not exactly an original idea, but it is rarely executed this well.  Written by Michael O'Donoghue, who, other than Scrooged, is mainly credited with work on live comedy show Saturday Night Live, and his insight into the inner workings of live television allow for some authenticity to be sprinkled through the movie, as Frank struggles to produce a live retelling of Dickens' novel.

To save his future, Frank Cross has to relive his past.
There are more great spins on things, the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present (David Johansen and Carol Kane) being prime examples, the former a loudmouth time-travelling cabbie, the latter a sweet little fairy with a penchant for violence.  The beating heart beneath the cynical comedy is the sweet relationship that develops between Cross and Karen Allen's Claire, and as with any version of A Christmas Carol, it is the palpable sense of helpless regret as Scrooge, or, in this case, Frank, is forced to watch past mistakes while unable to change them that strikes the biggest emotional chord.

As with any version of A Christmas Carol, you know the ending before it starts, and Murray, unfortunately, cannot quite pull off the complete and utter change of heart entirely convincingly - he's much more fun when he's trying to staple antlers onto mice.  Even so, it is still a lot of fun and worth re-watching every year.

Score: 7/10

Scrooged is well-liked out there, as you can see by having a look at these reviews by Gary and Phil.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Elf

Year: 2003
Running time: 97 minutes
Certificate: PG

Language: English
Screenplay: David Berenbaum
Director: Jon Favreau
Starring: Will Ferrell, James Caan, Zooey Deschanel, Bob Newhart, Ed Asner, Mary Steenburgen, Peter Dinklage


Every meal tastes better with sweets.
Most of people's favourite Christmas movies were made a number of years ago – when they were kids. These films, such as Scrooge, It's A Wonderful Life, the animated Snowman and the god-awful Santa Claus: The Movie, remain our favourites because of the nostalgia attached to them, and any Christmas film that comes along nowadays is (usually correctly) considered to be inferior. While it is unlikely to fully buck this trend in the general consciousness, Elf does feel more like one of our childhood favourites, despite being fairly recent.

Will Ferrell exudes a likable innocence as Buddy, the elf that is literally too big for his boots. When his size prevents him from fitting in any longer at the North Pole, his adoptive father Papa Elf (Bob Newhart) reluctantly confirms that Buddy is human. The scene is set for a trip to the real world, particularly New York, to find his human father (James Caan), who (shock horror) is on the naughty list. There follows a not entirely original tale of the outsider struggling to fit it while making some friends and changing some lives along the way. The lack of originality is more than made up for by the well executed and perfectly timed series of jokes and set pieces, as well as a cast on fine form. Ferrell handles the lead role well, and a character that could have been frustrating is a cheerfully manic delight. The support cast are equal to Ferrell's performance - Hollywood great James Caan is clearly having a whale of a time playing the grump who learns the true meaning of Christmas (registered trademark of Moviecheese Industries, Inc.), and Peter Dinklage steals a stand out scene as a hot shot writer furious with Buddy's wide-eyed innocence as he's mistaken for an elf.

Most of the time Elf is pretty good, but when the criminally under-used Zooey Deschanel is onscreen as Jovie, Buddy's cynical love interest, it comes alive. The decision to focus on the relationship between Buddy and his father at the expense of time spent with Jovie is a misstep which costs the film the chance to be a fully fledged Christmas classic. Deschanel makes the prospect of seeing anything more interesting, and along with Maggie Gyllenhaal and Nathan Fillion is a paid up member of the 27%er club.

Jovie: One sassy, cynical elf.
The climax is, as you might expect, a very happy ending; when Santa's sleigh crashes in Buddy's new neighbourhood, the man-elf saves the day along with Jovie, who leads a mass singalong to increase belief in Santa Claus to help power his sleigh. It is complete cheese, but what did you expect from a Christmas movie?

Elf may feel like one of our beloved children's classics because there are clear similarities with Big (surely a favourite of everyone’s inner child) – a fully grown adult steadfastly refusing to act his age, and in so doing proving that the joyful innocence of a child’s point of view may be the very thing the cynical adult soul needs – sickeningly sweet, but feel good all the same.

Score: 7/10

Critically, Elf seems to have done rather well, as evidenced by this positive review by Greg and it even pleasantly surprised Mr. "Your Movie Sucks" Ebert.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Terminator

Year: 1984 (Terminator), 1991 (T2), 2003 (Terminator 3), 2009 (Salvation)
Running time: 107 minutes (Terminator), 137 minutes (T2), 109 minutes (Terminator 3), 115 minutes (Salvation)
Certificate: 15 (Terminator), (T2), 12A (Terminator 3), (Salvation)
Language: English
Screenplay: James Cameron, Gale Anne Hurd (Terminator), James Cameron, William Wisher Jr. (T2), John Brancato, Michael Ferris (Terminator 3), (Salvation)
Director: James Cameron (Terminator), (T2), Jonathan Mostow (Terminator 3), McG (Salvation)
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn, Paul Winfield, Lance Henriksen, Earl Boen, Dick Miller, Bill Paxton, Edward Furlong, Robert Patrick, Joe Morton, Nick Stahl, Claire Danes, Kristanna Loken, Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Moon Bloodgood, Helena Bonham Carter, Anton Yelchin, Bryce Dallas Howard

"Absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead."
It’s a tough decision choosing a favourite between James Cameron’s early high water marks. I still switch between Aliens and Terminator & T2 depending on mood. It’s possible the Terminator films win out as unlike Aliens, which is a sequel set in an already somewhat established universe, they were conceived and developed by Cameron from the early stages of their inception. In a future war between killer machines and a remnant of the human race, John Connor is the human who is key to mankind's eventual victory. In an attempt to put an end to Connor, Skynet (the name of the sentient neural net-based artificial intelligence system running the machines) sends a terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) back through time to kill Connor's mother Sarah (Linda Hamilton) before she can give birth to him.  The human resistance succeeds in sending a protector for Sarah in Kyle Reece (Michael Biehn).

The plot of The Terminator is complex yet simple; all of the time-travelling brain-bending shenanigans are stripped down to a simple race between the machine and the human. The cast are convincing enough, with surprisingly the big man himself coming out on top – possibly something to do with playing a character that’s completely unemotional, therefore not being required to emote. Having said that, Biehn has the best line, Reece's monologue ending with “...will not stop, ever, until you are dead” trumping “I’ll be back” and sending a genuine shiver down your spine, as both the viewer and Connor are confronted with the magnitude of her situation and the true nature of her hunter. Unfortunately Cameron favourite Bill Paxton takes an early bath in this one, and every film is poorer for losing Bill Paxton.

Cameron has a much lower budget to work with than he would become used to, but makes every cent count ensuring the film looks great, although it is getting on a bit now so the effects aren’t quite as dazzling. Having said that, seeing Arnie cutting himself up to perform maintenance on his arm and eye was an astonishing thing to see and even now has a certain charm. The same cannot be said for Connor's dreadful 80s hair.
Sarah Connor: on a mission to terminate Miles Dyson.

Every beat is masterfully filmed, from the murder of Sarah's friends and the tense nightclub shootout filled with great uses of slow motion, to the iconic slaughter set in a police station, with the big man blowing cops apart left, right and centre while cutting an image that burned itself indelibly into cinema history. Although with Cameron, remarkably-filmed action is pretty much a given. Considering that this climaxes with a truck chase and the killing machine chasing our heroine through a hydraulic press despite already being blown apart, it’s truly saying something that next to the sequel the first film feels a little low key.

T2: Judgement Day pushed the boundaries of filming action beyond any previously imagined limits. Even by today’s standards, it is utterly breathless, and as mental as Connor has become. After failing in the Sarah Connor assassination attempt, Skynet tries again, sending a new and improved T-1000 terminator (Robert Patrick) to take out a teenage John Connor (Edward Furlong). It has a lighter tone, evidenced by Arnie’s comedic arrival, but the dramatic beats are still hard hitting; Sarah’s molestation at the hands of a perverted orderly and the vision of a playground full of children exposed to a nuclear blast among the most stay-with-you disturbing. It is packed full of fabulously choreographed insanity – pick almost any scene – Sarah coming face to face with a terminator again takes your breath away, the ridiculous truck chase with a motorcycle-riding Arnie reloading his shotgun one handed, the attempted assassination of Miles Dyson (Joe Morton), the fact that the T-1000 is liquid frickin’ metal, the helicopter chase, the explosion at Cyberdyne Systems seemingly big enough to blow up the world, it just keeps coming. As before, the cast are fine, but the standout here is Linda Hamilton; militant, hard as nails, and batshit insane. She is a one-woman force of nature, with the potential to be as iconic as Ripley ever was. The terminator being tamed by the young John Connor worked okay mostly, but the ending goes too far – “I know now why you cry, but it is something I can never do” and the thumbs up are cringe-worthy, but considering the sheer tour de force that has preceded it, you find yourself easily forgiving Cameron.
The most impressive new feature of the T-X: doing stunts
in those heels.
Like all great and successful movie franchises, they always make too many. Terminator 3 is unnecessary, underwhelming and a bit of a shame. The ‘sending a killer and a protector back through time’ is a plot device stretched too thin, and the action, while fine taken on its own merits (the truck chase (hey, a theme!) being a stand out), is limp beside the phenomenal T2. John Connor is in his 20s (Nick Stahl) and has to stop judgement day being triggered by another new terminator. Kristanna Loken as the T-X, able to control other machines is nowhere near as effective as Schwarzenegger's original killer or Patrick's T-1000, and you'll always watch it wondering why you’re not watching one of the first two. Still, it does score points for the surprisingly downbeat ending – I’m pretty sure this was the first time a big summer action tent-pole blockbuster ended with the nuclear annihilation of the world - a bold and brave move. It’s just a shame the movie that comes before is a bit, well, dull.

John Connor doesn't have much to smile about.
And years later, like a once-heavyweight champion coming back for one more shot at the title, the series is back with Terminator Salvation. Written by the same guys who penned Terminator 3 and directed by the man who made the Charlie's Angels films (so you know straight away you're in for a treat). The nightmarish visions that formed some of the most memorable parts of the first two films become the setting for the fourth. Mankind is on the brink, barely held together by an ineffective resistance. Christian Bale (stay out of his eye-line) is now John Connor, a soldier of the resistance, using his mother’s recordings to help fight back any way he can. Sam Worthington is Marcus Wright, a man without a memory, at least not after the point he remembers being executed, struggling to make sense of anything. A young Kyle Reece (Anton Yelchin) is struggling to survive, listening in awe to Connor’s radio broadcasts. Following that set up the plot is very predictable - the three of them go through some action beats before the mystery of Marcus is revealed (can you guess?  Yawn.) and they come together to rescue a now captured Reece and give those evil machines what for.

It’s not quite as bad as all that – some of the set pieces are remarkable (the in-cockpit helicopter crash, the gas station blown up by the massive building-sized terminator), and the new machines are a nice touch, but it just doesn’t come close to the first two, and I doubt it’s anything like Cameron would have come up with had he decided to make more. He didn’t, and to be honest, they shouldn’t have either.

Score:
The Terminator: 9/10
Terminator 2: Judgement Day: 9/10
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines: 5/10
Terminator Salvation: 5/10

As you might expect, the first two films are treasured in most reviews, such as this review of The Terminator written by Bill and this one of T2, by John. Parts three and four get a rather more mixed reaction - Brandon in my opinion rather over-rates the third film and Peter at The Guardian is perhaps a little harsh on Salvation.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Golden Compass

Year: 2007
Running time: 113 minutes
Certificate: PG
Language: English
Screenplay: Chris Weitz
Director: Chris Weitz
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Dakota Blue Richards, Eva Green, Sam Elliott, Ian McKellen (voice), Ben Walker, Freddie Highmore (voice)

Lrya searches for truth.
High on the success of The Lord of the Rings, and bolstered by the fact that Harry Potter was fast becoming the biggest grossing movie series in history, New Line thought they were onto another fantasy adaptation winner by developing Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. The most obvious sign that they slipped up big time is the fact that New Line has stopped any and all work on the sequels, both of which were green-lit before the first part had been released. This is not, as many on the Christian right would have it, because the film is a "war on Christmas" (Bill O'Reilly, as over the top and ridiculous as ever), it is because it made $85 million from a budget of about $180 million. O'Reilly seems to have neglected to notice the film has been all but stripped of any anti-religious message. After watching it for half an hour or so, you’ll be able to see why it fared so badly; it is dreadful. Dreadful. Where Potter and Rings have forged their own movie legacy, while being respectful of and retaining the essence of their source material, this simply tries to make a buck off the back of a trend.

Set in an alternative retro-futurist (if that's possible) British city where people have their souls on the outside in the form of deamons (although that is simplifying the concept horribly; deamons are more a reflection of the soul and in children represent the potential for sin), and everyone lives under the influence of the Magisterium, a religious organisation that was conceived by Pullman as an oppressive alternative Catholic Church, but here it is re-imagined more as a 1984-style Government.  Children begin to disappear and when her best friend Roger (Ben Walker) goes missing Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) decides to try to find him and save him.  On her journey she meets gypsies, a talking and brawling polar bear king-in-exile (an impressive CG creation voiced by Ian McKellen), witches (led by Eva Green's Serafina Pekkala) and a balloon-riding adventurer named Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott).

Mrs. Coulter: beautiful, sophisticated, evil.
To help her in her quest she has an Alethiometer, the Golden Compass of the title (although I much prefer the UK title Northern Lights), capable of revealing the truth, a precious commodity where a number of the people Lyra meets have secret agendas.  The villain of the piece is Magisterium-backed Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman, who has never looked so incredible and is delightfully evil and the best thing in the film by miles), who is behind the kidnappings and heads up horrific experiments involving forcibly separating children from their deamons.

Daniel Craig plays Lord Asriel, a man on a mission to wage multi-dimensional war on the Magisterium and, in the novels, bring down god himself (beautifully imagined by Pullman as a senile useless shell, propped up entirely by the might of the powerful Magisterium).  The lengths to which Lord Asriel is prepared to go to fight ensures, however, that he is no friend of Lyra's.

So what went wrong? It looks gorgeous, both in terms of scenery and characters, and the bear fight is highly impressive (although oddly bloodless, particularly when one of the fighters gets his entire lower jaw ripped off - the price you pay for a PG rating, I guess), but this is not nearly enough to succeed. It feels, for want of a better word, soulless, with the lush visuals failing to cover up a script that has no understanding of the themes of the novel, and turns events and layers and complexities into simple meetings and dull conversations, which in turn, are nothing more than excuses to get to the next meeting and conversation, pointing Lyra in the right direction. No character has a point beyond a brief conversation with Lyra. You can understand why much of the anti-religious undercurrent was removed, but it leaves some elements of the story not making sense - if the deamons don't represent the potential for sin, why is the church (Magisterium) separating them from their children, leaving the kids well-behaved lifeless husks (or dead or dying)? You can't make a story about destroying an outdated corrupt religion marketable to a country in which most people are believers in that very same religion. Everything is lost in translation.
One of countless alternate versions of one city.
It’s not like they didn’t have talent. Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Ian McKellen, Sam Elliot and Eva Green are all outstanding actors. In the lead role, newcomer Dakota Blue Richards does well; her Lyra strikes you as smart, confident and capable, but still naive and innocent, just like Pullman's heroine should be. And it isn’t like they didn’t have the material to work with. The trilogy of books is intelligent, frightening, beautiful, heartbreaking and utterly, utterly fantastic. What it needed was a director and script that understood that and didn’t just want to make eye candy to generate revenue.

A crushing disappointment.

Score: 2/10

Owen at Entertainment Weekly thought much the same but critic royalty Roger Ebert is, on this occasion, wronger than a wrong thing.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Bobby

Year: 2006
Running time: 120 minutes
Certificate: 15
Language: English
Screenplay: Emilio Estevez
Director: Emilio Estevez
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Harry Belafonte, Nick Cannon, Emilio Estevez, Demi Moore, Laurence Fishburne, Freddy Rodriguez, Christian Slater, Heather Graham, Sharon Stone, William H. Macy, Helen Hunt, Martin Sheen, Joshua Jackson, Ashton Kutcher, Shia LaBeouf, Lindsay Lohan, Elijah Wood


Marry your gorgeous friend or go to Vietnam?
Emilio Estevez is not the first person that comes to mind as the ideal choice for director of a thoughtful ensemble drama with ambitions of being Altmanesque about the lives of a group of people who were witness to the assassination of presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy in 1968, but this was his passion project right from the get-go, and it was Estevez who convinced the huge array of megastars to lend their names to the project.

There is a large number of glimpses into the lives of a collection of characters at the Ambassador Hotel on the night which sees the arrival of Kennedy's entourage, and for the most part, the potentially bewildering flitting between them is handled well, allowing the viewer to keep track.  Hotel manager Paul (William H. Macy) is cheating on his hairdresser wife Miriam (Sharon Stone) with switchboard operator Angela (Heather Graham).  Chef Edward (Laurence Fishburne) is preaching his Kennedy-inspired philosophy to kitchen worker Jose (Freddy Rodriguez), while Daryl (Christian Slater) is being fired from the same kitchen for his poor treatment of the Mexican workers.  Virginia (Demi Moore) is an alcoholic singer due to perform at the hotel who is barely being held together by her long-suffering husband Tim (Estevez).  Diane (Lindsay Lohan) is marrying her friend William (Elijah Wood) so he can avoid going to fight in Vietnam.  Doorman John (Anthony Hopkins) is reflecting on getting old and recalling his memories of the hotel with Nelson (Harry Belafonte).  All these threads and more play out to give the film a feel of busy complexity, but Estevez does a good job of juggling each of them, although, with the inevitable time constraints, some plot threads are more effective than others.

Paul and Miriam get some perspective.
Estevez clearly holds his subject matter in high honour, and it seems a little biased, painting Kennedy as the saviour of America, when it was likely there were other sides to him not explored in the movie, but then, this never pretended to be a documentary. The film is also impressively shot, revealing another surprising side of Estevez.

The cast on the whole are as good as you’d expect them to be, with Nick Cannon (surprisingly), Demi Moore and Laurence Fishburne providing the stand out turns, while Anthony Hopkins and Elijah Wood underwhelm a little, never really causing the viewer to feel an emotional attachment.  In fairness, this is more likely due to the brevity of their character arcs than the quality of their acting.

All the different threads are eventually united in shock and grief at Kennedy's murder in a climax that is handled very well, and, while perhaps being a little too American in its cheesy overbearing sentimentality, is nevertheless emotionally effecting.

Not a classic, but highly engaging and very well made.


Score: 7/10

Angie at Empire is in broad agreement, but Kevin at the L.A. Times was less impressed.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

1408

Year: 2007
Running time: 104 minutes
Certificate: 15
Language: English
Screenplay: Matt Greenberg, Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski
Director: Mikael Håfström
Starring: John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Mary McCormack

Mike Enslin, losing his shit.
Okay, I’ll not deny that the premise of this, an evil hotel room (you read that right, an evil hotel room), sounds a little silly. In Stephen King’s hands, however, it probably becomes something altogether different. I wouldn’t know, because I don’t read much horror, because, well, it scares me. Yeah, I know. I’m a wuss.

Mike Enslin makes a living visiting and reviewing haunted inns and hotels, none of which particularly impress him.  Until he pays a visit to room 1408 of the Dolphin Hotel and comes face to, erm, wall with genuine supernatural evil.  That's pretty much it for plot and the film then spends the remaining running time trying to scare the pants off both Enslin and the viewer.

There is much in this adaptation of King’s short story that is genuinely unsettling, such as the ghostly conveyor belt of past victims all plunging to their deaths to escape the room.  There is a major jump where Enslin attempts to signal to someone across the street, which turns into a reflection of the room itself.  It really is damn creepy.
 
Face to face with a devastating memory.
There is an upsetting back story involving a terminally ill child, which sets up a climax that is at once both devastating and heartbreaking, and as a father to a young daughter is a nightmare for me like no other.

John Cusack is as likeable as ever, and when, after the room offers him the only possible way out – out the window, ker-splat – Enslin simply replies "not your way" and proceeds to firebomb the room, you feel like giving the guy a standing ovation. The fact that it changes nothing and ultimately his soul is trapped in the room forever really sucks, but is refreshing in that it doesn't pander to the usual audience desire for neatly happy endings.

Score: 7/10

1408 would appear to be fairly well thought of, as shown in these reviews by Rebecca and Matt.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Matrix

Year: 1999 (Matrix), 2003 (Matrix Reloaded), (Matrix Revolutions)
Running time: 136 minutes (Matrix), 138 minutes (Matrix Reloaded), 129 minutes (Matrix Revolutions)
Certificate: 15
Language: English
Screenplay: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Directors: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Joe Pantoliano, Marcus Chong, Julian Arahanga, Matt Doran, Belinda McClory, Anthony Ray Parker, Gloria Foster, Lambert Wilson, Monica Bellucci, Helmut Bakaitis, Ian Bliss, Collin Chou, Randall Duk Kim, Jada Pinkett Smith, Nathaniel Lees, Harry Lennix, Harold Perrineau, Clayton Watson, Anthony Zerbe, Adrian Rayment, Neil Rayment, Mary Alice, Bruce Spence

Neo and Agent Smith go head to head.
The Matrix was a film that literally came out of nowhere in 1999.  Everyone was anticipating the first of the Star Wars prequels, and a month or two before The Phantom Menace landed, this film came out and blew everybody’s socks off.  More than ten years later, and everything from the concept, through the ground-breaking effects and cinematography, to the sound and music is still astonishing.

Keanu Reeves is Thomas Anderson, an entirely normal person, if a little empty.  Mr. Anderson is not empty simply because he is being played by Reeves, who is not known for his emoting (although I've never found him to be as dreadful as many others seem to), but because he has an alter-ego in the virtual world, where he goes by the name of Neo.  Neo has a feeling that something isn't quite right with the world, a feeling many people in our own real world share.  Neo is searching the online world for an answer, an answer which finds him and blows his mind, as well as ours.
Agents in green.

Neo's world, it turns out, isn't real.  Sometime in the past,  humanity has lost a war against machines, machines that now control us completely, using us as a source of power while placing us in a virtual reality to blind us to the desolate truth.  Neo is 'rescued' from this charade by Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), a kind of Yoda of the human resistance and made a member of his crew.  Morpheus informs Neo that he believes him to be the savior of humanity and trains him to be a digital superhero.  Neo must learn to defeat Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), an unstoppable man in black out to stamp out the humans wherever they hack into the Matrix.  Smith is one of the best things about the film, with Weaving's delivery of a speech which, possibly quite correctly, equates humans to a cancer infecting the planet, genuinely unsettling. 

The action set-pieces are amazing, culminating in both the shoot-out in the lobby set to the Propellerheads and the all-out punch-up in the underground train station, which has a bit of a spaghetti western feeling about it.  It is, however, the designing and creating of an entirely new effect, called ‘bullet-time’ that really raised the bar for visual effects.  Nowadays, the effect has been copied poorly by so many other things, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Deuce Bigalow and Shrek , that some of the shine has worn off, but the first time I saw the camera swoop around and underneath Neo as the bullets fly past in slow motion I, like everyone else in the cinema, was gobsmacked.
Bullet-time: gobsmacking.
The blending of a futuristic kung-fu movie with a deeply cerebral philosophical idea for the premise is something that makes The Matrix unique among its contemporaries.  There are a number of people I know who cannot stand the film because they are unable to grasp the ideas regarding the potentially unstable nature of reality which every individual may well perceive differently.  It can, however, still be enjoyed on a simpler level – a cracking action movie.

Then, of course, there are the sequels.  Anticipation for The Matrix Reloaded was at a fever pitch, which meant it would inevitably disappoint.  On my first watching, I must admit I fell for it and loved it utterly, declaring it to be better than the original.  Time and common sense has since caused me to re-evaluate that opinion.

The one.  Or one of them, at least.
 Neo is under pressure to get to grips with his new powers to enable him to save humanity from a machine horde advancing on the real world human stronghold of Zion.  Agent Smith is now a rogue virus replicating himself and infecting the Matrix.

All the ingredients are in the right place; the vamped-up special effects (the whole middle section, from the mega-brawl in which Neo takes on hundreds of Agent Smiths, through the fight against the Merovingian's (Lambert Wilson) henchman, to the phenomenal highway chase is action-movie heaven), the expanding of the universe, and the same blend of action and philosophy (although the philosophy is not half as profound as in the first film with the Merovingian prattling on about cause and effect while giving some woman an orgasm with a cake).  The fact that the finale is an extremely technical and complicated conversation with an old man doesn't really help matters, but even here, you need to respect the Wachowskis and their ballsy decision to go in this direction with their multi million dollar sequel, which although against all logical rules of big-budget film making, kind of fits, and the revelation that Neo is by no means the first 'one' is a cool twist.  The Wachowski Brothers (in truth a brother and sister team, 'Larry' Wachowski actually being Lana, at least according to IMDb) had told us that this was the story they had always wanted to tell, and that the first movie was just an origin story to help us understand what was going on, meaning this was no shameless cash-in.  Also, the idea of the rogue programs hiding out within the Matrix like outlaws, refusing to report for deletion, was a smart one.  The reason it crashed and burned is down to the difference between allegory and applicability, as J.R.R. Tolkien would well know.  Allow me to explain.
Trinity, blowing shit up.
In the introduction to The Fellowship of the Ring in recently published versions, there is a piece written by Tolkien denying that the War of the Ring in his epic story was about World War 2.  It is an obvious comparison to make; it was written at about the same time.  However, Tolkien argued that writing a story allegorically, so that it was actually about a specific thing, meant that it would soon be irrelevant.  Writing a story that is applicable, like The Lord of the Rings, means it will forever be in our hearts and minds.  Basically, everyone can relate to Frodo and his quest, because everyone has, at some time in their life felt like the young hobbit.  Obviously, this doesn’t mean we’ve taken a cursed ring to a volcano.  What it means is that we have all been daunted by something that we need to overcome.  We’ve all lost hope at some point, because whatever we are trying to do, wherever we are trying to get to is just so far away as to be impossible, but all we can do is continue, one step at a time.  Ask my wife about her 57-hour labour, and you might get some idea.  We are able to apply the way Frodo feels to our own experiences, and therefore, his quest has a meaning that is personal to all of us.  This, above all other things, is why The Lord of the Rings is so loved.

Neo and Agent Smith go head to head, again.
Now apply that theory to The Matrix trilogy.  Neo is a regular person, like anyone.  We have all experienced what Neo feels in The Matrix.  Again, not literally – the world isn’t a virtual version of itself run by machines (at least, I don’t think so, but really, how would we know if it was?) – but we have all had our perception of the world turned upside-down, forcing us to re-evaluate everything we thought was truth – in storytelling they call it paradigm shift.  When it happens in reality it is on a small scale, not like it happens to Neo, but some kind of awakening that makes us view the world in a new light; maybe having your first baby, or falling in love for the first time.  We can relate to Neo when he is struggling to adjust, to rewire his thinking, we can apply our own experiences to him and know how he feels.  Just like Frodo, Neo’s experience takes on a personal meaning to us.  When we come back for the sequel, we are unable to relate to Neo anymore.  We don’t know what it’s like to feel the pressure of being the saviour of the world, or to have super powers.  Neo has evolved beyond us and there is nothing in our own lives that we can apply to make Neo’s journey mean anything to us.  Yes, it is still cerebral and philosophical, yes, there are still amazing effects and lots of action, but without the deeper relatable undertone it will not feel the same to us.
Swarming sentinels.

So, taking The Matrix Reloaded on face value, forgetting about how the original made us feel, it’s really a pretty good kung-fu sci-fi movie, with added philosophical musings on the nature of the universe, humanity and love.  And action set-pieces that are among the most impressive ever put on film.  

The Matrix Revolutions, however, while not utterly dreadful, is certainly the most mediocre of the three.  Acting was never the strong point in these films, but the performances in the final part are downright diabolical.  Neo and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) never did have much chemistry, but by the third film the lack of spark between the two ‘lovers’ is embarrassing.  Maybe no-one can understand the philosophy-heavy dialogue anymore, so they don’t know how to deliver their lines convincingly.

The good news is the effects are as astonishing as ever, and the scenes of the sentinels swarming throughout Zion are jaw-dropping.  The final showdown between Neo and Agent Smith is huge and Jesus (sorry, I mean Neo) is finally able to save his species by sacrificing himself to take out Smith, who is just as much a threat to the machines as he is to the humans.

Try to remember The Matrix as something really special, and try not to let the sequels, particularly the third movie, ruin that memory.

Score:

The Matrix: 9/10
The Matrix Reloaded: 6/10
The Matrix Revolutions: 5/10

There is a lot of mixed opinion about these films out there, for example Bob couldn't stand The Matrix, while Empire are more on my wavelength.  The Matrix Reloaded is actually better thought of than I expected, as illustrated by both Rodney's and Empire's reviews.  While the final part generally does less well, evidenced by Rodney again, it still has its fans.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Fargo

Year: 1996
Running time: 98 minutes
Certificate: 18
Language: English
Screenplay: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare


The Coen brothers are well known for their clouding of the truth (just look at the interviews they gave for A Serious Man, in particular the questions regarding it being somewhat autobiographical), so the fact that Fargo opens with ‘A true story’ should be taken with a truckload of salt. It almost certainly isn’t true. What it is, however, is fabulous, a trait shared with many Coen films.

Jerry Lundergaard (William H. Macy) is a below-average car salesman who, desperate for cash, arranges for the kidnap of his wife Jean (Kristin Rudrud) in order to score some ransom money from her father Wade (Harve Presnell), a belligerent and successful businessman.  The two men Lundergaard hires are Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) and they are anything but competent and things begin to spiral badly out of control almost from the beginning.  Showalter and Grimsrud are not at all alike - one talks too much, the other hardly says anything, and it is clear from the outset their plan is doomed to failure.  Grimsrud commits a shocking and grisly murder on the road at night, scaring his partner in crime, leaving the bodies for the police to find the next morning.

It's then we meet the star of the show, heavily pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand).  She has such a sunny disposition despite the biting cold and ghastly murder trails she cleverly follows all the way back to Lundergaard, that you can't fail to love her.  The accents are distinctive but don't get annoying, being just another Coen peculiarity that adds to the appeal, like the bizarre character names.

It’s a joy to watch the great cast in every blackly comic scene, and everyone delivers – William H. Macy excels as usual as the bumbling Lundergaard, and also Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare as the nervous, angry Showalter and the quietly psychotic Grimsrud, but the standout is definitely the wonderful Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson.

As the plan unravels, things go from bad to worse as the desperate Showalter leaves a trail of bodies and buries his share of the money under the snow, before realising the landscape is so unchanging he's likely never to find it again. The Coens do enjoy killing off Buscemi's characters whenever he turns up in one of their films, and Showalter's end in Fargo is perhaps his most memorable Coens death yet.

It is also filmed exquisitely.  The bleak all-white scenery is striking, often leaving the screen bereft of detail – an effect which is strangely beautiful and illuminates how alone and removed from everyday reality these characters are.

Near perfect.

Score: 9/10

Most people, including Ebert and Christopher seem to agree regarding Fargo's brilliance.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Casshern

Year: 2004
Running time: 142 minutes
Certificate: 15
Language: Japanese
Screenplay: Kazuaki Kiriya, Dai Sato, Shotaro Suga
Director: Kazuaki Kiriya
Starring: Yusuke Iseya, Kumiko Aso, Akira Terao, Kanako Hiquichi, Hiroyuki Miyasako, Mayumi Sada, Jun Kaname

I’ve been struggling to think what to say about Casshern for some time. I have been trying to decide whether I like it or not, or more precisely, whether I understand it or not. My first thought was simply to have ‘Eh?’ as the entire review, but on reflection, there is more to say.

First off, unless I’m incredibly stupid there is one very simple message behind Casshern and all of its complexities, and that is that war is bad. Really bad. Not good. At all. Many stories make a similar point, but I guarantee you that no film has made the point in quite this way before. Adapted from a 1973 anime, the set up is truly great, if complex. I'll try to cover the basics. The world of the future is simply an endless war between two superpowers, and even when that war is technically over, the victor is struggling to suppress pockets of resistance and, more urgently, the human race has been brought to the brink of self-annihilation, and is unable to repopulate the planet. Cue scientist Dr. Kotaro Azuma (Akira Terao), who is developing a way to rebuild humanity using techniques involving rejuvenating the body parts of the dead that are rather dodgy, ethically speaking. An unexplained and inexplicable bolt of lightning (which seems to become a solid structure) causes life to emerge from the raw material in the lab (whole humanoids, not just parts, somehow), life which is promptly destroyed by the military, apart from Akubon (Hiroyuki Miyasako), Sagure (Mayumi Sada) and Barashin (Jun Kaname), who manage to escape. Dr. Azuma then brings back his son Tetsuya (Yusuke Iseya), killed in the aforementioned war, who makes use of a newly designed super-suit to become the superhuman Casshern to fight for humankind against the robot army randomly discovered by Akubon and co. But remember, war is bad. So there is less distinction than you might think between which side is supposed to be good, and which is bad. Because war is bad, which means each side is as bad as the other, and the true heroes are the ones that finally realise this and are able to stop the killing and forgive the wrong that was done to them. Of course, they usually have to die for this to happen. The story is actually far more complex than that, but I don’t want to spoil the fun of working out for yourself exactly what the hell is going on.

The place where Casshern falls down the most, I feel, is in the one on one fight scenes, where the two opponents try to out-pose each other first while some awful techno-rock is playing, then when the fights start they have that Pokémon / Beyblade look, and when Casshern is running up buildings and the like, he looks rather like Sonic the Hedgehog, only not blue. Obviously, the filmmakers didn’t have the hugest budget, but I think that these moments are a little over-stylised – to the point of being cartoony, and not in the cool Manga way I think they were going for.
However, it's not all negative. The moral, although being a tad simplistic (ironic considering the ridiculously random complexity), is an honourable one, and the consequences of humankind’s insistence on forever being at war with itself are appropriately tragic. The price that all of the characters pay for their deeds is truly devastating. But the thing about Casshern that will undoubtedly bring me back to watch again is that it is one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen. Excepting the fight scenes mentioned earlier, every frame, every background, every moment has an astonishing mix of colour, style and CG wizardry. In particular, there is a scene in which Tetsuya and his love interest Luna (Kumiko Aso) converse where different visual styles are used to portray each character's viewpoint which is spellbindingly gorgeous to look at.

So, on reflection, I think I did like it after all.

Score: 7/10

Further reading:

This guy liked it more than me, and Gabriel thought much the same as I did.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Sunshine

Year: 2007
Running time: 107 minutes
Certificate: 15
Language: English
Screenplay: Alex Garland
Director: Danny Boyle
Starring: Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh, Rose Byrne, Troy Garity, Hiroyuki Sanada, Benedict Wong, Mark Strong

Sunshine is a great idea for a film.  Set in the future (although only 2057, which has the effect of making it recognisably still our world (so to speak) but so inconceivable as to be impossible to completely suspend disbelief), it centres around a mission to save our dying sun.  Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy) is plagued by disturbing and disjointed visions, so it's no stretch to guess that it soon turns into a Shining / Alien / Event Horizon cross-over, as our intrepid crew face starvation, sabotage and a growing insanity as they glide ever closer to our star.  Things get worse when they come into contact with the ship from the previous failed attempt and meet crazy ex-captain Pinbacker (Mark Strong) who has made the same mistake the ancient Inca civilisation did and turned the sun into a god and is now intent on killing everyone.  Unfortunately, it’s neither as good as its central idea nor any of the films it is influenced by, which is a shame, as Danny Boyle is certainly a director that is usually reliable and should be able to pull it off.  Like Kubrick, he seems to be on a mission to make a classic film in every genre.  Unfortunately, he'll have to take another stab at sci-fi some other time.

One of the reasons it falls short may be budgetary, as although most of the effects are very impressive, particularly for a measly $40 million, there are some moments where it just looks and feels a bit, for want of a better word, cheap.  As the story comes to its climax, it becomes increasingly hard to follow what’s going on.  I’m not one that usually has to have it spelled out for me, but the last 15 minutes are just a collection of images that are incoherent.  Maybe the idea is that your own mind is supposed to be flying apart, like the characters', but I just lost interest.

Nowhere near as good as it could, or should have been.

Score: 5/10

Further reading:

Ebert rather liked it, but Bill had similar problems to me.