Friday, 28 May 2010

Spartans! Ready your breakfast and eat hearty… for tonight we dine in hell!

No 337 – 300
Director – Zack Snyder

Throughout this film, the Spartans give out a fascinatingly shit war cry. “Hoo Hah” they repeat. Over and over again. I like to think that when the powers that be sat down to plan 300 they just did the same… repeating “Hoo Hah” over again – Hell, it even works as a film synopsis.

Unlike Transformers (I know I keep referring back to it) which cluttered all its stupid action with masses of exposition, 300 knows that it is nothing but stupid action and doesn’t seek to apologise or disguise the fact. After about 15 minutes they give up on even giving us a plot. We sit there, watching a short set up, explaining the culture and ways of Sparta and explaining the progress of Xerxe’s army.

Then Gerard Butler kicks a messenger down the well and screams.

There is a lot of screaming.

At this point, the film makers decide that they’ve had quite enough plot thank you very much and the film becomes nothing more than a non-interactive video game. A massively outnumbered hero battling wave after wave of enemies with ever increasing difficulty. I am in fact surprised that King Leonidas’ adventures haven’t been made into a game, because the set up is perfect. Far better than most film to game conversions. I once had a computer game version of Wall:E – I never got any further than the bit where you go around collecting rubbish and putting it into stacks.

So, why do I enjoy this film when I should find it infuriating? Why do I relish in its brainless nonsense? It makes even less sense when I think how I derided other films for doing the same. I think, firstly, that it isn’t trying to be anything else. Whilst not being tongue in cheek, it doesn’t really take itself too seriously. After all there are only so many slow motion stabbings and lacerations that can occur before it becomes a joke. Likewise, in between the stabbings and attacks, we get to view the ‘banter’ between the soldiers. Which is awful. So awful, that it can’t be legit. It has to be a weird homoerotic joke.

Normally this doesn’t matter, you watch the film and let the fools kill each other. But at one particular point we’re expected to emote. We’re expected to feel the grief of the father whose son has died. However, there are three things the film has forgotten about.

  1. There has been NO character development in this film at all…. Why are we supposed to care?

  2. The Spartans believed that to die in the battle is the greatest thing you can aspire to… Why are we supposed to feel bad for this particular great death?

  3. When asked whether he felt his son should go to battle, he tells King Leonidas that he has two others…. Why the sudden change of heart?

Silly film. Don’t expect us to relate to the characters. Just let us watch the biffing and the bashing and marvel in how pretty it is.

And it is pretty. As you sit there watching hundreds of oiled up men spearing each other through their washboard stomachs and rippling abs you get to enjoy some amazing cinematography.

What I like is that - much like Sin City (also by Frank Miller) – the film copies the graphic novel’s visual style. This time working in shades of sepia and black with the occasional splash of deep coppery blood.

The film relishes in the visuals. It focuses on the horrors and the glories of war and enjoys the comparisons of the Spartan practicality with the Persian pomp and circumstance. The film is a celebration of the violence and whilst you may not agree with the themes, you can not deny that the presentation is beautiful.

Frank Miller’s world is very odd. It is a world in which most people look like chiselled statues of perfection. But scattered amongst them are freaks. And not just mildly weird looking freaks; we’re talking properly mutated. The film seems obsessed by the freaks.

From snivelling drooling rambling hunchbacks to neck-less giants with lobster claws… the film takes pleasure in being a bit of a freak show amidst the violence and showiness.

This, oddly, doesn’t feel that manipulative – I think because the characters are so obviously CGI (there is no way they can be real)… I think it helps to detach us from the violence. It makes it seem more of a fantasy. More of a fiction and less of a horrifying death match.

There are, however a few little things that I do find uncomfortable. Firstly, the weird relationship the film has to women: I am aware that this is a story about two armies of men battling each other, but the women get a rough deal in this film. Firstly, there are only two female characters who make it past being anything but an extra: Queen Gorgo, and the Oracle. Neither of these have particularly rich or complex characters (though the film does try with Queen Gorgo; bless it how it tries) and both suffer from the following:

1) The camera will linger slightly too long on their bare breasts (particularly in the Oracle’s trance scene which seems like an oddly abstract perfume advert with excessive levels of nudity).

2) The character will be placed in a situation which strongly hints that a rape is about to happen.

This is not a woman friendly film.

But then, Zack Snyder seems to get a bit weird when filming women - it's the same in Watchmen.

Both of these films have a sex scene which is handled in a way that appears to jar with the rest of the film. This is very difficult to put into words, but I shall try. He seems to over-sensualise the sex scenes. Almost putting them in soft focus, and letting the camera linger around the bodies.

It is as if, amidst all the explosions and violence (of which there is a lot of in both Watchmen and 300), Snyder really wants to make a soft core porno. I can’t really describe why I find it so strange, but I do. In both films it took me away from the story because I found the tone so jarring. The almost ‘worshipful’ nature the films show to sex. It feels to me that they're done by someone that doesn’t know how to handle sex scenes, and therefore tries to make them serious and sensual and reverential. But instead makes something a bit immature and lecherous.

But probably…. The worst crime of 300…. Was the introduction of Meet the Spartans.


Thursday, 20 May 2010

This is the first baby born in 20 years and you want to name it Froley?

No 380 – Children of Men

Director – Alfonso Cuaron

Recently I’ve been watching a lot of silly shallow films. Explosions and pithy banter. It is time to break away from that, but to ask an important question. How can this film be so many places below a piece of tosh like Transformers?

Really people? I’m a bit disappointed.

I had actually forgotten what a harrowing yet beautiful film this is and how masterfully it tackles its mission. To not only convey the future, but to show a future where there is no hope, nothing to live for. The last generation of a dying species. Let me, for the last time, return to Transformers for an important comparison. In Children of Men we have a science fiction story which requires a lot of exposition. However here we get to witness it through snatches of conversation, snippets of news. Pictures and scenarios. We don’t have a scene where Morpheus spells out what the Matrix is. We don’t have a scene where Optimus Prime pulls out holograms and explains what is happening. We’re left to piece the snatches of information together. It means you're forever piecing information together, but it is nice to be treated like an adult.

Let me just tell you the two main points though:

1) Women have stopped having children. They just can’t do it.

2) The world has subsequently fallen to shit.

Like other totalitarian states (V for Vendetta springs to mind), the government has spread a vast amount of propaganda and patriotic vitriol to make people wary of the non-British - especially illegal immigrants. This is the end of the world under BNP rule... Like other apocalyptic films (The Road springs to mind), the world is a dangerous place with death hanging around every corner.

It is all summed up perfectly in a shocking opening montage. Firstly we see that it is the future. We’re only in the 2020’s so everything looks fairly similar to how it does now. Only technology is more advanced. Especially with advertising. There is an explosion in a coffee shop, sending Clive Owen's protagonist Theo hurtling to the ground. Amongst smoke, destruction and a piercing tinnitus whine, we see a lady holding her own arm and then BAM! Titles. Welcome to Children of Men, don’t expect an easy ride. We are in a dangerous world. Futile and nihilistic. A world where the government prescribes anti-depressants, and when that stops working, suicide kits. The atmosphere is perfect, every building sprawled with graffiti, piles of rubbish everywhere. Police brutality is rife, as is violent mobs attacking trains or commuters. You are forced to walk past the screaming, starving, terrified asylum seekers who are kept in horrific open-air prisons. It is like Guantanamo Bay on your high street. But it isn’t heavy handed. It is just there.

This film never screams at you that “LIFE IS SHIT” – you just pick it up from what is happening.

Likewise the film never says “THIS IS IN THE FUTURE”. It doesn’t have to. It is there in the technology and it is there in the little touches. My absolute favourite being Theo’s worn and faded London 2012 sweatshirt. A touch which show the thought and beautiful subtlety strewn throughout the entire film.

It is not only the film’s world which is superb, the acting and characters also rock. Throughout it, there are two stand-out performances. The first is a constant source of excellence… Michael Caine. I find it so impressive, for a man who can hardly blend into a part (It's Michael Caine… the man has one of the most distinctive voices ever) he brings such richness and such variety to his roles. And he is a phenomenal actor. If we focus on modern ‘Old Man’ Caine, he is permanently the best thing in his films. When he is the star of a film he brings incredible depth and emotion, even in the nastiest of subjects. When he appears as a cameo he steals the show. Regardless of whether it is a tentpole blockbuster, a flawed comedy or a musical flanked by Muppets. And it is ruddy hard to steal the show from a musical flanked by Muppets.

Here, he plays Jasper. A political activist, a bit of a hippy, a drug dealer. Also one of the happiest people in the film. Which is odd, specially seeing how the government may have tortured and paralysed his wife. His house is a cozy haven in the middle of a wood. He is the only bastion of relaxing niceness in this harsh and uncompromising film.

The other incredible turn is, surprisingly, Clive Owen. We see him in fairly familiar territory – in that he is a lone gunman protecting a woman and her baby from corrupt officials (or activists in this case). Only here, the baby is the only hope for the future of humanity, the mother is an illegal immigrant and the corrupt activists want to use the baby as a political catalyst and inspire an uprising.

Unlike Shoot-em-Up though, Clive Owen acts. Really rather well. He spends the entire film downtrodden and busted up. In terrible fights where he gets bloodied and tortured. Hiding in the shit and the litter. Throughout it all he is the reticent hero, slowly bonding to with his quarry. He is tired, he is in pain, he is a fragile wreck of emotion.

A shocking scene (of which this film has many) fairly early on involves Julianne Moore’s character and shows the full range of Owen’s emotion. However, even that is blown away at the cold blank dead practicality that overcomes him with later events (including his goodbye to Jasper).

It is a film in which everything is lightly touched on. The realisation that Kee (the immigrant girl) is pregnant is handled almost matter of factly. The magic comes from the reactions – especially after she gives birth. To see how each person melts in shock and awe. To see the goose-pimpling way that people react to the baby. To see how hope is instilled in a hopeless world. I didn’t want to go straight to the end of the film, as I have other stuff to talk about. Stuff about brutality and horror, but this is the right place to discuss it.

The film culminates in a tower block which is crumbling and which is under siege from the military. Theo and Kee are trying to escape to where they’ll be looked after by The Human Project, a top secret hospital organisation trying to bring babies back to the world. It begins with a dizzying Steadicam shot following Theo and soaking in the horror of the attack. Wailing bodies and rubble everywhere. It is slickly and effortlessly done. Like so much of the film it occurs without fanfare (unlike the beautiful, but heavily signposted shot in Atonement) and then it is gone. Leaving us with Theo and Kee escaping the siege. At first they try to hide, but the baby’s tears draw attention and the battle ceases momentarily for the two sides to part and let through this vitally important trio. Cue close-ups on faces. Heartbreaking mixes of exhaustion, desperation, hope and awe.

That is the thing I like about this film. None of the elements are showy, but they're right. They're in the right place and they work beautifully.

It may be a touch heavy-handed but my goodness it is beautiful. It gives me chills and that is important. Especially as it comes at the end of a horrific series of events in the near Nazi-like Bexhill Asylum Camp, where the asylum seekers are left… to die. It is also important because not all the characters react to Kee’s baby in the same way. Whilst most are filled with joy and wonder (previously intimidating foreign characters become allies and heroes) some see the financial gain in such an important commodity and become really horrible (all the more shocking when those characters started off so funny).

This film is an experience. It is bleak and it is sombre; and whilst the ending is ambiguous, it hints at hope. Hope swaddled in the blankets of utter misery. My goodness what a beautiful film.

How criminal for it to be voted so far below some utter tosh.

"And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer." Benefits of a classical education.

No 29 – Die Hard

Director – John McTiernan

I was enjoying a rock and roll Saturday night after a day in the science museum. Sat at home, drinking Honeydew Beer, thinking about an early night. Then BAM! Die Hard came on TV… Well, I decided, May is close enough to Christmas to watch Die Hard and really it would be too good an opportunity to miss.

So I strapped myself in for some good old fashioned action. From the off three things hit me. Three things that I found surprising:

Firstly, Bruce Willis looks so young! I always forget that he does, but whenever I see him I’m surprised. Secondly, Bruce Willis can smoke in an airport?! My, how times have changed. But, the thing I was most surprised about, the thing I have somehow failed to notice before…. This is based on a NOVEL?! A novel? I will have to hunt it down.

We get a bit of set up. We’re introduced to Argyle who is on his first day as a limo driver and who is obviously (and successfully) the comic relief. We are introduced to John McClane’s wife Holly – who is not a happy bunny, experiencing some kind of marital disputes. And we’re introduced to Harry Ellis who begins life as a smug pompous ‘80s yuppie but who ends up cunto supremo. But at least he has a wonderful beard.

That is one really good thing about the 80’s (and indeed the 70’s) - it was a grand time for facial hair. Beards were actually respected in them days.

But, all these introductions mean nothing. Ellis’ beard is not worth th admiration. For we are about to be introduced to someone else. Someone far better. With a far snazzier beard. Hans Gruber. Villain extraordinaire, played by the legend that is Alan Rickman. Rickman is on top villain form, and he is sporting facial hair which always adds a level of elegance and panache to his baddies.

He is leading a group of Germans planning to steal the $6million conveniently kept in the same building as the company’s staff party. So Holly is held hostage and therefore John is stuck in the building too. The German’s are fairly patchy. Rickman’s accent is wavering at best, occasionally managing a European tint but mostly just staying within the nasal confines of Alan Rickman’s normal voice.

Not that I’m complaining. Alan Rickman has one of the most listenable voices in the world.

Hans Gruber is a wonderful villain though. His little speeches are nicely arrogant. His killings are violent and without remorse. He is a tactical genius. See him put on an (still rather shakey – though that may be deliberate) American accent and pretend to John that he is a party goer – a hostage. Whilst ‘in disguise’ Hans gets information and a gun Unfortunately, John had already seen Hans and is therefore prepared for such treachery, but besides that minor set back, the plan is solid. Well thought up Hans.

His high point has to be when he succeeds to open the safe with the money. Ode to Joy slowly builds up and Rickman manages to look chillingly aloof and proudly triumphant. At the same time. Ruddy impressive.

The rest of Hans’ team are less inspiring: they seem to just shout Schnell a lot. Shouting Schnell a lot does not make you German. This is either lazy character development or lazy script writing. Or both.

Either way, it hardly matters because John McClane is going to instantly change into his vest and beat the crap out of everyone.

Initially John McClane tries to contact the police and get support. However it becomes more and more evident that the police are no help. The only exception to this is Sgt Al who believes John’s story enough to offer feedback, assistance and witty banter. The moment where the two of them finally meet, rather than communicating via radio, is surprisingly touching.

But he is hampered by Paul Gleason’s Deputy Chief Dwayne T Robinson (providing a similar hapless member of authority as he did in The Breakfast Club) and later by two FBI agents (including none other than Goonies villain Jake Fratelli). They don’t trust John, regardless of his police credentials, and would rather sort the situation out themselves. And yet wave after wave of police are shot up and one man succeeds.

After a while the film becomes a dizzying mess of running shooting and bangs. And one awesome explosion when McClane ties C4 to a computer monitor and throws it down a lift shaft. Pretty gosh darned badass. It is just a man on a mission and staying in the tower’s confined environment helps to make a tighter explosive film. It feels a lot more exciting than the open world freedom of say Die Hard 4.0 (they can’t even say Yippee Kay Aye Motherfucker in 4.0).

The premise is simple enough: can the bad guys open the 7 locks on a vault safe before a mysterious vigilante can kill them all.

It is after all, just a simple action film. It is pretty dumb. Big and brash and ballsy. But it is a lot of fun to watch and at least the bad guys get what they deserve.The film might not have the most in depth plot but it has become a key action staple. Other films can only aspire to be Die Hard.

If you can’t be bothered to watch it though, at least watch them put to music.

Of the four aircraft hijacked that day, United 93 was the only one that did not reach its target.

No 186 – United 93

Director – Paul Greengrass

I don’t do very well with picking films to watch over breakfast. If I’ve seen the film before I’m usually on safe ground. I’ll crack out Hook or Who Framed Roger Rabbit or Back to the Future and enjoy some good clean nostalgic fun.

However, when left with films I’ve not seen before I struggle.

This is not as bad as Irreversible – the film I sat down to expecting a twisty turny thriller but which culminated in me having to flick between the 15 minute unflinching Monica Belluci rape scene and CD:UK (just to keep my cereal down) – but it is still a harrowing accompaniment to toast.

But then, considering the subject matter…. 9/11…. Why am I surprised?

The film follows a sort of documentary style. Looking at the passengers of the doomed United 93 flight and also looking a the air traffic controllers who had to watch helpless as the events unfurled.

The film also splices in footage of the attack on the twin towers, which remains as vital and as harrowing as it was almost 9 years ago.

The story falls into two sections, the events that are happening on the plane and the events that are happening within Air Traffic Control. I want to discuss these sections separately, beginning with Air Traffic Control.

What surprises me is the blasé reaction they have to the initial kidnapping report. Most assume that it is a drill, and even those that know it isn’t can’t see the threat. They assume that they’re going to a different airport. After all this is before the 11th September. People just didn’t fly planes into buildings.

Of course, it goes without saying that after the first plane crashes into the World Trade Centre, the Air Traffic Controllers and the military stop merely following the progress, they become a lot more involved.

However, there is nothing they can do. You can have the most seasoned and most experienced negotiaters in the world, but if you’re talking at a kamikaze pilot who refuses to communicate, then you’re negotiating skills mean diddly. That is what was most chilling about the attacks… the fact that you can’t do anything to prevent them. You can only watch.

The second, and most important, part of the film occurs on the Plane itself. The set up of events on the plane never feel crude or convoluted. We’re introduced to passengers by eaves dropping in on their conversations. We get to know about the flight attendants. We occasionally pick up names, but that isn’t so important. We’re just watching the day to day lives of normal people. The holiday goers and nervous fliers in standard class. The business men and four very worried looking Arabs in first class.

I heard an on set story that the actors who played the terrorists remained separate from the rest of the cast. The idea behind this was to keep them an unknown entity. So that while the rest of the passengers bonded between shoots, the terrorists were still strange and aloof and unpredictable.

The build up, and the stress and the nervous glances between the four of them are wonderful. The fear is evident on their faces. Despite everything they believe, they’re still about to kill themselves.

Once they take over the plane, shit goes down. The film becomes more frantic, more messy, more violent. Going back to Irreversible, we still get someone having their face smashed in with a fire extinguisher.

This is a true story about how terrorists took over a plane and about how the passengers fought back. Neither the hijack nor the retaliation are pretty. This is anarchic, panicky destruction. But the film handles it with an impressive neutrality.

It is easy to paint the terrorists as obvious villains but here we have an unjudging view of them. Their actions damn them rather than the film’s tone. It reminds me of Downfall, with the fair portrayal of Hitler. We know that suicide bombers aren’t the goodies but it is fascinating to see their motivation and see their deliberation.

Greengrass even throws in some nifty little tricks showcasing similarities between the passengers and their hijackers. As the camera pans down the plane we pass the passengers praying, saying the Our Father out loud. As we move closer to the cockpit, those prayers change into prayers to Allah.

It is an impressive look at what people can achieve in a life or death situation. But it is bleak. It aint easy listening.

It aint the Rubber Dinghy Rapids.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

When I was your age, television was called books. And this is a special book.

No 122 – The Princess Bride

Director – Rob Reiner

Some films just age. This is not always detrimental to the story, but it means that the film, as a whole, is stuck in a certain period. From the opening sequence and the plinky plonky 8bit graphics, this film is very much of the 80s.

It doesn’t matter that much because it isn’t trying to be futuristic or show technology of any kind. It is a fairy tale, and can give off a timeless feel. And it does. It is a wonderful film to watch. It just all looks pretty budget.

It is obvious that a lot of the ‘outdoor’ shots are actually in a studio, they look artificial and are littered with the most obviously polystyrene rocks I have ever seen. It isn’t helped that whenever they do have an outdoor shot (especially if it is a wide angled shot) the film stock (on my DVD at least) goes all grainy.

It feels a bit like a 70’s sitcom, when you could easily tell which sections were filmed with which camera because the image quality would completely change.

When you factor in mythical beasts which are obviously people in (fairly unconvincing) suits, you have a film that is – visually at least – very naff.

And yet, none of that matters in the least. Because The Princess Bride is fun, ridiculous, escapist magic.

Maybe it is the strange way that 80’s cynicism and smart aleccary is blended into the fairytale myth that makes it more accessible. After all, you need a fantasy to have a sense of humour otherwise it all gets a little bit po-faced.

The Princess Bride has a fabulous sense of humour throughout. Whilst subtle (it is never knowingly overplayed) the setpieces provide wonderful laughs and thoroughly bonkers moments.

Let me list some of the things that I really like in this film.

The Rodents of Unusual Size – Yes, I know I’ve mentioned how intensely fake they look. But they’re REAL! They’ve been actually genuinely discovered. Surely that is quite exciting.

The Casting – there are so many excellent bit parts and cameos in this film. From the larger roles of the kidnappers through to the small roles that litter the film.

Columbo is in the film. Freaking COLUMBO! Narrating the tale... Amazing. ?But what of the characters within the story.

Firstly Andre the Giant… bless him, he just isn't an actor but he is hilarious in his stilted Arnie voice and the way that he picks up ‘boulders’ – there is no doubt that they are made of foam. He picks them up with such ease.

He is joined by Wallace Shawn in his kidnapping plot who slimes around with such a smug smarmy attitude you just want to bop him on the nose. Great work from the man who will forever be Rex in my eyes. Or Mr Hall.

We then get random pop ups from Peter Cooke in fine mutton chops and a stupid stupid Goons-esque voice. We have Mel Smith (how random) in preposterous white make up and we have a surprisingly unrecognisable (physically at least) Billy Crystal as Miracle Max. It is an odd juxtaposition to have such a fairytale setting with a fast talking neurotic New Yoik Jew.

Though, let me take this moment to ask an important question. Whilst we talk about casting, what happened to Cary Elwes? Actually, IMDB just told me he was in Saw… which I watched ages ago – I may have to watch it again to see if I can recognise him.

But really, Cary Elwes is much maligned. Firstly, he is beautiful (actually after checking in Saw.... he was beautiful). Genuinely a very pretty man and far prettier than Robin Wright is (I’m sorry to say) in that protagonist couple – and he is very witty. His accent may be preposterously British (in both this and Robin Hood Men in Tights – the only other film I can remember him being in) but his wit is dry, witty and sardonic. Just what you want from a romantic lead.

He also has one of the most wonderful sword fights with Inigo Montoya. Fighting due to nothing more than protocol, they admire each others handiwork and compliment each other on the styles used.

There is also some wonderful banter. But it is all hidden behind layers of civility. This is where the film’s humour really comes in. It offers us a fairytale staple (the duel to the death) and it manages to add just enough strangeness to turn it into a comedy.

The point where both duellers (duelling with their left hands) reveal themselves to be right handed is genuine class.

Which brings me to the greatest character in this film. The one character who pulls the film up from being an enjoyable piece of Sunday afternoon fluff, to the 122nd best film of all time.

Inigo Montoya – played by Mandy Patinkin, who has also recently been in nothing of note. Though the excellent Noel Clarke has cast him in his newest film 4 3 2 1. So here is hoping he gets a bit of a comeback.

Inigo is amazing. A drunk, who is hell bent on vengeance. He is a master dueller and the owner of the thickest Spanish Accent since Robert Rodriguez. He is on the search for the man who killed his father. A six fingered man. Christopher Guest in fact.

Once he gets attacked by Guest he picks himself up from the ground and staggers towards him. Repeating a mantra which makes him stronger with each step. Not only is it a powerful mantra for getting you walking, it is also one of the most iconic, beautiful and chilling lines and Patinkin’s delivery is fabulous.

You may uncover jokes and set pieces and joyous moments every time you watch The Princess Bride. But you will remember it for one reason:

Hello. My name is Inigo Montaya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

A driver don't pick the cars. Mmm-mm. Cars pick the driver. It's a mystical bond between man and machine.

No 309 – Transformers

Director – Michael Bay

The film begins:

Before time began there was The Cube.

Hmmm…. Not the most promising of opening lines. Hardly smacks of intelligent script writing.

We then sit through quite a lot of exposition. For a film which has essentially been designed as a showcase for Michael Bay’s Awesome Explosions and a film which doesn’t have a particularly extensive plot (2 groups of people are trying to get a thing. Those two groups are enemies) they seem to have picked the most complicated macguffin in the history of the world. There are about 4 scenes in which people just sit around and explain stuff. Using nonsense language. There is the Allspark – a giant cube which can transform into a considerably smaller cube – which made life. Then there was a war to gain control of the Allspark between two robot factions. Then the Allspark ends up on Earth and all chaos ensues in shiny metal explosions and…


Seriously? Empire readers? What the fuck? Just what the fuck? How did this end up being voted the 309th best film of all time? Let me stress that again, OF ALL TIME! It is rubbish.

I understand how films like Tree of Wooden Clogs got in. They’re worthy pretentious films voted by people who desperately want to be seen as cultured and intelligent by picking the least enjoyable film they can find. But there are some bizarre entries. Currently, this takes the biscuit. It even tops Superman Returns. It is rubbish. I'm going to list the reasons why this film angers me, but I want to be fair... let me talk about the few things that I did enjoy in this film. They few reasons I could think of as to why and how this technicolour nonsense explosion got onto the list

The Witwicky Family

I’m a big fan of Shiah LeBeouf. Not just because his surname is French for The Beef, but because generally I think he comes off in films as being pretty cool. He is a complete rag to riches story too with his time as a foul mouthed child stand up comedian (getting him a certain niche notoriety) and time on the classic kid’s sitcom Even Stevens. He brings just enough edge to a role to make him seem slightly badass (good, as he appears in a lot of action films) but he is clumsy, witty, geeky and spindly enough to pass as a convincing ‘everyman’. He just seems a likable actor and likewise Sam Witwicky is a likable character. He is (like all the humans) tragically underused but the small moments we see of him are both entertaining and real. How can you not relate to a teen boy whose sole motivation in life is to get a car and subsequently get laid? A point I will return to later.

Whilst Sam is a likable protagonist, it is his parents who really shine. Kevin Dunn as father Ron and Julie White as Judy Witwicky have a wonderful chemistry. They spa well together in a subtle game of one upmanship and their relationship with Sam is both realistically tender and cringe worthy. Highlight of the film is probably the scene in which they suspect Sam is masturbating. Cue an embarrassing dialogue which ends with Mikaela (who I’ll discuss later) showing herself. The pride on the parents’ faces on finding their son with a girl is just class (Ron bumping knuckles with Sam = comedy gold). We like the Witwicky family.

We like BumbleBee

He is beat up, he is adorable and he can only talk through the radio. So we get wonderfully clever moments of snippets of songs and news stories being spliced into speeches.

I also like the way that he manipulates situations to help Sam get with Megan Fox’s Mikaela. It just shows that he is quite a sweet robot guardian.

But, one thing about the Sam/Mikaela/BumbleBee arc worries me. After successfully wooing Mikaela through the medium of alien invasion we cut to the final scene and Mikaela pressed against Sam having a bit of a kiss and a grind. It is fairly likely that sex will ensue. Well done Sam…. But…… It is happening on BumbleBee’s bonnet.

Surely this is akin to having sex on your best friend’s face. Or at least shoulders. Poor little BumbleBee…

However, by this point I no longer had any emotional attachment with the car as all his charm and personality had VANISHED. In one scene half way through the film he transforms from his beat up original form to a shiny super car. Yawn Yawn Boring. I liked it when he was quirky and battered.

However, I think the final reason is the main reason

Nostalgia: Modified.

Despite everything. Despite every little cringey moment or utter moment of wank, the very concept of Transformers gets me excited. There was a moment of utter joy when I first saw Optimus Prime in his shiny shiny CGI form. There was a second little squeal when I saw him battle with a sword; I mean that is pretty badass.

And the Transformers look glorious. The CGI in this film is up there with Davey Jones’ tentacles in the most seamless photorealism I’ve seen in film. And the transformations are beautiful.

I’m used to the clunky toys in which a Police car could turn into a robot in four clumsy moves, but here we have a whirring, clanking, rinky tinky beautiful collection of mechanisms.

The giant robots are nonsense but the point of transformation feels real. Watching the cars slowly unravel and unwind into a humanoid giant satisfied me on both a geeky level and also on a design level. Those movements are the most exciting parts of the film and probably the reason for the film getting into the list.

I mean it is either going to be the robots or Megan Fox… But now we have to move into sections of the film which I didn’t enjoy. Besides the script – which I have already mentioned is pure unadulterated tosh.

Megan Fox is sexy. She takes that movie star sexiness and adds a personality tomboyish, cocky, filth. She gives off the impression that she likes slumming it and that she could, maybe, be an accessible person. This is kind of hinted at in interviews as well, although she does come across as a bit of a twat in every interview I’ve read.

Don’t get me wrong – She is nowhere near Zooey, but I understand why people find her so attractive and why she was voted so highly in Empire’s top 50 sexiest female movie stars.

However, so does the film. Fox’s character Mikaela has literally nothing to do in this film except look sexy. Her character is defined by sultry poses and skimpy outfits. And this pose.

This pose which was released as one of the first promo shots. Before even the robots.

A pose which cries out “Lets put Megan Fox in an unfeasibly unnatural and uncomfortable position just to showcase how hot and sexy and lithe she is”. Hopefully that way no one will notice she has nothing else to do in this film.

The few moments where her character is allowed to be showcases just shows a fickly and shallow little bitch. Ho Hum.

In fact, the characterisation is flawed throughout. Sam is the nearest to a full character but he is still not given any time to blossom. After a while all the plot strands join up and we see Sam and Mikaela, the mysterious Sector 7 and the US soldiers from Qatar fighting together with the Autobots. Sam and the Qatar soldiers seem to have quite a deep relationship, looking out for each other and having little bonding moments. Why? Sam is just a civvy who is in the way. Sure he has the Allspark but anyone could take that box.

It is the same with the relationship between Sam and Mikaela. One minute they’re two scared teenagers being flummoxed by stuff. The next minutes they’re holding hands and being a couple.

It reminds me of the ‘missing reel’ in Planet Terror. Suddenly all the characters are together and united and relationships have been formed without the viewer seeing. Only Planet Terror was a joke. This is just lazy writing.

Lazy and sometimes shockingly clichéd writing. How have they got away with every non-white character being a cliché? This film is borderline racist.

From the Afro-Carribean computer hacker who lives with his entire extended family in his house, eats fried chicken and screams at his grandma, to the Hispanic soldier who constantly speaks Spanish to his English speaking crew. For no reason besides it being his heritage.

Even Jazz the ‘black’ transformer is a break dancing jive talking stereotype.

But it gets worse…. Who is the first soldier to die? Why the Hispanic.

Who is the first Autobot to die? Why Jazz

I’ve seen this movie – the black dude dies first.

I could sit and continue to nitpick this film to pieces but I won’t. Watch it and enjoy picking it to pieces yourself. For all the tosh and bollocks it is quite enjoyable. In a frantic exploding kind of way.

The fight scenes will make you sick though as they’re so frenetically edited with so many chops and changes and angles that all you can see is a dervish of colours and cogs. However, hopefully I’ve made one thing clear about Transformers. You don’t watch the film for clarity and coherence. You watch it for the ride. The big, ridiculous and frequently painfully rubbish ride.

Before I end let me ask one more question. One last little thing about the enemies, the Decepticons.

In the Decepticon team there are two vehicles (that I noticed) – a helicopter and a police car – which have drivers. The drivers are part of the unit.

If the Decepticons can transform in to human form why not just do that?! You’ll raise a lot less suspicion that way.

So… the film does have impressive machinery and CGI. It does have bonkers action scenes. But it also is riddled with flaws. Too many flaws to forgive. Massive omissions like plot or character arcs or any sense of understanding. It is a film that I can’t recommend to you because I don’t think you should watch it.

Watch the cartoon. Still doesn’t make sense but it does have the theme tune which is AWESOME.

And you’ll be spared the most unbearable and unforgivable sequence of all. BumbleBee pissing fuel over a government agent.

What a base joke. When you piss over a petty government agent, you also piss over my youth.

Damn you Bay.

Damn you.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Kids these days. They just don't get scared like they used to.

No 343 - Monsters Inc
Director - Pete Docter (Co Director David Silverman)

I am a very vocal fan of Pixar and yet I feel I had criminally neglected this film. The last time I saw it was at the cinema. 9 years ago (cripes). So I sat down to watch it and I loved it. Probably loved it more now then I did then. - Now I admire not only the cracking story (which I'll discuss below) but also the amazing visuals. What I like about Pixar is that they constantly challenge themselves. Whether it is with the story telling side (can they make a silent movie about a lovable robot) or on the animation side of things. In the same way that Finding Nemo was a challenge to animate water, or A Bug's Life was about organic shapes - here the challenge was Fur. And in the example of Sulley they manage it beautifully. I'll chat about the characters later.

Lets begin with the story.

It continues the Pixar tradition of being all about story telling and cracking central concepts. This time it we have a wonderful concept (Monster's collect screams from children in order to power their world) and a fabulous story structure. The fact that a 'toxic' child escapes into the the Monster World means that we have the set up for a classic paranoid thriller as two friends discover an evil scheme, but it also gives us something else. There is a perverse humour in seeing the workman ordinariness of the Monster world, and in seeing the basic structure of a horror film (monster terrorises children or teens or sexy 20 somethings) reversed with the monster's traumatised by an adorable child.

Boo is cute. And importantly she is Pixar's first significant human character (Andy and Sid may be important to plots but they're not physically all that present in the films). She is also an incredibly realistic child character. Children in films are notoriously difficult, seeing as they usually end up a bit creepy and dead eyed. Yet, Boo is superb. She is full of joy and scampers around like a genuine mental child. The only other animated child I can think of who so well captures the essence of childhood is Mei in Totoro.
I heard a rumour that Boo's vocals were recorded by following a child around with a boom mic and getting her to react with situations to garner reactions (ie, a kitty would probably make a child cry kitty) - this keeps the conversation feeling fresh and realistic and keeps the dialogue upbeat. After all, it doesn't sound natural when you try and get a child to follow a script. Hilarious, but not normal. But sounds like a child, and when you factor in the excellent animation job done by Pixar (I wouldn't expect anything less) you get a character that feels real and you can see the way that she affects he reluctant custodians.

Lets talk about the titular monsters. This is probably the most exciting cast (for me) in a Pixar film. The cast even has tinges of Coen with the casting of the fabulous John Goodman and Steve Buscemi. Mix in Billy Crystal at his fast paced best and you have a really exciting and dynamic vocal cast with a crackling chemistry. But then Pixar always excel in the 'buddy movie' capacity. One, important voice I've missed out is the Pixar Mascot John Ratzenberger who returns as the friendliest and most polite Abominable Snowman ever. Though I worry about his snow cones.

All in all the film gives us a really enjoyable corporate conspiracy full of action and adventure and a terrifying invisible villain. The film's big reveal is hinted and evident throughout the entire film and allows a Disney-friendly happy ending.

It is just delightful good clean fun and it ends with that most Pixar of set ups. Fake bloopers and a Randy Newman song.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Three measures of Gordon's; one of vodka; half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it over ice, and add a thin slice of lemon peel.

No 56 - Casino Royale
Director - Martin Campbell

Bond is a bit of a mixed bag. After all, the films can be fantastic. A staple of a family get together, the quintessential Sunday evening film as you digest your big old roasty roast. They're full of action and adventure and silliness - they were fun for all the family.
It may be true that the franchise had a tendency to go off track and become too bonkers, but they remained good clean fun for all the family (even grannies love Goldfinger).

Not any more. Casino Royale doesn't flinch in letting you know where you stand. You're standing in more grit than the Wu Tang Clan's gravel pit. This is adult, this is serious... we know because we're in black and white. For it takes two kills to become a 'Double O' agent and we alternate between Bond's two kills - one in clean crisp and classy 'Schindler's List' grey scale and the other in a far more frenzied dirty Pi-style black and white. Daniel Craig's Bond is almost a shark. Dead eyed and deadly. He will beat the crap out of you with a savagery impossible to see in Roger Moore.

Casino Royale is a bit of a strange one because for the first time we're rebooting rather than continuing the story... So we start again with a new Bond. A rough and angry chauvinistic bastard of a man, far more in keeping with Fleming's descriptions in the book.

I am going to talk about how this film has differed from Classic Bond and about what I think works and what I think is too Bourne in this re-incarnation. However, firstly I want to geek out about the titles. The song may be a bit non-descript (whilst keeping the arrogance and horns of a Bond Theme) but the visuals are beautiful. It captures the feel of 1960's cinema and the feel of a classic Bond intro but it moves it forward, it makes it more interesting than merely having bikini-clad women dancing around. Not many films still have the big epic title sequences and theme songs, so it is nice to see it...

There are a few other little touches which appear, tying the 're-boot' to the main franchise, mainly through tongue in cheek nods.

For example:
  • The 1964 Silver Aston Martin
  • Bond emerges from the water in an amusing little reversal of Honey Ryder's entrance
  • Whilst working undercover, Bond gives Vesper a typically innuendo laden alias - Miss Stephanie Broadchest
  • And of course we get the origin story of the Vesper Martini... shaken, not stirred.
There is only one big integral thing which has remained from the old films to this film, the casting of Dame Judi Dench as M (whilst Q and Moneypenny didn't make it to the screen); she is brilliant and Martin Campell obviously agrees as he was the man who originally cast her when he relaunched Bond for the first time.

Besides the odd subtle nod and the wonderful Dame Dench, the film tries to distance itself from the cliches of old Bond, and especially the tone of old Bond - we lose the jokey feel and instead focus on the action. Everything in this film is a catalyst for a big action sequence (or a sequence in which Daniel Craig gets his shirt off - clearly he is part of team Jacob) and whilst it does have the obligatory Parkour scene (which all films seemed to do a few years ago) it has the decency to do it well, and to get Sébastien Foucan, one of the founders of the sport, involved. The film even manages to make a massive game of poker interesting to watch - admittedly it mixes in some big and ridiculous action sequences - at one point Bond stops himself from having a heart attack using a defribillator in his car... for all the gritty realism this is still Bond after all, no savage emergency tracheotomies her, it is still far more glam than Bourne's world. I am also pleasantly distracted from cards by having Tyrone (you silly fat bastard) as one of the card players. I mean he doesn't say anything, but is he there? 'Course he is.

There are two major characters that I've yet to mention. Firstly Vesper Lynd - important for being one of only two women Bond has ever fallen in Love with (to the best of my knowledge), both of whom succumb to similar fates - played by the fabulous Eva Green (who is in the sexiest screen moment ever when she pretends to be the Venus de Milo during The Dreamers). Her character is wonderful in this, a perfect foil to Bond in that she is almost exactly the same. She is also a fluctuating contradiction of passion and aloof-ness. She just can't handle the killings. Sadly, I find her story very weird (especially Bond's cold detachment from her towards the end) and I find that as the story moves to Venice after the Casino Royale Poker Extravaganza, the story starts to lose its way. It never completely does it, but it begins to threaten unravelling. I think a neater edgier story could have been made if the final couple of acts had been tightened.

And on to the final character I wish to discuss - LeChiffre. Mad Mikkelsen plays to the character's weaknesses. Emphasising his slight frame, his slimy cowardice, his asthma and his iconic tear duct which causes him to occasional cry blood. This is in every way a Bond Villain, with a mildly cartoony physical deformity but a keen and plotting mind, and utterly dangerous. You could argue that the scene in which LeChiffre tortures Bond shows the sheer horrors he is willing to impose on people; and you could say it is either evidence of the darker and more realistic tone the film has taken, or that it is just another reason for Daniel Craig to get his kit off. You're probably right regardless of which one you choose.

So, a conclusion. Really, it is an excellent action film. It is tense, it is gripping and it whizzes along at a breakneck speed. But both the film and Daniel Craig's Bond lack the charm and comfort of classic Bond. A move which I know was deliberate and which has helped the franchise. But a move which is still regrettable.

Maybe if they had managed to squeeze in David Niven and Peter Sellers it would have been better.