Tuesday, 31 May 2011

You want to explain the math of this to me? I mean, where's the sense in risking the lives of the eight of us to save one guy?

No 156 - Saving Private Ryan
Director - Steven Spielberg

Saving Private Ryan is known (and really, is remembered) for one thing. One epic battle on the shores of Omaha Beach in Normandy. It is so ingrained as THE memory of the film that it eclipses everything else. I was so convinced that this was how the film truly began that I was surprised to see a little old James Ryan shuffle along to the Normandy American cemetery and Memorial. But it is old Ryan which bookends the film (indeed the fade out at the end from young Ryan to old is masterful) before we hit the full horrors of war.

The opening sequence is incredible. Shaky cameras which seem to be documenting evidence rather than filming fiction, mud, blood, entrails and futility are all captured on screen. It is deliberately chaotic, the camera almost seems like an additional character as it looks around the beach trying to find moments of action to focus in on. Throughout this mess we lose track of characters and can barely hear what is being shouted over the bombs and blasts. But that is not the point. This is not there to boost a character arc or to progress the plot. This is there for one reason. It shows you that war is a horrible brutal place and it shows you just how fragile and fleeting life can be. In that job, it succeeds triumphantly. It is a tough and painful bit of cinema - incredibly visceral, and unnerving in how 'in your face' it all is. It stands alone (and it is, really, separate from the rest of the film) and should be watched. Or.... experienced.

Only after subjecting us to a good 15 minutes of brutal warfare do we begin to actually mention the plot and the strange ruling which sees Tom Hanks and a small unit sent to rescue Private James Ryan (a point which is contested throughout the film) - during this, the group coincide with other groups performing their own missions and we get to see a barrage of familiar faces. Spielberg putting together a marvellous (and somewhat surreally diverse) cast.

Ted Danson?!
Daniel from Lost?
Vin Diesel in a role written specifically for him?!

The main focus though (and the drive of the film) is the relationship between the soldiers as they suffer in a horrible situation - a theme Spielberg continues to explore in Band of Brothers and The Pacific. The film really allows the characters to breathe and shows a depth and three-dimensional nature which still isn't massively common in films. See the way they struggle with their morality and their hatred of the Nazis. Rather big themes are lightly touched as parts of the war, rather than parts of the story. I for one found the scene in which Goldberg's Stanley Mellish declares his Jewish faith to the German POWs very powerful. For him, this is more than just a job. This is a battle against people which have persecuted and vilified everything that he stands for. This is a moral quest for justice. Yet, the film never expands on it... it is just part of the day to day nature of the war.

The film continues in this way.... setting up minor events which test and explore the group's characters until we come to the major event of meeting the titular James Ryan and one last big action scene. It is a film which doesn't shy away from death but which also tackles some interesting, and far tougher, themes such as survivors guilt.

A big and powerful film, which I'm going to undermine by linking to an Adam and Joe sketch:

Monday, 23 May 2011

Blessed be the one who sits down.

No 213 - Songs from the Second Floor
Director - Roy Andersson

It takes a good 30 minutes before anything bordering a narrative structure creeps into Songs from the Second Floor. Initially it seems that we're dealing with sketches. Returning characters with their own returning issues. Weird little middle aged members of middle management and their weird little life problems. The scenes don't seem particularly linked. We watch a magician fail to saw a man in half and that man subsequently be rushed to hospital. We see a man get fired and beg for his job. We see a man get viciously attacked as he searches for someone. The scenes seem barely interlinked, ranging from the weird staccato delivery of Lynch at his most inaccessible to the weirdness of Monty Python.

And yet, as the film progresses, you realise that there is something happening. It may not be a story in any shape or form, but it is still a cinematic study and something very beautiful. There are scenes which are massively symbolic, The traffic which hasn't moved for hours as everyone is going the same way (and later the mass of people struggling with their baggage) is a sign of our own progress, likewise the old people sacrificing youth and still not getting what they want... it all seems to have a massive message of the futility and shallowness of our own times. How our common quest for progress leaves us standing still. How we destroy the young to get something... some gain.
How we sell hope and beliefs for a cheap buck.

Whilst this sounds very bleak, bare in mind that this is only MY interpretations, and the film itself is darkly funny and at times incredibly beautiful. Songs from the Second Floor revels in the mundanity in which these surreal exchanges and events take place. A suburban dystopian nightmare. But ones where there are moments of utter beauty.
I want to focus on two moments - both of which are musical. Its the music which really makes these moments shine. But it is also the simple, understated way in which they're presented. For me, the most incredible moment was the 'Silent Song' - an operatic frame within a commuter train service.

It is just a lovely moment. The second moment is when one of the characters plays the recorder with his girlfriend. Again... it is simple, and beautiful.

The film claims to be a filmic representation of poetry by César Vallejo - and there is much talk of poetry, and many repeated lines throughout. I have to admit, I don't know the fella's poems so I can't really comment. What I can say is that the film is haunting, beautiful, at times hilarious and always always perplexing.

Basically this is everything I hoped The Temptation of St Tony was going to be when I sat down to watch it. I was severely disappointed by old Tones. So this was a welcome joy when it comes to surrealist cinema.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Do you even know why you're supposed to kill me? Look at us. Look at what they make you give.

No 234 - The Bourne Ultimatum
Director - Paul Greengrass

Yes... we've reached Bourne Three, thus allowing me to start the blog on an EXCELLENT musical pun. Thank you.
Much in the same way that Bond always begins straight in the middle of the action, with a mission that's not been followed from the start, so to does this Bourne adventure begin straight in the middle of a pursuit.
You have to feel sorry for Bourne. All he wants is to live a quiet life and slowly piece his identity together and he's always being chased. It doesn't even matter how many shady government agencies he topples - he remains on the most wanted list of almost every police force in the world. So here he is - broken, battered and bruised - on the run from the police. Same old, same old. Somehow he escapes and he makes it to lovely old London.

So, what is it causing the shit to hit the fan this time? Its none other than Paddy Considine. This time we get our third mysterious government program - Blackbriar, and it seems that the Bourne trilogy has finally got to the centre of what happened to its protagonist. There are lots of little touches within this film that also show how Bourne has developed. He has always been a badass, destroying squads of police with nothing but a biro. But here, he is navigating the entire CCTV system of London Waterloo as well as protecting a civilian from an entire crack squad of government agents working for Blackbriar - the big bad, the heart of all Black Ops.

It is otherwise business as usual for the film. We get a lot of running around. We get a car chase and many a fight scene and we get a look at a government agency that can essentially access and manipulate anything in the world. It is a conspiracy theorist dream.

However, there is a new addition to the film - and it is something that seems to have become a legal requirement for modern action films. Ever since Parkour exploded into the UK, it has appeared in almost every film. A foot chase isn't a foot chase unless you're leaping off walls, through windows and landing on perilous little ledges. Action sequences don't count unless you've got people jumping off buildings these days

Ultimatum mostly takes place between the penultimate and final scenes of Supremacy... building around the idea of Bourne finding his real name and remembering everything. It is the film where (at last.....) Bourne gets a bit of support as previous characters realise that maybe he isn't hunting them down. Maybe they should help him.

There are echoes of the first two films which sit nicely within the film and don't take the audience out of the story. The question asked in this blog's title is asked by Bourne but was initially a statement from Clive Owen's The Professor. Albert Finney takes on Brian Cox's mantle of the crotchety old man at the heart of the operation and the final shot is a glorious subversion of the first film's opening shot.

Even Moby has been tweaked about and reissued when we fade out to Moby

Incidentally.... there is talk of a 4th film. The Bourne Legacy. It will be starring Jeremy Renner and it wouldn't actually feature Bourne. This sounds like risky business if ever I've seen it.

The moment you got into her car. The moment you entered her life, she was dead.

No 454 - The Bourne Supremacy
Director - Paul Greengrass

Things ended on a happy ending for Bourne.... but this is a trilogy of paranoid action thrillers, and so despite the BIG BAD being resolved at the end of Identity, it is time for a new government agency to be out hunting Bourne.
This time, Bourne is tackling a far bigger problem. Not only is he still trying to piece together his memories and sense of self (though warped and blurry flashbacks show he's beginning to remember) - but he's also been framed for a fair amount of murder.

So we're back on familiar ground. As Bourne runs away confused, chased by an agency who think Bourne is after them. When really all he wants is a quiet life.

The first thing that's clear from this sequel is that there is a new director on board. Gone are the slower more paranoid shots and in are quick edits, jittery cameras and a state of CONSTANT FUCKING TENSION

This new visual style makes for a far more frantic film and is the style which became a staple of how to make a modern, exciting, action film. Other - more established - action franchises duly took note. However, the issue which stems from is that action sequences become a lot more difficult to follow. Gone are the long lingering shots of Matt Damon stalking Clive Owen through the grass, and instead we get split second shots which change before you can fully register whats going on. It makes the whole experience of watching a film far more tiring. But, saying that,
the car chase where Bourne is in a taxi is probably one of the most dramatic and exhilarating car chases I have seen in a film.

So what else is there to comment on? Well lets look at the good news. Julia Stiles is back and she ACTUALLY HAS SOMETHING TO DO! Yes, this time Nicky is dragged back into action and she gets to actually do stuff as well as get right in the thick of a very tense interview with Bourne.
But there is more, because hidden in the shadows of the new agency (fronted by Joan Allen in fabulous 'no shit important person' mode as Pamela Landy) is none other than Michelle Monaghan. She may have very little to do in this film, but it is always a delight to see her in a film.
At the core of this film though is a man who realises he has done terrible things in his past. He is trying to write those wrongs, whilst the government he worked for still believe he is as ruthless and as deadly as he ever was. There are some touching moments, when Bourne goes to visit the children of his former victims to apologise.

Whilst the first film was all about the paranoia of not knowing who you are, this film is more about trying to right your past misdeeds. It allows Damon to relax into the role and helps create richer, more rounded characters.

Hell... by the end we even know Bourne's real name.

Fade out to Moby

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

You're a malfunctioning $30 million weapon. You're a total goddamn catastrophe, and by God, if it kills me, you're going to tell me how this happened.

No 365 - The Bourne Identity
Director - Doug Liman

The concept of an unreliable protagonist, one with amnesia, is nothing new. It runs the risk of feeling a bit like a lazy plot development in order to hide things from the viewer. However, when done well it allows the film to explore themes of identity, of self and of ethics. Which sounds pretty deep for a bash people up action film.
When we meet Bourne he is left for dead and has no memory of who or what he is. And so the film sets a wonderful little mystery as Bourne tries to figure out his name and his identity through a series of clues and chases.

Throughout this we have a dodgy secret agency run by Brian Cox's Ward Abbott but mainly managed by Chris Cooper's Conklin. They believe that Bourne knows everything and is trying to punish them for their past misdeeds (past misdeeds which remain hidden from us and from Bourne). They believe Bourne must be killed.
We also have Bourne's former quarry, Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje (or Mr Eko as he will remain to me) out to get vengeance on the failed assassination attempt. It all sets up a messy series of chases, fight scenes and shootouts.

The film embraces this sense of being constantly followed and creates a really paranoid atmosphere. The camera hangs around for fairly long takes, or sticks close to Bourne. Meaning we don't always get to see the whole picture and are forever looking for the hitmen which are just out of shot. Saying that.... the hitmen out to get Bourne are barely subtle.
It is alluded that Bourne is the best of the best and as we watch him effortlessly take down whole teams of lesser foes armed with nothing but a biro, it does certainly feel that way. And yet, Bourne's assassins just leap around blazing machine guns and smashing through windows. Hardly subtle.
No wonder Bourne permanently eludes them.

There is one exception to the rule... The Professor - an agent, much like Bourne, played by Clive Owen. Their fight is played in long grass with a gentle questioning camera which searches the landscape for anything unusual, anything moving. The whole scene is incredibly tense, but mainly because we're waiting for something to happen, for one of these two deadly assassins to slip up. It's a great bit of cinema.
Its also good that Clive Owen has something to actually do. For most of the film he is just seen standing around, silent. Much the same fate belies Julia Stiles, who here gets to show off her full range of standing around AND sitting at a computer. But doesn't really get to do all that much. I'm not sure if they knew that there'd be sequels by then, or that Stile's character Nicky would have more to do.... if not then its a bit of a shit role for Stiles.

There are some great themes being played here, but the one at the heart of the film seems to be the (quite paranoid) idea that there are massive American agencies which can access everything and which can seriously fuck you up. In fact, the most chilling part of the whole film is how Cox's Abbott manages to dismiss the entire project (including the serious repercussions) to his management. He dismisses it as a training experiment deemed to costly for use and everyone nods and lets it go.

Forgetting the dozens (or potentially hundreds) of corpses which are left, and forgetting one seriously pissed off super-assassin

Fade out to Moby....

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Now here come two words for you: Shut the fuck up.

No 317 - Midnight Run
Director - Martin Brest

I have decided I don't like having a job anymore. Specially not one which goes mental busy for 2 or 3 weeks at a time. 2011 has been pretty shocking when it comes to film watching and blog updating. I promise to rectify this as much as I can.
Lets crack on

Midnight Run had me hooked from the moment the awesome score and '90's sitcom' style title credits came up (about 2min30 through here) - but then, it grabbed me either further, with music by Danny Elfman. But this music is different to the standard Danny Elfman fare (which stems from his Tim Burton work but is now in most of the scores that he does). I mean just listen to it!

Danny Elfman - Midnight Run Score Suite

So, we have something which sounds zippy and funky (from an unexpected source) and which sets the tone for this film. A film which is really both a buddy movie and an utterly farcical chase. This was back in the 80's when De Niro could be really funny without falling into terrible self parody:
Here, he plays on familiar ground. His Jack is a pent up aggressive wise guy with a dirty dirty poop mouth - playing the role with the same intensity that is there in his more serious films, but allowing the smart alec within Jack to really shine.
His character manages to share some great scenes and there is some excellent dialogue shared with Yaphet Kotto's FBI agent or with Joe Pantoliano's fabulously '80's Eddie Moscone.

The plot is simple. Jack has 5 days to retrieve a fugitive and bring him back to LA. Over the course of these 5 days, an ever growing and ever confusing list of other parties try and also get the fugitive.
This means we end up with manic chase sequences, moving from planes, trains and automobiles. It sets up some excellent set pieces and makes for a film which is really quite amusing. But where it shines are the little moments which change tone. After all, if this was just a madcap chase movie we'd end up with a far inferior product.... What we also get, is a pretty deep buddy relationship.
De Niro's Jack spends most of the film handcuffed to Grodin's John Mardukas. Despite Jack being in the top 3 bounty hunters I've seen, he clearly has issues, he clearly needs help from the far more peaceful Mardukas. As Jack tries to get his money, John seems to try and better Jack's complicated (and pretty sad) life.

Its those more sober moments, when the two genuinely bond, which are the film's strength. These moments of tenderness and the gentle unchipping of Jack's tough rough persona lie at the heart of everything, and make the complex tying up of plot strings into something really satisfying. Without ruining the awesome fun of the madcap moments throughout it all.

Bloody good film