January 2012 January 31, 2012Posted by badblokebob in : Editorials, progress reports, 2012 , 4 comments
Hold on, it’s February? When did that happen?!
Ah, January — the start of a fresh new year to fill with 100 new films. And I’m off to a solid start with 10 titles. Fewer than either of the previous two years, true, but as the January target is eight I shan’t complain.
What I do have is a standard array of Films From Last Year being caught up on — skipping most stuff at the cinema, and with family who predominantly pick the Brand New Films They’ve Heard Of from my Christmas suggestions, means January is a strong time for catching up on what I’ve just missed. Or scratching the surface of it anyway: four films from the 50 I listed last month are here, which is about 8%. But then I’m not sure all of those have even made it to cinemas still, so…
Oh, and this was the first year I watched a film on New Year’s Day since 2009, something I’d previously achieved every year. So that was nice.
January’s films were…
#1 Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011)
#2 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011)
#3 Outland (1981)
#4 Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (2009)
#5 Tombstone (1993)
#6 Rush Hour 3 (2007)
#7 With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story (2010)
#8 Ironclad (2011)
#9 2000 AD, aka Gong yuan 2000 AD (2000)
#10 Rango: Extended Cut (2011)
I was actually going to do a Sergio Leone week this month too, which was proposed a while back, in some post’s comment section either here or on Ghost of 82, but when I plan a week I plan a week and life has unfortunately got in the way of the potential for such things that recently.
It’s a workable way of getting me to watch specific films, actually — witness the success of silent Lubitsch week (over a year ago! so much for Silent Week as a theme), David Fincher week, that Quantum of Solace thing I did, and so on; and recently I watched the three Underworld films on consecutive nights (see review above, if you missed it/care) — so I should put more effort into doing more of them really. I know where to start.
If anyone’s watching, please know the target for February is 16 films (not much of a surprise if you think about it), so we’ll see how I get on. I predict more 2011 films, more things LOVEFiLM throw my way (both Ironclad and Rango were courtesy their decisions from my massive rental list), and whatever happens to be on TV. Which at the moment seems to be mostly premieres of things I’ve owned on DVD/BD for years and not got round to yet.
#8: Ironclad (2011) January 28, 2012Posted by badblokebob in : Action, War, 4 stars, Adventure, British films, true stories, Historical, 2010s, 2012 , 1 comment so far
In medieval times, a group of filmmakers set out to prove you can make a Hollywood-quality historical action epic with independent funding in Britain, while in the present day a ragtag group of seven samurai— sorry, gunslingers— sorry, warriors, defend a small town— sorry, castle, from evil bandits— sorry, an evil king.
I think I got some details confused there.
Set shortly after the signing of the Magna Carta, Ironclad tells the true story of King John not being very happy and, with the backing of the Pope, setting about reclaiming England. Violently. Naturally the men who forced him into scribbling on the famous document aren’t best pleased, so while some set off to persuade the French to invade, others hole up in Rochester castle, vital to John’s efforts as it controls trade routes to the rest of the country or something.
Firstly, I say “true story” — I have no idea how much fact has gone into this. Some, at least. Was John really supported by a Viking-ish army? Dunno. Were the Knights Templar really dead set against him? Dunno. Was Rochester really defended by a dozen men? Dunno. But this isn’t a history lecture, it’s a piece of entertainment — aiming for the same ballpark as Gladiator, Braveheart, Kingdom of Heaven, and so on, albeit less grand; and there’s a sort of connection to Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood too, which I seem to remember included the signing of the Magna Carta.
Anyway, it seems to me its use of facts are probably strong enough to support it as an entertainment. So some of the story structure may be reminiscent of Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven, but it’s not the first to use that and it won’t be the last (and I’ve never seen either anyway. Bad me). And so the special effects-driven climax may occur on the wrong tower of the castle’s keep — I think we can live with that level of deception.
As to the point of “why not just go round the castle?”, I presume the answer is more or less, “well… he didn’t…” Somewhat thankfully, the commander of the Danish forces puts this very question to the King, whose answer is some muttered speech about how his family built it and… I dunno. I’m not clear why they can’t just use the massive camp next to the tiny castle as their appropriate base of operations, other than the film wouldn’t be half as exciting.
And exciting it of course is. There are stretches some may find dull — there’s little new to be done with the whole Recruiting The Team bit, and once John gets the castle under siege and everyone’s twiddling thumbs and eating horses some viewers will be doing one of the two as well — but there are regular bursts of sword-swinging violence that achieve the film’s primary aims. The fights are generally well staged, even if many resort to the modern vogue for close-up quick-cut handheld shakiness, and they’re certainly gory.
I’ve seen some complain about the level of graphic detail in this regard, but this is medieval times, they didn’t just bump each other about a bit; and you don’t think a giant axe swung down on someone’s shoulder with all a man’s weight is going to just leave a scratch, do you? Director Jonathan English doesn’t linger on detail as if this were a horror movie. There’s cleaved bodies, severed limbs, squirts of blood and more, and it all feels gruesomely realistic, but individually each moment passes quickly.
This is as appropriate moment as any to mention that the film should be in the ratio 2.40:1, but UK Blu-ray (and presumably DVD) was for some unknown reason mastered in a screen-filling 16:9 — I thought some of the shots looked tight! On the bright side it means English isn’t incompetent; on the dark side it means whoever mastered the UK Blu-ray is. (I’ve seen grabs from the US BD and that’s in the right ratio. Completely different special features too — a director’s commentary may well trump the half-hour of EPK interview snippets we get, for those that care.) I found this to be most blatant in dialogue scenes, where characters are barely squeezed into the extreme edges of the screen, with even the occasional moment of pan & scan required to get everyone who’s speaking on screen. I think it must also hamper the impact of the occasional epic shot — and there are a few — which is a shame because I think that feeling is really part of English’s aim here. I imagine it also makes some of those fight scenes even more disorientating, which is a pity. Nothing will help the sometimes-too-obvious use of digital video though, which looks as nasty as ever.
The battling cast — led by James Purefoy and supported by the likes of Mackenzie Crook, Jason Flemyng and Jamie Foreman — all seem to have a whale of a time with their swords and axes and general fisticuffs. Their roles don’t offer too much depth, but only Flemyng (who I never rate) struggles. They’re supported by some talented thesps in the shape of Brian Cox, Derek Jacobi and Charles Dance, quality actors who maybe don’t always have the greatest taste for quality roles (Dance was recently in that direct-to-DVD Tesco-funded Jackie Collins adaptation, for instance) but always offer gravitas. There’s also Kate Mara, who does a fine British accent as an unnecessary love interest for Purefoy’s warrior monk type.
The real star, though, is Paul Giamatti as King John. Petulant, entitled and fundamentally weak, he rants and raves and chews any piece of scenery he can get his teeth into (not literally, but at times I swear he came close). It’s a well-pitched performance — he doesn’t go too far with it, making the King ridiculous and laughable without dragging the whole film down around him. That makes for a good villain.
Despite some occasional cheapness in the cinematography, Ironclad largely achieves its goal of creating a Hollywood-esque historical action movie on British soil (it was shot in Wales). Yes some of the CGI is obvious, and some stuff that looks like CGI was apparently model work, but these are all forgivable, especially when you remember this was made for just $25 million. The unfamiliar true story also gives it the added edge of not knowing who lives or dies, or whether our heroes even succeed. If the ultimate end feels guessable, I think it’s only in retrospect. Of course, that doesn’t mean any of it’s historically accurate anyway.
And so what? It’s an action movie. And on all points that matter, it scores well.
Ironclad began on Sky Movies Premiere last night and continues daily throughout the week. I have no idea which aspect ratio it’s in.
#86: Battle Los Angeles (2011) January 25, 2012Posted by badblokebob in : Action, Sci-fi, War, 3 stars, 2010s, 2011 , 3 comments
Battle Los Angeles (on screen; Battle: Los Angeles on posters — c’mon, let’s have some consistency with punctuation! Punctuation matters) seemed to come in for a wall of criticism when it hit cinemas way back whenever. For my money, though, it wasn’t that bad.
Others have described it as “Independence Day meets Black Hawk Down“, and for once that formulaic “X meets Y” description is bang-on. Like ID4, there’s a worldwide alien invasion in progress by a superior species that dominates Earth’s forces pretty quickly. Unlike ID4 (and therefore more like Black Hawk Down) there’s no multiple perspectives or look at the command level; we just follow a small band of men on a very particular mission — head to a police station and extract civilians before the US Airforce bombs the area in three hours’ time — with only snatched glimpses of the wider conflict on news reports, Cloverfield style. It’s a different way of handling a military-focused big alien invasion movie, so that works.
For the most part, anyway. It’s thrown away at the end as our particular band of heroes wind up the only military presence left in LA and happen across the command & control centre of the enemy, promptly setting out to destroy it with laser-targeted missiles. Small scale “one force in a much larger battle” drama is exchanged for world-saving grandeur. Ah, America.
This kind of gung-ho militarism is laid on too thick. It seems fine for much of the film, but then as it heads into the second half and, especially, the third act, we have to suffer all manner of speeches and Emotional Moments that lack weight due to characterisation issues. The latter is badly handled for all kinds of reasons. All of the marines are entirely clichéd; so too are their story arcs; too much time is wasted trying to make us care about them — there are too many and they’re too shallowly drawn; things are worsened when a couple of civilians are added to the mix, who suffer from all the same problems… except they’re perhaps under- rather than over-developed. As we reach the third act, anything approaching plausible characterisation is jettisoned. Like the small-scale focus, what begins as naturalistic ends up with Big Speeches and all manner of Emotional Moments.
Where the film excels, however, is the other side of gung-ho militarism: action. I don’t hold with the criticism some levelled that it’s too reliant on ShakyCam, confusing the action to the point of incomprehensibility. Maybe that happened on the big screen, I couldn’t say, but while these aren’t the greatest or most clear sequences I’ve ever seen, they’re certainly not hard to follow. The film uses its gritty, handheld, Saving Private Ryan-borrowed style to good effect for much of its running time, evoking the likes of the aforementioned as well as Black Hawk Down and The Hurt Locker in terms of conveyed realism. As I said, this is very effective for an alien invasion movie.
But, much like the early focus and characterisation, as things progress towards the climax this is slowly abandoned, showing a lack of the commitment to its world and story that Cloverfield or Monsters exhibited. There’s an increasing number of shots from the enemy’s perspective; the climax seems to abandon the earlier handheld style almost entirely for the sake of a grandstanding finale.
There is an even better film tucked away inside Battle Los Angeles. One brief dialogue scene discusses the similarities between the human soldiers and alien grunts, but the intriguing idea that they’re intelligent beings following orders just like us is sadly not built upon. There are obvious parallels with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but aside from the audience spotting shots that are reminiscent of news footage, the threads aren’t drawn out or commented on. Instead Battle LA does two things: military sycophancy, which is typically American and typically tiring or laughable (depending on your mood), and some stonkingly decent action sequences. They may take a little while to get to, but they’re relatively worth the wait.
What could have been a thought-provoking brain-switched-on commentary-on-the-world sci-fi film is instead a brain-switched-off gung-ho sci-fi action flick. I’ve seen better, I’ve seen worse, but treated as blokey weekend-evening entertainment this is fine.
#4: Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (2009) January 20, 2012Posted by badblokebob in : Horror, Action, Fantasy, 2000s, 3 stars, Adventure, 2012 , add a comment
I know, I haven’t even finished 2011’s reviews yet… but this ties in to something currently going on, so that’s definitely allowed.
It never seems to have been fashionable to admit to liking Underworld, the 2003 urban-Gothy-fantasy-actioner about vampires vs werewolves (here, Lycans) in the modern day, but I’ve always quite enjoyed it. It’s far from perfect, that’s for certain, but it has a kind of style-over-substance charm that I quite enjoy.
The 2006 sequel, Underworld: Evolution, is very much Part 2 of the story, but moves away from the urban settings to an array of more traditional Eastern European forests (albeit shot in Canada, I believe) and increasingly intricate myth-based storytelling. But still with guns. It’s also more full of creature makeup and gore (enough to bump the certificate to an 18 after the first film’s 15), and it’s not as good — Underworld may not be wholly groundbreaking (there’s a fair dose of The Matrix in there), but it felt less familiar than its sequel.
This third film is a whole different kettle of fish. With the first film’s dangling story pretty much wrapped up by the sequel (there’s room for more, but the main thrust is done with), this entry jumps back in time several hundred years for an origin of sorts, fleshing out flashbacks and backstory from the first two films. Unfortunately, we learnt pretty much all we needed to know in those flashbacks, and so in terms of both story and world-building Rise of the Lycans has little to add to the Underworld franchise. I suppose you could treat it in the style George Lucas wants us to take the Star Wars prequels and watch it before the first two films, but I don’t think it really fits there either — being set in medieval/dark ages times, this has a very different, more traditional feel than the urban original film… albeit with lashings of CGI.
In fact, it probably has most in common with the cycle of fantasy films with received post-Lord of the Rings. There’s swooping shots of towering castles, werewolf armies storming the walls, over-designed armour, all that kind of stuff. It makes for passable fare, and I suppose if you watched it before the other two films you might be surprised with where the story ultimately goes. That said, the one twist aside — and it’s the kind of twist the studio would only have allowed a modern filmmaker to get away with because it was established in the backstory of another film — everything’s pretty standard and predictable, just with more (CG) blood and gore than you’d normally find (I’m surprise they didn’t push to bring it down to PG-13 territory).
The cast is led by two supporting actors from the preceding films, Bill Nighy and Michael Sheen. Nighy hams it up exquisitely, but placing him centre stage makes it a mite less fun than it was in the past. Sheen brings quality to any part and we get no less here. Rhona Mitra, being the franchise’s obligatory ass-kicking-girl (replacing Kate Beckinsale, whose character comes in to play much later in the fictional world’s timeline), is fine. I’ve seen an awful lot worse.
In the director’s chair for the first (and, to date, last) time is special effects whizz Patrick Tatopoulos, who does a fine job of producing an action-fantasy film. There’s nothing remarkable about it but it largely works, though it’s a little bit on the dark side at times. I don’t know why so many films do this, incidentally — we’ve reached an era where people are mostly watching films in cinemas where the bulbs are under-lit to save money, or at home in probably less-than-ideal conditions, with various lights on and a screen left on factory settings. I wouldn’t mind if these dark movies looked fine once you were properly calibrated, but most of them are still ever so dark. Why do they think this is a good idea? Especially when you flick into 3D (which, fortunately, this film was just ahead of.)
But I digress. If you’re the kind of fantasy fan who was switched off by the urban antics of the first Underworld, this more traditional swords-and-monsters effort may appeal to your sensibilities. Otherwise, it’s really one for franchise devotees only, telling a tale you’ll know in a bit more detail. And for that, it’s not bad.
#95: Hotel for Dogs (2009) January 19, 2012Posted by badblokebob in : Comedy, Drama, 2000s, adaptations, 4 stars, 2011 , add a comment
Half a decade ago I would surely have hated this film. I had no love for animals in general, certainly not pets. But in the past few years I’ve become a certified canine convert, and watching it now I loved it.
The story sees orphaned teen siblings Emma Roberts and Jake T. Austin accidentally set up a secret sanctuary for strays in a deserted hotel, with help from a couple of similarly aged pet store workers and a neighbourhood kid who wanders in halfway through. Layer in a couple of half-hearted subplots about the siblings’ quest for a new home, a romantic angle or two, and some evil dog wardens, and you have a whole movie.
Well, sort of. This is definitely one for kids or dog lovers. There’s plenty of varied action for the latter, and the story is too simplistic and implausible to be taken more seriously than as a kids’ film. Most of the subplots are mildly annoying — stock material on teen ‘love’, fitting in to a new school, comedy bad foster parents, etc — but at least they’re not given much screen time. It’s this kind of thing that led reviews like Empire’s to criticise the film for a lack of character development, but to be honest I could’ve done without some of the meagre scenes we did get, never mind more of them. Supposedly character building stuff like the teeny party to get to know future classmates — bleurgh. Luckily, such things are brief. And someone wanted more of Lisa Kudrow and Kevin Dillon’s failed-rocker foster parent characters? I’d rather have had less, thanks.
So no, character and story aren’t the film’s strong points. There’s enough of a plot to keep it ticking over, to give it drama when appropriate and give it all a shape. Characters are perfunctory at best, and it’s impossible to buy squeaky clean Emma Roberts as a juvenile delinquent. But really all that’s there just to facilitate more doggy action (er, as it were). The four-legged cast members are the real stars, and several of them definitely have more personality than their human co-stars. My favourite was definitely the orphans’ pet, Friday, a scruffy white terrier with an exceptional ability to sniff out food (featured in every picture, because… aww, just look at him!), but then he reminded me so much of my own dog that I may well be biased. There’s all sorts of mutts here for pretty much every kind of dog lover.
There’s also a good deal of inventiveness on display. Much like the boy from Lemony Snicket, Austin’s character has a flair for invention, and the dog-helping contraptions he magics up throughout the film are delightfully inventive. There’s also a lot of fun filmmaking with the dogs, like the opening sequence that depicts Friday’s ability to sniff out and acquire food with a selection of perfect visuals. This is partly why the animals have so much more personality than the two-legged stars.
Judged as simply a movie, on its story and its characters and all that regular palaver, I can see why Hotel for Dogs attracts so many poor scores (it has an exceptionally low 4.9 on IMDb). But as a kids’ film I think it works well enough, and as a delivery system for cute dogs I loved it. I don’t think I’ve ever “aww”ed so much in a single film. Yep, I’ve gone all soft. But if you’re neither a child nor a dog lover, don’t bother.
#96: The Spider Woman (1944) January 15, 2012Posted by badblokebob in : Thriller, adaptations, 4 stars, 1940s, Mystery, Sherlock Holmes, 2011 , 2 comments
It’s the second season finale of the brilliant Sherlock tonight, so what better time to post a review of another Holmes adaptation that’s based in part on the infamous The Final Problem…
The seventh feature starring Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr John Watson is the first since Hound to drop Holmes’ name from the title and, at under an hour (59 minutes 33 seconds in PAL, to be precise), is the shortest yet.
It’s previously been asserted (in this blog’s comments) that The Spider Woman is “one of the best of the series”, and it’s certainly a strong effort. Screenwriter Bertram Millhauser (who also wrote the previous two films, and would go on to pen two more) skillfully mixes elements from various Conan Doyle tales — while I spotted two or three, Wikipedia says the full list includes The Sign of Four, The Final Problem, The Adventure of the Empty House, The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot and The Adventure of the Speckled Band.
As they’re combined here, the story sees Holmes fake his own death to help tackle the Irene Adler-esque titular woman, apparently his intellectual match, who’s somehow causing a spree of suicides. Several of these borrowed elements — the faked death and The Woman — lead to some delicious scenes, such as when Holmes reveals he’s alive to Dr Watson, offering one of those occasions where Bruce’s comedic rendition of the role actually works; or when an incognito Holmes meets the woman, who is actually aware of his true identity. Indeed the woman, played by Gale Sondergaard, is so good that they crafted a sequel around her, albeit Holmes-less. I’ve not seen it and don’t own it, so I’ve no idea what that does for its quality.
The mystery itself is solid enough, but that’s not necessarily the point of these Holmes adventures. They’re not play-along puzzles like an Agatha Christie adaptation, where there’s a set of definite clues and a finite number of suspects, but rather exciting tales that whip you along their incredible path — adventures indeed. You can certainly see the (deliberate) tonal link between these ’40s films and the modern-set Sherlock, or indeed the pair of Robert Downey Jr. films.
At the halfway point of the Rathbone-Bruce films (it’s only taken my four years to get this far), the series is still producing exciting, good-quality re-arrangements of Conan Doyle’s works. And I’m assured there’s more to come. Fantastic.
#82: Centurion (2010) January 12, 2012Posted by badblokebob in : Action, War, 4 stars, Adventure, British films, true stories, Historical, 2010s, 2011 , 2 comments
Last week, as I’m sure you’re aware, I posted the top ten films I’d watched in 2011. Among them were three I’ve yet to post a review for… so what better way to begin finishing off my 2011 reviews than with those. So here’s the lowest, #8…
The fourth feature from writer/director Neil Marshall (despite owning his first three on DVD, this BD rental is the first I’ve actually watched — story of my life) is a bit of a departure: where the first three were horror (or at least horror-leaning) flicks, Centurion is an action-adventure crossed with something a little more artsy. Only a little, mind. Think Seraphim Falls.
The story involves a Roman legion (a real one, in fact — the story is based in historical fact) venturing into Scotland to take on the natives. They get massacred, the survivors try to get home alive. The story moves quickly, keeping the momentum up. Indeed, at times it moves so fast that some characters seem to be given short shrift. There’s a “who will survive?” element to the plot — Marshall’s horror roots showing through, perhaps — but you can largely guess which order they’ll be shuffled off in based on, a) how much screen time the character has, and b) the good old deciding factor of “which actors are most recognisable”. Predictability doesn’t really matter though, because there are (perhaps) a couple of surprises in store, and it’s only one element of the story.
Regular readers may know that I have an ever-growing dislike for films that begin at or near the end for no good reason (and most of those that do have no good reason to do so). Centurion’s opening line notes that “this is neither the beginning nor the end” of the lead character’s story. Oh dear, thought I, though perhaps “nor the end” signifies we might reach this point suitably distant from the credits, maybe. Not meaning to spoil it, but we’re there just 10 minutes later. Nice work Mr Marshall.
And with the mention of credits, allow me to note that both the opening and closing credits are wonderful, reminiscent of Panic Room’s much-exalted titles without being a clone.
The characters who do get screen time are well built. Most of them conform to regular men-on-a-mission types, but in the hands of actors like Michael Fassbender and David Morrissey that doesn’t matter. This seems like an appropriate enough point to note that Fassbender is fast becoming, if he isn’t already, an actor where it’s worth watching something with him in even if it doesn’t otherwise appeal. His mixed choices of blockbusters/mainstream-skewing movies and acclaimed artier fare suggest pretty impeccable taste. (Or, at least, tastes that match my own.) The cast is packed with people who, even if you don’t know their names, there’s a fair chance you’ll know the faces (assuming you watch your share of British drama): in addition to Fassbender and Morrissey there’s Dominic West, JJ Field, Lee Ross, Paul Freeman, Liam Cunningham, Noel Clarke, Riz Ahmed, Imogen Poots, Rachael Stirling, Peter Guinness… not to mention Film Star Olga Kurylenko. Recognisability doesn’t guarantee quality, of course, but that’s a pretty good list.
On the action side, there’s a selection of excellently choreographed fights. Lots of blood and gore, but surprisingly not gratuitous considering we have all manner of limbs being lopped off, decapitations, heads being shorn in two, and so on. It’s unquestionably graphic, but it doesn’t linger — the battles are hectic, fast, a blur… but in a good way: you can see what’s going on, but it feels appropriately chaotic.
On the artsy side, the Scottish scenery is extraordinarily stunning. Helicopter shots are put to marvellous use. Think Lord of the Rings, only this was shot on our own fair island. The filmmakers went to extremes to achieve this — it’s entirely real location work, beyond the back of beyond in the depths of a snow-covered Scottish winter; no green screen, no CG enhancement — and their effort has paid off. It looks thoroughly gorgeous. I fear I’m overemphasising the point, but… nah.
I really enjoyed Centurion, appreciating its mix between brutally real action and stunning scenery, with a slightly more thoughtful side emerging in the final act. It’s also always pleasant to see a film that runs the length it wants to at a reasonable speed, rather than padding itself to reach two or even two-and-a-half hours. Splendid.
Centurion placed 9th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2011, which can be read in full here.