June 2012 June 30, 2012Posted by badblokebob in : Editorials, progress reports, 2012 , 2 comments
It’s officially the halfway point of the year. How are things going?
Yeah — another month over, and another that hasn’t gone as well as it might. From the 10-film lead I’d built up by the end of March, I’m now crushingly only just ahead of target. Still, it’s not my worst year ever: I’d only reached 45 at this point in 2008, and 38 in 2009. (For what it’s worth, the best is last year’s 67.)
Despite the end of June ostensibly being halfway through the year, I’d actually be on target with only 49: thanks to February and August breaking the pattern of month-lengths, the halfway-point in days actually falls just inside July (even in a leap year). But that’s swings and roundabouts; and besides, the way I go about things, it pays more to look at the year in terms of months rather than days.
#47 Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
#48 The Beast Stalker, aka Ching yan (2008)
#49 The Spiral Staircase (2000)
#50 The Lost Weekend (1945)
#50a Toy Story Toons: Hawaiian Vacation (2011)
#51 Cars 2 (2011)
I was going to watch John Carter and review it tomorrow. Life got in the way. The story’s the same for so many other things I’ve intended to watch recently (it took me a week longer than intended to watch The Lost Weekend, a rare success story). Will try to watch it soon regardless. I’m very curious.
Most years at this point I’m quite far ahead. Of the two where I wasn’t, one just scraped 100, the other was my only failure to date.
No pressure to get things back on track, July!
#46: The Scarlet Claw (1944) June 21, 2012Posted by badblokebob in : Horror, Thriller, adaptations, 4 stars, 1940s, Mystery, Sherlock Holmes, 2012 , add a comment
According to Wikipedia, “David Stuart Davies notes on the film’s DVD audio commentary* that [The Scarlet Claw is] generally considered by critics and fans of the series to be the best of the twelve Holmes films made by Universal.” That’s always a bold kind of assertion to make (it’s never trouble-free to define an entire fandom’s favourite), but I can still believe it’s true: The Scarlet Claw is marvellous.
When looking it up before viewing I was surprised to find it had a spot on the Top 500 Horror Movies (voted by users of IMDb’s horror boards, apparently), where it had a place in the lower 300s. I was surprised — Holmes is a detective series, not one I’d think of nominating for such a list. But there is one arguable exception to that — The Hound of the Baskervilles, of course — and it’s clear that Scarlet Claw draws significant inspiration from that preeminent entry in the Holmes canon. Lists of similarities are available for them that wants them, because I think Scarlet Claw does enough to merit consideration in its own right.
And it really is a horror movie too. There’s not just the elements of occult in the myth of the Canadian town Holmes and Watson find themselves in almost by chance, which you always know will be debunked in a Sherlock Holmes plot, but also the way the production is staged. Indeed, the film’s scariest sequence occurs after it’s revealed that the killings are being committed by a mere human — a properly chilling murder scene, quite out of step with the film’s age and PG certificate.
A lot of this is thanks to director Roy William Neill. On a previous review of mine, Ride the High Country’s Colin noted that Neill “turned out some quality low-budget stuff for Universal. He had a real knack for creating a spooky and mysterious atmosphere that’s evident in his horrors and thrillers.” This film demonstrates that fact more than any Holmes yet. His direction is incredibly atmospheric, from a wonderful mist-covered opening scene, replete with an incessantly tolling bell, to regular instances of shadow-drenched photography afterwards; not to mention various pleasing camera angles and moves.
The story — in which townsfolk believe a mythical beast has returned to murder its residents — presents a well-constructed mystery all round, though as it moves into the second half some of its twists become all too guessable. There simply aren’t enough supporting characters to provide any meaningful sense of having to ponder who the villain might be (because, as I noted, you know it’s not really a beast). There’s also a hefty dose of coincidence that everyone involved, both on screen and off, conveniently ignores.
If we’re looking at the flaws, there’s a return for the painful closing speech from Rathbone, this time a Churchill-quoted ode to the wonder of Canada. Ugh. Still, you half expect it from this series, and it’s very easy to ignore.
The other little niggles may stop the film from being perfect but, like the similarities to The Hound, while they’re certainly there, they’re easy to overlook in the name of a rollicking good horror-mystery-adventure.
* I could verify this for myself, but I haven’t, so… ^
#98: The Man from Earth (2007) June 19, 2012Posted by badblokebob in : Drama, Sci-fi, 2000s, 4 stars, Mystery, 2011 , add a comment
IMDb’s Top Rated lists tend to be full of films you’ve heard of; the kind of features that are sufficiently well-known to have been seen by a lot of people and so attract enough qualifying votes, and are well-regarded enough (be that critically or the baying masses) for those votes to be fairly high. So The Man from Earth has been an odd fixture on the Top 50 Sci-Fi Films for the last few years. It’s a low-budget, low-key feature from a TV writer (the titular Jerome Bixby) that stars mainly TV actors (the kind of faces recognisable to those who watched a lot of ’90s US SF and no one else). It’s not very widely seen, but has managed to maintain a permanent place on the list’s lower end for years now, despite increased awareness no doubt due to this very list (the number of votes its received has gone up considerably; as of this posting it sits at 42nd, whereas I swear it used to be in the top 25).
So does it deserve its place? Well, that’s a trickier question. The low-budget roots show through plainly: it’s all shot on grainy digital video, looking cheaper than even lower-end TV shows do these days, and all takes place in one location where a group of characters sit around and have a natter. You could perform it on stage and not have to lose anything. But that doesn’t make it inherently bad, just more surprising that it’s upheld its place on a public-voted list. You can see reviews on IMDb that bemoan the digital video, the wordy script, and so on, and yet they’re clearly not influential enough to pull it down.
Judged on its own terms, however, The Man from Earth is what one might call Proper Science Fiction. Most films classed as sci-fi just feature aliens or what have you; they’re space opera, or just action movies where Americans fight off-planet enemies instead of out-of-country enemies; the kind of thing Ray Bradbury termed fantasy rather than sci-fi (I’m inclined to agree, but that’s a discussion for another time). Instead of Shooting And Blowing Up Stuff, or even comedy antics with a twist, The Man from Earth deals in Ideas.
To say too much might spoil the setup, though I imagine it’s given away in the blurb, but let me try anyway: a college professor has decided to quit his job and move on, trying to slink away without anyone noticing; his friends and colleagues arrive at his house to cheer him on his way, but get sidetracked into a long discussion about a revelation he has for them. Something like that. This is why its IMDb place continues to surprise me — because the wider voting audience generally don’t like movies where nothing happens but chat.
As you may have guessed from repeated statements of surprise, I don’t think The Man from Earth is for everyone. You have to be able to look past the budget production values, the occasionally lower-end-TV level acting, the limitations of setting and action. If you sit down to view it as a filmed discussion between friends that you get to be a silent part of, and are prepared for all the slowness of pace that involves (because compare the experience of doing anything in real life for an hour and a half to how much gets crammed into a movie’s 90 minutes — that’s the speed Man from Earth moves), and are open to a movie that posits an idea and then explores it — including some twists and turns of variable merit — then you might enjoy this film. I did.
I’ll continue to be surprised by its IMDb placement (unless it ever drops off, of course), but I’m glad it’s there. Whether it’s one of the 50 best sci-fi films of all time, I’m not sure, but it’s the kind of SF that should to be on the list, and if by being there it reaches a broader audience than it would otherwise, that’s a very good thing.
And that concludes the reviews for 2011! I’ll try not to take until June next year.
#100: The A-Team: Explosive Extended Edition (2010) June 10, 2012Posted by badblokebob in : Action, Thriller, adaptations, 4 stars, Adventure, alternate & director's cuts, remakes, 2010s, 2011 , 3 comments
I’m a bit young to have experienced seminal ’80s TV series The A-Team first time round, though I swear I caught some repeats when I was young — enough that I know the basic premise but can’t specifically recall ever seeing any of it. Which means I approach this big screen update with perhaps a different mindset to someone who has a distinct opinion (be that good or bad) on the original.
As it’s presented here, The A-Team is an origin story. A double origin story, in fact: a long pre-titles sequence (technically a title sequence) shows us how the four guys originally met each other, before the main plot expands on the famous opening voice over — the whole “a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit” bit. The film is set today, unsurprisingly, with Vietnam switched for the Middle East. The action roams around the globe a bit, not that it really matters where it occurs. The lead cast seem to gel well, which is good for the humour quotient. There’s not enough use of the cool theme tune for my liking — they don’t use it on the title card or to kick off the end credits. What?
As it’s presented here, The A-Team is a lighthearted action movie. We’re in broadly the same vein as RED and Knight and Day, both of which were released the same year — clearly there was something in the water. You might also make a comparison to Shoot ‘Em Up, or even the Rush Hour films. All films that are primarily about action (well, maybe not Knight and Day) but done with a wink or a nudge, and certainly not po-faced seriousness. As much as I like serious action, I enjoy this kind of film too. I gave RED four stars; Shoot ‘Em Up the same. You may see where this is going. I am, once again, probably being too generous.
As it’s presented here, The A-Team is a bit silly. If you’ve seen the trailer you know there’s a bit where they fall out of a plane in a tank. Then they battle with fighter jets from this free-falling tank. Clearly no one is meant to think this is actually possible. At least, I hope they’re not; I didn’t read it as the filmmakers trying to sell it as plausible. Carnahan and co are not shooting for a Bourne vibe here. As I see it, your reaction to that tank bit in the trailer will dictate your reaction to the whole film: if you thought it looked bloody stupid, extrapolate; if you thought it looked frickin’ cool, extrapolate; if you thought, like me, that it looked enjoyably far-fetched, extrapolate.
As it’s presented here, The A-Team is an “Explosive Extended Edition”, which is a funny name for it because nearly all the additions are dialogue — no explosions, barely any new action, mostly just people talking for one reason or another. It totals just under 15 minutes longer (I don’t think there are any cuts involved in that, just extensions or alternate takes). If you enjoy the film’s humorous side and the banter between the leads, this version would seem to be superior; if that doesn’t or didn’t interest you, there’s no need for it. That said, one scene is apparently “big and puts some drama and emotion into the movie, maybe a bit too much for a PG rating”. (In the UK, both cuts are rated 12, despite some additional bad language and the fact the theatrical version was cut for language to get said 12. Ah, the BBFC.) There’s a full list of changes here, if you’re interested.
The A-Team is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. I know some people only like their action po-faced; others just won’t think it clicks at what it’s trying to do; I don’t know if it measures up for fans of the original (nearly two years after its theatrical release, I imagine they know by now anyway). It didn’t go down well enough to earn a sequel, and that disappoints me a little — it was everything I expected from the trailer and I enjoyed it as much as I hoped I would. Can’t say fairer than that.
#11: The Book of Eli (2010) June 4, 2012Posted by badblokebob in : Action, Drama, Thriller, Sci-fi, Western, 2010s, 2012 , add a comment
The directors of From Hell (what did they do for nine years? Struggle to find work perhaps) helm the tale of Denzel Washington being a sunglasses-wearing loner mofo in a post-apocalyptic America. I really enjoyed it… for maybe 50 minutes, before it gradually slid away, ultimately degenerating to a Christianity circle jerk ending.
I warn you now, this review contains spoilers, because I don’t care if I ruin the crap bits for you. Indeed, I’d say less “ruin” and more “prepare”.
Much like the film, let’s start with the good stuff. It has a slow, almost elegiac pace early on, punctuated by bursts of violence and action. This section is very good. Then it begins to slip into more typical action blockbuster territory. A fake-single-take shoot-out might’ve seemed virtuous filmmaking in the right film, but here it seems like director willy-waggling in preference to serving the mood and tone thus far created. Same goes for other independently cool things that follow, like the explosive destruction of a truck.
Ironically, one of the earlier good action sequences (a bar brawl… to sell it short!) is included in a beautifully-choreographed single-take form in the deleted & alternate scenes. That should’ve been left in the film. The final version isn’t bad — the Hughes brothers use a variety of static and wide shots to lens all the film’s fights in a way that reminds you that all handheld close-up shaky-jumpy super-fast-cut modern action sequences are inferior to an old-style well-staged, well-shot sequence — but if they’d had the restraint not to intercut some sequence-extending close-ups they would have had a massively more memorable sequence.
The music is by Atticus Ross, which was interesting because I’d thought it was reminiscent of The Social Network. So that’s nice.
There are nice, subtle CG effects (I presume) for much of the film, making the world brown-grey and bleak with green-tinged clouds… but all that is ditched for the digitally stitched together ’single take’ gunfight and, even more so, a vision of a desolate San Francisco during the closing minutes. It’s decent enough in itself — I’ve seen worse — but like, say, the ‘vampires’ in I Am Legend, it’s jarring and awkward because it doesn’t fit with the tone and style established elsewhere.
A bit like Mila Kunis, who is kinda fine but also an acting weak link. Washington and Gary Oldman (especially) are as great as ever. After years of Harry Potter, Batman and recently Tinker Tailor, it’s quite nice to see Oldman back as a villain! He knows how to pitch it perfectly, and while the lack of out-and-out crazy means this one isn’t as memorable as Leon’s Stansfield (well, who is?), it fits the film like a glove. It can’t withstand the blockbusterised let’s-go-get-’em second half, but then not much can. Certainly not the directors’ skills. The oft-underrated Ray Stevenson even offers a cut-above-average lead henchman figure. But there’s something about Kunis… something too present-day and preppy for someone who’s supposed to have been born and raised in a deeply post-apocalyptic back-of-beyond world. She’s nowhere near rough enough.
Late on the film pulls out surprise appearances from Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour. Their roles aren’t even close to needing thesps of such calibre though — they appear fleetingly, the actors underused. Particularly Gambon, who really has nothing to do except fire a gun. I know it’s usually a joke to comment that a usually-better cast member must have needed the money, but that’s the only reason I can imagine he’s here.
Worst of all is a pat ending, which doesn’t make a lot of sense in various ways. They really destroyed every Bible? He really memorised all of it? He wasn’t blind all along, surely? Because you assume he is and then no one says so you think maybe you’ve read it wrong but then it’s meant to be a twist that he’s blind — what?! Why is that facility on Alcatraz? Why have they just been collecting for 30 years? For 30 years?! I could go on.
As well as being religiousified to extremes, these attempts at giving surprising twists just don’t wash. To quote Kim Newman in Empire,
Given that the leather-bound tome Eli treasures is embossed with a crucifix, it’s not much of a surprise when we find out what it is…
Eli’s literary devotion is more giggly than inspirational. Frankly, it would be more affecting if humanity’s last hope rested in almost any other book than the one chosen here – Tristram Shandy, David Copperfield, the Empire Movie Almanac.
So, so true. This must be why American reviewers seem to have loved the film, but our more secular nature sees it as Just Daft. Thank God for that.
Newman concludes that “you can’t help feel you were invited to a party with fizzy pop and cream cake and got suckered into a sermon instead.” I couldn’t have put it better. Eli starts off with the potential for an arty 5; slips slightly to a solid 4 when the standard post-apocalyptic trope of a gang fighting for local power comes in to play; unsteadies that 4 with an increasingly atonal second half; and quite frankly borders a 1 with its sickening ending.
I land on a generous 3, because anything less would be unfair to the good stuff it achieves early on. What a shame it couldn’t continue in that vein.