#32: Rules of Engagement (2000) January 10, 2013Posted by badblokebob in : Drama, Thriller, War, 2000s, 2 stars, 2012 , add a comment
I’ve still got loads of reviews to get through from 2012, so let’s begin with this mediocre courtroom thriller…
#55: Passchendaele (2008) December 16, 2012Posted by badblokebob in : Drama, War, Romance, 2000s, 4 stars, world cinema, 2012 , add a comment
Today’s 100 Films Advent Calendar review…
#85: War Horse (2011) October 20, 2012Posted by badblokebob in : Drama, War, 5 stars, adaptations, British films, Historical, 2010s, 2012 , add a comment
Steven Spielberg’s film based on the stageplay based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo.
#24: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) August 28, 2012Posted by badblokebob in : Action, Drama, War, 5 stars, 2000s, adaptations, Adventure, Historical, 2012 , add a comment
I can’t say a naval inaction film with Russell Crowe held massive appeal. Turns out I was completely wrong…
#38: Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) April 20, 2012Posted by badblokebob in : Action, Sci-fi, War, adaptations, 3 stars, Adventure, superhero films, remakes, 2010s, 2012 , 8 comments
The final entry in Marvel’s multi-film campaign leading up to big team-up The Avengers (Avengers Assemble this side of the pond, don’t forget) sees them tackle a big name in comics that hasn’t previously transferred quite as well to the big (or small) screen. And, to jump to the end, it did well: $358.6m worldwide, which is about two-and-a-half times its budget… though still $91m behind the next-highest grossing of Marvel’s new wave, leaving it fourth of the five films.
But box office does not tell of quality, as the highest grossing films of all time surely tells us. That said, rather than fourth I’d probably rank it fifth.
Despite how such a negative start may sound, I didn’t dislike Captain America. In fact, I largely enjoyed it. It was, as I’m sure you know, released the same summer as Thor (that’d be last summer), and they make quite a good pair within Marvel’s little universe. They both begin by grounding the viewer on present-day Earth, before spinning off to a different time and place for a second prologue, before heading off to a third time and place to kick off a different kind of superhero story. In Thor it was a sci-fi/fantasy tale of God-like beings; in Cap it’s a World War 2-era superhero-without-powers. Not to mention the fact that they’re tied together by brief second prologues in the same small Norwegian town and a super-powerful artefact called the Tesseract.
The connections don’t stop there. Some people complained that Iron Man 2 had too little focus on its own story and too much stuff setting up The Avengers. I disagreed, but I’d consider levelling such a criticism at Cap. While it doesn’t do it so overtly as the second Iron Man (this is set around 70 years before Nick Fury will come along with his Avenger Initiative), it feels at times as if it’s drawing together disparate threads from previous films in preparation for the team-up. Sure, most of the film works without knowing the connections — the fact that Cap’s shield cameoed in Iron Man 2, or that the super soldier programme plays a central role in The Incredible Hulk, won’t destroy anyone’s understanding of this — but, having seen those films (as surely most of Cap’s audience will have), it does feel almost as much a prequel to The Avengers as a film in its own right. Maybe the subtitle should’ve given that away.
Even aside from the inter-film connections, the story feels like someone gave the writers a checklist of “bits of mythology you must include” and they battled to shape a story around including them all. This results in a bitty narrative that jumps about, trying to include various WW2-era elements of Cap continuity ready for an ending that sends him to the present day in time for The Avengers. (Sorry if you consider that a spoiler, but I think the fact he’s in The Avengers rather gives it away.) To top it off, they also attempt to leave holes so that a sequel could be set in WW2 too, if so desired. While I appreciate that as an idea — the ’40s setting is a clear marker of why Cap is different to other similar heroes — it’s part of the reason it doesn’t feel like the whole thing quite ties together.
It also has the same problem that the first Iron Man did: there’s a lot of backstory involved in establishing Cap’s origins, leaving the villain to hover around the periphery until he’s needed for the climax. When said villain is Cap’s equivalent of the Joker in terms of significance, it’s a bit of a waste. They should be equals and opposites, and there are attempts to build that in, but the two don’t face off enough for it to really work. They both go about their own business, until they more or less bump into each other a significant way through the film, eventually leading to a climactic battle.
In short, I appreciate the attempts at creating a different structure for a superhero movie, but by trying to avoid the straight-up “hero encounters villain, fights against villain to end” shape of a tale, I think they’ve made something a bit too disjointed. I felt it was a series of shorter narratives connected by being placed end to end, not a single film-length story.
While I’m on things I felt they got wrong, let’s tackle the special effects. There are too many of them, meaning a lot looked quite fake to these eyes. OK, they tell the story just fine, and you might argue it gives a heightened comic-book-y feel, but I feel like I was seeing stuff of this quality six or more years ago, and I don’t believe I should be feeling that way on a movie this big. In fact, to be honest, the first Pirates movie was eight years old when this was made, and that was light-years ahead of this. Now, I think that movie had exceptional effects work, and it was well ahead of the average at the time… but that time was eight years ago. It’s hard to say what exactly is wrong here, but it’s mainly an abundance of CG backdrops, green/blue screen stuff that doesn’t scan. Heck, in one shot you can see a blue glow around the edge of a character’s hair! That’s bordering on the amateurish.
The much-discussed ‘Skinny Steve’ — where effects wizards turned muscly star Chris Evans into a wimpy little guy for the film’s first act — is an intermittently good effect. Sometimes it’s astonishing, the equal of similar work from Benjamin Button; a completely plausible human being. Other times, not so much: in some shots his head is obviously disproportionate, or a character pokes the air when he’s surely meant to be poking Steve’s chest, or he looks oddly squished, or cartoonishly exaggerated… Like all the effects, the makers seem to have overstretched their means/budget.
I know special effects are a means to an end, and we don’t routinely criticise the fakery of back-projection and what have you in Old Movies, but I think the difference is filmmakers don’t have to go as far as they do nowadays. We’ve seen similar shots and scenes and effects that have been done more convincingly, and when lesser versions begin to distract you from the storytelling, there’s something at fault. Whether that’s the effects themselves or something else, like the story not being engrossing enough, is another debate.
Perhaps it was that episodic story, because one of the other main things I got from Cap was a long game of Spot The TV Actor In A Small Supporting Role. So prevalent did they seem that at times I was more focussed on that than anything else. Oops. Still, do look out for Spooks & Robin Hood’s Richard Armitage, Boomtown & Desperate Housewives‘ Neal McDonough, The Ruby in the Smoke’s JJ Field, The Tudors‘ Natalie Dormer, The Mentalist’s Amanda Righetti, Doctor Who’s Jenna-Louise Coleman, and Scott & Bailey’s Ben Batt (blink and you’ll miss him). There are probably others, but those were the ones I knew. I imagine there are so many Brits in relatively small roles because it was shot over here. Not sure why, but it was.
Of the main cast, Chris Evans is fine as Steve Rogers, a guy so Honourable that it’s almost a thankless role — much like Superman, he’s almost too nice to be interesting. Not as bad as Superman can be, though, because at the start his good intentions surpass his physical means. It’ll be interesting to see how he plays in future films, especially The Avengers, where he’s going to have to face the awesomeness of Tony Stark. But that’s for other films. Romantic interest Hayley Atwell is perfectly up to task. Among the rumoured contenders for the role was Emily Blunt, who I can’t really imagine playing a character so supportive and fundamentally nice (a perfect match for Rogers, then), so I’m glad she didn’t get it. Shame for Atwell they bumped Cap into the future, automatically leaving her out of future franchise entries.
Elsewhere, Tommy Lee Jones could play roles like this grumpy-but-good-at-heart-General in his sleep, but at least claims the film’s best line. Equally, Hugo Weaving could be in a similar state of unconsciousness and give a good villain, and while he does his best to chew the scenery I thought he was fine but unmemorable in an underused role. As I said, the screenplay positions him as a “we need a villain for a climax”-level enemy when his character should be The Hero’s Nemesis, leaving a waste of both character and actor. Co-villain Toby Jones is similarly ill-treated, although at least he may return, semi-reincarnated as another villain (no explicit clues in the film, but he is one in the comics).
Everywhere-man Dominic Cooper channels Robert Downey Jr and John Slattery to portray a young Howard Stark (Tony’s dad, notch), who had a bigger role than I expected. The rest of the cast appear for fan box-ticking (see my mythology comment), which means they also go underused. There’s only so much room in one film of course, and the focus is rightly laid on Cap’s journey. The small roles given to his team of army mates would have been fine as setup for a sequel, but as it’s been confirmed that Cap 2 will be set in the modern day, once again it’s good casting and character establishment gone to waste. Again, the film is attempting too much.
And I haven’t even mentioned the over-graded sepia hue, because it’s Set In The Past. Digital grading brought much potential to the film industry, but instead it’s pathetically and predictably overused. Whenever you compare a film itself to some B-roll footage in a behind-the-scenes documentary or somesuch, you suddenly noticed how not-like-real-life the film looks. In every thriller whites are actually blue, for instance. Here, I imagine if you compared it you’d find whites are actually bronze. I don’t imagine this kind of thing is going away now though.
I realise I’ve consistently laid into Captain America here. It has good points. I forgot to mention Stanley Tucci, for instance, who as an early mentor for Rogers is vital to the story and well played. There’s also some solid action sequences (eventually), and not too much 3D tomfoolery, and some humour, though not as much as Iron Man or Thor unfortunately. I did, overall, enjoy the film… just not as much as any other in Marvel’s Avengers lead-up. I wound up wondering if it would’ve worked better as a condensed 15-minute pre-titles to that film.
But hey-ho, here it is. Like I theorised at the end of Iron Man, maybe with this setup out of the way they can produce a better sequel… but considering the skinny-little-man-turned-muscly-superhero is one of the more interesting aspects of Cap, and they’ve done that now; and the World War 2 setting is another unique facet, which they’re leaving behind… sadly, I’m not holding out quite as much hope.
Captain America: The First Avenger is on Sky Movies Premiere from today (hence why I’ve reviewed it before Thor).
Avengers Assemble is in UK cinemas from Thursday 26th April. The Avengers is in US cinemas from Friday 4th May, and on various other dates worldwide.
#74: Glorious 39 (2009) February 7, 2012Posted by badblokebob in : Drama, Thriller, War, 2000s, 4 stars, British films, Mystery, films about films, 2011 , 1 comment so far
“This year’s Atonement,” proclaims the poster, and DVD cover, and probably much more of the marketing for Stephen Poliakoff’s first venture into the cinema for 12 years, in the process probably explaining why he’s made (or “how he found the funding to make”) the return-jump from exalted TV auteur to cinematic hopeful: the titular “39″ means “1939″, the year World War II began. Throw in a plot that concerns the aristocracy and an ‘English rose’-type to stare thoughtfully open-mouthed into the distance on all the posters, and Poliakoff’s film is automatically lumped in the same ballpark as Joe Wright’s Ian McEwan adaptation. Only this one comes light on awards nominations.
I was going to add “light on star power” too, but whereas Atonement could only offer Keira Knightley and a still-rising James McAvoy, Glorious 39 offers a host of above-the-title names: trailing behind Atonement’s own Romola Garai we find Bill Nighy, Julie Christie, David Tennant, Jenny Agutter, Jeremy Northam and Christopher Lee, not to mention a host of other recognisable British faces. If the combined cult might of Mr.s Tennant and Lee wasn’t enough to make this a hit, nothing could be. Some quite critical reviews obviously didn’t help.
I, however, thought it was rather good. I can see what turned some people off though. It’s a thriller, but it moves leisurely, especially early on. It’s also quite elliptical at times, not so much requiring you to pay attention as put the pieces together yourself. Plus it lacks a grand finale in which the hero triumphs, or at least loses in dramatic style — it’s quieter than that. Yet I liked the ending, finding it triumphant in a whole other way. But I won’t go spoiling that here.
It’s very much a Poliakoff work, I think. Perhaps that catches some film critics unawares: as noted, he worked solely in TV for over a decade before this, albeit in an auteur mode, writing and directing his own TV movies and miniseries, and perhaps this means he passed them by. But then that’s just about managing expectations. It’s not a melodramatic epic love story like Atonement, nor is it a pacey wartime thriller like… no example comes readily to mind, actually. Can someone please make a pacey wartime thriller? Or tell me which I’ve missed/forgotten?
By taking its time it creates a mood of creeping terror and dread; of an oppressive conspiracy that our hero, who’s just a fairly ordinary girl, has no chance of overturning — if it’s even real, and if she can find details about it if it is. And, by extension, by taking its time it’s being A Bit Different, and that means you can never be sure where it’s going to go; never be sure who’s on the side of the angels and who of the devils; of who is reliable and what is really happening; of who will survive. What’s better in a thriller than not actually knowing what will come? There should be twists in this genre — genuine twists when possible, not a stock array of “small character played by famous actor turns out to be vitally important” or ” good guy is actually bad guy” or what have you — and Glorious 39, with its balanced uncertainty, pulls some of those off.
It’s also well written, prettily shot, and expertly performed by that array of quality performers. I don’t recall a weak link.
Ignore the critics, ignore the comparisons to Atonement, and give Glorious 39 a chance on its own terms. I very much liked it.
* I own Glorious 39 on DVD, but watched it on TV when it premiered because it was shown (and available on iPlayer) in HD. There is no UK Blu-ray of the film, but I believe one is available in America. Such a fate seems to have befallen several British films of late — Easy Virtue is another example that quickly comes to mind. ^
#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.