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Literally Speaking: Winter People May 14, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Drama , 3 comments

I’m a bit of a Kurt Russell fan, in fact I get a bit of ribbing by family members over how big a Kurt fan I am. That’s not to say I think he’s the greatest actor to walk the earth, far from it, but he is consistently entertaining. In fact he’s been entertaining me since his Disney days (Now You See Him, Now You Don’t) and I have fond memories of his one season wonder western series The Quest (anyone else remember that?). He’s one of those actors, and there aren’t that many, who can be equally convincing as a regular guy (Unlawful Entry, Breakdown) and a tough as nails, cold hearted killer (Escape from New York). Plus he starred in one of my all-time favourite films, John Carpenter’s The Thing.

One thing Mr Russell can’t do though is make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Winter People feels like one of those Hallmark Channel TV movies, set in the ‘30s it features rugged environments that somehow still manage to look like greetings card pictures and beautiful people made up to look like they work outdoors, who look just that – like beautiful people made up to look like that work outdoors.

Russell plays Wayland Jackson, a widower who sets out for pastures new with his young daughter. When their van gets stuck crossing a river the pair set of on foot is search of help, what they find is single mom Collie Wright, played by Kelly McGillis. As you’ve probably guessed the pair fall in love and Russell helps mend the rift between her and members of her family caused by her getting knocked up out of wedlock and refusing to reveal the father’s name. Ultimately he also brings an end to the feud between the Wright’s and another local family, the Campbell’s.

It’s all very predictable and frankly pretty dull. Ted Kotcheff, the man who gave us First Blood, directs seemingly without much enthusiasm for the film. Russell gives us one of his everyman turns as Jackson, a clockmaker by profession, and he’s good, the problem is he never really does very much. McGillis does a decent Carolina accent but she’s a little to old for the spirited country girl part. It’s nice to see Lloyd Bridges though, even if all he’s playing is a fairly stereotypical patriarch.

This is a minor entry on Kurt Russell’s resume, and one of Kelly McGillis’ last stops on the road to direct-to-video hell. Worth seeking out only if you’re a very big fan of either star or maybe if you enjoyed John Ehle’s source novel.

Literally Speaking: To Kill a Mockingbird April 9, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Drama , add a comment

Films that give us a child’s view of the world often seem to touch something in the audience, a little glimmer of the child that dwells within each of us I suppose. That innocent perspective often shows the so called ‘grown ups’ to be more thoughtless and uncaring than any child, they just have bigger feet to stomp when things don’t go their way. While it’s no guarantee of success, the idea of telling an adult story through the eyes of children has produced some classics, with both The Night of the Hunter and Stand by Me making the IMDb Top 250 (at 156 and 160 respectively). Also making that list (at 45) is To Kill a Mockingbird, a film which has some things in common with those already mentioned, namely it was based on a book and all features strong performances from the pint-sized cast members.

As Jem, Phillip Alford is at the point where he craves the freedom of adulthood but still has a boy’s sense of fun and adventure. He’ll question his father’s rules (he thinks he old enough to have a gun, Dad doesn’t agree) but he respects him. That Alford captures that so well is a big part of the films success.

But if Jem is good, Scout is even better. Mary Badham’s portrayal of the quintessential tomboy is a joy. She’ll make you laugh, whether scrapping in the school yard or attending a fancy dress party dressed as a ham, but she’s more than just comic relief, she’s the eyes through which we see the events of the film. Joy, sadness and terror are what little Miss Badham is called upon to display and she doesn’t miss a note. It’s little wonder she was Oscar nominated, the surprise is she didn’t win.

At the heart of the film is Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, single parent and small town lawyer. Has there ever been an actor better suited to a role? It’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the part; Peck just seems to embody the character completely. Finch is the ideal father (and perhaps author Harper Lee’s idealised vision of her own dad) patient, loving and with strong moral convictions. He’s a man who will take on the whole town for what he believes in. There are touching moments with the children and showy legal speeches of the kind actors love but the most valuable thing Peck brings to the part is an indelible sense of decency.

While those are the films central performers there are others who make an impression - Frank Overton as the town sheriff and  Brock Peters as the Black man accused of something he didn’t do both make an impression, with Overton’s speech at the end of the film showing that Finch is far from the only decent man in town.

Director Robert Mulligan keeps it simple, focusing on the actors and generating a strong sense of period.  His unfussy style suits the film and he clearly had a knack for getting performances out of his child stars.

To call To Kill a Mockingbird a legal drama would be like calling Schindler’s List a war movie, it’s not completely untrue but it does miss the point somewhat. It’s a film about life, about the innocence of youth, about making a stand against injustice, and about the good and bad that everyone has the potential for. There are downbeat moments to be sure but this is a life affirming film at heart.

I Spy: Syriana April 7, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Drama, Thriller , add a comment

Not really a spy movie as such, Syriana does feature a spy as one of its central characters. Bob Barnes, played by a bearded and slightly podgy George Clooney, is an aging C.I.A. operative with knowledge of Middle East affairs. When an assassination attempt on an Arab Prince goes awry Barnes is tortured, and when he’s turned loose he’s used as a scapegoat by the C.I.A. for the botched mission.

Now that may sound like a regular spy story but it’s just one strand of Syriana’s web of intrigue, that encompasses big business, terrorism and the Middle Eastern way of life. It’s a film packed full of political ideas, perhaps too full, there are so many strands here that it’s at times hard to keep track of them all. There are moments when you’re left a little bemused as to how such-and-such got to so-and-so and while it’s nice to have a film that doesn’t baby it’s audience, filling in everything they could possibly need to know about a character, the film jumps around so much that you may miss important information as you try and get your bearings.

Writer/director Stephen Gaghan won an Oscar for his Traffic script which had a similar multi-character storyline but for me it worked far better in the earlier film. Syriana feels far preachier than Traffic, concentrating as much on the message as on the story, rather than let one flow from the other. It’s a film that for all its depth still has clearly defined bad guys – the American oil companies, the C.I.A. (who, as one character observes, is just another multi-billion dollar business).

The cast all acquit themselves well, Clooney is an obvious standout as is Christopher Plummer as a scheming businessman, in fact Plummer seems to get better the older he gets. Matt Damon’s character get’s the most Hollywood-style story arc, even down to a happy ending, but he does a good job with what is the least interesting of the main characters.

I was a little disappointed by Syriana but still found it a thought provoking film. It’s the sort of movie that may well improve with each viewing. Time will tell.

Literally Speaking: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? March 26, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Comedy, Drama, Thriller , add a comment

There isn’t really a lot to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, two ageing sisters, a crippled former Hollywood icon, Blanche Hudson, and a child star gone to seed, ‘Baby’ Jane, live together in a rundown house. ‘Baby’ Jane is slowly going off her rocker and when she learns of Blanche’s plans to sell the house and put her into care her mental breakdown goes into overdrive with disastrous results.

What makes the film work isn’t the plot but the performances, with the inspired casting of fading stars Joan Crawford as Blanche and Bette Davis as the grotesquely comical ‘Baby’ Jane giving the film a far greater resonance than it would otherwise have. The two stars detested each other in real life and, while that must have made director Robert Aldrich’s task far from easy, it adds greatly to the performances, particularly Davis’s.

Davis’s ‘Baby’ Jane is a childlike version of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, resentful of time and an industry that thrives on youth and the presence of her invalid, and vastly more talented,  sister gives her someone to take out that resentment on. Davis it seems decided on the method approach for the scene where she brutally kicks Blanche unconscious, actually landing a kick to Crawford’s head that required stitches (Crawford allegedly retaliated by putting weights in her pockets for the scene where Davis drags her across the floor).

This isn’t a film to watch for the story, its potboiler plot holds few surprises, but rather for perhaps the last great turns from two of Hollywood’s grand dames. There are few actresses who would take on such unglamorous and in the case of ‘Baby’ Jane downright ugly, parts but it paid of,  both for the film and the stars concerned (both received award nominations and more work off the back of the film)

And Davis’s make-up is as scary as any William Shatner Halloween mask.

Watching the Detectives: Sean Connery is William of Baskerville in The Name of the Rose March 21, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Drama, Thriller , 4 comments

Sean Connery gets the abbey habit as the very Holmesian William of Baskerville (even his name is a nod to the greatest of fictional detectives) in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s film about murder in a Fourteenth Century monastery, based on the novel by Umberto Eco.

Rarely has history seemed as grim as it does here, this isn’t the fairytale history of Arthurian-style movies, this is a cold, dirty place that’s about as welcoming as a sleepover at the Texas Chainsaw Massacre family home. Some of the residents could give Leatherface a run for his money as well, with the flagellating monk who looks like a fat sweaty version of Uncle Fester topping the list, along with the always welcome Ron Perlman as the loopy hunchback, Salvatore.

Yet for such an outwardly bleak film its script has a wonderfully playful sense of humour. “That’s elementary, my dear Adso” states Connery early on, in another reference to Doyle’s famous sleuth, and he gets some great dialogue with his apprentice Adso (a youthful stand-in for Dr. Watson, played with admirable restraint by a very young Christian Slater ) including a Bond-like quip when one of the brothers turns up dead, stuffed headfirst in a barrel.

Connery may be the main focus but there’s hardly any member of the cast that doesn’t seem perfectly suited for the part. Perlman steals every scene he’s in, and that’s saying something when you’re up against an old pro like Sean, while F. Murray Abraham is hissably bad as Bernardo Gui the Inquisition’s answer to Moriarty.

Brilliantly cast, impeccably designed, beautifully paced, Annaud’s film is a classic that deserves more widespread acclaim. Connery has rarely been this good, and if he’d received more parts like this instead of the likes of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen perhaps he wouldn’t have such an aversion to making films today.

Literally Speaking: The Four Feathers (2002) January 30, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Drama, War , add a comment

Given the tragic death of Heath Ledger last week this film sort of picked itself out of the pile of DVDs I‘ve got lined up for this series. I can’t say I’m a huge fan of Ledger’s work, of the seventeen films he made (eighteen with The Dark Knight) I’ve only seen eight and, while he was certainly a good actor, he was often overshadowed by his co-stars – Mel Gibson in The Patriot, Billy Bob Thornton in Monster’s Ball and Paul Bettany in A Knight’s Tale – but I’ve yet to see his most acclaimed performance in Brokeback Mountain.

A.E.W. Mason’s novel has been filmed no less than seven times but I’d only seen the classic 1939 version with Ralph Richardson and John Clements prior to watching this. Given that the film has an Indian director in Shekhar Kapur it would be fair to expect a slightly different take on this tale of love and daring-do in the days of the British Empire than previous versions, and, in that regard, the film doesn’t disappoint.

While it shares the central love triangle with previous takes, this isn’t a film about heroics but rather the horrors of war, with the British no better than The Mahdi and his followers, and certainly more arrogant. Rather than being about Harry Faversham’s quest to regain his honour after his friends brand him a coward, the film uses that as a devise to show the suffering war brings and how it brings out the worst in men.

Given the horror it shows us, the film still manages to look beautiful, with Oliver Stone’s cinematographer of choice, Robert Richardson, doing a fine job capturing the spectacle of the battles and the majesty of the desert. It’ll make you thirsty just watching it.

Of the three leads Ledger shines the brightest, with Wes Bentley giving a restrained performance as befits the stiff-upper- lip part he’s playing, while Kate Hudson doesn’t have to do much more than look pretty in period costume (she puts on a decent accent though). It’s Ledger who carries the film, getting stuck in during the battle scenes and showing what a capable horseman he was. His friendship with native Abou Fatma, played by Djimon Hounsou, is far more interesting than his bond with his English cronies and the film contrasts the judgmental nature of his so called civilised friends with the honest comradeship of this Black man.

The film doesn’t really work as a love story, there’s no real chemistry between the leads but the big problem is that the tale it’s telling doesn’t really fit the message it wants to get across. Kapur would have been far better served by an original story set in the period than trying to mould this tale of honour and redemption to fit his needs. History even gets a rewrite, with the outcome of the battle of Abu Klea revised so the British get a pasting.

Not a bad film, but one that’s aspirations are never fully realised, The Four Feathers won’t be the film Heath Ledger is remembered for, even though he’s the best thing about it.

SF & Fantasy Sunday: The Big Empty January 28, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Drama, Science Fiction , add a comment

Aiming for the cool indie weirdness of Repo Man, The Big Empty comes up way short. Its title is half right though, the film isn’t big but it certainly is empty.

To go into the details of the plot would be pointless, it’s both convoluted and at the same time vacuous. It feels like writer/director Steve Anderson woke up one morning and decided to write the most outlandish tale he could just for the sake of it. The film is populated by oddball characters from an FBI agent/frustrated actor to a cowboy clad serial killer but none of it has any real point.

Some of the performances aren’t bad, Kelsey Grammer has fun playing it straight as the FBI man and Sean Bean gets a dry run for The Hitcher as an English cowboy nutjob. But it’s all just wasted effort in a film as pointless as this.

The best thing about the film (by a long, long way) is the soundtrack, with both the songs (from Lazy Lester and John Lee Hooker amongst others) and Brian Tyler’s score providing more pleasure than anything in the film. This is one DVD that should have had a music only track.

Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting: Zatoichi’s Vengeance January 27, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Drama, Martial Arts , add a comment

It’s been a while since I’ve watched any of the Zatoichi films and with half the series still waiting to be discovered I though it was about time to renew my acquaintance with the blind swordsman.

This is the thirteenth in the series and features everything I’ve come to expect – a beautiful woman fallen on hard times, a masterless samurai, an evil Yakuza boss with a seemingly endless supply of henchmen, superb swordplay (with a trick or two from Zatoichi) and plenty of eating and drinking. If there’s one thing our blind masseur enjoys it’s filling his belly.

They say it a fine line between comedy and tragedy and Shintaro Katsu straddles it brilliantly in these films. He’ll make you laugh one minute and bring you close to tears the next, not to mention displaying his own unique sword fighting style.

While Ichi leaves a trail of dead and wounded in his wake the fight scenes are oddly bloodless. This film features a rare (at least up to this point in the series) glimpse of the red stuff, not as you might expect, as Zatoichi slices and dices his way through the bad guys, but from a nose bleed he suffers while taking a beating.

While the films may be as formulaic as the Bond movies in the west, they are always watchable thanks to Katsu as the downtrodden blind man who always wins the fights but can never seem to find happiness.

The Friday Night Fright: A Tale of Two Sisters January 26, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Horror, Drama , add a comment

Two thirds of the way through this atmospheric Korean horror I was struck by a feeling that I’d seen something similar and not too long ago at that. It took a few minutes for the old grey matter to make the connection, the fact that the two films, at first glance, wouldn’t seem to have much in common no doubt slowing it down some, but it finally produced the answer – Spider. “What could David Cronenberg’s drama about a schizophrenic man have in common with A Tale of Two Sisters?” you may be thinking…or possibly “Ian’s finally cracked up, better call the men in white coats”. Before you make a booking for me in a padded room let me explain…

Both films chuck you in at the deep end and expect you to swim, by which I mean they don’t go the usual route of explaining who everyone is, how they got where they are and, well, basically setting the scene for what’s to come. It’s up to the viewer to figure things out; this of course requires the use of something often neglected by modern moviemakers – a brain. All too often these days we are encouraged to “leave your brain at home” when paying a visit to the cinema, as this will impair our enjoyment of the movie, so it’s nice to watch a film every now and then that doesn’t require a lobotomy to get the most out of it.

Sorry, I digress. So we have to think, but both films aren’t exactly forthcoming with information. For about the first half an hour there’s very little dialogue in either film, this has two potential effects - a) those who did not disengage their wits before viewing are drawn more tightly into the film, as they try and put the pieces together from what clues they can gleam or b) those who’ve shut down all cognitive thought either on a temporary basis or a more permanent shut down (this latter group are usually referred to as “Michal Bay fans”) enter a deep sleep that may resemble a coma but is not really a cause for concern.

I think I digressed again. Anyway we’re now getting down to the meat of this little comparison, for as we piece things together it becomes clear that both films are being told from the somewhat questionable perspective of a mentally disturbed individual. Can we trust any of what we’re seeing? As the films progress the similarities grow with both featuring a tragic final act, where all is revealed in truly heartbreaking fashion.

Cronenberg’s film is a drama (with a touch of mystery) while A Tale of Two Sisters is a horror film, (with some extremely creepy moments) but both deal with a dysfunctional family unit. Even without its more supernatural elements A Tale of Two Sisters would be an excellent film, and probably have won more acclaim from mainstream critics. As it is, it functions as both a drama, dissecting repressed Korean family life, and also as one of the scariest Asian horrors I’ve seen.

The inevitable dumbed down Hollywood version is on the way, so you’ll be able to leave your brain at home again. Just make sure you remember where you put it, you never know when you might need it again.

Oh and the dig at Michael Bay fans was a joke – I actually enjoyed Transformers and even took my brain with me (didn’t really need it but I had it with me just in case).

Literally Speaking: The Quiet American (1958) January 23, 2008

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Drama, War , add a comment

Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel is a love story with a political backdrop. Michael Redgrave plays the bitter and cynical reporter Thomas Fowler opposite Audie Murphy’s idealistic young American with the pair competing for the affections of beautiful Vietnamese girl Phuong, played less than convincingly by Giorgia Moll.

This love triangle is mixed in with the First Indochina War fought between the French and Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh over Vietnamese independence. Apart from providing an interesting and unusual setting, it also anticipates American interference in the region which would lead ultimately to the Viet Nam War.

Despite all that though the film is at heart a love story, with our lead protagonists all doing what they do for love. The contrast between seasoned pro Michael Redgrave and Murphy, who stumbled into the profession after his World War II heroics got him noticed by Hollywood, mirrors their onscreen characters.

Few actors have been as convincingly world weary as Redgrave is here, there’s a hopeless desperation about Fowler, you get the feeling that his love or desire for Phuong is all that’s keeping his from a total breakdown. Yet given how things play out it’s hard to feel sympathy for him.

The boyishly handsome Murphy can’t really compete in the acting stakes but he doesn’t show himself up either. The American is a slightly ambiguous character; we’re never sure if he’s just the do-gooder aid worker he paints himself as or if he’s secretly working for the US Government. This must have made a pleasant change from the B western heroes Murphy usually played.

As the cause of the film’s strife, Giorgia Moll, is sadly found wanting. It’s not that we can’t believe that two men could be in love with her; she’s beautiful and has an innocence that’s alluring, no the problem is she isn’t, and doesn’t look, Vietnamese (she’s from Italy which is where the film was shot). As was the norm of the time we have a Western actor playing an Asian character, with John Huston’s The Barbarian and the Geisha, made the same year, one of the few exceptions.

Giving the films best performance is Claude Dauphin as the cop investigating the American’s murder (the film is told in flashback with Murphy dead at the start). He’s got a real living-in kind of face, like he’s seen it all before and nothing surprises him anymore, and it suits the character, who’s one step ahead of Redgrave at the films downbeat finale.

The film may be adapted from a book but is has a stagey quality to it like a play, perhaps not surprising given how talky it is. Joseph L. Mankiewicz had a knack for turning plays into decent films, prior to The Quiet American he made Julius Caesar and he’d go on to make Suddenly, Last Summer, The Honey Pot and Sleuth. Here he uses that ability to keep the viewer hooked, even though the film features very little in the way of action, for the full two hour running time.

Recommended for those who like their love stories with an air of fatalism.

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