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Robin Hood: A Review

June 10th 2010 11:14
There must have been fairly mixed reaction when the news that Ridley Scott was making an origin picture for the classic English tale of Robin Hood was revealed, especially when Russell Crowe was confirmed as the person who was going to take the lead role.

Some must have been licking their lips, as 'Gladiator's lush representation of historical conflicts would be given the opportunity to meet with Europe at the time of the Crusades. Others may have been dreading to hear Russell Crowe's attempt at an English accent or just how much liberties would be taken with the history of Medieval Britain.

The former of that demographic will not be dissappointed when they see the depiction of a siege of a fort in France as the Coeur De Lion makes his way back to England; and are introduced to the skilled archer Robin Longstride. One is almost able to hear the whizz of arrows flying past the ears or the sludgy resistance of mud underfoot.

Scott also skilfully utilises some of the more traditional elements of the Robin Hood tale, whilst maintaining the aesthetic that he introduces, when Robin is accused of cheating by 'Little' John, and a fight ensues. This is similar to the folktale, where Robin challenges John to a staff fight in order to cross a bridge. The appropriation is more suited to the battlement setting, as one could imagine the bridge crossing taking place in lush green Sherwood with Errol Flynn deftly wielding his staff.

Some of the themes are also introduced, as after the fight, King Richard asks Robin of his true opinion about this Crusade - and when he gets an honest answer, he speculates about what it takes to make a true Englishman, after the costly wars that he has lead across Europe.

And indeed, it is effective that the inciting incident of Richard being killed by an arrow shot from a crossbow by what appeared to be a chef. It would perhaps be considered by some story enthusiasts to be symbolic of the tragic character arc that Richard had created for himself, as when the audience see the situation back home. Townships starve, with supplies of grain being stolen and pillaged.

When the soldiers carrying the crown of the fallen King back to England, they are ambushed, and when Robin discovers them, he agrees to fulfil the dying wish of Robin of Loxley; to bring back a sword to his father.

This leads to yet more wonderful thematic exploration; that of the relationship between father and son. When the Lord of Loxley suggests that Robin pose as Marion's husband, so that she wouldn't lose the land that she owns. This is done in wonderful contrast to the lack of power that women seemed to have, as even though Marion (portrayed with a wonderful working class cynicism by Cate Blanchett) does all of the work, and essentially is the baron, but is still under the control of the infeebled Lord.

The same could be said of the Mother of King's, Eleanor of Acquitane, who tries to guide her son, and new King John as he makes the unpopular decision to demand the taxes from the Barons to replenish the barren coffers drained by the wars abroad.

So, all considered, it is a very strong set-up, with the gender politics and baronial conflicts the basis; but that perhaps leads to the major weakness of the film for me. It focusses a little too much on the broader picture, when it could have been a bit more of a comparison of the gender relationships in Sherwood and London, and how the baronial conflicts affected them. Mark Strong's treacherous character could have easily been lifted out of the character he played in Sherlock Holmes.

The final battle where the English successfully repel the French invasion is a little unconvincing, as is the contrived appearance of Marion in full armour to fight really undoes all of the excellent structural and symbolic work that had been done up to that point. This unbelievability really leaves a sour taste in the mouth, because of how excellent much of the film is before then.

The latter of my original demographic may have been proven right in their fears about the liberties being taken with the history of the country.

And Russell Crowe's accent isn't that bad.

Shutter Island: A Review

April 13th 2010 12:05
From the sight of a ferry appearing from the fog, going towards the island, through the ominous warning that the bluffs are the only way on or off the island; all the way through to the final shot of the solitary lighthouse framing a seemingly endless sea, ‘Shutter Island’ is unyielding in its approach to the idea of the criminally insane.

And indeed, the cinematic techniques utilised mirror that approach in the efforts of the protagonist, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio), who is relentlessly trying to uncover the truth behind the unusual practices on the island, and what has happened to a dangerous patient who has escaped and simply can’t be found.

Director Martin Scorcese opts out of an easy, exposition heavy introduction, and throws the audience right into the chaos, with the use of a piece of music which has strong brass repetition that sounds like an menacing fog horn, and that steadily builds and builds as the characters are driven to the institution. It crescendos as the gates are opened; and the patients are outside doing fairly menial gardening duties.

This is a perfect microcosm for the film, in a world where nothing is as it seems; where the doctor that serves as a liaison for the marshals (Ben Kingsley) seems to be intent on being evasive, and where the patients seem to be under some sort of controlling influence that amounts to more than just the psychotropic drugs that are being administered free and easily.

Matters are complicated too, for our protagonist, as he is haunted by flashbacks of his discovery and liberation of Dachau, as well as the wife that he lost to a tragic apartment fire. Even his partner Chuck, who he soon realises is the only person on the island that he can trust, suffers from not only the lack of information that the doctors and orderlies are providing, but the ulterior motive that Teddy himself is hiding.

While a vicious storm knocks out some of the power, and the patients escape the confines of their respective wards, Teddy and Chuck venture into the ward for more answers, and to try and find the man that Teddy believes is responsible for the fire that killed his wife. Fragments of the truth become apparent to the marshals, but Daniels becomes increasingly isolated, and breathlessly, the film leads up to the anguished, overpowering twist that even makes the audience feel that the cinema screen is a corrupt asylum that they simply can’t escape from.

‘Shutter Island’ is a beautifully crafted psychological thriller; with everything from the ambiguous characters, to the meticulously thought through mise-en-scene, adding to this world that seems to keep growing and making it more and more difficult for the marshals to uncover the truth. As Teddy ventures deeper and deeper into the complexities of the hierarchy that runs ‘Shutter Island’, we really sympathise with him, as the flashbacks serve as nothing but devices to confuse us, with the same role being occupied by different actors and actresses; and while the strain manifests itself as tears streaming from Leonardo DiCaprio’s eyes, it appears on the audience’s faces as a slightly curled top lip, but we get more clued up when he does; and so feel his pain when all is revealed in the painful denoument.

With the inexorable brass pounding on the soundtrack serving to lineate the action, and the recurring theme of things falling, from the gentle ash when he has a flashback to his wife in the apartment, to the letters falling in the office of the concentration camp he helps to liberate, all the way through to the real-time pounding of the rain – it cleverly symbolises the world around him, and how it seems to be falling around his very ears.

The only thing that I will say to the film’s detriment is that it perhaps tries to deal with a little too many themes, and while the slow motion of the aforementioned letters falling around the office is a lovely semantic platform – I find that all of the Dachau flashbacks are just a little unnecessary, and the added conflict that he has with the German head of the asylum, while wonderfully dimensionalise Daniel’s character and what he is going through, add another strand that is never truly and satisfactorily concluded.

However, that is a fairly minor complaint to make about an otherwise excellently crafted film, with one of DiCaprio’s finest performances, and a climax that is very hard-hitting, but convincingly so.

It is a journey that I thoroughly recommend is taken.


Clash of the Titans: A Review

April 8th 2010 19:09
For many people, the remake of 'Clash of the Titans' seemed to be the perfect fit. A high concept, high budget appropriation of a flawed, but well loved, piece of cinema. Of course, it was a high concept film back then, and the original should be applauded for its ambition.

The tone was set though in the 2010 remake, when the mechanical, tooting, R2-D2 like owl Bubos (from the original 'Clash') was picked up by one of the soldier's of Argos, and then put back in the box after instruction from one of his colleagues. This film is going to be nothing like the kitschy, tongue in cheek Harryhausen produced original.

The design of this remake is solid, if fairly unambitious; with the armour worn by Liam Neeson's Zeus and his deity colleagues looking like a throwback from the then hyper-contemporary but now hyper-dated 'Excalibur', and potentially awesome locations like the lair of Medusa looking like the poor and thin cousin of 'The Fellowship of The Ring's Mines of Moria - but it still has a suitable level of mystique and grandiosity for the genre that it attempts to fit into.

The aesthetics of the Titans too, are certainly a little different, but seem again, to lack any real originality; and everything from the Stygian Witches to the city smashing Kraken could have been lifted, in one form or another, from ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ or the troll market in ‘Hellboy 2’; and while my knowledge of classical cultures leaves much to be desired, it all looks a little bit un-Greek.
That could perhaps be forgiven, as many of the action set-pieces are thrilling; most notably the giant Scorpioks who attack demi-God Perseus and his band of men, and while the location perhaps could have been improved upon, the suspense that the characters are feeling in the lair of Medusa is, I think, fair to say, experienced by those in the audience too.

Sadly, though, this isn’t enough to save ‘Clash of the Titans’ from a fairly substantial level of mediocrity; where the first film perhaps suffered from getting ideas a little above its station, this doesn’t live up to the potential that was so richly abundant.

The motivation of all of the characters, not least Zeus, is a little ambiguous; and the potential for some real thematic connections between the characters is sadly wasted-whereas in the original the Gods were portrayed as jealous, petty and feuding; in this Zeus is a little pathetic and easily manipulated by his brother (although the idea of the Gods needing monuments and prayers to maintain their immortality is a refreshing stance). Perseus, while dimensionalised by the conflicting hatred of Hades for the murder of his family, and the privileges laid upon him for being the son of a God – isn’t ever really presented with a tough choice and his whole character just seems to be a little hollow. The ticking clock that is the backdrop for the quest doesn’t seem very credible, as Perseus just happens to find himself there and isn’t interested romantically in the person whose life is at stake – and there are certain irrational plotholes which make you want to tear your hair out (why would Hades have dominion over the Kraken, a sea monster, when Poseidon is introduced as a key character? Poseidon has no bearing on the rest of the film, and sits there, totally passive).

The presence of fringe characters, like Gemma Arterton’s Io, and the half-human, half tree Sheikh Sulieman, seems a little unnecessary. This is especially the case with Io, who is an awkward love interest for a character that, by his own perceived pathology, just isn’t interested in a romantic relationship. It all just seems a little bit tacked on.

It suffers a little bit too, from ill-advised use of cinematic language, with a bit too many 300-esque slow-motion shots and the handheld that is utilised is a bit of an uncomfortable ‘Man Bites Dog’ visual when the tropes of a man bites God would have provided a little bit more to the spectacle.

It is still, in spite of the many flaws, a couple of hours of enjoyable escapism, and for the most part, the quest is captivating – I just think that a little more could have been done to ensure that the audience really cared about the central characters, and would be really worried about the consequences of the quest if it failed.

Worth a look if you aren’t interested in creativity of storytelling or character, but like swords and sorcery, and some mean looking giant scorpions.

The casual film observer might be forgiven for thinking that a film featuring the voice talents of Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill and Christopher Mintz-Plasse would not necessarily be the type of film that one would want to take one’s children to see; but that is one of many pleasant aspects of the experience of watching ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ in 3D.

Baruchel voices the central protagonist, Hiccup, an enthusiastic young Viking who has the desire to be considered part of the tribe by killing a dragon. He is told with authority that he isn’t ready to do so, and is looked upon by the rest of the tribe as a bit of a menace; as is effectively portrayed in his overzealous attempts to kill the elusive Night Fury dragon

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Crazy Heart: A Review

April 4th 2010 16:08
You’ve got to pay your dues if you want to sing the blues, and for Bad Blake, well, he knows that it doesn’t come easy. In the performance that finally garnered Jeff Bridges the Oscar that he has lost out on at so many different ceremonies, it is that inherent lack of easiness that becomes the focal point that any critique of the film will invariably focus on.

Of course, it is by no means new territory that director Scott Cooper treads, but ‘Crazy Heart’ seems to fail to hit the human or emotional content that genre-defining films like ‘Tender Mercies’ provide, along the same structural spines

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Cool Hand Luke: A Review

March 29th 2010 18:21
"Sometimes nothin's a pretty cool hand..."

A characteristically nonchalant utterance from Paul Newman's now famously characteristically nonchalant character, perhaps is a perfect way to describe the film as a whole

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Seemingly Threatening...

March 29th 2010 11:32
During the 1995 Rugby World Cup Final in 1995, a Boeing 747 flew over the Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg, wishing the native team good luck in the big game. In Clint Eastwood’s film ‘Invictus’, this was used excellently as a dramatic device; with the security taking responsibility for Morgan Freeman’s Nelson Mandela standing in helpless fixation as it swoops down towards the stadium, only to harmlessly fly past with the aforementioned well-wishing message.

In reality, the security team were well briefed about the planned flypast, but in terms of cinema, that moment, for me, ranks up alongside the giant steamship gliding through the sand dunes in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ for pure visual impact

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June 1st 2009 23:11
Who hasn't seen it? A severed alien arm against the ground. Star Wars, Mos Eisley, right? You'll find a very similar shot in Yojimbo, a Kurosawa action/dark comedy film that has inspired Western film makers for decades. Sometimes inspired them a little too well. A Fistful of Dollars is, if you ask many, practically an unacknowledged remake of this film.

So what's it about, now? Yojimbo means, approximately, 'bodyguard' in Japanese. So once upon a time, a long time ago, a masterless samurai walks into a town at war, occupied by two fighting gangs and their sycophants and allies. Both factions want this samurai on their team, so to speak, but he has cleverer and more dangerous ideas in mind than simply throwing his loyalty to one or the other

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May 29th 2009 01:39
There's no way around it. Solaris is pretty crazy. Yes, it's another one of those Tarkovsky thinking films which uses science fiction as a foil for philosophy, but while Stalker is comparatively straightforward (!), Solaris is what happens when you take a film about love/loss, the power of need, the power of a complete inability-to-let-things-go and throw in some serious madness. You have gloriously bright and distinct sets, almost blinding, they're so vibrantly painted. And yet sterile. Much of the action is on a next to abandoned space station. Expect long walks down vacant corridors.

Ghosts are physical things here, manifestations of need that have their own will, their own needs, and their hauntings are both wanted and unwanted. Solaris is everything that you want and everything that you would die to avoid. Nightmare and daydream at once. It's that kind of movie. There are lovely moments and moments that make you want to reach for the remote

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May 29th 2009 01:29
Stalker was a Russian alien on American soil. So it would seem. A review of the 1979 film appeared October 20, 1982, in the New York Times and was insistently insulting: the film was plodding, ugly, and poorly acted. The Russians might have beaten us to space, but obviously their science fiction sucked.

I confess I can't understand what the reviewer saw (or didn't see) in the film to draw her ire so completely. Stalker is ponderous and melancholy, a slow film rather than the pew-pew, whoosh of Star Wars. Watched a certain way, it is not science fiction at all, but a philosophical brooding on the nature of belief. There is a magical Zone where you can find your greatest desire in a special room, as long as you do not anger the attendant, invisible forces that guard it . . . or there's an overgrown abandoned town, lightly, but dangerously irradiated, where madmen give tours to the gullible. Both interpretations are perfectly valid. This might be what drove the reviewer crazy. These fields may be lush and these dunes absorbing, but they're just everyday fallow fields, and this is just where some industry dumped some extra sand years ago. Or are they? I simply can't agree that the actors are 'interchangeable,' when all three have a distinct, conflicting personality, but I suppose they are all balding older men. Searching for meaning after they've tried everything else

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