Archive for cinema

[Review] World War Z

Posted in Film with tags , , on June 21, 2013 by Icy Sedgwick

World War Z posterI’ll be honest, since I first started seeing trailers for World War Z, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to see it – mainly because I really enjoyed the book and could see it was going to be nothing like it. In many ways, I think the biggest problem that the film faces is comparisons to the book, but having now seen it, I can say it seems like World War Z was inspired by the book, but is not an adaptation of it. In all honesty, there are more nods and references to The Zombie Survival Guide – if they’d thrown in some Zombieland style rules, they could have almost changed the title and gotten away with it. Of course the internet is aflame with condemnation but I don’t know how many of the people slagging it off have actually seen it.

Well I have, and I’m actually both surprised and relieved to say I really enjoyed it. I think popular culture has been groaning under the weight of the zombie-related bandwagon jumpers of late, and I think it was always going to be difficult to add yet another zombie film to the pile – particularly one starring Brad Pitt. Well I think Pitt has a broader range than he’s normally given credit for, and here he plays a former UN investigator, Gerry, who’s sent off to find the elusive Patient Zero in the hopes of creating a vaccine against the zombie virus.

It’s not easy for him. When we first meet Gerry, he’s trying to get his family out of Philadelphia (well, Glasgow masquerading as Philadelphia) and later he’s stuck in a Newark apartment building with zombies snapping at his heels. He’s sent off to South Korea, and then Israel, before ending up in Wales. Bit of a globe-trotter, our Gerry. But what I like about him as a protagonist is that a) he’s not stupid, and he even goes so far as to duct tape thick glossy magazines to his limbs as impromptu body armour and b) he notices things. You’d hope that an investigator would do that, but Gerry not only notices salient details among the carnage, he actually comes up with theories that are completely plausible. He doesn’t need to be told things, he works it out for himself – in essence, he becomes a proxy for the audience who are by now so well versed in zombie lore that they don’t need things to be spelled out.

For a zombie film, World War Z is surprisingly bloodless. If you want lingering close-ups of bloodied mouths and corpses being ripped apart then you’re better off with Zac Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake. Instead, World War Z derives its horror from the sheer spectacle of that many zombies in one place. They don’t run so much as they swarm, turning the traditional faceless mass into a wave that sweeps through any space. Imagine a plague of locusts stripping a space bare and you’ll get the idea. Despite the lesser amount of gore, it’s still a visceral film, and even contains moments of actual suspense. It also has a clever use of sound, riffing on the sections in The Zombie Survival Guide that counsel weapons like crowbars over guns as noise will simply attract more zombies. The quiet sections just serve to highlight how loud our world normally is.

I know there will still be a lot of people online bleating that “it’s nothing like the book”, and I’ve even seen a comparison to 28 Weeks Later (which is ridiculous as 28 Weeks Later was appalling) but all I can say is if you’ve read the book, try to go into it without expecting it to be the same. If it makes it easier, consider it as a film that just has the same name as the book – and try to spot the Zombie Survival Guide references instead!

4.5 out of 5!

[Review] A Good Day to Die Hard

Posted in Film with tags , , on March 21, 2013 by Icy Sedgwick

A Good Day to Die Hard posterAfter his somewhat disappointing outing in 2007 with Die Hard 4.0, John McClane is back with the fifth instalment of a franchise begun in 1988. The previous film saw McClane (Bruce Willis – did I really need to point that out?) reconcile with his feisty daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and this film sees him attempt the same with son Jack (Jai Courtney). The action is relocated from the US to Russia, where Jack is working as a CIA operative.

There’s not really much to say about the plot. The first half of the film seems to be one long car chase, which I’m pretty convinced must have kept the car manufacturing industry in business, while the second half is a series of explosions, topped off with one huge explosion in Pripyat (yep, McClane does Chernobyl this time). It’s a Die Hard film, not Shakespeare.

Yet for all of this, it’s oddly enjoyable. Courtney does a good job as McClane Jnr, and while McClane Snr is less wise-cracking than in previous outings, he’s still capable of beating bad guys, even if he is on vacation. There’s a decent chemistry between the two, and enough of a physical similarity (not to mention pig-headedness) to make them plausibly related. The relocation to Russia is an interesting choice, and Moscow looks awesome on film.

It isn’t a challenging film, or even a particularly fantastic one, but it’s fun, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The only real problem is the fact it’s a Die Hard film – the first one set the bar rather high, and no villain is ever going to top Alan Rickman. Bruce Willis has done the McClane act in so many films since that it doesn’t feel original or unique any more. That said, he’s still Bruce Willis and I still love the guy.

If you’re looking for something that will pick at your brain for weeks to come, then this isn’t for you. If you’re looking for something silly that’ll entertain for a couple of hours, then you could do a lot worse!

4 out of 5

[Review] Oz the Great and Powerful

Posted in Film with tags , , on March 20, 2013 by Icy Sedgwick

Oz the Great and Powerful posterI wasn’t entirely sure what to think when I heard they were making Oz the Great and Powerful, and never having been a fan of The Wizard of Oz, it wasn’t exactly top of my ‘must see’ list. Having said that, it looked like it might be one of those ‘spectacle’ films that’s worth seeing at the cinema. Besides, I always did like the Wicked Witch of the West.

Oz the Great and Powerful is pretty much a prequel, explaining how the Wizard comes to be in Oz, and a little bit more of the origins of the Wicked Witch. I’d forgotten that L. Frank Baum had written fourteen novels about Oz, and I can’t help wishing that they’d adapted Wicked for the big screen instead (the novel, not the musical adaptation).

James Franco plays Oscar Diggs, or Oz for short, a stage magician in a travelling carnival. His escape from a cuckolded strong man leads him into the tornado that eventually takes him to the land that bears his name. Young witch Theodora (Mila Kunis) sees him arrive, and believes him to be the powerful wizard of a prophecy that proclaims said wizard will rid Oz of its Wicked Witch and bring peace. Off they trot to the Emerald City to meet Theodora’s sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz). Evanora claims to have kept the Wicked Witch at bay, and to prove his wizarding abilities, sends Oz off to kill her. On his travels, Oz ends up befriending a sweet flying monkey named Finlay (Zach Braff) and a china girl named, oddly enough, China Girl, as well as Glinda the Good (Michelle Williams). Will Oz save the day? Well they made The Wizard of Oz so you work it out.

The film looks very pretty but in all honesty, it felt like I was watching a Tim Burton film – there are few traces of Sam Raimi in the visuals, and I couldn’t help but wonder what TB might have done with the material instead (though Depp would have no doubt been Oz and Bonham-Carter would have been one of the witches). Weisz in particular is rather good as Evanora (she looks fantastic in her Twenties inspired costume), and Williams manages to play Glinda as good but not insipid. Kunis isn’t bad but she seems a mite too gullible to manage the transition from Theodora to Wicked Witch (that’s not even a spoiler, she’s talked about who she plays in interviews). Her Wicked Witch is also less Wicked, and more Petulant.

The pacing is a bit odd, and the whole middle section seems to sag as though Raimi has too much he wants to cram in but ends up getting sidetracked by all the pretty colours. The “good people of Oz” become nothing more than set dressing, and Franco’s insistence on hamming up the role just make him annoying. It bugged me quite substantially that here is a land with three powerful female figures in charge, all of whom are quite capable of solving their own problems, but they feel compelled to sit around and wait for the assistance of a male con man who bears no real power of his own, merely the illusion of it. I’m not entirely sure that that’s a particularly healthy message to be projecting (though it’s no worse than the male-orientated universe of Middle Earth).

It’s certainly not a bad film by any stretch, and it is truly beautiful to look at. The credits sequence is genuinely gorgeous, and Danny Elfman’s score is predictably great, but I just felt like there was a spark missing that would have turned a decent film into a legendary one.

3.5 out of 5

[Review] Wreck-It Ralph

Posted in Film with tags , , , , on February 11, 2013 by Icy Sedgwick

Wreck It Ralph posterWreck-It Ralph is awesome. There, I said it. But why? I hear you cry. First of all, it’s a beautiful, stunning film to look at, it features a host of likeable characters, and it’s a film that allows you to revel in a vintage age of retro video-gaming.

The film tells the story of an arcade game, Fix-It Felix Jnr, in which Ralph is a Wrecker, a character who must wreck an apartment building to give Felix (and by extension, the player) something to fix. Ralph isn’t a bad guy, and he’s tired of being the villain, and he decides to prove everyone wrong about him. His plan involves travelling to another game to win a medal, to prove he can be the good guy, and so hopefully change people’s perceptions of him. Things don’t go according to plan (it would be a very short film if they did) and Ralph must prove himself to be a hero to save the world of Sugar Rush, a Mario Kart style racing game.

The film is filled with a host of main characters, from Ralph himself (who we very early on know is not a ‘bad guy’) to Calhoun, the tough female marine in charge of Hero’s Duty, a futuristic first-person-shooter.  King Candy is a screwball chap in charge of Sugar Rush who comes across like a male version of Alice in Wonderland‘s Red Queen, and Vanellope Von Schweetz is the kooky glitch Ralph encounters within Sugar Rush. It’s also easy to spend most of the film trying to spot all of the cameos made by classic characters like Street Fighter II‘s Chun Li and Super Mario Bros‘ Bowser. (There is a full list of cameos here)

True, the idea of an underdog triumphing by both accepting his limitations AND turning his negative points into positive ones isn’t exactly a new one, but Wreck-It Ralph manages to tell the story in a way that doesn’t come across as patronising or schmaltzy – it’s easy to root for Ralph not because he’s the underdog, but because he’s a likeable guy. As he says, “I’m bad, and that’s good. I will never be good, and that’s not bad. There’s no one I’d rather be then me”.

It felt more like a Pixar film than the titles Pixar have put out in recent years, but I’d venture to guess that John Lasseter’s involvement as executive producer is a large part of this.  I saw it in 2D and the visuals were still tremendous. The jumps between 8-bit pixel art and hi-definition animation felt less jarring than expected, and the whole film felt like a love letter to vintage video games, and the joys of arcades.

5 out of 5!

[Review] Django Unchained

Posted in Film with tags , , , on January 29, 2013 by Icy Sedgwick

Django UnchainedSeeing as how I’m a huge fan of Westerns, Leonardo DiCaprio and Quentin Tarantino, it would be easy to see why I should, on paper, have loved Django Unchained. However, there are many things that work on paper and refuse all forms of coherence when brought kicking and screaming into life, although I’m still not sure whether Django is one of them.

Django Unchained tells the story of Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave freed by Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) who is inducted into a life of bounty hunting in the years preceding the American Civil War. Schultz is concerned with killing bad guys and being paid for the bodies (so one wonders what he would make of the Reservoir Dogs) while Django wants to track down his wife. Schultz decides to help him because a) he granted Django his freedom and feels responsible for him, and b) Django’s wife is called Broomhilda, and it brings to mind the German myth of Siegfried and Brunhilde, and being a German himself, Schultz feels he must lend his aid. As far as character motivations go, Tarantino is stretching that one a bit far.

It turns out that Broomhilda has been bought by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a fairly oily plantation owner in Mississippi, with a penchant for Mandingo fighting among his slaves. Schultz and Django hatch a plan to get her back, although I won’t sport with your intelligence as to what might happen next.

Much has been made of the almost constant use of the ‘n’ word, and while commentators seem divided over whether or not it’s appropriate for a white filmmaker to throw it around with such abandon, I think it matters not that it was a word in common usage at the time – no one needs to hear it that often. A lot has also been made of the racist overtones of the film – is it a white apology for slavery, as Tarantino states? Is it a racial slur against the slaves themselves? Or is it racist against white people? Considering the number of ‘classic’ Westerns that portray the Native Americans as conscience-less monsters, I’m hesitant to offer an answer since racism has existed at the heart of the Western for years. That’s not to say it’s right – just that Tarantino isn’t the first, and I doubt he’ll be that last. I don’t think I’m qualified to get into such weighty debates but I think it does prove a distraction in the film.

Another of my problems with the film is the characterisation. DiCaprio steals the film as Candie, but Samuel L. Jackson is just utterly incoherent as Candie’s slave, Stevens. Schultz is a marvellous character with some interesting little quirks, including introducing his horse along with himself, and I found myself warming to him far more than Django himself. It doesn’t help that I’ve never enjoyed any of Foxx’s performances, but in places his Django seems more like a cartoon character. I want my heroes to have flaws, but Django had so many flaws that I felt I was rooting for him purely because of what he’d been through. I want to root for my characters because they’re likeable, even if they’re total anti-heroes. I don’t want to root for them because I feel I have to. If I’m honest, I wasn’t even rooting for Django – more Broomhilda. Django feels too one-dimensional – the fact he turns out to be a crack shot with about five minutes of practice was another problem.

Beyond that, the music is spot-on, the costumes are wonderful and the sets feel almost painfully authentic. There are even lighter moments where Tarantino varies the tone – a particular segment featuring a prototype Ku Klux Klan ridicules the group most effectively, and several almost comic lines make me hope that Tarantino turns his hand to some form of comedy for his next outing. The potential for an amazing film is definitely there but as far as I can tell, that’s all it is – potential.

Yes, Django Unchained is violent and yes, it’s incredibly long (FAR too long, in my opinion) but I also thought that about some of Tarantino’s earlier films, and this is my ultimate dilemma. I disliked Death Proof when I first saw it, but after watching it again, I considered it to be a masterpiece. Therefore there exists the possibility that I might watch Django Unchained again and enjoy it in a way that I didn’t the first time.

So for now, I give it 3/5…but it may improve over time.

BAFTA success for The Artist

Posted in awards, Film with tags , , , on February 13, 2012 by Icy Sedgwick

So you couldn’t expect me to rebrand my film blog and NOT talk about the BAFTAs. I didn’t watch the whole ceremony as I find awards shows to be exceptionally tedious, especially when the losers paste on their gracious faces, and the winners ramble on for what feels like hours, but I caught the last half, which let’s face it, always features the ‘big’ awards.

I can honestly say I was genuinely shocked to see The Artist bag SEVEN awards, scooping Best Picture, Best Actor (for Jean Dujardin), Best Director (for Michel Hazanavicius), Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Cinematography and Best Costume Design. I had hoped Bérénice Bejo might also scoop Best Actress but it was fairly obvious Meryl Streep was going to bag that for The Iron Lady. If there was an award for Best Acceptance Speech, then surely Michel Hazanavicius should have won that, with his quick wit.

Now, I wasn’t shocked because I didn’t want The Artist to win. I did – I absolutely loved the film, and I was so pleased to see a black-and-white silent film do so well in an era almost wholly dominated by either ‘tear-jerking’ Oscar fodder, or messy CGI catastrophes. Director Michel Hazanavicius described the film as being a love letter to wife (and star) Bérénice Bejo, but I feel the film was also a love letter to cinema itself, made with the same care and attention lavished on films made in cinema’s silent era. True, Hazanavicius exploited some techniques not available to filmmakers in the 1920s, but The Artist was a beautiful example of ‘proper’ filmmaking, even down to the way he framed his shots.

It’s also an incredibly important pseudo-historical document, highlighting the huge impact that the coming of sound had on cinema. Not only were theatres forced to invest in the expensive new technology, sound also affected the way films were made. Cameras had to be static to allow for microphone placement, while actors famous for frenetic action sequenced, like Douglas Fairbanks, found themselves slowed down and hemmed in by the new frames. Legendary director, Sir Alfred Hitchcock, has to turn his 1929 silent film Blackmail into a talkie at the last minute (although he also filmed a silent version, which still exists at the BFI). Lead actress Anny Ondra had a thick Czech accent, which is no problem in silent cinema, but proves to be an issue when faced with voice acting. Hitchcock worked around it by having English actress Joan Barry standing off-camera to speak the dialogue while Ondra lip-synced. Ondra retired from acting in 1933. Somehow makes the coming of 3D seem fairly pitiful, doesn’t it?

I’d love to see The Artist go on to Oscar success, especially since it picked up three Golden Globes, including Best Actor, but I have a horrible feeling it won’t. Aside from those years when they’ve felt compelled to honour projects like Avatar (proof that a beautiful film can be entirely devoid of soul or originality) or Lord of the Rings, the Academy tend to favour those types of films which feature at least one tear-jerking scene, some kind of underdog triumphing in the face of adversity, a stirring score to accompany ‘heavy’ scenes of drama, or various emotional epiphanies attributed to an ensemble cast. Besides, The Artist was financed by French and Belgian money – over the last twenty years, only two films have won that were not financed by Hollywood (The King’s Speech and Slumdog Millionaire). The fact they’re both recent films makes me hope the Academy are a little more open-minded these days.

One final point I would want to make relates to screenplay. Some quarters have criticised the choice of The Artist as a deserving recipient of Best Screenplay. Erm, you do realise that a screenplay is not simply a compilation of the lines to be delivered by an actor? Just because a film has no spoken dialogue does not mean that it has no screenplay – after all, the actors need some kind of ‘instructions’ as to what to do and when. In many ways, it’s more difficult to write a dialogue-less screenplay, where the actors will need to work to communicate everything they would normally communicate through speech, than it is to write a list of lines.

In short, well done to The Artist…and good luck at the Oscars!

[Review] The Woman in Black

Posted in Adaptation, Film with tags , , , , on February 11, 2012 by Icy Sedgwick

I’ve long been a fan of Susan Hill’s 1983 masterpiece, The Woman in Black, and I received the news of its filmic adaptation with some trepidation. Hollywood isn’t exactly known for translating supernatural literary classics particularly well – anyone who saw the hideous 1999 debacle that was the Jan De Bont remake of The Haunting (originally The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, and later the stupendous 1963 film version by Robert Wise) will know what I mean. Ghost stories are often dumbed down, and their atmosphere stripped away to leave mountains of ineffectual CGI and pointless jump cuts. The very fact that Hammer Films were behind the adaptation worried me even more – I love their classic output, but it’s not exactly subtle, is it? As for the casting of Daniel Radcliffe…well, I had my concerns.

Thankfully, I can say I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I think the cast and crew deserve a hearty ‘well done’ for retaining the chilling atmosphere of the book, although I suspect this comes, in part, from the involvement of Jane Goldman as screenwriter. The story follows young lawyer Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe), who is sent to a remote northern village to wrap up the affairs of a deceased client. The village is suitably Gothic, and its inhabitants close ranks against this hapless newcomer. Desperate to do a thorough job and assure his place at his law firm, Arthur is insistent on exploring the mysterious Eel Marsh House. His sighting of the Woman in Black sets in motion a horrific chain of events in the village, and Arthur takes it upon himself to discover her identity and, hopefully, lay her to rest.

I was worried that Radcliffe would just be playing Harry Potter, and while there was the occasional moment where I thought a magic wand might have come in handy, he more than holds his own alongside more seasoned actors like Ciaran Hinds. Indeed, Radcliffe carries the movie well, and spends much of the film acting by himself. He’s matured wonderfully and cuts a rather dashing figure as the young widower. Hinds is likeable as local landowner Samuel Daily, a seeming voice of reason in a sea of superstition, and his views on Spiritualism are surprisingly relevant to today’s culture of TV psychics.

Director James Watkins uses the CGI sparingly, instead relying on subtle framing and the play between light and shadow to veil his spectres. He did miss one wonderful opportunity to employ the ‘Vertigo shot’ but that’s probably just me being overly picky. He’s quite clearly gone for the ‘chilling’ end of the ghost story spectrum, as opposed to the ‘visually arresting but ultimately meaningless’ option. Special mention goes to the art direction of Paul Ghirardani and set decoration by Niamh Coulter, with the decor of the eerie house adding to the feelings of claustrophobia and isolation. Indeed, I half expected Arthur to encounter Miss Havisham on the staircase, so total was its devotion to Victoriana.

I didn’t find the film ‘scary’ or ‘terrifying’, although I suspect this may simply be due to my own approach to the paranormal – a year spent investigating ‘haunted’ locations, along with a lifetime exposed to the possible existence of the supernatural, desensitises you somewhat. However, I did find myself wrapped up in the story, completely immersed in this lost pocket of Victorian England. It’s a wonderful slice of Gothic filmmaking, full of genuine uncanny instances. I thoroughly enjoyed the film, and would highly recommend it to anyone who has been waiting for a decent ghost story since The Others came out. Well done, Hammer – it’s good to have you back.

4.5 / 5