Wednesday, 31 December 2014

50 Years of Sergio Leone's Leone's Spaghetti Westerns

A Fistful of Dollars (1964)For A Few Dollars More (1965)The Good, The Bad And The Ugly (1966)

"In this world there's two kinds of people my friend, those with loaded guns, and those who dig."

Though I already wished everyone a happy new year in my supposed final entry of 2014 I would be remised if I did not mention the very special birthday of a very special film series. Many films have significant anniversaries this year, but none have been as influential on modern cinema as Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy. Modern cinema simply would not exist as we know it without these films, they have touched and affected everyone and everything from Joss Whedon to Quentin Tarantino.
Few would have thought that an Italian American director, who hardly spoke any English, making a western when the genre was thought to be dying out, based on Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo  and starring the only people who didn’t previously turn the roles down, could become such an astonishing success. The series starts in small backwater towns and ends in epic style with the Civil War as a backdrop, it lacked the sentimental morals traditional westerns would try to shove down your throat, instead the films were filled with violent and sadistic behaviour  from its central characters.
The unique style created a new kind of buzz on a global scale, it gave the entire genre new life. With its flawed, more interesting and more relatable characters it captivated audiences on several levels. Humour was laced throughout as well, it was never thought that films like this could contain humour amidst all of the shootouts and gun slinging, but they did. Leone broke all of the rules and he didn’t care about it. Things were done in his own way and nothing demoted the exclusive feel he wanted to generate.
They were not light hearted stories, but they had a deeper thoughts implanted. The Dollars trilogy dealt with betrayal and honour, as well as the American dream and spirit. It is remarkable how well the foreign filmmaker captured the trials and tribulations of the American Civil War. Grand themes such as these could easily be bungled by other filmmakers, but here there is an excellent proof of how Leone took a history that wasn’t his own and filled it with the human heart.
Leone once said that westerns were filled with ‘violent and uncomplicated men’ and although his characters definitely fill the former, they are most certainly an accurate description of the latter. Though they may be, as already stated, violent, emotionally disconnected questionable political beliefs audiences still connect with the characters today. By the time you reach the scene in the graveyard at the end of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly you feel as if you have gone on a genuine journey with these people.
The extra edge has to come from that incredible music score from Ennio Morricone which Leone uses to his full advantage, as well as the inclusion of sound, it’s exclusion from some scenes adds to the terrific tension. The silence, reaction shots, followed by brutal bursts of violence were techniques invented here by Leone. The use of all of these things went against what was considered normal for the most prestigious Hollywood pictures, let alone a blood filled series of westerns.
You don’t have to like the classic John Wayne era of westerns to adore Leone’s films, take it from me because the earlier statement is my answer to the question ‘Do you like Cowboy films?’ Any director that uses wide angle shots probably does so from an influence by Leone. The films somehow heightened the reality of the genre but presented it in a format only plausible on the big screen. Hitchcock and many others saw no potential in widescreen due to the jarring between shots, but Leone used the jarring to great effect, jumping from desolate landscapes to close ups.
I would be lying if I said that the Leone westerns were recognised as classics instantly, they broke the mold at the time as well as today, but it was still regarded as a short craze. But like so many classic films, not only have Leone’s work refused to pass from memory, it gains new audiences constantly, and it will undoubtedly do so for years to come. 
So what's your favourite Leone film, or is there something you like about his films in general, leave a comment below and one again, happy new year!

Sunday, 28 December 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

"You have but one question to answer. How shall this day end?"

Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth is finally concluding with this instalment. Is it supposed to be a finale to the series though, after all, the main event of this story is yet to occur chronologically with the War of the Ring, so it is difficult to make an actual ending to this generation defining saga in this film. So what does this film have to do, conclude, say goodbye, give us a final taste of what we love about Tolkien’s world, I’m not really sure. Be warned, having read the book previously I may forget that some people are experiencing this story for the first time on film, possible slight spoilers ahead.
Picking up immediately after the last film this one sees a vengeful Smaug turning his attention to Lake Town. Then the company of Thorin has to deal with several things, the lost Arkenstone, their king’s obsession, enemies attracted to the mountain from far and wide and not forgetting the return of the Dark Lord’s armies.
I was initially worried about the last minute title change, from There and Back Again, to Five Armies, for me it felt like calling the Two Towers the Battle of Helm’s Deep. But to the film’s credit it does make a point of having a necessary change as nearly half of this film is a battle, without any changes in location or time, just one long drawn out battle shown from many perspectives. It ranges from the heat of the main battlefield to private duels between the Orc and Dwarf leaders. They are all very impressive to look at as well, an epic conflict set to a stunning backdrop.
I will start with the things I enjoyed most and that comes from the character arcs, similarly to Lord of the Rings, as good as big battles are I always love to see the intimate relations and emotions that the characters go through. For a start Bilbo’s arc through this trilogy makes him a better literary character than Frodo for me. The fact that he’s a reluctant hero that chooses to go on this adventure rather than being mostly forced into it as his nephew was makes him more interesting in my opinion. The fact that this Hobbit manages to step up to the challenge but holds onto his small comforts in life, combined with Martin Freeman’s continually wonderful portrayal makes him the undisputed central character, as he should be.
Thorin is another really good tale of character in this finale, his descent into madness is slow and almost seems in conjunction with his previous attitudes throughout the series for most of the time. The two characters not only have great personal stories, but their relationship is crafted very well, it goes from scepticism to respect to betrayal and finally friendship. I’m also glad that Benedict Cumberbatch’s Smaug got a last bit of screen time, because that is pretty impressive.
Some have criticised this series for deviating too much from the book. But I was surprised to find that the concluding elements of the book remain the same. My argument would be that you can deviate slightly in the middle as long as you reach the same finishing point, as Jackson and Tolkien have done. An example would be how I was expecting more changes to come to give the added Dwarf-Elf romance a happy ending, but… (sorry, I warned you of slight spoilers).
There are problems though, primarily the fact that this series should have been two films. The emotional weight had been played out and stretched too much to have a huge effect by now. Also, at the start of this film you will meet Alfred again, and you will really wish you hadn’t. His involvement is completely unnecessary, he’s not especially menacing or comical, just annoying. You also have to wonder why people keep giving him important jobs when he’s clearly useless ‘Alfred guard the prisoner, protect my children, lead the evacuation’. There’s not even a satisfying death for him. There’s not much relief either, it’s all action or heavy emotions.
In terms of emotion it works on a sentimental level rather than a gripping way. But in the end that is a good tone to take with the final instalment of a series, a chance to look back on an amazing spectacle rather than live in the moment as much. Though Jackson may have overstepped his reach a bit with the Middle Earth saga, you wouldn’t want to live in a world without it.
Result: 7/10
PS: This is my last review of the year, I will do a best and worst list after I’ve seen the American releases coming here after the new year. Until then have a very happy new year, goodbye 2014, hello 2015. 

Thursday, 18 December 2014


"Stranger danger, there's some sort of bear over there, probably selling something."

For certain generations their childhood has taken quite a knock in recent years, with Postman Pat being turned into a film that looked more like a parody of the Terminator and Top Cat becoming some god-awful animation film that looked as if it were made for 99p. So here is one of the most prestigious children’s properties in Britain, what can this update do to impress us?
Having travelled to London a small bear finds himself lost and alone, Until he is taken in with the kindly though slightly dysfunctional Brown family. It seems as though he has found a safe haven until he catches the eye of a museum taxidermist.
This film is hilariously charming. I can say it instantly, it leverages off of that fondness we all have for this beloved figure. While many adaptations fail to capture the tone and humour of the original series, Paddington does both in fine style. There’s an excellent mix of intelligent and child humour that recreates the atmosphere of what it is based upon like nothing before it.
It was a great reaction to hear, among the laughter in the cinema, huge sighs of relief from all the parents thinking ‘Yes, they’ve actually got it right.’ Director and writer Paul King is clearly a huge fan and this does not for one second have the feel of a cash grab. It feels like someone wanted to make a present for young and old viewers with universal themes of environmentalism, acceptance and family.
The film has such a great look and feel to it. The streets of London are beautifully shot in all its glory, it makes you proud to be British in a way. The multiculturalism shines through in an appropriate way given the film’s content. The animation of Paddington himself was breath-taking, the small bear looked so natural and real (helped by the great performances by the real-life actors), I get the feeling some children may have their hearts broken when they learn about CGI. As well as this Ben Wishaw embodies the character so well, he is now Paddington, it’s as simple as that.
As I said before, though it’s mostly aimed at children there are a few nods to parents as well. Possibly my favourite scene has to be the kids imagining their father (Hugh Bonneville) as a rebel biker in his youth, cue Bonneville pretending to be just that. My first reaction was that it looked ridiculous and stupid, but of course it’s supposed to look that way because children can’t imagine their parents as being anything other than ridiculous. Even more hilarious is the next scene where a leather clad Bonneville dismounts his motorcycle, walks into a hospital where his wife is giving birth, only to walk out later wearing a beige cardigan and carrying a baby, the transformation explained with, ‘Becoming a father can change a man.’
Speaking of Bonneville, he and the rest of the cast do a fantastic job here. The Brown family function so well and so humorously that you feel as if a bear would not be needed to make the film interesting. The supporters like Nicole Kidman and Julie Walters were also wonderful and then you get the celebrity cameos, from Matt Lucas as a cockney taxi driver to Peter Capaldi as the Brown’s disgruntled neighbour.
Paddington manages to be the exact two things you want a film like this to be. It remains nostalgic and charming but maintains a modern and child friendly vibe as it should. I cannot imagine anyone disliking it, except marmalade haters perhaps.
Result: 8/10    

Monday, 15 December 2014

Men, Women and Children

"I have installed a camera in my daughter's brain and a seven digit pin code on her vagina."

The internet is really crawling into the fabric of modern filmmaking by now. Who would be better to direct a film Like Men, Women and Children than Jason Reitman, the director of Juno and Up in the Air. Like previous projects it is based on a novel and it in this one, it’s very difficult to work out what he wanted to accomplish.
This story offers a look at how social media and technology in general has influenced and affected the professional and personal lives of different people. We see their interactive and their private lives over the internet.
It is difficult to know where to start a review of this film. It has an ensemble cast that gives an average-ish performance. But that’s about it, the only really positive thing I can say about it. The story comes from middle class America and is done in that slice of life style but to use the term story would be an overstatement. The events depicted in the film take virtually no direction. There are no twists or turns, it plays out in the exact way that you expect it to and in the loosest possible form.
Out of all the topics that are tackled here, privacy, sex, pornography, adultery, cyber bullying, exploitation and of course social media, none of them are really addressed. They all appear as issues but there doesn’t seem to be any difference of opinion expressed throughout the film at any of them, but they all receive so little attention and a formulaic dissection any way that it doesn’t really matter. 
The script is fairly bland and dull, it fails to challenge any social aesthetic or opinion but instead adopts the continuous tone. It successfully introduces the characters and while their settings are interesting the script never grabbed me after that. Mainly because it does feel quite conventional and transparent, it’s clear that this marriage will lead to an affair and another will ruin her daughter’s social life with constant observations, we know what will happen, we are not interested. As I said before there is no clear story method here, it’s just events as they take place with no clear narrative or structure.
There’s also a hint of men, Women and Children being too self-righteous and moral to its audience. It is as if this entire film was written by the helicopter parents it portrays. It shows the internet as almost a disease that seeps into families and destroys them. I’m not exaggerating when I say this, much of the film sees the internet from one perspective, that it is dangerous. I’m not saying  that it isn’t at times, but it is hard for me to hate it because it’s the reason I can tell you what I thought of this film.
The ways in which the characters are brought down do not really appear to be universally true, especially in this context. It appears that more attention should be brought to the fact that the character’s own lusts are what destroys them, the internet is just an accessing point for the element that bring about their downfall. If you gave a man a gun and he deliberately shot himself would you blame the gun?
It doesn’t seem to know a lot about the technology it describes either. It presents an idealised view of what older people perceive technology to be, something negative. There’s a disregard for realism when it comes to dealing with the mechanics of the internet or actually giving the correct mood, like glamourizing internet dating for one thing.
With an unrealistic, narrow minded and formulaic approach to its subject matter, Men, Women and Children doesn’t stand out or provoke discussion.
Result: 2/10

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Black Sea

"Outside it's just a black, cold death."

Desperate men in desperate circumstances, is a way to sum up this claustrophobic thriller from director Kevin Macdonald. Submarine films are back in fashion it would seem, they used to be popular in the eighties and does this latest film signal a large scale comeback for the genre.
Commercial submariner Robinson (Jude Law) has spent most of his life at sea. His career has cost him both his marriage and children and his sacrifice is about to be wasted as his company is about to let him go. With nothing left to lose he assembles a team to salvage a recently discovered sunken treasure. But as suspicion arises and the promise of money acts as a fierce motivator, the crew turn dark.
This is not a new plotline. Like I said this has been done more than once in different environments, submarines had their go in the eighties and as far as paranoid treasure hunt goes you can trace a concept like that back to the thirties with the Treasure of Sierra Madre. So can Black Sea offer us anything new? In a word, no. While this story is told in a believable and interesting manner, as well as being brilliantly acted (we’ll get to that later). But as far as originality goes it isn’t pushing the boat out.
It does do one thing very well as most films of this type have to. It treats the submarine as a character of its own. After a while it becomes just as uncontrollable and unpredictable as the men inside it. That bond between man and tool is explored in satisfying detail here. There’s an interesting backstory to revolve around the main plot as well, of social and economic redundancy which leaves many with few options. It is not on an apocalyptic, Children of Men level, but it is an inconvenience. In many ways it is disturbingly close to the current world but slightly worse, I like that, it makes you feel connected to the story.
Speaking of which, if there’s one thing that Black Sea does very well it is connect the audience with the story. It succeeds in grabbing my attention and making me feel the claustrophobic environment of the submarine. I felt the tension rise as the men slowly turned on each other. Macdonald directs with this minimalistic style that proves to be utterly ruthless when it comes to comforting the viewer. Black sea also relishes in pointing out how we may think of space as the ultimate trap with Gravity and Alien, but the Earth’s ocean can be just as terrifying where the chances of rescue are, if anything, even worse than the chances in space.
Staying on the positive side, although I may criticise the story for being too familiar, it still keep me intrigued, which is a good thing as the sense of being trapped might have caused me to stop watching. The story is given life by the brilliant acting and superb shooting techniques. Jude Law is an excellent leader but the brilliance comes from Grigory Dobrygin, he is completely spectacular and watchable in Black Sea.
But the film is let down by not being more than what it is. Most of the time films like this represent something in society, the depth goes far beyond the bottom of the ocean. Here it just appears to be a submarine film, but as submarine films go it’s a good one.
Most of what we see here is recognisable territory but some engrossing performances and a fresh direction on the camera that really immerses the viewer in this world make Black Sea a respectable film. It’s the same formula, but it’s done very well.

Result: 7/10

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Horrible Bosses 2

"Your Options are, JACK-S**T."

The first Horrible Bosses film seems to have developed a lot of devoted followers in recent years. I know a lot of people who really love that film and a lot of people who, actually don’t hate it, but aren’t fond of it. I have to admit I am more of the latter. I think it’s a fun, lazy comedy that has a passable rating, maybe not one of the standout comedies of this decade or anything but it made me chuckle consistently. Has the second one improved?
When their new business fails as the result of a ruthless investor (Christoph Waltz) our familiar trio Nick, Kurt and Dale plot revenge, by kidnapping his son (Chris Pine) and demanding a ransom.
When I saw the trailer for the second one I thought, yes. I really believed that this time around they had cracked the comedy conundrum and made a really good film here. There were a lot of really funny moments here and if the rest of the film could be as consistently funny as well as balancing a few more gut-busting parts then I may actually understand the praise the fans give this series. But sadly once again I left the cinema thinking, meh.
It does a better job of the do-the-same-thing-in-a-different-place tactic of other comedy sequels but after a while the actions and idiocy becomes difficult to believe. A lot of comedies cross the idiot line but they openly express it like Will Ferell. Here it just becomes a bit pretentious after a while. This is the biggest problem of the film for me, it just becomes a bit too stupid and unbelievable. The way that the characters act is no longer in a way that seems plausible, it just looks as if the things that they do are purely for the plot to move in that direction or to generate a laugh while they can.
Like I said this can be fine if the comedy says straight from the off ‘We’re going for it and we’re not compromising’. But Horrible Bosses tries to be serious and clever but then moves to stupid when it needs to. This results in not only an inconsistent amount of comedy but also an inconsistent style of comedy.
The cast does a pretty good job for its material that would probably do a lot worse with anyone less talented. Chris Pine is undoubtedly the standout role, he really jumps into it and makes it his own, as does Kevin Spacey. Waltz’s role really feels like it was written for him, he’s evil and he enjoys it, and that works nicely but I would really like to see him do a bit more. You have a really good actor here, expand a bit, it can still be funny.
Our main characters also feel underused. They are much hollower this time around, not being seen as real characters, instead they’re the guys who get caught up between other (and more interesting) people. The chemistry is still enjoyable but it fails to transfer from just one of the trio to any other character they interact with. Three people have a conversation with themselves and occasionally someone interjects and gives them something else to talk about.
To give credit where it’s due the film tried to go in a different direction and that is good for a sequel rather than just repeat the same thing as before. Although I’ve focussed only on negatives everything else in the film made me chuckle when it wasn’t going wrong. But it fails to make a large impression and braak away to achieve greatness.
Result: 5/10 

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Trailer Review

"There has been an awakening, have you felt it?"

It’s been a few days now so I’ve had time to get my act together and do a review on the trailer for Force Awakens, and wow. As a big Star Wars fan, mind you there is no such thing as a ‘small Star wars’ fan seriously when does anyone come up to you and say ‘I don’t mind Star Wars’. No you’re either a lover of Star Wars or an idiot. Where was I, oh yeah, I’m stunned by nearly everything in this trailer, why do I say ‘nearly, I do not know, I was amazed by everything. I’m going to offer my thoughts shot by shot, enjoy.
The first shot was always going to be Tatooine, it just was. And there is a slight shock with John Boyega as a Stormtrooper, I was certainly not expecting him to pop up. Rumours state that he’s the main protagonist of the film and the fact that he’s the first thing we see would imply that. His true nature is unknown, is he good from the start and just impersonating a Stormtrooper or is it more complicated. Is Boyega an ordinary Stormtrooper who is revealed to be Force sensitive. That would be an interesting idea, I would like to see Star Wars from an average soldiers perspective and to see a bad guy turn good has not been seen in the long term. Vader became good but only for ten minutes; let’s see someone who has to cope with his decision for a lengthy amount of time.
That narration as well, it’s difficult to pin down exactly who that is. Initially I would guess Benedict of course, but towards the end it takes a different tone and he has not been announced as a star of the film. But maybe it’s a secret part, I would love to see Sherlock in Star Wars (why that is not already a franchise of its own I have no idea).
Little droid in the next shot, not much to say here. He looks quite fun and innocent and innovative and Star Wars has to have that kind of character but he might not be a main character. Don’t think that he’s a substitute for R2-D2, he is definitely returning so this could just be a background character or a new one alongside our favourite R2 unit, we shall wait and see.
Next are the Stormtroopers. Updated slightly but still very recognisable. The whole trailer seems to take that tone, it looks new but it still has the feel and taste of Star Wars. It’s the same person but in a different suit. They look ready for action and I cannot find a scrap of CGI in that sequence so that is a good sign. The beauty of the original trilogy was not the amazing effects but how they were shot alongside real life so brilliantly that the actors looked like they were there, not standing in front of a green screen.
Same goes for the X-Wing’s. It looks new but it feels familiar, the CGI is only used when it needs to be and it looks so cool. Picking a favourite shot from this trailer would be difficult but that is definitely among my top 7 (see what I did there). Daisy Ridley rides a speeder as well. It looks beaten up and makeshift and again on Tatooine. That’s another feature of this trailer that I like, everything looks used. It looks battered and as if it has a history of its own.
This is why I think J J Abrams was the perfect director for this. When he did Star Trek there was a sense that he wanted to do the fans justice but create something new. There were Star Wars sound effects mixed in with some new ones, and a lens flare, of course.
Next this Game of Thrones like shot with a lightsaber thrown in. I know there are some haters of this new lightsaber but I really like it. The crossbar looks good and practical, there was a reason old swords had those, and while the obvious statement might be ‘You’d cut your hands off’, when have we ever seen someone in Star Wars cut their own hands off! They do not hand these weapons out to anyone you know. Something about the way this character (possible new villain) wields it implies an ancient nature, so maybe this is an early lightsaber. At one point apparently the title was The Ancient Fear, so maybe it’s something from before the prequels coming here in the sequels.

Then the final shot, the Falcon in all of its glory, the lens flare, the sweeping camera shot, the TIE fighters and the John Williams soundtrack kicking in, it is all completely amazing. First impressions are very promising. Keep it up J J. 

Monday, 1 December 2014

Get On Up

"I knew since the say i was born, everybody gonna know my name."

Biopics are rife this year. We’ve seen the intelligent and thrilling Imitation Game, the artistic and emotional Mr Turner, and now we have Get On Up, the story of James Brown. This biopic seems to cover nearly everything that the other two do not. It’s wild, charismatic and full of pure, unrivalled funk. Seriously, set your funk-o-meter to maximum people.
The film follows the life of musician James Brown, from his upbringing in poverty to being crowned the Godfather of Soul. The film chronicles every move and mood as well as the music career of one of the most influential figures of the 20th century.  
The best thing to do with this film is to compare it to Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys, while it talks the talk it certainly fails to walk the walk like get On Up does. It manages to give the life story of Brown as well as the fantastic musical numbers that remain as timeless as ever. It makes you realise just how big an impact this man had. ‘The hardest working man in show business’ lacked very few things, but humility was one of them. But this film helps you to understand how having that feature would be difficult for someone like Brown, a man who stood out in almost every way at the time.
He is given an excellent portrayal by Chadwick Boseman. An Oscar worthy performance by any means comes from this previously unknown actor who is already one of the key players in Marvel’s phase three of their universe, and it’s easy to see why from get On Up. I cannot overstate how amazing he was, you go to this film to see James Brown and Boseman is James Brown. He embodies so much charisma and unparalleled amounts of electrifying formula. But beneath this colourful exterior Boseman is able to show Brown’s darker side, his manipulative, violent, sociopathic, exhibitionist streak.
Although there are a few structural weaknesses such as the issues not being tied up or answered as neatly as the complex chronology would have you believe. But director Tate Taylor manages to engross the audience for the whole 139 minutes with a unique creative approach to tackling the story of a man who never stopped performing for his entire life. It’s quite a stylised and non-linear view of his life and in terms of becoming a personal as well as a professional film of Brown, Get On Up presents both of these issues in a brilliantly familiar yet modern light simultaneously.
It never fails to highlight the importance of Brown in popular culture either. There are traces of nearly every style of music following his reign in this film. One of my favourite scenes has to be Boseman talking down to those legends of rock the Rolling Stones. Despite the impact they have has its obvious the Brown exudes so much influence and power over them. It really is breathtaking to watch.
The detail of the time shines through in a very stylish manner and the sheer tantalizing amounts of energy that are laced throughout this biopic make it nostalgic and modern. Even if you have problems with the structure and take on the story Boseman’s performance is more than worth the price of admission, he’s one fellow who never gets down.
 Result: 8/10