Friday, 29 April 2016

Best and Worst of April 2016

I saw  certain movie at midnight last night, but I’m not going to talk about it yet, the reason being that to include it in this month’s reviews would leave me with the very difficult decision of where it stands in comparison to some of the other brilliant releases this month. So call it cheating if you want, but for now a review ‘Captain America: Civil War’ will be put on hold until at least May 1st. Besides it doesn’t hit Stateside for another few days so until then I feel like I can put it off as well.

For now though we can talk about this month and it has been quite a brilliant one at that. Following the somewhat disappointing turnout of March 2016, April was considerably better, with quite a few impressive films of varying genres. Whether they be Disney blockbusters, science fiction road trips, paranoid thrillers or indie experiments there was essentially something for everyone this month. There was only one truly terrible film as well which is definitely a bonus given how so far each month has had at least two. Before the main selection though I have to give a shoutout for ’10 Cloverfield Lane’ which just barely missed the cut, even though it was highly impressive.

3: The Jungle Book
In Disney’s recent wave of live action adaptations of their classic cartoons, John Favreau’s ‘The Jungle Book’ stands as the best by a long way. Featuring some of the most impressive CGI I have ever seen put to film, being massive yet detailed and completely immersive. But despite its technical brilliance there is still a real heart and soul to ‘The Jungle Book’, it’s permeated with brilliant characters who are all brought to life with a magnificent all-star voice cast. It’s pure cinematic joy from start to finish.

2: Victoria
The idea of executing an entire film (regardless of the premise and plot) as a single take, filmed in real time and no room for error is difficult to imagine. But when you consider that ‘Victoria’ has a runtime of nearly two and a half hours that takes the viewer from classy bars and nightclubs to tense crime confrontations and bank robberies, you really do have to see it to believe it. Director Sebastian Schipper has accomplished what many might deem impossible and furthermore he managed to craft a film with a cohesive plot, compelling characters and emotional turns. Laia Costa is fantastic in the titular role and almost rivals the technical prowess as the best thing about ‘Victoria’.

1: Midnight Special
Jeff Nichols’ science fiction powerhouse is less of a film about extra-terrestrials and more of one about the relationship between a father and son. It weaves a story of intimacy and poignancy that outshines and flashy CGI that Hollywood continue to mistake for science fiction, ‘Midnight Special’ reconnects with science fiction classics from the likes of Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter who based their stories around human life more than the aliens that visited them. That is not to say that there isn’t spectacle to ‘Midnight Special’, there are some truly breath-taking moments, but it finds its strength through the emotions of its story that are perfectly conveyed by its cast that includes Adam Driver and Joel Edgerton but most of all it is Michael Shannon who delivers a superb performance. Nichols directs with an eye that understands what audiences take away from a film and has applied it to ‘Midnight Special’ brilliantly.

And the worst….

God’s Not Dead 2
This is a propaganda film, pure and simple (at the end it told me to text my friends and family to spread the message). But worse than that though it’s a manipulative film that does not try to make an argument as to why certain hold certain beliefs, it is not trying to convince anyone why Christianity is beneficial and what draws people to it. It only tries to reinforce the prejudices and bigotries that its audiences hold. It acts as if Christians are persecuted within today’s society even though you wouldn’t have to travel far to find a group of people who suffer from far worse. The plot is a fantasy, as is any form of filmmaking as a concept. Acting, cinematography, directing, production design, etcetera. None of them are to be found here.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Captain America: The Franchise So Far

So ‘Captain America: Civil War’ is fast approaching, in fact for some people it has already arrived making this post slightly pointless, for them at least. This film has been set up as a lot of things, another ‘Avengers’ instalment, the reintroduction of Spider-Man, a versus movie between Marvel’s main heroes but most of all it should be viewed as a third Captain America movie because after all the film is called ‘Captain America’. But what of the other entries that have portrayed the adventures of Steve Rogers on the silver screen? Well I’m going through them now, and oh boy were there some oddities in this collection.

The original outing for Captain America was actually the first adaptation of a Marvel property ever, in fact it was so old that Marvel weren’t even called Marvel at this stage, with the character belonging to a division called Timely Comics. Released in 1944 this film serial was the most expensive of its kind at the time and starred Dick Purcell as Captain America a.k.a…..Grant Gardner. You heard me correctly, no more Steve Rogers, soldier turned superhero, instead we have U.S District Attorney Grant Gardner. This is just one of many baffling changes as the serial also neglects to include any super serum, Bucky does not make an appearance (as far as I can tell, none of the supporting characters are lifted from the comics), despite having fought Nazis in the comics until this point there are no Nazis within the film which is even more remarkable considering that it was made during World War 2 and you’d think what would be the perfect propaganda opportunity to have a dashing hero (that literally has America as part of his name) vanquishing them. Additionally, Cap’s famous shield also fails to make an appearance, with the hero’s weapon of choice being a standard revolver.

You may be thinking that this doesn’t sound remotely like a Captain America film apart from its title, and you would be right. Originally the script was titles ‘The Mysterious Doctor Satan’ but with the growing popularity of the character the studio were able to procure the Captain America name and shoehorned him into the existing script, making as few changes as possible. So this is a Captain America movie in name only and I’m sure that for the average movie goer at the time, who knew literally nothing about any comic book of any kind, it was still fairly terrible. In fact I feel as if rattling off the film’s production history says enough about its quality so I won’t go into it much further. I will say however that Dick Purcell was described at the time of filming as having an “average to overweight physique’. That description was probably justified when the process of filming proved to be too strenuous for his heart and he died weeks later in a locker room. Which is slightly sad, but then again the film itself is rather sad, in every possible way.

Amazingly though, things could only get worse. Captain America fans were treated to two straight to video releases that….well look I cannot find the strength to actually talk about that movie so I’ll just put a picture of Cap himself from the movie up at the side and you can judge for yourself.

Then there was another theatre release, in 1990…for the U.K at least (wow, aren’t we lucky). Over in America they had to wait two more years for it to be released on home video. So putting aside what may be the worst marketing campaign in history to not release a Captain America film in American theatres (maybe the makers were doing a service to America by not showing it) the film itself is even worse. From the makers of ‘Masters of the Universe’ and ‘Superman: The Quest for Peace’ comes ‘Captain America’. You heard me.

It stars Matt Salinger (best known as the son of J.D Salinger) as Captain America/Steve Rogers (well at least this version got that part right). When he partakes in an experiment involving super serum he goes from weakling to super soldier, despite undergoing no actual physical change at all. He ends up being frozen after preventing a missile from hitting the White House by kicking it with his foot and being dragged with it to the arctic. This does sound somewhat accurate to the story that is familiar to comic book readers and fans of the latest film incarnation, but imagine if every element of the recent Marvel films were executed so terrible and horrifically that it stifles any form of enjoyment whatsoever, and then you have this film. The characters are all shallow charisma vacuums and the production budget is laughable, as is the acting, and the plot and everything really, especially when you remember that in the summer of 1989 audiences were treated to Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’. So there is no excuse for this mess of a film.

But finally, finally, we arrive at Chris Evans’ portrayal of the character, who made his debut as Captain America in 2011’s ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’. Now I’ve never been overly fond of this instalment, viewing it as one of the more forgettable films of the MCU, but there is still a lot of fun to be had with it. It tells its origin story with good conviction and depth to make it engaging and interesting, I enjoy the way it approaches the character as a form of propaganda that morphed into a real soldier (it even throws out a quick reference to the 1944 serial) and there is a fun retro style to it, feeling more like an adventure serial from the era rather than an average blockbuster. Evans gives the character a broader emotional range and vulnerability just as well as he establishes his superb abilities and heroism. Nevertheless I still stand by my original complaints with the film, that ultimately it feels too simplistic and by the numbers to leave a lasting impression and ultimately just acts as a fancy set up for ‘The Avengers’. That is not to say it doesn’t have a unique flair to it, but not enough to be anything more than average.

Due to my opinion of ‘The First Avenger’ I didn’t go into ‘The Winter Soldier’ with high expectations and you can imagine what followed. I was blown away by it. It is a rare superhero film that can act as both a continuation and an entry point. It works to satisfy fans of the original comic while also working as a standalone film. Hiring the Russo Brothers to direct this may still stand as the best decision Marvel has ever made with their movies, they are directors who understand the source material and know what aspects of it work cinematically but they also craft a film that on an aesthetic level more closely resembles a political thriller from the 1970s. Movies like ‘Three Days of the Condor’ and ‘All the President’s Men’ spring to mind, and having Robert Redford in the cast only helps to emphasise those similarities.

That in itself is wonderfully subversive, as Alexander Pierce Redford is playing the antagonist he would usually be running from back in the 1970s. But in switching roles he shows the same amount of commitment as he always does and this is reflected by the entire cast, with Evans once again adding an unforeseen level of depth the character but at the same time loses none of the heroic charm. Scarlett Johansson is a great inclusion as she turns Black Widow into more than just the obligatory female companion, she becomes a mysterious femme fatale. Then you have Samuel L Jackson, Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan who are also mightily impressive.

The plot brilliantly and at just the right pace, never leaving the heroes a moment to breathe but somehow finding the time to include some emotionally heavy moments within it. As well as that the action scenes themselves are fantastic, once again it is down to the Russo Brother’s direction as they draw suspense from each action sequence, giving it a sense of weight and purpose but also injecting it with a visceral energy. It strikes the perfect balance between finding the right amount of realism so that you care for the characters, but not too much that it no longer feels entertaining. It is a rare blockbuster that is as entertaining as it is well made.

Snowden Trailer Review

I am a big admirer of Oliver Stone, especially with his work as a director. But at the same time I will also state without any sense of guilt that I think it’s been a good twenty years since he made his last great movie. He started out with writing the screenplay for Brian De Palma’s directorial masterpiece ‘Scarface’ and then leapt into the public consciousness with his harrowing portrayal of war in ‘Platoon’ and then followed that with classics like ‘Wall Street’, ‘Talk Radio’, ‘Born on the Fourth of July’, ‘Natural Born Killers’ and finally ‘Nixon’ in 1995.

But since his biopic of old Tricky Dicky, Stone has drifted into not what I would brand as terrible films, but very substandard ones. In fact even that seems harsh because they are not substandard on a technical level, but more on a thematic level. Since ‘Nixon’ I’ve found that none of his films have carried a message as bold or as biting as his previous work. ‘World Trade Centre’, ‘Alexander’ or ‘W’ only reaffirm what we already know about their subjects as opposed to actually challenging us. Whether it be through the most grim portrayal of war ever put to film in ‘Platoon’, the biting evisceration of the mass media in ‘Natural Born Killers’ and as for ‘JFK’... it would be easier to list the parts of the film that didn’t attract controversy.

So when you break down the essential elements of what you would hope a film about Edward Snowden film would reflect, conspiracy, character studies and social commentary, then you look back at Stone’s filmography it is tough to think of a director more suited to possibly telling this story the way it should be told. Stone never seeks to recreate a 100% accurate account of historical events (if you want that I can recommend the documentary ‘CITIZENFOUR’), what he has always done with his best films is try to reflect the tone of these events in the most effective way.

I’m only saying all of this because I want everyone to know just how excited I am for this film and also why trying to use historical accuracy as an argument against it is virtually irrelevant. But onto the actual trailer itself, because it looks fantastic. It looks suspenseful, thrilling and morally ambiguous, setting the tone of the movie perfectly. In fact the trailer itself starts making you question to what extent you may be under surveillance right now.

The trailer does a great job of setting up the moral dilemma of the film, privacy vs security and while there is no definitive answer to that dilemma it looks as if the film is focussing more on Snowden’s viewpoint of it and his perspective. Speaking of the titular man himself though, Joseph Gordon Levitt is giving what looks to be a rather spectacular performance. I found it almost jarring at first but his transformation very rapidly grew on me and I found myself seeing Snowden himself as he carried out each decision. The trailer is also impressive in how it conveys a sense of weight with these decisions even though it is only two and a half minutes long.

Within those two and a half minutes we appear to catch a short preview of what could be some stunning sequences of prolonged suspense, one of the most striking was Snowden sneaking the data out of the complex by hiding it in a Rubik’s Cube. In the actual film the scene could prove to be masterful, I hope. Once again that sense of paranoia comes into play again at the end of the trailer as Stone somehow makes a ringing telephone seem immeasurably menacing. Most of all this trailer makes the film feel like an Oliver Stone film, and when I say that I mean a real Oliver Stone film.

Friday, 22 April 2016

Purple Rain

Eric Clapton was once asked what it felt like to be the greatest guitarist alive. His response was “I don’t know, ask Prince”. His death marks the end of an era for pop music, as one of the most defining figures of the genre, and of music in general. So I can’t think of a better time to look back at the legendary rock drama, ‘Purple Rain’.

A victim of his own anger, the Kid (Prince) is a Minneapolis musician on the rise with his band, the Revolution, escaping a tumultuous home life through music. While trying to avoid making the same mistakes as his truculent father (Clarence Williams III), the Kid navigates the club scene and a rocky relationship with a captivating singer, Apollonia (Apollonia Kotero). But another musician, Morris (Morris Day), looks to steal the Kid's spotlight and his girl.

It’s difficult to talk about ‘Purple Rain’ without going off on a tangent about the nature of Prince as an artist and describing his incredible career because this film acts as a personification of all that was great about him. The plot may be somewhat thin and it serves only as fancy padding around each musical set piece, which is fine by me because if there was ever an excuse to showcase an artist’s best work all in one 111 minute package, this may be the best way to do it.

This is a performer who did so much more than sing, he helped redefine the culture of his era. I saw an interesting review of his impact today, one that stated that it was sadly poignant that Prince’s death comes in the same year as David Bowie’s, both performers who defied what a man had to be, whose music transcended gender. It was no accident that Prince’s band was called The Revolution.

Today’s popular musicians have this notion that the only way to make a movie is some documentary about whatever tour they’re undergoing that year, then spend a while moping about their difficult lifestyles and literally say to the camera at some point “I put a lot of effort into my music”. This wasn’t the case with the artists of yesterday, The Beatles had ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, Pink Floyd had ‘The Wall’ and Prince had ‘Purple Rain’.

‘A Hard Day’s Night’ follows a day in the life of The Beatles (or at least that’s what I want to believe, every day for them in 1964 was exactly like that one) and ‘The Wall’ was a nightmarish psychedelic, dystopian rock opera. But as for ‘Purple Rain’, it’s essentially one music video after another, a short set up for the story which is ultimately resolved through a song, somehow. But at the same time there’s a depth and substance to them, not just random images to occupy you while the music plays, they are really trying to say something dramatic with this stuff. Each song evokes a new form of emotion and drama that moves the narrative forward, it introduces a bit more about Prince’s character and his overall development. As Gene Siskel said in his review “I think this movie should be studied for how it uses music dramatically.” Siskel would go on to name it the fifth best movie of that year and his enthusiasm was shared by his ever present partner, Roger Ebert who also enjoyed the film immensely, describing it as “electrifying”.

Even if Prince himself wasn’t the greatest actor in the world (shocking I know, although Siskel and Ebert both praised his performance) his charisma and sheer magnetism just shines through for every minute of screen time. I can’t think of many rock stars who would be willing to play a character who still lives at home, let alone make it work as well as he did here. There is such a passion behind every aspect of his work that, going back to the modern “I put a lot of effort into my music” thing, my point is that we never needed Prince to say it because it was so blatantly obvious. He ultimately ended up taking home the last ever Academy Award for Best Original Song Score. So even if you want to criticise the man’s acting, it still didn’t stop him taking home an Oscar.

It may seem easy to dismiss the movie but it still stands as perhaps the greatest testament to his artistry and brilliance as a performer, rivalled only by his magnificent live performance at the 2007 super bowl (which is truly fantastic). But what may be even more remarkable about the film is the way in which it contrasts this artistry with reality. There’s a constant struggle for Prince (I know his character is supposed to be called The Kid, but come one, we know it’s Prince) to find a compromise between the restrictions of reality with his young rock star ambition. It’s a somewhat tortured conundrum but whenever the music stirs up, it’s a brief moment of euphoria. It’s how I always felt listening to his music, for those few minutes nothing else really mattered, you’re just caught up in the moment.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Jason Bourne Trailer Review

Matt Damon is returning as Jason Bourne. That statement essentially sold the film to me but regardless it’s only in the past few months that I have started to get genuinely excited for the fifth entry in this franchise, ever since the title announcement and the initial super bowl trailer that finally made me see the project as an eventual actuality. But now we have the full trailer and at the very least it seems like this latest entry in the series could be just as spectacular as the others (I mean after ‘The Bourne Legacy’ it’s guaranteed to be at least the fourth best in the franchise, right?)

So the trailer opens with flashbacks of the previous films just to remind everyone that this is indeed a continuation of the franchise. The selection of clips they show include some of the franchise’s most powerful and impressive shots, particularly the window jump from ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’. Then we get some rather cryptic and overly elaborate statement “Remembering everything doesn’t mean you know everything” and ultimately that seems to be a good summary of how this film is subtly appealing to us.

Consider this, the tagline from every trailer has been ‘You know his name’, and we do, it’s David Webb. I feel like that is the whole conundrum behind the film, we know Bourne’s real name and his transformation into the character we know but beyond that, not much else. Therein lies the central conceit, we have only just scratched the surface of who Jason Bourne really is and that only seems to emphasise the meaning behind the film’s title. I said a while ago that by simply resorting to using our protagonists name as the title implies that this film will be even more of a personal character study than the others (either that or they ran out of words that can be preceded by Bourne and sound cool).

One of the most striking aspects of the trailer was during the brief glimpses we got of some kind of information hack, during which a government official said that the incident “could be worse than Snowden”. To bring up such an issue that remains so controversial and so relevant to our modern perception of espionage, we no longer think about fancy gadgets and suave secrecy, we think of unseen drones and skilled computer hackers, including Edward Snowden so to throw in such a reference means that this Bourne film will hopefully be as relevant as the others. Perhaps one of the most hard hitting images of the series was in The Bourne Ultimatum’ in which Bourne coldly executes a hooded prisoner, if 2007 audiences were reminded of images of their daily news casts instead of mindless entertainment it was for a reason.

If anything this trailer is just a more intelligent version of the super bowl TV spot. Where one was just glimpses of what look to be the film’s most impressive action set pieces like the chase down the Las Vegas strip (talk about fear and loathing). But this one not only contains the political references and hints of plot, it involves clues as to why Bourne has made his return now, and even if in reality the answer to that question is because the studio heads realised they could make more money from the series, there has to be a genuine reason behind it. Meanwhile there are glimpses of the new cast such as Tommy Lee Jones and Alicia Vikander who both look excellent, but it's Damon at the centre of attention as he easily walks back into the role that to this day defines his career.

But let’s get back to the action, because it looks absolutely spectacular. Paul Greengrass directs action to a level that few others can replicate today and he put such an indefinable stamp onto the franchise that it’s difficult for anyone other than him to replicate. Just from these few shots you can tell that this is a Greengrass movie and having gone on to make award winning dramas like ‘United 93’ and ‘Captain Philips’ we should expect a lot from this.

Then of course there’s the final shot, which we have of course seen before both in the previous trailer and other films. But there is something so brilliant about this execution of the scenario. Big tough guy gets knocked out by underdog in one punch, but what should be a cliché is injected with such a sense of pace and impact, a sudden brutal force that is elevated by the brilliant composition, framing, choreography and physical performances just makes the whole thing look fantastic. July can’t come soon enough.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Signore/Campea/Harloff vs Randolph and the 'anti-DC' Nonsesne

Now I admit there are probably more detailed rundowns of this story from both parties, and some of you may also disregard this as of course I don’t know either party personally so from one viewpoint it’s hardly my place to comment upon the issue. But at the same time I think that what’s happening here indirectly affects everyone who, like myself, enjoys sharing their opinion on film. Also as someone who doesn’t personally know either party I like to think that what I am writing here offers an impartial judgement of the issue for anyone who wants that outlook.

The full story goes like this, just over a month ago ‘Batman v Superman’ hit theatres and the general critics consensus was that it was less than stellar, sitting at only a 29% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The backlash from the movie’s supporters was gargantuan, it’s tough to find a review from a popular critic online that doesn’t contain a slew of comments defending the movie or attacking said critic. One of the few adamant supporters was YouTube critic Grace Randolph who gave the film a glowing review. Interestingly another supporter of the movie was the former head of Collider Videos, John Campea who said that while the film had significant issues he believed the good outweighed the bad. People who were less supportive included Andy Signore of Screen Junkies and Kristian Harloff, also from Collider Videos, although even Harloff’s review was more mixed than outright negative.

But going back to the fan backlash. As time went on a number of theories sprung up including one that involved Rotten Tomatoes wanting to destroy Warner Bros’ film slate (which soon fell through once people remembered that Rotten Tomatoes are owned by Warner Bros), then there was the theory that Disney were bribing critics to give the film a negative review (which if true would not only bankrupt the studio but also indefinitely destroy their reputation should such a scandal ever reach the public eye). Another theory is that there is an ‘anti-DC agenda’ among movie critics. One of the frontrunners of this particular theory was Grace Randolph who even made a video in which she threw in theories that a lack of press screenings had made critics resentful of the film (even though ‘The Force Awakens’ seemed to get along okay without press screenings), other films, that were in her opinion mediocre, like ‘Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol’ had won over critics by sending them to Dubai for the premier (yeah, I’m sure that was the only reason apart from the fabulous action scenes, thrilling plot, good humour, mind-blowing stunts and terrific performances) and that critics were tired of Superhero movies and decided to eliminate DC from the market to give Marvel more room.

So make of that what you will (if you want to know, I make it as bullshit). Randolph continued to promote this theory, naming various critics who she believed were in on this conspiracy which led to a Twitter feud with Andy Signore and meanwhile John Campea, when asked about the theory (not about Randolph specifically, simply about the supposed ‘anti-DC agenda) dismissed it as idiotic. Now it’s important to emphasise that (by all accounts) Campea has only briefly met Randolph once and beyond that never had any contact with her aside from inviting her to be on a critics panel which she declined. Soon after, Randolph re-tweeted the picture shown at the side. A few images of Campea and his wife at the premier for ‘Captain America: Civil War’, with the caption “$$$$$$”.

It’s debatable whether or not Campea’s comments on the ‘anti-DC agenda’ could be construed addressed directly to Randolph (personally I think it’s a bit of a stretch). But here Randolph re-tweeted, to her hundreds of thousands of followers, a direct insinuation that taking bribes from Marvel. Putting aside the fact that a critic like Campea would be appearing at dozens of premiers regardless, what Randolph is doing here is directly questioning Campea’s integrity and accusing him of being corrupt.

Remember of course, Campea’s review of ‘Batman v Superman’ was actually a positive one, so why Randolph felt the need to accuse him of being bribed by Marvel is beyond me, as well as the fact that in the past he’s been highly critical of ‘Agents of Shield’ and ‘Iron Man 2’ (are Marvel paying him to say that?).

You could also take into account that Campea recently appeared on an episode of the YouTube movie debate series, Movie Fights, this particular episode was titled ‘Batman v Superman: Fun or Failure?’ hosted by none other than Andy Signore. Campea was arguing in favour of ‘Batman v Superman’ once again stating that although the film was flawed he felt that the good outweighed the bad. He went on to win that argument and the episode. So I think it’s safe to say that even if Marvel were paying him, it wasn’t enough.

Campea responded by asking Randolph why she had made this accusation and once again re-asserted his views regarding the ‘anti-Dc agenda’ on Twitter. Randolph’s response was this tweet, stating that Campea and Signore has “muscled their way into this conversation, hysterically twisting my words”. Did I miss the part in which Randolph put up pictures of Campea to accuse him of being corrupt? If anything it was Randolph that muscled him into this conversation. Frankly, it’s pathetic and laughable. She went on to state that she refused “to back down”, again having only come into contact with Campea once, and that she refuses to “give into the ‘group think’” as well as stating that “Signore, Campea and BvS haters who can’t STAND the idea that anyone might actually like BvS or defend it”. I’ve already stated it dozens of times in this post, but yet again I need to clarify that Campea liked the movie he’s being accused of demanding everyone hate and as for Signore, as well as the episode of Movie Fights he also hosted a live debate in which fans of the film were allowed to call in and argue in favour of the movie.

To top it all off Randolph called ‘Batman v Superman’ “’The Shining’ of superhero movies’. I’m not entirely sure what that’s supposed to mean because I’ve never heard anything referred to as ‘The Shining’ of anything. I’ve heard films referred to as “The ‘Citizen Kane’ of…..” as a term for a movie excelling within its field of revolutionising it, but not “’The Shining’ of….”. Maybe she’s trying to say it’s hated now but will be appreciated later, but even if that does come true it doesn’t really justify her theory of an ‘anti-DC agenda’, the improved consensus of ‘The Shining’ came about due to the increased study and analysis of the film as well as audiences getting over the initial disappointment of how unfaithful it was to Stephen King’s original novel, not because they had all been bribed by… William Freidkin…Wes Craven…John Carpenter…or any other successful horror director of that era that was determined to keep their position as the best, I guess?

Or maybe it comes down to a statement Randoplh made in her initial review of ‘Batman v Superman’ where she stated that Zack Snyder was on the same level as Stanley Kubrick? You read that correctly, apparently Zack Snyder is this generation’s equivalent Stanley Kubrick (whom I regard as the greatest director of all time). I think even the most loyal supporters of ‘Batman v Superman’ were surprised by that. Maybe it came from a personal fandom to the property as opposed to complete ignorance over what makes a good film, but even then it’s not much of an excuse. For example, I’m a huge fan of ‘Firefly’ and will praise that series endlessly. But despite my personal love for the show, to say that ‘Firefly’ or anything that Joss Whedon has done in any medium is anywhere near the level of artistry that Stanley Kubrick is a travesty for me.

Just when you thought all was done and dusted, a recent episode of ‘Collider Movie Talk’ was uploaded to YouTube, hosted by Kristian Harloff. Harloff had invited Randolph onto the show prior to this with the intention of getting her point of view of the issue, but over the course of the show he stated that he regarded the opinion of the ‘anti-DC agenda’ and cases of Disney bribery (never name dropping Randolph specifically, just the theory as a whole) as “shameful”. Once again Randolph launched into a series of attacks, immediately declined her invitation and began another twitter feud, that seems to be continuing right now.

There are a number of points to take away from this. The first is that this is not just a matter of agreeing or disagreeing over a movie anymore. Randolph openly attacked the integrity of critics that disliked ‘Batman v Superman’, she isn’t challenging their opinion or views she is simply defiling their professionalism and as I said at the start, such an attack is applied to everyone who expressed an opinion about that film, including me. She accuses us of throwing away our integrity and bowing down to corruption by inciting that we accept pay checks from Marvel (still haven’t got mine in case you’re wondering).

She’s also displayed a complete lack of common sense and insight. She has spent the best part of a week accusing a critic of being biased towards ‘Batman v Superman’ and being corrupt and dishonest in his profession, despite the fact that he has gone on record several times to say that he liked the film. A quick bit of research can highlight all of this, literally anyone with a bit of intuition should have been able to work this out. It may also be interesting to note that Randolph used to work for Marvel until she was fired, so if anyone went into this movie with an agenda that would ultimately affect their opinion it was her.

Once again, differing opinions are fine, there are few things better than being involved in an evoking and engaging argument over a film, trying to convince someone why you hold a certain opinion but also taking into account their own views. However Randolph proved here that she was not simply expressing an opinion. In fact, based on this whole story we can assume that her opinion was so insecure that she has to find an ulterior motive for anyone disagreeing. She seems to think that her opinion is so right that she has to conjure alternative reasons for anyone holding a different opinion, either that critics are corrupt or have an ‘anti-DC agenda’.

I disagree with a lot of people over movies. I have a friend who likes ‘I am Legend’ but I don’t accuse them of being bribed by Will Smith, another friend of mine dislikes ‘Jaws’ (apparently such a person does exist) but again I won’t insult their intelligence by accusing them of having an ‘anti-Spielberg agenda’ and those are just a few examples. The point is not everyone will agree on everything but to falsely question the integrity of another professional, against all logical evidence, simply for the sake of proving yourself right is a new kind of low.

But what are your thoughts?


"They stuffed your husband in my head, looking for details he knew before he was killed."

Every now and then a unique movie comes along. It’s the kind with a terrific ensemble cast, one that contains not just a series of great actors but a whole variation of different actors from various genres and ages in the hopes of amalgamating them in the hope of making a great movie, but ultimately the film itself turns out to be less than stellar. Other films that fall into this unique category include ‘Nine’ (Daniel Day Lewis, Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench and Marion Cotillard) ‘Be Cool’ (Uma Therman, Harvey Keitel, Danny De Vito and Dwayne Johnson) and ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ (Tom Hanks, Morgan Freeman, Bruce Willis and F Murray Abraham). ‘Criminal’ also fits into the category.

A sadistic criminal (Kevin Costner) undergoes a memory transplant with a secret agent (Ryan Reynolds) in order to extract information that he held. Not only does the criminal have to avoid the legions of perpetrators coming after him for this information but he also has to deal with the clash of personalities from the other man’s mind.

A few things to clear up before I actually start reviewing this film. Firstly, bear in mind that as well as Costner and Reynolds the cast also includes Tommy Lee Jones, Alice Eve, Gary Oldman and Gal Gadot. Secondly you may be looking at that plot and thinking “that sounds a bit like ‘Face-Off’ a film in which John Travolta plays a determined police officer and has plastic surgery to assume the identity of a dangerous psychopath, Nicholas Cage (I’d say a dangerous psychopath played by Nicholas Cage but at this point I’m not really sure). You would probably be right for thinking that, but imagine that instead of the gleefully over the top performances and the beyond extravagant direction of John Woo you had a bland and forgettable…..thriller (I guess)?

Lastly, any fans of Karl Pilkington may remember that on one of his podcasts with Ricky Gervais and Steven Merchant he recounted a story in which two film producers asked him to create a concept for a film. His pitch was Rebecca De Mornay playing the widow of Clive Warren (I assume he meant Clive Owen?) and undergoes half of a brain transplant to fuse their personalities only for their respective personas to clash and engage in a battle for dominance of her body. To all intents and purposes and I can only assume that was the influence for ‘Criminal’, and it’s even more ridiculous than Karl Pilkington’s film.

You may by this point be wandering why I haven’t actually offered any criticism of the film itself. The reason is that ‘Criminal’ is just so utterly forgettable. It feels like a movie that should have been a straight to DVD release. I would not necessarily say that the film is terrible, each aspect is fine. Performances across the board are passable but that’s made easier for each actor given how one dimensional each character is. There is no depth or substance beyond the initial premise and that is almost baffling. Here you have a cast filled with talented and capable actors and you give them the most uninteresting unprovocative roles you could have imagined.

The only person who is on top form here is Gal Gadot, in a film that is only slightly worse than her other appearance of 2016. To be fair though when I say top form I can only assume that because I haven’t really seen Gadot do anything else. She looked impressive in that other movie but there was so little to her character that she herself never shined (I hope you know what I’m referring to). As for Oldman, Jones and Reynolds, once again they’re fine but uninteresting.

Maybe there was potential for ‘Criminal’ to be fun action movie, nothing deep or complex, just an hour and a half of mindless entertainment. But the film takes itself so seriously and maintains such a sombre and uninspired tone throughout that it ultimately becomes very difficult to find any kind of entertainment value from it. The plot unfolds in such a convoluted way that eventually I couldn’t find a reason to care, none of the characters interested me, the direction itself was just so bland and uninspired with no style of its own and all I could do was try to think about how much more fun I would be having if I was watching ‘Face-Off’ instead.

For all its faults, ‘Criminal’ is above all else, simply forgettable.

Result: 3/10

Sunday, 17 April 2016

The Jungle Book

"If you can't learn to run with the pack one of these days you'll be someone's dinner."

To say that Disney’s latest adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Jungle Book’ is the live action version is somewhat of a loose term. Aside from Neel Sethi playing Mowgli, everything else in this movie is the result of computer animation. At the D23 exhibition John Favreau was there to introduce some footage from the film and during the presentation he reminded everyone that the entire film had been produced in a single sound stage in Los Angeles. From that moment on it was all anyone would be talking about at the convention and after seeing the film myself I can see why.

A young boy named Mowgli (Sethi) is abandoned in the jungle and raised by wolves under the supervision of his guardian, a black panther named Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). But when Mowgli’s life is threatened by the ferocious tiger Shere Kahn (Idris Elba) he is forced to leave the jungle, but along the way he encounters giant snakes (Scarlett Johansson), monkey kings (Christopher Walken) and singing bears (Bill Murray).

The original Disney version of ‘The Jungle Book’ was the beginning of a creative wandering fro the mouse house (on a side note, it's the first film my dad saw in a cinema). There’s a certain fun nature to it and an undeniable charm but in reality it’s a thinly veiled plot just to carry the audience from one musical set piece to another, and the animation itself isn’t quite as stellar as other Disney features from the era. The same cannot be said for Favreau’s version. It is stunning.

The CGI on display here may be some of the most impressive I have ever seen. The effect is completely immersive and utterly breath-taking in every single aspect. From the motion capture work, to the creatures animated from scratch and right down to the animated backdrop, it all blends together to create a display of technical prowess that I think may be the most impressive in cinema history to date.

However, this amazing animation has lent the film some comparisons to James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ which may sound great for a lot of people but not so much for myself. I am of the belief that ‘Avatar’, effects aside, is not only an extremely mediocre film but also one that is already starting to look dated (good thing we’ve got four sequels on the horizon right?). Will ‘The Jungle Book’ follow the same path? In my opinion, no. The reason is that ‘Avatar’ found its appeal purely through its effects without giving any major consideration to its plot or characters. ‘The Jungle Book’ on the other hand, crafts its characters so well that I feel like even if the effects don’t hold up as well in ten years’ time the characters will.

This is not to say the characters are necessarily deep or complex, but they are strongly and distinctly motivated and so brilliantly brought to life by each actor. With such an all-star cast I was slightly worried that I would only be seeing celebrity cameos wrapped in CGI but that is certainly not the case here. It’s actually quite odd because none of the actors are necessarily changing their voice but it matches their character so perfectly both technically and thematically that it just works. Murray, Johansson and Walken all sink into their roles perfectly. Neel Sethi is also terrific as Mowgli, nailing the character right down to the his stance to make it feel like the animation has come to life, which is made all the more remarkable when you remember that he was also just on a sound stage (there are one or two moments in which he falters but I can overlook them). Ben Kingsley is fantastic as Bagheera but the standout may be Idris Elba who brings such a savagery and menacing quality to Shere Kahn.

But the film never goes too far into darkness. There are clear stakes, a sense of threat and conflict to make it engaging but it never loses its sense of charm and wonder. In fact a lot of the film acts as a perfect balancing act, fitting all demographics. There are even moments in which it breaks into song (for new renditions of ‘Bear Necessities’ and ‘I Wan’na be Like You’) they somehow work naturally with the flow of the film. Richard Sherman was even brought in to make some new additions to King Louie’s song, which is sung once by Walken during the film itself then in its entirety in the end credits (has there ever been a better reason to sit through the credits than to hear Christopher Walken singing as a giant Orangutan?).

A technical marvel, but above that ‘The Jungle Book’ is universally entertaining from start to finish.

Result: 8/10

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Do Long Takes Always Work?

Over the past few weeks I’ve bene thinking about long takes. Recently we were all amazed by ‘Victoria’ a movie that was staged as a single tracking shot, we’ve seen this format before such as ‘Birdman’ of Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Rope’, but never before as a genuine, start to finish, tracking shot that doesn’t rely on any visual trickery to achieve this. It really is 138 minutes of footage in an unbroken and continuous shot, all filmed exactly as it appears.
So now that ‘Victoria’ has proven that a long take movie can be accomplished should we expect to see a massive influx of them? In simple terms, probably not. I expect to see some other indie filmmakers trying to imitate the technique and maybe one or two major studious will use their resources to try and push it even further, but if you’re expecting some kind of revolution you may be disappointed.
It is linked to some of the inherent flaws of long takes. At the end of the day is serves as a great way for a filmmaker to show off. Hitchcock himself often referred to the use of tracking shots as a simple “stunt”. In fact he always expressed a disdain for the finished product that was ‘Rope’. The main thing that excluded from tracking shots if of course, editing. Editing may be the purest way to tell a story, a la the Soviet montage theory. If you use editing to flip from one image to another you find the audience subconsciously drawing parallels between them. A classic example is Sergei Eisenstein’s ‘Strike’ that parallels the slaughter of a bull with the crushing of union strikers by the government. Even more famously is ‘The Godfather’, as Francis Ford Coppola cuts from Michael Corleone being baptised as a godfather to his sister’s new-born child and being baptised as the new mafia godfather by eliminating the competition. The parallels are endless, Michael is bathed in holy water in one image then the blood of his enemies in the next, one sermon cleanses his soul and the other cleanses the leadership of the mafia, just as Michael vows to renounce Satan we see dozens of people being slaughtered in his name and on his orders. The symbolic connections are established purely through editing, this is something a long take simply could not do.  
At the same time editing can also be used to draw emphasis to one aspect of a film, say for example you want to convey that one character is lying or has something to hide, then the camera would pay specific attention to his reactions and draw attention to his motifs. Or how about creating a sense of tension? Then you would use your camera to quickly jump between each aspect of the scene, emphasising a heightened sense of awareness and pace.
Tracking shots almost prohibit this, you have to search for more creative ways with which to draw emphasis to any one specific aspect of the scene. It’s also difficult to switch between formats such as close-ups or wide shots and furthermore the camera has to manoeuvre around each element of the scene rather than forego any obstacles through editing and reverting to cutting between an action and a reaction. In essence, most tracking shots are employed to convey large amounts of information on a visual level, not small and intimate moments.
This may be why so many tracking shots are employed to open a movie. Consider the opening shot of Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Boogie Nights’ as it sets up every major character and their relation to one another, setting the stage for the story to unfold. Or how about the start of Robert Altman’s ‘The Player’ another shot that serves to establish every subplot and side story in one glorious sweeping shot that subsequently satirises and pays homage to every classic Hollywood auteur to do the same. Speaking of which what about ‘Touch of Evil’, Orson Welles set up the entire shot, firstly as a middle finger to studios applying pressure top him (Welles didn’t tell the studios how he was going to stage the shot so when they heard that he had spent an entire day rehearsing they sent someone to investigate only to find Welles far ahead of schedule and budget, having taken one shot to do what it would have otherwise taken days to accomplish) but also provide a wide view of the plot.
In fact ‘Touch of Evil’ may be an appropriate exception to the tension rule. Welles manages to raise tension by starting the shot with the panting of a bomb and shows it being carried away by a courier. We don’t know the destination but the bomb frequently crosses paths with characters as they are introduced throughout the shot making the viewer highly anticipative of the end result. At the same time though ‘Touch of Evil’ also introduces the viewer to an environment, which is something else long shots are great for. You can be transported to the beaches of Dunkirk with the tracking shot of ‘Atonement’, the glamour of a gangster lifestyle with the Copacabana shot from Scorsese’s ‘Goodfellas’ and then of course there’s the burning barn from ‘The Mirror’ as Andrei Tarkovsky excels at environment building like no one else.
However these long takes all require scrupulous amounts of preparation and frequently come about by accident. Martin Scorsese was forced to revert to a long take when he wasn’t allowed to use the front entrance of the Copacabana Club and instead moved his camera through the back entrance, corridors, kitchens, storerooms and bypassed the queues of people in order to arrive at the same destination. As for the beach scene in ‘Atonement’ while impressive it was staged due to the budget not allowing director Jo Wright to hire all of the necessary extras for a shoot lasting multiple days so he quickly carved out a path through the beach and then sent the cameraman onto the back of a golf cart, then on foot, up a ramp disguised as debris before reaching a rickshaw that carried him the rest of the distance to finish the shot.
Few things look as amazing as a fight sequence performed as a long take, but they also require a ridiculous amounts of preparation. Instead of serving to minimise budget and time performing a scene in this style can only increase both the former and the latter. In ‘The Protector’ Tony Jaa fights his way up four flights of stairs in this scene and it took four days and eight attempts to get the shot they were happy with, as well as having a hire a completely new camera crew when the first couldn’t keep up with Jaa. That’s a lot of effort for just four minutes’ worth of film. Then you have the hospital shootout from ‘Hard Boiled’ in which the entire set had to be rebuilt mid-way through the shoot. As two characters destroy one floor of the building they enter an elevator and though we think they’re going up one floor, they’re actually just waiting while the crew reassembles and redresses the same set for them to remerge.
Not all directors have this much time and frankly not all of them work well with the style. It takes a certain amount of choreography and an intent upon what to move the camera towards what they want the audience to pay attention to. The best tracking shots resemble directed chaos, while the worst just look like chaos. But as I already said, this is much easier and sometimes more effective with editing. Going back to Hitchcock, the ‘Psycho’ shower scene is a prime example in which the editing is used to deceive the audience into thinking that they’ve just seen something far more violent and sexual than what they really have.
When utilised appropriately long takes can be one of the most spectacular things a filmmaker can do, but they are limited in their storytelling ability, both visually and thematically. Providing a wider field of vision for a viewer can have its advantages and disadvantages but ultimately it all depends on what a director is trying to convey and the best method for which to achieve it.

Monday, 11 April 2016

Midnight Special

"Good people die every day believing in things."

Science fiction movies were great in the 1980s weren’t they? Classics from Spielberg, Cameron and Carpenter permeated the decade with tales of extra-terrestrials and their interactions with mankind.  There’s a reason why those films are treasured the way they are, it’s because despite their alien origins there is something so distinctly … human about them. They weaved relatable and poignant issues through their plots to evoke emotions from the audiences. The same can be said for Jeff Nichol’s latest directorial effort ‘Midnight Special’.

Upon discovering that his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) has otherworldly powers, Roy Meyers (Michael Shannon) is forced to go on the run with his son as federal agents come looking for him and a radical religious commune.

‘Midnight Special’ is not a film about aliens or superpowers. It’s about the relationship between a father and son, their connection and the hidden force that unites them. Too frequently Hollywood convinces itself that if audiences don’t fully understand what they are seeing they will reject it. One of the best things ‘Midnight Special’ does is respect our intelligence and does so with such confidence that you have to admire it.

But I did a lot more than admire it, I adored the film. For starters it’s so superbly crafted, with Nichols balancing his intimate moments with massive spectacle. For such a low budget film there are impressive visual effects on display here and they are used to create some fairly spectacular action sequences including one awe-inspiring moment in which a military satellite is pulled out of orbit to come crashing down onto a petrol station.

But the film’s true strong point lies in its humanity. It taps into a relationship that relies on character and explains itself through emotion rather than narrative. It’s the unanswerable questions throughout the film that keep us entranced. You can go along with this road trip and try to decipher each little detail or just try to look at the big picture. It’s under Nichols’ direction that was take this unique journey and though one could assume that the lack of ultimate answers may prove frustrating I was never in doubt that an even more interesting mystery lay just around the corner. As the film poses an answer to one question it introduces us to another.

It may be somewhat of a slow burn but Nichols puts his directorial talents to good use as he injects such a sense of energy into every scene. There’s mystery, intrigue and tension and most importantly, emotion. Instead of trying to move the narrative forwards the film devotes itself to forming a connection with each character and providing us with an insight into their drive and motivation. They never present anything directly to the viewers they just act out their story and it’s down to the viewer to keep up. ‘Midnight Special’ also stands as a testament to visual storytelling as large sections of the film go virtually dialogue free but it never bothered me because the images are spectacular, emotive, haunting and always fascinating. Nichols understands what a viewer takes away from a great film and how best to apply that to his own work.

But Nichols is not alone and the appliances that assemble his film are just as impressive. The performances are all fantastic. Michael Shannon displays such a drive and determination for his mission, you instantly feel the connection between him and his son. The combination of Shannon and Lieberher make a majority of the film’s heart. Joel Edgerton plays his morally motivated ally with equal conviction, as does Adam Driver as an empathetic NSA investigator. The cinematography of Adam Stone almost makes the landscape another character, and the score by David Wingo only propels the emotional resonance even further.

Great films are often divisive and I suspect many people will leave ‘Midnight Special’ somewhat unsatisfied. There is a lot of ambiguity to it, but for me that was where it excelled. Ambiguity doesn’t always work for movies (it’s so easy to mistake it for unresolvedness) but when you are dealing with something as spiritual and atmospheric as ‘Midnight Special’ you find yourself teetering between craving for answers and acknowledging what has already transgressed on screen. Are Alton’s powers a metaphor for anything? Is this a contemplative view of how society reacts to phenomenon’s? Or is it a meditation on parenthood? It could be none of them or all them.

A modern science fiction classic.

Result: 10/10  

God's Not Dead 2

"We're going to prove, once and for all, that god is dead."

When you say the title of this movie out loud it sounds more like you’re asking a question. “God’s not dead too? Is he, really, as well? Ah that’s a shame.” I can answer that question and say yes, he is indeed dead. Why you may ask? Simple; God saw this film and promptly killed himself. That is what happened. Can’t say I blame him.

Okay let’s get this over with. A teacher (played by, who cares?) answers a student’s question relating to the teachings of Jesus in their history class. But she soon finds herself bombarded with accusations that she was trying to preach a Christian message in a public school (which she sort of was but at the same time could easily disprove anyway) and faces a court trial that could end her career.

A quick Google search defines propaganda as “information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view”. ‘God’s Not Dead 2’ is a propaganda film, plain and simple. It’s one of the most offensive, unflattering and deluded propaganda films I’ve ever seen. At least with the Nazi propaganda movies (whose themes are obviously not endorsed by this blog, or anyone in a civilised society) had impressive editing techniques, but this is on another level entirely.

I’m not a religious person but if I was I feel as if I’d be outraged by this movie, especially if I was a Christian. It’s not about spreading messages of peace and forgiveness, it doesn’t exist to show anyone the benefits of religion. It exists to reinforce the prejudices and bigotries held by its audience. What’s even more insulting is the fact that it also tries to convince both its audience and itself that they are the ones being persecuted, that they are living in a society that rejects them. I think the fact that the first movie made a profit of $60 million proves that isn’t true.

But suppose we put ethics aside for a moment, because it would be easy to tear this film apart from that standpoint, like pointing out how every non-Christian character is villainised, how ridiculously unbalanced it is (remembering that it’s a court movie, a genre famous for promoting both sides of the argument) or how moronically unbalanced it is. But for now let’s just look at how solid the plot is. So the teacher is sent to court and immediately you have to wonder how difficult it would have been to argue that what she said in class could not be construed as preaching. If I was a lawyer I would state that she was simply offering the viewpoint of a certain perspective and using it to contrast the teachings of other historical figures.

That doesn’t happen. What happens is a lengthy court case in which the defence tries to prove that God exists. Now I admit I am in fact not a lawyer, but that is a terrible platform from which to build your case. My client says to me “We’ll win the case by proving all science wrong” and my response is “No, in fact while we’re in court I’m the only person that’s allowed to speak. Okay?” Even before that you would think a good justice system would ask for the accused’s side of the story before taking it to court during which it would become blatantly obvious that she was answering a question. Their defence case is actually ridiculously weak (siting its only evidence as the Bible) but it’s okay because she’s found not guilty when everyone prays for it. That is literal Deus Ex Machina right there.

So after establishing that the plot defies all rules of logic we can move onto other factors like directing, acting cinematography. None of them exist. That concludes my review of the technical aspects of ‘God’s Not Dead 2’. Going back to ethics this film is also pure fearmongering, at one point a pastor states that they are “at war” with atheists. The atheists in question all spend the movie curling their evil moustaches and plotting to take down Christianity. Don’t worry ‘God’s Not Dead 2’ you’re doing a fine job of that yourself.

But the worst thing by a mile is just the hypocrisy of it all. Say, theoretically, you made a slight alteration to this film’s synopsis so instead of preaching Christian ideals the teacher was preaching Jewish or Muslim teachings to her class. The people who support this movie would be the first in line to have a problem with that.

Pure propaganda, the only thing that’s more insulting is its quality.

Result: 1/10

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Talkin' Scorsese: Mean Streets

"Honourable men go with honourable men."

After crafting two very different, distinct yet ultimately fairly substandard films, it’s safe to say that Martin Scorsese wasn’t exactly on anyone’s radar as 1973 arrived. That proved to be a grave miscalculation as in October of that year he arrived in the scene with his first true masterpiece. ‘Mean Streets’ proved to be energetic, powerful and deeply personal.

Charlie (Harvey Keitel) is a young Italian-American man who is trying to move up in the local New York Mafia but is hampered by his feeling of responsibility towards his reckless younger friend Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), a small-time gambler who owes money to many loan sharks. This film chronicles their efforts to navigate the dangerous world they inhabit and try to satisfy their raging ambition.

Like all of Scorsese’s great movies, ‘Mean Streets’ is so much deeper and more complex than it would suggest, transcending the limitations of its genre and becoming something much more profound. ‘Taxi Driver’ is more than just a thriller, ‘Raging Bull’ is not simply a sports movie and ‘Mean Streets’ is far from another gangster flick. It’s not about gangsters, it’s about the state of sin and the concept of guilt and the effects of growing up in a gangster environment.

These themes are shown perfectly by the films two main characters. As Charlie Keitel plays a man with a pathological guilt complex, one who continues to carry out acts of violence only to beg and pray for forgiveness. In one famous shot he holds his hand above a candle in the alter and tries to keep it their despite the obvious pain, almost as if he is trying to prepare himself for the fires of hell. But despite this he never quite forces himself to quit the business.

His friend Johnny Boy on the other hand is in many ways the complete opposite. Where Charlie represses his anger so it haunts him internally, Johnny releases it regularly much to the inconvenience of everyone around him, especially Charlie. He struts through life with what could be mistaken for no sense of self preservation, he shoots out street light when he’s bored, borrows money from loan sharks and picks fight with people over insults he doesn’t even understand. He is violent and uncontrollable but one has to wonder, as Scorsese subtly asks it throughout the picture, is he just a product of the world around him?

It’s difficult not to answer yes, because that world is so thoroughly fleshed out by Scorsese and brought to life with such brilliance. From the first shot there’s a sense of imminent danger, frustration, pent up anger as if the whole situation might suddenly explode. I know of no other director who can blend grittiness with style as brilliantly as Scorsese and ‘Mean Streets’ is a prime example of that. Just one example is that the real world is filmed in ordinary colours but the bars and hideouts are lit in blood red, bathed in violence, anger and danger. The varying speeds, altered angles and pitch perfect use of music give the film such a sense of vibrancy and energy.

You would think that balancing a study of an environment with two character studies would be impossible but think again. Both Johnny and Charlie are performed so perfectly by De Niro and Keitel that choosing between them is near impossible. For one the prime motive is self-loathing and for the other, self-destruction. One believes solely in his religion and cannot do anything in life without being a sinner. Charlie craves redemption yet has no idea how to obtain it, so for now all he can do is go on surviving the only way he knows how. Johnny possesses an over romanticised view of criminals and seems to think he’s in a gangster movie. When we first meet him he plants an explosive in a mailbox and watches as it blows up. Why? Boredom.

You would think that with such an emphasis on character and environment there wouldn’t be much to the action scenes. But once again you would be wrong. Scorsese utilised hand held camera for quick movement and fights, moving the viewer’s vision nimbly through the continually erupting chaos. Despite the eloquence the fights retain their sense of grit and realism. The characters do not suddenly become expertly trained fighters, they are still young punks practising whatever fight moves they saw in a movie.

‘Mean Streets’ proved to be Scorsese’s first breakout success and what made that all the more remarkable was how miniscule its budget was. The actors involved had little experience and while it should be set in New York, most of it is shot on the disguised streets of L.A. In many ways that’s why it’s so brilliant, you never feel as if you’re watching actors or stages, you’re watching real life unfold right in front of you, life with all the pain, violence and tragedy.

Stylish, personal and thematic but also gritty, provocative and endlessly enthralling.

Result: 10/10