Film Review: Spiderman 3

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Spiderman 3Sam Raimi is a genius director.

Not your deep, philosophical, meaning of life-and-death genius director, but a director who understands fun film-making. This hit me in some subliminal way back when I first saw Evil Dead 2 and realised he was scaring me and making me laugh at the same time. And it struck me again as Spidey and the Green Goblin and a giant Sandman and Venom and Mary-Jane jump and fall and punch and scream all over the screen in the climactic scene of Spiderman 3. Here’s a director who understands comics, and how they were (and are, I hope–even Venom is too contemporary for me) full not only of action, but humour, pathos, fear, love, hope … the whole shootin’ match.

Like the best of comics, Raimi packs it all in for Spiderman 3, and like the genius director and writer he is, he juggles it all with consummate skill. He has only 140 minutes to give us Venom, the Sandman, the new Green Goblin, not to mention relationship problems, competition at work, struggles with the nature of power … yes, it’s busy, but I think those who have criticised the film for too many storylines miss the way it all comes together, and how skilled Raimi is at giving us so much with so little. The Sandman background scenes, for example, are short but wonderfully economic, giving us just enough to really empathise with the character.

And besides, it’s all fun! Everything here is entertaining, even the slightly over-the-top ‘bad’ Peter Parker dance routine. It all works because Raimi has style and a wonderful visual inventiveness, and he isn’t afraid to enjoy himself and take the audience along for the ride. Like being on a rollercoaster, you just have to give yourself up to the experience.

It’s what comics were all about before they became too deep and meaningful. And the icing on the cake is the way the three films are nicely wrapped up as a trilogy. Nice one Raimi. I can hardly wait to see Spiderman 3 again. Now, all we need is a few more sarcastic wisecracks by Spidey when he’s fighting, and we’ll be spot on.

Four alien meteorites out of five.


Film Review: 300

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300

There’s little doubt that the original trailer for this film was one of the most exciting in recent memory. The totally original graphic look, the spectacular slo-mo, amazing cgi, pumping soundtrack–it all combined to get the blood racing. Unfortunately however, if you extend the trailer to a movie of 117min, what you get is one long film clip that ultimately makes you feel like you’ve binged on too many sickly sweet lollies, and leaves you desperately hankering for a film of substance.

Back in high school one of my favourite stories was the battle of Thermopylae and the Persian Wars, and I lovingly memorised ever fact and ever date from the period. I’d love to impress you with all that information now, but of course virtually none of it remains in my head. And 300 is certainly not the place to go to be reminded of the facts. It takes the basic story of 300 Spartans holding the pass at Thermopylae against the Persian army (here shown in insanely exaggerated scale worthy of Herodotus) and pretty much turns it into a two-hour slug fest. It sure must have been easy to adapt this film for the inevitable video game.

Some of the battle scenes have a balletic beauty, but as is often the case with these cgi extravaganzas, with the dial turned up to ’11’ all the time there’s no opportunity for light and shade, contrast, impact … even the loudest noise can lose its impact if it never stops. In a desperate attempt to sustain the volume, we get scenes of totally unnecessary brutality and garishness–the giant bondage mutant exceutioner, the lesbian dancing girls with bad skin (“decadent Emperor’s court–do we have lesbians?–check!”), the lovingly extended decapitation scene. The only point of contrast, a political subplot involving King Leonidas’s wife back in Sparta, feels like an afterthought.

What I really missed was a good script. Surely this kind of epic subject material cries out for equally epic language; speeches you can really get your teeth into, Henry V-style rousing stuff. Instead we greet endless variations of bland ‘here we stand!’ sentiment, actors throwing as much spittle into their shouts as possible to prove they’re being passionate. David Wenham, a strange choice for narrator considering his distinctive accent, annoyingly telegraphs every move in his voiceover as we see it. (“Leonidas was very angry”–yes, we can see he’s angry!) Considering the fact that the entire film was done on a bluescreen soundstage, the actors are perhaps to be commended for their performances, but it’s all too po-faced and mock serious (in true Frank Miller style).

I’m usually a cry baby when it comes to the heroic sacrifice theme, but I was left dry-eyed and unaffected by this film. Yes, it is spectacular (especially when seen in brain-melting IMAX format, as I did), occasionally beautiful, sometimes exciting. But it suffers terribly from having a completely hollow core, pasted over with flashy cgi and casual brutality. Please, give us some heart with our guts.

Two and a half piercings out of five.


Film review: Sunshine

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Sunshine

You know, I was going to write a review, but my friend anaglyph over at Tetherd Cow just beat me to it.


Mini Film Reviews

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Work and other distractions has made me a little slack on the blog front of late. But rather than have the experiences drift into oblivion, some tiny potted reviews of recent films I have seen follow:

Hot Fuzz A lot of fun from the boys who made Shaun of the Dead, complete with action-movie cliches galore; endless jumpy editing and over-the-top sound effects. And the de rigeur early Peter Jackson-style violence. Not a bad plot either! Four montages out of five.

Notes on a Scandal Wonderful to see Blanchett and Dench crackle together on screen. The young Andrew Simpson isn’t bad either. An excellent film only spoiled by a lazy ending. Only Bill Nighy doesn’t feel right, but perhaps that’s because he’s been doing so much comedy lately. Four art classes out of five.

The Illusionist Slightly made-for-TV looking nineteenth-century magician tale. Fails to deliver anywhere near as much atmosphere and interest as the similarly-themed The Prestige. Edward Norton lacks charisma, Paul Giamatti is unconvincing and Jessica Biel is just plain wrong. The celebrated twist in the tale reminds me of the kind of lame stuff M. Night Shyamalan haas been churning out lately. Two rabbits out of five.


The Virus of Faith

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Religion“Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” Steven Weinberg

I strongly urge you to watch this documentary by Richard Dawkins, which takes a good, long, hard, rational look at the damage that religion is doing to the world, and the bigotry and fundamentalism it is perpetuating. There are some truly frightening people out there, fully convinced that their version of truth is divine truth, and determined to drag us back into a dark age of ignorance. And what is even worse, they are indoctrinating the adults of tomorrow with their own twisted version of reality.

How many times has the cry echoed throughout history while the most horrific atrocities were committed: “God is on our side.”

I hope, without much hope, that one day the human race will wake up to itself and abandon primitive superstition. Only then can we hope to embrace tolerance for our fellow humans, ethical behaviour untainted by the expectation of reward or punishment, and fully enjoy all the wonderful diversity of which we are capable. Now that would be heaven on earth.


Film Review: Casino Royale

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Casino Royale

I have to admit, James Bond is a guilty pleasure, even more guilty since I recently got around to reading the Ian Fleming series (I tracked down a whole set of the 60s Pan editions, with their beautifully designed covers) and experienced some of the dodgy writing, casual racism and full-on contempt for women that characterise the series. Despite the innumerable flaws however, there’s a reason James Bond has become one of the most enduring of cinematic characters, and the books are such entertaining page turners, perfect for plane journeys—he is seriously, unremittingly cool.

Of course there have been times (Roger Moore *cough*) when the filmakers completely forgot this essential fact. To give them their due, take a look at the average 70s haircut and wonder at contemporary definitions. But Bond was never supposed to be cool in a fashionable, trendy way. He was cool in a hard, uncompromising, lone wolf kind of way.

Director Martin Campbell and writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Paul Haggis get it. The first stroke of genius was casting Daniel Craig, whose steel blue eyes and craggy face are perfect for the role, not to mention the acting chops he brings with him. It’s a breath of fresh air to see emotional depth in the lead character’s eyes in a James Bond film. I can only shake my head in amazement at those who campaigned so vehemently against his casting, and wonder if they ever read the books.

The second stroke of genius was abandoning all pretence at there being a chronology (the films have never followed the order of the books anyway) and taking Bond back to his first assignment. This is more character development that we’ve seen in the last ten films put together (with the possible exception of some of what happened to Brosnan’s Bond in Die Another Day, before it got very silly).

Of course there’s an alluring girl, Eva Green (Vesper Lynd), an interesting if slightly undeveloped bad guy Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), and a convoluted plot. Thankfully missing is the villain’s huge underground/undersea/in space lair, the dumb gadgets and stock funny Q scene (in the books, Bond often bemoans the fact that he doesn’t have any gadgets to fall back on). Present and accounted for is torture (Bond is captured and tortured surprisingly often in the books), incredible action sequences (the opening is one of the best chase sequences I’ve ever seen), tense gambling sessions in expensive European hotels, and real danger and visceral punchups. The writers have obviously had great fun shaking things up (“Shaken or stirred?” asks a waiter. “Do I look like I give a damn?” shoots back a pissed off Bond). Of course there are a few flaws—most notably the plot gets messy towards the end and loses momentum.

But this is the best thing that’s happened to Bond since Connery. How long can it last? Not long I suspect. Another director will eventually bring back the lame humour and derivative phrases. But if you’ve ever enjoyed a Bond film make sure you catch this one. And next time you get on an airplane, enjoy one of the books.

Four cane chairs out of five.


Film Review: Pan’s Labyrinth

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Pan's Labyrinth

Guillermo del Toro has come into his own with his new Spanish-language film Pan’s Labyrinth, a stunning journey through two parallel worlds of cruel reality and uncompromising fantasy.

I was lucky enough to see this film over a month ago when we won free tickets to a sneak preview, and now that the film is in the cinemas it’s a pleasure to see it receive such wide acclaim. del Toro has definitely realised the potential he showed in relatively mainstream fantasy actioneers such as Blade II and Hellboy.

Pan’s Labyrinth tells the story of Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a young girl forced to live with her ailing mother and cruel stepfather in the countryside of Spain in 1944. Her sadistic Fascist stepfather Capitán Vidal (a frightening Sergi López) is determined to rid the area of Republican sympathizers who are hiding out in the woods. The harsh reality of this story is interwoven with Ofelia performing several dangerous tasks given to her by a faun (Doug Jones) she encounters in a labyrinth near the house, who tells her she is the rightful princess of the underworld.

To his credit, del Toro doesn’t let either of the threads of his story—the real or the fantastic—dominate, but skillfully weaves them together, allowing each to reinforce the other. The fantastic world can be cruel and horrifying—the incredible Doug Jones is a very scary child-eating, tottering creature called the Pale Man whose skin hangs in loose folds and sees through eyeballs in his palms like stigmata—but the real world can be equally so—Vidal tortures and kills members of the resistance without emotion. While sometimes difficult to watch, the reality of both worlds is reinforced by the unflinching violence. This is not a film for kids, parents, even if it is about fairy tales!

Ivana Baquero plays the young Ofelia with an ‘unprocessed’ innocence and intensity, in sharp contrast to the cocky little adults Hollywood so often casts as children. Also excellent is Maribel Verdú, whose performance as the housekeeper is a lynchpin of the film.

Not surprisingly, the film looks stunning. It’s obvious that del Toro has thrown his heart and soul into this film, and any interview with the director will tell you how devoted he is to the telling of fairy tales—fairy tales, thankfully, in all their raw, original state, still dangerous, not the Disneyfied, G-rated versions.

Four and a half chalk lines out of five.


Film Review: The Prestige

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The Prestige

After reading a cagey article in Empire about Christopher Nolan’s new film The Prestige (from the book by Christopher Priest), I was eager to go and see it before reviews, and friends, started ‘accidently’ giving away the plot. Not to mention that Nolan (Batman Begins, Memento) is one of the more interesting mainstream directors out there. If you haven’t see it yet, I recommend you stop reading now and get thee hence to the nearest cinema—while I won’t be giving anything away, this is a film best enjoyed with as little foreknowledge as possible.

For those of you still with me, The Prestige explores the bitter rivalry between two turn-of-the-century stage magicians, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale). The tragic outcome of a trick turns these colleagues into enemies, driving in a wedge that, as the years pass, further prises apart their already very different personalities. Angier is the showman desperate to discover the secret of his rival’s greatest trick ‘The Transported Man’, Borden the intense and obsessive magician lacking flair but wholely committed to his art. Cutter (Michael Caine), an ‘ingeneur’ (a man who designs new tricks for magicians) and Olivia (Scarlett Johansson), an assistant, are both drawn ever further into the obsessive competition between them.

The Prestige is one of the most satisfying cinema experiences I have had for years; a film that—at last— doesn’t treat me like an idiot, but trusts in my ability and willingness to go along for the magical ride. In typical Nolan form, the plot weaves and jumps back and forth through its timeline, slowly building up a collage of mystery and obssession that captivates and entrances. The acting is excellent (Hugh Jackman’s most impressive turn to date); the production flawless, the period atmosphere heavy. Even David Bowie surprises with his best work as the softly spoken inventor Nikolas Tesla.

Also worth noting is the minimalist, threatening music by David Julyan; I was surprised to discover he wasn’t responsible for Batman Begins (though he did do the music on Memento and Insomnia), because a similar dark build-up of chords is used here to equally strong effect.
Best of all, the plot keeps you guessing. I thought I had worked it all out up until the last ten minutes, when all my presuppositions were shattered. We walked out of the cinema comparing notes, discussing the plot, looking for holes and weighing each other’s impressions; the sure sign of a thought-provoking and intelligent film. I look forward to enjoying its rich detail again and again on DVD.

But don’t let me give anything away—go see The Prestige now, before some so-called ‘friend’ can’t help themself and gives away a crucial plot point!

Four and a half canaries out of five.


Film review: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

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Pirates of the Caribbean

Disney unexpectedly struck gold with this franchise, despite their fears that nobody wanted to see a pirate film (oh come on, Cutthroat Island wasn’t that bad). The second in the trilogy, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest delivers the rollicking adventure we all expected, and if there were some of us who were hoping for something a little bit more special, well, I guess we can still just enjoy the ride.

From start to finish we hardly get a chance to draw breath as Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp channelling Keith Richards), Will Turner (the competent Orlando Bloom), Elizabeth Swann (an energetic Keira Knightley) and a cast of assorted misfits jump from one action sequence to the other. And like an adventure ride, there’s not a whole lot of concern with rhythm and pacing — Gore Verbinski basically throws every pirate cliche you can think of in a bag, gives it a good shake, and pours it out on the screen with the aid of absolutely stunning digital effects and a cast who are obviously enjoying themselves.

Talking about effects, I have it on good authority that Bill Nighy, who plays Davey Jones complete with squirming tentacles and slimy squid skin, doesn’t actually appear in one frame in this film. Every shot with him in it is completely digital. When you see how well they have captured his performance, you’ll be amazed—despite the covering of tentacles, those are Nighy’s mannerisms to a T. The digital effects work in this film, with a very few exceptions, is absolutely astounding. In fact it’s almost so good it can be distracting; I found my eye sometimes wandering to the myriad of little details in the background as a main character was speaking.

Sure, Bloom’s leading man is as one-dimensional as ever, but this is Depp’s film and he knows it. Flush with the success of his foppish, half-drunken characterisation in the first film, he lays it on thick here. Jack Sparrow has quickly become a loved film character, but if the writers are skilled enough to develop him somewhat further in the third film he could become a classic.

Along with all the running, sailing, swordfighting and rolling (yes, rolling, and lots of it) we do see a little bit more emotional depth, which I found myself hoping for about halfway through the film. It’s a bit of an afterthought but augurs well for the third in the franchise.

But all these quibbles don’t detract from the fact that Pirates is a bloody entertaining film. It could have been something really exceptional, but if you shut your brain off and strap yourself in, you’ll be taken on a fun ride.

Four and a half rubbery barnacles out of five.


Film review: Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story

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Tristram Shandy
Self-referential, actors-playing-themselves films have become a lot more common these days, probably since Being John Malkovitch, which I remember at the time seemed so revolutionary with its use of Malkovitch playing Malkovitch (well, a somewhat larger than life version, anyway … and a version whose head you could enter through a little passageway in the wall of an office building).

So faced with filming the nine volumes of Laurence Sterne’s novel, “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Michael Winterbottom in fact gives a pretty light look into the world of film-making, mixed with a bit of the novel here and there. Not having read the book, I can’t tell you if the themes explored here reflect the themes of the book, but if they do, that’s another layer on an entertaining and funny film that can happily be taken at face value.

Steve Coogan, actor and comedian, aka Alan Partridge, plays a somewhat larger than life version of himself as the eponymous hero. You can tell Coogan had a lot of fun with the part, happily sending himself up as an egotistical and somewhat petty actor trying to do a ‘serious’ role. Well let’s hope he’s sending himself up anyway. Rob Brydon plays his genitally challenged cousin (war wound)—and himself as Brydon dealing with Coogan’s ego armed with an array of excellent voice impressions; Gillian Anderson has a brief cameo as the Widow Wadman—and herself; the crew deal with the demands of a tight budget and a nitpicking historical advisor (I bet he plays boardgames), Coogan deals with his wife and baby on set while he is tempted by an affair; and we get a fascinating insight into the ego clashes and compromises in a day on a film set.

Winterbottom keeps all these balls in the air, and more, with great aplomb, and there’s a wonderful fly on the wall feel about the whole film. There are some excellent moments with Dylan Moran as an inept 18th century doctor, and a brief appearance by Stephen Fry who seems to be popping up in a lot of things these days. It’s a post-modern book about a book that was post-modern before there was any modern to be post about … to paraphrase Coogan.

Three and a half powdered wigs out of five. Oh, and stay for the credits.


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