Thursday, December 31, 2009

My Top 10 Blu-Rays of 2009

This review first appeared on The web site.

No. 1: Battlestar Galactica - The Complete Series

It's gritty, well-acted, beautifully written and despite the 'science fiction' tag is all about the characters - NOT the effects or aliens! The 'revamped for the noughties' Battlestar Galactica thankfully bears little relation to the bad hair/cheese-fest low budget series of the same name from the early 70's.

We've had a lot of high quality TV series from the States, and against all the odds, Battlestar Galactica proved to be right there amongst the best written shows that shine light on the human condition - shows like The West Wing, The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. Disillusioned former Star Trek writers were given the chance to produce the show they really WANTED to make, and the years of frustration with a tired, formulaic franchise that they'd previously been working on well past its 'Sell by' date helped them produce one of the best written drama series ever shown on TV.

Best of all, Battlestar Galactica has a beginning, a middle and an end, and just when you think you know where it's going, it changes tack on you (like the whole 'parallel Iraq' storyline that dominated the middle season of the series). Five years of one of the best shows on TV is now available in a reasonably priced tin box set that includes not just the mini series that kicked the whole thing off, but also extended versions of transmitted episodes (as well as the originally transmitted episodes), and extra one-off 'specials' as well. There's also a surfeit of episode commentaries and 'making of' featurettes that dissect the whole phenomenon.

This is the definitive set and the only thing excluded is the one-off 'special' The Plan (which retells the main story, but from the robotic Cylon adversary viewpoint), issued after the series ended. Since this late offering (available as a region free Blu-Ray in its own right, albeit on US import only) turned out to be a huge disappointment and represented a drop in quality compared to the main series anyway, its omission is no great loss.

Admittedly the series 'dark and gritty documentary style' with its profusion of grain and shaky-cam means this isn't a '3D window on the world' hi-def experience, but the series was shot using HD cameras and it looks far better on Blu-Ray than it did on terrestrial transmission or on the originally issued DVD sets.

If this had been shown on one of the major terrestrial channels like BBC1, it would have had a far bigger cultural impact outside the critics, media watchers and fan boys that caught onto the show through word of mouth and took the show to their hearts. It makes the 'overly polished turd' that is Russell T Davies' Doctor Who look like the infantile, poorly written, hammily acted, overly clunky garbage it is, and it's depressing to see the dominance of 'nostalgia over quality' where mainstream science fiction is concerned, with Battlestar Galactica never entering the popular consciousness the way the inferior Time Lord remake from the BBC did.

Bottom line: Battlestar Galactica is an essential purchase, even if you don't ordinarily like science fiction. If you can't afford the 'Limited Edition' Blu-Ray tin, HMV are currently offering the DVD equivalent in their instore sale at £70. At that price, it's a complete steal. Miss it at your peril!

No. 2: The Prisoner - The Complete Series

This ground-breaking ITV series from the 60's has had more releases on DVD than I've had hot dinners, with each successive release being apparently justified by a gradual improvement in picture quality (the first DVD release was like a really bad VHS recording!) The Blu-Ray edition packages the previously available extra's with an authorative paperback book detailing the origins of the series in an annoyingly over-sized cardboard case, but it's the picture quality that makes this an essential purchase - it blows all earlier editions away. Serious money has been spent on restoring a show that was thankfully shot in colour using expensive film cameras, and it looks absolutely stunning, albeit in 'old school' 4:3 format.

Admittedly, some of the stories are dated, and a few of the seventeen 45 minute episodes that were filmed are clearly 'filler' material, but when the series hits its stride nothing comes close (not even the expensive 'modern' remake starring Ian McKellan that Sky have put together).

Saturated colours, blemish-free prints, and stories that were thought-provoking and challenging mean that it's worth purchasing this series on Blu even if you own all the previous releases on DVD: the improvement in picture quality is THAT good. 'I am not a number. I am a free man.' has even more relevance in today's world of high surveillance, privacy-inhibiting laws than it did in the 60's.

No. 3: Moon

If you like your science fiction to be a non-stop CGI action popcorn rollercoaster ride, then Moon probably isn't for you. If, on the other hand, you like science fiction that's intense, thoughtful and mind-bending then Moon is a film you have to see.

David Bowie's son, Duncan Jones, turns in a truly astonishing debut film as writer/director on this beautifully constructed slow burner that will have you thinking over its implications for days after you've seen it. Jones builds tension and cleverly constructs a story where the twist that a weaker director wouldn't have revealed until the end, makes an appearance 20 minutes into the main story.

Cleverly playing on expectations set by similarities to previous classics like 2001 and Solaris, the film is a true sci-fi classic in its own right, and comes across more as a masterwerk from some established master like Scorsese, than the debut feature from some 'punk who used to make music videos'!

And if Sam Rockwell doesn't get a 'Best Actor' nomination for his performance in this film then there really is no justice in the world. Don't
rent this one - buy it because you'll want to watch it several times over to discover its beautifully sign-posted subtleties and clues. The attention to even minor details in this film is astonishing. It also looks gorgeous on Blu-Ray, which is all the more astonishing given its unbelievably low 'indy' budget.

No. 4: The Hurt Locker

Words like 'Iraq' and 'war' were the kiss of death at the box office, so it seemed like The Hurt Locker - a documentary-style fictionalised account of three bomb disposal experts working in Iraq - was on a trip to nowhere when it was theatrically released.

However a film that makes the esoteric Top 10 of a magazine like Sight and Sound, and gets called The Film of the Decade by Robert Duvall is worthy of anybody's attention, and I wasn't disappointed!

If you've seen the excellent US HBO TV series Generation Kill then you pretty much have the bare bones of what to expect here - except that The Hurt Locker condenses and intensifies the feel of that mini-series, managing not just a much shorter running time, but something with even more of an emotional punch to it too.

Unfortunately, UK purchasers get short-changed (again!) with the Blu-Ray release since it is lacking the commentary track from its female director, Kathryn Bigelow that the US release features, but the film is so powerful that the UK release makes my Top 10 anyway. An astonishing film, well presented in HD on Blu-Ray disc!

No. 5: The Wizard of Oz

Lovers of classic movies have been spoilt with expensive restorations this year. It's A Wonderful Life, North by Northwest, Brief Encounter, The General, Sunrise, Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, The Red Shoes and Quo Vadis were just some of the classic films that received great high definition makeovers this year. (Side Warning: Avoid Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, a truly dire 'restoration' that looks no better than a VHS release)

Gone with the Wind would have made my Top 10 (and is highly recommended, if only for the amazing quality of the HD transfer and the unbelievably generous extra's) had this hi-def release not just pipped it to the post in terms of being a better 'film' (For me Gone with the Wind is just rather over-hyped soap opera!)

The movie looks better than it could have done on first release, and although the UK release is worth consideration despite its unbelievably naff 'Singalong version' packaging, its the lavish US region free 'Ultimate Edition' import you want if you care about movies, including as it does an extra double-sided DVD disc with a 6 hour documentary on the history of the MGM film studio (which is also included with the region free US import of Gone With the Wind!). This documentary is presented in three two hour 'episodes' by Patrick Stewart and is worth the asking price of the import in its own right.

The Wizard of Oz is a timeless classic, and the over-saturated Technicolor land of Oz has never looked as gorgeous as it does on this Blu-Ray release which features not just the film itself, but hours of generous and informative extra's too.

No. 6: The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

The decision to do a remake of this classic from the 50's, starring a wooden Keanu Reeves and a lot of modern CGI nonsense in a tale about aliens warning us that they're watching us and can't allow us to destroy our planet seems timely. Alas, the resulting film was terrible, but its release was a good thing because it meant that we got a restored version of the original black and white classic on the HD format, to tie in with all the new film's publicity.

Play the old 1950's film next to the new version and even the most gadget-obsessed teenager who argues that he doesn't 'do' black and white films will be forced to agree that the original version is by far the superior release.

This timeless classic holds up well, and the Blu-Ray transfer is flawless - a convincing argument that even old 4:3 ratio black and white classics can enjoy the benefits of the high definition revolution.

No. 7: Star Trek XI

The original TV series was a classic, albeit one that outright stole most of its ideas from the less widely known Forbidden Planet (which was released on HD-DVD, so where is the Blu-Ray release of THAT title?!) Alas, the film versions of the first two TV shows bearing the 'Star Trek' legend never lived up to the hype of the original shows, a fact verified by this year's release of restored versions of all ten original films on Blu-Ray. Even in high definition it is astonishing how flabby and downright dull they all seem, frequently proving to be just elongated versions of the weakest episodes of the original TV series.

Then along come J J Abrams to bootstrap the whole franchise and, despite a misleadingly 'generic' trailer, and a writer/director with a reputation for sometimes getting carried away with 'style, gimmicks and endless repetition over substance' he delivered on all fronts this time round, giving us a film that old and new fans could embrace.

The Blu-Ray looks amazing and represents the state-of-the-art in special effects and digital grading. Coming so soon after the theatrical release, Paramount could have cashed in with a double-dip and a first 'bare bones' HD release, but there are enough extra's, albeit of the rather formulaic 'making of' variety, to keep the most ardent fan boy happy.

Apparently some Trekkies are refusing to watch the film because of the 'parallel timestream' reboot that Abrams' writers built into the script to free themselves from having to conform to complicated plot developments that have arisen over 40 years of the franchise. Their loss! Talk about burying your head in the sand and missing out on a treat!

No. 8: Midnight Express

OK, so this is more of a 'personal favourite' than a 'true classic' per se, and I struggled to choose between this and David Fincher's excellent Fight Club Blu-Ray release, but in the end nostalgia won out and I was very happy to see the big leap in picture quality improvement over the previous DVD with the release of this title on Blu-Ray.

Based on a true story, the book's a 'must read', and I've never understood why director Alan Parker went with a far-fetched and inferior made-up ending when the real story is much more dramatic and exciting. Nevertheless the film is a gripping, if sometimes harrowing, account of a young American drug smuggler's time in a brutal Turkish jail, with a career best performance from the late Brad Davis.

At a time when too many films from the 70's and 80's receive a lacklustre HD transfer (Don't get me started on Friedkin's post-processing 'rape' of The French Connection on Blu-Ray) that adds little over the DVD equivalent, it was a relief to find this dark, gritty film looking so good on the Blu-Ray format.

No. 9: Mad Men - The Complete Second Season

Arguably the best drama series currently being shown on television, Mad Men: The Complete Series 2 maintained the high standards set by the Emmy-award winning first season.

The writing's the thing, but the high production values of this tale of advertising and marketing men (and women) in the early 60's mean that the show looks best in glorious high definition.

The Blu-Ray release doesn't disappoint with stunning picture quality and a ton of accompanying commentary tracks for the episodes. If you haven't caught the show because the BBC have done their usual trick of constantly shifting it around the late night schedules when nobody's watching (WTF do they do that?!) then now's the time to catch up with it on Blu-Ray.

If you missed the first season there's a special bundle that packages the first two seasons together for a very reasonable price. This is high quality drama that's given the time it needs to breathe, beautifully acted and written, perfectly wedded to Blu-Ray viewing!

No. 10: Watchmen - The Director's Cut

It was a bit of a toss-up between this one and Coraline to be honest. I'm not a big fan of animation, even of the CGI variety, so the fact that Coraline was even under consideration is a testament to its quality.

But the opening title sequence to Watchmen swung it for me. Was there ever a better opening sequence for a movie? Issued in far too many versions, the Director's Cut is the version I'm choosing (or the 'Ultimate Edition' if you're happy to import), not least because it's the first time I've seen the over-hyped Blu-Ray special features used to such good effect.

The director's walkthrough of the film, where he stops and starts the film periodically, is an excellent use of the format and the picture-in-picture feature really works on this title. Admittedly the film is too slow burning for many (Iron Man or Spider-Man this isn't!) and criticisms that the director stayed perhaps a little too close to the original comic book, and made far too much use of his camera's slow motion feature, are valid. But for those with the patience to sit through the film's near 3 hour running time, this is a real treat.

The film is an astonishing accomplishment, albeit one that didn't fare well at the box office. The Blu-Ray (in all its different release formats) more than does justice to that accomplishment.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Shiny Discs Web Site

A couple of weeks ago, my Shiny Discs web site domain name came up for its annual renewal, and I decided to let it go. Work has been such that I never seem to get any time to work on it, and it's been left abandoned, just wasting hosting costs for the last year.

However I had a last-minute change of heart late on Friday afternoon, had the domain renewed, and spent Saturday working on the outline for the site.

Using Silverlight I've been able to get something approaching what I originally intended in terms of visual display for the 'This Week's new Releases' section and the 'Next Week's New Releases' section. One other change I'm making is the site is going to concentrate only on Blu-Ray releases. The site shows that this week there are SIXTEEN new releases, and next week there will be TWENTY-FIVE so the format is clearly gaining traction. These days I only ever seem to get time to watch Blu-Rays anyway and I can't remember the last time I bought a DVD.

Screenshot of the first cut of the Shiny Discs Web Site

It's early days yet. Although the user can now use his mouse to 'browse through the rack' of new releases, there is additional work to be done so that when a title appears 'head on' a popup of statistics and review summaries is visible. I think this will be a fun interface and quick way of checking what's coming up without having to read through a long review or watch a half hour video podcast.

Not that I've given up on the video podcast idea. It's just that the length needs to be reduced to under 10 minutes so that podcasts can be played, via YouTube which limites you to 10 minutes, on an iPhone and iPod. I also need to find a way to reduce the crazy render times and increase the ease with which I can grab clips from Blu-Ray to make for a more interesting 'show'.

Please go and have a play and let me know what you think - just remember it's early days yet. Also note that the site runs on Microsoft Silverlight, which is similar to Flash except that it's not from Adobe (and is much better :-P). If you don't already have that installed you will be prompted to download it. It takes less than a minute to download and runs on both Mac and PC, supporting Internet Explorer, Firefox, Google Chrome and Safari.

Stay tuned!

Saturday, May 09, 2009

To Boldly Go...

A crazy workload means that this 'personal' blog is languishing a bit, but I wanted to put up a quick review for the new J J Abrams movie Star Trek, which opens this weekend, and which I saw a preview of at the London IMAX on Thursday night.

I was a big fan of the original series, and am of an age where I remember the first transmission. I was dead set against it because, as a kid, it replaced my favourite programme Doctor Who, which went out at 5.15pm on Saturdays. I remember the Saturday morning paper hyping the show up with talk of 3D chess, futuristic special effects, and success in the States. Begrudgingly, I watched it to see how a show that didn't feature time travel, weekly cliff-hangers or a crotchety old guy could possibly be any good. Of course by the end of the first episode, featuring humans infected so they become 'gods' with laser-firing glowing eyes, I was totally hooked. The production values were light years ahead of anything that the ridiculously low budget of Hartnell/Troughton -era Doctor Who could afford, and the writing gave a depth that always left you thinking about the show long after it had finished.

I put my love of the TV series down to why I just don't get the whole Star Wars phenomenon. I rewatched this again recently and it was just as crap as I remembered it being when I first saw it at the cinema in the late 70's - poor dialogue, a really annoying, screechy female character, really poor pacing, and a basic, cliched, paper-thin story a five year old could have put together. This just wasn't a patch on the quality of the average 40 minute TV episode of Trek, so far as I was concerned. So yes, even before the execrable 'prequels' I thought the 'Star Wars' series was lame, and I find it astonishing that it's only now the wider opinion that George Lucas just can't write a good story, with any kind of depth or subtlety, is starting to become a popular one. But, as ever, I digress...

Of course we then had the Star Trek movies. The first one was so lame, slow and self-reverential I pretty much gave up on the franchise. More by accident than design, I did get to see the last film (Star Trek: Nemesis) when a friend couldn't use his press preview ticket. At a time when The Two Towers was the film everyone was waiting for as the Christmas blockbuster, this extremely dated film was on a hiding to nothing. On a cold December day in an almost empty cinema where even the promoters couldn't be bothered to show up and welcome us, it was pretty obvious that the franchise had run its course and was well past its 'sell by' date. The over-hyping of the movie (particularly from Patrick Stewart who, at every possible opportunity, talked up the film as being MUCH better than its predecessor) seemed like a gross act of betrayal on the part of the cast and crew.

This new 'reboot' of the franchise, is apparently down to the work of one man: J J Abrams. I'm a fan of nearly all the work that carries his name (although his TV Series Alias lost it around Series 4, presumably because the man was too busy working on other things). I love his Lost series and I don't agree with the endless whingers who complain that nothing ever gets explained. Everything gets explained - you just have to commit to it. It's a show of real depth and longevity. I love the way the show drops clues to things that they know they're not going to resolve until a season or two later. In these post-MTV days where everybody wants (demands!) instant gratification, that's not popular of course - but hell, go watch the new Doctor Who if you want instant gratifcation, ill-developed story lines and cheap stunts!

I missed Abrams Mission Impossible 3 (the idea of another Tom Cruise vanity project didn't appeal) but was pleasantly surprised by Cloverfield. The puke-making, low budget, shaky-cam trailer which debuted with the release of the Transformers movie allegedly had the internet abuzz with expectation. I just yawned and marked it down as 'one to avoid' (based mainly on still being bitter over the 90 minutes of my life I'll never get back from having gone to see The Blair Witch Project, which had similar 'hand held, shot live' pretensions). My bad! When I caught the film on Blu-Ray recently, I loved it.

The trailers for the new Star Trek movie did nothing for me. They were far too generic in a 'popcorn action movie' way that implies poor special effects, no real character depth, and minimal story telling. The trailer seemed to have lost all the 'magic' of the series which had sustained me through all the broadcast episodes of not just the original series, but also The Next Generation and Deep Space 9 (I'm afraid Voyager was a yawn, and Enterprise was just embarrassingly amateur, I left the Trek 'universe' many years ago). So I was going to wait for the DVD before I bothered to watch this one.

Then came the inspired marketing trick of the 'pre-premiere' showing to a group of fans in Texas. Before the official world premiere in Australia, a group of Trekkies were invited to a special viewing of a 'restored print' of the second Star Trek movie, allegedly to help promote the first release of the film on the high-definition Blu-Ray format. A grubby, damaged print lasted less than 10 minutes before the film apparently snapped and Leonard Nimoy walked on stage to 'apologise' and ask the audience if they'd rather see another film instead. The buzz from the original die-hard fans who'd previously dissed the re-booting of the franchise, spread over the net within hours. Against all expectations, they loved the new film, and their enthusiasm was contagious. Now THAT'S what I call brave - and great - marketing!

So, encouraged by favourable reviews from TV show fans, I went to see the film on Thursday - and the enthusiastic reviewers have got it right. It's a great movie! Not a masterpiece by any means, but a great, intelligent, thrill ride, with witty dialogue, real character depth, a superb cast (with one slight exception that really jarred) and (irritating shaky-cam aside) brilliant effects and direction.

Most important of all, it has great writing that really lets the characters breathe. Every 'supporting' character's presence in this film is justified, and they are all given credible, interesting stories. There aren't many films where a day or two later I'm thinking 'I'd really like to see that again'. Star Trek is one of those few films.

The only real problem I had with the film was Simon Pegg. He plays the ship's engineer 'Scotty' and his role is clearly that of 'comic relief'. Thankfully the film is past the half-way mark when he makes his first appearance, which really jars because his constantly shifting 'Scottish' accent is truly dreadful - seemingly because he has whole sentences where he forgets to do it, followed by others where he remembers and overdoes it! Although he has great comedic acting skills I think he's been seriously miscast in this role.

Thankfully the other characters are all - to a man/woman - superb. All of them manage to portray the strengths of the character WITHOUT resorting to impersonation. I know Michael Sheen (Frost Nixon) is continually lauded for 'getting the esence but without doing a straight impersonation' thing, but in his case I don't buy it - all his characters to me come across as a variation on his Tony Blair impersonation. But I think the Star Trek cast DO all get this in a far better way. So much so that it's impossible to single out any one actor for an astonishing performance. They're all (Pegg excepted) excellent!

There are some minor niggles - Leonard Nimoy, who originally played Spock, is over-used (and it's sad to see how much he's physically aged over the last few years) and some of the pat phrases from the TV show re-appear a few times too often. But none of that deters from the fact that this is a really fun movie, that respects the original series, but also adapts it for modern sensibilities.

I can't wait to see where J J Abrams and his crew take the new franchise next time around. In the meantime, I think the hype is justified. If you're waivering about seeing the film vs waiting for the shiny disc version - I'd say go see it at the movies (ideally the IMAX - the film doesn't suffer from the 'soft focus over-stretched' problems I had with Watchmen). This is a film that really deserves to be seen on the big screen. Highly recommended!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Fifty Dead Men Walking

It was several hours after attending the advance preview screening of Fifty Dead Men Walking, which was followed by a Q &A with director Kari Skogland, that I realised I'd actually already read the book by Martin McGartland, on which the film is based.

It's not hard to see why I should have failed to recognise the story on screen from the book I'd read earlier, despite the huge impact the book had on me at the time I read it. The film starts with McGartland (Jim Sturgess) in an anonymous location on a snowy day, checking underneath his worn-out old car for the signs of anything unusual - a bomb perhaps? As he tries to start the engine a black balaclava'ed figures appears from nowhere, shooting him several times at point-blank range. The scene itself isn't fictional, but is nowhere to be found in the book. It, or something very similar to it, happened AS A RESULT OF McGartland publishing his 'tell all' book, which apparently pissed the IRA off even more than his working for them as a 'tout' for the RUC had done.

As the film tells us in its closing titles (spoiler alert!), McGartland is still under cover and still has no contact with his family.

At the Q&A that followed last night's Southbank screening, the writer/director revealed that although she spoke to the IRA 'tout' long and often, and also changed some things as a result of his input, contact was always by phone calls which he controlled, and had to be at his behest. So there is no happy 'reunited with his family' ending here for those who like their films happy and smiley!

After the opening 'grab their attention' attempted assassination, the remainder of the film tells a fictionalised account of McGartland's involvement with the IRA and the RUC from its logical beginning, starting in 1987 and ending around 1991. It bears little relation to the strong memories I have of the main character's real life which seemed to comprise never-ending periods of boredom and poverty, alleviated by sudden explosions of activity and a great deal of hatred.

Essentially, this is a story of an RUC informer ('tout' as the IRA call them)working his way up the IRA ranks so he can feed information to the British - information that, it is claimed, saved the lives of the 'fifty men' of the title. But it feels like a very different story from that told in the book: A sanitised one in many ways (which, I suspect, will shock those who haven't read the book because this is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a Hollywood film or anything approaching it!) The McGartland of the book came across as a much harder, angrier, less sympathetic person, and the intrinsic evil of the IRA (and to a much lesser extent the British puppet-masters) seeped from every page.

In Skogland's film McGartland becomes the cheery everyman, a sort of Irish version of the young Paul McCartney (hard to get the actor Jim Sturgess' previous work in the Beatles musical Across The Universe out of my head!), a sort of 'street urchin with a good heart who stands by his girl'. More importantly, the film tries to tow an independent, 'fair-minded to both sides' line, which doesn't really work given the inherently violent and controlling methods of the IRA at the time. The approach adopted makes the film seem a lot less political, and perhaps more personal, than the book so it's not hard to see why McGartland may be upset. The director has made a film 'for our times', with particular relevance to the situations in Agfhanistan and Iraq, so that suddenly the story in the book that had me thinking 'Thank God I'm nowhere near that barbaric mess and wasn't involved' has me thinking 'Maybe it's not that barbaric and could happen anywhere'

In the Q & A session with the director afterwards, McGartland's presence (not physically - he's still in hiding) seemed to dominate the proceedings. The interviewer's opening question revealed that McGartland had been somewhat 'grumpy' about the film to the press, and a quick search on the internet shows him contacting even the likes of the rather innocuous Empire magazine to complain that he does not endorse the film in any way. The director seemed cagey whenever the subject was brought up (as it was, repeatedly, by people wanting to better understand what the source of disagreements was), but it was hard to ascertain who, if anyone, was in the right here. A quick 'Google' has Sturgess revealing that McGartland was apparently unhappy with the IRA torture scene, which he never witnessed in real life, and at the Q&A the director just kept to the 'a book does not necessarily make a good film' storyline. Clearly the rather heavy-handed disclaimer about the film merging characters and depicting some events differently, which appears at the start AND end of the film is the result of McGartland's intercession and a (failed) attempt to placate him somewhat. (You can read more about McGarttlan's objections to the film and its director here)

None of which really matters, given how powerful and gripping the film is! A 'based on truth' thriller, with real flesh-and-blood characters (no blacks or whites here - just LOTS of shades of grey) is preferable to a documentary version of the original book (which I highly recommend!).

Skogland has produced a gritty, grungey, powerful and deeply impressive film that manages to shake off the rather obvious shortcomings of its first 5-10 minutes, such that you're gripped and sat on the edge of your seat right to the conclusion two hours later. Admittedly the film is not an easy watch in places. It clearly has 'indy' origins (no glossy '3D window look' Blu-Ray on its way here!) and I thought it got off to a poor start as soon as the 'reel 'em in' assassination attempt opening was over. I've never been a fan of the Paul Greengrass school of wobbly, hand-held, puke-making cam that we get in abundance here. Nor am I a huge fan of the 'bleach' process that highlights the whites and the blacks at the expense of colour or lack of film grain, but at least this time around it's somewhat more warranted, matching the gritty and dark story being told. At the end of the day it's the performances, and the sheer humanity of those caught up in events, rather than the technical aspects of the film that stay with you long after the final credits have rolled.

(Sir) Ben Kingsley may be a bit of an up-himself knob-head in real life (he comes across that way in interviews!), but you can't deny the guy can really act, and the few reviews I've read sniping at his performance here as McGartland's British 'handler with a conscience' can only be based on personal grievances with the actor himself. His performance is never less than rivetting and totally believable. From any other actor this would be considered a 'career best', but Kingsley's work is of such high calibre that one can only revel at the fact he's managed to use his incredible, chameleon-like qualities for totally transforming himself into another character yet again.

But it's Jim Sturgess, fighting against all the 'just a pretty face' odds, who delivers the most surprising, and most impressive, performance. It's no surprise to hear that he stayed in character from the moment he landed on the Emerald Isle. His accent is, to these ears, pretty flawless, and his performance as a difficult, duplicitous, dishonest character that we have to somehow empathise with is never less than convincing. This is, in many ways, HIS film even more than it is Skogland's. If he can steer clear of being the 'pretty boy flavour of the month' with the film magazines and continue to make wise choices, as he appears to be doing, he could become a huge talent in the industry rather than just another graduate from the Orlando Bloom school of (non-) acting!

As for the film itself - my quibbles are minor. I love punk bands like Stiff Little Fingers (and The Ruts too - my era! Oh, the memories!) - but not when they're so dominant in the mix I can't hear the dialogue. And I know it's all about a documentary-like, gritty feel, but at times the Greengrass-influenced shakycam goes too far. And the intro and outro captions seem rather preachy and trite (this may be at McGartland's insistence of course).

But on an evening when I felt so shattered I nearly gave the film a miss, I found myself wide awake and enthralled throughout.

The director has made it clear that this opening weekend will 'do or die' for the film - especially its chances of getting a release in the United States, urging those who liked the film to 'tell their friends to go and see it, preferably this weekend'. I have no hesitation in doing so. It's a powerful, absorbing and compelling piece of work. We need more films of this sort of calibre (although whoever's behind the marketing of the film could surely have done a better job - where's the 'official' web site with images etc to decorate this blog entry?!).

Ignore some of the pettier newspaper reviews (whose research is so poor they think the director is male) that imply the film is merely 'average'. It isn't! They are confusing the film with an event (20 years of Irish politics) and marking the film accordingly. Just go and see it. It's an excellent, powerful movie, and much better than anything else I can see advertised this weekend. Highly recommended!

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

A Tag of No Importance

I have been tagged by Brian Sibley, which means I have to post six little-known facts of no real importance about myself

So here goes...

  1. The first TV program I remember seeing as a child, arriving back from Cyprus where we didn't have TV, was 5 o'clock Club with Muriel Young and two glove puppets as I recall. I saw it in an overnight hotel we stayed in after arriving by plane in England, before travelling to live with grandparents in Leeds for a few weeks. I remember more about the tiny black and white TV set in the hotel room. than the show itself, and it's about the only memory I have from arriving back in England.

  2. The first film I remember seeing was The Wizard of Oz. Again, I don't remember much about the film other than my mother complaining loudly that the film appeared to be in black and white when the pictures promoting the film had implied it was in colour. Of course as soon as Oz itself appeared the picture changed to colour and I explained what had happened to my mother as I heard a loud click during the projector changeover: "They forgot to turn the colour on. I just heard them switch it on". Oh, the innocence of youth!

  3. I played the recorder at school. I think I was quite good and it encouraged me to try other instruments including the trumpet (hopeless), the violin (even more hopeless) and the guitar (I still have a Gibson Les Paul and Marshall combo amp but haven't used them in ages).

  4. In my late teens I was given a Super 8 camera for my birthday, which is when my love of movies and movie-making began. I filmed some school trips and made a 20 minute silent film about my mates' disco called "Squint Eye Mangle" - a title I stole from the B-Side of a Marc Bolan single at the time. I got a kick every time I heard the deputy headmaster at 6th Form College have to read out the title when announcing a lunch-time screening in Assembly a couple of mornings!

  5. The first concert I attended as a teenager was T.Rex in Edmonton around the time they were at their peak. I was allowed to travel down from Southampton to London on my own for the first time (a) to queue up to buy the ticket and (b) later to attend the concert. It all turned a bit sour when I returned home after the concert to a stern lecture from my father. Whilst away my mother had gone through the pockets of my Parka coat to empty them for washing and found a plastic syringe holder with plunger. We used them at school, 'borrowed' from the Chemistry class, for water pistols but nothing would convince my mother it wasn't used for drugs! She should have been more worried about the fact I insisted on buying a satin jacket after the trip to buy the ticket!

  6. I was the only member of the family who didn't want us to get a dog. I'd always been scared of them and my parents got a Pyrannean dog which initially terrified me because they're the size of a horse. In the end I became the one who walked her most and did the chores and became a 'dog' person, although I still have an aversion to silly, yappy canines that look more like rats than dogs! My parents bought me a Newfoundland puppy as a birthday present when I moved into my own home after University and I hope to own another Newfie when I get around to retiring. I named my newfie 'Animal' after the Muppets character because of her spiky hair - a name which my mother changed to 'Annabelle' when walking with me and needing to call her, through embarrassment! My biggest regret about working/living in London is not being able to have a dog.

I think I'm supposed to tag six more people now. I'll have to have a think!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Watching The Watchmen (a pointless IMAX experience)

The joys of London's IMAX booking system meant that despite booking well in advance of the film opening, and using my 'advance' BFI membership pre-booking notification (ha! ha!) to boot, I got to see The Watchmen a week after everybody else. A week is a long time where films like Watchmen are concerned because it seems like the whole world and its wife has been twittering their impressions of the film after seeing it on the opening weekend.

As it turned out, suffering the delay just to see the film on IMAX was a mistake on my part. The Watchmen is NOT a film that needs to be seen on IMAX because, unlike The Dark Knight, the film was not shot using special IMAX camera's, and nor does it have any 3D scenes

'The IMAX experience' this time round simply means you're watching a larger, but softer, blurrier version of the film that is being shown in normal theatres. It felt like watching an iPlayer TV programme up-rezzed to 'full screen' size on a computer monitor, with the same end result: you kind of wish you'd just seen it at its original resolution even if it meant it was smaller. So, rather like the 'amazing never before seen' giant water projection display (actually a fuzzy blue light mess nobody could really see) used to officially launch the film's opening on The Thames last week, 'the IMAX Experience' this time around, has been seriously over-hyped. And if my Friday night was anything to go by 'The IMAX Experience' is no different from a normal local cinema experience (are you listening Clapham Picture House?!) with several minutes needing to be spent before the film started to clean my seat of popcorn and coke cup debris before I could sit on it. Cinema owners keep complaining about the competition from shiny discs - but when they charge the equivalent of the cost of a Blu-Ray disc that I can keep and rewatch (my Watchmen ticket cost an exhorbitant £13.50 with travel costs on top) and treat their customers in such a cavalier manner I am tempted to join those on the sidelines applauding the fact that cinema attendances are on the decline. Nobody needs experiences like this when they can have a much nicer, controlled environment at home.

The week's delay in getting a decent seat did give me one advantage: it gave me the chance to see what others reaction to the film was and prepare me for the worst. The reaction seemed to be more polarised than I can ever remember about a new film. Comments were very clearly divided between 'four out of five stars' fans who'd read the comic book but thought the film flawed because it stuck too slavishly to a format that doesn't work for cinema, and 'zero or one star out of five' newcomers who found it 'too long, too slow, and too boring because nothing happens'.

I haven't read the comic book, and the warning signs from so many dismissive reviews might have had me cancel my attendance were it not for a review in The Daily Mail. Alone, out of all the mainstream papers who at least recognised the quality of much of what was put on screen, England's most bigotted and homophobic tabloid gave the film a pitiful 0 out of 10, concluding "This despicable trash will find an audience among sad sociopaths, deranged pseudo-intellectuals and brutalised, immature men of all ages." Coming from the cesspit world of opinion that is The Daily Mail that sounds like a 'Must see' recommendation to me! I'm still trying to work out why they didn't include a reference to homosexuals in their diss, given that one of the main characters walks around naked, showing off what fans keep referring to as 'the big blue wang' in several key scenes!

Worried that I needed to have read the comic book first, I managed to get a quick look at the US import (region free) Blu-Ray of Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comic (recommended - and MUCH better than the other pitiful comic book adaptations I've seen on Blu-Ray). The Blu-Ray runs for twelve 25 minute chapters, with a total running time of five and a half hours, which just goes to show how different the perception of time can be with different mediums. The two episodes of the Blu-Ray 'comic book' I watched seemed perfectly paced. The exact same story as a film, running at a considerably lighter 2 hours and 45 minutes, seemed overlong and plodding by comparison. Go figure!

For what it's worth I DON'T think you need to have read the comic book to enjoy the film - and there is a LOT in the film TO enjoy. But you do need to set aside your preconceptions about what a comic book movie should be. This sure ain't no Superman or even a Dark Knight - it's far less mainstream than that.

Ultimately, I felt the film was a good one, but not a great one. Its comic book origins are all too clear and the director has over-egged the comic book aesthetic with endless slow-motion and gimmicky 'straight out of a comic book panel' camera angle shots. I think the main problem is that the basic narrative in the comic book appears to be one of those 'the character thinks out loud, pseudo-intellectualising the action with a comment in every panel' stories. This may work very well in the comic book medium, but doesn't really work on film, where the scribbled comic book comments become overlong, rather tedious narrative that just slow everything down. My guess is that the comic book had a thin central narrative running through the 12 different issues, with each issue focussing on a single character. Transferred to the medium of film this doesn't work: just as you're getting into the story of one character the story stops abruptly and moves on to another. Although this worked for the director's earlier Sin City, this time around the narrative is too dense, the characters too many, and the intellectualising too engrained for this to really work.

All that being said, I had to admire the film for what it was attempting. And the 'twist' conclusion with its moral dilemma genuinely surprised me (whilst making perfect sense and not resorting to the usual silly super-hero deus-ex-machina ending it looked like it was heading towards - hoorah!).

It's an over-used phrase, but Watchmen really is a film I admired rather than outright enjoyed. You sort of admire the work that's been done, but can't help wondering why anybody thought it needed to be undertaken in the first place. Part of me feels sad that this interesting experiment is likely to be deemed a failure given the box office figures that are being reported. The opening weekend was fairly strong, but still less than those for the director's previous 300, which cost a lot less to make, and was much more mainstream in its appeal, and the box office appears to be fading fast if the second weekend takings are indicative, now that the core fanboy demographic have moved on. It looks as if the film will struggle to approach break even point, hardly surprising given the obscene amount of money that seems to have been spent on marketing it. I'd like to see Hollywood make more thoughtful, experimental films like this instead of the mindless 'action' formulaic fodder they usually specialise in, but for that to happen films like this need to turn a profit - a big profit, and not just one based on overly optimistic follow-through DVD sales.

If you haven't seen Watchmen yet, and can endure nearly 3 hours in a cinema seat, I'd encourage you to go and see the film if only to help the flagging box office (That important consideration aside, I'd say wait for the inevitable Blu-Ray, complete with extended Director's Cut) Don't set your expectations too high, and I think you'll enjoy it!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Curious Case of David Fincher's Latest Film

With less than 48 hours to go until the oscar winners are announced, I finally got to see David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in a 'digital presentation' at my local picture house in Clapham.

I wouldn't describe myself as a huge fan of Fincher. I loved Se7en, Fight Club and Zodiac, but thought Panic Room was an extremely average 'thriller' best suited to TV prime-time. And I think all of Fincher's films are too long. Benjamin Button clocks in at just under 3 hours so the director's rather self-indulgent trend doesn't seem to have been broken with this latest oscar-nominated offering.

I left this film until last because of the luke-warm reviews from the British critics - the vast majority of whom seem to think it should NOT have been nominated for an oscar. I'm sorry to have to say I agree with them. OK, maybe it's worthy of a technical oscar for the special effects, but 'Best Film' or 'Best Director'? Gimme a break!

I thought Forrest Gump, which many of the critics have compared this film to - it shares the same writer - was a seriously over-rated film (not a bad one, just not one that deserved the 'Film of the Year' oscar) and alas, Benjamin Button plays out like Forrest Gump II, but without any of the original's charm or humour. Ridiculously neat and tidy, and overly-sentimental, one-sentence platitudes are laid on with a trowel in a series of anecdotes that make little sense, have little commonality, and just give the impression that the script-writers had no idea how to tell a basic story. Things pull together in the second half, when we finally start on the main story (a life-long romance) but it's not hard to see why friends talk about having walked out of the film before it finished - I nearly did the same myself, I found the first half so disjointed and irritating.

As the film opens we have a dying Daisy, played by Cate Blanchette, asking her daughter to read out loud a diary in her bag. The diary is that of one 'Benjamin Button', who turns out to have been the love of the dying woman's life, and the film then progresses as a series of 'out loud' readings that translate into episodic flashbacks, interrupted every 10-15 minutes by trips in real time back to the dying hospital bed scene. These constant interruptions become increasingly irritating because there's really nothing to say at the hospital (apart from one very obvious, cliched revelation about the daughter's father mid-way through the film), and the film-makers have to invent a rather silly 'Is Hurricane Katrina going to hit the hospital before Daisy dies?' sub-plot to try and justify the constant switches between the past and the present. This sort of tired story-telling has been done so often before we feel we're watching a re-run of countless other movies - except the constant time switches were justified in other films. Here, it becomes very obvious that they are only needed because the flashback scenes are so disjointed and irrelevant to each other (and also to the main romance theme that will start about an hour into the film) that the editors had no way of putting the various clips together so that they made any kind of sense.

The central conceit of the film - that Daisy's life-long love Benjamin (Brad Pitt) is a child who ages backwards, starting the film as an 'old man' baby and growing eventually into an Alzheimer's inflicted 5 year old - is surprisingly easy to take on board because the effects and make-up are so well done. However they just come across as a gimmick that wasn't really needed to tell the central message of the story, which seems to be about 'the meaning of life, death and loss'. The effects scenes in the latter part of the film don't work quite as well as the earlier ones - there's something not QUITE right about the 20 year-old Pitt compared with the 80 year-old one, so that just as one is starting to become immersed in the central story, one is taken out of it somewhat. Admittedly, things have come on quite a bit since the last time this sort of effect was used (to show a young Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in X-Men III) but it's hard to see it as much more than a mildly diverting gimmick that utlimately lessens the film rather than enhances it. And it's scary to think that in 20-30 years time, given the current rate of progress, punters will probably be able to see the likes of Richard Burton or Steve McQueen at any age in their career, playing new parts in new movies!

I'm glad I stayed to the end of the film, if only because the performances from Pitt and Blanchette are as perfect as one would expect them to be. But the whole thing felt like the pretentious, overlong, nonsensical piece of film-making many have accused it of, and it's hard to understand why this has been nominated in the 'Best Film' or 'Best Director' categories. Even in a digital presentation too much of the cinematography felt too dark and at times impenetrable (I'd even go so far as to say 'poorly lit') and overall I was disappointed with what felt like a wasted opportunity to tell a genuinely moving story.

Hopefully the American Academy will reflect the decisions made by the British Academy at last week's BAFTA's, and just give the film a few 'technical' oscars. Anything else would be a grave misjustice.

We'll all find out tomorrow morning (here in the UK - tonight for US readers) who the real winners are. I think this is the first year I've seen ALL of the films nominated, with a trip to Clapham Picture House later today meaning that I will also get to see all the Oscar-nominated short films as well. My gut feeling is that the supposedly leaked letter showing the oscar results (which the BBC have reported is a hoax) will reflect the final results. There's one or two minor disappointments in that list for me personally (most notably in the 'Best Film' and 'Best Actor' categories) but nothing too upsetting compared with past crimes (Chicago as 'Best Film'? - give me a break!) I almost wish I didn't have to work tomorrow so I could stay up all night and watch the results come in.

Friday, February 13, 2009

ChannelFlip's Film (DVD) Review Show

A few days ago I had an email from Ian Christie, CEO of ChannelFlip. It looked like one of those blanket emails I get occasionally, and asked if I'd be interested in a partnership deal that involved embedding a video player in my web site to promote a film review show the channel runs that could earn me advertising revenue.

I've had similar requests in the past (especially when my web site was attracting ridiculous amounts of traffic when I was producing the Lord of the Rings web logs) and have always turned them down. I've always thought there's something a bit tacky and desperate about blogs and web sites that carry advertising material. They annoy readers and usually turn out to earn the web site author mere pennies in revenue anyway.

Ian's note about the target audience for the film review show being 'savvy young men' (that'll be the 'young, dumb and full of cum' audience filling our multiplexes with endless American 'humour' and dumbed-down action movies then!) sounded alarm bells from the get-go. However, having only just blogged about the lack of a good DVD review show on the web I decided to have a look anyway.

I nearly gave up when the latest show kept giving me a 'Video not found' error every time I clicked to watch the latest show (a review of Don't Mess With The Zohan), but fortunately the problem seemed to have been rectified when I tried again 24 hours later, and I have to confess at the end of my first viewing I was left rather impressed.

The show, presented by Justin Gayner, is horribly mistitled in my opinion. As a film review show it lacks the appropriate timing of the excellent Spill site which publishes amusing cartoon-based reviews of films in the week of American release. And the iPlayer can always be used to watch the British Film 2009 if films are your main interest. ChannelFlip's show is actually more of a DVD review show since it typically reviews 'films' a week or so after they've come out on DVD, months after the theatrical release. The first editions of the show suffer from the usual 'how do you make a talking head interesting?' problem (an issue I struggled hopelessly with when I posted early 'alpha' editions of 'The Shiny Discs Show' around this time last year). This 'talking head' problem is one that even professionals on multi-million pound salaries haven't been able to solve, as viewers of Jonathan Ross' well-scripted reviews on the BBC's Film 2009 will testify, but it's good to see that more recent editions of the ChannelFlip film show have latched onto the fact that a few appropriately timed After Effects animations, as well as the usual film clips, can dramatically improve the pacing and entertainment value of the show.

The presenter is passionate and energetic, can write, and clearly knows his stuff, although admittedly the somewhat theatrical presentation style will not be to everyone's taste (I'm a bit bored with this shouty 'Project! Project! Project!' style myself if I'm honest).

But, all-in-all I do think the show has pretty much got it right, which is a bit scary when you're about to launch your own effort into what you thought had been a pretty empty playing field. The ChannelFlip film show doesn't outstay its welcome, running for a pert five or six munutes, is entertaining and amusing for the most part, gives more of the flavour of a film than a purely written review can do and, perhaps most importantly of all, doesn't freeze or stutter while you're trying to watch it. You can also subscribe to it via iTunes. All-in-all it's a pretty impressive debut.

Regular readers will know that I'm not keen on American comedies of the type that unfortunately make up the two most recent shows, but if you look back you'll see that the programme makers have shown great taste in the past, highlighting some really excellent films. I've chosen to embed (above) the show that reviewed one of my favourite films of last year - Man on Wire - from a few episodes back, so that you can watch it directly (click on the image up near the start of this blog entry). If you like what you see make sure to pop over to the ChannelFlip web site to see more of the same, and find a link to subscribe via iTunes.

ChannelFlip also produces short web shows that cover comedy, the web and gadgets amongst other things. Well worth checking out if you get the chance. In the meantime I like the show enough to have added it to my iTunes feed so that's a recommendation right there.

In the meantime,, when it finally launches, will be premiering with a weekly show of about the same length (just under 10 minutes), but will be focussing entirely on Blu-Ray reviews, with a main 'Blu-Ray of the week' review, a quick precis of the other releases of the week, a look at the sales chart and a brief news section covering upcoming releases. I'm also looking to launch in simultaneous web/video and pdf editions so that those who don't have time to watch video can read at their leisure. Look for an official announcement about the launch here at the end of March.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

And the award goes to...

It seems fortuitous that on the day I've set aside for the BAFTA's (don't get excited I'm just watching it on TV like everybody else - the days of being shoved into a pen on a red carpet and shouting myself hoarse trying to get a celebrity to look my way for a photo are thankfully long past) this blog should get an award from "Premio Dardos".

'What's that?' I hear you ask (I had to ask it too!). Well let me quote from Steve's blog (Steve was the guy who nominated me) The Last Picture Show:

"The Dardos Award is given for recognition of cultural, ethical, literary, and personal values transmitted in the form of creative and original writing. These stamps were created with the intention of promoting fraternization between bloggers, a way of showing affection and gratitude for work that adds value to the Web."

It seems rather odd to win this award in the year I've done least blogging. I was proficient (at least with my shiny disc reviews) until February last year when I decided there was a 'gap in the market' for a VIDEO review of weekly shiny disc releases. Too many people are jumping on the video bandwagon (when actually the information would be quicker to impart and more useful in simple, written form) but I genuinely think film/DVD/Blu-Ray reviews can be done better via the video medium (if only to include clips and give a genuine flavour of the product being reviewed) and here in the UK fans are not being catered for at all by the main broadcasters.

Of course if I'd known work would get so manic, and the hurdles would be so large, I'd probably have abandoned the whole idea, but with work drying up on March 6th I'm cautiously optimistic that will formally launch its weekly Blu-Ray Review show at the end of March.

Anyway.... If this blog entry reads like it's being rushed - it is. This year, instead of waiting for a DVD release after the gongs have all been given out I've tried to see all the oscar-nominated/BAFTA-nominated awards BEFORE the ceremonies, even though that's meant far more trips to the local cinema than I'd normally indulge in. Today is BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television) Awards day of course. For what it's worth I'd like to see Danny Boyle win 'Best Director' for Slumdog Millionaire, Milk walk away with 'Best Film' (it was emotionally the most engaging - Slumdog was too ridiculous a fairy tale with cartoon charicature 'evil' grown-ups and silly question coincidences meaning it failed to totally win my heart) and most of the acting awards too, with the possible exception of 'Best Supporting Actor' which Heath Ledger deserves for The Dark Knight, not because he's dead but because if you can't see the genius present in such diverse performances as The Brothers Grimm, Brokeback Mountain and The Dark Knight then your eyes must be closed! Alas, one nominated film Gomorrah remains to be seen (which thanks to having to work Saturday I only discovered had been delivered - on Blu-Ray - last night) and with just a few hours left until the BAFTA's start broadcasting I'm cutting it a bit fine!

However, to complete my 'award recipient' obligations, here are the 'five best blogs' I subscribe to in my RSS feed. I follow these guys religiously, and nominate each of them for a 'Dardos Award':

Brian Sibley: The Blog

Not strictly-speaking film-related, but a mish-mash of the many subjects that Brian's interested in. He's a huge film buff of course, and regularly appears on shiny disc as the 'talking head' film expert, especially where Disney, Tolkien, C S Lewis or Wallace and Gromit are concerned, as well as having been a broadcaster at the BBC for many years and a brilliant author too. His latest blog entry has a beautifully written and insightful review of the new Disney 3D CGI film Bolt on it - so go check it out. I feel very blessed that Brian is a mate and I get the chance to discuss movies with him regularly (although I'm sure his partner David gets bored to death as we compare notes), but his dedication to his blog, always updated daily, never fails to impress me and is what causes me to make my first award.


is not so much a blog as a film site. Run by Richard, up in Scotland, its my main news source and although Richard and I have had lots of disagreements (I think we just like different things!) his hard work and passion are always evident. He's actually down in London to blog about the BAFTA's today, and his dedication (he has a full-time job and filmstalker is just a hobby) never fails to impress me. He runs a great site and loves talking to his readers.

Blowing My Thought Wad

is always a good read, from a writer who knows his stuff and knows good quality when he sees it (although I'm struggling to forgive him for his dissing of The Dark Knight and over-enthusiasm for Wall-E which I thought was fundamentally flawed in structure, pacing and story-telling :-P). Blogger 'Good Dog' at least makes me feel I'm not totally alone in thinking that the Americans are the only ones producing good drama these days and that Doctor Who and Torchwood are for the most part an infantile embarrassment to our notion that we Brits can produce good drama. Of course it helps that at times he's almost as cantankerous as me ;-)

Reel Fanatic

is another great read, from a passionate film buff. I don't know how the writer, based in the States, manages to hold down a full-time job, and still post a daily critique of film and television news and events, but he does a fantastic job of it, and unfailingly responds to any and every comment made too. A real class act! Add it to your daily RSS feed checks!

The Last Picture Show

This one's a very recent discovery, and looks like a bit of mutual back-slapping on my part since the author, Steve Langton, nominated my blog for an award. Truth is Steve's love of film shines through his every post, and I also enjoy following him on Twitter. Steve's based in Derby, not far from where I attended university (Loughborough) and shares my love of great punk bands that I saw perform live at many venues in the area in the late 1970's. The fact that he has such great taste in films as well is a bit of a bonus.

That's it. Gotta go. The Gomorrah Blu-Ray is calling.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

First off, let me "'fess up" and admit that this isn't really a film review - it's a Blu-Ray review. Although Vicky Cristina Barcelona is officially released to UK cinema's this Friday (6th February), the region-free US import has been available with 'next day delivery' for the UK from movietyme for a couple of weeks now, with the film having received its Stateside theatrical release way back in August last year.

The Blu-Ray is over-priced at around £21 - especially since it's a vanilla disc with no extra's at all - but that's what you get with the falling value of the pound, and at least you're going to get a crystal clear picture if you decide to opt for the Blu-Ray over a trip to your local flea-pit. One note of caution on the picture quality front though - the film looks like it's been 'Tango-ed' because of the ridiculous colour grading that's been performed on the film, presumably to make it clear the movie takes place in a hot country.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona promotional picture

The film's title summarises the story perfectly: it's about two friends (Vicky and Cristina) and their trip to Barcelona! Vicky is straight-laced and conventional, having a last holiday with her best friend Cristina, before she gets married to a rathr dull lawyer. Cristina is her opposite - a, promiscuous, artistic, 'free spirit' who has commitment issues and, it transpires, low self-esteem despite obvious talent. The film is essentially the story of the two girls meeting a Spanish artist Juan (Javier Bardem) who cheekily introduces himself by suggesting the two spend a weekend with him 'making love'.

Cristina is attracted, Vicky is appalled and Juan's ex-wife, who has disappeared abroad after trying to murder her husband, returns not quite sure what she thinks.

The marketing of the film has been interesting, to say the least. Despite being a Cannes Film Festival award winner, the standard film trailer (not included on the Blu-Ray but which I caught at the cinema last week) and all the advertising I've seen makes no mention of the fact that this is a film written and directed by Woody Allen. I suspect this sublimation of the writer/director is deliberate, given the extremely negative reviews his last few films have received.

As the title suggests the film sees Allen moving on from London (where his last three films were made) in favour of Spain, and the move seems to have done him the world of good. Most critics are lauding this as a 'return to form' for the elderly director with 43 films to his name, although a few are at pains to point out that this is still a long way from the director's peak a couple of decades ago.

Javier Bardem shows surprising leading man charisma, turning a character that might have seemed seedy in other's hands, into a sexy, passionate, noble type whose purpose in life seems to be to bring out the best in others. I don't think I'm giving too much away when I say that the impact his character has on the lives of all the people he meets improves their lot, even if it means characters completely change what they have perceived to be the important things in life up to their point of meeting him. If nothing else, this film proves that Bardem's award-winning performance in No Country For Old men (aka 'the performance with the silly wig') was no one-off fluke. Given Allen's notorious difficulties in dealing with actors (he allows no rehearsal time and allows only one or two takes) the results on display here are quite astounding.

Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall give strong, totally believable and sympathetic performances as the Cristina and Vicky of the title, but when Penelope Cruz turns up in the second half of the film, as Juan's psychotic ex-wife, she totally steals the film (and not JUST for her much publicised 'lesbian kiss' scene with Johansson's character). She is at turns fiery, sensitive, bonkers and amusing, often within the same short scene.

The film does rely a little too much on narration to 'fill in the gaps', and feels particularly artificial in that you can 'hear' Woody Allen reading it even though it's actually Christopher Evan Welch performing the role. But this is a small criticism when so much about the film is so enjoyable. Allen is careful not to judge any of his characters, or even indicate which of the two widely different world views held by Vicky and Cristina are the 'right' ones, leaving the viewer free to simply fall in love with the characters and the simple story he's set up.

I found the film a subtle, beautiful piece of work - albeit one that is rather like a rather exotic, but light desert: very enjoyable at the time, but not anything that strikes you as particularly substantial or necessary when reviewed in the cold light of day. While Allen's touch is deft, and his choice of music sublimely in keeping with the film's mood and themes, for me it's the ensemble cast that steal the picture and make this a 'recommended' viewing.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Revolutionary Road

Although Revolutionary Road has garnered a few award nominations, it hasn't grabbed any of the really big nominations, and so was not on my list of films that I really needed to see BEFORE they hit shiny disc.

However, a particularly gruelling week at work, followed by some tedious study on Saturday morning left me wanting some escape from all the drudgery and so I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to go and see the film at my local cinema, The Clapham Picture House, now thankfully outfitted with pristine digital projection.

Kate and Leo in Revolutionary Road

Despite a high rating on imdb the response from the British critics seems to have been somewhat luke-warm, with one or two pathetically resorting to mean-spirited attacks on Leo DiCaprio's 'weasily' face as some sort of critique. Nearly all reviews have emphasised the bleakness of the piece, with many concluding that this new essay on American Suburbia, set in the 1950's, is a much lesser work than director Sam Mendes' earlier 1999 treatise on the same subject, American Beauty. Seemingly Revolutionary Road is in dire need of some of the black humour that helped elevate that piece. So, I was all set up for a film of unremitting despair and dreariness. Thankfully I got a beautifully directed and acted piece about the break up of a marriage in the 1950's, which had real intelligence and depth and - weren't you paying attention critics? - several moments of black humour too.

As the film opens we meet Kate and Leo's characters, April and Frank Wheeler, strangers flirting with each other across a crowded room, quickly falling in love. Most reviewers have tried to play down the hype around this reunion of Winslet and DiCaprio - their first film together since the collosally successful Titanic - pointing out that these are two very different characters from the star-crossed, iceberg-bound lovers who many wanted to see reunited again. The couple will indeed spend most of this new film's running time tearing each other apart. That being said, I think these could very well be the same couple, with the film effectively showing that romantic feelings (or lust) do not necessarily make the best starting point for a good, long, happy marriage. We're not long into the film before realising the couple are having problems. April has aspirations to be a professional actress, but her first amateur dramatics production is a disaster, with her own performance being the worst thing about it; whilst Frank is stuck in an office job he hates but suffers in order to provide for his family and young children. He finds himself so miserable and unhappy that it's hardly surprising he ends up having a one night stand with an infatuated doe-eyed secretary. Marriage-wise, things can clearly only go downhill from here.

Unfortunately, this first, short section of the film suffers greatly from comparisons to Mad Men, the Emmy-award winning series about ad men in the early 60's. The characters look and act the same, the set design (particularly of the offices and restaurants) look and act the same, and the basic story seems to be the same. All that's missing are the more soap-y elements necessary to keep a show running over 13 hours of prime-time TV. So comparisons are inevitable when the film starts off failing to offer anything different.

Fortunately things take a turn about 20 minutes in, and from then-on the film becomes a gripping, acting tour-de-force as the lives of the young married couple who feel they are 'special' compared to those around them, unravel.

When April sees a chance for the family to escape their dull, suburban, unhappy lives, by escaping to Paris for a new life, it seems that maybe there will be a 'happy ever after' ending after all, despite their seeming naivety about what awaits them in Paris. Neighbours and friends are incredulous, if a little envious, but events soon conspire against the couple as multiple chickens seem to come home to roost at the same time and the planned escape starts to fall apart in spectacular

Most reviews have centred on Kate Winslett winning performance as a depressed housewife, but for me DiCaprio's performance is the real relevation, and the far more interesting performance of the two. He has a much less sympathetic character to play but beautifully expresses the pain, sadness and anger his character experiences without resorting to histrionics. He is never less than 100% convincing, and the pain in his eyes is hard to bare. The actor has come a long way from the ridiculous 'pauper' acting as Jack that he gave us in Titanic.

Winslett delivers, as one would expect her to, based on previous form, but I couldn't help feeling this is the same Winslett act we've seen so many times before -Kate doing her teary, worthy, Oscar-nominated thing. It just felt a little too 'clever' to be entirely believable for me.

That being said, I was gripped by the film, right to its rather startling and abrupt end. The film takes its time to tell its story and tells it well, and the cinematography, from stalwart Roger Deacon is
stunning. It may not be a 'feel good' movie, but it's nowhere near as bleak as some critics have implied, and we're blessed that Hollywood can turn out strong, intellectual fare like this amongst all the banality
of gross-out 'comedies' and mindless action flicks that are guaranteed to put teenage bums on seats and turn a hefty profit.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Checking out the Ocar Nominated Films

Good new movies are just like the buses at this time of year - a long time waiting for something good to show up, and then suddenly everything arrives all at once. We have the endless awards ceremonies to thank of course, but there does seem to be something wrong when my local PictureHouse has five screens showing nothing but oscar-nominated movies in the one week. If only one were faced with such tough decisions as to which film to see at your local cineplex all year round!

In an attempt to be more informed for watching the Academy Awards this year I decided NOT to wait for the shiny discs, most of which come out AFTER the awards ceremony, but actually check the films out on theatrical release. Alas, such is the poor memory of most that recent marketing machinations mean we're suddenly in a situation where most companies release films to the general public AFTER they're nominated, rather than months before, as used to happen. I can't help feeling that The Dark Knight (OK, I know it's fantasy which never does well, but even so...) and Christopher Nolan have seriously lost out because the film was released a few months ago rather than next month!

I saw Milk last week (and blogged about it here)
but used the weekend to catch up on three of its rivals.

Slumdog Millionaire

Slumdog Millionaire poster image

If my local cinema at Clapham is any measure of success Slumdog Millionaire looks like a slam-dunk for the 'Best Film' oscar. Two weekends running they've had to display "All performances sold out" even at 11am in the morning. Certainly if there were an award for 'Best Marketing' this film should win it. The decision to advertise the film as if it were a Mama Mia! 'feel good' movie is an inspired one, even if it totally misrepresents the film and the director is unhappy with the deception. Punters who will likely be shocked at the torture scenes that appear at the start of the film, but feeling beholden to stay to the end because they've already paid, will by the end feel they've been on a journey and seen a worthy film, even if it wasn't the one they'd been sold.

Personally, I thought Slumdog Millionaire was a very good film, but not an excellent one, and not one I'd give 'Film of the year' to. I liked the direction, whilst accepting that it may have been a bit too 'flash' in places for some, and there were some truly amazing shots of Mumbai and the slum area in the film. The young actors (or non-actors, as director Danny Boyle has indicated) are very impressive and the early scenes are moving and realistic. Unfortunately the later scenes in the story timeline, featuring the 'grown up' lead appearing on TV show Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? or being tortured are less successful. Dev Patel seems a nice enough chap, but this is a 'no acting really required' role for the most part, and it's scandalous that BAFTA have decided to nominate Patel for 'Best Actor', seemingly because of his nationality rather than any evidence from the film. Our hero has entered a TV competition purely to be seen and reunited with his childhood girlfriend. The trouble is there is no chemistry between Patel and his beautiful female lead, and I didn't believe in their 'life long love affair' for a second.

The story itself, described by director Boyle as 'a fable' is also too far-fetched to have any credibility. We are asked to accept that each question our hero is asked on the TV quiz show just happens to coincide with some obscure event that happened to our lead character on his life journey. This is silly enough as it is, but that they also happened to be asked in the correct chronological order to events in the lead's life, told as background between each question, is just ridiculous. Apparently this is carried over from the book the film is based on, but for me it just made the whole film's story ridiculous and contrived.

And I'm going to upset several Indian friends who are big fans of the film's composer A.R. Rahman, when I say that for me the music intruded far too often, and seemed to distract from, rather than enhance, the on-screen visuals. When music actually takes you out of the film, as it did on a couple of occasions here, there's something wrong.

None of this should stop you going to see the film. Like the execrable Mama Mia! it seems to have struck a chord with the general public, and certainly it's a MUCH, MUCH better film than the poorly-written and directed Abba spin-off. In many ways it marks a return to form for director Danny Boyle after the extremely disappointing, derivative Sunshine.

The Wrestler

The Wrestler promotiion

If I was slightly disappointed with Slumdog Millionaire, I was even more so with The Wrestler.

The 'low budget movie' warnings should have alerted me of course, and in fact if it wasn't for so many enthusiastic reviews about the film itself, and Rourke's performance as 'The Wrestler' of the title I would no doubt have given this one a miss. Which, given my lack of enthusiasm for the actor I should have done. I'm not sure if it's the excessive ego, the rudeness and bad manners, or a strong dislike of the yappy little dogs that he's obsessed with, but I find myself avoiding any interviews with this 'difficult' personality.

Most reviewers said this was a 'character piece' rather than a movie about wrestling, but Lord there's a LOT of tedious wrestling in the film, especially in the first hour. The 'trailer home trash' real life story has been done, to much better effect I think, a hundred times before I think, and even the cliched 'let's have no real start and no real end' approach to the film, which others are claiming is 'brave' seem cliched to the extreme. It's like one of those tedious documentaries about people fallen on hard times, with no real let-up or variation on a tired, well-known theme. I found the film hard work and it's one you'd have to pay me to sit through again. Yes, Rourke gives an incredible performance - but is reliving the events of your life and playing yourself REALLY an oscar-winning ACTING performance? Not for this viewer. And not, it seems, for most of the public. Despite the rave reviews, the cinema was almost empty where all other screenings were full and it has already switched to matinee performances only.

My money's still on Sean Penn in Milk for the 'Best Actor' winner, although he has some serious competition in the form of Frank Langella in ...


Frost/Nixon promotion

A 'talking head' movie is one I'd definitely avoid at the cinema - wait for the DVD instead. However, I'm glad I went to see Frost/Nixon before the awards ceremonies all kick off. The film, transferred from the London stage, was gripping, tense and beautifully acted throughout and whilst I kept thinking I was watching 'Blair vs Nixon' rather than 'Frost vs Nixon' because of Michael Sheen's over-familiar act, that didn't detract too much.

In many ways the film reminded me of Good Night, and Good Luck, a 'better' film in my view, but one shot in black and white which undoubtedly put a lot of potential viewers off. This more mainstream political drama is likely to prove more popular with the general public.

The direction from Ron Howard is perhaps a little pedestrian, but I think the material demands the sort of subdued subtlety that's in evidence here and the story plays to Howards' strengths rather than his weaknesses. But, ultimately, this isn't Howard's film or Sheen's - it's Langella's. As Nixon he gives a career-best performance of great subtlety and depth. I'd hate to be the voter having to choose between this performance and Penn's for the oscars this year.

So Who Should Win?

Personally, I think Milk deserves the 'Best Film' oscar - I found it more 'genuinely' moving than any of the other contendors. But I also think the subject matter (about an openly gay politician) means it hasn't a hope. I haven't seen Benjamin Button yet (not released in the UK until next month), but am already getting the sense from early critical reviews that I'll find it too contrived and sentimental to win me over. I suspect Slumdog Millionaire will win, and if so it certainly wouldn't be as ridiculous a result as a few years ago when Chicago won!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

'Milk' it for all it's worth

It's been a while since I last blogged, as the pressure of work, video, and preparations for new Microsoft certification exams seem to have taken over every available minute :(

But a bout of insomnia gives me a chance to blog about the excellent trip to BFI Southbank I made a few hours ago to see
Milk, the oscar-nominated film about the murdered San Francisco gay rights politician Harvey Milk who rose to fame in the 70's.

Milk promotion

Director Gus Van Sant's films can be a bit hit and miss for me, and I frequently seem to take a contrary view to the general critical response, so that for example while I loved Elephant (a sort of retelling of the Columbine massacre in a very smooth, free-form, poetic style) which the critics didn't seem keen on, I really disliked Paranoid Park which the critics loved, but which I thought was badly-shot, self-indulgent, 'arty' tosh.

Then of course there's the oscar-winning Good Will Hunting, which wasn't a bad film, but one that really didn't merit all the hype it received at the time of release.

Thankfully, Milk marks a return to form for the director after a series of independent 'art house' movies, as Van Sant moves back to a more mainstream style of filming, with a biopic that is individual, powerful, moving, incredibly well acted and couldn't have arrived at a more appropriate time given what's happening in California with Proposition 8.

The film opens with titles over archive black and white footage showing the police raiding and arresting gay men in bars for simply being there. This was a time when men could be arrested for the simple act of holding hands, and to a modern audience the footage, showing men in suits sat at tables covering their faces so as not to be caught on camera as the police barge in to arrest everyone, comes across as quite shocking. Manhandled and stuffed into police vans like sardines, it's quite incredible to think this is real-life footage from not that many years ago.

Despite the shocking introduction, the main theme of the movie is a celebration of one man's vision of hope, with Milk fighting for the rights of minorities and against injustice being kick-started by the murder of a gay friend on Castro Street in San Francisco. Perhaps unintentionally (the film was made before Proposition 8 came into being) the film also helps to show how placid and resigned we've become to losing such hard-fought rights in a time when there's far LESS homophobia about.

Proposition 8 shows that history, yet again, is doomed to repeat itself, and as actor James Franco (who plays Milk's lover in the film) and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black pointed out in the Q & A that followed tonight's screening, few people - even modern gays who live close to where these events happened - seem to know the story of Harvey Milk, America's first openly gay politician.

Black's screenplay is based on extensive original research by the author, and the film features some of the real life characters in Harvey's life at the time. He has written a wonderfully warm, personal script full of humanity and life that doesn't try to paint Milk as a saint, but as someone of good heart, not moved to politics, who just felt he'd done nothing good in his life by the age of 40 and rose to meet the demands of a situation that was so unfair that it demanded action. Milk has flaws: a sexual attraction to weak, unlikeable, mentally unstable men being perhaps the main one and the flaws are portrayed here in a way that makes the man far more real than the simple 'hero' he's often been painted as.

Director Van Sant has put together a clever collage of real life footage of events at the time, together with original dramatic scenes, but if the film is one man's show (it isn't, as ALL the cast, including Josh Brolin, Emile Hursch and the afore-mentioned James Franco give performances that make the characters seem real flesh and blood, not actors giving 'oscar winning' performances) it's Sean Penn's. Those used to seeing Penn play angry, violent characters are in for a shock, his performance as the amiable Harvey Milk is full of joy, humour and sly asides that make you totally forget Penn the actor, as you watch Milk the politician as if he were still alive today. Where I'd be rooting for an oscar win for the much under-rated (until he died) Heath Ledger, I'm now leaning more towards Penn for what surely counts as a career-best performance. And with a career as impressive as Penn's has been, that's no small compliment.

The screening tonight, at the BFI Southbank in London, advertised a post-screening Q&A session with director Gus Van Sant, covering his entire career, as part of the Guardian Talks series of events. As it turned out, we were treated to two Q&A's - the one advertised, and then an extra one concentrating specifically on Milk with Van Sant being joined by his screenwriter and one of his lead actors.

By all accounts Van Sant is a shy man, and he's certainly a quiet one, not naturally given to giving long answers to quite involved questions, some of which came from the audience, but most of which came from a professional on-stage interviewer. Nevertheless he held the audience for the 30 minutes he had on stage, intercut with excerpts from his earlier work. He was self-deprecating and told some amusing anecdotes, such as how he spent 6 years trying to persuade Universal to support his 'shot by shot' remake of Psycho before Good Will Hunting's awards success suddenly turned a studio's position of 'Not interested' to 'That's a fantastic idea'!

While dismissing critics opinions, particularly with regard to the highly controversial Psycho, he seemed to admit that in this particular case they might have been right, saying that the film made him realise that simply copying shots isn't enough to recreate something, and that Hitchcock himself was the main ingredient that made the original film work, an ingredient that was clearly missing from his own remake despite featuring an 'exact' copy of each original scene.

I was surprised, watching the Good Will Hunting film, to see Ben Affleck's brother Casey Affleck in the film, thinking him a very recent recruit to the world of film acting (he is sensational in Gone Baby Gone, The Assassination of Jesse James and Lonely Jim), but Van Sant revealed that actually the much-publicised relationship between himself and 'new to film' Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, came about through him knowing Casey.

I'm a big fan of James Franco's work (and NOT just because he's so pretty, although I'm sure that probably helps!) Perhaps best known as Peter Parker's best friend Harry (aka the son of The Green Goblin) in the Spider-Man movies, or as the front-man for the current Gucci "men's fragrence" magazine campaign, his best performances have been in movies like In the Valley of Elah, Pineapple Express or even the critically mauled Flyboys. He's an incredibly versatile actor, and gives another excellent performance in Milk.

So it's disappointing to report that in person he comes across as a bit of an inarticulate, rambling, empty head - at least if his long-winded, content-free replies to the couple of questions directed his way at tonight's Q & A are anything to go by. It seems to be the pattern with really good actors - I remember feeling the same way about a similar Q&A at the same venue with Cillian Murphy around the time Sunshine came out. It's best, I guess, to just judge actors on their work and perhaps only allow them the limelight when they're doing that work, to avoid the shattering of illusions!

So far as the film itself is concerned, it seems unlikely that Milk will win the BAFTA or oscar for 'Best Film', even though it's been nominated. Not because it's not worthy (I really believe it is), but because Slumdog Millionaire seems to be winning all the marketing campaigns, after a slow start where it looked like The Dark Knight (probably my favourite film of last year) was going to be a shoo-in.

Tomorrow (erm, later today), I shall be seeing Slumdog Millionaire, hoping that it's significantly better than director Danny Boyle's last film Sunshine, which proved to be a huge disappointment (by all accounts 'Slumdog' is a significant return to form, so fingers crossed), and on Monday I shall be seeing The Wrestler, if only to see if Sean Penn's most fierce competitor for the upcoming 'Best Actor' oscar Mickey Rourke (I'm not a fan based on his personality and previous work) really does deliver the performance all the critics are saying he does.

Expect my thoughts on these other oscar contenders to follow later this week. In the meantime I highly recommend Milk despite the subject matter perhaps appearing a bit too minority-oriented to be of interest. The film goes on general release in the UK next Friday: 23rd January 2009.