Sunday, May 30, 2010

10 Best Films I have seen in May

I watched a total of 27 films in May. These were the best:

Stachka [Strike] (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925)

La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc [The Passion of Joan of Arc] (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928)

La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960)

The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960)

Dr Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)

Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1967)

Rosemary's Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968)

Don't Look Now (Nicholas Roeg, 1973)

The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973)

Spoorloos [The Vanishing] (George Sluizer, 1988)

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Review: Robin Hood (Ridley Scott, 2010)

When I became wise to release of Robin Hood, from director Ridley Scott, I immediately had my doubts. I found another 'tale-before-the-legend' story to be completely unnecessary, especially casting an ageing and seemingly overweight Russell Crowe in the title role. I also balked at the thought that Ridley Scott had released another film. The man continues to pump out solid films but never anything brilliant. Not since Gladiator (2000) has he really hit the mark. Black Hawk Down (2001), Matchstick Men (2003) and more recently American Gangster (2007) are his only films worthy of note the last ten years.
The film opens late in the 12th Century, with King Richard's Third Crusade. Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe) is an archer, fighting abroad with Richard for ten years. When Richard is killed in battle, Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong) and his French allegiance ambush a troupe traveling to the coast to return Richard's crown to England. Robin, joined by Little John, Will Scarlett and Alan A'Dale fight off the ambush and in an attempt to draw fame on arrival back in England, pose as noblemen and notify the Royal Family of the Kings' death. At this point, Richard's younger brother John is crowned King and makes Godfrey his closest adviser, demanding owed tax from villages across his realm. Robin, assuming the identity of Robert Loxley (a knight killed in the ambush) travels to Loxley's village of Nottingham to return to his father a sword given in passing. Robin meets Marion (Cate Blanchett), Loxley's widow, and her father-in-law Sir Walter Loxley (Max Von Sydow), who proclaims that Robin should continue posing as his son so that they can retain the family's land, to the point of marrying Marion. This relationship totally lacked chemistry and Crowe and Blanchett, who are normally fantastic individual performers, just couldn't transform the swift romantic progression into something that was capable of belief. I also found this marriage to be very lazy, convenient plotting. It just seemed too outrageous that after such a short period of posing as Marion's returned war hero husband, Robin expresses his love for her when he leaves again on an endeavor. The films conclusion recounts a pending attack by the French Army on the shores of England, orchestrated by Godfrey, who has strayed from his role as tax enforcer. Robin, having already defended Nottingham, leads an assault on the arriving troops on the beach, orchestrating a dual archer and cavalry attack, bringing temporary peace to England. However the land is still governed by John, who out of jealously at the people's revolt against him in favor of Robin's heroics, declares Robin an outlaw and a bounty is placed on his head and those of his associates.
The action sequences were entertaining and well constructed but the influence of films like Braveheart (1995), and the opening sequences of Gladiator (2000) are obvious. They lacked any real imagination or originality but were often quite brutal. The first twenty minutes or so were full of exciting battles, and I expected the film to maintain a consistent amount of action. The camera energetically entered the heart of the conflict, captured the fighting from multiple angles and it was all quite impressive. But, in particular the final sequence, there were too many moments that were made for use in a trailer. Was it really necessary to see Robin rise from the water in slow motion with his sword raised? There were also disappointingly few examples of Robin's bow skills. The earlier sequences when he was enlisted as a bowman were featured, but he predominantly uses his sword on horseback.
Little John, Will Scarlett and Friar Tuck were the sources of comic relief throughout the film but really had very little to do. While the performances weren't bad, I question whether these actors are interesting enough to take on major roles and skilled enough to provide solid support in the inevitable sequel. Their development throughout was completely ignored and even their joining as a party was decided by fate. The appeared to have no special bond beyond accepting one another as soldiers faced with the same situation.The casting was uniformly poor. Russell Crowe's gruff demeanor and age failed to rouse the likable figure common to earlier representations of the legend. Cate Blanchett looked plain, and was simply required to look awkward around Russell. But Marion was strong-willed and proved she was able to handle a bow and sword just as well as the men, and Cate did a good job. Mark Strong, typically typecast as a villain these days, wasn't overwhelming and William Hurt, who was given nothing to do, just looked bored. Danny Huston was another choice I didn't agree with, mostly because I associate him with an antagonist or betrayer, as he usually is in most of his films. His brief role was far from astonishing either. It's great to still see wily legend Max Von Sydow, still acting.
I think that Scott's Robin Hood is a film capable of being enjoyed but only when you ignore previous representations of the Robin Hood legend. While it is fascinating to explore the origins of this man, it essentially could have been a story about anyone from King Richard's army, and it is a moving, heroic tale for an unknown, but with the preconception of the Robin Hood legend, it really isn't all that impressive. His existence as an outlaw and his nomadic quests accompanied by his troupe are only introduced in the final minutes and he primarily exists as a military leader and fueller of revolt. Many of the plot choices unintentionally cheated audiences, and were lazy attempts to heighten the drama. I didn't find Robin Hood particularly interesting, and overall I thought it was a lackluster action film that just failed to live up to expectations or provide a worthy compliment to an already established legend of the screen.

Overall: 2 1/2 Stars

Friday, May 28, 2010

Review: Harry Brown (Daniel Barber, 2010)

Harry Brown tries to be both a tale of revenge mourning the loss of a friend, and a social commentary. It is in the latter that it is significantly let down. Set predominantly in and around a housing estate in South London, the film presents the streets as dominated by out-of-control youth gangs who exert senseless aggravation and violence on the innocent local residents. This violent context is demonstrated in a gritty opening sequence, shot on hand-held by one of the perpetrators. A group on motorcycles antagonize a lady and her child, initially shooting at her to frighten her, until one of the bullets finds the mark and she is killed. In the escape from the scene, the motorcycle is hit by a truck, the passengers are thrown off and the camera lands on the ground, facing the bloodied bodies on the road. It is here that the credits start, and the radio broadcast of this incident can be heard playing over them. We are then introduced to Harry Brown (Michael Caine), an elderly ex-Marine, who is living alone while his wife is suffering in hospital. His current ritual is to visit her and then meet his closest friend Leonard for a game of chess in the pub. They discuss the serious drug problem on the streets, and the domestic disturbances common to his estate. It is obvious it is out of control, as Harry avoids crossing the highway through the underpass, fearing the gang that patrols there. Leonard, clearly troubled, tells Harry that he is continuously being harassed by some youngsters, and since his police report was ignored, he has decided to defend himself. The following morning, Harry receives a visit from Detective Alice Frampton (Emily Mortimer) who reveals that Leonard had been found dead in the underpass, likely killed by the kids from the estate. A young man is arrested on suspicion, and in a montage, we see him and his fellow gang members interrogated by the police. Once it is discovered that Leonard was carrying a large Military bayonet and may have attacked the boys initially, the hopes of a murder trial are slim. Following a drunken binge mourning Leonard's funeral, Harry is held up at knife point and manages to stab and kill the mugger and stagger away. But once he learns that the boys responsible likely will not be duly punished, he seeks to bring justice into his own hands.

The best sequences are Harry's wrath on the unsuspecting youngsters. Taking one hostage and questioning him on his involvement while threatening to shoot out his knee caps reveals a video of the murder on the boys phone. He then chains the boy up and lures his friends into a firefight inside the underpass. Two are killed, but one escapes, and Harry is unable to pursue. With the increasing body count, the police begin a street sweep rounding up all suspected gang members, but it leads only to violent rioting, as cars are destroyed and the police huddle is hit with glass bottles and Molotov cocktails. These scenes are quite well done, but really pushes the hapless police force angle. One of the of most painfully prolonged sequences is when Harry attempts to purchase a gun from a pair of junkies. He is invited into their drug den, wanders through a growth of marijuana plants, and ends up in a room with a young girl lying on the couch overdosed on heroin, with graphic porn playing. The group have small chatter as Stretch, a horrible scarred individual, shoots up on heroin and smokes crack, and reveals that he keeps the young woman drugged up in order to use her against her will for his films. It is an unnecessarily dangerous endeavor, it is also ridiculously long and excessively disgusting for what is ultimately an attempt to purchase a firearm. I also thought the conclusion wrapped itself together all too conveniently. It seemed like the climax would include a violent stand-off, and that Emily Mortimer would become too involved but ultimately survive, and there were no surprises. With the exception of the opening sequence, which was very well done, I found the whole film to be very generic, right down to key technical features like it's editing and the score.

I felt there were too many superfluous themes and to create the atmosphere the film throws together seemingly every drug problem and gang related issue, without ever addressing one in particular. The kids are a menace for seemingly infinite reasons, and apart from Noel Winter, they are never closely examined. Treated as a universal group, there is seemingly no hope for any of them as they are drug riddled, are violent to innocent pedestrians and have no respect for law enforcement. This is why I found a film like Shane Meadows' This is England (2006) to be a more effective social commentary, as it examines these gangs from a more personal level. The goals of the Justice Department are brushed over, and Alice's interest in Brown lacks any passion, as does Emily Mortimer's plain performance overall. I found her to be very miscast. The interrogation montage lacked any real imagination and the questioning seemed like it was just going through the processes. The coarseness of the youngsters' language and their disrespect for the police seemed somewhat forced for shock value, as was most of the brutal violence. With such an incompetent police force, it came down to one man who is frustrated by the lack of justice and fueled by anger at the death of his friend, to do what is required to reduce the crime limit. Michael Caine's performance was very good. His soft spoken nature, and his tired, weary eyes are mirrored by some swift shifts into malice. In such a decrepit existence, he can be acknowledged both as a vigilante, and as a hero. It is also not as absorbing, or well constructed as the Clint Eastwood directed Gran Torino (2008), which it has been falsely compared to. Eastwood's film gave us time to acclimatize to Walt Kowalski, his changing opinion of his neighbors, and his decision to help them. Harry is likable from the beginning, but his existence is forced upon us to the extreme, and nothing is left to interpret. It is inevitable that he will rise to be heroic, but the rebellious youngsters are thrown at us through the interrogations and have no real role but to represent the masses of youths that riot at the conclusion. No goodness beyond the love of family is presented at all, just a morbid state of Hell that miraculously passes once the riots have been contained. Overall, I found it to be very disappointing, for many of the above reasons but purely for the lack of depth to his targets, and the general laziness in the depiction of the police force.

Overall: 2 1/2 Stars

Films with Great Endings

No doubt I have forgotten many, but here are 20 films with brilliant closure. Whether it be through a surprise twist (such as The Usual Suspects and The Sixth Sense), a horrific final image (The Wicker Man, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer), by leaving the viewer intrigued (The Thing, The Convesation) or whether it is just left ambiguous (Blade Runner: Directors Cut).

1. The Thing (1982)

2. The Usual Suspects (1995)

3. The Planet of the Apes (1968)

4. The Wicker Man (1973)

5. Se7en (1995)

6. Spoorloos [The Vanishing] (1988)

7. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990)

8. Blade Runner (1982)

9. The Sixth Sense (1999)

10. The Conversation (1974)

11. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

12. Don't Look Now (1973)

13. Memento (2000)

14. Brazil (1985)

15. Dr Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

16. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

17. Casablanca (1942)

18. The Game (1997)

19. Fargo (1996)

20. The Departed (2006)

Review: Spoorloos [The Vanishing] (George Sluizer, 1988)

Spoorloos [The Vanishing] is a superb 1988 Dutch thriller from director George Sluizer, adapted from the novella The Golden Egg by Tim Krabbe. It is a brilliantly intricate study of the human condition, and it features one of the most horrifying endings ever filmed. The Vanishing tells the story of a young Dutch couple, Rex and Saskia, who are on holidays in France. After running low on gas and stopping at a busy rest stop in rural France, Saskia disappears from the area without a trace. Unable to cope with the loss, Rex (Gene Bervoets) continues his quest for the truth of her disappearance with an obsessive self-funded hunt for her abductor, which spans three years. He begins receiving intermittent postcards from the abductor, which arrange potential meets between the two, and the truth behind her disappearance. Rex does not know the identity of the abductor and follows his leads, but to no avail. Frustrated, and obsessed, he makes his quest public, eventually forcing the man to approach Rex and reveal his identity. What is so brilliant about this film is that the villain is introduced early, and allowed to be fully developed, rather than everything being revealed at the end, and the motives behind the crime never fully explained. The man in question is Raymond Lemorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), an educated, middle class chemistry teacher and family man. We see a series of flashbacks of him and his family. He is faithful to his wife, and adored by his children, but individually he is sociopath that carefully orchestrates his plan to kidnap a woman, purely to see if he was capable of such an act.
From the moment Saskia disappears, the film has a level of suspense present to every image. Even the early abduction sequence is prolonged, and while we know she inevitably disappears, it still comes as a shock to the audience, as much as it does to Rex. For such a simple crime, it seemed impossible to pull off in such a crowded, public place, but it remained undetected for so long, and ultimately destroyed Rex' life. We only see the sequence from Rex' point-of-view, as he stands by his car, takes some photos and waits for her to return with the drinks. Even as Rex becomes agitated, we do too. The full truth, revealed later by Raymond, confirms the witness accounts collected by Rex initially. These revealed that Saskia had been in to purchase a frizbee and was seen talking to a man by the coffee machine. He also spots the squashed soda cans in the parking lot, and possesses a blurred photograph which actually captures Saskia with another man. There were traces of her disappearance, but of course nothing could be proven. This 'unknown' is what has plagued Rex for the ensuing three years. It is when he receives the anonymous post cards promising the truth about her disappearance, answers to his public questions, and the identity of his abductor, that he becomes motivated once again.
It is a brilliant decision to reveal Raymond so early in the film and it remains more concerned with both man's obsessions, than hiding the identity of the abductor. Once the men meet and Raymond agrees to drive Rex into France and unravel the story for him, there are a series of flashbacks that accompany Raymond's explanation. We see him reveal that he had saved a young girl from drowning in a river, and was called a hero by his daughter. He recounts that he believed this was true only if he was proven incapable of committing an act of pure evil. Raymond's calm demeanor is disturbing, keeping in mind that this man is both a respected educator and family man, and a sadistic abductor and murderer for the benefit of a social experiment and personal 'achievement.' His careful planning and subsequent attempts resulted in failure, as he approached women adorned with a fake cast and sling and asked them for assistance to lift a trailer and connect it to his car. When he meets Saskia his friendly banter and assistance with her struggling French diminishes his appearance as a threat. Both hers and ultimately Rex' trust in Raymond results in horrific consequences.

The Vanishing is timed perfectly, intentionally prolonging exchanges of dialogue, and ensuring that, as a viewer, you pay attention to everything. It is handled with Hitchock precision, slowly growing in intensity, and hiding the full truth behind the mystery until the final moments. The film has a engrossing sense of realism, as the camera often observes the characters from a distance, emphasizing every mannerism, or documents their emotions (or lack of) and their interesting facial features through a series of close-ups. The performances are also great, especially the two leads. The screenplay is gripping and while I am not familiar with the novel, all reports are that it is a faithful adaptation, making some minor but insignificant alterations.

*Warning: spoilers to follow*

The final image of the newspaper report has the pair side by side and surrounded by ovals (signifying the golden eggs in their shared dream). The two were connected with a bond which meant that Rex could not let go. The fact that they shared the exact same dream, as was recounted to Rex by Saskia, could have been a sign as Rex interpreted it, or it could have been a signifier of their shared fates. Typical of the idea presented by Raymond when he was recounting his thoughts about the abduction, nothing is predetermined. Each of the characters is faced with a choice; Saskia to enter Raymond's car, Raymond to go through with his plan, and Rex to go with Raymond later and follow his instructions. None of their fates were predetermined, but as a result of circumstance and choice.
The conclusion is totally shocking, and while many of you may guess the fate of Rex before the conclusion, it is no less powerful. The final shot of Raymond, absent of any emotion as a result of a pair of heartless acts, is hair raising. He watches his wife watering the garden where he has buried his victims, and the camera pans to an open newspaper with the printed story of the recent disappearance of Rex Hofman. As accurately described by a friend of mine, it is one of the greatest endings to a film in cinema history. I loved The Vanishing. Raymond Lemorne is one of the coldest villains you will witness. I was captivated throughout, and it makes bold decisions that stretched the boundaries of the suspense thriller genre. Recommended!

My Rating: 4 1/2 Stars

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Wire Season 3

After a long layoff from one of the greatest shows ever released on television, I have started the third season of The Wire, which is proving to be just as absorbing as the first two flawless installments. From creator David Simon, and produced through HBO, The Wire was instantly credited with the title of the most enthralling and realistic crime show on television. Featuring a season long story arc, that merges into ensuing seasons, the city of Baltimore, its justice unit and its political leaders are examined at all levels. Baltimore is the central character, with it's branches of homicide, drug peddling, illegal importing, and corruption tackled by the different divisions of the police force. We see the city from both sides of the law, from both the drug dealers trying to make a living on the corner and fight off rivals, to the narcotics agents and homicide detectives that clean up the mess. All the central characters are memorable in their own way, and stay etched in your mind. Each episode is thrilling and slowly unravels the complexities of the characters and their role in the ensuing plot arcs. This is a show that should not be missed! The most perfect entertainment that television has to offer!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

100 Greatest Films - First Edition

A long time fan of this list, and while many attempts by critics and boards have been brilliant, there is always a handful of included films I have never seen, and some I have actually disliked. No list of this nature is perfect and is often the origin of serious debate and discussion. I have not even come close to seeing enough films to have this locked in as my final version, so spanning a period between 1915 and 2007, here are 100 Films I believe worthy of inclusion amongst the greatest of all time!

100. Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock, 1951)

99. Sideways (Alexander Payne, 2004)

98. The Great Escape (John Sturges, 1963)

97. The Birth of a Nation (D.W Griffth, 1915)

96. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (Peter Jackson, 2001/02/03)

95. Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971)

94. JFK (Oliver Stone, 1991)

93. Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998)

92. The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovich, 1971)

91. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Terry Jones, 1975)

90. Aguirre: Der Zorn Gottes [Aguirre: The Wrath of God] (Werner Herzog, 1972)

89. The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998)

88. Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1978)

87. La Grande Illusion [Grand Illusion] (Jean Renoir, 1937)

86. L.A Confidential (Curtis Hanson, 1997)

85. Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989)

84. The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946)

83. The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)

82. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (James Cameron, 1991)

81. The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991)

80. Masculin Feminin: 15 Faits Precis [Masculine Feminine: In 15 Acts] (Jean Luc Godard, 1966)

79. Dr Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)

78. Roma, Citta Aperta [Rome, Open City] (Roberto Rossellini, 1945)

77. The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973)

76. Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick, 1960)

75. Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950)

74. Cidade de Dues [City of God] (Fernando Meirelles, 2002)

73. A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971)

72. Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981)

71. Les Quatre Cents Coups [The 400 Blows] (Francios Truffaut, 1959)

70. City Lights (Charlie Chaplin, 1931)

69. Nashville (Robert Altman, 1975)

68. Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966)

67. Strachka [Strike] (Sergei Eisenstein, 1924)

66. Det Sjunde Indeglet [The Seventh Seal] (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)

65. Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

64. Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)

63. Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)

62. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Sergio Leone, 1966)

61. Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)

60. Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990)

59. Ben Hur (William Wyler, 1959)

58. Fargo (Joel Coen, 1996)

57. La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960)

56. La Reglu Du Jeu [The Rules of the Game] (Jean Renoir, 1939)

55. The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer, 1995)

54. Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950)

53. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)

52. Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986)

51. Singing in the Rain (Stanley Donen, 1952)

50. The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont, 1994)

49. Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)

48. The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973)

47. Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977)

46. Aliens (James Cameron, 1986)

45. The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982)

44. Deliverance (John Boorman, 1972)

43. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969)

42. Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944)

41. On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954)

40. Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980)

39. The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)

38. Se7en (David Fincher, 1995)

37. Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)

36. Some Like it Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)

35. Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, 1957)

34. Brononosets Potyomkin [The Battleship Potemkin] (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925)

33. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928)

32. The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949)

31. Modern Times (Charlie Chaplin, 1936)

30. Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962)

29. Nosferatu, A Symphony of Terror (F. W Murnau, 1922)

28. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)

27. 8 1/2 (Federico Fellini, 1963)

26. American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999)

25. Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939)

24. Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (George Lucas, 1977)

23. The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967)

22. Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)

21. Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975)

20. Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)

19. Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980)

18. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Milos Forman, 1975)

17. Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979)

16. The Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)

15. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)

14. Il Conformista [The Conformist] (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1969)

13. North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959)

12. There Will be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)

11. The Godfather: Part II (Francis Ford Copolla, 1974)

Now the Top 10:

10. The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939)

9. Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)

8. Vertigo (Alfred Hichcock, 1958)

7. It's a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946)

6. Ladri Di Biciclette [The Bicycle Thief] (Vittorio De Sica, 1948)

5. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Copolla, 1979)

4. Platoon (Oliver Stone, 1986)

3. Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942)

2. The Godfather (Francis Ford Copolla, 1972)

1. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)