Goldfinger (1964)

May 13, 2009

Goldfinger

I genuinely think that this is one of the best films I’ve seen.  I go back to something that I often harp on about- a film must be judged against its aims and Goldfinger has lofty aims which it  exceeds.  The third Bond picture followed the excellent From Russia With Love and deliberately raised the stakes from that early high-spot.  The intention is to retain the levels of intrigue and to increase the wow factor with a bigger budget used wisely.

Connery returns again as Bond in a serious, steely mood- there is a spite behind his wisecracks throughout- and, for me, his third performance in the role is his best.  By his fifth he would have relaxed into sleepwalking through the films for cash.  And his iconic status here is assisted by the direction of Guy Hamilton (pipping Martin Campbell as the best of Bond’s directors) who achieves the double intention of making Bond credible as a thriller hero and yet incredible as an unflappable superman.

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The film- like The Great Escape which I watched a few weeks ago- is more than a mere film these days, it is a huge part of our cultural fabric.  And, with that in mind, it’s hard to ignore the significance of Oddjob, Pussy Galore, the Aston Martin DB5 and “no Mr Bond I expect you to die”.  But doing that and judging this solely on its own merits it still stands up.  It is fantastic entertainment; tightly scripted, well acted in the main with compelling memorable characters, hilarious dialogue- “shocking, positively shocking”, “no mister Bond, I expect you to die”, “I must have appealed to her maternal instincts”, “I have a slight inferiority complex” and a great interaction between Bond and his allies M, Q, Moneypenny and Felix Leiter.

I honestly love it. Everyone does don’t they? 10/10

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Crank: High Voltage (2009)

April 21, 2009

They say that ignorance is bliss.  I had no idea what Crank: High Voltage was going to be like or else I would never have gone to see it.  To those who say that ignorance is bliss I would say “you couldn’t be more wrong”.  I have made notes on (more or less) 150 movies since I began keeping a record.  Of those I gave 0/10 to a handful- four or five maybe and, indeed, tonight I re-evaluated a couple and revised their score upwards.  It is as if with Crank: High Voltage I discovered an tenth circle in Dante’s Inferno.  Some of the films I saw were just rubbish because they didn’t need to be any good to achieve their commercial aims (Lesbian Vampire Killers, My Bloody Valentine 3D), some were the product of people who had given up caring about film-making (Ashanti), some were puerile, lowest common-denominator rubbish (Borat) and some were mindlessly, ignorantly offensive (Slumdog Millionaire). This is like a compilation of the worst bits of the most craptacular films I have ever seen.  It is artless, witless, joyless, offensive, amateurish, nonsensical, banal, exploitative, nasty, backwards, overbearing, derivative, vulgar and, frankly, shit. Apparently this is a sequel- there were suggestions of a back-story throughout- and I’m perversely curious to know if it can possibly be anything like as appalling (in the truest sense of the word) as this.

This film is not only gob-smackingly bad (there are moments of literally jaw-dropping ineptitude from everyone present) and grotesquely, deliberately offensive (being offensive to everyone doesn’t even it out somehow, it simply multiplies it) it also has the temerity to masquerade as being inventive or cutting-edge by throwing in the kind of visual gimmicks (weird fonts for subtitles etc) that would see an Art School student repeating the year.  It even has a segment ripping off the likes of Aronofsky and Tarantino with Jason Statham’s character as a boy on a Jeremy Kyle-style chat show with Spice Girl (fairly suddenly) turned old woman Geri Halliwell.

The problem with Crank: High Voltage, apart from it’s utter shitness, is that it gives ammunition to the Mary Whitehouse brigade.  How can you argue that censorship is too restrictive and that art must be unrestricted to thrive and challenge and develop when you get the likes of Neveldine and Taylor (the Directors) using the freedoms that have been fought for to let Jason Statham grease the barrel of a shotgun and insert it into a fat bloke’s anus?  Argue that it’s funny and that I’m taking it to seriously if you wish, I’d buy it if that was an isolated incident, but it is simply the prelude to a conveyer belt of similar lowbrow, low-invention cack.

I have no problem with violence or gore or gratuitous sex and nudity or dumb explosions.  I can even live with sexism, racism, homophobia and other offensiveness if (seriously, that is a big if) it is necessary and in context and challenged or used to provoke debate or thoughts in the audience.  Where this lump of bollocks differs is that the violence and gore and gratuitous sex and sexism and racism and homophobia (which is the whole film, by the way) are glorified.  This is a film for fourteen year olds to wank to and aspire to.  This isn’t Nine Songs or Dirty Harry or Super Vixens or Saw, it is a pale imitation of the schlocky bits of them and films like them with all of the intelligence replaced by dumb visuals.

I am disgusted that David Carradine was involved (albeit only momentarily) in this.

I haven’t been able to express in any depth or with any clarity the myriad reasons that this horrible film is an abomination.  Genuinely I think it is a new cultural low-point.  I was taken aback so far by it’s uselessness that I was rendered speechless. -1/10.  Yes, minus one.


The Dark Knight (2008)

April 17, 2009

the-dark-knight-1“Fan-boys might want to look away now”

I’m really pushed for time this week, so my notes will be brief and lacking in support or explanation for any opinions offered.  The purpose of these notes is for me to not have to remember anything and so its a bit of a risk to note down how I feel and not why I feel it.  To myself in the future, I apologise.  Whilst I’m busy caveating, I should add that my first viewing of last year’s biggest film (that’s the kind of unsubstantiated guess I was on about, on reflection Mamma Mia! probably beat it) took place in three broken spells on the 320×240 screen of my phone.  Hardly ideal viewing circumstances.

The films I avoided last year because of the hype were Wall-E and The Dark Knight.  I wish I’d seen them both on the big screen now, but for differing reasons- in Wall-E‘s case it is simply because it was a beautifully constructed piece of high-art masquerading as a kids’ filmThe Dark Knight, however,  is very specifically designed for the multiplex viewer- with its dark look, booming sound effects and the huge visual impact of its explosions.  Seeing it on a phone (or even a big fuck-off telly) can never do that justice.

The film itself is a pale shadow of Batman Begins.  I know that it’s easy to slag off a sequel, but that isn’t what’s happening here.  The sequel, unusually, is the more lauded of the films.  For a long spell in 2008, an IMDB poll had The Dark Knight rated as the greatest film ever made- currently it is merely the 6th best film of all time according to voters there.  Personally, I greatly prefer the first film because a lot of the determination that was there to make a really good film first time around appears to have been lost in the desire to make a really great spectacle.  The subtlety and intrigue is gone.  Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne was troubled yet driven, morally ambiguous and too immature for the role he had created for himself.  In this film he is a towering intellectual giant with a clear moral code and a ludicrously husky vocal delivery once he gets that suit on.  Far be it from me to suggest that someone has disrupted Bale’s process, but I much preferred it when his Bruce Wayne was a three-dimensional human.  I’ll never tire of that audio clip, by the way.

Fundamentally, Batman is James Bond in kevlar body armour.  He goes outside the law and employs astonishing gadgets to bring down world-threatening bad guys in the final reel of the film.  Michael Caine is M, Morgan Freeman is Q and Maggie Gyllenhall (a huge, huge improvement on Katie Holmes and the one aspect of the film where the quality is ramped up on the original) is Vesper Lynd.  And this is a pretty decent Bond film; the set-pieces are amazing, the villain is charismatic (but it isn’t quite worthy of the posthumous plaudits) and the suspense is held pretty strongly for the most part.  The problem, as is often the case with this type of film, is the plot- The Joker wants to create mayhem in the only city on the planet with a superhero by bankrupting the numerous crime overlords and turning the tough-on-crime District Attorney into a delusional psychopath.  Just because he can.  There are twists along the way, but they’re not interesting or surprising.  You know a twist is coming because it is signposted way ahead by the projected plot being that little bit too straightforward.  The intention is to lull the audience and then surprise them.  Well either I’m too cynical or there was too much lulling and not enough surprising.  Even weaker than the plot, though, is the dialogue, which everyone delivers as if they were Richard Burton on Richard III.  That is the weakest thing in the film.

The costumes and visual effects and lighting and stunts and all the dull stuff that only matters if the rest of the film is up to scratch are all great, I should say.  But it’s effectively just a very effective marketing tool and a great visual spectacle and very probably a great multiplex experience (if a little long) and not much of a film.  4/10

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Black Mama, White Mama (1973)

April 10, 2009

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“Part two of my ‘Mama’ double bill”

If the title doesn’t tell you all that you need to know, then the cast list probably does.  If the cast list doesn’t, then welcome to civilization and where have you been?  Pam Grier- acting, as ever, mostly with her nostrils- is in a prison in the Philippines.  I imagine that she was there for a crime she didn’t commit as she gave withering looks to the guards which said “I’m better than this” but I wasn’t totally concentrating as I’d spilt a cup of tea all over my left leg at this point.  After the world’s longest shower scene, presumably designed to allow the feckless cum-shedders watching to get their onanistic pleasure out of the way and leave the cinema quietly (and damply) we get on with the plot.  Grier and the equally statuesque Margaret Markov don’t hit it off at all, in fact they’re soon throwing things on each other’s food in the canteen and get locked (topless) in a big metal box in searing heat to sweat it out for twenty-four hours.  After that, they get chained together to be taken to an even tougher prison but, en route, the prison convoy is attacked by some guerrillas and the girls take their chance to run for it.  This is not The Defiant Ones by any means!

A little conversation here reveals that Markov is a poor little rich girl running with a group of Marxists who knows too much to allow them to let her stay in prison where she may talk and Grier is a drug-dealer’s concubine who has stashed away a load of his money.  Being chained together presents a little problem; Markov wants to get back to her comrades and appeals to Grier’s better nature “you’re black, surely you can understand”, Grier doesn’t care at all about her “jive-ass” revolution she just wants to get the cash and leave the country.  Clearly, all this talk is slowing down the pace too much and Eddie Romero (directing) isn’t stupid, he knows what we want to see.  The girls have a catfight.

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Next they head to the nearest town and, spying two nuns, drag them off the street and duff them up in time-honoured fashion before dressing in their habits as a disguise.  Presumably on the grounds of good taste the beating up and stripping to the undies of the Nuns happens off-screen.  Good taste my balls, I’m not watching this for sensitive film-making.  Now, while I’m on about this scene, I’m not claiming to be a brainbox or anything, but I like to think that I can dress myself okay.  What I don’t think I could do is to change from a (tiny, obviously) mini-dress into a Nun’s habit while handcuffed to someone else.  Not without some dress-making equipment, a lot of time and total ambidexterity anyway!

Oh, that’s enough about the ludicrous plot (even if Jonathan ‘Silence of the Lambs and New Order’s brilliant ‘True Faith’ video’ Demme did write it!).  Here’s what it boils down to- Pam Grier is brilliant in her trademarked early 70s hammy-but-cool way, Marjorie Markov is unexpectedly almost as good and Sid Haig is screen-chewingly brilliant as crackers bounty-hunting gangster who dresses somewhat incongruously as a cowboy.  Everyone else is shit.  There’s lots of tomato ketchup splashing around and a fair bit of nudity- including Pam’s famously odd 0 and o shaped nipples.  The film runs out of steam and ideas pretty quickly and everyone seems to wish they’d just made an “interracial lesbians in prison” movie instead because it all seems a bit too much of an effort out there in the jungle but in spite of it all it’s still tremendously entertaining- if only for Grier and Haig’s charisma.  5/10

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Police Story / Ging chat goo si (1985)

March 17, 2009

I last saw this when Channel Four ran a series of Jackie Chan films one Christmas.  It must’ve been fifteen years ago, maybe longer.  I’d forgotten how breathtaking this truly is.  As a film it’s pretty shady- cop sees drug dealer go free and goes outside the law to bring him to justice- but the stuntwork is completely mind-boggling.  If you haven’t seen any of Jackie Chan’s Hong Kong films then you literally will have seen nothing like this.

Chan directs himself in this and his two great loves come to the fore: slapstick Kung Fuaction and childish humour.  This is not a weighty or cerebralwork by any means.  It opens with the police staking out a drug dealin a shanty town, one of the cops (the cops and the bad guys are universally stupid and incompetent by the way, it just saves time making the plot plausible) is seen and the bad guys try to shoot their way out.  The chase scene where cars plough down hill through shack after shack is a spectacular way to move the action from the gunfight to the street where Jackie hangs onto a bus by an umbrella hooked into an open window- truly amazing- and then brings the bus to a halt.  A magnificent breathless opening.

From this opening we see Chan’s career as a police officer go down the pan and his personal life in tatters as he single-mindedly tries to keep the star witness Selina (Brigitte Lin) and bring down the bad-guy (a pretty good Yuen Chor) and keep on the right side of the meddling, bureaucratic- and extremely young- chief of police (Fung Woo).  There are other nice turns by Chi-Wing Lau as a crooked lawyer keeping Mr Chu out of the law’s reach, Kwok-Hung Lam as Chan’s supportive but powerless immediate superior and a very young Maggie Cheung as Chan’s girlfriend.

The film proceeds through various comedy/action set-pieces.  It’s not really a kung fu film as such, the kung fu is incidental (like the dialogue and plot) to the stunts that it requires.  And so we see Chan having a fake fight with a colleague and then- when his ‘adversary’ is inadvertently knocked out- propping him up and carrying on fighting by manipulating him as if he were the corpse in Weekend at Bernie’s, fighting off gangs of adversaries in a car park, an apartment and a shopping centre.  The only thing that there is more of in Police Story than stunts is glass.  Every fight takes place within easy access of some glass and every single bit gets smashed (including a pane smashed face first by Jackie straight in front of the camera).

It sounds like I’m talking the film down but I’m not.  Stunts in an action film are every bit as important as dialogue in a drama or the soundtrack in a thriller.  And the stunts are- I may have mentioned this already- magnificent.  The closing fight in the shopping centre is superb- it isn’t just the glass that gets broken or the sheer athleticism involved, it isn’t even the audaciousness of the stunts, it is the visual inventiveness and the use of props employed.  Okay, so Jackie isn’t the best director and there are some dodgy “I won’t attack you until you’ve finished with the last guy” moments but so what.  This isn’t Lawrence of Arabia for fuck’s sake and without harping on about it, as much as I love David Lean I wouldn’t want it to be.  The climactic ‘big’ stunt in the shopping centre deserves 4/10 on its own- Chan leaps from the top of a railing to grasp a fifty foot pole and slide down it bursting through loads of electricity bulbs which are decoratively wrapped around it and crashing through- yes, of course- a plate glass window.  It is so good (and Jackie is so proud of it) that it is played three times from different angles.

In terms of brain-in-neutral, bang crash wallop cop films this is miles ahead of the output of Jerry Bruckheimer et al.  6/10

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First Blood (1982)

March 11, 2009

This movie is unfairly remembered because of the misquote “don’t push me”- it was “don’t push it”, is that so hard to remember?- and the increasingly ludicrous sequels it spawned.  Even the name of the film has now been changed in the same way that the original Star Wars has, this is now apparently called “Rambo: First Blood”.  Fuck that, why would I go along with that.  There are similarly named characters with vaguely similar characteristics in the sequels but no other similarities.  This is an unfairly maligned film; much, much better than its reputation.  In First Blood a Vietnam veteran Green Beret John Rambo (Stallone, obviously) is the innocent victim of a bullying small-town Sheriff (Brian Dennehy) who simply picks a fight with the wrong man.  Rambo escapes and takes to the woods where he is hunted by policemen and the National Guard with machine guns and helicopters.  It’s a Western, a modern-day Western.  Rambo goes to great lengths to avoid killing any of his hunters, despite the constant and excessive provocation, the threat upon his life and despite suffering flashbacks to his torture in a Vietnam prisoner of war camp.

There is no deep underlying message in First Blood, unless you count ‘beware who you fuck about with’.  This is simply a documentation of an innocent man fighting for survival, waging a war of attrition and defying overwhelming odds to survive everything that is thrown at him.  It is, to some extent, an elegy to machismo.  Stallone is portraying every reactionary, right-wing, frustrated, pot-bellied, balding, middle-aged man’s dream- taking on everyon who has ever stopped him doing whatever he wants, wherever he wants with whoever he wants and however he wants.  Just like Michael Douglas’s D-Fens Foster in Falling Down, Rambo is a wet-dream for the insecure and the impotent.  That its appeal goes beyond that, however, says more for its quality than its limited macho hand-job appeal would have you believe.

And do you know what else?  Stallone is really, really good in this.  Not in the fat, lumbering “look at me, I’m stupid” way that he mistakes for acting in the likes of Copland and Rocky Balboa, but in a genuinely convincing, steely, haunted way.  At no point does Stallone’s performance fail him- even his ‘tormented by flashbacks’ scenes or his climactic breakdown where I expected him to struggle are fine.  He even looks handsome and hadn’t yet bloated himself into the caricature of a man that he became.  This is as good as it would ever get for Sly.  The second-stringers are solid and the direction by Ted Kotcheff (who I only know from the flimsy and disappointing Jane Fonda/George Segal comedy Fun With Dick and Jane) is straightforward enough to allow the story to work.

It’s a real pity that Rambo survived the film- he didn’t survive the source novel- allowing a fine and intelligent movie became a bloated, dumb, crash-bang-wallop series.  7/10

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Watchmen (2009)

March 9, 2009

A film needs above all else to have a clear narrative.  It is the single most important thing in determining whether a film is a success or a failure.  I have read Watchmen.  If I hadn’t, like my friend Antony who I watched it with hasn’t, I would almost certainly have been lost.  He’s brighter than me, though, so I think he got most of it.  My biggest fear with Watchmen was that as an cultural icon it is so big and so influential and so revered that the film-makers would be crippled by fear of a backlash if they left anything out.  Zack Snyder doesn’t appear to have been crippled by fear, he just treated Moore’s book as a storyboard and filmed exactly as it is drawn.  Barely anything is removed and nothing whatsoever is added.  And so there are moments when things do need clarifying; when a reader would flick back a few pages and check their understanding or refresh their memory or contextualise an event or a comment or check their understanding of who said what and when.  That clarity never comes.  Which leaves a two hour forty minute live action portrayal of something that was damn near perfect anyway.  Would you buy a photograph of a lookalike of the Laughing Cavalier?

It’s been said that Watchmen is unfilmable but that’s bollocks.  It can be done; but with courage and with invention.  The worst ways to film this are to take out all of the darkness and malevolence (which this film does to some extent) or to take out all of the backstory but leave in the things which need that context (Snyder’s film does that an awful lot).  So it’s too long, the screenplay is worthless and the direction utterly uninspired- what does that leave?  The performances are cartoonish and 2D given by actors and actresses seemingly chosen for their physical resemblance to the drawn character (they could take a lesson from the casting in The Young Victoria there) but in truth they have little to work with- character arcs are only present in the original work when taken in the context of the backstory- other than Malin Akerman who conveys love, joy, fear and pain with the same blank face.

What is lost from the film- and this stuff is so pivotal that it can surely only have been a running length issue- are the dynamics between the characters, the whole story of the Minutemen, much of what happened to bring about and then ultimately to force the end of the Watchmen and the character detail for each of them.  What is kept is every single drop of blood, pyrotechnic, punch, kick, insult and firework.  I guess Snyder reveals his expectations of his audience right there.

It was a flawed idea from the start this and it could, I suppose, have been more infuriating and disappointing that it is.  And the story is ingenious.  And this is probably the best use of CGI in a live-action film I’ve seen.  But it’s still a 3/10 for me.  May even have been less had I never read the book too!

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