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January 18, 2008

A clutch of film reviews

I've seen a number of films over the last couple of months, and I thought I'd share my thoughts on them with you all.  I'll try and keep each review brief, as there are a few :-)

American Gangster

It's easy to say that as Ridley Scott directed this, it was a very good film; he does, after all, have a good track record.  Whilst it was masterfully directed, as one would expect, the real joy of this film is to be found in the treatment of the story and the acting.  Denzel Washington shone, and I'm gaining respect for Russell Crowe who has never in the past struck me as a particularly good actor; I found his performance in Gladiator rather wooden at times, for example.  2004's A Beautiful Mind changed all that; his portrayal of the great mathematician John Nash was truly moving.  He's not as good in this as he was in A Beautiful Mind, but it was another example of how he has discovered or grown his acting abilities. 

In the same vein as films such as Blow, American Gangster tells the story of the real-life drugs baron Frank Lucas (touting heroin in this case, as opposed to Blow's cocaine), his descent as the power and wealth accrued corrupts, and his moral recovery.  That, and how he allegedly helped to bring down a large portion of the DEA for corruption, although the veracity of this claim is being disputed.  Lucas' operation was a marvel of organisation and negotiation, employing the same "direct from the wholesaler" technique to heroin as has traditionally been applied to things like white goods. 

This is a long film, but doesn't really feel it until it's nearly over; there's a lot of story to cram in, and Scott just about manages it without dragging in the detail too much. 

Highly recommended.

4/5.

Beowulf

I've not got much to say on this one, as it was generally pretty rubbish.  I did, however, go to see this in 3-d, which made it worth seeing, not least because a lot of it had obviously been made specifically for the 3-d version.  It was an enjoyable way to spend the time, but it was not a great work in any sense, and the only reason I woud recommend it would be for the 3-d effects and the interesting rendering techniques used.  Seeing it in regular 2-d probably wouldn't give you the necessary distractions from the movie's shortcomings.  

3-d version: 3/5; 2-d version: 2.5/5

I am Legend

Will Smith stars in this story of the last man alive in New York after a deadly virus sweeps the world, killing or mutating the entire population save the 1% who are immune to its effects.  

I am Legend is the tale of Robert Neville (Smith), a military scientist who has stayed behind in New York ("this is my Ground Zero") despite the advice to get the hell out.  He feels responsible for what has happened, and is looking for a cure.  Neville has been in New York, alone, for nearly three years when we join him at the start of the film, and the long shots of New York empty and abandoned are nothing less than chilling.  I literally had tingles running up and down my spine for a full 30 seconds or so.  But even this is indebted to Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, which did the same thing to London. 

I am Legend is really two films, and this is what what lets it down.  Particularly because the second film is a bit crap.  The first film, running for the first hour of the picture's 1.5hr running time, is an interesting psychological study of a man who's been alone for too long.  Neville's only friend and companion in this first film is Sam, his dog, and it focusses on Neville's use of routine to cope with the loneliness and boredom.  Most people would have gone insane and probably killed themselves in this situation, but Neville is driven by his desire to find a cure to atone for his crimes.  And the deaths of his family.  That's not to say he's compis mentis; he holds conversations with mannequins, knows every line of Shrek off by heart, and has difficult adjusting to human company.  Will Smith plays Neville fantastically, carrying an hour's worth of monologue as though it were the most natural thing in the world - he is Robert Neville.  

The second film is an action-packed half-hour that winds the story up too quickly and in a different direction from the one you might expect.  There's a significant event at the end of the first film that leads us to the second, but it doesn't stop I am Legend feeling like it's spiralled out of control.  The last half-hour contains comparatively little plot development and is mainly zombies/vampires attacking Neville's house, and this is to the film's detriment. 

I had high hopes for this film, expecting it to be on a par with I, Robot but once it leaves behind the sometimes excellent first part, it loses any chance of even clutching at I, Robot's tail feathers.  

Recommended.

3.5/5

Charlie Wilson's War

I cannot recommend this film highly enough; it is an absolute joy to watch.  For fans of The West Wing in its original incarnation, you will recognise Aaron Sorkin's writing at its best throughout this film.  This is an accomplishment itself, because Sorkin's writing often takes a turn for the sentimental and he doesn't handle that sort of material as well as he does sharp political commentary.  As someone once remarked about Sports Night, Sorkin's first success:

It's like all the worst bits of The West Wing thrown together.

Charlie Wilson's War, however, is the exact opposite.  It's everything that The West Wing was when it was at its best, and somehow more too.  The script is sharp, witty, and incisive.  You could be forgiven for thinking that this was a comedy, the jokes come that thick and fast, but it's not.  It has a serious core, and that core is the story of America's intervention in Afghanistan.  No, not the 2001 incursion, but the original intervention, back in the 1980s on Reagan's watch.  It tells the story of the congressman Charles Wilson, who inspired the covert action against the then Soviet Republic's invasion of Afghanistan.  It was America that put the guns in the hands of the Afghan people, and, as Sorkin makes clear towards the end, it was America that didn't clean up afterwards.  

Tom Hanks plays Charles Wilson very well, with — certainly by the end — more than enough humanity to make him a loveable old rogue rather than a man with questionable morals.  Julia Roberts is disappointingly two-dimensional and uncommitted as Joanne Herring (compare this with her excellent starring role in Erin Brockovich), but doesn't appear in the film enough to take the shine off.  Philip Seymour Hoffman as CIA agent Gust Avrakotos steals the show, however, providing pure gold in every scene he is in.  The scene in Wilson's office when Gust and Wilson first meet is a masterclass in comic timing and farce.  

Having seen Charlie Wilson's War, you can't help but feel that actually maybe there is something in all this political rhetoric about Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, etc., sponsoring terrorism in Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.  The methods employed are very clever and constantly maintain plausible deniability: for example, using Israel's stockpile of confiscated Russian weapons to arm the Afghans so that there was no evidence of America's involvement, not to mention getting Israel to side with Arabs.

Very highly recommended.

4.5/5

Babel

This is not a film about an American woman (Cate Blanchett) shot on a bus, supposedly by terrorists.  This surprised me initially, as this is what the trailers seemed to promise, and I'm sure that had Alejandro González Iñárritu (most well known perhaps for 2003's 21 Grams) put together that film, it would have been excellent.  What is delivered instead, however, is something far more outstanding and unique. 

It's hard not to draw comparisons with Paul Haggis' Crash, but all those comparisons are favourable.  Crash was an excellent film, but Babel is outstanding.  Babel is to language and communication as Crash was to racial prejudice, but carries it off in a much more subtle manner, despite the obvious allusions of the title and the tagline ("If you want to be understood... Listen"). 

Like Crash, there are multiple and interwoven storylines traced concurrently.  Unlike Crash, they are taken out of sync, and time becomes as elusive as the comprehension the characters so desperately seek.  There's the married couple with problems that are in Morrocco to try and work things out; there's the Morroccan goat-farming family who purchase a rifle to keep the jackals away from their herd; there's the deaf-mute Japanese girl struggling to cope with her mother's suicide and rejection by men; and there's the Mexican nanny who takes her two charges to Mexico for her son's wedding and struggles to get back into the US that night with almost tragic consequences. 

The film is at its most vocal when the characters aren't talking; the most comprehension between the characters is gained when they're not actively communicating.  The Tokyo club scene is a clever and subtle exposition of this idea.  

This is a film that will either affect you or leave you a bit cold; it's "arty" in places, particularly with some of the Tokyo scenes, and this might put off some people.  But every story line is as moving as each of the others, as is the underlying theme.  

Highly recommended. 

4.5/5


July 24, 2006

Superman Returns

I went to see Superman Returns this weekend with Lorna, ZoŽ and Ellie. It was good, I was impressed. It's a lot darker than the Christopher Reeve films, and a little over-airbrushed in places (both Lois Lane and Superman looked a bit too smooth), but the premise was great and I want the yacht! (You'll see what I mean :)

Kevin Spacey was excellent as Lex Luthor, although the role as a whole was somewhat under–developed and didn't have as big a part in the film as you might expect. Spacey did, however, play the part with just the right mix of humour, insanity and evil.

The first half of the film, however, was slightly ruined by the people sat next to me – a mother and a young son. Firstly, I believe the film is rated a 12A – a certificate created specifically for films such as Spiderman, Superman and LotR so that young kids can get into films with superheroes and orcs. I would hazard a guess, however, that this kid was no older than 6, and didn't really have a grasp of the plot (it was a bit complex for 6–year–olds).

Superman Returns © Warner BrosWhat really bugged me, however, was not the kid's questions to his mother, but the mother's compunction to explain — in a loud whisper, nay a speaking voice at times — exactly what was going on. Lex Luthor's "the baddie; he's a bad man"; "someone's going to get hurt" — you're damn right.

Quite frankly, it's no wonder that people complain that kids these days have no imagination; firstly, stories that have been enjoyed by kids for decades are now targeted at pre–teens, teens and young adults (nb the 12A rating for Superman et al.); secondly, parents are molly-coddling their kids and not letting them think for themselves.

Luckily they left before the film got too detailed; I'm not sure if the kid wasn't enjoying it, or that the mother decided that it was no longer suitable for her child (I wouldn't blame her), but it did at least allow me to enjoy the last section of the film in peace.

Oh, and I'm told Brandon Routh is quite fit.


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