Review Roundup - Bionic Commando

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014)

Jump starting the 'phase two' Marvel Studios releases after a shaky start seemed like a tough job, but Steve Rogers returns to put things back on track in what is a surprisingly satisfying spy thriller come action fest. The emphasis being on the latter. Where Thor: The Dark World was full of unconvincing fantasy plot elements and distracting CG, and Iron Man 3 meandered too much with questionable character developments, it's an unexpected move for this latest entry to be packed with intrigue, stunt work and what almost verges on paranoia conspiracy material. Almost. Though it falls into the trap of overblown spectacle and another doomsday device type countdown during the finale, it's far from the silly universe squashing ideas in the previous outing for the God of Thunder and uses the man out of time idea in a few interesting ways without going for more easy fish out of water comedy. Despite managing to build on a new tone for the series the darker moments aren't taken too far; and this is still a lot of fun.


While there may be one too many generic sequences and giant explosions in that third act, it's got to be said that this has a refreshing amount of real car chases, great fight choreography and a new level of grit for the Avengers franchise as a whole. It's noticeable just how many people are stabbed, shot and exploded from a pure action movie point of view. It was nice to see a vibe which has mostly been lost in recent mainstream adventure movies. Of course I don't mean that in a sadistic way but in that it allows for a certain level of impact, something which can be sanitized in a genre where primary colours and humorous banter are prevalent. It's not as intense as a lot of the material in The Dark Knight with all it's pencils and gasoline, but this time around Marvel does seem to be pushing the certificate in a new ways, and it works really well in creating a comic hero movie which doubles as a watchable thriller. While the attempts to have a plot which throws back to hidden agenda espionage stories aren't that successful, the action style seems to have gone back to the 90s. They avoid the simplistic three action beat formula and deliver a number of visceral and highly entertaining set pieces and don't pull any punches. But this is only ever as successful as the film as a whole right?

Luckily what brings all of this together is the story, though as I say it's not entirely outside the usual superhero tropes. But while this is far from a serious critique of surveillance culture, reviving the 'trust no-one' message results in a particular sense of urgency as the central characters discover the roots of their dilemma. Everyone knows by now which ones are going to be safe and sound as the credits roll, but it still comes together well enough to keep a degree of tension going. The simple virtues of the Captain himself remain a strength in a time when other protagonists are brooding and conflicted, and this is advantageous for the plot allowing it to show contrasting ideals and have him play off the other heroes - for all the subterfuge and double crossing this isn't a laugh free effort which I appreciate. That being said I still don't buy Black Widow and Nick Fury as real personalities, but they at least get a few moments. Even the titular Winter Soldier feels under utilised in what is a slightly overlong film but perhaps this can be expanded on in the future? For once I look forward to it.

4/5

BONUS REVIEW
INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS
(2013)



Another oddball work from Joel and Ethan Coen, this musical journey has a lot of melancholy and a good deal of sly and dark humour as folk singer Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) struggles with his musical career, personal problems and a cat he doesn't own. It's a back and forth journey as he goes from one awkward disappointment to the next, and one night's sleep on a sofa to another; and it becomes clear that his decisions along the way may not be particularly wise and his own baggage may be causing issues he is unwilling to deal with. This type of character study doesn't paint a likeable portrait as many of his acquaintances are vocal about but it never creates a real arc. He is offered real friendship at least once but seems unable to build on this or take creative options that compromise his ideas a little, he'd rather have what he wants or quit entirely. This all or nothing outlook is perhaps a realistic view of artistic temperaments and I like a lot of what is done here, but in the end it isn't quite the fulfilling experience I might have expected.

3/5

Score Card

AUGUST

The Godfather ☆☆☆☆☆
Captain America: The Winter Soldier ☆☆☆☆
Close Encounters of the Third Kind ☆☆☆☆
Escape From New York ☆☆☆☆
The Untouchables ☆☆☆☆
There Will Be Blood ☆☆☆☆
Star Trek II The Wrath of Khan ☆☆☆☆
The Andromeda Strain ☆☆☆☆
The Godfather Part II ☆☆☆☆
Iron Man ☆☆☆☆
Inside Llewyn Davis ☆☆☆
Noah ☆☆☆
Once Upon A Time In America ☆☆☆
Star Trek The Motion Picture ☆☆☆
The Master ☆☆☆
This is Spinal Tap ☆☆☆
Ghostbusters II ☆☆
The Godfather Part III ☆☆

Review Roundup - Space Oddities

STAR TREK THE MOTION PICTURE (1979)

So the original cast Star Trek film that even I watch the least... is it unfairly maligned or just tedious? As a fan of the exploits of Shatner and friends on the small screen and in many of their cinema outings, this certainly sits as the one which gets over looked. Shamefully I have probably sat through part five, The Final Frontier more often despite it's bigger shortcomings. But while The Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country stand as fine dramatic pictures as well as retro space adventures, does this first step on their post-television journey hold up? They do call it the No-Motion Picture after all. Or is that the Emotionless Picture?


This film has an Overture. This isn't supposed to be David Lean you guys. Oddly in the wake of Star Wars (which I have no doubt spurred on the studio in producing this) they seem to have looked back to the 60s not only in reviving the content of the original show but also in terms of style - this owes more to Kubrick than Han Solo, just look at those space helmet close ups of Spock. But while it doesn't all move at a geological pace, there are still one or two ridiculously drawn out moments. The shuttle trip to the Enterprise in the opening is incredibly slow and very awkward with too many cuts to a silent Kirk and Scotty as they stare in awe at a ship that as transformed from a cheap TV effect to become a immense Douglas Trumbull miniature. The first sequence showing the interior of alien cloud threatening life on Earth also goes on forever. I appreciate they wanted to show off the differences with the budget now available, but by this point many sci-fi movies have given audiences this kind of experience already even if many of the visual and special effects are neat. I do like the glimpses of Star Fleet and Vulcan here but a lot of the other sequences could be edited down.

But those issues aside, it does try at least to tell a proper sci-fi story about an existentially troubled life form, even if the cues it takes from TOS episode The Changeling are distracting and it's evident that this plot by genre novelist Alan Dean Foster was actually planned for their canned "phase two" TV series. Maybe this explains the stretched running time against the amount of spoken dialogue. As for the other aspects of the movie, things shape up unevenly. Did they really need to go with the transporter death scene? It's kind of unnerving to start such an early part of the film with this, like someone planning the script thought they should show that after so many years of it never going wrong. The sequel would out do this in pure gross factor, but it's an odd choice.


Besides philosophy and politics, Star Trek has always been about the people. Here the characters are fine but not particularly animated and Bones and Spock seem a little rusty; a bit out of practice. They do get a few good moments but everyone involved would go on to become far better in these roles. To me the weakest aspects are the new characters and they don't get enough to do before the climax takes them away from future excursions. It feels like they are plot devices and not real crew members. Of course any discussion of this production has to include those outfits... I am certainly no fashion designer but really, what is with the weird colours, the belt-less buckles and the bib shaped shirts? The primary colours of the show might have needed altering a bit, but not like this. The Admiral's uniform that William Shatner wears in the opening was pretty swish so why not go with that look for everyone? They'd kind of do this and opt for a smarter, less pajama style uniform later on. I am amazed that after ditching most of it the silly security guard armour got kept though - it's like something from a sci-fi sports videogame.

Overall though I can't say this is bad at the core. They pose enough intrigue on the journey and it has a decent amount of atmosphere - on my look back at science fiction through this decade it's probably the last of it's kind, almost a throwback as things evolved into the 80s. Some of the effects are neat in a big widescreen way, though I am unsure which parts belong to the Director's Cut and where sections have been trimmed or replaced thanks to the home releases available. In spite of the flaws it would still have an impact and go on to revitalize this series with the sequel being a favourite to many. But it's certainly better than part V or most of the TNG films... right?

3/5

Review Roundup - Waterworld

NOAH (2014)

You're gonna need a bigger boat ~ Methuselah

Never one to be tied into a particular genre, Darren Aronofsky has always managed to maintain a certain level of thought provoking intrigue to his body of work, from the time warping spectacle of The Fountain to the low budget grit of Pi. So when the next project he would be working on was announced as a new take on a Biblical epic I wasn't too concerned despite it appearing to be on the surface a fantasy blockbuster in the vein of so many The Lord of the Rings imitators. The likes of The Ten Commandments are hardly going to make a come back in the modern era, so a fresh approach would be interesting to see with a little intelligence applied to the oldschool mythology the makers clearly have a passion for. Even with the rumblings about CGI creatures I kept an open mind, after all good writing would be something to support any number of deviations from the traditional ideas suggested by this story. But ultimately whether they managed to create a balance between interesting character depth and big budget set pieces is up for discussion.


Noah is an impressive looking movie. Utilising the primordial landscapes of Iceland means that they avoid any of the distracting green screen back drops which made The Hobbit films seem so phoney. It's almost post apocalyptic at times. The volcanic blacks and barren open spaces manage to evoke a very interesting idea of how the world might have looked in it's earlier days. Whether this is a typical idea of the Earth created in the Old Testament is up to interpretation, and indeed the most impressive sequences offered here are those which blend ideas about fallen angels, Eden and the descendants of Cain with beautiful images suggesting the evolution of both the galaxy along with primitive life growing from fish to reptiles. The time lapse style effects are used a number of times during the story for both exposition and to further the plot, and are easily the best moments. There are hints of magical elements in the earth and even a look at animals which will soon be extinct, and these small hints are fantasy in the established lore are nice. Whether the real meat of the story and the characters portrayed are as strong as this, is another question.

In a surprisingly dark turn of events, the reality of a world destroying flood and the mental toll it has on the protagonist and his family are not shied away from. Screaming survivors are crushed by waves and the idea of whether the last humans deserve a similar fate once they have done the task at hand is questioned. These elements offer several tense scenes during the third act as the situation sinks in, it allows for a good amount of character depth as emotions run amok. There are somber hints that despite the events taking place even the chosen few are capable of depravity. The build up to the Ark's voyage on the other hand has a number of weak links, particularly when rock monsters and Ray Winstone are involved - and some big moments use both. I appreciate that the sins of man are something which needs to be shown before they are washed from the face of the planet, but at times they feel like something from another film particularly when battle speeches get churned out and the less subtle effects work arrives. I actually like the idea that banished creatures from Heaven have been cursed to become bound to the Earth itself but the Golem type designs here also seem out of place.

Despite the cast all being good with some interesting moments from Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and Crowe as Noah himself there still feels like a clash at times as intrigue and subtlety meet dumb blockbuster action beats. It succeeds in many respects and taking it as a genre picture it certainly outshines the bigger, louder films Peter Jackson has released in the past few years, but I feel like they could have pushed further with the philosophical ideas rather than going with scenes of evil being equated to mining, hunting animals or picking flowers. It all feels a little conflicted as silly meets the sublime, though for the latter it's worth seeing.

3/5

Retrospective - Mob Week

"They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue."

It's been a while since I sat through any 3 hour long, blood soaked crime epics. Maybe I am getting soft but some of the stuff on offer isn't exactly easy to stomach, be it the unsavoury moments of Once Upon a Time in America, or some of the acting in The Godfather Part III...  For this particular session I dug out the period pieces, so no Frank White or Tony Montana this time around. But perhaps a Christopher Walken season will be on the cards.

As for the main event, Coppola's opener is pretty incredible. The Godfather is often suggested as being over rated, but after all this time looking at it with fresh eyes... I can't agree. Even considering it from the point of view that it's simply a series of dramatic set pieces with a tense build ups and a violent pay offs, the atmosphere and foreboding created is pretty impeccable. The restaurant, the toll booth, the final shift in power - it's all great stuff. That concluding baptism scene shows how visually telling a story should be done. It all plays out perfectly and as that door closes on the final moment, it feels nothing less than satisfying. As for the players, Brando churns out sage but chilling advise, Pacino goes from war hero to calculating killer, and the supporting cast are all good too - I really like James Caan and Robert Duvall here.


But this has all been said before, time for the real questions. Is Part II the better movie? I have to say no. It's still great for sure, but without the core arc and with that second narrative it's unwieldy, meandering and doesn't have the same amount of punch. But the segments still make a fine movie. Micheal's domestic strife offers the best scenes as he becomes more openly cruel and his wife learns that this is a one way streak. But on the other hand... is Part III a good film? Once more I have to say no. I really went into this with an open mind after hearing the bad press and had put watching it off for a long time, maybe it would be an unsung gem. But nothing works. There's a silly plot about the Vatican, and it's full of scenes where Pacino goes to lengthy board room meetings, does a lot of mumbling about trying to go straight but never really comes across as remorseful. It's barely the same character. I can't take it seriously and the rehashed scenes and questionable supporting cast don't help. Another street parade, another execution, another weird scene about cousin's romancing... what happened? There's also too much unintentional comedy, the scene where an enemy of the family is given poisoned cakes comes across as ridiculous. Much has been said about these films being boring, but this is the only one that is tedious.

Elsewhere I looked into the nearest rival for the Corleone saga, at least in terms of scope and production value - Sergio Leone's adaption of The Hoods. I don't think I've been this conflicted about a film in a long time. Once Upon a Time in America has an amazing score, the casting for the different ages works really well, the visuals are intricate and the childhood sections are poignant with the high point being the backlash for their antics and the "Noodles, I slipped" moment. It's heartbreaking. But what's up with the big rape scene? The longer it goes on the more it derails the movie. And it goes on forever. Was all the stuff about street gangs and wasted youth leading up to his point? The character writing certainly fails to justify it. I figured under the surface there might be a romantic in Noodles, but the diamond in the rough is smashed by the entrance of what is just a pure sociopath. It's impossible to care when he looks sentimental for the good old days after that point, I guess all the poetry didn't sink in after all.


I get that these impoverished urchins don't have the best moral fiber and it's established they have less than ideal respect for women, but surely a little growth is required in this kind of story? Maybe I am being unfair but the idea that the innocent kids grew up to be good and the brats became crooked to the bone just feels weak. Is this intended to be a deconstruction of the romantic mobster image? They should have done it in a less skin crawling fashion. Maybe it's the way this was all edited, after all even this 229 minute version is still cut down. But Deborah doesn't seem to have real reasons to stick around these guys and even Max's "don't call me crazy" thing comes out of nowhere. It's hardly Back to the Future II but still seems kind of random. I probably dwell on this aspect too much, and it would be hypocritical to condemn certain scenes where mob violence and death are used so artfully, but those elements are appropriate for what the writing provides as motivation and because of the setting itself. I want to like this more so much more, and I am being very negative about what is far from being a poor film, but it goes to such lengths to make everything feel cold and vicious. It's beautiful, melancholy and well made but the heart is black under all the trappings of wistful nostalgia.

On a more upbeat note however, is this really Sean Connery's worst ever accent? That remains to be seen (looking at you Red October). But as for a more stylised look at the prohibition era, The Untouchables is a lot of fun. Well for a Brian De Palma movie at least. This is anything but light hearted and of course has the "touchable" elevator revenge scene amongst other hard hitting moments. Maybe it's just the quirky Morricone theme or the central characters feeling a bit like they've come out of a comic book. Perhaps it's just that you know they are going to beat the odds despite casualties along the way, they will bring down Al Capone.


It's one of the bigger moments for Kevin Costner's early career before other highlights such as JFK and ... Robin Hood (just me?) and though he does a good job as the straight arrow I am not his biggest fan. De Niro as the villain feels a bit like a caricature despite some good speeches, and the same can be said of Ness's sidekicks Malone and Wallace as the opposing ends of the law enforcement spectrum; pulling guns versus by-the-book. But this fits the general tone. It's especially true of Billy Drago as Nitti the killer, who seems to be the living archetype of a hitman; a sinister, impossibly thin figure who has white gloves to contradict how dirty his hands are. Andy Garcia's Agent Stone is passable but never gets anything interesting to do and is a weak link amongst so many personalities. When talking about the film I probably don't have to mention the Odessa Steps sequence but there are a lot of other great moments particularly Capone's big dinner and the the fateful break in at Malone's house standing out. Maybe it's apt to round all this off by being able to root for the good guys.
 

Review Roundup - Silicon revolution

THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (1971)

If there was ever a film to make me feel badly in need of a shower, this is it. Full of sterilisation procedures, mystery disease fatalities and an overhanging threat of nuclear fail-safes, it stands alongside other Michael Crichton techno-fear thrillers such as Jurassic Park and Westworld. This story of government space probes bringing home alien life is an itchy, sweaty ordeal. It's full of memorable moments and also includes a few interesting set pieces despite the clinical laboratory setting. It's also a good character piece, but do these elements work together within the constrains of the plot as it rushes into the final countdown?


As a drama the material gives the lead characters some good elements to play with. They're nothing out of the ordinary, but the archetypes work well enough. Having a surgeon being out of his league in a high tech lab means a lot of expository dialogue, but luckily his journey through its many under ground layers means plenty of visual information is conveyed without it ever becoming too dry. It also allows for some great period set designs and a few neat examples of early computer effects. Playing off him are a methodical team leader (the facility's designer) and two academics; one older and wiser, the other brusque, chain smoking and outspoken. It's great to see this last one is a female character too, they don't fall foul of any typical 70s stereotypes after being swapped from a male counterpart in the original novel. This all allows for a good dynamic as they race to find a solution to "Code: Andromeda".

As a thriller there are many atmospheric moments, from the early discovery of a town wiped out by the probe's return to Earth, to the investigation of it's deadly contents under the microscope - and lastly the race against time as events spiral out of control. Strangely the many procedural sequences maintain a sense of urgency even when things are so drawn out. The sense of claustrophobia is very intense. It's interesting to see what lengths they go to in disinfecting themselves on arrival, and it's absorbing as they try various tests on an unknown form of life. This kind of thing does outstay it's welcome at times but in a way it provides a realistic feel. A few stylish visual flourishes help too, there are a lot of ticker tape screen text moments (even if the DVD release ruins this by adding standard disc subtitles instead of film ones) and the scenes which show the results of the initial outbreak are very dramatic with cut outs different angles of character point of view shots.

There are problems with the structure as things come to a head - after things go badly wrong the solution feels a little anticlimactic even if it fits with the idea that the problem is a living, evolving organism. The rush to a finish feels like a light touch following such a heavy weight investigation though. Some of the outcomes seem to arrive with convenient timing which saps the tension a little. But while it lasts this is a fine example of a serious take on a hokey subject matter, space germs have never been scarier.

4/5

Weekend Retrospective - They're here...

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977)

Recently revisiting the 'Berg's first venture into alien visitor stories, I found this is still a great release even if it's not one of my personal favourites from his filmography and I think that E.T. is the better movie and Jaws is a better character piece. The pros and cons are marginal though, and the final version keeps enough of the interesting character moments and thankfully avoids the unnecessary scenes added for the finale in the 1980 re-release. Looking at this era the genre would soon be in for a change, but I think it's still safe to consider it a pre-Skywalker film; after all they released around the same time and would have been in pre-production without any real kind of cross pollination. It's interesting that this is something of an anomaly for the period - this time alien life isn't out to kill a group of isolated people or invade the planet. I often wonder how Steven Spielberg's original version of War of the Worlds might have turned out in the '90s if Roland Emmerich hadn't beaten him to the punch, it's interesting to consider how malevolent he could have made a new, invasive batch of visitors.


"CE3K" as it's often contracted, is still really well done. My favourite scene has always been the first spaceship moment where the headlights in an approaching car pull up behind the lead character's truck only to go into the air and blast him with super hot light. It's a subtle, masterful touch which carries through to the rest of the movie, which has a lot more great moments. After all this is the one where Richard Dreyfuss loses his marbles and plays with his food - it's another pop culture smash (no pun intended). The nightmarish abduction sequence is another high point with it's hellish orange light and otherworldly weather effects. John Williams adds a lot to this as ever and gets a few good melodies in thanks to both the alien signal he devised and some quiet references to the Pinocchio 'wish upon a star' tune which was denied for official use in the end credits. I am pretty sure the mothership had seen Jaws too...

It also has a few great pieces of model wizardly from Doug Trumbull. Breaking away from the usual grey, sterile space vehicles, these are dazzling, multicoloured and very unsymmetrical objects. This extra touch adds to what is already a great thriller. The cast is incredibly naturalistic, and while a lot has been said of the young boy who gets taken from his mother, the other kids in the story seem to be doing improvised things in the background of some scenes that adds to this vibe; check out that piano player. You can hear one of them declaring that there's a "fly in my potatoes" off camera during that famous dinner scene, which was apparently left in after the crew thought it was so funny. These aren't exactly rounded characters but they do feel realistic a lot of the time.


The plot itself mostly works, although I have often said the apparent good nature of the visitors is a little puzzling, they come off as too sweet and benevolent by the end. But I feel that the vague hints at their motivation works... mostly in the film's favour. After all it's good to see a finale with some mystery left in it. Are the people who made it to the mountain the worthy ones, with more willpower or stronger minds? Is Ned ever going to be returned to make up with his family? I never noticed until now that they return a lot of military personnel but the government astronauts are left behind! Mechanical effects artist Carlo Rambaldi worked on the aliens here, and would go in to work with a certain mister Giger on another, altogether more sinister form of life which would bring the decade to a close with not so much a bang, more of a screeching, blood splattered mess...

ScoreCard

JULY
    • All Is Lost ☆☆☆☆
    • American Hustle ☆☆☆☆
    • Cinema Paradiso ☆☆☆☆
    • Unforgiven ☆☆☆☆
    • Rise of the Planet of the Apes ☆☆☆☆
    • Silent Running ☆☆☆☆
    • Invasion of the Body Snatchers ☆☆☆☆
    • Jiro Dreams of Sushi ☆☆☆☆
    • Her ☆☆☆☆
    • Dirty Harry ☆☆☆
    • Electroma ☆☆☆
    • Grand Budapest Hotel ☆☆☆
    • Interstella 5555 ☆☆☆
    • Lego Movie ☆☆☆
    • Memoirs of a Geisha ☆☆☆
    • Millennium Actress ☆☆☆
    • Sudden Impact ☆☆
    • The Dead Pool ☆☆
    • The Enforcer ☆☆