Sunday, 23 December 2012


A brief note on Cobra, as that's all it deserves. Anyone who has seen Cobra knows that its an utterly ridiculous film. Its a film that a movie star or big-league director makes at the top, when no-one says no, that's a bad idea. (sort of like The Hobbit, or Costner with The Postman).

It's Stallone's most bizarre film that I've seen (haven't yet viewed Over The Top, but don't worry, eventually I will.) The film makes no sense on all sort of levels but its at its most ridiculous when Stallone sets up his character. Its literally an insane number of bizarre tics that are unintentionally hilariously funny. He's a man with a tooth-pick always in his mouth, who drives a 1950's car with a passion that is deeply suspect, who responds to the most basic question about following the law with contempt. (The film is astonishingly right-wing). He has dialogue with his partner that is half-written and is literally gibberish. This kind of thing goes on for 45 minutes of utter insane behaviour, that feels like a parody of the cop cliches but is deadly serious. Then there's 45 minutes of dumb scenes of shooting people, which are crass, unexciting but strangely enjoyable in their demented fury.

The most absurd element is Stallone's home. He has police files in his home, which can be broken into at any time. He has a newspaper, which he places in his barbacue for safe-keeping. He eats a small bit of pizza for breakfast (which he then cuts one part of to save the rest for later). Inside an egg box he has his gun cleaner. (He cleans his gun a lot he he he). This film is a wall to wall example of an actor being completely egotistical and not noticing his own blind spots. Luckily he had a few movie bombs and returned to playing the underdog, which is the position he works best in with movies. But Cobra is one to see for demented actors at work.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Superman 2 authorship

This will be a brief posting as its something that interests me a little after watching Superman 2 but I don't think I have knowledge to write on the subject beyond what I can see from the finished film and areas I carried out basic research on.

Essentially, making Superman 1 & 2 at the same time, Richard Donner fell out with the producers as the budget went out of control (some of which was to do with creating flying effects) and Richard Lester was brought in as a go-between and potential replacement. Donner finished the first film, leaving the second partially shot and was fired by the producers after a war of words in the press. It happens. Superman 1 was a very good comic book film, with a great first half and a good second (when it was on Superman). Plot flaws aside, it had a great sense of wonder and scope.

Richard Lester finished Superman 2, and reshot a lot of the footage Donner originally. There is still Donner footage in the film (anything with Gene Hackman, some shots on the moon, bits of the end). These scenes are awkwardly placed within the film to my eyes, having a different pace. Hackman's part could easily have been cut. His look and characterisation is very broad. If the original director had remained on-board and the in-fighting had been worked out after the success of the first film, I have to wonder how much of this material would have remained.  Its by far the worst part of the film.

Now Lester shot a new opening in Paris, most of the central romance, which had a wonderful absurd yet melancholy air that is typical of the director, the General Zod versus the small town, and the major battle sequence between Superman and the three villains.

Zod is one of the iconic comic book film villains. The character is the template for this type of super-hero villain. In the first film he's a humourless thug. With Lester in charge he has a wit that's a large part of his appeal.

The Superman-three villain fight in Metropolis is still the iconic template for a super-hero fight, is still seen as the one to beat. It was shot by Lester.

Now these are two examples of Lester making good use of the material at hand, building from Donner's template. I would further add that the doomed romance and the hero being tested in the first superhero sequel is a template of most part 2's in this genre, all taken from this film. From Batman Returns to The Dark Knight to Spiderman 2 to Iron Man 2, this air of melancholy romance and the hero under pressure is the base. These plot bases were created by the writers but Lester making it work so well solidified it as the template. (The saving Lois while not giving away his identity at the rapids is an action and character highlight within the action genre)

So while he replaced Richard Donner, Richard Lester's execution and shaping of the material defined part 2's within the genre for decades. Yet Donner seems to get the popular credit for both films. This is partially to do with rancid sentimentality by online geeks, who have one story to tell and cannot acccept the complexity of the situation. Lester's case is not helped by Superman 3, which was fun and interesting but not a good film overall. Yet no-one looks into overall careers. Donner has had a fairly bland career, of mediocre genres films and sequels, very little of which has lasted. Superman is his shining glory as a director. Lester, while having a few money projects, has a catalogue of great films, from Petulia to The Bed-Sitting Room, Robin & Marion, two great Beatles films, to The Three Musketeers and its sequel. He's a major director of entertainment and interesting art films. Superman films is a minor part of his career. The third film had weaknesses due to a lack of interest. Even though he probably wasn't passionate about them, his work on Superman 2 is a major contribution to a slightly self-serious and, at the moment, humorless genre.

Friday, 21 December 2012

BEST OF 2012


Cosmopolis & A Dangerous Method – Two great Cronenberg films in one year. Cosmopolis is a wonderful, twisted tale of a man slowly drifting away from his life, conversing with people who he slowly loses interest in as they talk. It has an obsessiveness that’s fascinating, of a man who can no longer to connect with life, has quirks and complexities to suggest there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye. A Dangerous Method is about Jung and his development of his own form of psychotherapy theories of treatment, of the confusion, self-torment and difficulty of such a life. Two films where the protagonists seem ready to crawl out their own skins.

Damsels In Distress & Killer Joe – Two tales of romance, with different outcomes. One is a kind-hearted story of people over-coming their private traps, pretensions and insanities, for a earned heart-warming (and old-movie style) conclusion. The other has masses of nudity within dialogue, family members murdering each other in the most primal way imaginable, a teen marrying a murderous cop, and a sour outlook on life. Everyday life is somewhere in the middle but these were terrific films.

The Adventures Of Tintin & Moonrise Kingdom – Two child-like tales with different styles. Tintin was Spielberg’s best film in years, a tale of a young man going on adventures around the world, having a sense of excitement about the world, it’s odd characters, and the fantastical possibilities that is infectious. Moonrise Kingdom was about the damage of isolated worlds, having the actions of rebellious, unconventional children making life slightly more bearable.

The Cabin In The Woods & Chronicle – Kids. What can you do with them? In these two films the answer is obvious. Kill ‘em all. The Cabin In The Woods is a self-knowing parody of the genre that works as its good on character and cheekily doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s based in the 1980’s horror, its set-up Sam Raimi, its ending pure 80’s John Carpenter. Chronicle is based on the idea of kids getting superpowers and then acting like kids rather than noble icons, which leads to murderous intent and the world hating them. These were genre films done properly.

The Muppets & The Pirates – Two films that are simply fun, which is an ignored area of pretentious and highly dubious lists such as these. The Muppets was a simple get the muppets together again for a silly movie. It was charming, had decent musical numbers and lots of Fozzie Bear. What more can you ask. The Pirates was a wicked and ridiculous take on pirates, monarchy, clichés of sea-bound tales, with gag after gag that landed. That’s more difficult than it looks.

The Dark Knight Rises & The Avengers – Two excellent, flawed comic book movies that succeed due to their strengths of scope over minor debatable decisions. The Dark Knight Rises had some plot flaws yet its ambition, to cover the fall and rise of an entire city, and the evolution of a modern myth gave it weight. The Avengers may not have had the most complex plot or action but worked like a 1930’s comedy once the characters began to interact and smart-arse lines and swift character beats were brought up, developed and solved with a satisfying swiftness.


The Hobbit – This film lacks passion, wit, purpose, and intelligence. Is there any more damning comments that can be made of it.


Battleship – Outside of Suckerpunch, the worst film of the decade so far. Stupidly militaristic, unimaginative design, dull action, terrible acting by all, and a plot that took about 10 minutes to write and three seconds to read. Everyone involved should be ashamed.

Piranha DD- Completely stupid but not in a fun way. Goes on forever with dull/stupid set-up scene after set-up scene, then ends suddenly with a few deaths. Just a rip-off of audience goodwill, without the decency to put in any real effort. Lasts just over an hour.

Conan The Barbarian- Stupid remake of a John Milius film. The action has no sense of staging, pacing, geography, wit, style, or shot to shot progression. The lighting is lots of lights or nothing. The framing is always awful. The actors are left behind by the director and writers so can’t really be blamed for anything.


Jack Reacher – A twisted knowing genre movie that gets round potential clichés by clever human touches and dark humour. While the plot is fantastical, everything is based upon bad decisions made by weak, greedy people. Has a good lead character, a great car chase, brutal fights and a great set of villains.

Haywire – A revenge tale that engaged quickly and efficiently. It had kick, never wasted time, was brutal in its action, as it wound its way around a serious of victims. A top-tier b-movie.

Safe – Jason Statham’s best film, where he defends a little girl that various underworld types want for her knowledge, all of whom have police ties. It has the usual Statham action but also a plot jumping back and forth in time, that takes time to reveal its character motivations. Far superior to what people would expect.

Skyfall – Works very well as a classic Bond film, as well as developing the character, and is a lot of fun with it going into the classic Bond characters.  Not as good as Casino Royale, with some dubious plotting, but it doesn’t matter ultimately, once the film kicks into gear. The last few minutes are terrific.

The Raid – A SWAT team goes into a building and have to fight their way out. That’s the simple premise, and it doesn’t deviate from that base yet the action is terrifically brutal, and there’s some good but simple plot and character mechanics, as well as a cynical view of the police politics that drive the plot.

Undisputed 3 – Direct to DVD film of the year, with Scott Adkins as Boyka, mad Russian prisoner, who has to go into an international prison fight tournament, as he goes round after round, against an array of eccentric madmen, as he pummels his way to get a chance at freedom. This works as it embraces the melodrama and inherent absurdities. A great little b-movie.


Red Tails – Old-fashioned in character, plotting and dialogue, terrific in the sky. Yet it works as a throwback as it doesn’t try to be hip, and is very under-rated.

The Ward – Another throw-back, this time from John Carpenter. A horror film set in a mental asylum that puts Shutter Island to shame. It’s old-school characterisation and detail that carry this one as an enjoyable b-movie.

Prometheus – This film can be very stupid, hackneyed, irritating, but it also has a sense of wonder about the universe, and sci-fi in general, that it’s difficult to put it down too much. It needed more script work, and a better ending.

Coriolanus – A Shakespeare adaptation that’s a mess for the first 20 minutes before settling down and becoming interesting in its unlikable monstrous central character who can’t win, no matter which side he takes. It has terrific moments and confused beats but it’s always interesting to watch.


The Thick Of It Series 4 –A great conclusion to a wonderful, cynical, sharp, sad, exasperated show, that makes most other political dramas look naive and rather dumb.

Community Season 3 – The end of the Dan Harmon era on the show had ken Burns parodies, a dreamatorium, kidnapping, madness, an episode inside a video game and a musical. That and continually well-written and acted, unique characters.

30 Rock Seasons 5 & 6 – Continual insanity and brilliance on this show, especially Baldwin’s couches and his speech on American workers and Frank’s romance.

Sherlock Series 2 –Had a great opening that it, a good middle and solid closing, it was another terrific year. Not quite as clever as series 1 but with better characterisations. It’s still a wonderful series.

Dr Who Series 7.1 – Not quite as solid as series 5 & 6, it had great Dalek and Weeping Angels stories, and the other stories were enjoyable. Is only halfway through but its peaks have been terrific.

Chuck Season 5 – A good ending to a terrific escapist series. The shortness of the season meant a few plot developments moved too fast but it still delivered a terrific, ambiguous ending and great moments for all its characters.

Futurama Season 5 –Not quite yet back to series 3 form, the series has terrific moments and character beats that most comedies wouldn’t dare attempt.


Artistic - Films made with obvious pretensions to something greater.

The Structure Of Crystal, Vengeance Is Mine, The Illusionist, Melancholia, Schizopolis, Head, The Long Goodbye, The Rum Diary, The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, Client 9: The Rise And Fall Of Elliot Spintzer, A Cock And Bull Story, Primer, Vahalla Rising

Pulp – Films made with a solid genre base.

Extract, Ishtar, Repo Chick, Contagion, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Captain America: The First Avenger, X-Men: First Class, Dragonslayer, A Christmas Carol, Drive, Johnny Handsome, Warrior, Behind The Mask- The Rise Of Leslie Vernon.

TV seen from previous year

Justified Series 2, Mad Men Season 4 Game Of Thrones Series 1, Breaking Bad Season 3, Sons of Anarchy Seasons 2 & 3, The Shield (all), Chappelle’s Show (all), The Blue Planet, Ken Burn’s The War.

Friday, 14 December 2012

The Lord Of The Rings finally has its own Phantom Menace

Until now, The Lord Of The Rings was unique in a film series. It had no film that people tried to forget about. Star Wars had Phantom Menace (the other prequels people debate regarding quality), The Godfather had Part 3, Alien had part 3 until the others were released and now part 3 looks terrific (especially the workprint). Indiana Jones has The Crystal Skull (which I didnj't think was much worse than the over-rated Last Crusade). The Matrix had Revolutions. The Exorcist had all the sequels (all of which were odd and more interesting than the original). Spiderman has been on a downward trends since Spiderman 3. Superman has had difficulties since Superman 3 (although I rate Superman Returns). The Dark Knight Rises is debated (and they had the Schumacher films, they still count).

The Lord Of the Rings could be smug. Ten years of how great they did the job and never let the fans down. (Star Wars and The Godfather managed 15 years of that, if we want to be accurate). But all those weaker films or odder films, the many part 3's, can be amused.

The Hobbit is a total catastrophe. Its what happens when you bring in a director who has lost all real interest in the series but needs a hit. Its what happens when no-one is looking at what is going on nor suggests editing things down. The plot is essentially The Dirty Dozen which takes nine hours. A group of flawed heroes go on a quest is the basic plot. We have an hour to introduce the characters and set-up. And you can't really follow all the characters, what they're about, clarifying the emotional and logical reason for the quest to the degree that would make the other eight hours compelling. (This is without a montage or full-length training sequence, so if you want to see Martin Freeman go Rocky with lots of running and dubious music, this film dissapoints on that score also. And even Rocky V is better than The Hobbit).

So the first hour has some nice jokes and many bad ones, a huge action backstory set peice which looks nice but is boring, and a bit with Ian Holm as an older Martin Freeman, to link the film to Lord Of The Rings, which goes on forever but has no real narrative point. The strength of the first hour is Martin Freeman, who keeps the film going despite the director and the writing. He's terrific but deserves a better film.

And then the journey begins, echoing the Fellowship Of The Ring. But having introduced everyone at once, instead of spreading the introductions throughout the first hour and a half, which would allow for each character to make an impact and have a sequence that would allow to get a handle on them, the film just has action. Lots of action. Yet none of it feels motivated. You have characters on a quest but it never is filtered into the action and their motivations enough for it to have any weight. They are meant to be reclaiming their homeland but that's an idea rather than something that is built into a powerful emotional thread. This is like The Phantom Menace trying to save a planet where you have no emotional connection to, thus leaving the action uninteresting.

There are good ideas for the world, as the film does have imagination. But the sequences such as climbing the mountains that move or the fireside scene with ogres that turn to stone are either over too fast for real jeapordy to be felt or are played for laughs, rather than menace or atmosphere. So the film remains dull.

There are two sections where the film feels a bit more like Lord Of the Rings. The first is the the Radgrast The Brown, played by Sylvester McCoy. The film actually finds its pacing here, has build, a mystery, menace of an old necromancer, leading to a meeting of the wizards and elves. For the first tiem the film has weight. And then the film moves on, to more action where people are tossed all over the place with no real effect. The second section is Bilbo meeting Gollum and finding the ring. Its very well played, and paced extremely well. Yet its intercut with the worst scene in the film, where Gandalf and 13 dwarfs fight and win against an army of orcs and ogres, which is likely the most stupid action scene you'll find in the next few years. There are funny gags but the insane lack of logic becomes annoying, especially as it takes you away from the best part of the film.

Finally there's yet another dull action scene, against an orc hunting party that goes on and on, up and down trees, onto eagles, would have been fine if you cared by this point. But a confrontation between the protagonist and villain, the point of the scene, is left unresolved, as neither side win, to be continued. So the film can't even finish off its action thread, leaving the story formless.

This should have been one film, as the story was basic, needed a hand that responded to and needed to find peotic elements in a simple child's story. It needed a director who could keep an eye on the main story points. Greedily spreading it over three films is a cynical decision that will bore the audiences and kill the reputation of the series.

Peter Jackson used to make good films. Up to Lord Of The Rings they were enjoyable, sometimes very good. (The Frightners, which resembles The Hobbit most, was the weakest film). But King Kong, which spread its story far too long, robbing the film of its simple emotional beats, and the critically panned The Lovely Bones, lead to the self-indulgence of The Hobbit. Its a bad example to directors and leads to financiers not trusting directors with too much power, if they see the abuse on this scale. Yet these films are only made for the money now. They're hack-works. They feel tired, as scene to scene the film lacks attention. So the stories continue into senility.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Under-seen films

Here is a list of films that were well-received but seem to have been lost cultural impact in recent years. They haven’t become the slow-burning cult films. Some have lead actors who fell out of favour (and thus good films get tarnished by an actor’s reputation), others enjoy critical respect as part of a director’s career but are not making many best of lists anymore, and finally some are under-seen, appreciated by those who have knew them.

I’ve limited the list to films released in the final two decades of previous century, as it’s a bit early to rate more modern films in this area, and previous eras are fairly established within critical consensus.
Dead Ringers – This is David Cronenberg’s best film. It’s under-rated only because its seen as part of a collection of terrific films but still deserves greater cultural knowledge. It focuses on a set of twins and their mental disintegration, but the film deals beautifully about existence and the frailty and flaws that exists within people. The film is haunting.

Mishima – This is Paul Schrader’s best film. It’s not well-known as its set in Japan, is about a gay writer. It sets up a variety of stories in many styles that illustrates Mishima but is about his internal struggles and rage. It’s hugely influential and was produced by Francis Coppola and George Lucas. (Kill Bill and later Scorsese owe a huge debt to this without ever quite being as good)

Slacker – Richard Linklater’s Slacker was first released film, although was not his first full-length film (his first film was the wonderful Its Impossible To Learn To Plow By Reading Books). It moves between people and has no narrative push. Instead it watches people who exist, are eccentric, who are getting on with their lives. It’s about the conversations and odd events that exist in daily life which are not talked about. It pre-dates nineties cinema and is a large influence on it. It was once famous but now seems to be forgotten. This is wrong as the reason why it was a success was because it is wonderful.

White Hunter Black Heart – This film was Clint Eastwood’s serious film made directly before Unforgiven. It’s about a director based on John Huston (played by Eastwood) who takes insane risks while making a film in Africa. Commercially it was a failure but is an underplayed film about the darker impulses that are allowed to run riot by a man with power. Its easily one of Eastwood’s best films.

Empire Of The Sun – This was a commercial failure for Steven Spielberg. It starred a young Christian Bale, was about a boy who survives a Japanese prison camp, and goes from a normal selfish child to a darker young adult. It is very unsentimental about how people betray one another and survival techniques under dire circumstances. Due to its subject matter, it has been generally ignored since release (as was A.I., another dark under-rated Spielberg film)

Grosse Point Blank – This was the film that inspired this list. In the late 1990’s this film was a major cult film, which also made decent money. It was a rare crime film that wasn’t a Tarantino knock-off, was romantic, had its own left-ish identity, was about how people sell-out and disappoint without ever putting that on the surface, mixed comedy with dark undertones that were well-spaced. John Cusack looked ready to be a star after it. In the decade following, Cusack has remained an interesting actor but like the film has fallen away somewhat. This film deserves better.

Out Of Sight – This is still a well-known film but had a high-impact on release but is now seen as simply a George Clooney movie. It’s a terrific Steven Soderberg crime film, very funny, earthy but romantic, has a narrative that jumps back and forth, and has a relaxed atmosphere. It’s been consigned to been a star vehicle when it’s that actor’s best film by a long way, especially following Clooney’s fairly samey output in the last decade.

Raising Cain – A DePalma film made in the follow-up of a huge disaster, is a wonderful tongue-in-cheek self-parody that also has some great moments. It has dream sequences, which becomes dream sequences within dream sequences (Inception would use this idea), had multiple personalities (much of late nineties cinema, including Fight Club, would follow-on from this), and flying babies (not much in the way of influence here). It also has John Lithgow playing multiple characters. It’s terrific and also very funny.

Bound - The Wachowski’s first film, a lesbian gangster movie, that made a huge splash when released, and then became less impactful generally when the Wachowski’s made The Matrix, which became the film to talk about. This is a problem as Bound is a wonderfully handled, stylish suspense film, with some nasty moments and theatrical villains. It also has a great sex scene early on.

Field Of Dreams – The Costner factor makes this fall away from its proper standing. It’s a rare type of film, a potentially sentimental film that avoids all the traps and underplays most of the emotional moments, to greater effect. It’s one of Costner’s best performances but is now an under-seen film. Its ripe for rediscovery. (also see The Untouchables, another well-liked film of yesteryear which is now rarely commented upon)

The Fisher King – The Robin Williams factor does the same for this film. It is a minor Gilliam film (although far superior to The Brothers Grimm) but the writing, direction and Jeff Bridges’ lead performance should have kept it far more prominent in the public’s mind than it is. Even Williams is good. But it just seems to have fallen into an odd TV screening and little cultural impact. Which is a shame. Its status as a minor Gilliam film will likely keep it there.

Fearless - Another Jeff Bridges film. This is a terrific film about a man who survived a plane crash, who feels blessed. It has stunning visuals from director Peter Weir, who is one of those directors who can create eerie sustained mood. The ending of Bridges returning to humanity and all of its foibles, is a stunning sequence.

Used Cars – A jet-black comedy from Robert Zemeckis, who would soon be making Back To The Future. This stars Kurt Russell as a cynical used car salesman, and has scene after scene of incredibly cynical interactions and manipulations, including keeping dead people seemingly alive, lying to the dead man’s daughter about him being alive, and interrupting a presidential speech to advertise used cars. It ends with a huge, farcical car chase with hundreds of used cars. It’s wonderful.

The Beast – This film was little seen on release and has been a minor cult film ever since. It deserves far better. It’s about a soviet tank getting lost in Afghanistan in the 1980’s, and stars Jason Patric. It was directed by Kevin Reynolds and has a terrific accumulation spite and anger between the tank crew. It also has one of the best action scenes in the last decade, as Patric tracks the tank over the mountains ranges, to get revenge on the crew who betrayed him. It’s a major eighties film.

Highway Patrolman – This is Alex Cox’s return to film-making after Walker, a film that saw him black-listed from Hollywood. It’s one of the great films of the nineties and was completely ignored. It concerns itself of the trials of a short, newly decorated patrolman, who has to deal with the law in Mexico and life. The description is basic but the film is stunning. (Cox’s follow-ups Death And the Compass and Three Businessmen, are major nineties films, which show how a career can get back on track artistically after a disaster by focusing on the basics of film-making).

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Over-rated Action Scenes.

There's something extremely annoying about an action scene that doesn't live up to the rest of the film, that goes on too long, outstays its welcome, or is simply repetitive in what it does. Its simply bad grammar that should be pointed out when it happens.

What's especially annoying when these scenes get raved about, when they derail the film's story.

So here's a short list of action scenes that get more respect than they should. I'll admit this is one of my less serious posts, but I've just rewatched the first of the below list and it bugged me.

Kill Bill Part 1: The final showdown. This one has been raved about by the unfortunate. The problem here, which continues throughout Tarantino's career, is that he's very good at set-up of tension and framing and fairly terrible at action choreography when things begin to get intense. Essentially the central character The Bride goes up against about seventy henchmen, and a few supposed master fighters. Trouble is, none of them can fight well, including The Bride. They run at her, she parries, they have no defnsive position, she disembowels them. For twenty minutes, which stops the story for no legitimate reason. Sometimes she does flips or seemingly flies through the air. And they all wait for her to finish one part of the fight without stabbing her in the back. The good elements of the scenes are the black humour of all the body parts flying, like an Evil Dead Movie, that these gags vary, that they change colour scehesm, have snow in bits of it. The bad news is that there's no real thrill you'd get with a good action scene. Tarantino does better earlier in the film with a fight scen set inside a suburban home but its more brutal than inventive or thrilling.  Death proof shows a similar problem with car chases, where the set-up is great then the chase lacks buzz. Action is not Tarantino's strength. I like these films but not at the bits that are meant to thrill me.

Batman Begins/The Dark Knight: Nolan has the same problem as Tarantino, in that the set-up is better than the action (although he is getting better at action and using space well to progress the thrill of the experience in Inception and The Dark Knight Rises). Two scenes jump out at me in Batman Begins, in the mountain-top fight and the Batmobile escape from the city, where there was plot urgency and lots of movement but little effect, as the framing was a burden. The Dark Knight was an improvement, managed good images within the action but the Joker attacking the police truck under the bridges was a lot of repetitive action with little kick to it, as it was two trucks going down a long street, firing guns but with little real invention in what occured. The action improved as the scene went above ground but the underground section went on far too long. These films lack a bit of humour in how they set up situations, how they pay off an action and progress into the next part of an action movement. But unlike Tarantino, Nolan is improving as he goes. Again, Nolan makes films I like for other reasons.

Skyfall: This is a fun Bond film, which is better than The Quantum Of Solace, or The Brosnan Monstrosities, had some terrific humour and the action was fun. Yet it was generally a bit obvious for its action. It was shot with a lot of coverage, very similar shots intercut, the action not progressing shot to shot with cohesion. Blocks of action, running, jumping, on top of a train, through London, all were covered, all had plot points, but they all felt that they needed an inspired action director.

There is obviously lots of action direction gone bad: Michael Bay can be terrible and is getting worse, directors of films like Die Hard 4 and such-like aren't worth bothering with. Decent directors dither around in effectiveness. Ridley Scott comes and goes, depending on the film, as does John Woo. McTiernan has lost his action abilities it seems, Walter Hill doesn't work much, James Cameron is less action focused. Directors like Steven Soderberg can make good action images but don't seem as interested in its intent. There seems to be a lack of genuine visceral excitement in this area of film-making, which is a shame.

Not to be disheartened. Most of the directors I mentioned have other skills that make their films terrific things to watch. One bit of good news on the horizon. Christopher McQuarrie has a new film out in December. He's a director who knows his way around an action sequence. His last film Way Of the Gun, had one of the most visceral and effective action sequences in recent years, a no holds barred shoot-out in a Mexican shit-hole.

The Thick Of It

The Thick Of It completed its fourth series recently. This may be its finale. This 7 part series that had fairly mixed critical response, the suggestion put forward that the series had been sharper in the past, during the Labour era, that it had far too many new and less than interesting characters. There was also the suggestion that the show wasn't as funny as it had once been.

As we have now reached the end of the show, I would argue that its the strongest and most interesting comedy show from the UK in years, the best comedy since Brass Eye and probably the most likely to age well. Its ultimately superior to The Office, which has been the critical reference point in the past decade, in its range and dramatic depth, using the need for caricaturing effectively and to a point of what people do to one another, rather than using realism for the distortion of under-developed characters, to suggest depths that ultimately aren't delivered in the writing. This is truly the show that has people that can't leave the prisons they have made for themselves.

The show has had moments where it has gotten a little broad. Series 3 & 4 both had first episodes that introduced important characters, and weren't as subtle in their interactions or as effective as the series can be. These moments are pared quickly, with the foundation of character interactions laid, the stories moved on quickly, balancing many smaller characterisations with the wilder styles. The Thick Of It is strong on suggesting realism without being limited by it. It uses the melodramtic elements to show weakness in character, using excessive swearing to show character impotence and frustration (for the most part), and uses plot as an illustration of continually self-destructive and delusional thinking. Its break from realism suggests the mental state of the characters.

The greatest achievement of the show is how it shows how difficult it is to stay in its world. Characters brutally fight to stay within its institutions, are ill-equiped, show monstrous ego and delusion about their abilities. Most are ruined by taking on ill-advised positions or jobs or not knowing when to leave. The strongest episodes, from the early minister's second house episode, to in-fighting and positioning to change in party leadership, to the breakdown in government leading to a general election, to finally the mess in once again changing party leadership, suggests continual exhuastion and turmoil, of stress that no human can take long-term. The two characters who ultimately have become central to the story, Press Secretary Malcolm Tucker and Political Adviser Glenn Cullen, are finally ruined by not knowing that its time to leave power, when their party is defeated in a general election. They have an opportunity to move on at this point but can't. Neither are exactly sympathetic. Tucker is brutal in the extreme (although by the end its easy to see why, due to the people he ahs to deal with) Both have hypocrises and give in to dubious actions. They create their own downfall. The final series, while seemingly about the new government, and how it shall fail like the old one, is focused on their downfall, of people who can't get out due to their character, who have to be forced out by total failure. The need to stay within a dehumanising culture is a great theme for a comedy. The final epsiode is focused on their attempt to leave with dignity. It doesn't work well for either but the show resists being overtly cruel, showing how life can be cold and awful, then moving on, which gives it a proper balance.

So its a great show, the UK's one show that competes with the top-level American output like Deadwood and The Wire.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Blu-ray Transfers Of Older Films

As with any visual medium, there's good quality and bad. The area of blu-ray that interests me is transfers of films to blu-ray from the 1980's and beyond, back to the beginning of film-making.

Blu-ray and its disc memory has many advantages over DVD and video. Its clarity is potentially tremendous, which leads to greater depth in colours, shadows, contrast, creating levels in imagery that echoes cinema presentation. Video presentation managed lovel-level depth but was weak in sharpness and contrast. DVD offers terrific sharpness and decent contrast, but the conrast were extreme, leaving a flat, cold image. The images in DVD are compressed, meaning that static shots, moving shots along corridors, the inter-cutting of shots, and the efefcts of these cuts, lacked the visual punch and variation intended by a good film-maker. The focus of DVD was always clarity.

Therefore blu-ray has a great advantage and potential in giving viewers a sense of the depth and uniqueness in older films, and how they were experienced in the cinema in years past, to show why certain films were so effective.

Two recent viewing examples come to mind for me. One was James Whale's Frankenstein, a film made in the early 1930's. As a classic the film has restored many times over the years, therefore viewing a decent version of the film has never been a problem. On blu-ray however, use of lenses, camera movement, space and the timing of shots, framing choices, all become far more impactful, creatign a more moving film. Early scenes in the graveyards may highlight false background paintings and some skimping to work within a tight budget but the monsters make-up, Karloff's eye movements and still framing within blocks of light, Colin Clive's increasing madness, all come alive, allowing cuts between angles to have great emotional impact,  making the film feel short and important in how to effectively convey story in a series of clear, simple images. The images of the monster moving through the countryside and the villages partying have interesting camera movement, effective cuts within action, pre-figuring 60's French cinema. It reveals how importnat a cinema vieiwng of Frankenstein is within cinema's development.

A more modern film, The Terminator, has a terrific UK transfer. This transfer does not ignore the age of the film, or its low-budget origins. It gives clarity, depth to the backgrounds, allowing every action moment to be precise, without sharpening the image to make it seem false or over-worked. Therefore the film's raw power, which had great impact on release, can be felt throughout, soemthing which was lost on a flat, sharp, over-digitised DVD transfer.

I would argue that this is the best way to present older films. Allow for their blemishes. Don't over-use digital advances, as the raw power and humanity that created these films are lost.

There are bad examples of this type of work, usually carried out to make an older film seem more modern than the original print can support. Late 1980's action film Predator has a notorious over-digitised transfer which distances the viewer from what is a terrific raw pulp film. Robocop has a terrible grainy transfer that is taken from the director's cut, which jumps between decent but unremarkable to terrible quality. The work on these films is shoddy. When BFI can ressurect good transfers of Red Dessert (mid-1960's), or Comrades (late-1980's), both of which were difficult to come by for years, then this is a disgrace. In the larger budget field, Star Wars and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind managed good transfers without looking cheap or over-produced (Let's ignore the Special Edition digital shows for now, I'm writing on the 95 percent of the film that is untouched by these effects.)

The situation is basic. In high-definition, bad work shows up very easily. Therefore solid work done with taste has to be carried out. This means clarity on the physical state of the older films, the style in which they were made, the intentions over-all and within the cutting of sequences, and on the stated intentions of the film-makers involved.

Sunday, 30 September 2012


This is an unusual series of films. Started out as a solid Walter Hill film  starring Wesley Snipes and Ving Rhames that was dumped by its studio. Then it went the direct to DVD route. And the series got better.

Undisputed 2 & 3 are two of the best low budget genre movies made for quite a while. Sure there’s some cheese involved but who cares. These are melodramas about men beating each other up (but none of them are gay, honest.) Both of these films were directed by Issac Florentine and heavily featured Scott Adkins as Boyka, a mad Russian with a shaved head and a goatee. A mean brutal character, Boyka s one of the best pulp creations in recent years.

Okay the basic plots. Part 1 has Ving Rhames as a boxer who gets thrown in jail as a rapist. (Not a sympathetic character). He thinks he’s the greatest and has to fight the prison champion, a lifer played by Wesley Snipes. He gets beaten. The end. It’s a fun b-movie, one of Snipes best performances. Rhames character is truly obnoxious. You are glad to see him fail. It’s wonderfully understated, cynical but respects the Snipes character, who is trying to survive with dignity in hell.

Part 2 has the same boxer played by a different actor (now Michael Jai White) who gets sent into prison again (for drug possession), this time in Russia. To get out alive, he has to defeat Boyka. He manages to win, finally. He manages not to be a dick this time. This one is much grimmer, with a cold Russian background and a great villain in Boyka, who is a monster, the king of the prison, but who wants to fight the dumb American fairly, prove he’s the best as a warrior. It’s a remake of the first but is an improvement on a great base. It embraces its own melodramatic excess in characterisation, makes the sport kick-boxing rather than boxing, and just goes for it on every level. This is one of the best sequels around, which can cost you about a pound on Amazon. So there’s no excuse for not buying it (save the main character is still a bit of a dick).

Part 3 is the perfect low-budget genre film, improves the second film by making Boyka the lead. Now crippled from the fight at the end of part 2, ignored by all, Bokya improves his mind and body, regaining his championship inside his own prison by brutally destroying the best of who emerged after his injury. Next he gets himself into an inter-prison kick-boxing championship run by gangsters from all over the world. Basically each fight is one style against another. It has a decent story, of a man building himself up, planning his escape when he is being continually beaten on by his enemies, destroying some terrific combatants in brutal fight after fight. It’s both a tough redemption of a total bastard through survival story and an excessive fight movie. Like Part 1 with Snipes, have a worthy protagonist really sells the film.

Undisputed is one of the great low budget film series, with no weak chapters. It’s definitely worth about five hours of your time, and some rewatches.

Saturday, 29 September 2012


Another the stupid season of summer films year has gone by, and what has come about?

Mediocrity on the whole.  Not the type of fun year full of great entertainments like T2, Drag Me To Hell, Robocop or, obviously, Raiders Of the Lost Ark. This was more like a slow descent into a shrug. Was that it?

With The Bourne Legacy we had a dull-witted thriller which hung around tiredly like the dead, in The Campaign a comedy about politicians that forgot to make characters and develop funny situations beyond blabbering around and being obnoxious to women (like a David Cameron interview), in The Expendables 2 an over-the hill action ensemble that started decently and then devolved in a direct to DVD plot, wasting young current action men (Jason Statham and Scott Adkins) in favour of geriatrics in an airport, and of course, The Amazing Spiderman. Apparently there was a script for that. Of course there were decent moments. Prometheus had the visuals but a bad story. The Dictator, while being a bit simple in plot, was vicious and funny. The Dark Knight Rises was ponderous but had ambition and terrific moments, and was a disguised remake of Escape From New York. The Avengers was fun, the best of the bunch but had serious plot problems. It was kinda of a remake of Rio Bravo, which works for me.

So to break down the good in more detail. And even bits of the weak.

For Prometheus, what’s great about the film is that in the age of OTT stupid CGI idiocies like Transformers, this film made use of atmosphere, horror and was really pretentious. It may have been stunningly stupid for a few moments but that’s fine. If you’re “homaging” 2001 and Quatermass, I’ll allow a few slip ups. It was about the evolution of mankind, mysteries and scary monsters in a far off land, cut off from civilisation. It was genuinely attempting to evoke the wonder and fear of space-travel. It was terrific visual sci-fi and ok idea-wise. A few months later, I’d say it was a worthy effort. But the alien at the end was really stupid.
The Dictator was my favourite type of comedy/satire, that of a monster who doesn’t really change, but can be used to parody every movie convention about becoming a better person. It had some very good jokes about dictators, PC left-wing loonies, stupid people who think they’re not stupid, and was generally under-rated when released. Worth seeing if only for the ironic speech about why American should be a dictatorship at the ending.

The Dark Knight Rises was the most comic-book, and the least pretentious, of the Nolan Batman films. It even used the “some days you can’t get rid of a bomb” bit from Batman: The Movie, but left out the marching bands and ducks. It had the best action scene of the series where in a terrific sequence where Batman goes after bank robbers while being chased by the entire police force (not as funny or knowingly ridiculous as The Blues Brothers car chase of the same type). It had Tom Hardy’s Bane, full of muscles and talking like Vincent Price (that’s a compliment by the way). It had the great sequence where Batman had to climb out of a hellish prison. It was a self-serious but well-meant, overblown and a bit mad, and there’s not enough of those kind of films. The good news is this was the episode where Bale finally nailed the Batman character. So Batman 8 was a good one. (I’m counting Adam West)

Finally The Avengers, the House of Superheroes for those of you who know your 1940’s Universal monster mash-ups. The good news is that The Hulk was back, redesigned not to be the woeful Norton version, a lot more like the Ang Lee version. The bad news was the terrible Captain America costume redesign. The great news was that the villain Loki was really bitchy and smug, so dialogue scenes were great fun. Unfortunately for him, talking that way to The Hulk, gonna get you the recipient of the best mainstream moment of the year. The film was pulp done right. It didn’t have the crazy ambition of The Dark Knight Rises, or other more interesting films in its genre like Hulk or Batman Returns, but it’s difficult to think of a way to do this kind of film better.

For the weaker films, there were pleasures. Bourne had Jeremy Renner, who kept the film afloat with many good moments of subtle acting, as did Andrew Garfield in The Amazing Spiderman, before the never-ending but samey fight with the lizard began at the half-way point. Will Ferrell managed nice moments of obliviousness in The Campaign (roll on Anchorman 2) and The Expendables 2 had Dolph Lunghren telling jokes and the “we’re AMERICANS, No I’m British, I’m from Sweden, I’m from China” gag.

So while there were too many films needing script-work, none were Batman and Robin/Speed 2 –type atrocities. But some felt like they should have gone straight to DVD.