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Friday, 28 August 2009

Watchmen - Cinema review

First of all, I haven't read the graphic novel, despite being within feet of it, and I was wondering whether to postpone my viewing until I'd read it. Nonetheless, as the uninitiated, I will say that Watchmen is in any respect, a very good film, sporadically excellent, and memorable. It is the most visually arresting film this year, reminiscent of Blade Runner but of its own universe, and the darkness of its setting reflecting a film with deep, beguiling questions about the nature of humanity, and the social aberration that is its heroes: the Watchmen. The performances range from passable (Malin Akkerman) to excellent, namely Jackie Earle Haley as Rorshach and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the Comedian. It's a credit to Snyder that he manages to hold your attention more in the pivotal scenes that aren't just action; even so, these scenes are executed with a brutality that surpasses The Dark Knight even. It has been compared elsewhere that Rorshach's monologues are very much like Travis Bickle's, and it isn't an inaccurate comparison, the slow motion tracking shot as he walks through a disgusting urban undergrowth of prostitution and baseness, and his dialogue reviling it are highly reminiscent of Bickle's monologue avowal to "wipe the scum off the streets". I have more to say about this, and it'll be interesting to hear everyone else's reaction to Watchmen, but I don't doubt so much that this film is both Snyder's swansong, and the best film of the year so far.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

The Conversation - Francis Ford Coppola (1974)

Coppola's other film from 1974, The Conversation is about the life of Harry Caul, a mercenary surveillance expert who begins to doubt the morality of his profession and the motives of his employer. As the film progresses, a fairly self-assured Caul played by a magnificent Gene Hackman (barely recognisable from his signature role as the incendiary Popeye Doyle), becomes steadily more obsessed with the recording of the titular conversation, realising he may be selling lives instead of just goods for money. The film's beautifully minimalist and pensive score captures the isolation and introversion of Caul perfectly, (and funnily enough reminds me of the Zodiac soundtrack ), shifting from dissonance to tonality, mimetic of the stunning volte face in the film's tone towards the end of the film. Brilliantly paced, intelligent, satirical and arguably Gene Hackman's greatest ever performance, The Conversation is one of the defining films of the golden 70s, and I can't believe it took me this long to actually watch it.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

The Strain

From celebrated director Guillermo del Toro and co-author Chuck Hogan comes The Strain, a modern day take on the vampire myth that combines folklore with techno-realism and the theme of biological warfare in the form of arch vampire Sardu and his “strain” of rabid, body shock vampirism. The story setup is this: a plane recently landed at JFK draws concern when mysteriously, all communications from airport control meet with no answer and the plane is ominously powered down. When it is discovered the entire plane has inexplicably deceased, save a handful of survivors, Dr. Ephraim Goodweather, head of Disease Control is dispatched to the scene to ascertain cause, which may be even more sinister than he realises. Dodgy protagonist name aside, it sounds like an engaging diversion, especially in the hands of the imaginative Del Toro.

After an atmospheric opening established in a fairytale from grandmother to grandson, Abraham Setrakian, the action cuts to New York and the mystery surrounding the grounded, darkened airplane, and the furore drawing from a potential danger to national security. Fairly frenetic stuff, but the authors make it so pedantic, informing us about technology and procedure that it undermines a sense of involvement in the action. Add to that some tedious interludes involving Eph Goodweather’s divorce and the unfortunate child caught in the middle, it becomes more of a slog than a fast paced exposition. For the first hundred pages I found myself becoming slowly disinterested with the frequent changes of viewpoint and passing introductions to minor characters who either transform later on, or who we never see again.

Eventually though, things start to pick up pace after the pandemic begins to transmogrify its victims into their new gruesome forms, feral and genuinely disgusting creatures similar to those in Del Toro’s Blade II. The perspective switches between the purveyors of the strain; a flamboyant rock star; a returning husband with a problem wife, and a high powered lawyer, all of them rote character clich├ęs who we don’t really care about. We also don’t care about Eph Goodweather, his former wife and her jock husband, or his distanced son. The characterisation is uninteresting, and whilst horrors may in some cases be more about the bloodletting and the imagery, which this inevitably is, it makes the filler material in between the action all the more irritating. In essence it trades out like any other Dracula caricature: old man Setrakian (Van Helsing) turns up, characters refuse to believe the unbelievable, they band off to defeat the head vampire and the legions of his undead.

By more closely translating this vampire story to the present day rather than just a vague approximation, Del Toro and Hogan explore a New York that has changed in the last decade, cleverly locating the vampire underground in the underground of the symbolic, ruined World Trade Centre, providing an eerie background to the book’s finale. The sense of time and space in particular is the most striking aspect of the book, not only with the closing showdown in the WTO underground, but also Setrakian’s experiences during the Holocaust in which he is stalked in the barracks of a concentration camp by Sardu. Those scenes are genuinely creepy and the most absorbing to read.

In the knowledge that The Strain is the first in a trilogy, it leaves the series in a good position to develop. Even though the authors’ opening effort is from time to time weakly written and characterised, there is invention enough and the tag of ’Guillermo del Toro’ to sustain interest in the next two volumes.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Public Enemies

For a film about John Dillinger, the charismatic and audacious one man crime wave, Public Enemies is a remarkably understated biography of his infamy. Dillinger is portrayed to be as calculable in carrying out bank heists as he is contemplative and loyal to his principles, to his comrades and his love, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard). The series of heists that punctuate the film are given fleeting attention in the changing American context of federalism and organised crime, and the sense of the historical significance of John Dillinger is well impressed by the end. In a biopic that could have been a cops and robbers routine, Mann balances the film well - but possibly not enough - in opposing the men behind both lines, Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and his crew, and agent Melvyn Purvis (Christian Bale), the task-man recruited by J. Edgar Hoover (a well cast Billy Crudup) to take the gangster down. Depp is excellent, capturing the swagger and simple pleasures of the legendary bank robber, but so is Christian Bale, delivering an intelligent, and human portrayal of a complex man, judging by the ending biographical notes. There is a sense however, that Mann possibly does not dig deep enough in Purvis for audiences to really connect with him, the moral centre of the film. Marion Cotillard is fine in her role as Billie Frechette, working off Depp very well, and shares one of the most poignant scenes with Christian Bale as Purvis, disapproving of the methods of the G-men, carries her away after having been tortured. To say that Public Enemies is understated is not necessarily a summation of the entire film though, as it contains the greatest sequence of a Michael Mann film to date: the safe house siege. The cinematography in this scene and through the entire film is as you would expect from the director of Heat, incredible to look at, shot with a beautiful crispness and clarity, and the shoot out itself is just as arresting, shots discharged like solar flares amidst a night time backdrop. What is most impressive is the sense of context and historical movement that is occurring, as organised crime re-organises, and the FBI has its methods questioned. The movie is as much about the fall of the legendary John Dillinger as it is a questioning oversight of the limits of law enforcement. In Mann’s latest effort, we have possibly his best, one that is meticulously laboured and shot, and that will improve upon future viewing.