Category Archives: Film Reviews

Movie Review Catch-Up

This whole having a job thing is rubbish sometimes, especially when it gets in the way of my blogging (only joking boss, in case you’re reading this). Why can’t someone just pay me to write about films? Anyway here are a few of the films I’ve been watching recently…

Boyhood

Boyhood

Richard Linklater’s epic story of a family growing up and evolving over the space of 12 years is about as high concept as you can get. Fortunately the concept works for the most part and the result is unlike anything you’ll have seen before.

Having the same actors play the same roles over the course of such a long period of time could easily have ended up being a gimmick, but Linklater handles it superbly and adds the perfect amount of depth to pretty much every main character so that we’re genuinely interested in how their particular story plays out. We’re happy when they’re happy, sad when they’re sad and eager to see them succeed in life. This is because Linklater has created what feels like a genuine snapshot of real family life: it’s not always happy, it’s rarely glamorous and you won’t find too many big set pieces, but pretty much everyone will relate in some way to one of the characters.

It’s not perfect, however. The concept that it’s filmed over 12 years is shoved down our throat a little too often with shots of the latest technology or what new music they’re listening to. We can tell they’re getting older; we don’t need constantly reminding. There’s also the argument that Linklater’s script becomes a little too pretentious at times (something which could also be said of his Before… films), particularly in the latter stages as our central character Mason (Ellar Coltrane) grows up to be a little on the self-righteous side.

Those are very minor flaws, however, and Boyhood is without a doubt one of the best films of the year so far. It’s a once in a lifetime concept and one that deserves to be seen and cherished.

4 and a half pigeons

4.5/5 pigeons

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

In an age of remakes and reboots, many fail to hit the mark by a long way, but 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes managed to capture both a new audience and fans of the original films. Despite the fact that the titles of the two films should have been the other way around, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes manages to take what was so good about the first film and ups the stakes in terms of action and character.

As with Rise…, the apes are by far the most interesting characters in the film, with their human counterparts feeling lightweight by comparison. The power struggle between Caesar and his aggressive second-in-command Koba is fascinating and, again, far more absorbing than the mirrored altercations within the human camp, although there are some decent performances from Gary Oldman and Jason Clarke.

What takes DotPotA (yes it’s a ridiculous acronym) to the next level, however, is the unbelievable CGI and motion capture by Andy Serkis as Caesar. It’s literally almost impossible to tell what’s real and what is computer generated and there’s never a moment where you think the apes are anything but 100% real. The personality that they have puts many real-life actors to shame; they exhibit a full range of emotions and some of the nuances in the CGI and mo-cap are astonishing.

The majority of recent blockbusters have really upped their game and this is another example. It still has all the big set pieces you’d expect but it supplements them with a genuinely absorbing story. It’s not afraid to do something a little different (having a lot of the film in subtitles) and actually provide something for audiences to think about.

4 and a half pigeons

4.5/5 pigeons

The Inbetweeners 2

The Inbetweeners 2

It’s quite staggering to believe that The Inbetweeners Movie is the most successful British comedy film of all time, and with that in mind a sequel was inevitable. It’s milking it, sure, but fortunately there’s more than enough here to warrant a second trip out with the hapless foursome.

The Inbetweeners is a pretty divisive TV show; it’s probably what you’d class as ‘British’ humour but it also most definitely appeals to the slightly younger audience as it’s the relatability (pretty sure I just made that word up) of the characters and the situation that resonates with so many.

As with the first film, there’s little to no story to speak of. Rather than on holiday in Crete, they’re essentially just on holiday in Australia, and a series of amusing set pieces ensue. But you don’t really watch The Inbetweeners for the story. You watch it for those set pieces, whether it’s Will trying his hand at camp fire karaoke or Neil’s IBS playing up on a water slide, and also for the interactions between the friends, most of which is lewd and fairly offensive. It’s not high brow in any shape or form but fans of the show shouldn’t be too disappointed.

It’s a little more erratic than the first film; the highs are arguably higher but the lows are definitely lower and the jokes don’t always land as they were clearly intended. The characters are also starting to become parodies of themselves, heightening their personality traits to sometimes obnoxious proportions.

However, like I said before, fans of the show will find plenty to like here and that is the film’s target audience, so it would have to go down as a success.

3 and a half pigeons3.5/5 pigeons

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A Review of Transformers: Age of Extinction as if written by Michael Bay

BOOOOOOM. SMASSSHHHH. PROMETHEUS OPENING. ARRRGHHH. BANG. MARKY MARK. SUPERMAN’S HOUSE. BANG. LOW ANGLE SHOT. SILHOUETTES. CRASSSHH. BADLY WRITTEN STONER DUDE. LOW ANGLE SHOT. LOW ANGLE SHOT. BOOOOOOM.

NEW MEGAN FOX. LEERY SHOT OF NEW MEGAN FOX. BOOOOOOM. OVERPROTECTIVE DAD. SHORT CIRCUIT. DEAD MUM SOB STORY. ARRRGHHHH. CRRASSSHHHHH.

New Megan Fox

HEY THERE

LOW ANGLE SHOT OF PEOPLE GETTING OUT OF CARS. NONSENSICAL PLOT DEVELOPMENT. CRASSHHH. BOOOOOOM. BASIL EXPOSITION. FRASIER. ARRRGHHHH. PRODUCT PLACEMENT.

FIIIIGHT. SMACK. MY FACE IS MY WARRANT.

‘MURICA. UNEXPLAINED PLOT DETAIL. IRISH SETH ROGAN. BOOOOOM. BAAANG. ROBOT ROSEANNE’S HUSBAND.

MILD RACISM. LOW ANGLE SHOT OF PEOPLE GETTING OUT OF CARS. AARRGRHHH. FAKE STEVE JOBS. PRODUCT PLACEMENT.

NONSENSICAL PLOT DEVELOPMENT. CRASHHHHH. FAST CARS. ZOOOOOOOM.

Bud Light

THIRSTY?

TOILET BREAK.

PRODUCT PLACEMENT. LOW ANGLE SHOT. SILHOUETTES. PRODUCT PLACEMENT. BAAAANG. MILD RACISM. INDESTRUCTIBLE HUMANS. SHIT PARKOUR.

TRANSFORMIUMIUMIUM. GIANT GRENADE. BOOOOOOOM. PRODUCT PLACEMENT. GALVATRON LOOKS FAMILIAR.

DEUS EX MACHINA. JURASSIC SPARK. UNEXPLAINED PLOT DEVELOPMENT. SWOOOOOOSH. EXPLOOOOSSSIIOOOON.

BADASS DINOSAUR ROBOTS WHO COULD HAVE HAD THEIR OWN FILM ONLY HAVE A FEW MINUTES OF SCREEN TIME. ARRRGRHHHH.

ROOOOOAAAAR

MARKY MARK BEING UNNECESSARY HERO. BOOOOOOM. NONSENSICAL PLOT. ANGRY FRASIER. INDESTRUCTIBLE OPTIMUS. SMAAASSSHHH.

INAPPROPRIATELY TIMED KISS. NO DENOUEMENT.

SET UP FOR TRANSFORMERS 5.

Pros

  • Transformers look pretty cool
  • Stanley Tucci

Cons

  • ARRRGRHHHH
  • SMAASSSHH
  • PRODUCT PLACEMENT
  • BOOOOOOOM

2 pigeons

2/5 pigeons

 

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Film Review: Upstream Color

Upstream Color

Whilst a club Kris (Amy Seimetz) is kidnapped and drugged using some kind of larval parasite which makes her incredibly susceptible to suggestion. After eventually being freed by her captor, Kris has no knowledge of what’s happened to her and meets Jeff (Shane Carruth) who appears to have suffered a similar experience and with whom she has some kind of instinctive bond. 

Think of Upstream Color’s narrative as a balance beam covered in washing up liquid. The first few steps are pretty easy but at some point you’ll probably begin to wobble and slip. You’ve got to concentrate pretty hard on staying on course and if you lose your concentration for a moment then you’ll likely fall off. However, if you concentrate then you might just make it to the end.

See, there’s a good chance that at some point during Upstream Color you’ll wonder what the hell is going on. Just when you think you fully understand what’s going on and you start to relax, it’ll throw you a curveball and make you question everything you’ve already seen. You’ll question what’s real, who’s who and what on Earth the pigs have to do with it all. It doesn’t quite cross the line into surrealism but there’s definitely an abstract nature to it that lets the viewer come to their own conclusion on meaning and significance.

Upstream Color

The film has a very oneiric, almost other wordly, quality throughout which adds to the belief that not everything is as it seems. The score (also done by Carruth) also plays a big part in this, the near-constant, often monotone music rising and falling throughout, almost as if trying to lull you into a trance.

Whether Upstream Color is for you will very much depend on what you look for from your films. If you want something with a traditional narrative that you can switch off to then stay well away. However, if you want something that’s going to test you a little and you don’t mind having to join some of the dots yourself then there’s a lot here to enjoy.

Personally, I enjoyed it, even if I didn’t totally understand what was going on at all times. I definitely wobbled on that balance beam a few times but just managed to stay on, and the film’s conclusion does just enough to wrap things up if you’ve paid enough attention. It might be a little too abstract for its own good at times but the majority of the film is mesmerising and wholly unique, at least to my eyes.

You’ll likely either enjoy Upstream Color or not take to it at all, but it’s without a doubt a film you’ll have an opinion on. Some will love it, others will hate it, but I guarantee you won’t have seen anything like it.

Pros

  • Unique concept
  • Great cinematography
  • Mesmerising score

Cons

  • Sometimes a little too abstract for its own good

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

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Film Review: Frank

Michael Fassbender as Frank

Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) is an aspiring but frustrated musician who takes the opportunity to join up-and-coming underground band ‘Soronprfbs’ fronted by their bizarre lead man Frank who permanently wears a large fake head. Will the band make it big and will Jon find out what’s really going on inside Frank’s massive head?

For the unitiated (which is probably most people outside of the UK), Frank Sidebottom was a cult music figure from Timperley, near Manchester, who wore a big paper mache head. Now, despite the name of the film and the massive fake head donned here by Michael Fassbender, Frank isn’t actually about Frank Sidebottom.

What Frank does is use the character of Frank Sidebottom (created and played by Chris Sievey in real life) and use it has a jumping off point, also taking inspiration from a book of the same name by Jon Ronson who played keyboards for Frank Sidebottom and also co-wrote the film’s screenplay.

Right, now all the background is out of the way, what’s the film actually like?

Well it’s bizarre, funny and utterly bonkers. But it’s also oddly poignant and moving, which is something that I really didn’t expect.

Domhnall Gleeson’s Jon is actually the film’s protagonist in the traditional sense of the word, as it’s through his eyes that we see the film and its characters, although he’s by far one of the least interesting characters on show (and turning into a new Hugh Grant more and more each film). That’s no real bad thing as he just provides the stage on which the supporting cast can shine, although it would have been nice to have a lead character with slightly more about him.

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s hipster-bitch Clara is as intriguing as she is frosty, whilst the other characters have smaller but no less entertaining roles. But it’s Frank we’ve come to see and he really is the star of the show.

Frank (2014)

Frank is a real enigma and really is as magnetic and intriguing to us as he is to those around him in the film. He’s funny, caring, volatile, disturbing; you never really know what he’s going to do next, whether it’s topless boxing or dancing in a field with a middle-aged woman he’s only just met. All whilst wearing that massive head.

And what’s even stranger is that we know it’s Michael Fassbender under the head. Despite not showing his face, Fassbender manages to inject huge amounts of personality into Frank, and it’s fantastic to see Fassbender clearly having such fun in the role.

There’s a surprisingly large amount going on in Frank, making it significantly deeper than it perhaps could have been. There’s a healthy dose of humour as you’d expect, but what hit me was how poignant and touching it was. It has a rather dark thread running throughout that occasionally erupts and adds a completely new layer to the film. It manages to strike pretty much the perfect balance between light hearted comedy and a more substantial piece of drama, regularly switching between the two.

Frank is a film that may put off many due to its quirky exterior, but it actually has a tremendous amount of heart and could just catch you by surprise. It’s much, much more than just a guy with a big fake head.

Pros

  • Genuinely funny
  • Surprisingly poignant and deep
  • Michael Fassbender is brilliant as Frank

Cons

  • Domhnall Gleeson feels a little lightweight

4 and a half pigeons

4.5/5 pigeons

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Film Review: Locke

Locke

Construction site foreman Ivan Locke is on his way home from work when he makes a decision to go somewhere else instead, beginning a long journey that will alter his life and the lives of several others forever.

The entirety of Locke takes place in one location with a single character on screen the whole time. This isn’t a particularly revolutionary idea (see 2010’s Buried, for example), but it’s one that, if done well, can prove incredibly effective. However, if handled poorly it can ultimately feel gimmicky and cheap. Fortunately, Locke is very much the former.

We begin with Tom Hardy’s Ivan Locke in the car as he presumably heads home after a day at work. However, he suddenly changes his mind and heads off somewhere else. Where? Well that’s part of the mystery. On the way he talks to various people on the phone as he tries to fix some particular problems in his life. Who’s he talking to? What are his problems? Again, all part of the mystery.

See, Locke is best approached knowing as little as possible. A huge part of the experience is being kept largely in the dark about exactly what’s going on and the eagerness to see how it unravels. Details are kept scarce, teased out as the minutes tick but bring up just as many questions as answers. This all makes the film incredibly tense; more so than you’d expect. All this, combined with the frenetic cinematography and score ensure that you’re always on the edge of your seat.

locke 2

When it comes to our central character, Ivan is a man to which many people will be able to relate. He has some major problems in his life, but ones that he seems determined to sort out and is someone who believes in doing the right thing, no matter the personal ramifications. We see the effects that even the smallest decisions can have, not just on Ivan but on those all around him, and all this is handled superbly by both director Steven Knight and Tom Hardy.

When a film has a single lead (Locke features a few secondary performances from people at the other end of a telephone) then its imperative you have a central performance to carry the film, and Hardy does so with aplomb. His slightly iffy Welsh accent aside, Hardy is masterful as Ivan; nearly always methodical and purposeful in his delivery, yet giving us glimpses of something slightly sinister and disturbing just under the surface. He makes it almost impossible to decide whether Ivan is a man we should like and trust and as such keeps us on edge the whole time.

Locke isn’t a film that everyone’s going to get along with. Despite it clocking in at under 90 minutes, some may find it a little too slow and devoid of action, especially if they’re expecting a more traditional thriller, which the film has often been billed as. The ending will also likely infuriate some, although if you understand what the film is trying to do then you’ll buy into it.

Whilst Locke could have turned into nothing more than a gimmick, it’s in fact a very accomplished piece of cinema. It’s not flashy or complicated, but the fact that’s kept simple is what works for it. As tense as any thriller and with a lead performance as impressive as most others you’ll see this year, Locke may be basic in premise but anything but in its execution.

 Pros

  • Superb central performance from Tom Hardy
  • Gripping and tense
  • Effective cinematography and score

Cons

  • Hardy’s dodgy Welsh accent
  • Some may find it unfulfilling

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

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Movie review catch-up

You may or may not have noticed that I’ve been a lot less active recently in my blogging activity. This is largely due to the fact I have had shoulder surgery and therefore have been somewhat incapacitated, and also because I’ve been a lot busier at work which has taken up a lot of my time. But I have squeezed in a few films, so here are some quick reviews to catch up…

Noah

I had little desire to see this until the reviews rolled in and they were so divisive. Now, I have next to no clue as to what is and isn’t taken from the biblical text so I have no issue at all with what it did in that respect, and not being religious I wouldn’t care anyway.

For me, it was the mythical elements that worked the best. I found the Harryhausen-esque rock monster things actually quite interesting and the more bonkers it went, the better.

However, it was when the film descended into soap opera style melodrama where it lost me a little, particularly in the final third. It asked some interesting questions about how far you should go for your faith, but wrapped them up in contrived drama.

Crowe is decent as Noah but Ray Winstone’s biblical gangster, complete with Cockney accent and rudimentary shotguns is laughable.

A decent adaptation from Aronofsky, who definitely inserts some personality into the story, but it loses its way and by the end undoes much of its good work of the first half of the film.

3 pigeons3/5 pigeons

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

When Sony rebooted the Spidey franchise so soon after Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, many thought it was ridiculous. However The Amazing Spider-Man was actually pretty decent, and although it has some definite issues, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is more of the same comic book fun.

Andrew Garfield reprises his role as Spidey but even though he looks the part, I’m still not convinced by his acting, although that’s definitely not helped by the god awful script that turns the whole thing into a cheesy episode of Dawson’s Creek at times.

There are plenty of decent set pieces throughout and the swinging sections through New York are vertigo-inducingly brilliant.

Villain-wise we have Electro although he feels somewhat underdeveloped, whilst Rhino pops up very briefly and a certain Monsieur Goblin who seems destined to play a much bigger role in films to come. With so many villains, it does threaten to turn into Spider-Man 3 and ensures the film is too long, but fortunately manages to hold it together much better.

It’s clear that the director wanted this film to have a more personal feel with more focus on the characters’ relationships, but at times it does feel at odds with the main story. When key scenes are rushed to make way for more teenage romance then it doesn’t knit together.

Emma Stone and Dane DeHaan deserve a lot of credit for their performances however, the latter in particular excellent as Harry Osborn.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a perfectly fine addition to the franchise but one that doesn’t really tread new ground in any way. Bloated and uneven in tone but if you’re a Spider-Man fan then there’s enough to enjoy.

3 and a half pigeons3.5/5 pigeons

Transcendence

Transcendence

Strong characters and a belief in their actions is essential if a film is to work, and the lack of both of these is what makes Transcendence a truly lacklustre experience.

The idea of being able to upload your thoughts and feelings into a computer isn’t exactly a new one, nor is that of computer AI becoming sentient and rebelling against humanity, and Transcendence does little new to raise it above its peers. See, it’s difficult at any point to actually work out what anyone’s really doing or why they’re doing it, and as such it’s tough to buy into anything the film does.

There’s a germ of an idea, but what starts of as a slow burning, political sci-fi thriller ends up trying to turn into an all-out action film but just doesn’t have the legs to pull it off and burns out long before its lackadaisical conclusion.

Johnny Depp well and truly phones in his performance, whilst Rebecca Hall and Paul Bettany do their best to inject some life into proceedings, but they have little to work with in all honesty.

There was some promise here but it has to go down as a miss for first time director Wally Pfister who struggles to give the film any real direction or purpose.

2 pigeons

2/5 pigeons

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Film Review – Captain America: The Winter Soldier

captain-america-the-winter-soldier-trailer-0

Captain America (Chris Evans), Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson and new recruit Falcon (Anthony Mackie) face a new foe in the form of the Winter Soldier as terrorist organisation Hydra rears its ugly head in the most unlikely of places.

Another week, another Marvel superhero flick. The genre is walking a very well worn path by this point and many are starting to feel a little bit numb to its formula. Captain America: The Winter Soldier could well have been the straw that broke this series’ back, but fortunately there’s enough new and interesting in there to ensure Marvel’s stock remains as high as ever.

Captain America: The First Avenger, Cap’s origin story, took place in World War II, but naturally (considering what happened at the end of that film and in Avengers Assemble) we’re now in a modern day setting. And we have modern day themes as well. The Winter Soldier examines themes of privacy, intrusion, drones, and other similar ideas that feel incredibly relevant when you take a glance at the news of today.

The problem with having a modern day setting is that it removes one of the key elements that made the first film work: the period World War II setting. That’s not to say this film doesn’t work, but it feels a little less unique.

However, despite its current themes and setting, the film actually feels more akin to a 1970s spy or espionage thriller, or even a Connery/Moore era James Bond film at times. Stick the Cap in a tuxedo and you’ve got yourself a Bond film. Apart from the guy who has massive metal wings and can fly everywhere, obviously.

Captain_America_The_Winter_Soldier_I_Movie_Wallpaper_34_cybzh

That would be Sam Wilson, or Falcon (played by Anthony Mackie), who’s one of the new characters introduced in The Winter Soldier. Falcon is a decent addition and along with the inclusion of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow as a main character completes an interesting and dynamic central trio.

Then there’s the Winter Soldier himself as the film’s central villain (or is he?). One aspect of the past few Marvel films where they’ve dropped the ball is with their villains, in that they just aren’t that villainous. Both Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World featured very weak villains, but they’ve upped the game somewhat here. The Winter Soldier is both menacing and also has an air of mystery surrounding him which adds up to a much more threatening villain than we’ve seen previously.

Much of The Winter Soldier is actually much slower paced and plot heavy than you’d expect from a Marvel film and this plays very much in its favour, although younger viewers may not appreciate this as much. However, true to form everything goes ballistic in the final third and we get the obligatory 20 minute action scene with everything being blown to smithereens. Obviously, with superhero films, this formula is the natural one to follow, but it would have been nice to stray from this for a change.

Whilst The Winter Soldier could, and perhaps should, have been the point where we tire of Marvel superhero films, it’s actually one of the stronger entries in the whole franchise that should see him have more equal footing alongside his super-peers when it comes to next year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Pros

  • The Winter Soldier is an excellent villain
  • Interesting and more involved plot
  • Dynamic central trio of heroes

Cons

  • Final third a little too formulaic
  • Loses some of its identity with shift in time period from the first film

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

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Film Review: Starred Up

Eric (Jack O’Connell) is a violent young offender who’s been moved to an adult prison. Whilst he’s locked up he brutally clashes with prison guards, but is taken under the wing of prison therapist Oliver (Rupert Friend). However, Eric’s biggest problem lies with fellow inmate Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) who also happens to be his father.

It always helps when someone heavily involved with a film can draw upon personal experiences in some way, and that’s exactly the case with Starred Up screenwriter Jonathan Asser. Asser worked as a voluntary therapist in HM Prison Wandsworth, and if he’s seen half the things that go on in Starred Up, then that’s all the encouragement anyone should need to stay on the right side of the law.

As you’d perhaps expect from a gritty British prison drama, Starred Up (the film is named after a term given to a young offender who is moved up into adult prison) can be pretty brutal and uncompromising. Within the first few minutes, Eric has already put a snapped radio aerial to a guard’s throat and that pretty much sets the tone for the film.

However, fortunately there’s a massive amount more to the film than just prison brutality. At the centre of the story is Eric’s relationship with two different people: his father Neville who’s also in prison with him, and Oliver the prison therapist. Both Neville and Oliver offer Eric something missing from his life up to that point, and although Eric is resistant to both in the outset, it’s interesting to see how the relationships develop and evolve over the course of the film.

Jack O'Connell

See, Eric is a pretty abhorrent individual; there’s almost nothing to like about him whatsoever, and yet somehow you end up feeling sympathetic towards him. It might be pushing it to say he’s some kind of anti-hero, but there’s just something about him that instils a sense of sympathy in you.

This could very well be down to Jack O’Connell’s superb central performance. O’Connell fills the role of Eric with malice and angst, and it’s a fantastic physical performance at times, although he also brings a wonderful layer of vulnerability to the character. He perfectly shows the character’s inner conflict, and there’s a real tension whenever he’s on screen as he’s just so unpredictable. Ben Mendelsohn is also excellent as Eric’s father Neville. There’s a similar conflict within him, struggling to know how to do right by his son whom he’s never really been around to care for.

What does let the film down a little is that at times it feels somewhat contrived and cliched. Making a weapon out of a toothbrush and razor blade, a corrupt prison governor, the suggestion that you’ll turn gay in prison; this kind of thing doesn’t hold the story back at all, but does feel like we’ve been there a few too many times before.

Some slight contrivances aside, Starred Up is a solid character-driven drama. It’s bleak and unflinching at times, which may put some people off, but it’s well worth seeing for Jack O’Connell’s performance alone.

Pros

  • Brilliant performance from Jack O’Connell
  • Ben Mendelsohn also impressive
  • Interesting relationships between the main characters

Cons

  • Sometimes contrived and cliched

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

 

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What D’ya Mean You Haven’t Seen… Schindler’s List?

This long forgotten feature was set up to jot down thoughts on classic films that I was only just getting around to watching – my blindspot series if you will. And I set it up primarily because I hadn’t seen one film in particular: Schindler’s List.

Well I finally found the time to watch it and needless to say it’s worth all the praise and acclaim that has poured its way in the decade and a bit since its release.

Plot: Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) is a German businessman who hires Jewish workers in his factories because they cost less. Horrified by the treatment of the Jews by the Nazis, along with his Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) he seeks to save the lives of as many of them as possible by employing them, thus making them essential to the German war effort. However, he must do so under the watchful eye of the merciless SS officer Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes)

One of the first things that struck me is that even though it was made in 1993, it feels like a much older film. Now that’s not in any way a criticism, but I felt like I was watching a film from the 1950s or 60s. It had a very classic feel to it, almost like a film noir at times, particularly in its use of chiaroscuro lighting.

However, the most overwhelming thing I took from it in terms of how it was shot, was that it looked very much like documentary footage a lot of the time. It was only after I watched the film did I find out this was deliberate on Spielberg’s part. The film was apparently influenced by Shoah, a 1985 French documentary about the Holocaust, and Spielberg stayed away from using techniques such as Steadicam or long shots that would have taken away from this documentary feel. Obviously the splash of colour on the little girl’s dress is an exception to this.

And this is one of the film’s biggest strengths. By making the whole thing look like a documentary, it seems to lend it even more credibility and gives it that little bit more emotional weight. These all seem like real people rather than just being based on them, which makes it all the more disturbing and heartbreaking seeing their struggles. Had Spielberg used more conventional filmmaking methods (ie. non-documentary) then it would probably have given the whole thing a little more gloss and the line between reality and fiction would have grown further apart.

Liam Neeson in Schindler's ListAs well as being a stunning film overall, Schindler’s List is littered with memorable scenes that will stick in your memory for a while afterwards and show Spielberg’s sometimes underrated genius as a director.

For example, seeing Nazi soldiers shooting Jewish people is something you’d probably expect to see in a film of this kind. However, here it plays out to classical music (Bach I think), creating a really disturbing counterpoint of what we see and what we hear. It’s not exactly a groundbreaking technique, but a no less effective one.

Another fascinating scene sees Ralph Fiennes’ character taking aim with a rifle from his mansion (which I think resembles the Bates motel in Psycho) and shooting Jewish workers in the concentration camp for no reason whatsoever, although by this point reason doesn’t really come into anything. He sees it as sport, something to pass the time and it’s shocking.

However, I think the most affecting scene for me was listening to all of the concentration camp prisoners talking about what might happen to them. They’ve heard whispers that they won’t actually be sent into the showers to clean themselves but that they’ll be gassed to death. Despite what they’ve heard, virtually all of them simply don’t believe it, purely because they say it wouldn’t make sense to kill them. Knowing what we know now, this is a real gut punch. They’re right, it doesn’t make sense; but none of it make sense. When we see them actually showered later on, it’s a wonderful moment when you think the worst is about to happen.

Schindler's ListIn terms of performances, it’s a pretty strong showing all round. Both Neeson are Fiennes were nominated for Oscars for their respective roles and it’s easy to see why. They’re both excellent, with Neeson in particular superb. A scene at the end of the film where he bursts into tears because he feels he hasn’t done enough to help people is wonderful yet heartbreaking. I also think that Ben Kingsley deserves a lot of credit as Itzhak Stern, Oskar’s Jewish accountant.

There really is very little to hold against Schindler’s List. Being a little picky, the actual ‘list’ part of the film actually comes very late on, and it doesn’t actually play that much of a part in the film’s plot. It would have been nice to see a little more of what happened during that whole process, whereas it gets glossed over a little. It also would have been nice had the film been in the German language. With Spielberg setting the film up to look like a documentary, it does take something away from it to hear them speaking English, although I do understand that having it in English means it plays to a wider audience and having subtitles would (unfortunately) alienate a chunk of its potential audience.

So I finally watched it, and I can now see why its so revered. As you’d expect, it’s not an easy watch, but it definitely a film that everyone should watch at some point. When it comes to films about World War II and the Holocaust, this is definitely the film against which all others should be measured.

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Film Review: The Book Thief

During World War II, Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse) is forced to leave her mother and go and live with a foster family in Nazi Germany. She finds solace in stealing books, but she and her new family could be in danger when her foster father Hans (Geoffrey Rush) agrees to hide Max (Ben Schnetzer), a Jew, from the Nazis.

Conviction. It’s something that all films need to have in order to make the audience believe in the story and care in the characters. Half-arsed or abandoned ideas do nothing but make the viewer apathetic towards the whole thing and ultimately have little interest in the story or its characters. Unfortunately, The Book Thief lacks conviction in almost every area.

The Book Thief is an adaptation of the critically acclaimed novel by Australian author Markus Zusak, but it’s perhaps the book’s biggest USP that is the film’s most obvious lack of conviction – the fact that it’s narrated by Death.

This was a really unique and clever idea that worked brilliantly on paper, but has not translated to the screen well at all. We hear the voice of Death at the beginning of the film but doesn’t show up again until about two-thirds through and then again at the end. It feels like the filmmakers didn’t want to include it but felt they couldn’t leave it out.

There’s also an issue of not really addressing the subject matter. It’s true that the film is more of a character piece than anything else but do these characters ever really develop? Only Emily Watson’s Rosa really evolves as a character, whilst the World War II setting seems strangely sanitised. Rosa’s claim that Liesel is filthy when she arrives would be more believable if she wasn’t so utterly pristine. For a more effective take on the horrors of war from a child’s perspective, then The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas might be a better bet.

The Book Thief does have some admirable qualities, however. Both Sophie Nélisse and Geoffrey Rush are excellent as Liesel and Hans respectively, and the relationship between the two is genuinely heartwarming. Nélisse balances Liesel’s headstrong, almost stubborn, attitude with vulnerability, whilst superbly bringing a naivety to the character which makes it chilling to see her acting so blithely towards the Nazis for most of the film. Rush is also excellent, giving Hans a real affection for Liesel whilst also displaying an eccentricity that makes him a very likeable character.

There are also a couple of really interesting scenes that really stand out. At one point we see Liesel and her friends dressed in Nazi Youth uniforms singing a propaganda song in a choir. This juxtaposition of ideas is really effective and horrifying to see what is essentially brainwashing of children who don’t really know better.

The Book Thief really had the potential to be better than it was, but it was ultimately let down by its inability to follow through with its ideas. From the seemingly random voiceovers from Death to the bizarre language switching from German to English throughout, it never truly finds a real identity. It has interesting moments scattered here and there but is never consistent enough to make your truly invested in it.

Pros

  • Good performances from Sophie Nélisse and Geoffrey Rush
  • Nice period detail
  • Effective in places

Cons

  • Narration by Death hugely underused
  • Little character development
  • Random language switching

2 and a half pigeons

2.5/5 pigeons

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