Monthly Archives: October 2013

The Evil Dead (1981) vs The Thing (1982)

This post first appeared as part of the Fortnight of Terror over at the excellent Not Now I’m Drinking a Beer and Watching a Movie, but now I’m sharing it for everyone else’s delectation. Enjoy and happy Halloween!

I first watched The Thing quite a few years ago. Since then I have watched the original Evil Dead for the first time and, having watched The Thing again, it shocked me just how similar the two are; sure, a lot of horror films stick by certain rules and display particular tropes, but the comparison between these two films seemed more similar than most others. The Evil Dead might be more supernatural horror compared to the alien/monster horror of The Thing, but the parallels are definitely there. Spoilers ahead, naturally…

Lead men

Both The Evil Dead and The Thing have pretty strong male leads who have become somewhat iconic in the horror genre. The Evil Dead has Ash, played by the legendary Bruce Campbell, who although doesn’t really stand out for the first third or so of the film, by the end is undoubtedly the hero of the group, stepping up to take care of business when needed. Campbell then become the central figure for both Evil Dead sequels, cementing his role as a cult figure.

evil-dead

The Thing has a similarly strong male lead in Kurt Russell’s Mac. Like Ash in The Evil Dead, Mac takes charge of the situation and has to do the unpleasant thing of putting people out of their misery. This is still one of Russell’s most iconic roles and arguably rivals Campbell’s Ash as one of the most recognisable leading men in horror films.

Isolated location

The Evil Dead’s fabled cabin in the woods is one of the most referenced and copied features of the film. It virtually invented the trope and it has rarely been used to such great effect. The cabin’s location is a forest in the Tennessee hills and, thanks to Sam Raimi’s direction, manages to create a simultaneous feeling of isolation and claustrophobia. It really feels like there is nothing for miles around, nowhere to escape from the evil forces within the cabin.

The Thing is set in the Antarctic at an American research station. Just like the cabin it feels truly isolated; there’s little to no chance anyone could escape without dying in some way, yet the inside of the research station feels scarily confined. The darkness of the Antarctic stretches on forever and the research station might as well be the last place left on Earth.

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Film Review: Captain Phillips

Captain Richard Phillips takes command of the MV Maersk Alabama for a journey from Oman to Kenya. However, as the boat passes near to the coast of Somalia, a group of pirates hijack the vessel. As captain, Phillips knows he has to do whatever it take to ensure safety of his crew.

Captain Phillips is a dramatisation of real-life events that took place in 2009, and inevitably there has been a great deal of discussion as to how closely the film portrays reality. Richard Phillips has stated that the film is a pretty decent depiction of events, whilst his crew, many of whom are still taking legal action against the captain for endangering their safety, have criticised the film for being wildly inaccurate and glorifying Phillips’ role. However, what can’t be argued is that Captain Phillips is one of the most intense white knuckle rides of the year.

Director Paul Greengrass does a fantastic job in ramping up the tension to almost unbearable levels, even though you’re pretty sure of how events are going to unfold. His use of shaky-cam is widespread, but never distracting, giving the whole thing a docu-drama feel at times, and combined with Barry Ackroyd’s cuperb cinematography really increases the sense of urgency and threat. Greengrass’s decision to keep the actors playing the pirates and those playing the crew completely separate until the scene in which the pirates board the ship was also inspired, as we’re seeing Hanks and pals’ genuine reaction to their first meeting.

Talking of Mr Hanks, he gives a superlative performance in the titular role. It could easily have been distracting having Hanks as the only real big name in the film, but he really throws himself head first into the part and delivers one of the best performances of his career. A scene towards the end with Hanks being examined by a medical officer is quite simply staggering. His equal and opposite, Barkhad Abdi who plays pirate leader Muse, is equally impressive in his first ever film role. He and Hanks work brilliantly together and provide the perfect foil for each other.

Nit-picks are few and far between and are just that – nit-picks. It’s rammed down our throats early on that pirates are obviously going to attack the ship through Phillips’ reading news articles about pirates and scenes dedicated to him checking locks. It didn’t need to spelled out to us. Also, there is the slight feeling of glorification of Phillips and his role, particularly if you’re aware of the true nature of the events, but this should be easy to overlook. We are allowed a glimpse into the lives of the pirates and shown that they are real people just trying to survive, but this feels a little under-explored.

When tackling real-life events such as this, filmmakers face an almost impossible task. They have to make the film entertaining without straying too far from what actually happened. Consequently, there’s nearly always a bit of give and take, and they use a little artistic license to make a more effective film. So whilst Captain Phillips may not be a 100% accurate representation of events, it still deserves to be recognised as an incredibly accomplished piece of filmmaking.

4 and a half pigeons

4.5/5 pigeons

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Analyzing De Niro: The Godfather Part II

This post was originally a part of the excellent Analyzing De Niro blogathon hosted over at You Talkin’ To Me?, a great blog run by Mark from Marked Movies and Tyson from Head in a Vice, focusing solely on the great Robert De Niro. If you aren’t already following these sites, then quite frankly you should be ashamed of yourselves.

Trying to follow up perhaps one of the greatest films of all time in The Godfather must have been a somewhat daunting task. It’s almost a perfect film. Sure, it might have a few issues here and there, but they don’t in any way stop it from being a simply wonderful film in practically every way.

I’ve seen The Godfather a fair few times but for some reason had never got around to seeing Part 2, despite often hearing how amazing it is, with some even ranking it above the first. When Mark and Tyson announced this blogathon, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally check it out.

I’ll start by stating that I don’t think it’s as good the first, but it definitely is a contender for best sequel of all time (or at least of those that I’ve seen).

al-pacino

The plot for The Godfather Part II is something along these lines: After taking over as Don of the Corleone family crime syndicate, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) looks to strengthen his position, both in the US and in Cuba. However, his ruthless search for power gains him many enemies both in his business and personal life. We also cut sporadically back in time to a young Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro), taking a look at how he initially rose to power as the Godfather.

The story of the young Vito Corleone is taken from sections of Mario Puzo’s book, whilst Michael’s story was written especially for the film by Puzo and director Francis Ford Coppola, and this is actually pretty clear in terms of tone. Vito Corleone’s sections do feel more akin to the first film, what with the Italian customs and locations, whereas the rest of the film has a different feel. It’s split between New York, Las Vegas, Cuba and a couple of other locations, helping to distinguish the past and the present and also to indicate a change in leadership and focus of the Corleone family operations.

The main story is much more involved this time around, with Michael’s business dealings taking centre stage. However, it can be difficult to keep track of exactly what’s going on with the Corleone family, who its friends are, who’s gunning for them, and the potential consequences of its actions. It requires much more investment and attention this time around, and missing just a single line of conversation could set you back.

It’s so meticulous in its construction but that’s part of its genius. Even the smallest action can have the biggest consequence, and seeing how every piece of the puzzle falls into place is a sight to behold and a hugely accomplished piece of filmmaking.

One issue I had with the film, though, was the absence of a certain Mr Brando as Don Vito Corleone. He was the beating heart of the first film and the void left by him is a huge one. However, we do have a young Robert De Niro playing Vito in his early days, which brings me on to…

Bobby on Board

Replacing the great Marlon Brando was almost an impossible task. He rightly picked up an Oscar in 1973 (although he declined it) for portraying the Don, and finding someone to portray the younger Vito was always going to be vital to the success of the film. Coppola had toyed with the idea of actually bringing Brando back to play the younger character, feeling he could play any character at pretty much any age. However, he remember an audition from the casting of the first film of a young Robert De Niro, saw him in Mean Streets and instantly decided on him for the role having been so impressed with him.

Taking on the role, De Niro took on his famous method acting persona, moving to Sicily, learning the language, gaining and losing weight throughout the process and even wearing a smaller version of the mouth appliance Brando wore in The Godfather. He would show similar dedication in most of his roles, probably most notable in Raging Bull when he gained a then record 60 pounds to play boxer Jake LaMotta.

And it all paid off. For me, De Niro’s sections of the film are the most interesting and entertaining. We get to see more of the Italian life from the first film and his performance is near perfect. Most of his dialogue is in Sicilian and he exudes the same air of confidence and power that Brando did. The tics and mannerisms are present and correct and you can genuinely imagine him growing older to become Don Vito Corleone. In fact, I’d probably be happy watching an entire film of Bobby doing his thing.

De Niro would go on to win an Oscar for Best Actor In A Supporting Role, becoming one of only six actors to win an Academy Award for a role spoken primarily in a language other than English. Also, De Niro and Brando are the only two actors to receive an Oscar for portraying the same character.

Take De Niro and his sections out of the film and it undoubtedly harms it. Still a relatively new name at the time, The Godfather: Part II well and truly put him on the map and remains one of his standout performances even now.

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Film Review: The Hunt

Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) is a nursery school teacher in a tight-knit Danish village. However, when one of the children accuses him of sexual wrongdoing towards her, the community turns against him. Only his son and a few close friends stand by him as he struggles to clear his name.

Films can elicit myriad emotional responses, be it sadness, happiness, fright, etc. However, The Hunt evoked a response in me that few other films have – anger.

This isn’t a film based on a true story, but it would have come as no surprise if it were, which is hugely depressing. This kind of story crops up in the mass media more and more frequently, and like the film, there seems to be a guilty until proven innocent viewpoint. Everyone’s quick to judge without knowing all the facts, which in the days of social media, is a worryingly frequent trend.

Here, the young girl who made the accusations, Klara, is asked leading questions by authorities who have already decided what they believe, which is massively infuriating to watch. Lucas is a man hounded to the very edge of breaking point, and seeing those he previously considered friends condemning him with nary a second thought is heartbreaking and had me seething at various points throughout.

However, there is always two sides to every coin, and the film does raise some interesting moral dilemmas. It’s easy to look upon such a situation with a neutral eye, but if your child’s teacher was accused of similar indecency, would you be able to keep a level head? It’s almost impossible to answer.

Cinematically, the film succeeds on just about every level. The cinematography is beautiful and everything we’ve come to expect from Scandinavian dramas. Cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen does a superb job of creating a quaint rural village that becomes increasingly claustrophobic as Lucas’s life collapses.

And then we come onto Mikkelsen’s portrayal of the wronged school teacher. Even when carefree and popular, Mikkelsen’s Lucas is a joy to behold, but when the brown stuff hits the air conditioning and he’s on the ropes, he takes it to another level. One scene in church on Christmas Eve is is shocking and tragic and Mikkelsen hits every note perfectly. There are also a couple of excellent secondary performances from Thomas Bo Larson as Theo, father of the girl Lucas is said to have wronged, and Lasse Fogelstrøm as Marcus, Lucas’s son.

The Hunt weighs heavily on its audience. It’s a hugely emotive topic and one that could have been simply too dark. However, there is still enough optimism in there to keep this from happening. The darkness and futility is punctuated with support from Lucas’s friends and son who act as a glimmer of hope for him. There are a couple of slight plot issues towards the start of the film, but they don’t in any way overshadow what is a truly absorbing piece of cinema – even if I did want to yell at the screen throughout.

4 and a half pigeons

4.5/5 pigeons

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Film Review: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Jesse James (Brad Pitt) is a notorious criminal with almost legendary status. Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) has looked up him since childhood and attempts to join his gang, but over the years grows to resent his idol.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (herein referred to as The Assassination of Jesse James) is a an appropriately long title for a film clocking in at nearly three hours. However, it’s a film that uses almost every minute of that run time wisely to help construct fascinating characters and an absorbing world in which they exist.

See, The Assassination of Jesse James has an almost fairytale-like quality, with Jesse a Robin Hood type figure widely revered despite his criminal activity. This paints him as a clear anti-hero, clearly the most identifiable character in the film. Showing Jesse also as a family man, caring for his children is a lovely touch, allowing for a much deeper character. Conversely, Casey Affleck’s Robert Ford instantly becomes the most dislikeable character in the film, portrayed as a snivelling two-faced sycophant.

Much of the praise for the characterisation has to go to the actors. Both Pitt and Affleck are excellent; Pitt’s laid-back, almost nonchalant performance superbly contrasts with Affleck’s eagerness, whilst others such as Sam Rockwell and Jeremy Renner also turn in good performances, which again adds to the depth of the film.

It’s got to be said that The Assassination of Jesse James is not a film to sling on if you want some light-hearted, mindless entertainment. It’s long and deliberately slow paced, demanding your attention from the first minute to the last. It does occasionally meander a little too much, losing a little focus, but these moments are few and fleeting. As such, it may even warrant a second viewing to truly appreciate everything it offers.

And one of the things that really does deserve to be appreciated is the film’s stunning cinematography. There’s a brooding, ethereal quality to the film which adds to the fairytale-like atmosphere. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is outstanding, with every shot a work of art that deserves to be appreciated.

What’s interesting about the The Assassination of Jesse James is that you already know how it’s going to end; it says so in the title. But the ‘what’ and the ‘who’ aren’t really what’s important here. What’s important is the ‘why’. The film is a journey, more of Robert Ford’s than Jesse James’s, and it’s interesting to see how all of the minutiae add up to form the climax you know is on its way.

It may be long and it may be demanding, but it’s well worth the effort.

4 and a half pigeons

4.5/5 pigeons

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What is… Film à Clef?

Film à clef, or film à clé, is a type of film based on real life but played out as fiction. The term is French for ‘film with a key’, with the ‘key’ referring to the process of swapping out real names with fictional ones. It is the film version of roman à clef, which is the literary, and presumably original, equivalent.

This type of film is different from biopics, whether they’re based on a real person or not, as they’re not played as fact; it’s told solely as fiction. A common type of film à clef is when a fiction film is based on the writer’s personal experiences.

There are countless examples of film à clef, but some of the more notable ones include:

  • Citizen Kane – Kane was based on American newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst.
  • Magnolia – apparently loosely inspired by director Paul Thomas Anderson’s experience of dealing with the death of his father from cancer.
  • Lost In Translation – Scarlett Johansson and Giovanni Ribisi’s characters are believed to be based on writer/director Sofia Coppola and her ex-husband Spike Jonze.
  • Saving Private Ryan – Loosely based on the story of the Niland brothers.

Do you have any others that spring to mind? Is there a film of type that’s a favourite of yours? Drop a comment below and let me know.

For more entries in the ‘What is…?’ series, click here and (hopefully) learn a little bit about deep focus, chiaroscuro, German Expressionism, and more.

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Shitfest 2013: Fall – The Forgotten

the-forgottenThis post was part of the Shitfest 2013: Fall blogathon held over at the pant-creamingly awesome The IPC. Click here for the rest of the entries.

Before we go any further, I thought it best to warn people that I am going to spoil this film. As in I’m going to give away the big reveal at the end, but you’re not missing much so it probably doesn’t matter.

Now, I think most of us can agree that Julianne Moore is a reasonably inoffensive actress; some may even like her. As such, I had no qualms about slinging on The Forgotten and, ya know what, I was actually quite enjoying the film for a while.

Plot thus: Telly (Julianne Moore) believes her son in a plane crash, although her husband says that they never had a son and that she imagining the whole thing. On the verge of being towed away by men in white coats, she does a runner and meets Ash (Dominic West) whose daughter he also believes was killed in that same crash.

See, that sounds pretty cool and it has this whole government conspiracy thing going on. What really happened with the plane crash? Was there ever really a crash at all? Is Telly crazy? Not really the most original of plots but intriguing nonetheless. So we’re plodding along and it’s obvious we’re going to get some big reveal or twist. Just what have the government been up to and did her son ever really exist? We’re about to find out and….

Aliens

Yep, it was all aliens. At no point have we been aware that this was even possible, but it was aliens abducting people and erasing memories and stuff like that; I can’t even remember that much anymore. It was a pretty effective twist in that I didn’t see it coming at all, but it was so ridiculous that I think I sat open mouthed for the rest of the film in utter shock that someone could write something so lazy.

You could do that to end pretty much any film if you’re struggling to work out how to end it. The Usual Suspects? He was an alien all along. Citizen Kane? Rosebud was an alien. Fight Club? Aliens. It just felt like such a cop out. I had a similar reaction to Knowing but that had Nicolas Cage in it, so I could forgive it a little more.

I also read (thanks Wikipedia) that when the film aired on cable they changed all plane crash references to that of a bus crash. Why? Worried about upsetting people? What about people killed in bus crashes? Again, utterly ridiculous.

So, if there’s any budding scriptwriters out there wondering how to end their film, simply follow The Forgotten’s formula – just say it was aliens. Easy.

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Film Review: Rush

RUSH

British Formula 1 driver and playboy James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) is aiming to clinch the F1 title, but he must overcome Austrian driver Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) to do so. However, their increasingly intense rivalry has devastating consequences both on and off the track.

Sports films are always difficult to pull off, especially when the sport in question isn’t that popular in one of your main target markets. That’s the challenge Ron Howard was faced with when he signed up for Rush. Here in the UK, Formula One has a pretty large following, but in the US Nascar is the king of track and, therefore, Howard needed to make the film accessible on a human level, as well as making the racing exciting and authentic. It could easily have been a car crash (pun most definitely intended), but instead it’s got a good shout at being the quintessential racing film.

Howard has admitted that prior ti getting involved in Rush he knew nothing of F1, which makes his achievement all the more spectacular. Capturing the feel and thrill of F1 isn’t easy but everything from the speed of the cars to the pit lane urgency to the cinema-shaking roar of the engines is present and correct. There’s a Hans Zimmer score in there somewhere apparently, but the only sound you’ll likely remember is the V6 engines of McLarens, Ferraris, etc, melting your ears off. Mention should also go to Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill for their quite brilliant editing.

Off the track, both lead characters are wonderfully portrayed. Hunt and Lauda are polar opposites, with the former being larger than life and wreckless, with a penchant for living all aspects of his life at 100mph, not just on the track. Lauda, on the other hand is calculated and measured. He works on percentages rather than passion, knowing exactly how his car works and prefers an early night rather than a life of vice. These personalities aren’t subtly played out; everything is spelled out pretty plainly, which might be a little simple for some, but still works superbly. Chris Hemsworth is perfectly smug and arrogant as Hunt, his annoyingly good looks making him the ideal choice for the role, whilst Daniel Brühl’s performance as Niki Lauda could be an outside chance for an Oscar nomination.

Creating a human element to the film does require some creative license, meaning there are some inevitable historical inaccuracies, although the majority of audiences won’t likely pick up on these. There are also certain scenes that feel as if they’re invented solely for dramatic purposes, which although still work reasonably well for the most part, do make you question their authenticity in a film based on real events.

Whilst the film might still be a more difficult sell to non-F1 fans, there’s a huge amount to enjoy even if you don’t know your Silverstones from your Nürburgrings. Howard has done exactly what he needed to do, perfectly marrying the on and off-track to create a drama that’s tense, touching and breathless from the starting grid to the checkered flag.

4 and a half pigeons

4.5/5 pigeons

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