Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Great trailers #3

Try not to read the comments.

How lovely it is to see the true masters back on the silver screen.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Guilty Filmic Pleasures #1 - Nic Cage

Nic Cage in Bath's Christmas Lights

I like Nic Cage – there I said it! Happy now? Yes, I know. I know but he has made some great films. In fact, he’s usually pretty good in awful films for that matter. I have just finished watching the truly dreadful Drive Angry. Possibly the worst film I have seen in the last ten years and I only finished watching it because of Nic Cage. Had it have been Pacino, De Niro or Cruise I would have switched it off at least an hour before the end. There are not many actors these days that summon that type of passion.

Nic Cage is a guilty pleasure – the filmic equivalent to eating a large box of maltesers in one sitting, enjoying hearing Barry Manilow sing or picking the raised bits of woodchip wallpaper.

The other great thing about The Cage is that you know what you will get before seeing it. All films work on slight variations on a theme – similar stories are offered twists through their choice of actors, settings or directors. To blame Nic Cage (or anyone for that matter) for not offering something new is like complaining that all cakes are full of calories – that’s the point – but you do know that going in! What you should do is openly accept both their good and bad points and enjoy both in equal measure. After all, you cannot split the calories from the cake so you may as well put up and shut up.

So, I like Nic Cage. No, he’s not the greatest actor but what he does do (which can’t be said of all actors) is that he genuinely seems to be enjoying himself up there on the screen. If he turned round to the camera, looked in the eye of every member in the audience, winked and said, “no, it’s not great but I have a tax bill to pay and, hey we’re having fun ain’t we?” I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised.

Of late, The Cage has routinely knocked out three films a year. All pretty much the same – similar stories, similar roles, only the setting, time and co-stars vary. And this isn’t a criticism, lots of the old school movie stars did the same – Bogart, Grant et all were all really good at being themselves. And no one does Nic Cage better than Nic Cage (though the guy on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was very good).

From the speeding and slowing of the voice, the incessant twitching of the arms (like he’s getting a new shirt to fit around the wrists) to the ever changing, always ridiculous, hairstyles. The Cage is a man for all seasons – an actor who positively revels in his shortcomings and one who, should the script and director be up to it, can be the best actor of his generation.

Yes, it’s true – The Cage can knock the ball out of the park when he needs to. Don’t believe me or feel it’s a fluke when he does? Have you seen Wild at Heart? It’s brilliant. I know David Lynch directed at – when he was at the top of his game but the entire film hangs on Cage’s performance and it’s one of his best. If you haven’t seen it for a while – just watch the opening scene and imagine it was the opening of National Treasure 3 and tell me Cage isn’t a great performer as well as actor.

More proof? Try Raising Arizona. The Coens’ were hot after Blood Simple and offered this screwball crime film (I am reluctant to cheapen it by using the word ‘caper’). True, it has the brilliant Holly Hunter and John Goodman to add weight but, again, it’s Cage who gives the film the heart and humour it needs. All Coens’ film lean heavily on the actors and here Cage delivers in great style. Ask yourself why their remake of The Ladykillers didn’t work – it was because they didn’t have the usual gang in it. Imagine it now with Goodman, Turturro, Buscemi and Cage and imagine how great it could have been. It’s a real shame that Cage never teamed up with the Coens again. But he did – once – and it’s great.

Of course, this leaves the argument open for you to argue that he may have been good once but lost it now. Which isn’t a bad accusation until you remember just how great he was in Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation playing twins! He could have been twice as over the top but he offered performances of great subtlety wit and anxiety.

To bring the argument right up to date watch Werner Herzog’s remake of Bad Lieutenant where he combines the best twitching and screaming of his more commercial work with the depth of his greatest.
You’ve probably noticed I haven’t even mentioned Leaving Las Vegas and that won him an Oscar. Too easy you might say, he won it at the height of “play someone with an infliction and you’ll win something”. It’s nonsense – it’s a great performance and Nic Cage is a great actor.

For every Ghost Riding Johnny Blaze there’s a Yuri Orlov in Lord of War. For every remake of the Wicker Man there’s a Matchstick Men, Guarding Tess or Red Rock West.

So I ask is that you don’t judge Nic Cage too harshly – it’s not his fault – it’s our fault. Take to the streets and demand he gets the scripts and filmmakers he deserves. If you don’t take action right now, Bangkok Dangerous 2 could be just around the next corner.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Great trailers #2a

This one's obvious as it follows on from trailer 2. You can't beat a bit of intertextuality and it's always nice to see Jason Alexander in anything.

Paul Ruebens hadn't been seen in anything cinematic since he was caught perfecting his Pee Wee Big Top Adventure in the cinema so it was a welcome return for him too.

Great trailers #2

I am a sucker for a Bond film. I love everything about them and I think 1995's Goldeneye

I really liked the Goldeneye teaser trailer because, after a six year gap, it challenges the audience and demands you pay attention.

Pretty much everything a trailer should do to be honest.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Bad haircuts in great movies

I watched Stargate last night - I hadn't seen it for a long time and, late on a warm night, you can't beat a dumb ass blockbuster. However, the only thing that struck me was how dumb ass Kurt Russell's hair is in it. Truly truly dreadful.

So, with this in mind, I give you my top five manes of shame.

Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men

Hugh Jackman, The Fountain 
Cameron Diaz, Being John Malkcovich
Kurt Russell, Stargate
Patrick Swayze, Point Break

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Cinema's arch nemesis - the weather.

It is said that cinema has many enemies - illegal downloads, people texting, talking and generally behaving badly. The expensive prices, the (occasional) out of focus projection - the poor food, dreadful service (need I go on?). This is before we actually begin to discuss the films themselves with their ill-concieved plotlines, their belief that 3D can fix everything and their ridiculous running times (no Katherine Heigl should be allowed, by law if necessary, to run over 93 minutes).

However all this is small change compared to something we all welcome. Something we hope for - something we spend all winter anticipating. It is the good old British Summer. So sun-starved are we that the moment the rain stops (we don't even wait for the sun to shine anymore) we strip off, apply cooking oil, and head anywhere except the local cinema.

Films that have spent years in production and a couple of hundred million quid being made are ignored in favour of preventing a vitamin D deficiency and turning bright red in a beer garden, that has lain unused for the previous 355 days.

Cinema-going is a very fickle business. You really want to see a film until a friend tells you it's not that good and you lose interest completely. A film by a favourite actor, writer, director may be abandoned in favour of one that is starting just as you arrive - regardless of the fact you don't really like who's in it or fancy the story.

Of course, as film lovers we are different. We like the challenge - we actively seek out films in cinemas we like (rather than at the multiplex), will import dvds of films that never got released here and like to think we will go and see a film regardless of the climate.

The irony is the longer the sun shines the more people will soak it up and ignore everything cinema. The fear is that if they head indoors, the sun will huff and they will come out blinking into the darkness like those kids at the end of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

If you don't believe me, get yourself off to the local multiplex while the sun's still shining and see Thor - chances are you'll have the cinema to yourself.

Friday, 29 April 2011

Great trailers #1

Just looking at that last post reminds me that a great film does not necessarily equate to a great trailer. Of course a great trailer should never be taken as any reflection on the quality of the film - we've all said, at some point, "the best bits were in the trailer".

So, in an occasional post I will share trailers I really like.

First up - Comedian.

Films to rewatch

I recently saw Source Code, the new film by Moon director Duncan Jones, and it blew me away. For a second film it was confident, at times narratively daring and, despite being billed as ‘this year’s Inception’, had enough originality to counter that claim.

I was at a loose end over the Easter weekend and decided to see it again – this time it didn’t blow me away. I found it contrived and overblown – attempting to cover the fact that it was quickly running out of steam by restarting and retelling – like a forgettable child telling an over complicated joke.

A film that constantly restarts, retells and reimagines was always going to run out of story well before the end of the film and Source Code is no exception  - quite easily the last 15 minutes could have been lost without sacrificing the energetic pace which works well on first viewing but failed to excite on second.
This got me thinking, should films be rewatched? What enables a film to be revisited over the years without losing any of its magic and sparkle? Once you know the story – well, you know the story. Camera tricks date – performances become stilted and dated.

With this in mind, here’s my guide to films you can rewatch and rewatch and rewatch…

On the Waterfront – rarely has a film been so closely studied as this one. Marlon Brando’s key role as Terry Malloy the dock worker caught between corruption and love. It sounds like the stuff of B-movie post war cliché but is elevated and made rewatchable by the performances (now highly stylised but at the time represented a move away from overly theatrical onscreen performances). It should also be remembered that many saw this as director’s Elia Kazan’s response to the criticism he faced for naming names to the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the early 1950s. It was felt that much of the story (the cowardly act of staying silent as opposed to the heroism of naming names) was a direct response to the troubled part in Hollywood’s history. It also won eight Oscars and has a brilliant score by Leonard Bernstein – Karl Malden is also very cool in it.

North By Northwest – is simply the best film for studying narrative. Alfred Hitchcock’s tale of mistaken identity sees Cary Grant go on the run, avoiding crop dusters and being knifed at the United Nations before dangling off Teddy Roosevelt’s nose in the final sequence. It is as if Hitchcock made this film to be rewatched (despite this being released in the time before movies were a mainstay of television). Each time you do, you pick up on looks to the camera, edits and camera angles that reveal more and more about the plot and the characters intention. Second viewings are almost always accompanied by, “ah, I see it now…” statements.

The Usual Suspects – I never tire of this film. Yes, there’s a twist but it doesn’t matter if you know it, guess it, could not care less about it. The brilliance comes in the audacity of director Bryan Singer (in only his second feature) to wrong foot the audience and suggest that the previous 100 minutes were little more than made up and the information given out could not be trusted (which surely film is anyway). Whichever way you look at it – you should look at it again.

The Big Lebowski – not for any narrative reason (except to delight in its absolute storytelling madness) but rewatch to enjoy the performances and great lines. In much the same way you can keep watching classic stand up comedy performances because of the timing, Lebowski works in the same way. I could have placed Withnail and I here for exactly the same reasons.

The Prestige – it was difficult to pick just one Christopher Nolan film (I could easily have picked Memento) but felt this was a stronger choice because it delights in tormenting the audience where Memento (albeit brilliant) does hold back in places. The story of two competing magicians and a coverted trick is little more than smoke and mirrors that allows Nolan to show off this storytelling skills gathered from his earlier work. Wouldn’t Batman Begins have been (even more) brilliant if it had jumped around more with its timeline? The Prestige also has David Bowie in it – always worth double points in any poll I run…

Friday, 22 April 2011

Summer releases

As it's the first Bank Holiday of the year, the sun is shining and my peely wally skin is beginning to burn, my mind naturally wanders to the summer holidays, air conditioned cinemas and the fact that Hollywood brings out the big guns to ensure it makes enough money to do it all again next year.

Following on from last year's Toy Story 3 and Inception releases - can this summer possibly be any better?

The blockbuster season usually kicks off a couple of weeks into May and, every other week into the August Bank Holiday, will see huge star, franchise and concept film released. The smaller, independent, foreign language films are only released to give people some refuge - don't expect to see them at your local multiplex - this isn't Oscar season.

Ignoring the Easter release Thor (how many films did Natalie Portman make before going on maternity leave?) the summer gets underway on 18th May with the release of the new Pirates film - playing in 3D and IMAX it will offer more of the same (thrills), for more of the same (money) and everyone will leave feeling the same (that's probably enough now - we don't need a fifth).

Two weeks later it's The Hangover 2 - granted an unlikely blockbuster but this is exactly what Hollywood craves - a small to medium budget film that coins it in at the box office. It costs little but yields a huge return. These are fluke films that no one expects to hit but part of the reward (other than the financial side) is that it does hit - it connects and finds an audience. It's very difficult to repeat as part of the appeal of the original is that no one expected it. With this in mind, it will be interesting to see how The Hangover 2 plays.

From this moment on, the films fly thick and fast, X-Men: First Class, comes at the end of May. After the middling success of Wolverine Fox will be looking to get their franchise back on track and what better way to win back an audience than to completely change the cast and director? Imagine changing the entire cast of Coronation Street and expecting people to watch - I'm sure it would work...

More 3D with Kung Fu Panda 2 and Transformers 3 (pity the poor cinemas who only have one 3D projector - look out for 'For Sale' signs of the smaller independent cinemas who have none...).

I'm exhausted already and it's only the beginning of July. Research and wisdom tells us the average person will visit the cinema three times a year - the summer, Christmas and one other. If you hear people laughing at an advert you've seen a thousand times or complaining the cinema is always busy - that's your average person right there.

So, go, enjoy the summer and what the cinema has to offer. Without these big films, which are made to appeal to everyone, with (usually) no more than a 12a certificate and a 110 minute running time, the smaller films, your King's Speech, Black Swan, Submarine and Animal Kingdom, would never get made.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

I am a huge fan of the 1968 original. The whole 'what if?' concept is great and, for me, it is the perfect film to end the 1960s. The film is full of shots of people looking into sunsets contemplating the future and their place in it - when their once familiar environment has changed beyond all recognition. Is there a better analogy for the end of the swinging sixties?

Tim Burton's 2001 remake, though perfectly watchable, is little more than a two hour fight in which Wahlberg whines his way through the narrative - picking fault and attempting to change his new found space - unlike Heston in the original who attempted not to fit in but to flee this place he wants no part of. The brilliant end sequence would not have taken place if Heston had stayed and orchestrated change - it only works because he believes there's something better out there. Arguably, this change for change sake (rather than for the better) is a fitting way to remember the noughties.

Which brings us to Rise of the Planet of the Apes which, according to the website, is an origin story (obviously Hollywood has tired of the word reboot - either that or it is playing with Darwin's Origin of the Species...).

It certainly looks good and zips along at a fair pace. However, the point of good science-fiction is to address contemporary concerns by highlighting them in a different setting. With this in mind, it will be interesting to see just what this new film brings to the franchise.

Friday, 4 February 2011

The problem with 3d films

It's been a week since I went to see Disney's 50th animated feature Tangled. However, I won't spend this post discussing it (it's a girl's film that seems desperate to make it on to the stage...). This post is about 3d. A media that privileges melons being thrown at the camera rather than any form of character development or inspiring narratives.

True, Tangled did encourage me to get a haircut but, to be fair, I was going to get one anyway - and it had very little to do with the main character's golden locks hitting me in the face every time she twirled around.

But back to 3d. My one and only question - what's the point? What does 3d actually add to the cinema experience. Ignoring the fact that that is two questions I think it adds very little to the cinema experience except to the price. A visit to my local underused, underloved and, at best, rotting Odeon at 2.30pm in the afternoon resulted in me paying £8.60 for a ticket plus £1.00 for the glasses! That's a tenner to go to the cinema in the afternoon - no sweets, drinks, nowt! Of course, you can reuse the glasses next time you go but, at £8.60 a ticket for a matinee performance, I don't think I'll be returning too often.

So other than receiving a fleecing, rarely experienced outside of the west end of London, what do I, the regular cinema goer, get from a 3d film? Very little as far as I can tell. Toy Story 3 - one of my films last year - was not improved in any way by having a toy thrown at the screen every twenty minutes or so (punctuated in this way to remind you it's in 3d). The brilliant story was no better, the characters no more round or developed and, more tellingly, the film loses nothing when shown on one of those old fashioned, rusty and redundant plasma tellys bought way back in 2009...

So who wins with 3d?

I don't think it's the viewer. I continue to find 3d little more than a gimmick, a parlour trick that amuses and pleases a couple of times before the novelty wears off. By and large the majority of 3d tricky does little more than separate the foreground from the background - in much the same way pop up books do. Way to go cutting edge Hollywood.

The filmmaker? Except for James Cameron no one director has made a success out of 3d - and Cameron has only done it once (the success I am talking about here is the box office take - not critical reception). To say James Cameron is a successful 3d filmmaker would be like saying Joe Dolce is a successful recording artist. One hit is a curious wonder not a revolution.

The industry, ah now it becomes interesting. Firstly, you cannot copy/bootleg a 3d film. This makes it very attractive to the studio as films are being 'cammed' and uploaded to the internet on their day of release - the studio believes this hits box office and in turn jeopardises future film production. I don't buy this, there are only two people I hear talking about bootlegging films off the net.

The first is the ardent film fan who really wants to see the new release by a certain filmmaker or actor and is forced to go online to see it because their local cinema is only playing the latest 3d films or something with Seth Rogan in it. These are the same film lovers who will travel 50, 60 miles to watch films - who own the DVDs and blu rays - the very people the industry should be cherishing not threatening with law suits.

The second group are the people who never ever go to the cinema! The people who may go and see the latest Bond film very couple of years but little else. This is hardly taking away from box office receipts if these people never contributed in the first place!

The other important factor to bear in mind about 3d and digital films in general is that they are much cheaper to transport to the cinemas than conventional prints. The cost of shipping 35mm prints around America is between 2 and 3billion dollars every year. This will be cut considerably by the mass uptake of digital projection where shipping hard drives will be a couple of quid rather than the thirty-plus currently charged.

This is before you consider the actual cost of making (striking) the prints. The average price of a conventional 35mm print is about £1000. A digital hard drive version of the same film will cost about £100 and this is before the films are beamed down via satellite like the the one off screenings of opera and gigs that are currently burning up the local multiplex. The other advantage to the film companies of a digital print is that they never wear out - the 100th screening is as bright and clear as the first - something you cannot say about an old print that is scratchy and becomes unwatchable at the reel changes.

So prints are cheaper to make and distribute than ever before and yet I am still charged considerably more to watch a 3d (and by default a digital) film.

This isn't the feel good Hollywood happy ending I paid (over the odds) for.