Category: Movie Reviews

Fan Film Review: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, 2001-2003

The Lord of the Rings The Fellowship of the Ring movie posterBefore I start, I want to clarify that this is a review of the films only. I have read the books between 13-20 times (I lost count at 13) and seen the whole trilogy of films more than 20 times. I have also read The Hobbit 3 or 4 times, read the Silmarillion twice, The Book of Lost Tales, Unfinished Tales and The Children of Hurin, so I would say I am pretty familiar with Tolkien’s work. The films are a pretty good reflection of the books but they are not an accurate rendering on screen, so if you really want to know and understand Tolkien, read the books; the man was a genius, so I can’t even attempt to do him justice in a review of his work. We are simply talking about Peter Jackson’s excellent movies here. I will attempt to outline what is good and bad about the movies and compare them with the books, as well as Harry Potter and Game of Thrones, both of which it’s frequently compared to. This whole review is a spoiler, so if you don’t want to know what happens to the characters, don’t read this.

The Fellowship of the Ring
The three movies begin with the Fellowship of the Ring. Frodo Baggins, nephew of the wealthy, respected (if only because of his wealth) and usually reserved Bilbo Baggins. Bilbo returned from an adventure some 70s years before with treasure that included a ring of invisibility. We needn’t concern ourselves with that story here; read The Hobbit for details of his adventure. Frodo is perplexed when Bilbo puts on the ring at his 111th Birthday disappears and then abruptly leaves the Shire, homeland of the diminutive race of hobbits. Only the wizard Gandalf, who has been a friend of the family since Bilbo’s adventure, has a clue what the ring is; it is the One Ring, a ring forged to control the races of men, dwarves and elves in ancient times by Sauron the Great, servant of the Lord of Darkness himself, Morgoth.

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Fan Film Review: The Song Remains the Same, 1976 – Led Zeppelin

The Song Remains the Same posterThe Song Remains the Same is quite simply the best movie of a live concert I have ever seen. I was going to concerts in the 70s – I saw Santana do 5 encores at Wembley Arena, the last being simply an extended jam and I watched Jethro Tull suffer an electrical failure and perform an acoustic set only to get the power back on and launch into an incredibly 30-minute jam at the end, but I have never seen anything to top Led Zeppelin live at Madison Square Gardens in 1973. Now we have got that out of the way, for those who haven’t seen it yet, what are you missing?

I won’t discuss length, because, though long, you have to view this as a movie with many segments, so if you are any kind of rock music fan, you won’t get bored. The movie starts with short vignettes – fantasy snapshots – of each bandmember receiving ‘news’ of a new tour; Robert Plant is by a remote waterfall in Wales, Bonham on his way to the pub (where else?) in his hot rod, John Paul Jones in his mansion’s kitchen with his wife and Jimmy Page by a lake in his Sussex mansion. Finally, we get to see Peter Grant, the larger-than-life but often forgotten manager of Led Zeppelin, a man who has been called the 5th member, in his Sussex mansion.

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Movie Review: Oblivion, 2013

Oblivion movie still of the Sky Tower
Oblivion movie still of the Sky Tower

What more can be said of Tom Cruise in sci-fi roles? He always seems to deliver, so I was expecting something a bit special when I sat down to watch Oblivion last week.

Things were looking good after half an hour; great sets, great scenery and great special effects. Cruise was, as usual, dry in his delivery of Jack’s lines and held my attention.

 

But then I noticed something odd; Andrea Risborough, as Jack’s girlfriend and teammate Victoria, was acting badly. I thought, ‘Oh yeah, she must be an android and this will all be explained properly later,’ but no, the further into the movie I got, the more it became apparent that Victoria was human, and therefore badly portrayed. I am not saying Risborough can’t act, but she must have been at least badly cast here. It makes all the scenes with Cruise wooden and the love-making scene was just embarrassing.

But then along comes Olga Kurylenko. I won’t spoil the plot by telling you what relationship she has with Jack, but her acting is convincing and the story began to take off.

Morgan Freeman then put in an appearance. His flying googles, stubbly beard and short, white hair worked very well, allowing him to bring a new level to the film in a very convincing way.
Little touches, like the Led Zeppelin song Ramble On, were nice. In general the soundtrack worked very well and the tempo of the film increased nicely.
The sets of sunken landmarks like the Brooklyn Bridge were a bit cliched. Such things have become overused in sci-fi movies since the original Planet of the Apes, but I didn’t mind too much.
The main twist of the movie only began to dawn on me in the second half of the movie, which may not be a bad thing, and then I was further confused by the appearance of Cruise’s double. Being confused is something I expect to feel during a good sci-fi movie so all was good.
The climax of the movie is a sacrificial scene and it worked very well; the music suited and the action was muted, but poignant. I was convinced and felt my time had been well-spent.
Plot Spoiler
Do not read on if you want to watch the movie and don’t want to know the ending.
Ready to turn the TV off, I saw what I hoped was the postscript scene with Olga Kurylenko. I thought, ‘Ah! Now we will see that there is a child and she is happy and they both lived happily ever after.’ Jack’s rebel mates then appeared and – horror of horrors – Jack himself! My mind was double-taking and reeling with the stupidity of a director who had just delivered a decent sci-fi movie.
We then find out that Jack has survived, sort of. I turned the TV off in disgust.
Why, oh why, do Hollywood producers insist on happy endings? And why, oh why, do directors go along with it? This was a very decent movie without the final scene. I can just see the producers saying, “No, we can’t have the take-home message that Jack has killed himself to save Earth. It must be that Cruise heroes always survive, no matter what!”
God help us if there is a post-generation-X bunch of kids who believe any of this tripe!
Four stars for everything except the last 5 minutes. A molten asteroid for that bit!

2 Film Reviews: Fury and The Yakuza

fury_article_story_large
Brad Pitt as Wardaddy in Fury.

Fury (2014)

I first saw this film when it came to cable TV. I wasn’t impressed. The penultimate scene, whereby one of the main characters gets blown up by a grenade, looked totally unrealistic. German grenades were about half as powerful as allied ones but in a confined space like the turret of a tank, there would be still be little left of a man to identify, let alone a complete body with only a few stylish blood stains on its face.

But recently, I had to do some research for a book I am writing so I watched it again. Having written off the movie as an authentic document, I took a more relaxed approach and, I must say, I enjoyed it a lot more.

It’s probably a habit of historical writers to watch WWII movies with the intention of nit-picking the details. We forget most movies are made as metaphors; they are not literal and are meant to be taken as a mirror of what is going on inside the soul of the main character.

Once I reminded myself of this I saw that the movie has a lot to recommend it.

The music is unsettling. The uneasy main theme is a just couple of chords, like a fragment from of Beethoven’s late quartets, which does not resolve, but keeps burning a feeling of desolation and loss into your brain.

It’s debatable whether the director considered Pitt or Logal Lerman to be the main players in this ensemble piece. But PItt and Lerman are equally good and their deepening relationship is well portrayed. If you take away the tank, and replace it with a Shakespeare stage, its the simple story of a father figure trying to shield a young man from the worst of life while saving his only sanity in the process. ie Prospero.

As an ensemble piece it relies on the crew of the tank, named ‘Fury,’ to portray a tightly knit crew in the last weeks of the War. All the supporting actors do a fine job and the scene in the house of the mother and daughter, who are terrified of the German civilian concept of Americans as rapists and murderers, is a particularly fine example of their efforts. While Pitt’s character ‘Wardaddy,’ attempts to steer Lerman’s character ‘Norman’ through his first taste of glory, while himself enjoying some civil comforts, the rest of the crew act as obscenely as possible, attempting to remove the meal to an ogre’s party. You can really feel the tension, and when the young girl bursts into tears, you know how fragile the humanity trait is. It may be an unconscious metaphor on the part of the director, but the eggs they are eating reinforce this idea.

There is one moment I particularly like, which underscores Pitt’s growing ease with his own talent. Norman has just seen the death of his first lover and is miserable. Pitt, with a slightly wry smile, simply watches the emotions rippling across Lerman’s face. Wardaddy is indulging a feeling of protectiveness, and at the same time, almost disgust, at his young charge’s naivety.

Penultimate scene aside, this film is worth taking a second look at. I don’t know what it is that really works about this movie but I think its the cyclical, double-act of the hypnotic music and Pitt’s understated performance. When I went to bed after the movie had finished, the music and ambiance of the film continued to drill into my subconscious remorselessly, much like the horror of war, I suppose.

The Yakuza (1974)

I have seen this film several times over the years but never really ‘noticed’ or rated it much. Its a quiet film with little pazazz in its presentation.

It’s main attraction has always been it’s star. If you are a fan of Robert Mitchum’s understated acting, you seek out any of his films. Even mediocre westerns are lifted by his acting performances, underrated at the time, but now considered to be some of the finest.

It’s also probably the first Hollywood take on the Yakuza story; man insults honour of a Yakuza and has to pay the price but his friend is going to try and save him… You know the story. It’s been done many times. Later movies like Showdown in Little Tokyo, Year of the Dragon, Rush Hour II and any number of modern martial arts movies made a formula of it but this was one of the first.

The cast includes Richard Jordan, a fine actor who is seriously underused here in a supporting role with few words to say, and Brian Keith, who does a solid job in the kind of supporting role that either George Kennedy or Brian Dennehy would have done equally well. It’s good to see Christina Kokubo popping up too in her first and last major international movie since Battle of Midway as Eiko’s daughter. Curiously, Mitchum was also in that film. I wonder if he suggested her for the part?

I won’t waste time on the main plot, except to say that Mitchum’s Kilmer, an ex WWII military police officer, now retired, has to go to Japan to save the life of his mate, Brian Keith’s character.

But it’s the subplots where the film scores. First of all you have a delicately portrayed love affair between Kilmer and Eiko, a flame lingering long into the shadows of late life. She cannot marry him and he cannot forget her. There is a beautiful scene where he sees her for the first time in 20 or 30 years and asks her again to marry him. She again says no and he says something like:
“Well, at least we got that over for the next 20 years.”

There are some lovely settings in Kyoto and the dialogue is kept minimal, even cryptically so. In a style that I first noticed in Point Blank (1967) and Get Carter (1971) and became accentuated later in films like Blade Runner, very few clues are given as to why certain things happen in the movie. A good example is the scene where Jordan and Mitchum’s characters go to a Yakuza safe-house to rescue some drugged girls. The only clue as to why this happens is a single line of perhaps two words spoken by Eiko’s brother, himself ex-Yakuza in an earlier conversation with Kilmer. But it’s so mumbled that I can’t here what he says, despite rewinding several times. It’s probably something like ‘Your emissary,’ meaning that he will lead Kilmer into the Yakuza territory and create a means to meet with the head of the gang, with whom they have to negotiate. I am convinced the director asked the actors to mumble these lines, because Kilmer replies:
“I couldn’t ask you that.”
But on first listening it sounds like:
“I couldn’t ask her that.”
And that  would give a whole different meaning to the film.

It’s a fine performance from Mitchum, as usual. He looks hungover; you would expect nothing less from a hard-drinking actor at his peak. The wide brow, the doleful eyes, the caved-in cheeks, the look of a crestfallen superhero cast in stone. He is truly a man in glorious decay. Still standing rod-straight and tall enough to make suits look good, he doesn’t stride thought the movie, as he once did, but meanders. Mickey Roarke later took up this style quite successfully.

I once saw the director talking of Story of G.I. Joe about Mitchum’s role in the film. The director wanted Mitchum to show shock when somebody lobs a grenade and some men die. It was a long shot and Mitchum stood up and didn’t move. At least that’s what the director saw. He shot the scene again and again, telling Mitchum;
“I want shock! Show me shock!”
To which Mitchum replied:
“I am! I am!”
The director wrote the scene, and Mitchum, off as a lost cause and finished the day’s shooting. But when he saw the rushes, on a 70 foot wide screen, he saw Mitchum’s raise his eyebrows, a subtle expression that looked totally authentic for a battle-hardened solder. The director was stunned. This probably proved the real launch of Mitchum’s career.

Brando could possibly have taken The Yakuza and done a better job than Bob Mitchum. But Brando would have quickly become bored with the lack of dialogue and started toying with it. He would have added complexity, which would have taken away from the ‘zen’ minimalism of the film.

So if you want a brash movie, forget The Yakuza. But if you want to see an underrated Hollywood great in an underrated movie, give it a go.

If you have views on these two movies, add your comments below.

Review: The Blue Max

The Blue Max - 1966
The Blue Max – 1966

The 1966 movie, The Blue Max, stands out in my mind as the only movie I can think of without a hero.

I watched The Blue Max last week (okay I admit it, I have it on DVD). I am a huge fan of aviation films and this one is all about a German Air Force pilot in World War I. Skip the bits about aircraft if that is not your thing but that’s not the main point of this review.

Briefly, Bruno Stachel is an infantry corporal in the trenches. From a working class background, he nevertheless longs for the noble arena if death in the skies and enlists for the German Air Force. He proves a talented pilot but his new squadron of officers, enlisted from the ruling classes, do not accept his ambitious ruthlessness. They have a strict code of conduct, which he breaks in many ways, including bedding the top scoring Willi’s aunt and lover, the Countess Kaeti. Willi’s nobility, until now, has extended to taking Stachel under his wing but now the gloves are off and the two duel for supremacy in the skies and in bed.

Kaeti is herself ambitious and enjoys the titillation of bedding pilots whose lives are on the line. Her husband, the taciturn General Count von Klugermann, beautifully underplayed by James Mason, encourages her liaisons and appears to use her to control his aces. However, Kaeti overreaches herself with dire consequences.

Kaeti is played beautifully by Ursula Andress. If ever proof were needed that she really could act, and act superbly, this film is it. I have rarely seen a film in which you see a woman reaching adulthood in a single moment as poignantly as you do with Andress in the final scene.

Mason is of course excellent throughout, as is Jeremy Kemp as Willi, but its George Peppard’s part I want to focus on. Peppard is naturally morose and always has a sour look on his face so he must have been the natural choice for Stachel, whose ambition quickly becomes cruel in the face of the prejudice surrounding him. Peppard turns in a fine performance and thoroughly deserved his nomination for a Golden Laurel award. But it’s the director’s handling of the character that is astonishing, and in some ways perplexing.

I cannot think of another leading character in a movie that is less likable than Stachel. He is not even badass enough or gritty enough to be an anti-hero. He is over-ambitious, a liar and cheat, a traitor to just about anybody who gets close to him, probably ashamed of his parents although he denies it (probably another lie) and ultimately proved to be a fool by Kaeti. Indeed, it is she that claims she likes his ‘innocence’ but if she does, it can only be a foolishly ambitious innocence. Her naivety is found out at the end of the film but its not Stachel but von Klugermann who reveals it.

Apart from being a good pilot, Stachel has no redeeming features. Stachel’s good looks mean that bedding the gorgeous Kaeti is no achievement. How on earth then does the film hold together? It certainly does and its a masterpiece of tight direction and high tension action. Perhaps, because it was made at the height of the anti-war movement in America, the director simply wanted to make a heavily disguised anti-war film. He certainly succeeded there. All the main characters suffer terribly. But this still doesn’t explain how a ‘no hero’ film holds together so well. I tried to decided who is the hero in this film and there really isn’t one. You just have to watch it yourself and let me know what you think.

Red Tails – review

What a wasted opportunity for George Lucas. Here we have the story of the first black (is that the correct term now?) fighter pilots in WWII and their struggle to be allowed to fight for their country, up against entrenched and endemic Racism. Not only did they succeed but they won a combined award for their outstanding bravery and performance. Their job was to protect American Bombers raiding Germay and they were the only Squadron who managed to lose not one single Bomber during their missions. So you have: politics, heroism, great action, technology in abundance, lots of potential personal stories and history all in one story. You also have the guy who made Star Wars at the helm. It should have been great, it was barely better than pap.

In fact I resigned myself to watching it purely for how bad it was – before the title credits. It opens with a really dire CGI bit of action with American P40 Kittyhawks(?) fighting Me109s. The German pilots are portayed as ice-cold manifestations of the devil who speak like Cybermen. Somebody has been reading too many Eagle comics. The stereo types were just way too much to take. The dialogue was pretty bad too.

Get this scene: American pilot goes to chapel after returning from mission. On mission one of his buddies had take a few risks and blown up a train. Chaplain in chapel asks guy what he is praying for. Answer: praying for my buddy. If he takes risks like that, one day he might not come back.

To be completely fair to the movie the opening cgi sequence is the worst in the movie. Its particularly bad, I think, because there are too few P40s flying to day to shoot real flying sequences. When they switch to P51 Mustangs much more real footage is used. However there are still daft bits: ie a real maneouvre a german pilot makes – a kind of corkscrew to get on the tail of his pursuer – this maneouvre was refined in Vietname. However the American pilot does his own version where he stall-loops his P51, a maneouvre which is impossible even today in a P51. It can only be achieved in a very few aircraft and only by worldclass pilots. Later on the movie has some better personal scenes: one of the American pilots falls for an Italian girl and some of those scenes are quite sensitive. I don’t think the actors were given much to work with, but they seem to do the best with what they have. There is a scene with one of them playing proper delta-blues on an acoustic. This scene could have been made more of. Also some fairly nice CGI of Me 262s but could have been a lot better with some weathering. They all looked like they had been rolled out of a showroom.

The film goes from being pap, all the way up to abysmal, and in a very few places, bearable.

Film Reviews

Film Reviews for: Shame, Soldier of God, Anna Karenina and First Men in the Moon

Shame

I am a big Michael Fassbender fan. His performance in Inglorious Basterds was up there with the Brandos and Pacino’s of this world. He holds this movie together with a taught, up-tight performance but the movie doesn’t quite deliver. It stops one base short of a home run. Which is a shame because it’s beautifully filmed, paced and has all the ingredients for a good movie. The locations are very evocative of emotional breakdown which is what you basically see happening. An emotionally repressed young exec – Fassbender is seeking release through sexual-obsession. He is willing to try anything with anyone and has retreated into this world. His workplace provides a sort of second family for him and is the only place he actually connects with people. Into his life, against his will, comes his emotionally fraught little sister – sissy, played by Carey Mulligan. Their parents are no longer around and she seems on the edge of a breakdown. He resents bitterly her pull on his emotions and the clash pushes her even closer to the edge. She is a semi-professional singer and the scene of her performance in a club made my teeth grind. Carey Mulligan has a good, but untrained voice and the over-egged delivery of New York, New York – in New York, acapella, was a little painful. If Fassbender’s character hadn’t stayed silent, when asked if he though it was good, I would have really disliked this film. The main protagonist’s essential taste is one of things that holds this together. This movie had the potential to be a 4/5 or 5/5 but it doesn’t quite get there. I think the writer just didn’t want to take the risk that would have been necessary to actually say something of value. I am all for movies that start from nowhere and end nowhere – existential movies in the 60s and early 70s excelled at this – even in Hollywood (I am thinking of a James Caan film where he is a hitman wanting to retire). Those movies start with an unusual premise but this movie just builds around a disfunctional family – nothing unusual these days – 3/5.


Soldier of God

This is an interesting premise: Crusader meets Moslem assassin and Jewish merchant in the desert at the tent of a widowed young mother. The actor playing the Crusader is no great shakes with a sword and this was a weakness early on in the film. However once the assassin saves his life by giving him water, we are off on an interesting philosophical romp. The vitriol both later spit at each other when they discuss religion was really convincing and the easy urbanity of the Jewish merchant left me wondering where this was going to go. Of course I won’t reveal the end but it’s well worth a watch if you like history and religion as subjects. The period costume, gore and scenery are spot on. Luckily one doesn’t need to ask too many questions – like how on earth does a single woman survive with her baby in the middle of the desert, because this movie is about ideas and the surreal landscape and events only act to reinforce this. It is almost a parable and special mention must be made of Mapi Galán – the young woman, whose beautifully poised portrayal of a level head in troubled times certainly impressed me. 4/5


Anna Karenina

I saw this at the Odeon, Leicester Square, and the big screen is certainly where you should see this movie. The sets are superb and the sound effects stunning. Its quite an emotional roller-coaster as anybody familiar with this story will know: love, deceit, envy, jealousy, revenge and tragedy. As with many many Russian novels turned into movies, it portrays Russia as a paradise for romantics and this jars a bit for somebody who has experienced the real thing. However I cannot fault the perfomances of Keira Knightly and Jude Law. If you love romance, you will love this movie. 4/5


First Men in the Moon

I love this movie and I hadn’t seen it since childhood until last week. Since it is one of Lional Jeffries’ best movies, and he died recently, it may have been a tribute. I remember him fondly in many movies and particularly Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and this movies. For 1964 it has a suprising sense of authenticity about it. I remember it as pure fantasy and slapstick and it starts out that way. The charm of Kate (Martha Hayer) being dragged into the space-sphere at the last moment is an enduring image of childhood. But when we meet the aliens – the Selenites, you are struck by how much like the modern concept of ‘grays’ they are. I was actually impressed by how authentic it felt. Altogether a very entertaining movie and fondly remembered. 4/5