Wednesday, October 31, 2012

SCIENCE FRICTION?

It’s hard to believe that only a few years ago, Affleck was best known as Mr Jennifer Lopez and the star of some questionable movies. Everything changed with The Town, a brilliant crime thriller which came out in 2010 and showed that Affleck was a very capable director. Of course, he had also helmed Gone Baby Gone three years previously but The Town showed that this wasn’t a fluke.
Fast-forward to 2012 and we have Argo, the latest effort from Affleck. Argo is based on the article by Joshua Bearman about the incredible story of how the US government rescued six embassy employees from Iran just after the fall of the Shah through a subterfuge that made the Iranian authorities believe that the six were in fact in Iran making a cheesy science fiction film, Argo.
Affleck plays Tony Mendez, the fixer who is brought in by the US to make it all happen. Argo sets its stall out pretty early, and you can tell that this is a very ambitious work of US political cinema in the vein of All The President’s Men and Three Days of The Condor. They even resurrect the 1970s Warner logo.
Mendez recruits Lester Speigel (Alan Arkin) and special effects maven  John Chambers (John Goodman) to ‘make’ the film while the CIA and the Canadian government are working frantically to provide the six with fake passports to get them out.
Of course, things don’t always run that smoothly and at one point, the US government tries to pull the plug on the operation, potentially leaving Mendez in a very difficult position.
Affleck plays a pivotal role but Argo is an ensemble film and it wouldn’t have worked as well as it does without the input of the rest of the cast especially Bryan Cranston as CIA bigwig Jack O’Donnell and Arkin and Goodman make a great double act.
The film succeeds in being both light, in the scenes where we watch the filmmakers go through the motions, and dramatic, where we witness the disturbing events going on in Tehran at the same time.
Affleck has a unique lightness of touch as a director and he is able to tackle both sides of the coin with equal skill and panache.
And he is also a very accomplished actor, who knows when to eschew the limelight here for the other players in the story. Arguably, Mendez is the glue that holds the tale together but at no point does Argo feel like a star vehicle
It isn’t quite in the same league as All The President’s Men and Three Days of The Condor but it’s very close. For anyone interested in modern, intelligent cinema, run don’t walk to see Argo. It’ll be intriguing to see what Affleck does next.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

NOW THAT'S WHAT I CALL SECRET SERVICE
SPOILER WARNINGS
I admit that when I went to see Skyfall, I was expecting it to be the same sort of experience I had had when going to see Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. So, solid and entertaining but a slightly disappointing cinemagoing time. Don't get me wrong, I thought Casino Royale was very good but Quantum of Solace felt like a Bourne film. At one point, it seemed that Bond was cursed: MGM was in severe financial difficulties and we didn't know if we were going to see another James Bond after 22. But Sony came in and rescued the franchise and director Sam Mendes was reattached to the film as was Daniel Craig. Skyfall is not an attempt to make Bond with Bourne. Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins and production designer Dennis Gassner have created a Bond film which feels properly British and like a proper cinematic experience. The Adele song in the opening credits is unmemorable but then every Bond song for the past few years has been the same although Daniel Kleinman's opening credits are worthy of Maurice Binder, the man who did many of the classic credit sequences for James Bond. The pre-credits sequence is blown in the trailer, so I am not spoiling much by revealing that Bond goes off the edge of a bridge in Turkey and is missing, presumed dead. At the same time, the heart of the British secret intelligence services is hit by a mystery attack, which leaves MI6, M and her team seemingly on the back foot. So they are forced to regroup to ascertain this threat and it turns out that it comes from someone with a connection to M's past, the suitably demented Silva (a blond Javier Bardem). Bond does reappear but he is a broken man: injured by the fall and from months of being out of active service, his reflexes are shot and he has to start from the ground up again. Mendes has shaped a scenario that uses London and British settings in a way that is neither arbitrary or just another dot on James Bond's international globetrekking life. You do have scenes that take place in Shanghai and Macau but Britain including Scotland are the key locations for Skyfall. The film has this wonderful visual flair that has been lacking in Bond films of late and Deakins manages to make the Scottish Highlands, part of a very pivotal scene later on in the film, look as grand and as epic as the highways of southwestern USA while still looking very British. London looks wonderful and it is used in a very cinematic way, including a great scene that takes place on the Tube. Craig looks fantastic as Bond and there is a certain cool frailty here that really lends to the atmosphere. Mendes also uses M (Judy Dench) as a major player in the plot and the introduction of new Q (Ben Wishaw) is clever and subtle while addressing all of the criticisms that were levelled at casting him from the press and public. Naomie Harris as fellow MI6 agent Eve feels more than just eye candy and by the end of the film, you realise that she has been introduced as more than just someone who looks good on screen. Also, Rafe Fiennes, very watchable, as government minister Gareth Mallory has a key role that is revealed at the very end of the film. Mendes has introduced some really nice nods to Bond's past too, and I'm not going to spoil them here as one of them made me smile when it appeared on screen. Skyfall succeeds in feeling contemporary and yet classic at the same time. Mendes has managed to subvert some of the Bond tropes while setting things up for the future. In the fiftieth year of James Bond on screen, Ian Fleming's creation has never felt so fresh and up-to-date before. Skyfall is smart, cool, exciting and quintessentially British. Mendes has made one of the best James Bond films in years. Bond is definitely back…


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Saturday, October 20, 2012

NEW YORK STATE OF MIND PART TWO
And here's a few more shots from New York Comic Con 2012…











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NEW YORK STATE OF MIND 2012 PART ONE
So I am back from New York Comic Con. I missed 2011 because I was moving and that made money a bit tight that year. What is scary is just how busy it has become since 2010 and the Saturday felt like San Diego Comic Con. It was still a great show and I did loads of interviews (mainly for Comic Heroes) and I managed to catch up with people like Andy Grossberg and Susie Lee, split a room with Bill Baker, hung out with Walter Simonson, Grant Morrison and had dinner with Mike Kaluta. I was going to do a show report here but the fact is that I didn't get to see any of the panels and the main hall was too busy for me a lot of the time, so I either hid in Artists Alley or avoided the show (which I did do for much of Saturday). So here's a selection of photos I took of some of the people I encountered or interviewed or saw, even from a distance. This may be a multipart post…
















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Friday, October 19, 2012

FESTIVE BEHAVIOUR 2012 PART THREE
The last film I saw at this year's London Film Festival was End of Watch, which is a gritty police drama set in South Central Los Angeles starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena. Directed by David Ayer, Gyllenhaal and Pena make a very decent team and the hand-held feel, which lasts for most of the film, is well-handled. Ayer wrote Training Day, so he definitely has the right pedigree for this. Alright it's not that different to what you've seen before but it is well-made. What makes LFF an interesting festival is its diverse raft of films and End of Watch doesn't feel out of place here. I am glad I saw it as Gyllenhaal is always watchable and in fact, he is turning into a very decent character actor. Recommended…

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Tuesday, October 09, 2012

FESTIVE BEHAVIOUR 2012 PART TWO
Because I am missing the big films this year, I tried to catch ones that I wouldn't necessarily see otherwise.
On the second day of the screenings I went to, I got to see two very different but equally intriguing films. The first was the second documentary I saw at this year's festival.
For No Good Reason is a documentary looking at the life and career of Ralph Steadman, British cartoonist and illustrator whose most famous work was probably his collaborations with Hunter S. Thompson, gonzo journalist. It was interesting to compare this with Beware of Mr Baker as Steadman came across as a far more personable figure than Baker. It also reminds you what a genius Steadman is and there are contributions from Johnny Depp, Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner and Thompson from beyond the grave. It is a well-made and intelligent look at the career of one of Britain's most influential populist commercial artists…
The next film that I saw was one I was familiar with but I had never had the good fortune to catch it on a big screen before. Lawrence of Arabia celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this year and so they are showing the restored 70mm cut at the London Film Festival. It was staggering to see Lean's finest film in all of its beautiful glory with Freddie Young's cinematography and Maurice Jarre's brilliant score leaving me almost speechless. It is still  Peter O'Toole's greatest work too and Omar Sharif never matched his performance here either. Lawrence of Arabia is a timeless classic about one man's hubris and the dangers of interfering in a situation you don't necessarily belong in or totally understand. It is marvellous that people will have the opportunity to see it on the big screen again…
http://www.parkcircus.com/in_cinemas?title=lawrence+of+arabia&country=united+kingdom&city=&date=

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Monday, October 08, 2012

FESTIVE BEHAVIOUR 2012 PART ONE
It's that time of year again when London Film Festival hits town. The amount of films I see each year depends on what else I am doing at the time and this year, fortunately or unfortunately, I have had a week without freelance subbing, so I could catch a few of the films on offer.
The first thing I saw was Robot & Frank, a science fiction movie set in the near future starring Frank Langella as Frank, an elderly former cat burglar who has an estranged son Hunter (James Marsden) and a flaky daughter Madison (Liv Tyler). Frank's son is worried about his well-being and so he gets him a robot companion to assist him (the voice of Peter Sarsgaard), something the old man initially resents. But of course, before too long, Frank gets attached to the robot and begins to see him as his only friend. Langella is excellent as is Susan Sarandon as librarian Jennifer. Sarsgaard also displays vocal dexterity as the voice of the robot and considering that this is director Jake Schreier's feature debut, it's a pretty assured work. Robot & Frank is a film that makes you think, that stays with you after you leave and is exactly the sort of film that the London Film Festival should be showcasing…
Beware of Mr Baker is a documentary about former Cream drummer Ginger Baker. Made by Rolling Stone journalist Jay Bulger, which shows just what a headcase Baker is. The musician was interviewed down in South Africa by Bulger, who gives us a chronological chart of the subject's life, from his teen years obsessed with jazz to meeting Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce in the Sixties. He is definitely a larger-than-life character and this helps to make Beware of Mr Baker an entertaining watch. Rock stars should be scary mavericks and Ginger Baker certainly falls into this category. Bulger has assembled an interesting biographical documentary although sometimes the use of animation to illustrate points in Baker's life can be a little grating at times and you aren't sure how much of the doc is staged…
Grassroots is an American indie film directed by American TV staple Stephen Gyllenhaal and starring Jason Biggs and Joel David Moore about a local council election in Seattle. Biggs is journalist Phil Campbell, who gets sacked from his job on the Seattle Stranger, and so decides to help his friend, Grant Cogswell, (Moore), run for office. You get to see the usual political cliches here (sleeping with political allies, betraying your girlfriend, doing unethical things to get noticed) but it's pleasant enough, if extremely lightweight. Biggs works well on screen and Moore stays just the right side of annoying. Support from Lauren Ambrose as Campbell's put-upon girlfriend Emily Bowen is likeable enough. Grassroots tries to make some serious socio-political points but Gyllenhaal doesn't have the weight and gravitas as a writer/director to pull it off…




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Sunday, October 07, 2012

A HOST OF HAMMER

People forget that Hammer was more than just Dracula and Frankenstein. This month there's a raft of new Hammer releases from StudioCanal on DVD and Blu-ray, one of which reminds you that they weren't just a house of horror.
Hell is A City, directed by Val Guest, is a police drama set in Manchester which was made in 1960 and is getting its DVD debut. Made like a British version of a US cop drama, Stanley Baker plays Inspector Martineau in pursuit of America criminal Don Starling (played by John Crawford). Baker, who went on to things like Zulu, makes for a good central protagonist and the rest of the cast, including cameos from a young Billie Whitelaw and Donald Pleasance, are very consistent indeed. Director Guest, who also directed films like The Day The Earth Caught Fire and The Quatermass Experiment as well as Expresso Bongo, acquits himself well here. A little bit of a hidden curio, Hell Is a City is worth checking out if you're an aficionado of Hammer or 1960s British police films...
And there's also three more typical Hammer films out on Blu-ray this month too. First up is The Devil Rides Out (1968), which is apparently Christopher Lee's favourite Hammer film he appeared in. Based on Dennis Wheatley's novel, and with a screenplay by none other than Richard (I Am Legend) Matheson, this film is arguably one of the studios' best efforts. Lee plays against type as the Duc du Richelieu, who is concerned that his friend Simon Aron (Patrick Mower) has become embroiled in a satanic cult led by the malevolent Mocata (Charles Gray chewing up the scenery). Lee is very good as is Gray and it is still a slice of classic English pulp, directed with aplomb by Hammer veteran Terence Fisher. It is good to see The Devil Rides Out make the transfer to Blu-ray as it deserves it and they have done a very nice job with the picture…
Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966) is a strange film. Starring Christopher Lee in the eponymous role, it isn't typical Hammer fare as there are no monsters or supernatural creatures. But it does still have that pulpy Hammer feel to it with Lee an interesting choice as the Russian historical figure. As with many of their films, it was shot in Buckinghamshire, which doesn't always convince as Russia but Lee is always watchable on screen and director Don Sharp moves proceedings on with style and panache. The rest of the cast can't really compete with him though and so Rasputin The Mad Monk feels like a minor Hammer film, worth watching but more of a hardcore fan's delight. Again, StudioCanal have done a nice job with the transfer…
And finally, we have The Mummy's Shroud (1967). No Lee this time but we do have Andre Morrell, from The Plague of The Zombies. This was Hammer's attempt to resurrect another of the classic Universal Monsters after Dracula and Frankenstein and Morrell is good value. But it does feel very much like a second-string Hammer production, more like The Reptile than The Plague of The Zombies or the superior Dracula or Frankenstein efforts. It's a bit of pulpy fun though and the mummy effects are decent. It's a decent addition to Hammer on Blu-ray and worth watching with reasonably low expectations…
These four films show the range of Hammer over the years and it is heartening that they are attracting a new audience…
www.studiocanal.com





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