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Archive for December, 2009

Avatar & Dune same story?

It has often been suggested that everything ever written boiles down to seven plots, they are: the quest, rags to riches, overcoming the monster, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy, rebirth. It is with this in mind it is no surprise that Avatar left me with a feeling that I had seen it before.

A young man travels to an alien planet. 

The planet is very rich in a valuable substance that is mined/harvested.

Before long he is living with the natives where he falls in love with one of them.

The natives travel by riding on the back of the planets creatures, this is also a rite of passage for young men.

The young man soon rises to lead the natives in an attach against their oppressors culminating in a one on one fight.

Both films have quasi religious undertones.  Although not exactly the same, there are lots of similarities between James Cameron’s new epic and David Lynch’s underrated adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel. One thing that is very different, the revenue. Avatar took $73million in its first weekend. Dunes gross revenue on general release was just $30million, ot 75% of its budget.

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The Box

Richard Kelly made Donnie Darko in 2001, #8 on my top ten movies of the decade. There where suggestions at the time that we could be looking at the emergence of the next auteur or film making geniuses. Then he released a directors cut of the movie that succeeded in being the only directors cut I have come across that wasn’t as good as the original version of the film. this left me scratching my head. His next movie Southland Tales 2006 had moments of brilliance but on the whole was an incoherent self-indulgent mess. So how does his latest film The Box compare?

Actually quite well! Anyone who has seen the trailer knows what the film is all about. A couple Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur (James Marsden) are given a mysterious box with a big red button on it. They are told by a strange old man (Frank Langella) with a disfiguring burn to his face that if they push the button they will receive a million dollars but someone somewhere in the world who they don’t know will die.

After Southland Tales one would expect Kelly to play it safe and make a mainstream movie but what he has actually crafted is an intriguing scfi-fi, horror, drama that asks a lot of questions and answers just enough to please but leaves enough unexplained to infuriate. We actually get existential philosophy not hidden in the subtext but overtly discussed in the movie a brave and bold thing to do. In asking the characters if they would push the button for a million dollars the film asks the same question of the audience. This on the surface is a high concept that people could debate forever, but it is actually Childs play in comparison the question that is asked of the characters at the end of the film.

The film looks amazing capturing the 70’s setting as successfully as David Fincher’s Zodiac did. The rest of the production is also good with taught direction keeping the film moving. The story has been filmed previously as an episode of The Twilight Zone and originally came from a short story by Richard Matheson who also wrote the much filmed I Am Legend. The Acting is pretty good too with Cameron Diaz and James Marsden making a believable couple but Frank Langella’s performance is a real show stealer.

As the box-office returns are testifying it is a film that won’t appeal to a lot of viewers but if you give it a chance you may just like it, I think it is a 50-50 bet. Many people I have spoken to hated it as much as I liked it.

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Robin Hood

Who was Robin Hood? There are many stories and songs about the character that originated the legend we all know about. Many modern versions of the story particularly movies make Robin a contemporary of Richard the Lionheart during the time of The Third Crusade (1189–1192). Many of the stories are interwoven with the stories of King Richard and his brother King John. There is little evidence of there been any truth to this, There are suggestions that if there was a Robin Hood he may have been around many years after this time possibly the mid 13th century. There are also huge discrepancies as to where he lived. All this suggest that there were probably several characters over many years whose activities where merged together for artistic licence. Whatever the truth Robin Hood has been the subject of many movies and with a new one staring Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett and directed by Ridley Scott due out next year I thought I would look back at some previous films.

Robin Hood (1922) aka Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood: This silent movie is sometimes referred to as the original Robin Hood movie. It wasn’t actually the first, but it was the first on a large scale. Based on a screenplay by Douglas Fairbanks (under a pseudonym) who also producer and star. The production was huge costing a around a million dollars (average ticket prices at the time where around one fiftieth what they are today). The story follows what are now the norm with Robin joining King Richard the Lion-Heart on the Crusades leaving Prince John in to run the country. By modern standards the film (as with most silent films) looks very dated but is an interesting starting point.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938): Making full use of its three-strip Technicolor photography the film is a riot of colour. For this reason the brightly coloured sets and costumes have been ridiculed imitated and spoofed ever since. Putting this aside it is a great film with a fantastic cast including: Errol Flynn as Robin Hood, Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marian, Basil Rathbone as Sir Guy of Gisbourne and Claude Rains as Prince John.

Robin Hood (1973) (Disney version) I wasn’t going to mention this one as I haven’t seen it since I was a kid and it didn’t originally spring to mind as a seminal Robin Hood movie but then I remembered that it is  #10 on Ross McG’s Top 100 movies (form Ross v Ross ) so I thought I would throw it in. The film follows the traditional narrative that we associate with the myth and as Ross points out in his appraisal of the film “Maid Marian was a fox” nothing unusual there you may think but in this case she literally was Vulpine! According to Ross it is “the best damn cartoon ever made”. the costumes and are clearly inspired by The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), see above. Like so many Robin Hood films, not a classic but its good fun and far less offensive than most of Disney’s output.

Robin and Marian (1976): Long after the end of the crusades and following the death of Richard the Lion-Heart (Richard Harris), Robin Hood (Sean Connery) and Little John (Nicol Williamson) return home to England to find Maid Marian (Audrey Hepburn) has become a nun. Its not long before Robin is at odds with his old nemesis The Sheriff of Nottingham (Robert Shaw). Dealing with a much older Robin than we are used to creates a very different vibe to other movies and is worth seeing for that reason alone. The real reason to watch it is for the all star cast, especially Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn in the title roles.

Robin Hood (1991): Lost in the shadow of Kevin Costner, John Irvin’s 1991 movie has a real authentic feel to it. Concentrating on the relationship between the Normans and the Saxons this film tries to go back to the older legends that created the Robin Hood story. Robin is actually a Saxon noble Sir Robert Hode (Patrick Bergin) a real person of the era who may be the origin of Robin Hood. There is no Sheriff of Nottingham or Guy of Gisbourne, they are replaced by Sir Miles Folcanet (Jürgen Prochnow) and Baron Jeroen Krabbe (Roger Daguerre) respectively. Most of the other usual suspects are present including Maid Marian played by an excellent Uma Thurman. Edward Fox makes a small but memorable appearance as Prince John.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991): Robin of Locksley (Kevin Costner) is an English nobleman returning home from the crusades along with a Moor, Azeem (Morgan Freeman) whose life, Robin saved In Jerusalem. The film then follows the usual predictable story of Robin fighting the injustice of the evil Sheriff of Nottingham. The film was hugely successful grossing more than eight times its budget. It has however been roundly criticised for Kevin Costner’s portrail of Robin with blond highlights and American accent. He actually does a decent job as a charismatic Robin but lets be honest the real reason to watch the film is for Alan Rickman and Michael Wincott as Sheriff of Nottingham and Guy of Gisborne. If you want to find a reason to criticize the film try its geography; Robin and Azeem appear to arrive in Dover, walk to Hadrian’s Wall before ending up in Locksley, all in a day.

Robin Hood on TV

Robin of Sherwood (1985-1986): Probably the best TV version of Robin Hood, Robin of Sherwood ran for 26 episodes over three series. Michael Praed played Robin of Loxley, for the third season he was replaced by Jason (son of Sean) Connery Robert of Huntingdon. This mirrors the suggestion that Robin Hood was more than one person. Combining realistic period setting s with a sense of realism and a hint of mysticism the program worker really well.  Another notable member of the cast was Ray Winstone as Will Scarlet. The series came to a premature end for fanatical reasons.

So what can we expect from Ridley Scott? This may give you an idea:

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Brittany Murphy 1977 – 2009

Brittany Murphy 1977 - 2009

 

I wasn’t going to post a blog today but have just heard the sad news that Brittany Murphy has died at the age of 32. I am not aware of any of the details as yet but have just read the following on the BBC news website.

“The actress died on Sunday morning at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center near Beverly Hills, a hospital spokeswoman has confirmed.

The LA Times said Murphy went into cardiac arrest, but hospital sources would not release the cause of death.”

Murphy came to fame at 18 in Clueless but had been working on TV for several years before that. For me her most memorable roles where in : Girl, Interrupted (1999), Spun (2002), 8 Mile (2002) and Sin City (2005). We will be seeing more of her on the big screen in the new year, according to IMDB she had four films in post production including Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables. A music lover she had a band in the 90’s called “Blessed Soul”, she was lead singer. In 2006 she sang on Paul Oakenfold’s hit single “Faster Kill Pussycat”. Brittany was married to British writer, director, producer Simon Monjack.  She will be sadly missed.

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Dances with Smurfs

It hass been fourteen years since James Cameron’s last film Titanic, his latest film Avatar is the most talked about hyped film for a very long time, possibly since Titanic. I think most people know the plot by now for those who don’t: Jake Sully is a former US Marine, now confined to a wheelchair. When his scientist twin brother is killed Jake is recruited to take his place. As their DNA matches Jake is the only person able to “drive” his brothers Avatar, a twelve foot tall representation of the natives of a moon they are mining for a substance ludicrously named “Unobtainium”, a “McGuffin” whose use is never explained. His mission to befriend the natives and persuade them to move away from the richest mine. Things get complicated as Jake falls in love with a one of the natives and the clock is ticking before the mining company takes the village by force.

I won’t dwell on the themes of the film, they are all pretty overt and well documented. The Pocahontas connection is obvious and I recommend everyone googles “Dances with Smurfs”.

The big question, is it any good? Simply, not bad! The Planet, Pandora looks amazing. The blue, twelve foot tall natives are well thought out and look believable. The final battle scene is nothing short of spectacular. From a negative point of view, the film is far too long, the build up is too long and slow, the plot is predictable and the overall narrative is overly sentimental. I am also not convinced that the film will age well. There will come a time when the effects are no longer state of the art, and all the hype has been forgotten, at this time the film will have to stand up to be counted along with all other films. When this happens the flabby first half and the poor dialogue will stand out. The thing that will save it is that the acting is pretty good and the action is well handled as always with Cameron. As for the acting, Sigourney Weaver is always good, Sam Worthington does a good job, Stephen Lang and Giovanni Ribisi are wonderfully evil. It is also good to see Michelle Rodrieguez get a half decent role, she still hasn’t done anything to live up to her excellent début in Girlfight.

Finally a point on the 3D. It is an utterly pointless gimmick that really doesn’t add anything to the film. This is the film when sceptics like me where supposed to say “now I see the point of it”, I didn’t. 3D only really works as a cheep stunt when things are flying towards the audience, a trick that is actually underused in this film. Having said all that I refer back to my opening statement, the film really isn’t bad, it is also tremendous fun at times. I recommend anyone who is interested go and see it at the cinema, it will lose a lot on a smaller screen, I would also suggest you don’t go out of your way to see it in 3D.

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Werewolves

Werewolves have always played second fiddle to vampires in movies, IMDB has less then two hundred werewolf movies listed, in comparison there nearly seven hundred vampire movies listed, over a hundred of them featuring Dracula. Many of the werewolf movies listed are actually vampire movies that feature werewolves. With The Wolfman coming out early in the new year it seems like a good time to look back at some of the best lycanthrope movies.

The Wolf Man (1941): Universals entry into the werewolf genre fails to live up to their Frankenstein and Dracula movies but is still worth a look. Although not the first werewolf movie it is responsible for a lot of the mythology that we now associate with the genre in a similar way to what Nosferatu did for vampires. The story and the plot work well as does the dark moody photography. The only real fault is that it does look dated, cheep and wooden in comparison to Frankenstein that is actually ten years older.

 

The Curse of the Werewolf (1961): Hammer were better know for making vampire movies, in fact this was there only werewolf movie. Directed by Terence Fisher (also responsible for the studios best Dracula movies) who does a great job creating an atmospheric horror. Moving away from the usual bitten by a wolf origin, the story is always interesting and compelling but lacking the violence and gore of more recent movies of the genre. The real draw though is Oliver Reed who is outstanding displaying all the inner torment of the wolf-man.

 

An American Werewolf in London (1981): Classic is an overused word, and when it comes to comedy horror it is seldom justified, when referring to An American Werewolf in London it is more than justified. Following an attack by a strange creature, an American backpacker who has to deal with the becoming a werewolf and being haunted by his friend who didn’t survive the attack. The pre CGI werewolf transformation is still surprisingly effective nearly thirty years on.

 

The Howling (1981): Made by Gremlins director Joe Dante The Howling is a great early 80’s horror that dispenses with many of the conventions of the genre. The film plays out like a conspiracy thriller and in the sprit of All the President’s Men and The Parallax View the main character is a journalist. A film of the same era as An American Werewolf in London, The Howling is less comical and more satirical but also in the conspiracy thriller style it is actually a little subversive, the wolf effects aren’t as good and look a little dated but aren’t bad.

 

The Company of Wolves (1984): Werewolves are viscous beasts whilst vampires are symbols of sex and sexuality, all that changed with The Company of Wolves. Loosely based on Angela Carter short story of the same name the film weaves a sumptuous horror fantasy around the Little Red Riding Hood fairytale. The meaning of the film is left perfectly open to interpretation but is filled with themes of fear and desire and has an undercurrent of sexuality and loss of innocence.

 

Wolf:  (1994): Wolf works best as a social satire, surprisingly grounded and realistic, the supernatural element is toned down. As a movie it actually starts to lose its way the more we get into the werewolves and the further we get from the human side of the characters. Jack Nicholson is surprisingly low-key for him and gives a strong performance but is sometimes overshadowed by James Spader’s brilliantly detestable yuppie. Michelle Pfeiffer is criminally underused, but makes the most of the part she has given as absolutely oozes with sexuality the way she did at times in The Fabulous Baker Boys and Batman Returns. Not one for gore fans but a good solid film.

 

Ginger Snaps (2000): Wit budgetary constraints comes artistic invention and Ginger Snaps $4million budget would barely pay the coffee budget on the Lord of the Rings movies. Fantastically developed characters full of teen angst, the film is more gritty, earthyand  visceral than the pithy ironic style of most horror movies of the time. With themes of alienation, despair and transformation the entire film is a metaphor for teenage in particular puberty.

 

Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001): loosely based on a real-life Beast of Gévaudan. A series of killings in France in the 18th century that caught the attention King Louis XV who sent professional wolf-hunters to solve kill the wolves responsible. Not actually a werewolf movie, but I like it so it makes the list (my blog my rules!). The beast (I won’t give away the plot for those who haven’t seen the film) is always a beast and doesn’t change form to or from a human. It does however do some vicious killing when let out of the shadows. There is also a plotline relating to the beast and a plot to undermine public confidence in the king, something that works well as the film is told in flashback from the time of the revolution. As well as some good horror the film is also a pretty good action movie, and best of all it features Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassel, what more could you ask for?

 

Dog Soldiers (2002): Soldiers on a training mission gone wrong in the Scottish highlands sounds like a rip-off of Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort, in a way it is but writer/director Neil Marshall (who went on to make The Descent) isn’t afraid to borrow from the best, later scenes are equal parts Night of the Living Dead and The Evil Dead with the end being pure The Howling with a British spin. As is often the case film makers are at there most inventive whist constrained by a limited budget, this film is no exception making great use of their none CGI monsters. Again for budgetary reasons the werewolves spend a lot of time where they traditionally belong, in the shadows. The final victory of the film is the perfect blend of horror and comedy, something that is hard to get right.

 

Underworld (2003): Making the most of its relatively small budget underworld is a hugely stylish movie. The sets are amazing and the Budapest locations are used to full effect giving the film a perfect blend of modern and gothic horror. But the real victory for the film is the premise, the war between vampires and werewolves gives an extra dimension to the plot and means that the vampires have a worthy advisory. The wolves also end the film as the more sympathetic and virtues creatures, that makes an interesting change.

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Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

I recently got around to watching a film I had recorded form TV a few weeks ago, I had missed it at the cinema and never bothered renting the DVD. Now I have seen it the big question is why haven’t I seen Kiss Kiss Bang Bang before? The most likely answer is the ridicules title, but having seen the film it is so ridicules (in a good way) that it needs a silly title.

Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr) is a petty crook who stumbles into acting (literally). Gay Perry (Val Kilmer) is a private detective with a sideline in teaching actors how to play detectives. Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monaghan) is a failing actress. They are all at a party hosted by actor turned mogul Harlan Dexter (Corbin Bernsen). Following the party dead bodies start appearing in a series of events that Harry and Perry don’t understand but can’t get away from. All this is held together by a voiceover from Downey Jr that frequently stops and rewinds the action to retell something he has missed out or to explain something that may be important later. It really shouldn’t work but for some reason it does.

The film is fast paced and full of very dark humour. The chemistry between Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr is excellent and they aren’t afraid of making fun of themselves and their screen personas. Michelle Monaghan, who is a vastly underrated and underused actress provides fantastic support for them. The story carefully plays with and even deconstructs the conventions of Film Noir and pulp literature making the film far more intelligent then its goofball appearance. Directed by Shane Black, his first and so far only attempt at directing but his real credentials are in writing. He was responsible for action comedies including Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout and The Long Kiss Goodnight. On the evidence of this film I would like to see him direct again, unfortunately the film didn’t perform well at the box-office barely making back its modest budget.

Also take a look at the great James Bond inspired (like the movies title) title sequence:

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