Archive for April, 2013

I am not going to review Iron Man 3, why bother there are probably already three hundred reviews online, most of them by better reviewers than me and some of them who actually got paid for the privilege! However I couldn’t let the movie come and go without passing comment, after all, it is a significant movie in the history of Marvel and given the significance of Marvel in recent movie history that makes it a significant movie full stop!iron man 3

When it was announced that Jon Favreau would not direct the third Iron Man movie no one would expect the chosen a director to be one whose only other movie was flop nearly a decade ago. However anyone who has seen the fantastic Kiss Kiss Bang Bang will know that Shane Black was the perfect choice. Possibly the first step in the resurrection and reinvention of Robert Downey Jr.s career. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was smart, funny and dark, the perfect movie of Downey Jr. just like Iron Man. Better known as a writer, Black is responsible for the Lethal Weapon movies, The Last Boy Scout and The Long Kiss Goodnight as well as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. It therefore comes as no surprise that he brings a lot of dark comedy to the charter, possibly even more than in the first two movies. This really works taking the movie to a different level, making it equally as good as, if not better than the first movie and certainly righting the wrongs of the second movie. It is also filled with other Black trade marks: kidnapping as a plot device, black comedy, set at Christmastime. But these are little more than window dressing and comfort blankets for the director. The real flair is the self awareness he brings to a character trying to rebuild himself.kiss kiss bang bang

I started writing something a few years ago (I don’t think I ever finished it) about how the characters in films (if they were real people in the real world) would go back to their daily lives after a significant event. For example, John McClane may be good at taking down a group of terrorists, but what’s he like as a detective doing a day to day job? This was touched upon in the third Die Hard movie but never explored. I didn’t expect to see it explored in a superhero movie through the eyes of the hero character, a brave and risky plot with a character that is seminal to the future of The Avengers franchise as well as the hugely profitable Iron Man movies. This is achieved through Stark’s inability to deal with the aftermath of the events of The Avengers. This along with a plot device that I won’t spoil, results in Stark spending a lot of time out of the Iron Man suit, this is a good thing and a brave choice. The film is at its best at these times. Without straying into reviews or risking plot spoilers, the villains are perfectly conceived and portrayed, there are also seamlessly intertwined with the stark/Iron Man plot. This is a movie written as a movie, a complete and integrated story and not one where a committee has listed all the elements and plot points that have to be shoehorned in.

Thor The Dark World

Back to the significance of the movie. The first Iron Man existed as a sci-fi movie set on the edge of reality, this places the character closer to The Dark Knight than Thor (leading to the question how will Batman fit into DC’s hero collective, The Justice League?), whose introduction, along with the rest of the Avengers marked a movement more towards total fantasy. Where the Avengers dropped the characters, if not the audience into this new world without warning, Iron Man 3, drags us back, takes a look at what happened then lets us move on. This is an important step for the franchise to take to give it a future, it creates a neat bridge between the world of the first Iron Man and the future of the franchise. And that is the important thing. A film has to exist in a believable world that obeys its own rules or it risks alienating or distracting its audience by taking them out of the story.

captain america and  black widow

So what next? The Avengers 2 is set for release in two years time and little is know about it yet. Before that Thor: The Dark World is in the can and will be in cinema’s towards the end of this year, early synopsis’ suggest a plot surrounding protecting Jane Foster from “the denizens of the dark world of Svartalfheim”. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is out next spring and is set to feature a prominent role for Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow. There is no sign of a further Hulk movie. This makes me wonder, where will the Avengers villain come from? Loki from the first Avengers movie had been introduced in the first Thor movie. Will the primary villain of the next movie be introduced in a similar way, in either Captain America: The Winter Soldier or Thor: The Dark World? I would suggest Captain America the more likely of the two simply for balance, and the balance of power in the collective. But then you have the curveball, Guardians of the Galaxy is set to go into production shortly and scheduled for release next year. It is being made by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures (owners of Marvel) and not a co production, will it exist in the same universe or cross over with The Avengers? In comic books the Guardians of the Galaxy originally existed in an alternate universe within the Marvel Comics continuity but now exists in the mainstream Marvel Universe with Tony Stark/Iron Man as a member. Only time will tell, but based on what I have seen so far I am looking forward to finding out.

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Groovers Video Vault
Arizona, noon, on the seventh of June when they highballed over the pass,
Bulldog Mac with a can on back, and a Jaguar hauling ass.
He’s ten on the floor strokin’ bore, seat cover startin’ to gain,
Now beaver you a truckin with the Rubber Duck and I’m about to pull the plug on your drain.

Bulldog Mac with a can on back and a Jaguar hauling assFrom the moment Kris Kristofferson says “there ain’t many of us left” we know this is going to be a movie about changing times and a end of a era, but what should we expect, it is a Sam Peckinpah movie. John Ford was a pioneer, a pioneer in spirit and at heart and a pioneer of movies. This ideal is reflected in his movies, whatever the story, the subtext of his great westerns involved the settlement and taming of the west. Sam Peckinpah came along at a different time an era of despair and an era and a loss of innocence. While Ford’s work is a metaphor for the birth of a new nation, Peckinpah represents an established nation facing a crisis of fair and a loss of direction. It is therefore fitting that he should make a film like Convoy, a contemporary film that explore all the ideas of his westerns, in a lot of ways it is a western. It is also fitting that it should be his last significant film, and incidentally his most profitable.Convoy_film_poster

Three truckers: Martin Penwald aka Rubber Duck known as “The Duck” (Kris Kristofferson), Spider Mike (Franklyn Ajaye), Bobby aka Love Machine’ aka Pig Pen (Burt Young) Are lured into a speed trap by Sheriff Lyle Wallace (Ernest Borgnine) who gave them a false “Smokey report” using the CB handle ‘Cottonmouth’. Lyle considers himself independent (in other words corrupt) takes a bribe to let them off the speeding charge using the threat of locking them up awaiting trial and thus taking away their livelihood. After paying the fine the trio stop at a truck stop where Lyle tries to arrest Mike on a vagrancy charges (knowing that he has already extorted his remaining cash) . A fight breaks out between Lyle, two other cops and all the truckers in the place. Fleeing the scene along with Melissa (Ali MacGraw), a photographer looking for a lift after her car breaks down, the group head for the state line. By the time they cross the border into New Mexico the convoy has increased to fifty trucks. Before long a mile long Convoy is heading for Mexico, picking up support and attracting the attention of the police and the state governor.convoy Ali MacGraw Franklyn Ajaye Burt Young Ernest Borgnine

There have reports suggesting EMI who own had purchased the rights to the song that inspired the movie intended to make a light, comic action chase movie like Smokey and the Bandit that had just grossed over $60million. Although elements of this remained Sam Peckinpah had other ideas and crafted something more substantial, political and most importantly similar in style and substance to his westerns. It is true that the movie looses its way from time to time but on the whole it is a solid movie that is misunderstood and unfairly criticised. Made at time before internet it is a film surrounded by myth. One constantly mentioned point is that it is based on a song. That isn’t entirely true. The original version of the song does not include the plot or the characters from the film. A new version was written based on the screenplay, this is the one used in the film and played on the radio. It is true that actor and friend of the director James Coburn worked as second-unit director, it has been suggested this was favour to help him get his directors union card, however he didn’t actually direct anything after Convoy. It also isn’t clear how much of the film he actually directed when Peckinpah was “unwell” (unwell being a euphemism for his much publicised problems of the time).Convoy (USA 1978) Kris Kristofferson/ LKW, Truck, Trucker

Set at a time of rising fuel prices and the introduction of the 55mph speed limit, shortly after the Watergate scandal and the end of the Vietnam war, the film and the truckers in it represent the last bastion of American individuality and freedom in a increasingly state controlled country (and world). This is made clear in certain key scenes but is only suggested not resolved. This give viewers the opportunity to draw their own conclusions. Most people will take different things from the themes depending on what they bring to it. WARNING PLOT SPOILER COMING UP: For many The Duck’s apparent death and his ultimate survival/resurrection could just be a cop out by a filmmaker wanting a happy ending or afraid to kill his hero character. I see it more as glimmer of hope in a troubled time for the characters and what they represent. A message of hope for a nation and for the world as a whole, how far have we come from the despair of Vanishing Point (1971)? The cowboy spirit of the truck drivers has not been lost or broken, despite the hardship that the Duck and other drivers face in changing times. Furthermore the Duck’ survives because of his moral code and by surviving he defeats Lyle’s amoral code. The cowboy/truck driver being the hero and the corrupt authority figure reflects its own problems in society, but as already mentioned it was only a handful of years after the Watergate Scandal.Convoy

Beyond any meaning or subtext that may or not be there, there are two things that make the film really work. The cast and the trucks. The cast is headed by Kris Kristofferson as Rubber Duck, he was at the height of his fame as an actor having made some great films: Cisco Pike and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (also with Sam Peckinpah) Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (directed by Martin Scorseese) as well as the rubbish but popular A Star is Born. Ali MacGraw had not made a film since The Getaway (also directed by Pecckinpah) six years earlier (following her divorce from Robert Evans and marriage to Steve McQueen) but was still a bankable star. Burt Young was recognisable after the success of Rocky. The film stealing performance comes from Ernest Borgnine as Lyle Wallace, the corrupt sheriff and The Ducks nemesis. The other stars, the trucks led by the Duck’s 1977 Mack RS-712 LST (Bulldog Mack with a can on back) are a representation of the pioneer spirit “From the covered wagons and trains to the 18-wheelers that keep this country alive”. They cut there way through the landscape the way the cavalry did in John Ford westerns creating emotive imagery, and they look cool!

We could tell by the smell it was trucker’s hell And the devil was Dirty Lyle

A few final thoughts on the movie: Re-watching the movie for my Video Vault series brings back a lot of memories. I first saw the film when I was about six years old and watched it constantly as a kid, possibly more that any other movie (until I came across The Terminator and Alien at the age of twelve, but that’s another story). Growing up in England it is this movie as much as Fandango (the movie that lends it name to my blog) that made encouraged me undertake a road trip around Americas south-west. I may not watch the movie as often as I did before, but I still love it. You can’t talk about Convoy without mentioning Sam Peckinpah’s other movies. It isn’t as hard hitting as Straw Dogs (1971) or as sublime as The Wild Bunch (1969) and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) but just like Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973) and The Getaway (1972) it shouldn’t be dismissed. Many people reading this may have seen the movie and forgotten it, others will not have seen it. I recommend regardless of your relationship or preconceptions you give it a chance and watch it.

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When I decided to take part in the Blind Spot Series I came to the concussion that if I was going to take it seriously I would have to confront my biggest blind-spot, animation. After talking to people who know and love animated movies I decided to take their advice and pick a movie each from Studio Ghibli and Pixar. Having looked at the synopsis of a few movies I decided the Studio Ghibli production that appealed most was Princess Mononoke original title もののけ姫 or Mononoke-hime from 1997, written and directed by the legendry Hayao Miyazaki.Princess Mononoke poster

Ashitaka, a young warrior prince, saves his village from rampaging demon possessed boar-god, in the process his arm is cursed/infected making it a deadly weapon. Advised the infection will eventually take over his entire body and kill him, Ashitaka begins a quest to find a cure. Along the way he meets many strange people and creatures and finds himself in the middle of a battle between an industrialised village led by Lady Eboshi and the intelligent animal inhabitants of the forest and their gods. The gods of the forest include a wolf-god and her adoptive human daughter Princess Mononoke. Seeing good and bad in both sides Ashitaka tries to stop the killing and find peace but is met with suspicion and animosity on both sides.Ashitaka Princess Mononoke

A note on how I watched the film. The DVD I watched came with both the original Japanese dialogue and English subtitles as well as the English language version complete with star-studded Hollywood cast (including: Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, Billy Bob Thornton, Gillian Anderson, Jada Pinkett Smith). I first watched the movie in its original form and am now playing the English language version in the background as I write this review. The English version isn’t bad despite some clunky dialogue but I do prefer watching movies as intended in their original language.

Hayao Miyazaki has sighted John Ford as an influence on this movie, I can see this and Akira Kurosawa in the epic nature of the story, the settings, the idea of a quest and the transparency with witch the subtext is demonstrated to the audience. Like Ford and Kurosawa, he isn’t afraid to depict violence, although it doesn’t in my eyes have the same impact in animated form. The story is basically good, with ideas, ideals and themes that are universal, this clearly explains the wide appeal. The thing that surprised me about a film seemingly aimed at a younger audience is how it follows the conventions of a three act manga movie (I have seen a few) intended for older viewers: An introduction to the setting and characters using standard liner storytelling and conventions of character development – a less interesting and less coherent middle with some philosophical deeper meaning and message – a finale involving a character introduced in the middle act turning into a god and/or daemon and going bat-shit crazy before being destroyed or appeased and finding a satisfactory conclusion.Princess Mononoke

The most notable thing about the movie for me is the way it looks, it is clearly Japanese making it very different to the works of Disney or DreamWorks, but more than that, it is clearly traditional hand drawn cel animation and not computer animation (although I understand there is some computer animation used) and all the better for it. Although I haven’t researched the style of the art, I get the impression it is inspired by Japanese art (possibly from the period the film is set). Whatever the inspiration, it does look beautiful at times, but I can’t help my prejudice, I would rather see a live action movie. There are times when I felt I was been preached at from multiple angles. The overriding message of conservation is overt through much of the film. The depiction of opposing characters who appear to be different races (or nationalities) point to an idea of acceptance and equality. My first impression was that I had seen it all done before, but it is worth remembering the film came out in 1997 long before many similar themed movies that came to mind while I was watching it, I suspect James Cameron has seen it more than once! To give it credit, although neither message is subtle, I can’t complain too much as they are good messages to depict especially to a young and impressionable audience. What I do have a problem with is the length, at around two and a quarter hours, it could easily have been trimmed by half an hour to make a tighter more concise movie that held the attention better.

In pointing out my problems with the movie it probably comes across that I didn’t enjoy it, I am pleased to report this isn’t the case. There is lots to like, admire and indeed enjoy in the film and I did enjoy watching it, however it didn’t charm or wow me enough to make me want to rush out and watch the rest of the Studio Ghibli movies (or animation in general). I would recommend it to any fan of animation and have to admit it has softened my opinion to some degree, I think I can safely say if a Ghibli film were to come on TV I may give it a chance, where in the past I would probably wouldn’t have. I will revisit animation later in the series, having already seen the Toy Story movies I will most likely watch WALL·E or Up.

You can see what Ryan and all the other Blind Spot contributors watched this month HERE.

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Please note this is not a review of Olympus Has Fallen but is does contain plot spoilers.

When I saw the lazy and lamentable A Good Day To Die Hard back in February I suggested the filmmakers take a look at the original classic Die Hard from 1988 to remind themselves what made it so great. Now two months later I have seen a film made by people who have clearly spent a lot of time watching Die Hard, so much so that at times it felt like a remake. It also had the benefit of a decent director in the shape of Antoine Fuqua. Although he has never recaptured the heights of Training Day (2001) he has made some good dumb fun like The Replacement Killers (1998) and Shooter (2007).

Olympus Has Fallen or Die Hard in The Whitehouse

So with all this going for it Olympus Has Fallen must be a great film? Sadly it isn’t. at risk of damming with faint praise, it isn’t terrible. The problem, going far beyond the confined setting of Nakatomi Plaza/The Whitehouse, the movie totally lacks originality and actually takes key plot points from Die Hard. Including the failed helicopter assault, the hero bumping into one of the terrorist (who is pretending not to be a terrorist), and not forgetting the twist, where the terrorists motives are revealed to be different to what they first appeared to be.John McClane and Mike Banning

Then we move onto Die Hard’s greatest asset, the villain, not only is Hans Gruber one of the best (and best written) villains in movie history, but he is played with relish by Alan Rickman, a great actor who was born to play the role. Rick Yune, isn’t terrible, but he lacks the menace of Rickman’s Gruber as well as an underwritten part.Hans Gruber and Kang

Bruce Willis has become an action hero and is often mentioned in the same breath as fellow 80’s action stars Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, what is often forgotten is Willis only earned this reputation because of Die Hard, prior to that he was best know as the star of TV romantic comedy drama. This everyman quality was one of the things that made John McClane agreat character and more importantly, Die Hard a great film. Casting the man best known for playing King Leonidas prevents any possibility of any everyman quality to Olympus Has Fallen, but it would have been so easy to solve this problem. Simply swap the casting around and making Aaron Eckhart the action hero and Gerard Butler (who also produced) the President.Olympus Has Fallen aaron eckhart and gerard butler

So while I can’t condemn a filmmaker for following my advice of making a film more like Die Hard, I equally can’t praise them for remaking Die Hard. My plea, please come up with some original ideas. And this leads me to a final thought; last week I was left wondering how Oblivion would compare to the similarly themed After Earth due out later this year, Olympus Has Fallen isn’t the only White House under attack movie this year. White House Down is due for release in the summer, given that it is directed by Roland Emmerich, I suspect the American landmark will get even more trashed.

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For my second entry into Paragraph Film Reviews’ Japan-O-Rama series I am looking at Toshiya Fujita’s 2003 movie The Princess Blade, original Japanese title Shura Yukihime or 修羅雪姫.

The Princess Blade (2003), directed by: Shinsuke Sato and loosely based on the manga comic Lady Snowblood by Kazuo Koike (already filed as Lady Snow blood (1973) directed by Toshiya Fujita). Set in dystopian near future Japan once more by a monarchy. Yuki (Yumiko Shaku), The Princess Blade of the title is the last surviving royal of the House of Takemikazuchi. Living in isolation from the world, they are led by Byakurai (Kyûsaku Shimada) and use their skills developed as Mikado guards to become the most deadly assassins for hire. They are hired by the government to stop a group of oppressed rebels who plan to overthrow them. When Yuki discovers that Byakurai killed her mother, and her own life is now in danger she flees and encounters Takashi (Hideaki Itô) part of a rebel movement. This gives her an interesting glimpse of the idea of a normal life and prospective on her former life as well as an opportunity for revenge.

The Princess Blade poster

The story is scraped back to the bare bones producing a trim 93 minute movie. The only problem with this is the lack of depth and investment in the characters. This is overcome bay the casting of a charismatic and alluring leading lady who brings both strength and vulnerability to the role. The revenge story is a mainstay of the genre as is the concepts that it explores such as the distraction she finds along the way as well as the pitfalls of revenge. But like the swordfights we see onscreen, revenge is only the surface of the movie the real story exists within the subtext. The crux of the story is about power; what people will do to gain power and how they abuse it when they get it. We see this in Yuki, Byakurai, the rebels and the government.Yumiko Shaku

The fight choreography comes curtsy of Chinese actor/director/stunt director Donnie Yen. Yen’s contribution is a prime example of the Chinese influence of Japanese action cinema with more ostentatious and extravagant fights and swordfights coupled with traditional blood and violence Japanese samurai movies. It is this juxtaposition of old and new ideas that makes the film such an interesting watch. The same can be said of the look of the film with the swordfights of a samurai movie between people wearing modern clothing. Large parts of the movie take place away from modern technology then we see guns and cars. The look of the film subtly spectacular. Predating Casshern (2004) and the green screen revolution that it hailed the locations are real world and almost familiar looking. The movies colour pallet is limited and subdued with a dull blue/grey tinge at times, the brighter scenes have a under bleached look. All this helps emphasize the flashes of colour (often red blood) when we seen them. Along with movies like Ryûhei Kitamura’s Versus (2000) they almost make their own subgenre that western directors have never been able to recapture.

The Princess Blade

The film does lose its way from time to time particularly towards the end, but this can be forgiven for all the good we get along the way. The casting is superb throughout as are their performances particularly Yumiko Shaku whose expressive face say so much more than her words, possibly more than the script demanded. The action is good and will keep fans of the genre satisfied but that is kind of where it ends, the film offers nothing particularly new or original, or even exceptional that could attract a new audience to the genre.

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The trailer for Oblivion makes it look like a routine Sci-Fi movie set on an sparsely populated earth in a post war dystopian future. This in itself is largely true, but the movie is far better than expected. Even allowing for this I didn’t intend to write about the movie but felt compelled to by the sniffy reviews and mixed word of mouth.

Approximately sixty years in the future Jack (Tom Cruise) and his wife Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) are the last two humans on earth. The rest of humanity has relocated to Titan after the world was devastated in war with an alien race. The pair have been left behind to maintain the equipment used to harvesting the planet’s natural resources. After five years, they only have two weeks left, while Victoria is keen move to Titan, Jack can’t help feeling something is wrong.oblivion-tom-cruise-olga-kurylenko

The first thing that stands out about the movie is the way it looks. Just like director Joseph Kosinski’s other movie TRON: Legacy, Oblivion looks stunning. Unlike TRON: Legacy that is set in a computerised world, this movie utilises desolate real world sets in America and Iceland sublimated by CGI. The technology we see is very clean looking and very white and reminiscent of Ipods. The are also countless nods to other Sci-Fi movies, most notably 2001: A Space Odyssey. The plot however owes more to WALL·E, Silent Running, Moon and Saturn 3. Although Morgan Freeman is given second billing behind Tom Cruise, a lot of the film features just Cruise and Andrea Riseborough supported by Melissa Leo who appears only as a disembodied voice and an image on a video screen. They are later joined by Olga Kurylenko whose previous performances range from flat and misjudged in Quantum of Solace to mute but breathtaking and brilliant in Centurion. The whole cast is strong but the standout is Andrea Riseborough.oblivion-andrea-riseborough

Co-written, by the director Joseph Kosinski based on his own (unpublished) graphic novel of the same name, the movie isn’t a remake, reboot or sequel (and it isn’t in 3D) and it is all the better for it. The plot is a little thin and has the odd hole, but the overall it works and more than satisfies the conventions of storytelling and the genre. There are no holes so big or points so ponderous to alienate the viewer and take them away from the narrative. The characters are easy to empathise with helping the viewer be immersed in the story. There are numerous twists and turns in the plot, some you will see coming, others you won’t but none that you be confused by. Its this combination complexity and simplicity that makes the movie work so effortlessly. The end is either perfectly executed or a contrived cop-out depending on your point of view.Oblivion

How much you like the movie may depend on how much you like the genre but ultimately there is enough going on to keep all but the most jaded entertained. The bar has been set higher than expected for Will Smith and M. Night Shyamalan’s seemingly similarly themed After Earth due out in the summer.

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In The HouseMamaDaniel Day Lewis as LincolnHansel & Gretel Witch HuntersLes MisérablesThe PaperboyZero Dark ThirtystokerDjango UnchainedWarm Bodies

(All films release in the UK in January, February, March 2013)

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