Blade Runner (The Final Cut): A retired replicant hunter (aka a Blade Runner) must return to track down four fugitive android impostors in 2019 Los Angeles. It’s unbelievable to think that this was released in 1982 as everything about it looks and feels like a ‘modern’ movie: it’s still breathtaking, brimming with scenes and imagery that are nothing short of pure spectacle. Almost every shot is striking; and the scale/intricacy of the sets & worldbuilding is unbelievable. Despite all of this, Ridley isn’t above some tremendously naff product placement: Coca Cola billboards, Budweiser signage, Atari holograms, and a final fight illuminated by a humongous neon TDK sign… classy! There’s also a questionable sex scene and dubious mis-use of midget actors – to give the film a little edge and distraction. If imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery; you know that Blade Runner is a top-drawer sci-fi, as the future-metropolis aesthetics and theme of ‘what makes us human’ are echo through pretty much every subsequent Sci-Fi classic: Ghost in the Shell, The Fifth Element, Minority Report, The Matrix, Dark City, Total Recall, Brazil, Looper, Akira, Ex Machina… the list is endless. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the starting point for the movie (Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dear of Electric Sheep?” is a SF masterpiece). Overall, Blade Runner is a parodically boilerplate pulp/noir story; yet the world created & proto “cinema du look” style paired with the outstanding source material & sci-fi twists, propel this film into classic territory.
The Grand Budapest Hotel: a girl reads a book’s prologue, which the author personally sets up; his younger self meeting a hotel owner, who tells him how he came to own a hotel, after he helped a concierge that was once framed for murder. Only that last part is necessary, but hey, this is a Wes Anderson film so suck up the whimsical details you boringly normal douchebag! The ensemble cast is phenomenal – if a little male-centric – to the point where it becomes distracting, but to be fair, the less time you spend thinking about the story the better. Fiennes makes this way funnier than it should have been with his dashing, sweary, and thoroughly entertaining concierge role – an outstanding a piece of comedy-driven anti-casting, in fact, most actors appear to enjoy playing their exaggerated slapstick characters – and on the whole, they’re all fun to watch. There are plenty of great cinematic techniques resurrected here; with models, scale, depth and focus all being used to powerful effect. The cinematography is also meticulous – composition, shapes, balance, symmetry… it’s the epitome of mise-en-scène (any screenshot could be a painting) making Anderson one of the few directors around that give Park Chan–Wook a run for his money. Substance-wise however is where the film falls over, as it feels very light – the story is all shine and no significance beyond the homage to old-timey farces. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a very unique movie, and Anderson’s most entertaining & accessible film to date. Like one of Mendl’s pastries it’s beautiful and admirable, but very light and fluffy.
Tromeo & Juliet: A modern punk re-telling of the Bard’s classic story that sees two young lovers from feuding families risk everything for each other. Other than the ending, this is a reasonably true interpretation of Shakespeare‘s story – even large chunks of olde dialogue have been kept – but as this is Troma there’s (obviously) an exploitative twist in that it’s packed with blood, sexy goths, lesbians, gratui-tits, piercings, monsters, tampons, vomit, showtunes, popcorn, rats, and a bunch of masturbation / poop / piss / gay / incest jokes. Most annoyingly, there’s a ton of shameless and distracting Troma self-promotion like huge posters, VHS boxes, and Toxie even makes a brief appearance… as if this movie was destined to be the most successful Troma release! It’s very 1990s (the clothes, haircuts, music, the references, and technology like CD-ROMs) as well as being very low-budget effort even by Troma standards: the pairing of which provides a double kick of nostalgia and admirably guerrilla low-budget aesthetic. For a comedy however, it’s not particularly funny although the the end credits provide more laughs in 5 mins than the previous 90 – with dozens of fake entries, and someone proudly proclaiming “Now I don’t have to read the play!”. None of Troma’s releases are aimed at mass audiences and despite taking on one of the most famous stories of all time, Tromeo and Juliet is no exception – it’s low-fi, silly, violent, and controversial in true Troma/Kaufman-style. Despite all of this, ultimately, it isn’t as funny or shocking as it needs to be to sustain a movie this basic. I picked up the Blu-Ray, which I could only recommend for mega-fans of the film as there’s a bunch of extras and four different commentaries – all quite funny.
Battles Without Honour and Humanity (AKA The Yakuza Papers, Jingi naki tatakai, 仁義なき戦い): focuses on the inception, growth and brutal wars between various Yakuza clans in post WWII Japan (namely Hiroshima). This film starts at 200mph; limbs flying, fights, murders, rape, riots… not to mention that something dramatic happening at least every ten minutes. The energetic handheld style, fast cutting and brutal editing (there’s not one unnecessary frame in here) give the film an electricity, realism and urgency that grabs you for the duration – although paired with the sheer breadth of the story, you really need to pay attention. The acting does the expert direction justice, with several complex central characters – and many minor characters – but they’re all championed by Bunta Sugawara, with a magnetic intensity and stoic performance that is really something to marvel. For a 97 minute film, this feels like an epic saga: the story (set over thirteen years) is absolutely crammed full of more betrayal, deception, gang warfare, murders, and more drama / action than you could shake a katana at. Better still, it isn’t just about the gang stuff, boasting a strong social commentary on the power vacuum in post-WWII Japan, and how it eventually poisoned society. Based on memoirs from a Yakuza member, this film feels like the real deal, and was so well-received that is spawned 4 sequels, and the director – Kinji Fukasaku – would go on to direct some of Japans’s most domestically successful movies; ending his career with Battle Royale. Battles Without Honour and Humanity is a remarkable film, that is an absolute must-see for both world cinema and gangster fans alike.
Mission Impossible 2 (or M:i-2 – if you like maths!). Ethan Hunt is sent to Sydney by the IMF to find and destroy the mysterious “Chrimera”. This film totally reeks of John Woo’s direction: there’s at least one slow-mo shot in most scenes, sparks everywhere, superhuman sliding, birds, white dove… and some crazy, crazy action. Unfortunately, there’s a ridiculous level of focus on the love story / personal angle – which is riddled with clichés and makes you doubt how professional a spy Mr Hunt really is – not to mention it feels forced and cheesy. Despite a fairly average spy story clunking along for the most part, the final half hour is absolutely beautiful (other than the love interest and random shots of the sea), and undoubtedly the best part of the film. There’s a few bizarre lines in the script such as “This is not missions difficult, it’s mission impossible; difficult should be a walk in the park” (Hopkins) – and the seemingly accidentally left in “put a sock in it”, a Scottish-ism by Dougray. Other than a stupid emo haircut, lots of face masks and flamenco guitar (so you know you’re in Spain) there’s not a lot to write home about. Mission Impossible II has plenty of stand-alone memorable and ‘cool’ bits to enjoy, but as a whole film, it’s average at best.
1911: Anniversary film about the revolution that ended 2,000 years of imperial rule in China. There’s a whole lot of revolutioning rolled into the opening 30 minutes, and the story doesn’t rest after that – entire week-long battles are boiled down to a minute of slow-mo and a paragraph summary of events. Even the indoor political scenes have frantic jump-cuts (like individual words have been removed) and crazy-fast dialogue. The overall tone of the movie feels like retrospective propaganda – definitely a rose-tinted version of history told by the winners, about their noble martyrs. Several westerners pop up at various points, and are portrayed as 1-dimensional cold fat-cats, only interested in money. On the up, it’s stunningly shot, every frame looks picturesque. Sets, costumes, detail all outstanding, especially in the large-scale set-pieces. Jackie Chan gets to administer a token ass kicking; more generally, he does well with his character, despite sharing screen time with scores of important characters that are continually introduced up to the last reel. With several TV series of the same story warranting 60 x 45 min, and 41x 45 minute episodes, this film feels like you’re flipping through a 1,000 page history book looking only at the pictures and captions – ignoring the main text. Unfortunately, being Chan‘s 100th movie is the most significant thing about 1911, and most disappointingly, there’s only a glimpse of the entertaining ass-kicking and stunts that made him a global star. The scope is just far, far too big to pull off in a conventional movie format.
NOTE: UK DVD is 95 minutes long, not international 125 minute cut
Bound: Violet wants to leave her mobster boyfriend after hooking up with ex-con Corky – so they hatch a little ol’ scheme to steal laundered some money. A project to prove that the Wachowski‘s could actually handle a film before studios gave them money for The Matrix, it had to stand out, so the guys made a noir film with a unique twist – LESBIANS!!! The retro vibe mixed with the semi-corny script, cheapy music and lesbian undertones make the first 30 minutes feel a bit like a soft porno. When two beautiful women start fingerblasting each other it feels like an actual porno, but with more passion & realism. After the setup the film picks up the pace; with the story twisting along and the directors quickly proving that they can handle themselves. It’s very, very slick and stylish, well shot, technically proficient and a dramatic rollercoaster towards the end. A couple of really high tension scenes are also handled masterfully, and although the script’s a bit clunky, the story makes up for it. Both females (Tilly & Gershon) do well with their characters, as does Pantoliana but seeing Cypher with hair is a bit weird. The final act in particular has a real Reservoir Dogsy type feel to it in both the bloody violence, and the career kick-startability. As a readiness project, consider this mission accomplished, although the Wachowski‘s would soon realised that all the money in the world couldn’t make a good film *coughMatrixRevolutionscough*
How will we convince people to give us money for our project... LESBIOOOBS!!!!
Thirst: after a failed experiment a priest develops an urge to drink human blood, it doesn’t help that the world thinks he’s blessed by god, and he’s falling in love. For most of the runtime the film never really ups gear, remaining slow and intense from start to finish – the setup in particular takes time to get going. Adding to the mood are some morbid undertones (suicidal priest, very awkward sex scene etc). The final act feels like a jumbled-up mess, with lots of sudden developments and a lot to tie up, although the last scenes do save the movie. Much like OldBoy, JSA, I’m a Cyborg, and Sympathy for Mr vengeance, Park Chan Wook’s streak of offbeat, oddball and very, very black humour crops up to provide some guilty laughs. Leading man Song Kang-ho is superb to watch as his character wrestles between his moral/religious background and new-found vampire urges. The scariest part of the film is how technically proficient and well-directed it is, no matter how dingy or clinical the settings are, they’re immaculately planned, framed to perfection, and the camera movement is immense… this guy is, without a doubt, one of the best directors in the world. Whilst Thirst is a fresh, poetic, and ultra-stylish take on the crammed vampire genre, its own silver bullet is the slow pacing and lack of drama for the most part. It’s not a bad film, by any stretch, but will probably appeal most to goths and fans of vampires / blood / self-harming / sex.
Buried [Blu Ray]: An American truck driver in Iraq wakens up in a coffin with a Zippo, Blackberry phone and a few other items; his shit has hit the fan. From Reynold’s instant panic at the blacked out start, and with the entire film playing out inside the box, this is very claustrophobic and unbelievably suspenseful. As time ticks down, and the story snakes forward it’s impossible not to get whipped up in the boiling tension – especially during the latter half when bigger events unfold. It’s not often that black humour can lighten the mood but when a film is this intense, being put on hold or flippant sarcasm does take the edge off – momentarily. Technically, it’s superb – the camera work, varied lighting and sound maximise the intensity, and for the Blu Ray, while the picture’s not particularly ‘worthy’, every single scratch, movement, phone tone and background noise punches through. The only limitation of the film is that if you don’t buy in, it will only ever be ‘a guy stuck in a box’. With a scope this tiny, you’d think 90 minutes would be a long stretch, but Buried is quite the opposite – hyper-dramatic to the very last frame – it’s amazing how much Cortés forces out of this concept, and kudos to Reynolds, who took yet another gamble on a left-field movie. Proof that a tiny, tight project can be just as good as any ‘tent-pole’ picture.
The Hangover Part II: Take my review of the first film – change mentions of ‘Vegas to Bangkok and it’s a job well done! Realising that the one-man wolf pack and Leslie Chow (the only two that pull off ‘funny’) were the best things about The Hangover, these two characters get even more screen time and gags than before. Once again, the humour is very Lad / Frat friendly and doesn’t appeal to everyone. Not much else to say other than it’s even more crass and offensive than the first, and seemed to have longer periods where nothing amazingly funny was happening. It’s good, but definitely more of an expansion pack than a new addition. Kudos to the people responsible for taking Hangovers for from a low-budget comedy to the biggest comedy of all time in 2 films!
Black Swan: when a devoted ballet dancer finally gets featured in the lead role of Swan Lake she has to deal with all the pressures that drove her predecessor crazy. To get it out of the way, nobody does ‘descending into madness’ quite like Aranofsky – and this is no different in that you genuinely have no idea if what your seeing is real, unreal, paranoia, hallucinations, fantasy, or mental illness. The second half on the film in particular has some genuinely chilling and thrilling scenes. To begin with the camerawork feels awkward and unnecessary – walking shots behind the heads – but it works surprisingly well for most of the film – particularly when it starts spinning around the dancers. The film also uses SFX outstandingly, and wiping out the cameramen in the reflections gives the viewer a strange haunting sensation. The new-age classical soundtrack is nothing short of stunning. Although I wasn’t convinced by the first 40 minutes, seeing the complex relationships (mum, teacher, peer) develop is thoroughly enjoyable, particularly because the film always keeps you guessing. Cassel and the Hershey both give show-stopping performances, although they’re overshadowed by Portman who puts everything out there, and becomes the definition of fragile, slowly and believably transforming into a woman on the brink of madness. Don’t understand the big deal around theater walk outs – it’s definitely not for the prudish, but there’s nothing offensive here. Despite everything in front of the camera being golden, the real star is the man behind it, who gets everything pitch perfect and creates an absolutely stunning finale. Ballet’s never been this sexy and dramatic.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang: pulp noir parody about a small-time criminal that gets in way over his head when he discovers a Hollywood murder plot. At the centre of this are two rock solid characters; RDJ is a quirky lovable rogue, and Val Kilmer plays ‘Gay’ Perry, a hardened P.I. but again, quite likable. Both interesting, charming and acted superbly; the chemistry between them is second to none. As the film pans out the story broadens and remains interesting, but the best part of KKBB is the humour. Almost every base is covered; screwball, wit, black, gross out and slapstick – with corpses, fingers, dogs, guns and a Christmassy undertone. This is further backed up by a sharp script, littered with comedy gems. I also liked the non-glamourised aspect of being in bottom half of the film industry and L.A. social scene. There’s a few minor faults; pretty corny and obnoxious meta narration by RDJ, a lot of smug pulp and movie references, and for some people it’s probably too left field. It’s more of a mish–mash of genre than a single type too, although that could equally be a good thing. Other than the ridiculous action-hero ending KKBB is an absolutely solid film, funny, sharp, black and a total hoot.
The Good, The Bad, The Weird: Set in the 1930s, a bounty hunter, most-wanted criminal and petty thief are all after the same ancient treasure map. This flick has it all: style, action, plot, rivalry, twists, adventure, suspense, guns, huge sets, humour and explosions. Most of all, it’s actually great fun to watch, with the exception of a few short ‘meh’ sections and one psychedelic scene – the rest is all killer. The whole story, but most notably the final scenes are brilliantly executed classic Western. The Bad and Weird characters are great to watch, and the director‘s on good form. Definitely a bit more of a bloodbath than you’d expect from an upbeat film like this with scarlet, limbs and fingers flying all over the place. The audio track really comes alive during the action scenes and there’s a nice nod to Tarrantino with an epic song choice for the huge chase scene. There’s also a nice bit of Korean history thrown in the mix. Overall, it’s an amazing film from a director with a great track record, and another brilliant example of why Korea is one of the best countries as far as movie exports go.