De Palma: two directors plonk a camera in front of legendary director Brian De Palma, and he discusses his turbulent career, warts ‘n’ all. This kicks off with a brief history of his journey into cinema; starting as an indie director through to his studio system break alongside Lucas, Spielberg, Scorsese, and Coppola. The rest of the documentary feels like De Palma defending his stinkers and bigging up the films that initially underperformed, but have been subsequently lauded. My main issue with this documentary is that I don’t know who it’s supposed to be aimed at: the 2-5 minute recap of every single film is too high-level for De Palma nerds like me – even with the odd anecdote – yet it pretty much spoils the best parts of every film that ‘De Palma n00bs’ won’t have seen yet. As it’s just De Palma talking, it feels a touch self-indulgent – massaging his own ego – and coming over as a tad weird, bitter, & unhinged by the end. This is capped off with a final few minutes that turn into the biggest self-congratulatory handjob; where De Palma states that he is the only director keeping Hitchcock’s notions of “pure cinema” alive! This is the only time I’ve ever though that what I was watching could have benefited from more talking heads lending different perspectives and additional context. Don’t get me wrong, De Palma is one of the most under-rated directors out there; and although he’s had some stinkers, he’s also made some of the greatest movies of their times… but this isn’t the tribute that I was expecting; or that a masterful director like Brian De Palma deserves.
If you really want to explore De Palma, scrap this and go watch Blow Out, Femme Fatale, Scarface, or The Untouchables to see the damage this guy can do with a camera.
Strike Back: Vengeance (Season 3) – when a billionaire acquires four nuclear triggers in order to re-shape Africa, only section 20 can stop him. Continuing with the UK/US collaboration, this takes everything that worked about ‘Project Dawn’ and made it all bigger/louder/better. Every episode is wall to wall action; with dozens of set pieces, hundreds of deaths, and a load of whiz-bang sex scenes. The entire season is 100mph, and it’s simply great fun. The characters feel more rounded, the leads’ chemistry is fantastic, and it’s very professionally made – but things like ‘character development’, ‘plot’, and ‘direction‘ are background noise to the explosions, gunfights, stunt driving, and spec ops that march the show forward. It’s hard to believe that such a ridiculously intense level of action (huge set pieces every 10 mins or so) can be done on a TV budget – the 10 episodes are paired off into FIVE 90-minute long mini missions that run together. In a world of toned down and heavily edited 12-rated action films, the swearing, sex, and sensational action makes this feel like something from ‘the good old days’. Completely knowing, and aimed directly at young male action fans, Strike Back Vengeance is a show that only really does one thing (infinite ammo, high-octane action turned up to 11), but does it brilliantly – making it a truly unmissable show for action fans
Strike Back (Season 1): When he takes the blame for a failed mission, Spec Ops soldier John Porter is kicked out of the SAS, but re-hired seven years later to catch a familiar face. After the briefest of setups Strike Back is pretty much just action-action-action with the odd scrap of plot – it has to be one of the most action-centric, kick ass, blood splattering, neck-snapping, omni-exploding pieces of TV badassery out there. Richard Armitage (as John Porter) holds his own and really makes the show, as the central Damaged Hero, and total badass – channeling guys like Rambo & Mclean – and could probably take on Jack Bauer in a fight; not even kidding! As the series sprints forward, the main backstory becomes more intricate, and interlinked with the current missions. The episodes which are decadently overflowing with set-pieces, deception, betrayal, action, adrenalin and politics – are all surprisingly believable, at least until the Scottish hacker pops up in the final mission. All-in-all Strike Back is like a mythical unicorn hiding in the TV Schedule: an action-heavy, huge-budget, Movie-styled TV show consisting of 3 interlinked adrenaline-soaked 90-minute episodes that truly raise the action bar. Action fans rejoice!
Shinjuku Incident: Tells the story of illegal Chinese immigrants doing some of the worst jobs imaginable and struggling to find identity in Tokyo. Jackie Chan flexes his dramatic muscles, pulling off one of his more humble, proud and down-and-out roles with ease. The film starts off quite realistic and believable, but gets progressively ridiculous as it rushes forward, to the point where characters and scenes become laughable (a few hand scenes and the main cyberpunk/tranny/weirdo transformation being the standouts) This flick makes the most of the ancient Chinese / Japanese rivalry, with some memorable turf wars between the Yakuza and immigrant Triads. Annoyingly, there’s no real sense of time – this could al be over a year or ten years, you just can’t tell. The biggest weakness is that the story is so huge: complete rags to riches cycles, with characters going full circle, or off the map and so many other, more minor plot points & events – It just feels like it’s all been bulldozed through. Quite a memorable little number, but all over the place story-wise. Mongkok was better
The Air I Breathe: Four separate stories of characters based on the emotions Happiness, Pleasure, Sorrow and Love are linked by a ruthless gangster. A somewhat tired idea these days that lands in the Crash / Amores Perros / Babel genre. For the most part the casting is unadventurous, Garcia, Bacon, Whitaker all play bread and butter roles. Hirsch is chronic. Michelle Gellar is really good but the real standout was Brendan Fraser; especially given how unconventional his character is. He pulls off an awesome performance; gruff, grim and interesting. FAO his agent, sack shit like Furry Vengeance and get him more roles like this, pronto! The cheesy voiceovers give the film a bizarre aftershave commercial feel and ‘Fingers’ is such a terrible name for a baddie. The big problem was that the four individual segments were too short and broad to build on the characters effectively. Towards the end the story comes together nicely (albeit quite cheesily) but just doesn’t quite have the full effect. Overall this has good intentions but just fails to rock you. A decent effort by any standards but could have been a real tour de force.
Slumdog Millionaire: modern twist on the rags to riches tale as an Indian kid from the slums lands up on a game-show. There’s a lot of stock themes throughout the film; good cop / bad cop, sensible sibling / criminal sibling, life-long obsession with girl etc. Despite this Slumdog’s an entertaining story – handling and highlighting some of the best and worst aspects of growing up in India effectively. The characters are all quite memorable and it although it gets a bit far-fetched in parts it still works pretty well. For me, the growing-up section of the film was great to watch (the child actors were fantastic), but the latter part – love story – was insipid and seemed to take forever to finish. Somehow everyone looks cross-eyed, the English-Indian accents were bizarre and I couldn’t believe I made it through an Indian film without a ridiculous dance scene – never mind. Secretly wished it would have been an ‘Unusual Suspects’ ending, and he was cheating all along… no such luck. Decent film, but don’t believe the rave reviews, or that this is the ‘real’ Mumbai. Escapism!
Gangs of New York: Scorsese’s star-studded epic tale of one man’s quest for revenge in 1880’s New York. It starts and ends with some ultra-graphic violence and bloody guts – although the end is still quite flat – and pretty much everything in between is all about the drama & story. The cinematography’s more plain and subtle than you’d expect from a master like Scorsese, although the elaborate sets, large cast, costumes and historical references seem meticulous and keep your eyes plenty pleased. Daniel Day Lewis slightly overcooks his character, although was the highlight as usual and the rest of the cast were decent; even John C Reilly and his silly face. Like all ‘foreign’-background roles everyone’s accents oscillated between Americana and Irish (other than the natives Gleeson and Neeson). It’s a great effort, but quite a drawn out affair that lacks depth in both characters and story. Because it’s so specific, New Yorkers would appreciate it most.
Assembly: an epic Chinese film of one man’s struggle through two wars and his quest for recognition of his fallen soldiers. The first 60 minutes of the film shows 4 battles, 3 of which are so realistic that it makes Private Ryan look like a scouts training exercise – the only downfall is they cranked the ‘shaky cam’ up to advanced Parkinsons level in the first one. Some great suspence sequences leading up to the fights. The second part of the film drags on a little as the story weakens but the acting / cinematography / Chinese scenery keeps it more than watchable – and the ending picks up a bit. It’s brutal but humane, and Zhang Hanyu’s performance is utterly jaw-dropping.