Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, dir. Guy Ritchie, wr. Kieran Mulroney, Michele Mulroney, st. Robert Downey, Jr., Jude Law, Noomi Rapace, Jared Harris, Stephen Fry, Kelly Reilly, Rachel McAdams

The intervening time between Ritchie's 2009 first outing for Holmes and this second chapter has seen the critically acclaimed BBC effort with Benedict Cumberbatch (allegedly playing a Khan-like villain in the upcoming Star Trek sequel) receive plaudits and recognition worldwide. A CBS coat-tail rider Elementary with Johnny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu as, lord help us, Joan Watson airs this Winter. More than anything, the BBC show has shown us we are more than able to produce great TV to trouble the likes of HBO's output. Ritchie's film is hardly a vast departure from the predecessor, that is to say, it's as an enjoyably flighty good-going romp as it ever was. Once again Downey Jr. channels his inner Stark to give zip to Holmes' cheeky roguery, but it's a far throw from Cumberbatch's aspergered loner, or even Basil Rathbone's austere interpretation. Which one you prefer is very much like choosing a favourite Bond. There's precious little Noomi Rapace though, and Law's as limp as ever. Jared Harris as Moriarty, currently seen as the bumbling Lane Pryce in AMC's Mad Men, provides some elevation, but doesn't hold a candle to the BBC's Andrew Scott, a heady tangle of psychotic super-intellect.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Blade Runner, dir. Ridley Scott, wr. . Hampton Fancher, David Peoples, based on Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, st. Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos, Daryl Hannah

There is a moment in Mike Bartlett’s adaptation of Hugh Hudson’s Chariots Of Fire, currently playing in the Hampstead Theatre as a theatrical Olympic tie-in, where come the play’s closing moments, the characters launch into Parry’s Jerusalem. The organ crescendos and they build towards the last line – “In England’s green and pleasant… land” – the final word segueing seamlessly into Vangelis’ glorious and rich bass note from his theme to the 1981 film. Over the next three minutes, period athletes are joined on stage by characters wearing the contemporary Stella McCartney strip as they limber up in a wonderfully choreographed wordless epilogue. There are arguably only two bits of film score that give me goosebumps. Real goosebumps I mean, the kind you feel on the back of your neck that give you collywobbles with thrilldoms of pure joy. One is that bass note from Chariots. The other is Vangelis’ synth-glissando and percussive rumble that introduces us to 2019’s dystopian LA in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.

It’s stately – that first slow zoom into the smog, pollution and darting lights. Almost regal. It’s a sumptuous imagining of a hellish landscape that draws you in instead of keeping you out. Actually, Vangelis’ major-key theme and Douglas Trumbell’s soft, rippling optical effects of the city and flying Spinners offer one of the most lyrical, romanticized movie openings I’ve ever seen.
The film’s premise is simple, though rich with allegory about life and humanity. In the future, mankind has created genetically engineered humans for off-world slave-labour called Replicants. Following a mutiny, a special police task-force assigns officers roles as Blade Runner – charged with ‘retiring’ any Replicants who may have returned to Earth in search of a way to extend their meagre four-year lifespan. Protagonist Deckard’s (Ford) investigation leads him to the source of Replicant manufacture the Tyrell Corporation and the enigmatic Rachel, the unaware flagship model of the experiment. Scott’s film blends classic Film Noir tropes with spectacular production-design futurism into something that’s narratively recognisable and cogent, but visually (for its time) way ahead of any cinematic depictions of the future that came before.

Like Scott’s own Alien in 1979, this is light years away from Kubrick’s Apple Inc. polished white polycarbonate vision in 2001: A Space Odyssey, or even the clean-cut Americana of the Star Wars universe. Here, we’re pretty much in perpetual darkness, the sky so polluted and irradiated by our industrial waste. Borders have broken down resulting in an overcrowded, ethnically diverse population. Tech is advanced but clunky to use and unimaginatively designed. The streets are rife with black-market traders. There is precious little sense of the plant or animal life that once existed. Even the Far-Eastern junk-like blimps that float across the sky advertise a better life awaiting those who leave Earth. That said, there are wonderful little anachronistic touches here and there, links back to a culture past. Most memorably, and in a scene that is indeed completely about memory and recollection, a piano sits in Deckard’s apartment adorned with black and white photos, sheet music, brass ornaments and Art Deco lamps. The attention to detail is exquisite. Rachel sits at the instrument and begins to play, her music tonally overlapping with the score. Deckard sits beside her. “I didn’t know if I could play. I remember lessons…” Rachel says, sadly, uncertain of what or who she is. Are these real memories, or merely synaptic implants inserted in an attempt to make her more human than human? This may be a scene about artificial life confronting its own inception, but it could equally be about us, confronting our own makeup, an attempt to make sense of our own identity.

Critics of Blade Runner often dismiss the film on the grounds of its slight storyline or sparse action but I would argue that this is a movie designed to be entirely entombed and absorbed in. Younger viewers will be amazed at how much contemporary science fiction has borrowed from its look and feel, and indeed much of its thematic content. The revelation in The Matrix that Neo is The One, though clearly aiming for loftier and grander existentialist implications, always registers as an overreaching and hollow attempt to one-up sci-fi’s cerebral core. Here, we get a final confrontation between Deckard and Batty, the renegade Replicant group’s charismatic leader, high on the rooftop of LA’s famous Bradbury Building. Deckard is broken and beaten, the taught, muscular Batty approaching following a relentless chase up through the lower floors. He sits, lotus-positioned in front of the terrified, mystified Blade Runner and begins a contemplative two-line monologue about his impending demise. It’s poetic and sad and beautiful. The rain falls and Vangelis’ CS-80 gently undulates in the background. It’s a transcendental moment and provides the film with a resolution that contains rare restraint and understatement.

Ridley Scott’s latest film Prometheus, a quasi-prequel to the Alien films may or may not prove to contain the same painterly and judicious combination of inventive storytelling and detailed production design as his early forays into sci-fi. No doubt for many, this will be their first Ridley Scott film. And in many ways it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t live up to expectations, because somewhere, tucked away on a Blu Ray shelf or on a hard-drive, we’ll always have Alien, and we’ll always have Blade Runner, and on loading the movie and playing it, there’ll always be those opening Vangelis notes, priming us for goosebumps.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

JFK, dir. Oliver Stone, scr. Oliver Stone, Zachary Sklar, based on "On the Trail of the Assassins" by Jim Garrison and "Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy" by Jim Marrs, st. Kevin Costner, Kevin Bacon, Tommy Lee Jones, Laurie Metcalf, Gary Oldman, Michael Rooker, Jay O. Sanders, Sissy Spacek

Whichever way you look at it, JFK is an extraordinary feat of film-making, an all-out assault of cinematic sensory overload. Stone examines the events leading up to the murder of JFK in 1963 in Dallas, Texas via meticulously reconstructed events of the day (and the subsequent assassination, seen through the lens of Abraham Zupruder, eerily heavy with the weight of authenticity) and its aftermath – a highly spurious melange of misinformation, conflicting reports, stock footage, multiple eyewitness testimonies, shady government officials and all manner of inter-agency plausible deniability. The sheer force of the argument is persuasive and compelling if not wholly convincing. Stone implicates everyone from the Mob up to and including hurriedly sworn-in president Lyndon Baines Johnson, and if you find your incredulity a little stretched, you cannot deny the film’s powerful message and thematic core of governmental power and the corruption that follows. Stone uses every trick in the cinematographer’s handbook – different filmstocks, a wide array of shots and setups and the most full-on editing and cross-cutting you’ll ever see in a mainstream movie, and John Williams, in one of the few instances unshackled from Spielberg, presents possibly his most mature and complex scores. Its breadth of subject matter and technique remains quite unsurpassed in the two-decade span since its release.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

The Raid: Redemption, dir/wr. Gareth Evans, st. Iko Uwais, Joe Taslim, Donny Alamsyah, Yayan Ruhian

Essentially the corridor sequence from Park Chan-wook's Oldboy spun out for 100 minutes, Welsh director Evans lays on a good spread in the balletic fight choreography department, but fails to imbue proceedings with any sense of real dramatic investment. The result, whilst undeniably exhilarating and brutal in equal measure, recalls a fight director's showreel, a violent foray into increasingly inventive ways to hurt people. The loose plot sees a crack team of SWAT police attempt to storm a derelict apartment block and take out its enterprising kingpin who offers apartment-amnesty to a variety of scumbags and scuzzbuckets. As the numbers thin and the extras are dispatched, various neon-signposted narrative deviations attempt to steer things to the left with predictably unshocking results. To further compound the senselessness of it all, a deal has been struck for the predictable US remake with Evans et al serving as advisors and producers - this despite Linkin Park's Mike Shinoda being brought in to replace the score for the original Indonesian release once Sony acquired US distribution rights. That figures might very well prove a carbon copy of this film minus subtitles proves a bigger hit for Western audiences than the original is a sad thing indeed. 

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Buffalo '66, dir/wr. Vincent Gallo, st. Vincent Gallo, Christina Ricci, Anjelica Huston, Ben Gazzara

Whatever his bizarre-o off-screen antics (refusing to do any press since The Brown Bunny's universal disparaging in 2003, offering an impregnation service under the 'merchandise' section of his website) Vincent Gallo's douce-amere love-story is an absolute gem of a film, and hats off to him for turning in a note and pitch-perfect script, a cracking performance, some subtle and moving direction, a discerning selection of originally composed and existing music, and all packaged in the most diaphanous of plots. Gallo plays the quasi-autobiographical Billy Brown, who, fresh out of the clink, impulsively kidnaps Layla (Ricci) in order to present her to his parents as his wife, hoping the subterfuge will explain his lengthy absence. En-route, and in true fairytale fashion, we meet an increasingly goofy assortment of characters, from his disabled best friend Goon, to his parents Jan and Jimmy (played with nightmarishly manic glee by Huston and the late Gazzara). There are some moments of the kind of stagey, electrifying improv you rarely get in film, and a delightful array of filming techniques and tropes that neatly fold in to the semi-hallucinatory style. Best of all though, is Gallo himself; irritating, naive and charismatic by turns, he presents the most unlikely protagonist, an uncertain and stubborn leading man, and a relationship between Billy and Layla that's entirely irresistible.