28 May 2012

Review: To Live and Die In L.A.

(Dir: William Friedkin, 1985)

William Friedkin has always interested me as a director, yet I’ve seen nowhere near as much of his work as I’d like. I’m a firm believer that The Exorcist is one of the greatest films ever made and obviously The French Connection is rightly justified as a defining cop thriller, but I have a hell of a lot of love for the oft overlooked To Live and Die In L.A.. It sits perfectly in the middle of the eighties with it’s Los Angeles setting representing the genre through this era in a similar way to how the dirty sleazy streets of New York seem synonymous with the seventies police thriller. Beverly Hills Cop had come a year earlier and Lethal Weapon and Die Hard were to follow over the next two / three, but To Live and Die In L.A. is a more stylish and less bombastic thriller.

The plot follows two secret service agents, Chance (William Peterson) and Vukovich (John Pankow) who are desperately trying to bust skilled counterfeiter Masters (Willem Dafoe). He has been evading them for quite some time but things have recently turned personal for Chance as his old partner and mentor (Michael Greene) died at the hands of Masters. At first glance the plot may sound a little clichéd now, but that’s just looking back with 27 years perspective.

Peterson is perfectly cast here. He has a youthful cockiness coming across through what seems like impetuousness, but there’s an extremely calculated drive to catch his man. It’s interesting to see Peterson like this – this was only his second acting role and as good as he also was in Manhunter, his career has become entirely synonymous with the character of Gil Grissom in CSI. There he plays the deeply intelligent and somewhat introverted head of the crime lab - the complete opposite to the bungee jumping, wild arrogance of Chance. Similarly Dafoe is really well cast and as this is one of his early roles too there’s also a youthfulness I’m not used to seeing. Of course he’s cocky and arrogant too, but unlike most antagonists in films of this ilk there’s a lot more too him. He’s a tortured artist with a strange reptilian charm who found a way to literally make money, and is the inherent vision of eighties chic in his sharp clothes, slick modern house, black Ferrari and bisexual modern interpretive dancer girlfriend. Yet he’s capable of violence. He’s an interesting character and aside from the violence this career choice forces him into, you have to question if he’s really that bad?

The rest of the film is bathed in the glow of the eighties too, including a great synth-led soundtrack. Looking back on it now, in many ways this seems to be one of the films that most inspired the look and feel of Drive. One of the reasons for which To Live and Die In L.A. is most well known is it’s car chase, taking place through the industrial area of the city, into the famous LA storm drains and ultimately ending up the wrong way down a busy four lane freeway. It’s thrilling, superbly shot and most importantly feels real. Friedkin’s experience of shooting the famous chase sequence in The French Connection paid off here. But the rest of the film is as expertly shot and put together and the LA we see here is frequently glowing in sunset, well before Simpson and Bruckheimer got into the habit of abusing this palette. But the story moves along at the right pace, managing to be breathtakingly surprising on at least one occasion and offering an interesting depth to the characterisation.

Aside from Masters this characterisation is best seen in the duality between Chance and Vukovich. One is driven to stop at nothing to do what needs to be done and the other is more righteous and has a deep conscious permeating throughout. Over the course of the film we see a slow metamorphosis, perhaps brought upon by what is in essence the brotherhood of working with a partner, but also the persuasiveness of someone continuously adamant that their methods are necessary. Ultimately this leads to the conflict of a visually metaphorical personal hell, where perhaps the only way to escape is to make the transformation? This isn’t so much about questioning what’s right or wrong, it’s about what it takes to push someone to move where this line lies, or even eliminate it altogether.

It’s this character depth that raises To Live and Die In L.A. far beyond that of a standard police procedural, but it also helps that everything else is delivered which such quality, testament of course to Friedkin’s directing and writing. And lest we forget the acting is spot on from Peterson, Dafoe and Pankow, as well as from smaller roles such as John Turturro and Dean Stockwell’s characters. There were a lot of great films in the eighties but To Live and Die In L.A. has always stood out to me as one of the best. Highly recommended.

20 May 2012

Review: Dark Shadows

(Dir: Tim Burton, 2012)

Watching Dark Shadows has made me realise that Tim Burton hasn’t been doing himself any favours this century. He seems preoccupied with remaking / reinterpreting classic works (Planet Of the Apes, Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, Alice In Wonderland and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street), or putting his efforts back into stop motion animation (Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie). It’s commendable to see this form of animation still used in this day and age, but I really would like to see him put some effort into coming up with something similarly original on the live action front, along the lines of Beetlejuice or Edward Scissorhands. Dark Shadows falls into this black hole of being just another bland remake / reinterpretation.

Based on a classic 1960’s tv show, Dark Shadows is about the Collins family and their crumbling small-town dynasty in Maine, who welcome back long lost relative Barnabus (Johnny Depp), who has long since been considered dead. For two centuries. Cursed by Angelique (Eva Green), a witch eternally in love with him, Barnabus was turned into a vampire, witnessed the death of his love and was imprisioned underground. By good fortune he is discovered in 1972, and returns to his old manner Collinswood to connect with his modern relatives and stop the witch who is still as beautiful and conniving as ever.

Dark Shadows starts well. The prologue in the eighteenth century is interesting and fits right in with Burton’s usual gothic style. This leads into the establishing of the seventies setting and Barnabus’ introduction to his family, along with plenty of fish-out-of-water comedy as he is confused by the modern world. But although this first half set-up bodes well, the second half falls into a monotony where the film feels flatly dull and the plot is just bland. It doesn’t care enough to do anything interesting with these characters, just play out a soapish story about rival businesses, the importance of family and witch hunts, with a gloss over everything that takes away any edge.

Depp is ok as Barnabus. He looks the part and plays it with conviction, but it seems we’re supposed to sympathise with him because he wants love and believes in family, yet he’s off happily killing strangers for their blood. Maybe this was how the character was in the tv show (I’ve never seen it so I don't know), but it's confused and doesn’t really work meaning I could only feel apathy towards his character as a result. I find myself getting quite bored of Depp lately as it’s some time since he pushed himself to do anything interesting, becoming constantly weighed down by Burton, Jack Sparrow or blandness such as The Tourist. Even The Rum Diary, his most recent attempt, was just a poor man’s Fear and Loathing... and not even half as good.

The rest of the film is cast well, with the female characters being the strongest. Green is sexy and engaging as the witch and it would be very easy to fall under her spell, whilst Michelle Pfeiffer and Chloe Gracë Moretz are both interesting as the Collins mother and daughter living in the house now and are given a bit more to do. Helena Bonham-Carter crops up as an alcoholic live-in shrink, she’s ok and fits the role well, but it’s an annoying character and a pointless role really, the same as Johnny Lee Miller’s character Roger. He serves no purpose to the story and is clearly only here because his character existed in the tv show. I did quite like Jackie Earle Haley’s caretaker however.

My issues with Dark Shadows ultimately come down to the direction and the story. No matter how well you cast a film, if this aspect isn’t up to scratch then it’s not going to matter. Which is a shame because the set-up and 70’s disco gothica mix is interesting, as are the production design and the music choices. It’s almost as if Burton has become lazy because he’s now so used to stories that have already been long mapped out, and it’s tiresome to see yet another one of his films starring both Depp and Bonham-Carter. I wish he would challenge himself to make something interesting without these safety nets to fall upon. If you’ve seen the trailer for Dark Shadows you’ve seen most of the laughs, but it's not that much of a comedy anyway. I enjoyed it to a point but then found myself getting bored. Really it could’ve been a hell of a lot better.

9 May 2012

Review: Silent House

(Dir: Chris Kentis & Laura Lau, 2011)

There’s a pretty emphatic school of thought that believes foreign films should remain untouched and never be remade for the uncivilised Western audiences who can’t cope with reading whilst watching. On the one hand I sympathise with this view as more should be done to persuade people that subtitles don’t make watching a film harder or any less enjoyable, and also because remakes frequently get lost in translation. But then films like La Casa Muda (aka The Silent House) come along. This Uruguayan film from a couple of years back was an interesting horror experiment that remains pretty much unheard of due to the exceptionally limited cinema release it received (12 opening weekend screens in the UK and only £8,539 in box office from this), as well as it coming from a country not known for it’s filmic output. Yet its great concept deserves further exploration and a wider audience.

Theoretically that should come from the US remake, Silent House, that has arrived with us and is a fairly low budget independent release which allows it to stay pretty true to the roots of the original. The story is simple – Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) is helping to renovate her family’s holiday home along with her father (Adam Trese) and uncle (Eris Sheffer Stevens), but then things take a turn for the creepy when she starts hearing suspicious noises and realises they are not alone in the house. This set-up and story is generic but it’s made all the more interesting as the film is shot in real time with a single camera in what looks like one continuous take. 

It may sound like shooting in this style is a gimmick but for a horror film tied to a single location it adds a real sense of claustrophobia. The camera essentially has to follow the lead, and with some creative and fluid movement veers between observing, following and seeing what she sees. What really struck me when watching La Casa Muda in the cinema was the absolute feeling that there was no escape – there were no edits to take us somewhere safer or to see a different POV, we got exactly what she experienced, pure and uncut like real life, and further enhanced in the cinema by there being no pause or stop button to find a moment of respite. We could only stop to breathe when she could. And so basing the plot around exploring a dark house lit by only handheld lamps where someone is stalking you made this even more breathless.

La Casa Muda pulled off the concept convincingly and it was one of the scariest films I’ve seen in the cinema in the last couple of years. The remake does a good job following this approach and builds up tremendous amounts of atmosphere and tension, although I didn't find it quite as effective. Whether this all translates to home viewing where the environment is less immersive and you can pause, I don’t know. Although it wasn't all shot in one take it's constructed cleverly enough to look like it was, ensuring the impact this technique can bring. (As an aside, I very recently saw Warrior King with Tony Jaa, which has a jaw-dropping 4 minute single take fight sequence that shows how incredibly effective this technique can be when done right). Olsen does a great job as the focus of the film. She’s interesting to watch, is convincing and you’re rooting for her (us) to escape. I was less sure of her character's father and uncle as there was something about their relationships that didn’t ring true.

Although I didn’t fully expect Silent House to improve on the tension and scariness of the original, I had hoped it would improve on the conclusion and overall story. La Casa Muda suffers from some glaring illogicality as a result of trying to add explanations and a bit more story onto it’s simple structure, and although Silent House tweaks this in the right direction, it’s not enough to properly eliminate it. Some things are still not adding up right.

As remakes go I think Silent House was a worthwhile exercise. Although neither version ends up in a satisfactory place, the core is essentially a paradigm for how to build and envelop the audience in a suffocating atmosphere of which there is no extrication. The concept works, there's just no need to muddy the waters with unnecessarily convoluted story. The other benefit was getting to watch Olsen put in another very good performance, just as she did when she came to prominence in Martha, Marcy May, Marlene. But as much as I enjoyed Silent House, I think I prefer La Casa Muda. Maybe it's because I saw the original knowing nothing and thus had expectations of what the remake would/should offer? Having events take place somewhere even less familiar and almost culturally alien just adds an extra level of disorientation that amps up the fear, along with a touch more rawness to heighten reality slightly. I guess we chalk that up as another win for the original foreign language version of a film, but only just.

6 May 2012

Review: The Avengers

(Dir: Joss Whedon, 2012)

There’s been a lot of weight resting on Joss Whedon’s shoulders. Apart from having become perennial catnip for geeks, the man tasked with bringing The Avengers to the screen has had to be responsible for not squandering what was built up by the five very good films that led us to this point. We’ve had characters and worlds established for us, along with intriguing cross-pollinating threads that have hinted at what the bigger picture might be. I guess for a director this must’ve been a bit like taking on a Bond film – the audience know the main characters, we just need a story and villain laid out for us.

The story here is pretty straightforward – Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is back, as hinted in the post-credit scene in Thor, and he wants the Tesseract, Hydra’s power source in Captain America: The First Avenger. This will allow him to summon an army from another world, the Chitauri, to invade Earth so he can take control of the planet. A team must be formed to stop him comprised of... guess who? Ultimately The Avengers isn’t about story and it’s certainly not even about character development, it’s purely about showing what happens when a bunch of super powered people (and a god) team up to take on something incredibly powerful and destructive.

Logically the film eschews character introductions (we should know them by now), but fortunately lets us see how they’re introduced to each other as they all assemble from their respective locations. It's most fun when anyone meets Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) as his ego inevitably turns everything into a pissing contest. As expected the film is most intriguing when the team is interacting because they’re all rich characters and there is a lot humour between them, but at the same time this just all feels very superficial and virtually no attempt is made to scratch any further beneath the surface. As all of the other films manage to do this so well it felt like something was missing by it not happening here. 

Downey Jr. does his usual enjoyable narcissistic “doesn’t play well with others” Stark schtick, but it feels very reigned in here. I wasn’t as convinced by Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner, I’m not sure if it was the writing or just the legacy of Edward Norton who was so good in this role in The Incredible Hulk, but something didn’t feel quite right. Fortunately there was less of the Hulk than I was expecting. Cap (Chris Evans) suffered here too. There were a couple of gags about him being out of his time, but otherwise he just looks wistful and fights, coming across really quite blandly compared to in his stand-alone film. I was pleased we got a lot more time with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and she did get some character development, which was needed bearing in mind her introduction in Iron Man 2 wasn’t as substantial as the others, but it still felt too cursory. And Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) - we barely get anything on him which I found quite annoying. I really would like to see a Black Widow / Hawkeye film as it looks like there’s a lot of interesting stuff you could do with them, and especially if it’s along the lines of Black Widow’s first scene in the film, as it’s one of the best. Oh, and the audience could really do with some background on Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) at some point in future films, seriously. 

I deliberately didn’t mention Thor (Chris Hemsworth). His remains a fantastic character and every time he was on screen I was happy as he brings an interesting personality and a certain gravitas to proceedings. Due to Loki’s role as chief antagonist Thor has more invested in this and there are a couple of great scenes between the pair. Hiddleston is again excellent in this role, offering something multi-layered that always keeps you questioning his true egotistical malevolence. He was one of the best things about Thor and so the decision to utilise him here is extremely satisfying. It’s a shame the same can’t be said about the other-worldly Chitauri that he is working with. They’re potentially interesting but are not fleshed out, only to serve a solitary purpose. The action sequence their presence obviously culminates in is all very perfunctory. It’s not unentertaining per se, but I think I’ve reached the point of casual disinterest when it comes to generically overblown and excessively CGI'd action sequences. Clearly that’s something I’m going to have to deal with as they’re not going anywhere in this day and age.

My expectations for The Avengers were never that high, mainly because I had concerns about whether it could truly work with so many strong characters. It turns out that wasn’t the real issue, as aside from seeing how they all interact when they all converge, it didn’t want to do anything more with them than we’d already seen in their own films. Yes this convergence leads to some fun and interesting verbal sparring and a bit of infighting, but it means we don’t get enough time with each one. I wanted to see what’s happening in Asgard; to actually watch how Captain America is coping with the modern world; to know more about Stark’s new building and what he’s currently developing; to find out all about Black Widow’s background. Seeing these characters on screen again left me wanting more because I know that there’s a lot more to be had, which is a testament to the quality of the previous five films. Thank god it at least gave us more Loki!

So did I like The Avengers? Yes, but nowhere near as much as I could’ve potentially liked it. It’s entertaining, is definitely fun and I’m looking forward to watching it again, but it felt like a film with a lot of great characters that didn’t have much character itself. By too frequently resorting to big destructive action sequences and not letting it’s characters function outside of generic plot contrivances, it clipped its own wings. Despite assembling everyone together, The Avengers turned out to not be as good as any of the individual character films that have preceded it. Evidently less would've been more.