Saturday, 8 December 2007

The Golden Compass

Often the best or most memorable movies you ever watch are those you expected little from. The success of Shawshank Redemption when it came to video is a prime example. A film that did very little at the cinema can now be found in the top three of every 'top 100 films' list, perhaps because nobody was that bothered about it to begin with.

When King Kong was released in 2005, Peter Jackson, director of Lord Of The Rings, was touted as having produced his next masterpiece. It turned out to be about a week long, with only one day of that week being remotely exciting (the day when Kong had a scrap with a dinosaur). Expectation was huge, but the result was disappointing.

New Line Cinema, who collaborated with Peter Jackson to make LOTR, released their latest fantastical book adaptation this week. Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials is a series of books, the first of which is entitled Northern Lights. The book is also known in America as The Golden Compass, which serves as the title of the first film re-written for screen by American Pie producer Chris Weitz.

Fantastic casting made this film a mouth-watering prospect. Daniel Craig, Nicole Kidman and Eva Green play a Lord, a glamourous socialite and a witch, respectively. Sir Ian McKellen is the voice of an armoured bear, named Iorek Byrnison, who can be seen in the trailer doing battle with another bear. The computer graphics that animate their fighting are flawless.

The story is set in another dimension very similar to our own, but with slightly more interesting characters, where people's souls appear externally in the form of a daemon. These daemons are animals which are representations of their human companions, with nice people generally having cuddly rabbits for friends and nasty 'sorts' having a grizzly, slobbering wolf for a daemon.

The story follows the progress of a young girl with the unique ability to read the golden compass, called Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), who is consequently subject to numerous kidnapping attempts as she journeys to save her friend, Roger (Ben Walker). She is befriended by Marisa Coulter, played by Nicole Kidman, who offers to take Lyra away from her lonely and boring life in Oxford. It soon becomes apparent that Marisa isn't all she appears to be.

Initial signs show Marisa Coulter to be a fairly pleasant character, but her evil monkey daemon is quite a give-away when it comes to working out her psyche. This is a fairly persistent theme of the film, with the nasty and nice animals leaving little to the imagination. The frequent attempts to kidnap Lyra come during her journey to save her friend, Roger, who has also been kidnapped by an underground force known as the gobblers.

Many friends and acquaintances she meets on the way aid her task. There’s a group of men with Norfolk accents, an armoured bear (Sir Ian McKellen), and even a witch (Eva Green) pops by to spare some advice. For a young girl she remains ridiculously un-phased throughout all her meetings. Witches and bears are bound to be a little scary, but men from Norfolk are surely enough to bring down even the most fearless of foes!

Needless to say she eventually finds Roger relatively unharmed. At this point a huge fight ensues between some vaguely memorable characters who previously made an appearance in the film, even if it was just to say hello. There are a couple of armies that arrive without even explaining who they are or why they're there, perhaps they just wanted a brawl. A rabble of people, daemons, witches and bears have a fight for reasons only known to themselves, and then Roger appears to thank Lyra for saving him. All that remained was a few carefully placed words to setup the sequel.

The relentless introduction of characters made this film incredibly confusing and boring. It was difficult to get attached to anyone apart from Lyra, who gave no indication that she might ever fail in her task of finding Roger. Unfortunately I'd anticipated too much, having even gone to the length of 'finding out my daemon' on the film's website. It was a lynx, which apparently mirrors my character. If this film had a daemon I think it would be a slug, sliming its way to a tedious conclusion.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

American Gangster

The late 90's brought us cockney gangster movies like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch - the works of Guy Ritchie. Later on he married Madonna, poor thing, and his good friend Matthew Vaughn introduced Daniel Craig to a wider audience with the stylish thriller, Layer Cake. After a while, though, everyone got fed up with mockney accents and Vinnie Jones pretending to be an actor, so it's no surprise that English director Ridley Scott decided to make an American Gangster movie.

He recruited a couple of Hollywood heavyweights by the names of Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington, who between them have several Academy Awards. This film might just win them a few more, as they play-off against each other in the roles of gang-chief Frank Lucas (Washington) and maverick cop Richie Roberts (Crowe). This film is surely a potential nominee for the Academy to consider.

American Gangster is a film primarily about drugs. The 18 certificate it received is unsurprising given the frequent references to heroin addicton, in a movie that is based on a true story. It also examines the success achieved by Frank Lucas as a result of selling drugs, as well as mirroring a strict structure of rules normally used by the Italian Mafia. The corruption that is rife within the police force plays a telling factor in both the lives of Lucas and Roberts, as they seek avoid the greedy hands of the corrupted.

Frank Lucas creates his Italian Mafia family structure within the confines of the Harlem projects, a housing scheme introduced to America that is commonly referred to as the ghetto. His success is dependant on importing drugs via the army during the Vietnam War, but also on Huey Lucas, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who holds his trust as his right-hand man. Lucas himself, who is only focused and determined on building his empire, doesn't use the drugs that fund his success.

Roberts is charged with the task of tracking Lucas down, but is hindered by the corruption and mistrust that is drowning the legal system. Cash embezzling and drug taking tempt even his own partner, leaving Roberts with only himself to rely on. During these difficult times Roberts' ex-wife is also fighting for custody of his son, causing him even more stress while he battles to bring Lucas down.

The performances of Crowe, and particularly Washington, are superb. Crowe settles into the role of a 70's New York cop with ease. Stereotyping of his Hawaiian shirt-wearing character was abundant, including making his methods unorthodox, but giving him a heart of gold and making sure he gets results! Washington, however, had a more difficult task of portraying such a successful protagonist in a bad light. The way Lucas dresses, the way he lives, even the fact he takes his mother to church every Sunday makes him a very likeable character. The director, Ridley Scott, includes sequences of drug taking that prove Lucas to be a bad apple, supported by Washington's display of a man who will stop at nothing to make money.

Both leading men have their own battles to fight during the film and rarely have anything to do with each other until the end, ultimately coming together to form a thrilling finish. The performance of Chiwetel Ejiofor should be merited, as he becomes more accomplished as a Hollywood actor. His British accent wasn't to be heard as he achieved an American drawl without flaw. I was on the edge of my seat to see if he would break into a good old cockney sing-a-long and it would be a Guy Ritchie gangster flick all over again. Fortunately he stayed with the film title, which proved to be an eye-opening representation of an American Gangster.

Friday, 16 November 2007

Johnny Depp

In the glitz and glamour of Hollywood it takes a strong character to stand out in the crowd. Johnny Depp has made a habit throughout his career of picking the parts of colourful personalities, when perhaps it would've been easier and even more beneficial to choose a simpler role. However, the dedication shown to his selections has been fruitful for Johnny, who now has the pick of the roles he has always sought. He has proved himself to be a strong character.

His turns as infamous eccentrics like Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), and Edward Scissorhands (1990), were relatively well received by mainstream cinema audiences. Both films were directed by Tim Burton, who will collaborate with Depp once more for Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, due for release next year. Helena Bonham Carter, another regular of Burton's movies, will be included in a cast featuring Timothy Spall, Sacha Baron Cohen and Alan Rickman.

Any feverous anticipation that previously awaited the latest Burton/Depp movie was strictly reserved to a cult following in the past. Those who wore ninety percent black attire, lived in their attics and dabbled with witchcraft would be awaiting the next instalment from the duo. It was in 2003 that something happened forcing them to rethink the attic and move onto a boat instead. That something was Pirates of the Caribbean.

The Curse of the Black Pearl would be the first of a trilogy of pirate movies starring Johnny Depp as the mischievous Jack Sparrow. It would also launch Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley into the Hollywood atmosphere, while making Depp's star shine brighter than ever before. He had gone beyond bland mainstream compliments and distinguished himself as a unique movie icon, comparable to the stars that littered Hollywood in the days of the silver screen.

When his next film is released he will receive the focus of a far wider audience than he had previously, having acquired new fans from the success of Pirates of the Caribbean. Whether they are prepared for his portrayal of a homicidal barber or not remains to be seen, frankly I'm not sure if I'm ready for that. The family viewing appeal of Pirates of the Caribbean has created a following of young teenage fans, which might be too young for his other rumoured project, Sin City 2. The previous incarnation of the graphic novel, by Frank Miller, featured sex, guns and lots of bloody violence.

With his profile raised to new heights it will be interesting to see if Depp's performances still embody the bizarre characteristics of the oddball personalities he plays. All eyes will be on Sweeney Todd, which if convincing may see a sudden rise in hair growth. It could be a case of avoiding the barbershop or risk ending up in a particularly meaty pie.

Saturday, 10 November 2007

The Dark Knight

It isn't due until summer 2008 but I'm too excited to avoid talking about it. Christopher Nolan's reinvention of the dwindling Batman franchise began in 2006 with, funnily enough, Batman Begins. So, now it has started it must continue, and The Dark Knight will return to do battle with the Joker next year. A teaser trailer is already available featuring some cockney mutterings from Michael Caine.

Heath Ledger (above) has been given the difficult task of making the role of the Joker his own, bringing the flamboyant figure to the screen for a new generation of audiences. Ledger's predecessor, Jack Nicholson, left an enduring mark on the character's image, etching his mischievous grin into the memory of those who watched the Tim Burton films of the 90's. Changes have been made to the batmobile for the sequel, along with replacements made to the cast following Katie Holmes' withdrawal from the project, prompting Nolan to recruit Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Friday, 9 November 2007


When Hollywood thrust their latest terrorist-laden drama onto the big-screen last week, my eyes didn't exactly light up with joyous anticipation. A frequent barrage of films in recent years featuring a square-jawed hero named Bruce, waving the stars and stripes while saving the world, has left me somewhat cynical about the prospect of a new Middle-Eastern terrorist movie.

Rendition is a political thriller that centres on Isabella El-Ibrahimi (Reese Witherspoon), the American wife of Egyptian-born chemical engineer Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), who disappears on a flight from South Africa to Washington. Isabella desperately tries to track her husband down, while a CIA analyst at a secret detention facility outside the U.S. is forced to question his assignment, as he becomes party to the man's unorthodox interrogation.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays the character Douglas Freeman, the CIA analyst who gets thrust into the world of interrogation following the death of a colleague. He answers to the hard-nosed CIA chief Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep), who is quick to crush any queries that Freeman has about the legal evidence, or lack of it, that supports Anwar El-Ibrahimi's arrest. With a cameo from Academy-Award winner Alan Arkin adding to the heavyweight cast it appears to be the earliest bid for an Oscar this season.

The standard of performances and the complexity of the plot make it a strong contender. Meryl Streep was always bound to produce the goods, but Jake Gyllenhaal's transition from wacky teen star to Hollywood leading man was evident in his execution of this role. Reese Witherspoon (above), star of the Legally Blonde movies, was convincing as Isabella El-Ibrahimi, who deals with the difficulties of pregnancy whilst trying to track down her missing husband and father of her son.

I had expected a few annoying things to occur during the film. Firstly, Reese Witherspoon's gargantuan chin often clouds an entire film, and I sometimes find it hard to think of anything but the protruding feature. Secondly, I waited for Captain America to save the western world, but he must have had prior engagements, as the film actually painted a pretty poor picture of the American government's dealings in the Middle-East. Thirdly, the obvious and predictable plot I expected did not materialize, and the twist in the tail of the movie was as exciting as it was unforeseen.

Meryl Streep and Jake Gyllenhaal could not take full responsiblity for the film's success. In fact, not even Reese Witherspoon's chin could steal the limelight from the real star. The bravery shown by director Gavin Hood must be commended, as it's considered dangerous territory to cast America in a less than dazzling light in Hollywood. He managed to mix a complex plot with the terrorist fears that currently dominate the western world, as well as addressing the issue of possible unlawful interrogation processes associated with the American government.

Friday, 12 October 2007

The Lives Of Others

When my girlfriend pestered me to watch a German language film recently I was understandably pessimistic. Anyone who watched any sit-com during the 90’s may have seen this typically dreaded scenario occur several times before, where the reluctant boyfriend is forced to watch a tedious film to keep the peace. Unfortunately for me my other half is German, and therefore deemed it important that I shared in her suffering.

We sat down to watch a film called The Lives Of Others. It follows the life of a Stasi Officer monitoring the cultural scene of East Berlin in 1984. Ulrich Mühe plays the role of Gerd Wiesler, a Stasi Hauptmann or Captain. His idealistic and avid support of the communist regime makes him an ideal candidate to spy on playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), who, Wiesler is told, is suspected of Western sympathies.

Having forgotten to turn the subtitles on for the first 10 minutes I could’ve been forgiven for not knowing what was happening. Predictably, Gerd Wiesler provided me with enough clues using his miserable German appearance alone. His house, his clothes, even his skin was grey. He wandered around a bleak looking East Germany trying his hardest to look incapable of emotion. For all I knew the first 10 minutes could’ve been a series of jokes and expletives that Gerd Wiesler shrugged off without response. There would be 127 minutes more of this...

The time passed by quicker than I had anticipated. There was no sign of the stereotypical efficiency that had gripped the early parts of the film. Wiesler became attached to following the life of Georg Dreyman, the playwright, and his girlfriend, actress Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck). He covered their apartment in microphones and listened in on their lives.

From the information he gathered Wiesler discovered a corrupt party Minister who was blackmailing Christa-Maria for sex. The Minister had threatened to arrest Dreyman and have Christa-Maria 'blacklisted'. Upon learning this Wiesler’s motivation was destroyed. This caused him to become increasingly emotive, displaying signs of weakness and more specifically loneliness. Wiesler's loyalty to the Stasi began to diminish.

Jokes were made and even comedic characters were introduced as the film went on, but the storyline remained solemn. The circumstances that surrounded Wiesler discovering the corruption were both tragic and enlightening, as he became immersed in the world of Dreyman and Christa-Maria. We, the audience, had been on the journey with him (Wiesler) without realizing, and thoroughly enjoyed it.

As the film reached its conclusion a series of events occurred that were both clever and unexpected. It’s impossible to explain the end without it being spoiled, but my girlfriend was crying and I got ‘something in my eye’. The tears were tinged with both sadness and joy, as the film proved to have been an excellent choice after all. Perhaps I'll greet the next foreign language film with a little more optimism.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007


Ten days ago something amazing happened. I strode into my local town to the sound of a trumpet chorus, as crowds of people flocked for the return of nothing more than a DVD. However, this was no ordinary DVD. The birds were singing, I was high-fiving everyone I passed whilst whistling the tune of the opening credits of 300, the movie. It was back.

I'd waited for what seemed like three years, but was in fact three months, for the return of a film I'd enjoyed so much at the cinema. I likened the pain of my wait to the suffering of the Spartans, who in the film died so heroically to preserve the freedom of their homeland. My girlfriend pointed out I was being ridiculous when I dressed up in pants and a cloak one day, in homage to the Spartan warriors, my 'brethren'.

It had been a long time since I'd seen a film so brilliantly executed. The imagery alone was enough to make a great film, perfectly imitating the graphic novel by Frank Miller that it was based on. Added to a good cast delivering witty one-liners, and bloody, unforgiving violence, it was the perfect package. Somebody had taken a series of elements that make a good film, put them all together, and made a great one. That man was director Zack Snyder.

His only previous notoriety came from Dawn Of The Dead in 2004; so re-making a Frank Miller novel was quite a big deal for the directing novice. Snyder came out with a fantastic product, creating a film that is equally spectacular as it is humourous. What seems like a simple formula to making a good film has proved difficult for many directors in recent times, but Snyder combined all of the factors excellently, as if he had been doing it all his life.

I've already watched the movie twice since buying it, and seen the entire 'making of' bonus disk features. I've yet to dress up again, as my beer belly doesn't look great compared to the glistening washboard stomach sported by Gerard Butler in the film. Whether the deaths of the 300 heroic Spartans were really worth it or not we'll never know. One thing is for sure; their efforts entertained me for a full 117 minutes.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Clive Owen

When the fat cats and big wigs of Hollywood get together for their annual meeting these days, it seems they spend most of their time deciding which actor they can squeeze the life out of this year. Colin Farrell, Jake Gylenhall and Jamie Foxx all had their moments, as chosen by the executives at the top of Hollywood ladder. However, the time has now come to choose a new star.

I’d like to think they’d sit in a cave on top of the Hollywood hills, in ceremonial robes, circling a crystal ball and asking ‘the spirits’ for an answer. In reality, using the latest viewing polls may provide the more accurate answer they’re looking for, and satisfy some of the shareholders at the same time. Whichever method they decided to use, one man has come out on top.

For the past year cinema audiences have been bombarded with the performances of English actor, Clive Owen (above), Hollywood’s latest chosen one. Disaster movies, shoot-‘em-ups (including the ingeniously named Shoot ‘Em Up), epic adventures and even this years movie about Queen Elizabeth have all been fodder for Clive.

The technique that Clive adopts in tackling each of his varied and frequent roles is ‘the English middle-class white male method’. Middle-class white males, in truth, have developed this unique performance method for the past couple of decades, by retaining an air of uncaring blandness and remaining polite throughout. The trick is to not become intense or in any way emotional at any moment, thereby fading into the background and not causing any fuss. Clive fits the bill perfectly.

Ignoring his ‘English middle-class white male method’ Hollywood producers have been handing Clive some of their top roles. He’s applied his unique dullness to great historical figures such as King Arthur and brought his essence of un-cool to Sin City. More recently when the need was felt for yet another film about Queen Elizabeth, the usual rabble of lovies and ‘heavyweight’ actors were gathered together. The character of Sir Walter Raleigh, notable throughout history for his charismatic charm and wit, was handed to the reliably wooden Clive Owen.

He’s currently filming The International in which he plays an Interpol agent attempting to expose a high-profile finance group. Add that to the Sin City sequel planned for 2009 and Clive already has a busy agenda. Hollywood and therefore audiences clearly like this guy, and intend to further his career even more.

On a good note for Clive he was nominated for an Oscar for his lead in Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men in 2006. It’s a standout performance on a CV that’s rapidly running out of space as he excelled in a role for the first time since Croupier in 1998. I can only presume that Hollywood and its audiences are still clinging to that memory, which for me faded rapidly when I saw his appearance in the Elizabeth trailer.

Perhaps he’s secretly holding some talent back that he’ll bring to the screen with astonishing effect in his next few films. If that isn’t the case then hopefully it’ll be my face that shows up on the crystal ball at the next meeting, as I’ve already mastered the technique that Clive has so marvellously displayed for the last year.