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The Blues: Feel Like Going Home (2003)
Capturing a world we're slowly losing
Feel Like Going Home is one of seven documentaries produced by Martin Scorsese on the subject of blues music. This particular episode was also directed by the auteur and focuses primarily on the roots of the genre. Narrated in part by Scorsese himself, it follows musician Corey Harris as he interviews fellow musicians and goes in search of the blues birthplace, travelling through the Mississippi Delta and eventually to West Africa from where the music was first snatched away in chains aboard slave ships.
Neither a hard hitting exposé nor critically acclaimed undercover investigation, Scorsese's film is a sort of coffee table documentary, delighting its audience with some great stories and incredible music. It fails to go deep or uncover anything new but might help to bring the blues to a whole new audience.
The first thing that struck me about this film was its look. Scorsese has a reputation as one of the greatest film makers of his or any age and we are used to his highly polished latter work as well as his grittier, earthier beginnings but this film is unlike anything I've seen from Scorsese before. It feels cheap and basic, like one man and a camera, and not a great camera at that. A lot of the footage is grainy and dark and it doesn't appear to be particularly well made in several places. Even the editing is a little slapdash. Although I tried to put this to one side, I could never quite get over it. I understand that the budget must have been low but I'd expected something a little flashier or at least more polished from Martin Scorsese.
The actual content of the documentary varies wildly. Sometimes it's a little dull but often it's incredibly interesting and insightful and always with a terrific musical backing. After a brief top and tail discussion of the blues journey from the plantation to modern rock 'n' roll, the film slowly wanders back in time, through Chicago and down into the Mississippi Delta, the heartland of the blues. Along the way Corey Harris, himself an extremely accomplished musician, if not great front for the documentary meets and interviews the likes of Willie King and Otha Turner. Each blues artist he meets performs, sometimes with Harris accompanying him and tells stories about the old ways and where the music came from.
What's interesting is how the blues developed and was passed down from father to son between Memphis and Vicksburg. From field chants and tales of pain and injustice to The Rolling Stones and Jack White, the blues has undergone many changes but this documentary focuses on what it really is and where it came from. Some of the old time stories are fascinating and evoke an age now long passed. It's obvious that the older blues players are disheartened by the loss of the old ways and one of the best interviews involves fife player Otha Turner. Turner was said to be one of the last fife and drum players still around at time of production and sadly passed on before the film was released.
A large chunk of the documentary concerns the preservation and capturing of the blues before it's lost. Special mention is given to Alan Lomax who travelled the south in the 1940s recording songs which would have otherwise never been known outside the Delta. The film makes its own attempt at some preservation with a delightful performance by Turner which marks its conclusion.
After exploring American blues, Corey Harris travels to Mali in West Africa to uncover the spiritual home of the music. He meets musicians and compares the folk music of this region to his own, discovering many similarities from the beat to the pentatonic scale. Some of the interviews in Africa verge on spiritualism which occasionally took me out of the film but I nonetheless enjoyed the music.
Throughout the film there are fantastic performances as well as achieve footage from some of the best known blues players and lesser known men including John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Son House and Robert Johnson. The music is fantastic but the documentary doesn't go far enough for me. It doesn't delve very deep or uncover much that wasn't already common knowledge but what it does it help to continue Lomax's work and preserve for posterity some of the great figures in Delta blues music and allow their sound to reach a large audience.
The Challenger (2013)
Uncovering the man, uncovering the truth.
On January 28th 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger broke up 73 seconds after the twenty-fifth Space Shuttle launch, killing all seven of its crew members. The disaster was, at the time, the most catastrophic loss in NASA history and is still remembered as one of the most disastrous and heartbreaking days in human space exploration. Following the tragedy a Commission was set up to get to the bottom of the disaster and uncover the cause of shuttle failure. On the Commission was perhaps the most famous of the twentieth century, Richard Feynman.
The Challenger (formerly titled Feynman and the Challenger) is a made for TV movie which first aired on the BBC on March 18th 2013. The film focuses on the role Richard Feynman (William Hurt) played in the Commission and the lengths that he went to; to prove what was really behind the Shuttle's failure that January morning. The film intersperses real footage, including that of the actual event with dramatisations of Feynman's quest for answers which are taken from Feynman's autobiographical book What Do You Care What Other People Think? The movie is well researched and generally very well made and features a terrific central performance and compelling story.
I was born just under a month after the Challenger disaster but it was a part of my childhood. My parents had a huge poster on the stairs of one of the houses I grew up in of the crew and the Shuttle which used to intrigue and haunt me. As I got older I became very interested in Space exploration and in my twenties threw off the horrors of High School Physics lessons to become interested in physics. I am to physics what a football fan is to football. I'm fascinated by it and get engrossed in small details but put me on the field and I'd lose the ball faster than the speed of light. I am an enthusiastic amateur. All of the above is a very long and drawn out way of saying that the plot of The Challenger is of great interest to me. Its principle character Richard Feynman is a man who I have some but not much knowledge of and most of my knowledge comes from the odd popular science book, YouTube clips and occasional popular science lecture delivered by the likes of Prof. Brian Cox, Simon Singh and Ben Goldacre as well as the comedy of Robin Ince. I was fascinated then to learn more.
The film introduced me to a Feynman I wasn't expecting to meet. The Feynman I've seen footage of was controlled and firm and had a distinguishable but refined Queens accent. William Hurt's Feynman is much more 'Californian'. His accent is slightly different and his portrayal is more agitated and messy. I don't mean any of this in a bad way though and think it matches the state that the man was in both mentally and physically. Although slightly dishevelled, Hurt has more than a passing resemblance to the scientist he is portraying. What is obvious from the film is that the budget doesn't match that of an average theatrical film. There are corners cut in various places which sometimes detracts slightly from the movie as a whole but luckily the story is strong enough that it rarely gets in the way.
The plot is deeply fascinating and encompasses physics, ethics, finance and politics. All four combine in a tense and agitated melting pot which forms the Commission and it soon becomes apparent that Feynman is coming at the case from a different angle to the majority of the Commissioners. Early on he is frustrated by a lack of pace in the meetings and then he is stifled by the rigours step by step process. Feynman takes it upon himself to dig around and visits various NASA facilities in which he is viewed with suspicion by scientists and technicians scared to be held accountable. This sets up more conflict in the Commission and Feynman finds himself short of allies. He does however find a friend in Air force General Kutyna (Bruce Greenwood) who, like the audience by now, is sympathetic to the Physicist's cause. What follows is a slow unravelling of the facts which without Feynman may never have come to light.
The film treads a thin line between telling the truth and attacking the likes of NASA and Solid Rocket manufacturer Morton Thiokol much as Feynman did himself. Although my limited knowledge gave me some insight into the disaster and subsequent findings I was fascinated to be taken on the journey towards the discovery and felt that the film blended this with Feynman's health issues very well. It was clear from the outset that this was about Challenger first and his health second, something which again mirrors Feynman himself. Even the title of the movie can refer to the craft and the man. Occasionally I found myself questioning cover-ups and discoveries which seemed a little too dramatic and possibly exaggerated but my knowledge doesn't extend far enough to know what was real and what was invented. It is my belief and hope though that the vast majority of what I saw on screen was real. The actual footage certainly was and despite having seen it numerous times, it's still heartbreakingly sad.
Overall The Challenger manages to get to the heart of the disaster and uncovers a man who deserves to be better known than he is. William Hurt is superb and the plot is fascinating in every detail. I had a few problems with realism and dramatic licence and the budget caused some issues but overall I'd recommend the movie to anyone with a passing interest in NASA, the disaster, Richard Feynman or just good detective thrillers. Like most good true stories it made me want to learn more for myself which on its own proves the movie was a success.
Close to their best
On December 10th 2007 the seemingly impossible happened. Zed Zeppelin, the world's original super group and one of the few bands in history who could rival The Beatles for fame and popularity at their height, reformed for a one off concert at London's O2 Arena for the Ahmet Ertegun Tribute Concert. The show set a world record for ticket demand with over twenty million people (including myself) registering online for a chance of one of the 20,000 tickets. Like close to twenty million others I didn't get a ticket for a show that myself and other fans had been waiting for, for over twenty five years.
Fast forward nearly five years to October 17th 2012 and the concert was screened for one day worldwide in cinemas ahead of a DVD and Blu Ray release on November 19th. This time demand wasn't so high and I managed to get two tickets for a screening at my local multiplex. While in no way the same as seeing the band, my favourite of all time, live, the two hours I sat in the cinema were amazing. The band showed that despite having barely played together in thirty years and missing original drummer John Bonham whose death in 1980 was the trigger for the band's breakup, that they are still able to rock with the best and sounded close to as good as they have on any other live recording I've seen.
One of the problems with seeing a band like Led Zeppelin at the cinema is that it isn't the sort of environment that you can really relax, sing,air guitar or dance in. It was a little awkward at times as a few people bobbed heads or tapped feet. I didn't feel as though I could properly enjoy the show in that environment and think that it is probably better suited to DVD. I had to resist the urge to sing and clap which isn't the most relaxing thing.
Before I go any further I have to make it clear that I may be biased in my review of this concert film as Led Zeppelin is my favourite band. Even so and trying to be as objective as possible, they put on one hell of a show. The film is shot in a fairly conventional manner with close-ups of faces, instruments and the like, spliced with wide shots and some nice super 8 style camera work which is reminiscent of the likes of The Song Remains the Same and the Led Zeppelin DVD. The old looking footage gives a 70s vibe which obviously matches the music. For the most part the camera-work is crisp and looks great in HD. There are plenty of interesting angles and cuts too which add to the visual enjoyment. Unlike Scorsese's Rolling Stones film Shine a Light which seemed to spend as much time on the audience as the band, Celebration Day focuses almost solely on the on stage action with just a couple of cut aways to the audience.
Musically the band sound incredibly tight. The three surviving members last performed together in 1988 and this was their first full length concert since John Bonham's death. Age and time coupled with a falling out between bassist John Paul Jones and singer Robert Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page appears to have had little effect as the band sound great. Robert Plant's voice is almost indistinguishable from his 1970s self save for a few missed high notes. Jimmy Page is still one of the greatest guitarists of all time and played the concert despite breaking his little finger just a month before the show. John Paul Jones, always the quietest member of the group and the one who seems least at ease on stage played incredibly well on both bass and keyboards. Drummer Jason Bonham, son of John was excellent and has all the ferocity of his father. He slotted straight in despite this being the first gig he'd played with the full band. Not a bad debut gig! It was nice to witness the genuine looks of pride and glee on the faces of the original members as the looked a Bonham Jnr playing his father's parts.
In their eleven year existence Led Zeppelin created some of the most iconic rock music in history with the likes of Whole Lotta Love, Kashmir, Rock and Roll and Dazed and Confused amongst the most popular and enduring songs in rock history. Stairway to Heaven of course transcends even those songs and is frequently voted the most popular song of all time, rock or otherwise. As well as the stalwarts like Kashmir and Stairway the band also perform some of my personal favourites such as No Quarter, Misty Mountain Hop and Trampled Underfoot, a song that always reminds me of my dad. For Your Life is also performed on stage for the first time ever but unfortunately there is no space for more of my favourites such as Communication Breakdown, When the Levee Breaks, Heartbreaker, The Immigrant Song, Gallows Pole or Ramble On. The problem with having such an extensive back catalogue is that there will always be songs that are missed but there could be few arguments that the chosen set was anything but spectacular.
Overall Celebration Day is the sort of thing which is probably more enjoyable at home where you can sit back, enjoy a drink or a smoke and properly rock out to the music. Even so I really enjoyed seeing my favourite band on the big screen and would recommend the forthcoming DVD to hard line fans as well as anyone who just thinks that Zeppelin are some old band what sang that long song. There's enough to satisfy fans and newcomers alike.
Holy Motors (2012)
Holy Motors must be the strangest, maddest and most bizarre film I've seen since at least Love Exposure and possibly ever. In a statement about the nature of both acting and the digitalisation of the world, Leos Carax's film stars Denis Lavant as a man who travels through Paris in a white limousine that is driven by Edith Scob. Along the way he stops for various 'appointments' for which he adopts an entirely different character complete with makeup, mannerisms and speech. Throughout the course of the day he becomes a beggar woman, motion capture artist, assassin, disappointed father plus many more.
The film's message or statement is open for interpretation and after telling my girlfriend what I though I asked her the same, to which she replied "I thought it was about weird stuff". The film is enjoyable however you view it and whether or not you read into any hidden messages or not. The themes that I personally believe the film is tackling may be totally different to the person next to me but it doesn't matter. Holy Motors is a thrilling, darkly comic and bonkers film that is worth tracking down.
Due to the film's premise, subject matter and country or origin, we got the chance to travel to our local Art House Cinema, Cornerhouse in Manchester. We saw the film in their small room which contains just 58 seats but when the lights went down the cinema was full. After an ominously bizarre opening we see Denis Lavant leave his seemingly loving family and mansion behind and head for a waiting limousine. If this were any other film you'd likely expect he was a businessman or some sort but it isn't long before his driver takes him to his first 'appointment'. Before this opening appointment the camera swoops around to show the remainder of the limousines' interior which instead of being filled with sofas, TVs and fridges is stocked with all manner of props, wigs and makeup cases. In no time Lavant is transformed into his first character, an old beggar woman of the sort you see around The Eiffel Tower. After several minutes of being ignored on the street he is back in the limo and off to his next appointment. The second and third appointments are for me the highlights of the film. One is an incredibly beautiful look at motion capture, shot in a darkened room with UV light and features incredible visuals, choreography and the most contorted woman I've ever seen. The third is the strangest and funniest vignette and sees Lavant dressed as a sort of tramp/Quasimodo figure and having interrupted a fashion shoot, steals the model before taking her to his underground lair. The film reaches a crescendo at this point which it is never really able to match. At the time I thought to myself "I'm looking at Eva Mendes dressed in a Burqa, singing a lullaby to a naked man with an obvious and exposed erection. Where can they go from here?" The answer is that they reel the film in slightly and take the audience to more emotional and heartfelt places.
Denis Lavant's performance in this film is simply incredible. I haven't seen a better acting job this year and I'd be surprised if I do. If the film wasn't so strange and commercially off-putting he would be a shoe-in for the major awards next February. Even so I wouldn't be at all surprised to see an Oscar nomination if the Academy is feeling brave. Lavant literally transforms himself about nine or ten times, playing totally different characters each time. It's not just the sheer number that is impressive though, it is the quality of the performances which really stands out. He is truly awe inspiring in this film.
The film's message and themes are as I've mentioned open to interpretation. Personally it felt to me like a satire on the nature of acting and how these days with the likes of camera phones and CCTV an actor can never switch off. We don't know who is watching so we are always performing. Equally it could be interpreted as stating that we show different sides of ourselves to different people. I know that I'm a totally different person with my girlfriend as I am with the people at work for instance. It seems likely that the film is trying to talk about a variety of issues and themes and perhaps other people will pick up on different aspects of the strange world that it creates. That and Lavant's performance are its two major strengths.
Some people will inevitably be put off by Holy Motors premise, style and quirkiness but if you stick with it and allow it to wash over you it's a brilliantly weird film that will be popping up on lots of Top 10 lists come December.
Easy Street (1917)
Disappointing but showing future promise
Comedy wise this is probably the most disappointing of Chaplin's Mutual films that I've seen so far. In the entire film I only laughed out loud once and generally there were very few funny moments anywhere. What the film does contain though is another tender story about overcoming the odds, hard work, temperance and love which is something that Chaplin was becoming the master of at this stage of his career.
Easy Street itself looks to be modelled on the sort of South London streets that Chaplin would have grown up on himself. They don't look very American to me and it's only when a late chase takes us outside of the confines of Easy Street that it becomes obvious that we are in America. Like much of Chaplin's work, Easy Street is routed in a Dickensian world that predates film altogether. The crime and violence on Easy Street may well have been a satirical response to pre Prohibition America where if history is to be believed the masses drank until they passed out or were knocked out. The saving grace of the Policeman and the Christian Mission is very appropriate to the era.
What is nice about Easy Street is that Chaplin's character is without selfishness. In many of his early films he was the reluctant hero or came to be the hero through mistake or after he had attempted to con or rip people off. Easy Street shows a further departure from this and towards his later incarnation as the victim/underdog of his future films. It's a shame that in Easy Street though Chaplin wasn't able to balance the character, story and comedy and that the latter suffers. The basis of an excellent film is in place but like most people I watch a Charlie Chaplin film to laugh and I didn't do that in this film.
Intelligent Science Fiction Thriller
Looper is a film that goes to extraordinary lengths to leave every base covered in its quest to avoid plot holes and inconsistencies and in my mind it deals with the problems associated with time travel very well. One thing I liked is that the older Joe is aware of everything the younger Joe is about to do which gives him an edge if they were to do battle. I also liked that the older Joe in true Bruce Willis style bypasses the whole idea of trying to work out how and why what is happening is happening by saying he can't be bothered to work it all out. As well as the older Joe having the advantage of memory over the younger Joe, the younger Joe in turn has his own advantages which become apparent. There were several times when I thought I'd worked out what was going to happen or what a particular character's arc was going to be but the film cleverly manipulates its audience, leading them down alleyways only to jump out at them from behind and spin them around. There is a nice early twist which gave me a smile and plenty more to keep you guessing right the way to the end. In the end it turns out that time travel plays second fiddle to another phenomenon which I was pleased by as there was no mention of this in the trailer which I've been trying to avoid for several weeks. The plot is multifaceted with each character having their own reasons for being where they are, when they are and doing what they are doing. It is a dense plot which explores several different ideas and concepts both personal and scientific.
As well as confidently dealing with a complex script which would have been very easy to either make too complicated or too full of holes, Writer/Director Rian Johnson (Brick) also creates a very believable future and fills it with people and events which feel plausible. Cities have continued to expand upwards and outwards but they themselves are filled with tent cities in which a large vagrant class live. Life is cheap and hard in this world in which the have's and have not's are much more separated than today. There is enough in the film to make to world feel as though it is our near future and the technology on display feels as though it is a few logical steps along the road. I especially liked the ingenious solution to running cars after the inevitable the oil crisis and there's also a great line about China in there which had a lot of people laughing.
The writing and direction are superb but another strength are the acting performances. Joseph Gordon-Levitt wears heavy makeup and prosthetics to make him look more like Bruce Willis and although this is occasionally a little distracting, it looks unnervingly good at times, especially closer up which is odd. The effect is actually better in close up than when JG-L is in the middle distance. Underneath the prosthetics though Gordon-Levitt delivers a fine performance, adopting a few of Willis' telltale mannerisms and affectations but avoiding pure mimicry. He appears confident and at ease in the dense lead role, carrying off a mixture of hard edged killer and caring young man while switching from one to the other with ease. Bruce Willis equally is very good but we have seen this kind of performance from him many times before. Nevertheless he is on good form here. The chemistry between the two leads was great and really helped with the believability of them being one person. Emily Blunt was another actor who performed very well and in a departure from her more familiar roles. She adopts a convincing American accent, drops a few F-Bombs and looks comfortable holding a gun. She brings to the fore the feminine caring side when it matters though. Probably the standout actor though despite the three A Listers is Pierce Gagnon, a very young child actor who is incredible in a pivotal role. He and Gordon-Levitt have some funny and tense scenes together which work very well.
Overall there was little I didn't like about Looper and it has gone straight into my Top 10 films of the year so far as well as being probably my favourite Sci-Fi since 2009's Moon. It treats its audience with respect and isn't afraid to keep you them of the loop for a while as it teases them with false and sometimes seemingly false information. It is well designed and acted and features a wonderfully multifaceted and intelligent story which rewards patience and concentration with a fantastic ending.
A Lonely Place to Die (2011)
I have a vague recollection of the film's title and my girlfriend assures me that we wanted to see it so she borrowed it from a friend. I wish she hadn't bothered. The plot is OK but doesn't go deep enough and the acting and dialogue seem like they were done by people who understood the concept but had never actually seen it practised.
The dialogue features several moments which made me laugh out loud due to either its ridiculousness or poor phrasing. The film really could have done with another draft or perhaps utilised someone who could write as a script editor. What doesn't help is that some of the acting is so stilted and flat that it shows up the poor dialogue even more. The five friends are all terrible in pretty much every scene even though a couple are recognisable faces who have appeared in the likes of 30 Days of Night and Stardust. Other acting credits include the likes of The Bill and Home and Away Anyway, it's pretty terrible. Lead actress Melisa George who is Australian has a totally unplaceable accept which ranges from English to American to Irish. A few of the other actors were slightly better but I didn't think anyone gave a particularly good performance.
The cinematography was beautiful at times and features several long tracking shots of the Scottish Highlands. There are also some nice camera angles and good shots of abseiling and mountain climbing. One problem though was that there was a slow motion shot about every two minutes and it was completely unnecessary. Sometimes a slow motion sequence can add to a scene but here it was used just for the hell of it. Maybe the film was running a little short so they wanted to increase the run time at no extra cost? Whatever the reason, it was pointless and there was only one scene (by a river) in which it added anything to the movie.
Even though the dialogue felt like it was produced by getting babies to point at words, the acting was painfully bad and there was enough slow-mo to fill to feed Mega-City One for a week, the worst thing about the film is that is wasn't scary. I didn't jump or feel unnerved once and I'm the sort of person that cowers behind cushions during most horror films. The film worked slightly better as a thriller but only because the sight of people running around and shooting at each other is generally exciting. The film isn't even creepy. Movies such as Wolf Creek make you scared of the area they are set in and but I didn't ever get that feeling here. I just thought "ooh, Scotland looks pretty". A further problem is that in the third act the action heads into a small Scottish town which just so happens to have some sort of Cirque d Soleil style parade happening on the High Street, complete with topless dancers and the cast of Cats juggling fire. Come on! During this time a house somehow sets itself on fire...
A Lonely Place to Die won Best Film at the Actionfest Film Festival in Asheville, North Carolina and I can only assume that the other films were all three hour long, fuzzy, black and white shots of turds because this is a dreadful, poorly acted, childlike scripted, plop of a film.
I Expected More
The first of three hotly anticipated horror/comedy/stop motion kids films we'll see in the coming weeks and coming three years after Laika's success with Coraline, ParaNorman begins with a flourish which sets it up to be an interesting and funny family film. Unfortunately it runs out of steam after about fifty minutes when the jokes dry up and the predictable plot takes over from what had been a fun, film which takes a surprisingly candid look at death.
The world of ParaNorman is very well animated and in a similar style to Coraline, only this time in colour. I'm a huge fan of stop motion but I like the Ray Harryhausen or Arden style where you can actually see thumb prints and the design process. It's an odd criticism but for me the animation is a little too neat and smooth. One of the great benefits stop motion has over GCI or hand drawn cartoons is that it is extremely adaptable and movements should show that. When animation and effects are of the standard of ParaNorman it makes me wonder why stop motion puppets were used in the first place.
The opening half especially is littered with witty jokes and references to the likes of Dawn of the Dead, The Exorcist and Friday the 13th for the parents while the kids could enjoy sight gags and the odd joke which only the children in the audience found funny. The 'stopping a curse with a band of unlikely heroes' plot was a bit naff and provided nothing new or particularly exciting except for one thing. I really liked the zombie's arc and though I won't spoil it, it's the narrative highlight of the film. There is one other surprise line late on which got some laughs and will no doubt draw some attention from the Christian Right but everything else is formulaic and re-hashed. I don't know if it is a response to the film or the fault of a Saturday lunchtime screening but by the half way mark it wasn't only the children in the audience who were starting to fidget and a father and son in the row in front both fell asleep and snored loudly through the final third. Both my girlfriend and I also needed a nap when we got home. That's not really a ringing endorsement.
The cast is large and talented and you will be able to recognise several well known actors but due to the nature of the script no one really stands out. An area I did enjoy was the soundtrack/score. Music was used sparingly in the film but when it was it worked really well. There was a sort of Nicolas Winding Refn style electro score which was surprising to hear and I was also delighted to hear rapper Dizzee Rascal's Fix Up, Look Sharp get a brief airing. The credits roll over The White Stripes Little Ghost which I'd happily listen to any day.
Overall ParaNorman is a film with a strong beginning, poor middle and dull end. It is funny at times and the animation is good but I'm expecting more from Frankenweenie and Hotel Transylvania.
Above Average Action Movie
I've never read a Dredd comic and was fortunate enough never to see the 1995 Danny Cannon/Sylvester Stallone adaptation so went in completely cold to the story and characters. I understood that there was some sort of big deal about not taking Dredd's helmet off but that was about it. I also understand that it's one of the UK's biggest and best known comics so it's with great pleasure to report that in a summer of incredible comic book adaptations that Dredd is able to mix it up with the American behemoths and come out the other side as a really solid action movie which mixes the best of the 1980s with a modern twist.
Mega-City One never feels like it's in America and was actually shot in South Africa. It has a kind of sweaty, tropical feel to it which distances it from the idea that we are on the Atlantic coast of America. This isn't a major problem though as it adds to the dystopian nature of the planet and the film. The city feels rough, run down and lived in and the tower block Peach Trees which is the setting for most of the action feels realistic enough to be believable but far enough away from reality to remain part of science fiction. There are many elements from today's blocks and slums which are mixed with fantasy elements to create a realistic and seedy environment of gangsters, dealers and regular Joes that is very reminiscent of real life inner city areas. The visual design of the tower block is excellent and gives it a grimy feel. The special effects work well on the whole but occasionally the blood spatter looked poor. The violence is quite gruesome at times and the film doesn't shy away from showing it. The impact of some of the more violent scenes is shocking, which in an age of desensitisation shows just how violent it is. In a way though I'm glad it was there. It was needed to show both the lengths that the bad guys will go to stop the Judges and the lengths that the Judges will go to bring them to justice. It also showed how much further the desensitisation to violence has progressed in Mega-City One.
The plot is fairly well trodden and predictable but the elements around it make it very enjoyable. This isn't the first time that we've seen an experienced 'cop' take a rookie out on their first job only to get into big trouble and due to an unfortunate coincidence this isn't the first time this year that we've had a plot about law enforcement making their way up through a tower block to face the boss at the top. The plot of The Raid is painfully similar which is a shame because from what I understand, it is purely incidental. Luckily though there are enough genre and action differences that they feel like two completely different movies.
I saw the film in 3D (a rare occurrence for me) on the recommendation of a friend and I'm pleased to report that I will continue to call her a friend because the 3D didn't ruin the film. For me that's a bold statement. It felt like the film was designed with 3D in mind instead of it being a gimmick that was introduced in post-production and I have to admit that it added to my enjoyment of several scenes, most notably those which were seen through the eyes of the drug Slo-Mo. There are still problems of light loss and motion blur but these are not as noticeable as in many films I've seen in the medium before. This is one of the few times which for I would recommend seeing the in 3D.
The acting is quite good. Karl Urban is excellent as Dredd and I couldn't stop speaking in his gruff voice all the way home, much to the annoyance of my girlfriend. He seems a little emotionless and robotic which I think was intentional and made the character who he was. He was also great in the action scenes, dispensing justice in a cool, unflappable manner. Olivia Thirlby gave the wide eyed newbie performance but was able to alter it as the film progressed. She had a much more emotional approach which worked well with Urban's emotionless role. Game of Thrones resident incestuous Queen Lena Headley was brilliant as the 'big boss' playing the counter to Urban's Dredd. Both were calm killers but Headley allowed some emotion to creep onto her composed exterior towards the end. It's great also that two of the three leads in a major action movie were women and not just that but women who weren't merely wife's, girlfriends or eye candy. Their roles had purpose and were well written and performed. I was also pleased to see The Wire's Wood Harris make an appearance, although his role was limited and Domhnall Gleeson, an actor who is showing great promise, is very good in his small role.
Overall Dredd is an above average science fiction/comic book/action movie. It is well made, features great design and cinematography, and has a good cast but a plot which is unremarkable. The soundtrack, featuring a thumping electronic beat works brilliantly with the on screen action I'd be interested in going back to Mega-City One at least once more.
Well acted and Beautiful
Lawless is a prohibition era gangster biopic about three brothers from Virginia. Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf) is the youngest of the brothers and lacks the courage, strength or attitude to violence that his older brothers Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clark) possess. Forrest especially is a sort of Clint Eastwood figure; strong, silent and deadly. All three are involved in the moonshine business but their trade comes under threat when a new Special Deputy (Guy Pearce) arrives from Chicago to put a halt to their operations.
The film shares traits with Director John Hillcoat's previous film The Proposition. Both focus on men outside the law in semi-desolate locations who must battle across a thin line between right and wrong against corrupt officials. The beautiful but run down locations also help bring to mind Hillcoat's The Road. This film though is more of a coming of age story as young Jack Bondurant fights for respect from his brothers and the gangster who inhabit his world. It is also a tale that blurs the lines between good and evil, right and wrong with the Bondurant boys becoming anti heroes who the audience will be routing for from start to finish.
The great strength of Lawless is its beauty. The film is stunning to look and you never for one minute think that you aren't in depression hit, rural Virginia. The sets are dressed to pinpoint perfection and the costumes look lived in. The cinematography too is beautiful and this really helps to act as a counterweight to another side of the film its gruesome violence. At times this is an uncomfortable film to watch. The violence is reminiscent of Drive in that it sometimes comes out of the blue but often you are aware that you are being led towards it but are still stunned when it arrives. The film features beatings, stabbings, shootings and slitting of throats but it never feels gratuitous. You always get the sense that it is vital to the story. Something which isn't so vital to the storytelling but is delightful nonetheless is the sight of Jessica Chastain naked (well topless anyway). Some people (not me of course) might say that is worth the price of admission alone.
As well as a great amount of violence, the film also has several moments of great comedy. In the packed screening I was in there was one huge laugh and at least five or six chuckles from the large audience. A lot of the humour comes from Tom Hardy's violent but understated and confused ex-soldier character and the legend that the brothers are immortal. We learn early on that he was the only survivor of his company during the Great War and his traumatic past is clear to see in his character and performance. Hardy is once again the standout actor, something which I'm getting used to writing these days. His grunts, menace and confused looks with regard to Chastain's character made the film for me and his performance in general helped me to decide on the higher grade when I couldn't decided between of two different marks out of ten. Shia LaBeouf also helps to wash away the memories of the Transformers movies with a solid and mature performance and third brother Jason Clark plays the drunken brute well. Another great performance comes from Guy Pearce whose hair, speech and mannerisms seem to come from another world. Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska unfortunately suffer a little from lacklustre female characters as neither have an awful lot to do. Neither leaves the production having tarnished their reputations though. Gary Oldman is excellent but his role is very small. Nick Cave's score works very well with the visuals and ads to the prohibition-hillbilly feel of the film.
I was never bored while watching Lawless and it looked great and was wonderfully acted by Hardy in particular, but it sometimes feels as though there are too many characters vying for too little screen time. I would also have preferred for the focus of the story to have been with Hardy's character instead of LaBeouf's as his arc was more interesting to me. Even so, Lawless is definitely an above average gangster flick and hits the mark with its dramatic and sometimes comedic and violent tone.