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Ironclad (2011)
Pleasingly-ambitious, capable actioner deserved better success
4 July 2012
OK, it's not a Rom Com, not a comic book, and it's not doing issues or social realism, but I enjoyed this loosely-historical actioner, and if you like the genre, I think you won't be disappointed.

Set in England in 1215 during the Baron's War against King John, the film has a strong narrative line founded on the siege of the strategically-important Rochester castle in Kent. Is it historically accurate? Not especially. Is it for the most part engrossing and well done? You bet.

A party of proto-democratic, pro-Baronial rebels headed by Baron d'Albany (Brian Cox) and his "Seven Samurai" type band of hardnut common soldiers, gains some elite military leadership in the form of troubled Templar Thomas Marshal (James Purefoy). Seizing Rochester Castle before the King (Paul Giamatti) can occupy it, the bulk of the story tracks the grim cat-and-mouse game, interspersed by brutal hand to hand fighting, characteristic of medieval siege warfare.

The film delivers suitably gory and violent combat, mostly very effectively. It conveys a sense of visceral, desperate fighting, although in my opinion there is a limit to the dramatic impact of such scenes. It makes up for that by at least taking a moment to consider how exhausted and disgusted these fighting men are by what they do.

In the film's quieter moments, Marshal is depicted as a Templar with a conscience, who has returned from crusade spiritually scarred by the contradiction of being a soldier for God. His mentoring of d'Albany's young Squire Guy (Aneurin Barnard) and his temptation by Lady of the castle Isabel (Kate Mara) form the emotional heart of the story. As essential dramatic relief, these elements are mostly well-done, albeit not exactly original.

One thing the medieval genre can do well is raise the thematic question of fighting for a cause versus fighting for pay or survival. There is an idealism at its heart which can make a nice change from sometimes mundane and prosaic, kitchen sink contemporary drama. Ironclad takes a satisfying nod in this direction.

Purefoy is uniformly excellent, conveying the brooding quality of his character with a ton of conviction. It can be hard for actors to pull this off without caricature, but he inhabits the screen like an old-fashioned leading man, and you can only lament that there aren't enough British films or roles for this kind of actor.

It's also refreshing to see Charles Dance and Brian Cox playing "good guys" for a change, and the always compelling Paul Giamatti (doing a creditable English accent) has some stand out moments and a gloriously enraged barnstorming speech as a man born, but not fit, to be King.

All in all, this is good, well-crafted old-fashioned story-telling. Some reviewers have criticised it for being too generic (it's a genre movie) while some have called the film ambitious, as if that's a fault. Could it have been deeper, more authentic, more inventive? Perhaps. But it is head and shoulders above most of the tediously bubble-gum "action" films out there. I applaud it.

If you're a fan of historical movies, it's thoroughly enjoyable. It deserved better success than I think it got. Why not give it a try?
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King Kong (2005)
King Kong doesn't quite Rule Them All
8 February 2006
Warning: Spoilers
Peter Jackson's King Kong is a considerable achievement from the wonderful film-maker who gave us Lord of the Rings. It delivers spectacle, romance, poignant moments and incredible action sequences aplenty…but in the beginning – let alone by the end - I found myself thinking there was maybe too much plenty, and too little plausibility, even for an action movie.

"This isn't an action story," says one of the characters. Unfortunately, the fantasy tale of a giant gorilla becoming fixated on a beautiful woman and then rampaging through depression-era New York, is an action story. It is not based on the more intelligent, rather richer and altogether loftier material of Lord of the Rings. It is a remake of a simple, "classic" thirties fantasy movie, dating from a time when spectacle was more important than sense. For it to work, a story like this needs to be confined and pared to the bone in the manner that Spielberg's Jurassic Park was. Any time allowed to question the believability of what we are viewing is fatal.

Instead, we have a painfully slow opening sequence which seems almost to defy us to wait to see the ape of the title. Struggling actress Naomi Watts traipses round New York looking extraordinarily beautiful and crosses paths with Jack Black's Orson Welles-like movie director. Their promising steam-ship journey to exotic lands quickly becomes almost bizarre, as the vessel's Nordic captain loses all semblance of Teutonic efficiency and proceeds to pilot his ship through fog, rocks, and rain in the manner of a TIE-Fighter from Star Wars negotiating asteroids at high speed. Never has a tramp steamer rocked and careered in quite this way on screen before, and I wished it hadn't.

When our explorers reach Skull Island, much violence and orcish native behaviour from the cannibal inhabitants follows, until at last we meet the ape. And what an ape! For sure, the rendition of Kong is as fine a piece of CGI as you'll encounter anywhere. But from the moment Kong rips Naomi Watts from her rope bonds, without dislocating (or indeed, tearing off) both her arms, then propels her along at top speed without shaking her to pieces in his huge hairy fist, you realise with a sinking feeling that the suspension of disbelief required is rather greater than usual.

And so the roller-coaster Jackson has planned for us finally gets into its monstrous stride. It is a hell of a ride, I grant you, and there are wonderfully over the top set-pieces to have you gaping at the screen. There is a brontosaurus stampede to out Spielberg Spielberg; a three-way fight between Kong and what appears to be Tyrannosaurs. There are even touching and moving moments – in fact, there are way too many "moving" scenes (in case we didn't know, the score makes doubly sure by heaping on the sweet strings). I just found myself wishing there wasn't so much of it.

In the end, the film wins you over by sheer, good-humoured bullying, overwhelming by sensory and visual stimulus, until you can't help sitting in awe at the sheer, excessive ebullience of it all. Yet, for all that, the first time I saw it, I left the cinema irritated and wishing for less, not more. Go see it, judge for yourself. And let us hope that the marvellous Peter Jackson and his team – for whom I have nothing but admiration - curbs his excesses for his next project.
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A perfect little movie to cheer our imperfect little lives
15 December 2003
A perfect little movie, this tale of provincial actors struggling to deliver a production of Hamlet is one that will cheer your Bleak Midwinter if you have any heart whatsoever. Definitely under-rated and one of Branagh's best, it is simply and effectively photographed in black and white, and features a witty, amusing, and at times, hilarious script performed by a stand-out ensemble cast. Although its tale of backstage trials and tribulations will not appeal to all tastes, there is a lot of subtlety and truthfulness to the gentle, genuine sentiment on offer here. Among very few false notes, only Jennifer Saunder's dire caricature as a Hollywood producer really disappoints. The rest of the cast are just terrific. Almost as good a Christmas movie as It's a Wonderful Life, I recommend it.
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