Saturday, 17 November 2018

Review: A Bear Named Winnie

Amazon seems to be making it harder to find prime movies on the Fire stick nowadays and the missus wanted a thriller she hadn't seen (it seems like she's pretty much watched everything on Prime), but wasn't scary.

Somehow, we stumbled upon A Bear Named Winnie. And just to be clear, this is not a thriller.  Instead, it's a fairly gentle retelling of a "true" story about how Winnie the Pooh came to get his name. Apparently, it turns out he was named about a real bear in London Zoo - and the story of how Winnie came to be in London Zoo is the focus of the film.

It's an interesting story with a few minor points of drama and the two bears used in filming are extremely cute. I spent much of the film wondering just how they'd got them to be so tame and well trained as well as envying Fassbender for spending a movie working with a bear.

One word on the Amazon Prime copy, it's pretty blurry looking.

Verdict: Touching tale with cute bear action. 

Monday, 12 November 2018

Review: They Shall Not Grow Old

I have mixed feelings about Peter Jackson's attempt to make the testimony and footage from the first World War more accessible to modern audiences through colourisation, CGI, sound effects and even 3D.  The "restoration" is only partly successful to my eyes. For example, the blurry slow motion segments rather than adding pathos and drama only serve to make the production sag and the colourisation  - particularly the uniform washes of skin colour - can never be mistaken for reality.

More concerning is the juxtaposition of still photos of corpses with close ups of people who resemble them in group photographs - and the use of unrestored clips of black and white silent footage with a clattering projector soundtrack belies the fact that silent film can look very good indeed when sensitively restored and played at the right frame rate.

But it's not without merit, the colorisation highlights details like poppies growing on a grass verge or camouflage patterns on tanks which I would have certainly missed otherwise.  The foley effects add real atmosphere to the first hand accounts of survivors.  The story itself remains a powerful one, and the close is really strong.

Verdict: A worthy experiment

Saturday, 10 November 2018

Review: 2001

I'm sure I must have seen this before, but it's recent release on 4K UHD disc makes it worth a revisit. Sadly, our projector isn't quite capable of 4K - but I'm pleased to report that except for one particularly scene where there's some quite noisy grain in an early scene 2001 looks as fresh and modern as ever.

It was the missus' first viewing and given her usual lack of patience for movies that are lengthy and with ambiguous interpretations I wondered what she'd make of it.  I also saved the story of my father walking out of a 1968 cinema showing on account of it being too boring until afterwards - and gave her the option of pausing the film for a catch up on what was going on.  We only had to stop a few times - and I relied on dim memories of my reading of the book for explanations.

Initial signs were not good as we were faced with a black screen and strains from the soundtrack - the Overture apparently. This was quickly skipped as there was no chance of the missus sitting through that.

Overall, it's held up remarkably well. It's slow and even ponderous - but the imagery remains breathtakingly remarkable in places.  It captures the sheer weirdness and vastness of space in a way that's astonishing given its age.  Truly visionary.

Verdict: Bring your own interpretation to this bona-fide science fiction classic. 

Review: Sherlock Holmes The Scarlet Claw

Atmospheric reworking of the Hound of the Baskervilles starring Rathbone and Bruce. This was our Halloween viewing  as neither of us fancied a straight out horror. This is a hugely nostalgic film for me as it evokes BBC showings of the series back in 1980s and watching them on our small black and white TV.  Viewing it on our projector recently was obviously rather different!

What I found extraordinary was that I'd quite forgotten the majority of the plot and only one or two scenes gave me vague feelings of deja vu. I think I'm long overdue a rewatch of the rest of the series.

This adventure is probably one of the better ones as it's an original tale which while being set in the modern days of 1940s, Holmes and Watson aren't being compelled to help with the war effort. Further, no one has gone overboard with the makeup, given Rathbone a distracting hair style and the script isn't too abusive to Watson. The remote Canadian village location also adds a certain timeless quality which while you couldn't mistake it for nowadays, it could easily be more period accurate for Holmes.

Verdict: Top tier Rathbone & Bruce. 

Sunday, 4 November 2018

Review: The Rainmaker

The stakes in this feel lower than some of the other Grisham adaptations. But that's resulted in a more nuanced (although still occasionally implausible) film.

Damon's earnest newbie lawyer is perfectly balanced by DeVito's rather more cynical hack.  Voight makes for a good adversary.

Unusually, for these movies it finds time to weave in at least one secondary narrative.

Having watched a run of these long courtroom dramas now, I'm struck by Grisham's confidence in ordinary people doing the right thing.

Verdict: One of the more intelligent adaptations. 

Review: A Time to Kill

Another Grisham courtroom drama and it doesn't shy away from controversial topics as it deals with racism and revenge killing.  Likely, also a step up in terms of cost compared to some of the others.

As a story it's an absorbing if overwrought one as one brutal act risks escalating into a feud combined with race war.  The act which kicks it all off also made it a difficult watch for me and I'm not sure I would have chosen it had I known.

The cast are good good in this, with McConaughey showing early ability to portray complex roles and be the core of a movie.

It's odd seeing Jackson with hair and Spacey in a movie at all now.

Verdict: Good, but probably a bit overlong.

Saturday, 3 November 2018

Review: Bohemian Rhapsody

This movie isn't quite sure if it's a Freddie Mercury biopic or a Queen docudrama.  The result is something of a compromise. The focus is very much on Freddie (some of the other band members while convincing looking are thinly drawn characterisation wise), but doesn't manage to get under the skin of what made him tick.

The other problem is that the story of Queen doesn't seem to be a very interesting one. It's basically band gets together, has some hits and becomes massive, splits and then reunites.  The snippets of insight into the how and why some of the hit songs were made was often fascinating, but probably not covered in any more depth than the relevant wikipedia article.

The film's crescendo - a performance at Live Aid - is hardly the stuff of legend to the average viewer.  I have honestly given Live Aid almost no thought in the last 30 years - and can remember nothing about the individual band performances.  Mercury, however, is genuinely interesting as a person.  For example, "What drove him creatively?" is a question which is barely touched upon.

By now you've probably realised I am at best a passing Queen fan, and I felt Malek had got Mercury about 90% right. The accent and diction is a bit variable, but his look and movement often eerily invoked the musician.  The film soars when it comes together and you realise the dent in the public conscious this band family managed to make thanks in large part to Mercury's singular vision and zest for life.

Verdict: Does the job. 

Review: Runaway Jury

Runaway Jury is yet another 90s adaptation of a Grisham courtroom novel. I can see why they were so popular with Hollywood, easy to adapt best-selling books and limited sets to worry about means you can concentrate on hiring charismatic stars old and new to get them packing the cinemas.  Hackman gets by far the most fun lines to play with.

The underlying trial around gun control remains as relevant now as then. Barely a week goes by without a mass shooting in the US and fingers being pointed regarding responsibility.  This time its the gun industry itself on trial.

With such high stakes, it's no wonder that the opposing lawyers worry about jury selection and decision making. So when someone promises to fix the jury, it must be very tempting...

Verdict: Implausible but fun ride. 

Review: The Rosie Project

Amusing romantic comedy featuring high functioning Aspergers academic, Don Tilman in his pursuit of a wife. What makes the project so charming is the insights into Tilman's daily routine, his unique approach to life and social ineptness. In many ways, he feels not dissimilar to my younger self.

Less well drawn is the object of his affections and that's just about forgivable given the Tilman's eye view of proceedings.

Verdict: Charming and unconventional romcom. 

Review: Shooter

Shooter is a bit of a oddity in that it has some care and attention to the details, but it all seems to go a bit James Bond towards the end.  The basic premise of this film ie "what would it take to beat all of the various measures that are currently in place to prevent the assassination of a US President?" is an intriguing one as is the solution.  The resulting JFK like conspiracy, something which the characters are somewhat self-aware of, is rather less so.

Enter Wahlberg to take of business in another loner underdog (anti)hero role.  Predictably increasing levels of action, mayhem and twists result as he goes in pursuit of justice while evading the long arm of the law.  He's never less than convincing in a way that Dwayne Johnson isn't.

Verdict:  Passable action thriller. 

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Review: Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Alaskan Dog-Racing

Paulson's Winterdance is the story of one man's attempt to take part in a dog sled race across the snowy wastes of Alaska from Anchorage to Nome.

Winterdance is extremely funny at times - especially when Paulsen is learning how to sled and training the dogs.  But there are also moments of sadness and even horror. But always the cold. It's like an additional character. Biting, needling, cruel, stabbing.

This is a book to read snuggled up under a duvet and preferably in front of roaring fire with a hefty helping of comfort food. It's a perfect Autumnal or Winter read.

You don't get to know all of the dogs - but a few leave a clear impression. There's Cookie - a profoundly smart and loyal dog, and the kill/eat anything dog called Devil who leaves impressions of a rather different kind.

The book isn't without a few faults. I got deja-vu a few times with some of the phrasing. A sentence or a turn of phrase would appear in one chapter and then reappear perhaps twenty or thirty pages later.  I guess there are only so many ways you can describe some things.  It is also leans towards prep - rather than the Iditarod race itself. More than half of the book is on the lead up.  Perhaps that was the right choice as the race itself feels in some ways less impactful on the author.

Verdict: Beautiful and bleak. 

Review: The Night of the Hunter

Laughton's directorial debut is the tale of a preacher (or is he) and two children who may or may not know the location of the proceeds of their bank robbing father.

With it's focus on silhouettes, creepy angular compositions and sleep walking like nightmarish quality I was more than once reminded of German expressionist classics like Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.  It also brings some iconic imagery of it's own.

Performance wise, Mitchum's preacher is of particular note - never less than compelling, charismatic and monstrous.

Verdict: Dark fairytale.

Monday, 29 October 2018

Review: The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society

The little known story of the German invasion of Guernsey forms the backdrop to this cozy romantic mystery drama.

The romance is fairly humdrum (almost as soon as you see two characters you'll guess their destiny) - but it's significantly elevated by appealing performances from all of the cast, glimpses of what British life under German occupation would have been like had they managed to invade mainland Britain and the slow unfolding of the mystery behind the titular society's reluctance to tell their story.

Verdict: Unusual setting for a wonderfully romantic drama.

Review: Whatever happened to Baby Jane?

"Made for TV 90s remake of the 60s classic" should tell you all you need to know about this. Well it should do, but I hadn't seen the original and so assumed this was it when I fired up this grainy copy on Amazon Prime - especially when it featured two Redgrave sisters.

It's a well acted (essentially two hander) psychological thriller but has some seriously melodramatic music to bludgeon you into anticipating every twist and turn.  I'd have liked to have seen more back story on the sisters rivalry and relationship deterioration as what you see here is pretty thin.

Verdict: Competent rather than classic coercive control shocker.

Saturday, 27 October 2018

Review: Sicario: Day of the Soldado

Visceral followup to the 2015 heart in the mouth blockbuster. Unfortunately, Blunt isn't back to add some needed emotional heft to this largely male dominated and consequently more brutal action-thriller.  Brolin and del Toro return and develop their respective characters.

The story which crosses boundaries in more ways than one, and dealing with international terrorism, people smuggling, Mexican cartel wars and US political intrigue remains highly engaging and near less than credible.

Verdict: Brutal but strong follow up to the original

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Review: Kidnapped

Kidnapped is a highly engaging boy's own adventure classic once you get past the archaic Scottish slang that forms much of the dialogue. Even Stevenson is obviously aware of the barrier it potentially forms as he provides a few translations of key words as footnotes.  But it does give the whole enterprise another layer of authenticity (as does his interweaving of historical characters and events around his fictional ones).

The main protagonist, David Balfour, only adds to the appeal. His plucky naivety feels absolutely right for a nineteen year old.  You feel every step of his fatigue, share his dawning sense of horror or rejoice in justice served.

Verdict: Classic fun.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

Review: Elysium

Wonderfully realised vision of a dystopia where the bulk of the population live nasty, brutish and short lives on a ruined earth while rather less billionaires float around in a flying donut in outer space. In it, they've near eliminated disease and their world looks very much like the posher regions of Hollywood - only with more robots.

If I'm being honest, I find this has more rewatch value than director Blomkamp's debut District 9. It explores some of the same ideas, but benefits from a bigger budget for cast and special effects. The cast is a good range of upcoming, can't quite put a name to and A-listers like Damon & Foster.  Damon makes for a good beefy everyman, while Foster is a perfectly judged obnoxious politician.

Verdict: Only the last act falls slightly flat. 

Review: Moon

Low key and rare example of hard science fiction that's also a tip of the hat to films like Silent Running from the 1970s.  Jones and Rockwell have done a fine job with this near one hander (Spacey provides some company for Rockwell's lonesome astronaut in the form of a grimly stained robot).

Rockwell is excellent at conveying the different facets - and especially the routine, loneliness and isolation - of his character's life.  The authentic looking model work, set design and lighting only enhances the feeling.

Verdict: Fly me to the Moon, but make sure I've got a return ticket. 

Saturday, 13 October 2018

Review: The Commuter

Serviceable actioner addition to Neeson's now considerable post-Taken catalogue. Opening, and beautifully edited, sequence aside (which manages to convey the mind-numbing routine of commuting) - the cast are probably a bit better than the material.

Neeson's solidly excellent as a washed up insurance salesman, of course, and Farmiga's short spot memorably sets up the core premise with a Twilight Zone like vibe.  A sprinkling of recognisable faces provide enough red herrings to keep you guessing as to who his real focus should be.

Verdict: Enjoyable and never boring. 

Sunday, 7 October 2018

Review: Terminator 2

An outing for the UHD of this, and contrary to established opinion I thought it looked quite stunning on our projector. The bad news, however, is that only the theatrical edition is on offer in 4K.

I have such a long history with this film that it's hard to be truly objective (I can even remember seeing it at a special preview one summer afternoon at the local cinema).   To my eyes, it remains one of the best action movies of certainly the 90s, if not all time.

Schwarzenegger was born for this part. Furlong makes a good foil, while Hamilton's transformation from unambitious waitress to driven combatant remains astounding.

Verdict: Perhaps the definitive action movie.

Review: Leave no trace

Leave no trace is a touching and moving study of the relationship between a veteran and his daughter both of whom live off grid together. Refreshingly, there are no bad guys in this movie - just gentleness, compassion and love (even from those associated with the authorities).

Actingwise, it's some of Foster's best work. Portraying someone broken by war, he could have been a lot less restrained.  McKenzie, however, has the makings of a real superstar.  She's extraordinarily good - especially considering her relative youth.

Lastly, a word on the scenery and cinematography. The forest looks absolutely beautiful and near mystical in this film. Some shots are worthy of Planet Earth.

Verdict: Deeply moving and compassionate. 

Monday, 24 September 2018

Review: Fame

Before Britain's Got Talent, before the X-Factor, before Glee - there was Fame - one of the quintessential musicals of the 80s. For some reason, I never managed to see it back then, but remember the iconic theme music dominating the charts.

It traces a number of performing arts students as they progress through school. The dialogue is one of the best bits of it. It's gritty, loaded with appealing slang and seems to perfectly capture the struggles and aspirations of teenagers.  The students and teacher interactions, thanks to strong casting on both sides, are never less than completely believable. The teaching points were some of my favourite parts.

Thematically, it manages to cover most of the bases teens are concerned about.

Where the film struggles is in having too many characters to follow - some of whom I barely managed to connect with before it had moved on.  While Fame does have a structure based around school years, it feels perhaps realistically chaotic.

Verdict: A slice of 80s nostalgia.

Sunday, 23 September 2018

Review: Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives

I loved idea of this book. Take a simple concept like what does life after death really look like and instead of squeezing the juice out of one idea - produce a few dozen vignettes on the theme and let your reader ponder them instead.  Not taken with one of them? Simply move onto the next.

There's quite a bit of repetition, or at least variations on a theme. Some like the opening story, really make you think - others feel like the denouement of a Twilight Zone episode. 

Verdict: Mind Candy. 

Review: Never Let Me Go

The missus was truly suckered into this one. She took one look at the romantic cover and announced we must watch it. Another score from the 25p bin in my local charity shop I figured, while carefully ignoring her requests to read the back cover to her.

It's not a conventional romance.

If you are able to follow the same advice, it'll be a much more intriguing watch for this is an alt-Britain with a single devastating idea at its core. A horrifying Faustian pact means disease has been near eliminated.

Mulligan, Garfield and Knightly are all a bit too old to truly convince as teens they portray in the middle section of the movie, but they did capture the naive goofiness well. In lesser hands, the film wouldn't half as effective as all three reveal the changing life circumstances of each in an occasionally breathtakingly sad manner.

Verdict: If Britain made the Island or Bladerunner it would probably look something like this. 

Review: Invictus

Sport as a metaphor for unity is a familiar trope, but rarely have the stakes been so high as they are in Invictus.  Here, Freeman's superbly played Mandela sees it as a way to bring the country together - a country which in lesser hands could have easily fallen into civil war.

The story takes a familiar route, but in sporting terms it is a highly effective ones.  Thankfully as someone who hasn't played rugby since school - and didn't particularly comprehend its appeal even then - Eastwood chooses to focus on the human drama. One of the most effective strands follows the presidential bodyguard team.

The only slightly disappointing is that a few pieces of crucial exposition are left out. For example, I don't recall hearing any explanation of Invictus. I'll leave you - as I did - to head on over Wikipedia for that.

Verdict: Eastwood's on less divisive form. 

Review: All the Money in the World

Were All the Money in the World a different movie, there would be a danger of the behind the scenes drama overshadowing the final film.  Reshooting one of the main character's appearances with a different actor in little over a week surely counts as one of the most extraordinary developments in recent filmmaking history.

It was worth it though. It's a taut absorbing thriller. Plummer's Getty is complex and monstrous. Williams stands out as Harris - treading a line between sheer desperation at her son's plight and her determination to ensure his safety.  Only Wahlberg feels a bit underused although he does play a pivotal role towards the end of the drama.

Verdict: Money can't buy you happiness or safety, but it can get a superb piece of eleventh hour casting. 

Thursday, 20 September 2018

Review: True Romance

Early and achingly sweet and brutal romance from the pen of Tarantino. In many ways, it feels like a prototype for some of his later movies.  Aficionados of his work will spot familiar lines, tropes and even cast members.

Most of the sweet charm comes from the relationship between Arquette's call girl turned wife and Slater's comic book guy turned wannabe gangster.  It's a testament to what love can do I guess.

Director Scott deftly balances the humour, romance and violence.

Verdict: Proto-tino