Monday, 29 August 2011

Film Review: "Cowboys & Aliens" (2011).




The movie's tagline "First contact. Last stand" makes Cowboys & Aliens an unusual movie. This science fiction Western film directed by Jon Favreau; written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus and Hawk Osby; based on a screen story by the latter two along with Steve Oedekerk; based on the 2006 graphic novel of the same name created by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg. The main plot revolves around an amnesiac outlaw, a wealthy cattleman, and a mysterious traveler who must ally to save a group of townspeople abducted by aliens.

The project began development in April 1997, when Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures bought film rights to a concept pitched by Rosenberg, former president at Malibu Comics, which he described as a graphic novel in development. After the graphic novel was published in 2006, development on the film was begun again, and Favreau signed on as director in September 2009. By April 2010, Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig were cast. Favreau had cast Craig and Ford in the film because they were actors who suited the action-adventure roles so the characters would be less seen as comedic. On a budget of $163 million, filming for Cowboys & Aliens began in June 2010, in New Mexico and California. Despite studio pressure to release the film in 3-D, Favreau chose to film traditionally and in anamorphic format (widescreen picture on standard 35 mm film) to further a "classic movie feel". Measures were taken to maintain a serious Western element despite the film's "inherently comic" title and premise. The film's aliens were designed to be "cool and captivating", with some details, such as a fungus that grows on their wounds, created to depict the creatures as frontiersmen facing adversity in an unfamiliar place.

The film stars Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Paul Dano, Clancy Brown and Keith Carradine. The cast gave lacklustre performances that were borderline comical and silly. Craig and Ford unintentionally drew silly caricatures of themselves when they intended to deliver two new additions to the list of great action heroes. Wilde just seemed to be nothing but eye candy for the men in the audience, especially with that one scene. Her character lacked real personality and purpose even though she was the key to the whole film.

Cowboys & Aliens is a middling sci-fi / western crossover fodder, at best. As a kid, I would enjoy this movie much more than I would as an adult. Aliens and cowboys in a single movie. It seems contrived and dull. Pretty much the end of Favreau's career for serious filmmaking. It starts off really well, stalls a little toward the middle, goes bonkers for one really odd scene, and then derails completely at the end. In the end, it doesn't deliver all that much of what the title promises.

Simon says Cowboys & Aliens receives:


Sunday, 21 August 2011

Film Review: "Captain America: The First Avenger" (2011).




"Whatever happens… you must promise me one thing. That you will stay who you are. Not a perfect soldier, but a good man." This is at the center of Captain America: The First Avenger. This superhero film based on the Marvel Comics character Captain America. It is the fifth installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The film was directed by Joe Johnston, written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. Set predominantly during World War II, the film tells the story of Steve Rogers, a sickly man from Brooklyn who is transformed into super-soldier Captain America to aid in the war effort. Rogers must stop the Red Skull, Adolf Hitler's ruthless head of weaponry and the leader of an organization that intends to use an artifact called the "Tesseract" as an energy-source for world domination.

Captain America: The First Avenger began as a concept in 1997 and was scheduled for distribution by Artisan Entertainment. However, a lawsuit, not settled until September 2003, disrupted the project. In 2005, Marvel Studios received a loan from Merrill Lynch, and planned to finance and release it through Paramount Pictures. Directors Jon Favreau (Iron Man (2008) and Iron Man 2 (2010)) and Louis Leterrier (The Incredible Hulk (2008)) were interested in directing the project before Johnston (The Rocketeer (1991)) was approached in 2008. The principal characters were cast between March and June 2010. Production began in June 2010, taking place in London, Manchester, Caerwent, and Liverpool in the United Kingdom, and Los Angeles.

The film stars Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Dominic Cooper and Stanley Tucci. The cast gave spectacular performances. Evans was magnificent as the iconic American hero and epitomized Justice and heroism in the most American sense. Jones, in his second superhero outing, first being Batman Forever (1995), gave an superb performance as Captain America’s general and ally. Weaving, like his other villain portrayals, gave a brilliant performance as Captain America’s most famous adversary, The Red Skull. He is just so good at playing villains, it is though it is what he is best at. Atwell gave an incredible performance as Agent Carter, Captain America’s partner and love interest. She brought confidence and sexiness to the role. Which made her as every bit appealing on screen. Stan gave a terrific performance as Steve Rodger’s best friend. Though his role was rather cut short. Cooper gave a brilliant performance as genius inventor Howard Stark, father of Tony Stark. He was able to meet the level of Downey. Laslty, Tucci gave a fine performance as Dr. Abraham Erskine, the scientist who created the Super Soldier Serum. He gave Captain America emotional depth as his voice of reason. And he pulled off a great German accent. However, I felt his role was cut too short.

Captain America: The First Avenger is one of the most deliriously funny, ingenious and stylish American superhero movies ever made. It is the ultimate Marvel action adventure–a film so funny and exciting it can be enjoyed any day of the week.

Simon says Captain America: The First Avenger receives:


Tuesday, 9 August 2011

NZIFF Classic Film Review: "Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror" ("Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens") (1922).


"A thrilling mystery masterpiece - a chilling psycho-drama of blood-lust." This is none other than Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror (Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens). This 1922 German Expressionist horror film, directed by F. W. Murnau, adapted by Henrik Galeen, and loosely based on the 1897 horror classic Dracula by Bram Stoker. In this highly influential silent horror film, the mysterious Count Orlok summons Thomas Hutter to his remote Transylvanian castle in the mountains. The eerie Orlok seeks to buy a house near Hutter and his wife, Ellen. After Orlok reveals his vampire nature, Hutter struggles to escape the castle, knowing that Ellen is in grave danger. Meanwhile Orlok's servant, Knock, prepares for his master to arrive at his new home.

In 1921, the short-lived silent-era German film studio, Prana Film, was founded by Enrico Dieckmann and occultist-artist Albin Grau. The studio was named after the Hindu concept of prana. Although the studio's intent was to produce occult- and supernatural-themed films, Nosferatu was its only production. It declared bankruptcy in order to dodge copyright infringement suits from Stoker's widow Florence Balcombe. Supposedly, Grau had the idea to shoot a vampire film when he observed a spider sucking the vital juices from its victim. Grau also took inspiration an incident that occurred during the First World War. In the Winter of 1916, he and a Serbian farmer exchanged stories about vampires and the undead. Grau offered Murnau the chance to direct Nosferatu. Grau, who took over as the artistic executive producer drew the designs for every single scene. He took inspiration from the illustrations by Hugo Steiner Prague for Gustav Meyrink's novel The Golem (Der Golem) (1915). Even the face of the titular vampire is supposed to based on Steiner Prague's illations of the Golem. Henrik Galeen was tasked to pen the script for Nosferatu by Grau and Diekmann, despite Prana Film not having obtained the film rights. Galeen was an experienced specialist in dark romanticism; he penned the script for The Golem: How He Came into the World (Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam) (1920). Galeen set the story in the fictional north German harbour town of Wisborg. He changed the characters' names and added the idea of the vampire bringing the plague to Wisborg via rats on the ship, and left out the Van Helsing vampire hunter character. Galeen's Expressionist style screenplay was poetically rhythmic, without being so dismembered as other books influenced by literary Expressionism, such as those by Carl Mayer. Lotte Eisner described Galeen's screenplay as "voll Poesie, voll Rhythmus" ("full of poetry, full of rhythm"). Galeen worked closely with Muranu and Grau, and discussed conscientiously all preparations and assisted them with most of the shooting of the film in Slovakia and Germany.

In August 1921, principal photography began, and wrapped in October. Filming took place in Wismar, Lübeck, Lauenburg, Rostock, Sylt, the High Tatras, Vrátna Valley, Orava Castle, the Váh River, and Starhrad for the exteriors. Filming also took place at the JOFA studio in Berlin for interiors. Not all the locations of Nosferatu still exist, some parts of the locations either no longer exist or have changed a lot over time since filming. Apparently, for cost reasons, the production only had one camera available, therefore the only reserved double shot originated from the same camera, and thus there was only one original negative. The director followed Galeen's screenplay carefully, following handwritten instructions on camera positioning, lighting, and related matters. Nevertheless, Murnau completely rewrote 12 pages of the script, as Galeen's text was missing from the director's working script. This concerned the last scene of the film. Murnau prepared carefully; there were sketches that were to correspond exactly to each filmed scene, and he used a metronome to control the pace of the acting. Murnau was introduced to Hans Erdmann, who would go on to compose the score for the film. Most of the score has been lost, and what remains is only a reconstitution of the score as it was played in 1922. Thus, throughout the history of Nosferatu screenings, many composers and musicians have written or improvised their own soundtrack to accompany the film. For example, James Bernard, composer of the soundtracks of many Hammer horror films in the late 1950s and 1960s, has written a score for a reissue. Gabriela Montero improvised a piano accompaniment in a 2014 performance of the film at the Komische Oper Berlin. Shortly before the premiere, a big press campaign is arranged for the opening of Nosferatu. Grau creates a great number of drawings, as well as writes and commissions articles for the 21st issue of the magazine Bühne und Film, in which he announces that he "produced a truly occult film." The first truly occult film premiered on 15 March, 1922 at Berlin's Primus-Palast, and was then followed by a glittering costume party. This was planned as a large society evening entitled Das Fest des Nosferatu (Festival of Nosferatu). But Nosferatu initially was not met with great success. The many projects and dreams Grau had for Prana Film popped like a bubble as Stoker's widow and heirs sued Prana over not having bought the rights for his novel. The verdict ordered the destruction of all copies of the film. Fortunately, some copies were saved, and the film went on to be regarded as an influential masterpiece of cinema.

The film stars Max Schreck as the vampire Count Orlok, Gustav von Wangenheim as Thomas Hutter, Greta Schröder as Ellen Hutter, Alexander Granach as Knock, Ruth Landshoff as Annie, John Gottowt as Professor Bulwer, and Gustav Botz as Professor Sievers. The cast gave truly stunning performances that will be as immortal as the titular vampire, with Schreck's performance being the most faithful to Stoker's vision for Dracula.

Terrifying and iconic visuals from F. W. Murnau and an intense portrayal of the famed bloodsucker from Max Schreck make this 1922 German Expressionist horror film a masterpiece, and one of the greatest films in cinema history.

Simon says Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror (Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens) receives:



Also, see my NZIFF review for Incendies.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Film Review: "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" (2011).




The film’s tagline "Evolution Becomes Revolution" sums up the premise of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. This science fiction film directed by Rupert Wyatt and written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver. It is a reboot of the Planet of the Apes series. A substance, designed to help the brain repair itself, gives rise to a super-intelligent chimp who leads an ape uprising.

In 2006, screenwriter-producer Rick Jaffa was searching for a script idea. As Jaffa searched a newspaper articles clipping, one about pet chimpanzees that become troublesome to their owners and heartbroken for not adapting well to the human environment intrigued him. As Jaffa eventually realized it fit the Planet of the Apes series, he called his wife and screenwriting partner Amanda Silver to express his ideas of such a chimpanzee eventually starting the ape revolution, and then the couple started developing the character of Caesar. Jaffa and Silver then wrote a script and sold it to Fox. The script added other elements which the couple had researched, such as genetic engineering. Several tributes to specific scenes, characters, and cast and crew from the previous Apes film series were added in the script. In a 2009 interview, Wyatt said, "We've incorporated elements from Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, in terms of how the apes begin to revolt, but this is primarily a prequel to the 1968 film...Caesar is a revolutionary figure who will be talked about by his fellow apes for centuries...This is just the first step in the evolution of the apes, and there's a lot more stories to tell after this. I imagine the next film will be about the all-out war between the apes and humans." Filming began in July 2010 in Vancouver, British Columbia. Filming also happened in San Francisco, California and around Oahu, Hawaii. As the animals in film were meant to be actual apes instead of the anthropomorphic simians of the original franchise, the producers decided not to use actors in make-up or animal suits. After considering real apes, instead Weta Digital created the apes digitally in almost every case through performance capture. 

The film stars James Franco, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, Brian Cox, Tom Felton and Andy Serkis. The cast gave amazing performances. But the true praise goes to its unlikely star – Caesar, played by Andy Serkis. He gave an amazing performance that genuinely allowed the audience to see the whole movie through his eyes and understand where he comes from and what are his motivations. He made this movie, without him there would be no movie. Full stop.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes summons up moments of great eloquence and power. It's not just the birth of Caesar we're seeing in this triumphant interpretation, it's also the dawning of the beginning of humanity’s end. Here's how any great franchise should start: with care, precision and delicately wrought atmosphere. It's a refreshing approach to the genre, even when revisiting years later, in an era inundated with science fiction movies where each tries to better the last's visual effects budget.

Simon says Rise of the Planet of the Apes receives:


Friday, 5 August 2011

NZIFF Film Review: "Incendies" (2010).



"The search began at the opening of their mother's will." This is at the story of Incendies. This Canadian mystery-drama film directed by Denis Villeneuve, adapted by Villeneuve and Valérie Beaugrand-Champagne from Wajdi Mouawad's play of the same name. Fraternal twins, Jeanne and Simon, journey from Montreal to an unnamed Middle Eastern country to fulfill their mother's dying wish to locate two lost family members; their quest parallels their mother's difficult adolescence in the midst of a religious civil war in the 1970s.

In 2004, Villeneuve first saw Mouawad's play at Théâtre de Quat'Sous in Montreal. Villeneuve acknowledged unfamiliarity with Arab culture, but was drawn to Incendies as "a modern story with a sort of Greek tragedy element". In adapting the screenplay, Villeneuve, while keeping the story structure and characters, replaced "all" the dialogue, even envisioning a silent film, abandoning the idea due to expense. He showed Mouawad some completed scenes to convince the initially reluctant playwright to grant permission for the film. Villeneuve spent five years working on the screenplay, in between directing two films. Mouawad later praised the film as "brilliantly elegant" and gave Villeneuve full credit. For the part of Nawal, Villeneuve said he conducted an extensive search for actresses across Canada. He considered casting the main character to be the most challenging, and at one point contemplated using two or three actresses to play the character, since the story spans four decades. He finally met Moroccan Belgian actress Lubna Azabal in Paris, intrigued by her "expressive and eloquent" face in Paradise Now (2005). Although she was 30, Villeneuve thought she appeared 18 and could play the part throughout the entire film, using makeup. With a budget of $6.5 million, the film was shot in Montreal and Jordan. The film took 40 days to shoot with Villeneuve aiming to film no scene without being sure it would not be cut. For the scenes filmed in Jordan, Villeneuve used a Lebanese and Iraqi crew, though he feared the war scenes would be too reminiscent of bad experiences for them. However, he said the Arab crew members felt "It’s important that those sorts of stories are on the screen".

The film stars Lubna Azabal, Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette, and Rémy Girard. Tour de force performances were given by the cast, especially by Azabal, who gave a performance that was just as much of an emotional rollercoaster ride as Nawal's life.

Incendies is a nice follow-up to Villeneuve's 2009 film, Polytechnique, another story of vengeance and forgiveness in a cruel, cold world. The virtue, and also the limitation, of this film is that it confronts senselessness and insists on remaining calm and sane. It is a hundred and thirty minutes of pure cinema in which the Canadian director skilfully handles a subject as difficult as the undermined but powerful feminism. The pure emotion and the truths layered into the film are raw, real and devastating. Almost from beginning to end, we're filled with dread and, I must say, a morbid sense of anticipation.

Simon says Incendies receives: