Mike’s Been Watching…
ENTER THE DRAGON [main picture]
DIR: Robert Clouse
Essentially a Chinese James Bond movie, this colourful kung fu flick is perhaps the most exuberant and exciting of its genre and was sadly the last film Bruce Lee would make before his untimely death (his successor Jackie Chan makes an appearance as a prison a henchman). The film also stars John Saxon (something of a cult hero) and Jim Kelly (a blaxploitation kung fu star) and it’s a hugely entertaining thrill ride. I probably would have liked more focus on the fighting tournament but Enter The Dragon is actually most exciting as a spy movie. Beautifully shot by DoP Gilbert Hubbs and energetically scored by Lalo Schifrin (you’d know him for the Mission: Impossible theme) it’s almost perfect as an espionage adventure and has some awesome set-pieces. The glass-house finale recalls The Man With The Golden Gun and the villain, with detachable hands, recalls Dr. No. The Bond connection, right down to the labyrinth-like underground lair, is undeniable, but the film is anything but derivative. 38 years on it’s still one of the most entertaining movies ever made, relentlessly paced and with a sense of fun that very few movies can match. Lee, not the greatest actor, also has a lot of charisma here and makes for an engaging screen presence.
THE LONG GOODBYE
DIR: Robert Altman
I finally got around to Altman’s celebrated adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s 1953 detective thriller this week, and I’m happy to say that it lived up to its lauded reputation. I love that Altman took only the bare essentials of Chandler’s novel and made something which is essentially free-form from them. As Roger Ebert said, “It tries to be all genre and no story”, and with Altman’s distanced direction and muted, dystopic tones it works beautifully. It’s a movie which, for the first ten minutes, is about a shabby, rambling private eye trying to feed his cat – and that’s pretty much how the whole thing goes. It’s a leisurely and wise picture, antagonistic and laced with cool. There’s no momentum to the narrative, no particular rhythm or end goal. The mystery unfolds slowly, piece by piece, as it does to our protagonist. Shot by Vilmos Zsigmond (a real talent back in the 70s) the film looks stunning; equally brooding and breezy. While Altman’s direction looks effortless it in fact serves the story brilliantly and holding it all together is the terrific central performance by Elliot Gould, who has never been better. Not quite a masterpiece, this is still an excellent essay on the L.A. underbelly with probably the best last line in all of cinema. “Yeah, I even lost my cat.“
Sam’s Been Watching…
DIR: Pascal Laugier
It’s an audience splitter, and it’s easy to see why, but I’m still of the opinon that Pascal Laugier’s second film (following the abysmal House of Voices) is the best horror film of at least the past 20 years.
It begins as a revenge movie, with Mylene Jampanoi taking swift and brutal vengeance for tortures she suffered 15 years previously, yet still being tormented by the girl she couldn’t save, but that’s just the first half of the film, the rest turns the horror genre upside down, forcing us to re-evaluate our relationship with the final girl; Morjana Alaoui’s Anna and to think about much bigger things than most horror films even aspire to.
Martyrs is intense and brutal from start to finish, and some audiences will simply find it unendurable. I’ve now seen it, I believe, seven times, and still there are several moments at which I cringe, and a few in which I have to fight back tears, so brutal, so unsparing, so unrelenting and so impactful is the violence. If you can stomach the astoundingly good gore effects, if you can bear the almost palpable pain of its second half, what you will find in Martyrs will repay the investment. Alaoui and Jampanoi are both exceptional, and create rounded and believable characters that you care about, despite having only bare bones to work with, and the film is exciting, suspenseful and scary.
However, you have to reserve the highest praise for Laugier. He sustains a fever pitch of knuckle whitening tension and horror for 97 minutes, and also manages to make a film that is about something, a film that sends you out thinking about philosophical, even metaphysical, questions. Not many films ask you to engage your brain now, and horror even less so, so it’s a real treat to see a film work on so many levels as Martyrs does. It’s a masterpiece.
RED RIDING HOOD
DIR: Catherine Hardwicke
Hardwicke’s first film since beginning proceedings on the Twilight franchise (thanks for that) is basically Twilight redux. This revisionist Red Riding Hood takes the fairy tale and turns it into a mystery about a beautiful girl (Amanda Seyfried, better cast as a universal object of desire than Krristen Stewart, but no more of an actress) who is torn between two suitors (Shiloh Fernandez and Max Irons, who, entirely non-coincidentally, look like what youd get if you separated the genetic characteristics of Robert Pattinson into two blandly handsome bodies) at the same time as her village is being menaced by an unconvincingly CGI’d werewolf.
It’s handsome, I’ll give it that, it has a wonderful fairytale look and Seyfried does have an air of fairytale princess in her doll like beauty, but on all other levels Red Riding Hood is colossally terrible. The acting is hilarious, running the gamut from Seyfried’s exquisite blankness; she gives a performance that suggests that she’s about three seconds away from falling into a coma, to Gary Oldman’s (oh Gary, why?) awful turn, during which he chomps so much of the scenery that you’d think he was just trying to help the werewolf destroy the village. A lot of fine actors slum it here, but there are few cases sadder than that of Julie Christie, again well cast as Seyfried’s Gandma, but given little of consequence to do.
It’s astonishingly boring, even the wolf attacks do little to raise the pulse (because I was too busy giggling at the ‘special’ effects) and the final reveal is predictable. The famous ‘what big eyes you have’ bit is shoehorned in, but only as a dream sequence that serves no real purpose other than to acknowledge the source material in the most perfunctory way possible. If you’re really missing the Twilight films then, this one’s for you, everyone else, avoid like plague.
DIR: David Fincher
Whenever I was off school ill I used to get my Mother to rent videos to keep me occupied, and when I was 15, one of those videos was Se7en. I still remember the feeling of seeing it for the first time; the vice like grip it exerted, the times it made me jump, and of course the gut punch of that ending. 15 years later, it still does the same thing.
Se7en is a masterpiece of structure, writer Andrew Kevin Walker has found an original and chilling hook – serial murders based around the seven deadly sins – on which to hang his story. The pieces of the puzzle tend to be small; long scenes are quite few and far between here, but they fall together beautifully, nothing feels false or forced, and when things come out of the blue it feels as though they do so not because the story needs them to, but because John Doe; the mysterious killer at the film’s centre, has set it up to be so.
The character writing, and indeed the character acting, is also impeccable. Morgan Freeman plays against his stereotype here; Detective William Somerset isn’t cuddly, nor is he a magical black man, he’s creased; convincingly worn down by long years on his job. Brad Pitt is also excellent as the younger, more idealistic and more impetuous detective inheriting Somerset’s desk, and this is where he first truly served notice that behind that almost unfeasibly handsome face there was a talented and serious actor looking to get out. Both performances are packed with detail and nuance, and these characters really live. It is also worth mentioning the small but pivotal role played by Gwyneth Paltrow, who in a very few scenes brings light to a dark film as Pitt’s wife.
I could ramble on for hours about how great Se7en looks, about the intricate production design, the rain slicked city, Fincher’s shot and editing choices, the moment to moment gritty beauty of it. But I won’t, I’ll simply note that this is where Fincher laid down his obsessively detail oriented style in terms of both visuals and performance, and that every element falls together perfectly to create a truly consistent and enveloping experience.
Se7en is a perfect thriller, and even if you’ve seen it more times than I have, that ending still might make your jaw drop.