Category Archives: Film Reviews

Die Hard (1988)

Attending a screening of Die Hard at Newcastle’s historic Tyneside Cinema has become somewhat of an annual tradition. Monday’s visit provided me with the third attempt since 2015 to relive all the action and splendor of this rather unexpected Hollywood hit on the big screen. And despite originally being released in July 1988 the film has gained a remarkable amount of traction in the intervening years as a Christmas Classic.

Of course, Die Hard strains from the traditional narratives of most action films of its period, and with good reason. The story (if you’re completely unaware) is about New York Policeman John McClane (Bruce Willis). McClane is travelling to Los Angeles to visit his estranged wife Holly, played by Bonnie Bedelia. Arriving on Christmas Eve he finds a work party interrupted by the arrival of terrorists, led by German Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) and quickly decides to tackle the groups intentions and fight back alone.

The casting of the film in itself was an interesting choice, as the studio had little faith in Bruce Willis ability to command the role. Early promotion of the film featured attention towards the action in the plot rather than the star and even Willis has admitted to only truly deciding key facets of McClane’s character mid way through shooting. On the reverse, Holly’s character has a much more prominent involvement than you might expect from the traditional “damsel in distress” and Gruber’s own calm, collected exterior is essentially the narrative of the story.  Without his plan to extort money from the Nakatomi corporation the film has little to no basis. McClane’s estrangement from his wife could be settled in a few minutes as a will he or won’t he.

Credit must also be given to the films use of notable film actors from the era. Paul Gleason,  William Atherton and Robert Davi all perform small but pivotal supporting roles that – added to their performances in Ghostbusters, The Goonies and The Breakfast Club (for example) – make it seem almost like extensions of those characters. The film also strays from the traditional in other areas too, for example, a scene in which McClane and Gruber meet on the roof of the building. It’s unconventional as neither the two should meet until the climax, but was the result of a realization on set that Rickman could do a convincing American accent and so was hastily included.

Seeing the film on the big screen after 30 years also helps us realize mistakes, especially if we’ve watched it a few times before. In one scene where McClane descends a stairwell as sprinklers fight a blaze, a Christmas tree is seen to fall from behind him. Monetarily he checks, unaware as to whether there is a terrorist lurking behind, and you can just make out the silhouetted shadow of the stage hand who pushed it over. Other scenes, such as Ellis’ “negotiation” with Gruber allows us to revisit the traditional – with a deliberate pause on audio as someone pours a can of Coca Cola. How little things change.

The film displays all the qualities of a Hollywood Summer blockbuster but the decision to set it during Christmas (a decision which predated the script, based on the original concept, the 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever) actually places it in a rather unusual demographic. Appealing to those who love the holiday, and those who don’t, it uses Christmas to it’s full advantage in some of the most memorable scenes – including when McClane hides a gun on his back with wrapping tape and when he uses a Santa hat and a yuletide message on a deceased terrorist. But the amount of violence and action resolves to make the message that even those offended by Christmas cheer will have something to enjoy in this one.

The only enigma in the film is that of Sgt Al Powell. The character, who provides John McClane with support and assistance throughout the film, received fourth billing in both this and the films sequel (despite only making a brief cameo in the latter) and the actor who portrayed him appeared in both this, Ghostbusters (as a correctional officer) and Crocodile Dundee – arguably three of the most iconic films of the decade – yet sadly Reginald Vel Johnson never managed the successes of Bruce Willis or Alan Rickman.

At it’s core, Die Hard is the ultimate action film – it contains no end of action and suspense while also fulfilling in dialogue, story, condition and humor. And all you need to do in exchange is survive the mummers in the audience as an attendee recites the classic quote you’re just about to hear just before you hear it. Michael Kamen’s score leads to welcome us to a use of ‘Ode to Joy’ and we’re inclined to agree. Not one to be missed.

Die Hard plays at Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle, on Saturday December 23rd 2017

Mad Max: Fury Road (Black and Chrome, 2017)

“Colour has done as much damage to cinema as television. It is necessary to fight against too much realism in the cinema, otherwise it’s not an art. From the moment that a film is in colour, it’s not cinema any more.”
Francois Truffaut (1978)

When it was first released in May 2015 there was no denying the breath and beauty of George Miller’s latest Mad Max. Although Mel Gibson had since departed, some believing because of his off screen activities and comments, others because Miller himself stated Gibson fell out of love with the idea of a sequel when a deal to make it couldn’t be reached past 2000; there was no argument that the film looked glorious. Set in post apocalyptic Australia, Max is a fighter, his past a deep buried conflict of emotions and you’d be forgiven for thinking the character has gone mad from years of isolation and solitude. The world is a shadow of its former self, indeed even a shadow of the world presented in the 1979 original, renegades and barbarians cross the deserted wasteland in servitude to the last remaining ‘corporate powers’ hoping to find such commodities as blood and machinery.

Captured and sold as a slave, Max encounters female prisoners, held by a tyrannical ruler named only Immortan Joe. Joe controls The Citadel, the last water pumps used to bargain water for trades with ‘Gas Town’ and ‘Bullet Farm’. The wording used is deliberate, an all too subtle nod to the fossil fuels and arms race whose actives are as propellent today as they were when the original movie saw release some 38 years ago. Actor Hugh Keays Byrne returns to torment Hardy’s Max just as he did when playing ‘Toecutter’ to Gibson’s Max in the original film.

This special cinema and Blu Ray re-release some 24 months later is primarily because the picture has been entirely converted to black and chrome, something that creates a unique opportunity to have a revaluation of a modern blockbuster. Like Rod Sterling and Alfred Hitchcock before him, Miller has refused colour as a medium where it is readily available, instead using this tool as a physiological effort on the storyline. Miller has stated that if it were not for the commercial considerations upon the films original release it would most likely have been released solely this format.

While it’s impossible to say exactly what effect this monochrome effect has on modern film precisely, it is a subject I’ve explored before, albeit in reverse. In an article written for now defunct publication Contributoria in April 2015 I interviewed Barry Sandrew, an internationally recognised entrepreneur, digital imaging expert and visual effects pioneer who invented digital colourisation in 1987. At the time Sandrew told me “A director has to have a good artistic reason to use black and white, and that doing so invokes a particular meaning to the project; it is a genre in its own right so not appropriate for all concepts.”

If audiences feel the need to avoid purchasing this film a second time, or even for the first time, then this would be a mistake. The Blu Ray release gives the option of both films to be made available to the viewer and certainly nothing will be missing from your picture if you opt for this newer version. Kevin Shaw is a colourist, with more than 30 years’ experience in the industry. He believes there is some truth in the notion of a stigma towards black and white on film. “There is a feeling that black and white is ‘missing’ colour rather than being seen as an alternative medium,” says Shaw, “and I believe this inclination persists today.”

At its heart Mad Max is a brilliant road movie, an exploration into the need for mutual trust and cooperation and how that relates to survival. It has little dialogue and instead both the picture and the visual cues are what drives the film. There is no overdrawn two handers or explanations and only a handful of scenes work to the traditional expectations. The removal of this colour has (perhaps ironically) given this film new light and a lease of life with audiences that may have previously shunned it. But super or casual fans should still engage and welcome the films return to screens, a unique chance to see a crisp and polished blockbuster in a black and white format bring some colour into our lives.

A double disc Blu Ray edition of Mad Max: Fury Road is released May 15th 2017

Free Fire (2016)

Described as a British action comedy, and set virtually entirely in the claustrophobic conditions of a warehouse; you’d be forgiven for thinking Ben Wheatley’s latest creation was a possible homage to Reservoir Dogs. It was, in fact, this very comparison by a member of the public which led me to see the movie on an idle Wednesday afternoon.

The premise is simple. Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) are in America to buy guns for the IRA. That basic description is about as political as things ever get, though to be historically accurate the seller is South African Vernon (Sharlto Copey) who, although describing himself as British South African, never lets a business transaction be disrupted by helping the Irish Republican Army “win the war”. Things begin to unravel when Vernon brings the wrong guns, with contact Justine (Brie Lawson) serving as the go between, nobody trusts anyone.

All hell breaks loose when Frank’s brother in law Stevo (Sam Reily) recognizes Harry (Jack Raynor) from previous and this serves as a catalyst for conflict. What proceeds is the remaining 70 minutes of a film no longer than 80 (though which seems to take an eternity to get there even at that) in which the characters blindly fire at each other across the room in an attempt to both diffuse the situation and also make it out alive, either with or without the money. Every character, despite some of them being trained terrorists, are really bad shots; they never seem to be able to successfully pick off their targets with ease.

Added to the mix the arrival of Jimmy and Howie, a pair of sharpshooters mysteriously hired to fuddle the deal from both parties, though the confusion remains (until the last frame) about exactly who hired them. Every person in the room has a reason to hire outside help, though none want to admit it, with both men serving to add a further layer of mystery to the feud. 

The soundtrack and effects used are as minimal as the change of setting, with John Denver’s ‘Annie’s Song’ (nostalgically witnessed being played on an 8 Track tape deck) serving as the main backdrop a pivotal scene – in fact, if you were to study the lyrics of the song in question, you might find it has well been chosen sub textually come the end of the movie. 

And that end could not come fast enough, with each character seemingly firing an endless supply of bullets in the wrong direction, quoting utterly pointless rhetoric and being restricted heavily in their movements. Maybe recent Hollywood blockbuster has spoiled us as a cinema going audience, where the expectation of car chases and sexual violence means a film like this – which offers neither – is too simplistic and beautiful to be respected.  But I don’t believe this is the case, as I mentioned at the beginning of this review, Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (original or not it may be) has achieved somewhat legendary status for a story line using a lot of the same plot devices and settings.

In Wheatley’s case he has given us a simple plot, a few mysteries to solve and undoubtedly a brilliant cast of faces – but that still doesn’t mean the film doesn’t “trigger” (see what I did there?) the desired reaction in the mind of this reviewer. Those faces fail to sparkle and shine as they’ve done in other roles, the settings lend atmosphere but you almost don’t care who lives or dies, the only thing you really want someone to do is to learn to fire a gun. Properly.

A total misfire. 

Graduation (2016)

Graduation is a film layered in themes. On the one hand, it presents a story of Romanian corruption, one in which Romeo (Adrian Titieni) is prepared to go to any length in order that his daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus) might pass her final exams and achieve good grades. His efforts are noble, particularly because Eliza has recently suffered a recent sexual assault and injured her hand, making it virtually impossible for her to perform – both physically and mentally – at the best of her ability during exam conditions. But its also selfish, because Romeo and his wife are estranged, so he has taken a lover; convinced he has failed in the revolutionary ways of his past and seeing Eliza’s success and subsequent scholarship in the UK as the only way for her to achieve any future success.

There is also the theme of parental responsibility. Where does Romeo’s responsibility end and Eliza’s own responsibility begin, who is gaining the most out of this situation and why does Eliza seem aware yet blissfully ignorant of her parents deceptions? At a crucial scene in this movie we see the character turn up at the house of her fathers lover, Sandra, expectant that this is where her father would be. Eliza has been keeping this secret, so she believes, from her own mother – yet when Romeo approaches his wife to discuss the situation it becomes clear that both parties were aware of the adultery and their mask was worn for the benefit of their daughter. Their parental responsibility, much like Romeo’s own actions, have become corrupted in their attempts to “do the right thing”, especially by their daughter.

Romeo’s wife, obviously suffering from some form of mental health problems, remains untreated and unresponsive to her husbands concerns. They live together for their daughters sake and not much besides, perhaps seeing her departure for the UK as a chance to finally break free of him completely. Once young revolutionaries, who fled their Communist country and returned when dictatorship fell to make a difference, their only real achievement is that of their daughter – their lives failing to make the impact, socially or politically, upon their country. Here we see another theme, that of misspent youth, primarily the inexperience of youth and the regret of middle age clashing violently. Sandra tells the young child in her care, a boy named Miguel, to take off the mask when he appears in the garden – perhaps a metaphor that he is the only character who isn’t wearing one.

As the film opens, we see a character (we never know who) digging a hole, another metaphor perhaps for the situations to come.  Stones are thrown against windows, car doors are broken and wind screen wipers are shifted; every time Romeo takes a moment to address these situations we never actually know who is doing this – perhaps believing it to be Miguel towards the films end, somehow punishing Romeo for Sandra’s fixations and worries being “the other woman”. It is this interpretation that we take away as an audience which itself lends to the multi layered exploits of the film. Romeo continues to do a favor which leads to a favor, we’re never sure who is telling us the truth or what they expect the characters to believe, and we’re never sure where it will end – who will succeed and who will fail. 

Unlike director Cristian Mungiu’s previous efforts, including the astonishing 2008 film ‘4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days’ there is a sense of themes being reused here, but in a different format to what’s expected, bold moves taken. In fact, most of the crucial moments take place away from the scene, with a handheld camera focusing on something else entirely as voices direct the state of play. Romeo’s phone seems to be constantly ringing, whether it’s his patients, his mother, his daughter or his friends in the police. Characters comment that he never picks up, indications that his disenfranchised personality is bleeding into his work, yet he also remarked as the doctor who refuses to take kick backs, works for the benefit of his patients and is an honest man. What semblance of honesty he has managed to hold onto before the movie begins is slowly leaving his side, yet it’s remarkable that he has managed to treat so many patients with dignity, pride and care; yet remains so unfilled that he couldn’t fix his marriage or his country.

In the end Graduation leaves us wondering exactly who, if anyone, came out on top. What does this corruption gain, did it ever succeed and have the Romanian people managed to shake the habits learned from decades of dictatorship? It’s a bleak film, to be sure, but one which presents a thin optimism and a compelling story that make it a must see. With recent developments in the United Kingdom, especially those surrounding Article 51 and Brexit, this film presents the United Kingdom as a wonderful, far off land of happiness and wealth – believing a young Romanian immigrant would find education, employment and prosperity within its shores. This is perhaps the biggest mask present in the entire film.

Ghost In The Shell (2017)

I’ll be completely honest, I don’t care for Scarlett Johansson. Already I can feel the hatred rising and those who are turning away from my review. But the fact remains that Ms Johansson has never really succeeded in capturing me, either because of a flat script (like ‘Lucy’) or in an over saturated role (like ‘Black Widow’).  There are those, quite rightly, who will argue that an actor can’t be solely blamed for a films success or lackluster plot – and so I’m probably doing Ms Johansson a disservice in this regard, but for me, her “it” girl status in motion pictures through the last few years has meant that her own over saturation upon my cinema screen has become somewhat of an annoyance.

What it raises is somewhat of an interesting question, as there is hardly a scene in this film that does not feature or completely revolve around the actions of Johansson’s character, Major, a special forces operative who is the first human android hybrid of her kind. On deaths door from a fatal accident, perhaps showing where Robocop took it’s inspiration, Major is transformed to work for Section 6; the Department of Defense’ “black project” against terrorism in a futuristic Japan. Since the story, plot and mission of the film revolve solely around one characters story, could I make a distinction between an actor I didn’t particularly like and the film as a whole?

The answer is an emphatic yes, as Johansson never once feels like she is stealing a scene, just letting the story guide her on a journey with the audience. Her casting choice is a little unusual, however, as it does pose questions to why a westernized white woman has been chosen over an Asian actress to portray the role, but these doubts are quickly eradicated, since you’re left feeling that it was the cultural influence of the doctors and CEO’s who funded her revival. I feel fans of the original comic will draw a collective sigh of relief, as this film has been vehemently faithful to its original inspiration, voice actors from anime returning to perform minor roles and even the delicate use of the discussion of a ‘Ghost’ – which raises theologically questions inherently Asian in origin, though perhaps best left for another type of film. Respect for the ‘Ghost’ is a real selling point of reliability.

The fact is that Jamie Moss screenplay has adapted the original comic story from the inks of anime to the Hollywood boulevard, evoking scenes of a gloomy Los Angeles 2019 Blade Runner scenario, yet retaining that unmistakable Asian edge. Flying cars removed, the technological advancements of this futuristic world have yet to remove the charm and beauty of Japan, with such shots as the cities harbor reminding us just how close this future could be. There is an over use of digital imagery, but in the areas you’d expect them, such as medical equipment and advertisements; whereas other scenes see streets (such as that of the ‘Lawless Zone’) decaying beyond their former glories, but very much retaining that 21st century look.

Dialogue moves swiftly, and ultimately plays little part, other than to satisfy the questions of “who, what, when and where” – rather this is a film to be seen for the feel – the sweeping cameras across rooftops, the rain beating upon the tarmac floor and the crowded and claustrophobic conditions of street level. It’s also refreshing to see the use of established actors such as Chin Han (who plays Lau in 2008’s Dark Knight) and Michael Wincott in supporting roles, though the latter performance is reduced to an unaccredited cameo.  Despite the star status of the lead, there was some thought given to supporting cast, with special mention to Takeshi Kitano for his outstanding revolver technique at this point.

As we drive towards the end of our film it does seem all too well rounded, with little in the way of unexpected revelation, that being kept extremely faithful to the original version and also giving first time viewers something that they don’t have to be anime fans to enjoy. In fact, it might surprise one or two viewers afterwards that it actually was sourced from this field. There’s also no sexually suggestive undertones in the film, something which definitely finds itself in manga and anime, but which would only serve to over complicate the family friendly 12A rating of this outing. I never believed that Scarlett Johansson wearing no clothes and delivering action in full frontal view of the camera could actually be so non sexual and family friendly.

Ghost In The Shell delivers a simple story with a beginning, middle and an ending. There are revelations, remissions and remorse and by the end we’re all a little more entertained, excited and enthused. A cinema audience can’t ask for more, new overseers will find an entertaining film which doesn’t require anything in the way of separate introduction to the franchise and original fans of the series will be pleased they’ve made the effort.