It feels like there are two distinct films within this relatively big-budget Chilean/Colombian co-production, based on the real-life mining disaster at Copiapó in 2010 in which 33 miners were trapped underground. One is a film of excellent cinematography in underground chambers, of fine acting by the ensemble cast, depicting the lives of ordinary people in an extraordinary situation. It does a really good job, in particular, of capturing these men’s weary lined faces as they assess their chances, and of their families above ground (mostly wives and children) hoping and praying for their survival. That’s a good film.
And then there’s the film as it’s scripted, replete with disaster clichés, spoken in heavily-accented English, and — perhaps suggesting some of the commercial focus of the filmmakers — even setting up a triumphal US involvement towards the end (though thankfully backing off from giving too great a value to that). This is the film in which the engineer played by Gabriel Byrne (of all people; mostly the cast are Latino) points at a 3D rendering of the mine overlaid with a graphic of the Empire State Building (two of them in fact) to represent the size of the obstacle. This film is not nearly as successful. People shake their heads (Byrne again) and say “we need to face the TRUTH dammit” while others (the Minister of Mining, played by Rodrigo Santoro) say “No I believe en mi corazón that they’re still alive, and now let me go listen to a touching old woman’s song” (yes, I’m paraphrasing obviously, but not much).
On balance, I think the good film wins out in the end, but only just. It’s beautifully filmed, and the tension is solidly crafted — it would be all but unbearable if we didn’t know the real-life outcome. Perhaps on reflection, it’s the cast speaking in English I object to the most, but there’s still plenty to like, and Banderas is a dependable linchpin for the unfolding drama.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Director Patricia Riggen | Writers Mikko Alanne, Craig Borten and Michael Thomas (based on the book Deep Down Dark by Héctor Tobar) | Cinematographer Checco Varese | Starring Antonio Banderas, Lou Diamond Phillips, Rodrigo Santoro, Juliette Binoche, Gabriel Byrne | Length 127 minutes || Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Tuesday 2 February 2016
If my eyes were raised at the inclusion in Criterion’s august collection of the respective pairs of John Woo’s Hong Kong gangster films or Paul Morrissey’s 70s Euro-horror exploitation flicks, then this blockbusting Michael Bay action film is surely the most idiosyncratic choice yet. It’s not that a case can’t be made for it: the liner notes set out an adulatory essay on the film’s claim to greatness, while reading the comments on Criterion’s own page for the film suggest that there’s value in its inclusion just as a gesture of épater le bourgeois (cinéaste). I might add that it does, after all, exemplify a certain trend in Hollywood filmmaking, of which Michael Bay is surely the auteurist hero — the tradition of bigger, louder, stupider explosiveness on all counts. This doesn’t make it a good film, though. It’s not even the pummelling sound design and frenetic editing which do it in, but the utterly predictable character arcs — gung-ho and grizzled miner Harry (Bruce Willis) assembles a team to save the world from an asteroid collision, in the process accepting the feckless A.J. (Ben Affleck) as a suitable husband for his equally gung-ho daughter Grace (Liv Tyler) — all of which are punctuated by the most perfunctorily saccharine music cues. It’s not that I hate the film — though the characterisation of Steve Buscemi as a ladies’ man, while surely intended as comic, just seems gratuitous — it’s that I find it on the whole rather boring and forgettable. In the end, you’d be best advised to save yourself the two and a half hours, and instead just watch the Aerosmith music video, which distills it down to around three minutes without sacrificing any of the drama.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Michael Bay | Writers Jonathan Hensleigh and J.J. Abrams | Cinematographer John Schwartzman | Starring Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, Billy Bob Thornton, Steve Buscemi | Length 153 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 21 June 2015
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Seen at Genesis, London, Tuesday 13 January 2015
This is a curious little film to get distribution over in the UK, half a world away from where it was made, as a New Zealand television documentary about an air crash that took place in Antarctica in 1979. Still, true-life stories of people operating in extremis are always fascinating, and this particular take is a well-mounted blend of talking head documentary testimony along with dramatic re-enactments which move the story along at a fair clip (the two directors attached to the film being responsible for the two different strands). The film’s chief setting is on the icy lower slopes of Mount Erebus in Antarctica, the site of what is still the deadliest disaster in the country’s aviation history, where a team of police detectives were dispatched to coordinate the body retrieval as “Operation Overdue”. This is the story the documentary is most interested in, this small group of guys, almost to a man entirely unfamiliar with mountaineering or icy conditions, required to do the grisly task of clean-up, and the dramatic recreations are keen to try and convey a sense of what this would have been like. The other story taking place in the background (one largely set in a series of glumly-decorated 1970s offices), is the inquiry into the reasons for the crash, which heavily implicated poor management within Air New Zealand, and led not just to management changes but also the colourful phrase “an orchestrated litany of lies” (which gained much traction in NZ popular culture thereafter). Still, whatever conspiratorial boardroom politics the film occasionally suggests, the focus remains squarely on the police officers and their own story. It’s a documentary that will interest those intrigued by stories of real-life tragedy, but it remains one probably best suited to the small screen.
CREDITS || Directors Charlotte Purdy and Peter Burger | Cinematographer DJ Stipsen | Length 68 minutes
Watching the Criterion Collection in order doesn’t take long to throw up oddities, and I can’t help but feel the influence of a certain more recent Titanic-based drama on the re-release of this older version of the same events. And yet, for all the grubbiness of Criterion’s cash-in timing, there’s a lot to recommend the 1958 “original”, not least its beautifully-toned monochrome lensing, and unflashy way with its ensemble cast. With all the drama of the original events, director Roy Ward Baker and writer Eric Ambler don’t feel the need to add a spurious upstairs-downstairs romance or creaky moustache-twirling melodrama. Of course, there’s still class-based antagonism, as the steerage passengers are more-or-less locked in while the rich folk depart on the life boats — judgement on which is conveyed only subtly. However, overall this is from a far more genteel school of English filmmaking (think Brief Encounter), with all your favourite pip-pip what-ho Downton-style affectations manifested in that stiff-upper-lip stoicism in the face of certain death, which has its own affecting emotional depth, even as we don’t really get much in the way of individual passenger stories. The hero, if there is one, is the Second Officer (Kenneth More), who more or less takes charge as the tragedy unfolds.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Roy Ward Baker [as “Roy Baker”] | Writer Eric Ambler (based on the non-fiction book by Walter Lord) | Cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth | Starring Kenneth More | Length 123 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 9 November 2014
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Saturday 17 May 2014 [2D] || My Rating good
Remaking and reimagining the Japanese creature feature Gojira (1954) seems to be a periodic interest of filmmakers, especially those in massively capitalised industries like Hollywood. Therefore, it’s a bold choice to choose as director Gareth Edwards, whose previous credit was a low-budget feature, Monsters (2010), renowned for its relative paucity of monsters and featuring his own self-made special effects. If this, then, is a big step up for him in terms of budget and impact, Edwards and his writer have also been quite canny in the way the film introduces its titular monster, whose existence is only hinted at for the first half of the running time.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Sunday 13 April 2014 || My Rating good
I must confess I’ve never been much of a fan of Darren Aronofsky, though as it happens I’ve seen a good number of his feature films starting with his debut Pi (1998). If I think, then, that this latest — a biblical epic about the eponymous ark-building character — is his best work, then that probably shouldn’t be taken as a rave review, but still it has enough going for it that it might just scrape through to being a film that I can genuinely recommend at some level, rather than being a masochistic exercise in cinematic punishment (hi, Requiem for a Dream).
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director Alfonso Cuarón | Writers Alfonso Cuarón and Jonás Cuarón | Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki | Starring Sandra Bullock, George Clooney | Length 90 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Enfield (IMAX 3D), London, Monday 18 November 2013 || My Rating very good
I can’t help but wonder if I’m maybe going through a bit of a fallow period with my film writing. There’s only so many reviews you can bang out in a week (and I’ve been posting every weekday for the last few months, pretty much) without it all feeling a bit same-y. Perhaps I’m unenthused by what’s on offer at the cinemas right now, or maybe it’s just an autumnal thing of feeling like getting out and doing more exercise. In any case, when I think about Gravity — and more specifically, when I think about all the hype around it, about all the reviews of it that I’ve read over the last couple of months (for it was on release around the rest of the world before it came to the UK) — I don’t really feel I have a whole lot new to add. Which isn’t to say I didn’t like it: that might actually be a new angle on it. No, it was great in several respects. You’ve probably seen it, and you may well agree. If you haven’t, it’s a disaster movie set in space and it focuses on two astronauts, Ryan (Sandra Bullock) and Matt (George Clooney).