Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)

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Mission Impossible - Ghost-ProtocolThe words Tom Cruise and action blockbuster in the same sentence have long ceased to carry any significance with fare like “Knight and Day” failing to ignite any spark. The “Mission: Impossible” franchise may be the last bastion for the one-time poster-boy though many might argue that it too has passed its use-by date, particularly after the rather slow third entry directed by J.J. Abrams. Nevertheless, Hollywood will never say die to a cash cow and significantly, this fourth film marks the live-action debut of “The Incredibles” helmsman Brad Bird. After all the Pixar movie was a rip-roaring ride of a spy-film tribute, often more accomplished than its inspiration. If Bird could carry this style over from animation, the potential for a very dynamic and entertaining action flick would be strong indeed.

While continuing a broad story arc over the series, number four can safely stand as an independent plot. After a thrilling prison break, Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his team of IMF agents set about infiltrating the Kremlin but are foiled by a terrorist plot that would see nuclear war end civilisation. As a result, the U.S. government initiates the “Ghost Protocol” that sees the entire intelligence agency disbanded. Aided by agent Jane (Paula Patton), technician Benji (Simon Pegg) and analyst-with-a-past Brandt (Jeremy Renner), acting against orders, Hunt travels to Dubai to retrieve the stolen nuclear codes and save the world once more. Striking is the lightness in tone that Bird adopts from the off, casting Simon Pegg purely as a device for comic relief where both action sequences and respite have their tongue firmly in cheek. And although the film rarely returns to the all-out hilarity of the pre-credits sequence, the Bondian atmosphere is secured for the following two hours: break-neck chases, exotic locales (Mumbai in addition to Moscow and the Emirates) and more cool gadgets than you could shake a Q at. In other words the best ingredients for the best “Mission: Impossible” spirit are correct and present with Bird keeping a cool handle on things and Cruise more than able to hold his own while approaching 50.

And yet, “Ghost Protocol” never quite clicks with the viewer. With the emphasis placed so much on fun, what little plot there is is never given the opportunity to breathe. The imminent threat of an atomic apocalypse seems distant even when a missile is hurtling towards Los Angeles. The villains and their motives are horribly two-dimensional but then, they simply aren’t given any screen time; they exist only on the film’s peripheries which is a bit of a waste considering the presence of actors like Michael Nyqvist or Léa Seydoux. And while jaw-dropping hijinks atop the Burj-Khalifa (that’s the world’s tallest building to you) really are amazingly put together, the disregard for interesting plot and characters are the film’s downfall. Jeremy Renner in particular is in desperate need of fleshing out, ultimately has very little to work with and come the post-climatic scenes, seems extraordinarily throwaway. Whether anyone will care about things like this is doubtful but even the hyperbolic action becomes tired and predictable after a while: Cruise is hit by cars on several occasions and miraculously escapes unharmed for example. Realism surely isn’t the goal here but it’s also possible to over-egg in certain situations. Naturally, this almost slapstick aspect was much better suited to “The Incredibles.”

Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol OSTMichael Giacchino’s score to the third chapter was characterised by ballsy action music that lacked thematic development, save the odd statement of Lalo Schifrin’s classic theme. The composer’s approach to “Ghost Protocol” continues in this muscular, percussive and brass-driven vein with one important difference: Due to the location-hopping, Giacchino is able to provide each third of the film it’s own unique identity in all their stereotypical glory: Male choirs reminiscent of Basil Poledouris define Russia while appropriate ethnic flavours are added for Dubai and India. And while not much is done to connect the separate identities, there are enough explorations of the famous theme tune to act as binding material for Ethan Hunt and his team. It’s exciting stuff reflected on an album characterised by Ghiacchino’s obsession with horrible cue-name puns such as “Kremlin with Anticipation” or “Mumbai’s the Word.” Make of these what you will but there’s no denying the entertainment value of the score in its lengthy presentation. Not as heartfelt as “Super 8” perhaps but one for the action nuts.

Entertaining sure, but very little substance behind it. It’s refreshing to sit back and lose oneself in the ridiculous world of “Mission:Impossible – Ghost Protocol” but if only Bird could have combined plot and wit with the action more fluidly, this could have rivalled De Palma.

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Sherlock Holmes (2009)

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Sherlock HolmesIt’s been a long time since Guy Ritchie served up a proper hit: The box office reception of his last film “RockNRolla” was less than lukewarm despite many positive reviews and could never match his success with “Snatch” almost a decade earlier. Whether as an attempted remedy or not, “Sherlock Holmes” marks Ritchie’s first true departure from the gangster flick (let’s discount “Swept Away” shall we?) he perfected. Well, not entirely. After all the underworld of Arthur Conan-Doyle’s London was every bit as grim and dangerous as that of “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and the cocaine-injecting Holmes of the novels has something bizarrely parallel to something Ritchie might concoct himself. Drug use is only and barely implied on screen however (this being a PG-13 rating after all) but the new Sherlock Holmes is every bit if not more eccentric than fans might expect.

It is 1891 and something mysterious is brewing in the British capital as the villainous sorcerer Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) is seen rise from the grave and soon schemes to take control of the empire itself. With the police helpless, enter Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and his somewhat reluctant companion Dr. Watson (Jude Law) to try and stop Blackwood before it’s too late. Meanwhile the appearance of dashing crook and Holmes’ old flame Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) with her own agenda threatens to derail the detective further. Robert Downey Jr., in a role that actually suits his acting persona plays Holmes as an utterly (or at least seemingly) catatonic mess; mind racing, keenly observing yet highly frustrating to those around him. As he can speedily predict a bare-knuckle fist fight unfolding, so is he grossly unhygienic and performs medical or “scientific” experiments on himself and his bulldog. Many of these apparent contradictions come across in a manner not dissimilar from Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow – essentially far cleverer than he appears. Watson is the foil of course, Jude Law doing an excellent job of “playing him straight” against Holmes’ schizophrenic strains and ultimately it is their on-screen sparring that becomes Ritchie’s biggest attraction and is genuinely fun to watch.

Which is very necessary because the coils of a rather shallow mystery plot are soon to unwind as Ritchie switches to all out action mode in the second and last third. These sequences are once again good fun (especially a slaughterhouse with added kaboom) and stylishly caught through Ritchie’s lens but come up short on sustaining viewer interest. The final showdown atop a half-completed Tower Bridge seems particularly underwhelming. even though the plot takes one more turn for the better. There are more problems besides: Rachel McAdams’ character is hardly developed at all and it seems one of her key scenes (seen in the trailer) ended up on the cutting room floor. Furthermore, shots of auld-London (again the bridge) make little effort to hide their digital inception and for whatever reason are all rendered in very soft light, thus highly jarring against Ritchie’s sharp live-action work and the fantastic art direction. Thus while “Sherlock Holmes” is an entertaining view, it abandons many elements of the traditional tales and has hardly anything to substitute leaving it without any real spark to ignite it.

Sherlock Holmes OSTRounding out a good year for Hans Zimmer was the rather surprising Oscar nomination for “Sherlock Holmes.” And while the recognition should really have gone to his “Angels & Demons” score, the German maestro clearly had a lot of fun creating the musical sound for the film. Collaborating this time with Lorne Balfe, their score is an eclectic collection of odd sounds, headed by a fun theme that runs into a mad endless loop like Holmes’ mind itself. Guitar, cimbalon, banjo, honky-tonk piano and of course the violin are all used (or abused) in creative ways, incorporating both Irish traditional and gypsy characteristics that make this perhaps the strangest score of Zimmer’s life. The highlight is the monster cue “Psychological Recovery… 6 Months” in which all the action and thematic ideas of the score are explored thoroughly including a mutilation of the Big Ben chime tune. Sadly some work contributed by “The Chieftains” never made it onto the album despite contributing a huge amount to the tone of the film. But still, a strong effort from Zimmer all around.

Downey Jr. and Law make for a great duo but Richie doesn’t quite have tight control over the film’s entirety. The inevitable sequel (already set up by this film) is on the way and there’s a real chance that some of the many good ingredients might gel more easily next time out.

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Cloverfield (2008)

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CloverfieldAfter its early post-teaser-trailer hype and no doubt to the great satisfaction of producer J.J. Abrams, “Cloverfield” was filmed in complete secrecy. Thus what began as a low budget horror and monster-movie turned into an international smash-hit that proves once again how possible it is to make money without financial clout or big star names attached. The concept is as simple as it is terrifying in our media-saturated age of citizen-journalism, on the spot as news breaks: Think of “The Blair Witch Project” relocated to the big apple and crossed with “Godzilla.” Whether or not the film is a mashup of previously existing documentary and monster conventions is a valid question and debatable but the attraction of “Cloverfield” will be its execution and its fresh if not unique style.

The film is presented as a home-movie, initially to record testimonials at a going-away party in Manhattan, complete with grainy and shaky footage as well as the obligatory running commentary by the operator. The party is abruptly interrupted by a huge explosion in the lower city and (in a great “Escape From New York” tribute) the Statue of Liberty’s head flung down on of the avenues. As the tagline taunts – something has found us. And whatever that something is, it’s pretty angry. In the ensuing panic five friends, played by Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas, T.J. Miller (as the cameraman), Michael Stahl-David and Mike Vogel stick together to try and rescue an injured friend across New York, filming as they go. It’s a harrowing experience for the viewer as well as the characters as they dodge between explosions, an evacuation, the home guard and the something itself. Director Matt Reeves and screenwriter Drew Goddard mercilessly (yet, one feels gleefully) exposing us to horror after horror and teasing with as little background as possible (the addition of CGI is prominent yet not intrusive, a welcome feature) to root the film in a sort of bizarre reality most films can never get close to.

Amidst the non-stop action and truly terrifying suspense there’s little room for respite, just enough to catch a breath with some trivial but nevertheless touching footage of what was previously recorded on the tape. The impact and importance of the human story of “Cloverfield” cannot be understated and as is so often the case with sci-fi or fantasy, it can accurately reflect struggle and suffering in a disaster zone without becoming laden with sentimentality. Reeves never allows the story to descend into simple bravado action and even his shaky first-person view seems to enhance the experience on a level that goes beyond mere effect or technique to suggest insecurity. In these moments, it’s place in the the horror genre comes into its own and leaves even the toughest viewer shaken. So much so in fact that on release some theatres displayed a notice, warning of side- or after-effects similar to sea-sickness. If that isn’t convincing enough for you, you’ll just have to see it for yourself.

Cloverfield OSTOfficially, “Cloverfield” contains no original score. To aid its docu-style, this feels natural but it didn’t prevent Abrams from asking regular collaborator Michael Giacchino to compose a suite of music for the end credits. The result, “Roar!” otherwise known as the “Cloverfield Overture” has to be one of the most bombastic single cues on film in a long, long time, featuring a full orchestra, bolstered low brass and some very haunting female vocals over the top. Giacchino provides us with twelve minutes of a glorious and very memorable over-the-top action-romp and as such it’s a shame that the idea couldn’t be explored over an entire film. While it pays significant tribute to Akira Ifukube (the Japanese “Godzilla” composer), the piece is littered with Giacchinoisms, a style that would find further exploration in his score to “Super 8” three years later. The piece is only available for digital download but considering the price, every film-score enthusiast should have this in their collection.

While the idea behind it may not be very new, “Cloverfield” is among the best hand-held camera films out there and makes for thoroughly gripping viewing throughout. If you’re looking for some mind-numbing thrills and are prepared to suffer some nightmares afterwards, J.J. Abrams has created the perfect film just for you. See it if you can.

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Super 8 (2011)

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Super 8Though J.J. Abrams has long been a darling of many looking for a possible successor to Spielberg at the top of the Hollywood brat-club, his directorial success has been almost exclusively limited to TV pilots. As his re-imagining of the “Star Trek” franchise proved however, he is an artist with considerable potential and how better to earn your spurs than with an homage to your childhood hero and the great director himself? Kept under wraps to heighten anticipation, the look and feel of “Super 8” is quick to betray Abrams’  inspirations: the film is firmly rooted in his childhood and the Spielberg, Lucas and Zemeckis films of the late 70s and early 80s. So specific is the zeitgeist of the era that it is easy to remark that “they simply don’t make movies like this anymore.” The setting is vital indeed but Abrams and Spielberg (acting as executive producer, giving us the first Amblin film in years) are on the best road to prove us wrong.

Making a zombie movie during the summer holidays on their super 8 camera, a group of tweens unwittingly become witness to a terrible train accident. It soon becomes clear that this was anything but a regular train as mysterious events begin to grip their town of Lillian: Army personnel roll in to gather evidence, dogs and then people disappear and power goes out again and again. What was contained in those freight carriages and what evidence might be contained on that reel of film that captured the immediate aftermath of the accident? The kids begin to hunt for the truth as the gripping tale begins to unfold. Abrams’ casting is key and with mostly unknowns it seems he’s hit the jackpot for every single role. The focus is on Joel Courtney’s Joe and his developing relationship with Alice (Elle Fanning), both struggling with difficult family situations and together they provide the heart of the film. Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, Gabriel Basso and Zack Mills make up the rest of the crew, adding a “Goonies” touch but providing much more than comic relief. Despite some typical Hollywood sensibilities, they are all entirely convincing throughout – their performances simply feel natural and we may well be watching the stars of the future (Elle Fanning is almost there already anyway). The adults, including Kyle Chandler who creates great dynamic with Courtney, rightly step into the background. Abrams wasn’t going to let anyone steal the kids’ show and their story is wholly involving.

The production design and keen cinematography (by Snyder regular Larry Fong) will immediately evoke nostalgia within those that grew up at that time but the film creates a great world for every viewer to feel into. Abrams’ direction is led by a sort of pure escapism that makes one yearn for those days of teenage freedom summer adventures despite the fact that onscreen events are anything but carefree. Indeed, many elements of “Super 8” far remove from kids-film territory, providing thrills, jumps and horror galore that will have you leaping out of your seat at several instances. And this is where eventually the film’s weaknesses do appear, namely when the plot requires the nameless terror to be revealed. At this point, Abrams can’t settle between homages to the likes of “E.T.” and “Close Encounters” or building up elements inspired by his production baby “Cloverfield.” Settling on all-out action sadly leaves the last 30 minutes devoid of the glorious filmmaking that defined the first 90 and robs the film of the highest possible rating. The film thus meanders into predictability and genre generics when it could really have been something outstanding. Thus the denouement is somewhat underwhelming and while this leaves a bit of a sour aftertaste as the credits finish up, nobody can complain of not having been entertained sufficiently in the initial two acts.

Super 8 OSTAfter his Oscar win for “Up” two years ago, Michael Giacchino’s output has been somewhat lessened and his effort for “Super 8” is a very welcome return to form for the composer. Significantly, this score provides him the opportunity to meld a beautiful, heart felt theme for the children with his very robust action style that he perfected for Abrams’s films. The child identity that plays mainly to Joe and Alice is heard at the outset of the album and is a very fitting and memorable theme. Sweeping strings are dominant in many passages and as always with Giacchino there’s a hint of John Williams though that of course is a nice play on the maestro’s scores for Spielberg. Secondary themes are explored in “Aftermath Class” and action explodes on the album’s latter half in tracks like “The Siege of Lillian” where significant inspiration from the Cloverfield Overture are to be heard. Even though some tracks are on the short side, there’s a generous amount of score on the album and makes for an excellent listen both beside the pictures and divorced from them. Both fans of the composer and casual collectors will find much to enjoy here.

Reminiscences to Spielberg’s own works mean the film carries the heavy burden of comparison to some real masterpieces one it can’t quite overcome. “Super 8” is very well worth seeing even though it ultimately falls short of the highest order. They really don’t make films like this anymore but J.J. Abrams is an honourable exception to that rule of thumb.

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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 (2011)

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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2To talk about the end of an era is probably an understatement. The extent to which J.K. Rowling’s books and their subsequent adaptions for the silver screen have impacted teenage culture is a phenomenon quite beyond compare. For the countless fans who have grown up with their beloved characters, this final half of a chapter marks the end of a decade of midnight queueing, hopes, fears and expectations as all the emotional ballast of seven predecessors sets down on Part 2’s shoulders. For those loyally devoted and indeed for the filmmakers and our trio of protagonists it will be a bittersweet ending as they come to terms with the fact that it really does all end here as the teaser posters touted. To live up to such hype is no easy task for any filmmaker but as before, director David Yates and his crew of muggles have diligently captured the magic of the series that only the books themselves can top.

After the rather slowly paced “Part 1,” this hits the ground running and very rarely lets up throughout as out hero and his friends hunt for the final horcruxes and do battle with the dark lord and his minions. After a dangerous journey to the high-security wizard bank Gringotts, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) make it to Hogwarts. Their presence cannot go unnoticed however and soon You Know Who (Ralph Fiennes) and Co are on their way to attack the castle and settle things once and for all. There follows a desperate race against time as all the remaining wizards try to keep the forces of evil at bay while trying to find and destroy those bits of Voldemort’s soul with which he cannot be truly killed. It’s an action-spectacle of the highest order, that maintains a breakneck pace and almost non-stop carnage. And heavy stuff it is too: Hogwarts is being blasted to rubble, the Quidditch pitch burns, so much that we and the characters have come to love is under serious threat here. With such few moments of respite, the racing story draws on the viewer as each and every character reaches his or her own personal climax within the sprawling and incredibly dense plot.

Yates and Steve Kloves’ screenplay manage to walk that fine line of balancing very moving and personal moments amidst the action and this will ultimately prove the real payoff for fans. With such an enormous supporting cast that includes Maggie Smith (sorely missed in previous episodes), Michael Gambon, Robbie Coltrane, John Hurt, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Emma Thompson, David Thewlis and so many more besides, it’s good news that room has been found and the need for closure recognised even for minor characters. Matthew Lewis as Neville and Evanna Lynch as Luna too, both long regarded as some of the finer casting choices among the “child” actors, get to shine in their roles. Perhaps most satisfying of all is the detour that’s taken (at a climatic point nonetheless) to finally reveal the motivation behind Alan Rickman’s shady and complicated Snape. It’s a very fitting send-off and it’s worth seeing the film purely for this as it perfectly embodies the sense of magic, wonder and drama present in the books as a whole. Meanwhile, Daniel Radcliffe manages to hold it all together even though his personal tale threatens to be overshadowed by the sheer scale of things. Hie performance is perfectly judged and never gives in to sentimentality. A few tears may well flow.

The film is not perfect by any means though the few flaws are much more easily forgivable that in the previous film. For instance, intimate knowledge of the plot is a prerequisite and non-fans will have their work cut out for them in trying to follow who, what and when. Despite being only half a book, Rowling has so much ground to cover that incredulously the film seems rushed at times. The lengthy battle between Harry and Voldemort is a prime suspect here, one that could have been more cleverly devised and could have peeled the villain’s “pure evil” aspect back to reveal his insecurity and motives for being evil in the first place. Furthermore, Yates is unsure as how to handle the resolution of the present-day story, first needing to explain an important plot point gets in the way of what it all means for the protagonists’ journeys. Were it not for the excellent epilogue, the emotional climax could even have been described as underwhelming. However, fans can be forgiven for passing over these minor detriments and in reality, they do not hurt the film in any great capacity.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2 OSTAlso returning for this final chapter is French composer Alexandre Desplat. His score for “Part 1” was polarising, some fans praising his orchestral diversity and style while others bemoaned his failure to establish a musical coherency for the franchise as a whole. His music for “Part 2” lives in a similar situation with very solid action music and reprisal of his own themes from the first part. These aspects are presented on the soundtrack album but in the film go somewhat unnoticed. This is because in several key scenes, by choice of either Desplat or the filmmakers, music by John Williams (and at one point Nicholas Hooper) composed for the first two films is simply inserted by copy and paste. The reasoning for this is debatable but the suspicion arises that Desplat’s score, while full of finesse, could not pack the emotional punch Yates was looking for and the album presentation of new music would support that argument. Unfortunately for Desplat, Williams’ music is far superior and as viewers leave the theatre “Hedwig’s Theme” is what they will remember. It’s disappointing that Desplat could not incorporate the existing themes with his own and make for a rounded and ultimately more satisfying listening experience. As it stands, the album is very enjoyable but hearing it in the film makes us nostalgic for what could have been if the great maestro John Williams had returned to score the final chapter.

“Deathly Hallows” 2.0 is everything the fan-base could have hoped for, delivering a worthy conclusion to one of the decade’s most defining franchises. Sadly, it is the end of an era and it’s time to say good bye.

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King Kong (2005)

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King KongHow do you go about trying to top the greatest film of your career? Never mind that said film only won 11 Oscars, made over $1 billion worldwide and is already considered one of the masterpieces of cinema. And yet after taking the world by storm, Peter Jackson turned to revive a failed project from his pre-“Lord of the Rings,” namely a remake of the film that he had seen at the age of nine and that inspired him to make movies in the first place. The 1933 version of “King Kong” starring Fay Wray was revolutionary in its own right, completely changed the face of cinema’s visual effects and offers one of the most iconic scenes ever committed to film. A rather faithful tribute to that classic escapist adventure, Jackson’s take bloats the tale to epic levels, constantly pushing the envelope of digital technology and recreating the world’s favourite 25-foot gorilla and the world he inhabits one pixel at a time.

At the height of the great depression, megalomaniac movie director Carl Denham (Jack Black) charts an expedition to an uncharted and deserted island to film an adventure romp. Chased out of New York by the studio executives and the police, Denham and his mismatched crew chart course for Skull Island, this last blank space on the map on a rusty old ship named the “Venture”. Last minute cast member is fledgling actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) who jumps at a chance to work with writer Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody, looking dishevelled as usual). A love affair soon blossoms between the pair. Against all odds, Denham finds the island and the crew go ashore but soon find that it’s not so deserted after all. Prehistoric natives manage to capture Ann and in a Temple-of-Doomesque ritual offer her to the beast of the jungle – the giant gorilla of the title. Not content with leaving her at the mercy of this monster, Jack leads a company to bring her back, encountering all the creatures of the island that include dinosaurs and some very nasty creepy-crawlies. From an excellent opening montage of 30s New York to the drama on the ship, the film starts very promisingly. Indeed, by allowing over an hour of running time before Skull Island even shows on the horizon, Jackson gives himself a great opportunity for character building, humour and atmosphere. The Venture’s crew are a shady lot: Thomas Kretschmann’s Captain Engelhorn, Andy Serkis as Lumpy the cook, Evan Parke and Jamie Bell as a great mentor/student duo. There’s also an excellent turn by Kyle Chandler as lead actor Bruce Baxter. Indeed the opening act is full five star material.

However, as much as Jackson can showcase his talents at the beginning, most of Kong’s most interesting aspects are sidelined come the jungles of Skull Island. The director has decided on all-out action here but as the creatures and corpses pile up, the film’s flaws become more and more, and painfully obvious: The over-reliance on CGI yields some badly rendered shots (remember that this film won an Oscar for visual effects), the sheer number of VFX shots clearly just too much for the usually excellent Weta Digital. Far more problematic is the running time. Like one of Carl Denham’s safari pictures, the film simply goes on for a few reels too many. The middle section in particular sags under its own flab and even come the climatic Empire State sequence, the aeroplanes circle one time more than necessary. Drawn out like this, there will come a moment when every viewer realises the nonsense of what is essentially a love story between a woman and a gorilla. At that point, either nervous laughter or hysterical giggles will be inevitable. It’s a tricky situation because Jackson is clearly a geek in love with his material but unlike “Rings” he has let the fanboy within get carried away. It’s a huge shame because there’s so much to like about this version of “King Kong.”

Such as? Kong himself is well done, with motion-capture courtesy of Andy “Gollum” Serkis and great effects work, though it’s a fine line between human and animal emotion. The live-actors do well too. Naomi Watts, a worthy successor to Fay Wray and Jessica Lange. Jack Black too is clearly having a ball as the crazed Denham, a great tribute to directors like Werner Herzog. It is a pity that most of the great supporting cast aren’t given as much exposition later on. The scenes in New York also benefit from awesome production values and the “look” of the picture, dinosaur stampedes aside, is fantastic. In the end it’s just not enough.

King Kong OSTAt the eleventh hour, Howard Shore’s score was rejected and James Newton Howard was drafted in as a replacement with literally weeks to write a score to a three-hour film. The reasons will probably remain forever in the secrets vault of Hollywood and while Shore probably wrote great music, Howard’s replacement is amazing, especially considering the time constraints. Famously, the composer never met the director until the film’s premiere, the pair conversing through video chat, one in Los Angeles, the other in New Zealand. Though he cannot quite rival grand master Max Steiner’s epic score, Howard’s score overflows with character, providing a relatively straight action score. The music’s main themes are presented at the outset and crop up again repeatedly. Highlights include “Defeat is always momentary” which plays to Denham and “It’s in the subtext” which is a slowly building suspense cue that plays over Anne and Jack’s first kiss. The motif for Kong is a brass pattern, heard primarily in “King Kong” and again in “Something Monstrous…” The climatic cues “Beauty killed the beast” are simply numbered with haunting female vocals almost equalling Howard’s career high-point “Lady in the Water.” While it’s regrettable that Shore’s music was rejected, Howard’s score is among the best of 2005 though the Oscar remains elusive for the composer.

If only Jackson had been able to maintain the thrills and suspense of that first, sublime hour, this could have been a truly great film. As it stands, this “King Kong” is overlong and will remain a mixed bag for viewers.

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Starship Troopers (1997)

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Starship Troopers“Starship Troopers” is extremely difficult to judge and depending on your social and political views, or your ability to tolerate gratuitous violence and kitsch dialogue, it may well be judged as a masterpiece or alternatively as one of the greatest jokes Hollywood has ever afforded itself. Polarising audiences and critics upon release, it remains divisive and for director Paul Verhoeven (who was already on his way down his career ladder throughout the 90s) it effectively marked the demise of a career. Those expecting a space opera in a grand, Lucasian style will be alienated by the jarring socio-satyrical elements and while Verhoeven fans will find his flowing narration correct and present, even they cannot eschew the film’s very rough edges. Consider yourself warned.

Loosely adapted from Robert Heinlein’s sci-fi novel of the same name, “Starship Troopers” takes place in a futuristic world where human civilisation continually ventures into space, colonising solar system after solar system. Threatened by arachnid-type aliens from the planet of Klendathu, the humans declare war on the primitive bugs, intent on wiping them out in a final-solution style operation. Entire action sequences as well as punctuations of recruitment videos play like fast-food military propaganda to appeal to the masses of youths who can sign up to become “citizens,” a more privileged class of people than the ordinary civilians. Joining up for entirely different reasons is Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien), namely to follow his girlfriend Carmen (Denise Richards). Also joining up are Dizzy (Dina Meyer) and Zander (Patrick Muldoon) who have the hots for one member of the couple, as well as Carl (Neil Patrick Harris) who joins an intelligence division. After an intense training boot-camp the troupe are dropped on Klendathu, in the middle of the inter-galactic conflict. Naturally, E.T. turns out to be far more intelligent and far less friendly than originally thought and the military mission quickly turns into a desperate struggle for survival. Jake Busey, Clancy Brown and Michael Ironside also star.

There is no one moment in the entirety of the film’s running time that escapes controversy. We are made acutely aware of the parallels humanity’s expansion into space as a superpower and similar enterprises on our home soil. On the one hand, such a vision of the future may be terrifyingly realistic (cynics in particular will have a field day here) and takes on a rather frightening form when applied to the American dream of liberty, on the other hand Verhoeven’s depiction of humans as Third Reich emissaries is painful and irritatingly crude. What will ultimately sink the film for many viewers is the duality created out of these satyrical undercurrents. Verhoeven can’t decide if he’s making a straight action picture or something with more far-reaching implications is clumsy, leaving the end product tangled and confusing. This latter point is certainly strengthened by the extremely clunky dialogue and wooden acting by the entire ensemble that all point to cheap, B-movie rather than something with a serious message, regardless of any satyrical statement. Often, the film veers dangerously close to farcical and laughable, understandably going over the edge for some viewers.

It’s quite possible that your relationship with “Starship Troopers” bears resemblance to that of Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski. Be that as it may, looking past the plot or its message and focusing purely on the technical side of things, viewers will find much more to universally enjoy. Verhoeven’s sense for flowing narration within individual scenes remains second to none, even if the dialogue is tosh, harking back to the days of “Basic Instinct” and “Robocop.” All the action is clearly and consistently choreographed, avoiding the confused “shake” that permeates so many post-Private-Ryan action. And finally, the visual effects are absolutely top-drawer, quite rightly nominated for an Academy Award though its loss to “Titanic” is hard to dispute. Nevertheless the bugs, including the climatic “brain-bug” are excellently rendered by Phil Tippett (ironically nominated against his “Jurassic Park” collaborator Dennis Muren) and Co. at ILM. The actual planet is rooted in reality, shot in Wyoming, but the bugs fit in almost flawlessly. As far as alien world’s go, the look is not unlike the original “Star Wars” and equally realistic.

Starship Troopers OSTPaul Verhoeven regularly collaborated with both masters Basil Poledouris and Jerry Goldsmith but for “Starship Troopers,” the former was first choice. Poldouris’ score plays mainly to the über-patriotic elements of the story with muscular brass and percussion, explored primarily in the heroic “Klendathu Drop” for the troop deployment and “Fed Net March” which plays to the propaganda video sequences. Amidst the frenetic action, there is little room for respite but Poledouris finds a beautiful lament in “Dizzy’s Funeral.” The rest of a disappointingly short album presentation is ballsy and militaristic but in the end, Poledouris can’t quite return to the brutal form of his “Conan the Barbarian” masterpiece. In retrospect, Poledouris probably fulfilled Verhoeven’s brief but it would nevertheless have been interesting to see what Goldsmith might have conjured for the project.

As was originally the concept behind “Star Trek,” sci-fi can be a great platform for socio-political comment. Undoubtedly, Verhoeven both succeeds and fails at this task. “Starship Troopers” will make a mark on you but if that be scarring or insightful will depend largely on the individual viewer. A middle-of-the-road rating tries to take account both sides of the story but realistically, any rating from one through five could be successfully be argued for.

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