Clash of the Titans (2010)

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Clash of the TitansJust because we haven’t had enough of sequels and reboots already, Warner Brothers felt it necessary to push out a remake of the 1981 film of the same name into a spring season desperately lacking in good action material. Not that the original adaption of the Perseus myth was much good either, but it is fondly remembered by some for Ray Harryhausen’s quite excellent puppeteering effects. For the remake, the monsters of ancient Greece would be created in the computer, and Warners appointed director Louis Leterrier (The Transporter), assembled a cast with considerable talent and invested significant buck that included a late conversion to 3D to cash in on the post-Avatar hype. On arrival however, it quickly became apparent that the film would fail to fulfil even the lowest of expectations and come to represent the very worst that Hollywood has to offer. It is, to apply mythological rationale, a scourge of the underworld.

Perseus (Sam Worthington) is raised by the fishermen (Pete Postlethwaite and Elizabeth McGovern) who found him with his dead mother, unaware that he is in fact a Demigod, the son of Zeus himself (played by Liam Neeson). After they are killed, Perseus finds his way to the city of Argos, the population of which are angry with the endless squabbles of the Gods.  Angry at loosing the humans’ love, Zeus sends Hades, God of the underworld (Ralph Fiennes) to threaten the city. If the king’s daughter Andromeda (Alexa Davalos), whose beauty has been compared to that of Aphrodite, is not sacrificed in three days, then Hades will unleash the most terrible beast he has created, the Kraken. After learning of his true lineage, Perseus leads a band of warriors that includes Mads Mikkelsen and Liam Cunningham to exploit a possible loophole in Hades’ plan and thus save the city. There’s a bunch of other stuff, but it doesn’t really matter because it’s all just an excuse to cue one battle and action sequence after the other. Forget such worn out things as plot twists, clever dialogue or, dare we imagine it, character development, “Clash of the Titans” doesn’t need brains, this is about brawn, sculpted abs and overblown action. In many ways it’s masquerading as “Transformers” with mini-skirts, steroids and scorpions but on examination, Michael Bay’s flicks are highly intellectual stuff compared to this.

Not only is the action exceptionally brainless, as it’s presented without any cohesive flow, construction or narrative, the film presents a mish-mash of bits taken from different (and often more accomplished) films: The scorpions and their masters bear resemblance to the Oliphaunts in “The Lord of the Rings” while several gags and of course the Kraken are blatantly borrowed from “Pirates of the Caribbean.” The Kraken may be a genuine feature of mythology but its implementation in the latter was infinitely more frightening than some of the shoddy CGI and green-screen work on show here. Furthermore, the film becomes an exercise in wasting as much acting talent as possible. Imagine the possibilities with two masters like Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes on screen as arch enemies Zeus and Hades.  Similarly Sam Worthington, complete with buzz-cut and Australian accent delivers a performance that is so cold he may as well have been turned to stone by Medusa. Never, not once does he, or the screenplay for that matter, make any attempts at believable exposition. And Gemma Arterton’s Io is about as interesting as the lacklustre conversion into the third dimension. What, beyond the promise of a large cheque would force these actors to take on projects like this, is beyond comprehension. A disaster like “Clash of the Titans” simply isn’t worth wasting your time, because not only does it show disrespect for the original (a poor thing in any remake), it is in effect giving the finger to the viewer who was dumb enough to see it. After all, it made Warners over $150 million at the box office. There are dumb action pictures that are well made and entertaining, this is a dumb action picture that is badly made and the most unbelievable bore.

Clash of the Titans OSTOriginally set to score “Clash of the Titans,” was Scotsman Craig Armstrong who had worked with Leterrier before on “The Incredible Hulk,” and who was in desperate need of such a large-scale film to show off his talents. As is the way in Hollywood however, Armstrong’s music was rejected at the last minute, making way for yet another of Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control offspring. Ramin Djawadi and a team of ghostwriters provide a score that is just as cheap as the film, hammering out the same sound prevalent since “Crimson Tide” way back in 1995. Quite apart from the fact that the sound of electric guitars (a “collaboration” with Massive Attack’s Neil Davidge features) and synthesised bass has nothing whatsoever to do with ancient Greece, this music is just a cheap and botched repackaging of a familiar sound, more headache-inducing than everything that went before with the exception of Djawadi’s equally obnoxious “Iron Man.” There’s no point describing anything about it, you can listen to “The Rock,” “Armageddon,” “Transformers” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” and you won’t notice the difference.

To call “Clash of the Titans” poor fare is very much an understatement. You’ll be glad to know that sequels are already in the works so we’ll only have to suffer through the same again twice more. Somewhere in the film’s flabby middle, and in a small attempt to insert a witty line, Liam Cunningham is asked how old a certain creature might be. His reply: “I don’t care.” And neither will you.

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The King’s Speech (2010)

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Leading all the others with 12 nominations, Tom Hooper’s film telling the story of Britain’s previous monarch King George VI, became a somewhat surprising Oscar front-runner. Its award success translated into a very healthy international theatre run and considerable box-office returns for what is after all a small and very definite, classic British drama. The tale of perseverance over disability as well as the period setting is of course exactly the type of genre the Academy loves to reward but to bash “The King’s Speech” on those grounds would be grossly unfair and a particular injustice to the performances of its central players. As with Stephen Frears’ “The Queen” four years earlier, the film is extremely accomplished in its look and feel, exuding visual, technical and atmospheric perfection from every frame, an art for which British films are rightly successful again and again.

In the late 1930s, Albert Duke of York (Colin Firth) is required to speak at public functions and more frequently over the new wireless radio technology to his people. However, the Prince struggles with a persistent stammer which, although not a problem in his daily life, renders him speechless at the most crucial of moments. Desperate after the failure of every known treatment, his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) turns to the unconventional methods and highly eccentric personality of Lionel Logue played by Geoffrey Rush. Controversial from the outset and much to Albert’s reluctance (and indeed lack of self-belief), Logue sets about curing the disability. The relationship of the two wildly different men will be tested not only by the Prince’s imminent ascension to the throne of England as King George VI but by the looming World War II when the King will have to rally his people through speechmaking. As these period drama go, and in terms of plot the screenplay written by David Seidler never strays far from its presumed path, instead working the means for the cast to display their creativity. A perversion of humour perhaps, but the entirety of “The King’s Speech” is extraordinarily witty, its dialogues pitch perfect and in the hands of Tom Hooper, result in a coherent flow of storytelling that is quietly brilliant and too often absent in the scripts that make the rounds in Hollywood today.

In the follow-up hype, most praise was lauded upon the central performance of Colin Firth who, for the second year running (after “A Single Man”) churned out Oscar-worthy acting, thus firmly evolving from typecast Hugh Grant-esque bumble to serious character actor. Without any doubt, the success of the film hinges largely on his superb portrayal. Not only is his voice remarkably similar to the real monarch’s, his inability to articulate himself and frequent angry outbursts go far beyond a simple if sympathetic recreation but enthrals us and has us willing the formation of every strained syllable. Not granted as much mention, but equally superb is Geoffrey Rush in a role that is (take note Academy) as vital and leading as Firth’s. Though there are traces of his Barbossa to be found in Rush’s comic and out-of-place methods and quirks (particularly as an aspiring actor in the film), it is ultimately his off-beat charm that may seem incredulous but is key to holding proceedings on track. Other great British character actors line the supporting positions: Helena Bonham Carter generally enriches every part she plays but this is one of her best in years. Bit parts by Guy Pearce and Michael Gambon as Kings Edward VIII and George V respectively add further gravitas to the acting ensemble. Less convincing is Timothy Spall utilised as a purely comic Winston Churchill who, while providing some laughs, lacks the dramatic weight possessed by the other characters. A little lost amongst all the acting focus will be the cinematography, art-direction and costume design, all perfect to the last. As an exercise in stylistic accuracy, it’s every cinephile’s dream.

It’s ironic perhaps that a Frenchman has become the expert at scoring British films like “The King’s Speech” but Alexandre Desplat has once again delivered some of his trademark music to underline the film. Always incredibly elegant in his use of the orchestra, the composer has certainly fulfilled expectations if not exceeded them, utilising a familiar sparse approach of soft strings and classically inclined piano. All of his scores are incredibly hard to fault for their sheer beauty even if they do lack the sort of thematic development that constitutes a truly great score. Much publicised were his efforts to obtain the original 1930s royal microphones which do lend the soundtrack great authenticity. However, Desplat never strays from his comfort zone, leaving it instead to the classical maestros, Brahms, Mozart and particularly Beethoven to underscore the most pivotal scenes in the film (some of which is source music). On the album as well, it’s the classical pieces that will leave a mark on the listener. It’s a well-rounded combination but it would have been much more interesting to see the composer tackle these great moments himself and deliver more of the haunting beauty heard in his effort for “Twilight: New Moon,” a film that did not deserve such elegance.

Predictable at face value, “The King’s Speech” succeeds through it’s clever screenplay and the performances of its entire cast. Firth is outstanding but no more so than Geoffrey Rush. Together, this makes for a film that you will want to see several times over to fully appreciate. Highly recommended.

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Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

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Lawrence of ArabiaTo follow up his 1957 prisoner-of-war picture “The Bridge on the River Kwai” that garnered him mainstream attention, director David Lean took to retelling the life of World War One’s most famous and at the same time mysterious figure. The circumstances behind T.E. Lawrence and his mission to unite the Arab tribes against the Turkish Ottoman empire in the British interest have sparked controversy as much as they elevated Lawrence to hero status. Lean’s adaption was an instant success and is regarded today as one of the era’s masterpieces. A captivating exploration of the eccentric soldier and spy as well as an insight into the political turmoil of the Middle-East, the film is highly accomplished on every level and is in itself a reason to be a film fan.

The year is 1916 and at the height of World War I, the young Thomas Edward Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is stationed with the British army in Cairo and with the help of Mr. Dryden (Claude Rains) convinces his superiors to send him on a mission into Arabia to “assess the situation” surrounding Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness) and the Arab struggle against the occupying Turks. Fascinated by the deserts and its people, Lawrence acts against orders and begins an attempt to unite the warring tribes in their struggle for independence. Suggesting a daring strategy, Lawrence, with the help of Sheriff Ali (Omar Sharif), crosses the “uncrossable” Nefud desert and launches a surprise attack to take the Turkish stronghold of Aqaba, becoming a war hero in the process. The military success is  dangerous and delicate balance however as Lawrence’s motives become ever more distorted, he himself becoming mentally unstable. His attempts to create an Arab nation may be doomed before they have even begun.

Made in 1962, Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” stands as the crown jewel of Hollywood’s historical epic craze of the 50s and early 60s. Like “Ben Hur” and many others before, half the attraction of these epics were the impressive and costly visual spectacles presented on screen. Filmed in Jordan and Morocco, Lean and cinematographer Freddie Young’s expansive desert vistas possess an earthly beauty that could never be recreated on a computer screen, where the director’s vision of today would be explored. Presenting almost every scene in as wide and lingering shot as possible, every frame (and in a movie of almost four hours that’s quite a few) is bursting with an awe inspiring creativity. From the mirage first appearance of Sheriff Ali, the breathtaking entrance to Auda’s camp and attack on Aqaba to the horrifying massacre of Turkish wounded, never will the viewer’s interest wane. It’s escapist moviemaking at its absolute best.

However, at the same time, “Lawrence of Arabia” is as much a compelling character study as a purely visual adventure. O’Toole’s portrayal of Lawrence as a shameless exhibitionist and egomaniac is one of the more debatable aspects of the production. Regardless of historical accuracy however, the role was perfect for the rising star. Quickly gaining our sympathies with his quirky charm if not with his confused morals and ethics, he is doubtlessly not a classic hero. And as his mind becomes increasingly unhinged, particularly in the second act as his plans begin to unravel and fail, O’Toole and the screenplay never quite let the viewer get close to the character. And while this makes a convenient denouement impossible, it never becomes a hindrance to the plot and succeeds in its portrayal of a contentious personality. The part launched Peter O’Toole’s career proper, brought him his first Academy Award nomination and began a rather unfortunate series of not winning the same. The film’s other roles are equally well filled: Alec Guinness’ screen presence in pre-Ben Kenobi times is no less (despite a rather pathetic make-up overdose to try and have him look like Arabic), while Anthony Quinn deserves equal credit for his impulsive and moody Auda Abu Tayi. And as the only actual Arab, Omar Sharif delivers a performance that would repeat itself throughout his career – right up to 2004’s “Hidalgo” – but one he would never quite match.

Lawrence of Arabia OSTAs a late replacement for and unavailable Malcolm Arnold, French composer Maurice Jarre wrote “Lawrence of Arabia’s” score in a mere six weeks. That the end product was placed by the AFI on spot number three of the greatest film scores, is a testament to the genius of Jarre’s music. Adeptly fusing Middle Eastern elements into a traditional western orchestra and purposefully placed high up in the mix by Lean, the sweeping score is the perfect accompaniment to the epic imagery. Strong themes form the basis of the music, that is presented in order as an overture to the action. Although defining the identity of the British army in a spirited march, the ideas for Lawrence and the Arabs are mixed into one. Consisting of three individual segments, the theme is used liberally by Jarre more as atmospheric and mood ideas rather than as a leitmotif for character and civilisation, thus becoming extremely memorable and instantly recognisable. The score’s enduring popularity has lead to a slew of different album version over the past fifty years. Originally recorded with the London Philharmonic, the sound quality of the music heard in the film leaves much to be desired on album. Two re-recordings are of note: Firstly the remastered and most readily available Silva Screen album of the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by  Tony Bremner and secondly a 2010 complete version played by the City of Prague Philharmonic on Tadlow Records. Highly recommendable on any of the releases, this score is a must for any fan of orchestral film music.

The common phrase “They don’t make films like this any more” could not ring truer of “Lawrence of Arabia.” The sheer size of the filmmakers’ accomplishments will only become apparent on repeat viewings and perhaps some research. However, love it for the unparalleled visuals or the unusual character study (or both), David Lean’s masterpiece reminds us again and again what it means to make pure cinema.

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Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)

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Master and Commander: The Far Side of the WorldReleased a mere three months after the other great sea-bound movie of 2003, “Master and Commander” could not be further in spirit, gravitas and demeanour from the swashbucklery and general nonsense of its cousin “Pirates of the Caribbean.” That is in all but the first name of their protagonists. Scallywags be warned, the world of Jack Aubrey and his adventures in the Napoleonic wars is gritty, dangerous and above all, deadly serious. And while Jack Sparrow instilled a genre long dead with a new, drunken swagger, director Peter Weir and actor Russell Crowe too were sailing into waters uncharted for decades, the high seas notorious for the storms they can wreak on filmmakers. But in reality, the adaptation of Patrick O’Brian’s popular novels provides the sort of material that both the director and star love to get their teeth into.

Combining plots and ideas from several O’Brian stories, “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” tells the story of “Lucky” Jack Aubrey (Crowe) and his crew of the HMS Surprise, playing a dangerous game of cat and mouse with French enemy vessel The Acheron, a ship with larger sails and more guns. Central to the plot is Aubrey’s relationship with the ship’s surgeon and amateur naturalist Stephen Maturin played by Paul Bettany. One a man of war, the other of science, their love for music connects them as their philosophies separate them. For Weir, always ready to take up challenging material – think of “Picnic at Hanging Rock” or “The Truman Show” – this duality in nature of the plot allows him to stage life on a 19th Century marine vessel in a manner of realism that has never been achieved on screen before. On the one hand, the thrills and deadly blasts of cannons, chase and sea battles, on the other, the monotony, strict routine and tragic deaths that regularly occurred. For Crowe, “Master and Commander” provides yet another opportunity to hone the sort of thinking-man action-hero skills he’s been polishing since “Gladiator.” An equally on-form Bettany makes a good compliment, trying to see some sense amongst the carnage.

It will be easy to approach “Master and Commander” with the wrong expectations and feel let down at its close. The sense of fun and daring adventure we have come to expect from similar picture has been all but sunk and the extended interludes between action pieces may well have you bored to death. At times it is hard to maintain interest and it becomes blindingly obvious that Bettany’s character is used repeatedly as a plot function simply to ask silly questions of the hierarchy aboard. That and to ask for explanations of the plethora of nautical terms scattered very liberally around the place. To dismiss the film on these grounds however would be to misunderstand the talents of Peter Weir and while the different elements don’t always gel, the film still provides very solid entertainment and reflection for its more patient viewers who will be duly rewarded. In any case the look of the picture, the cinematography, production design and visual effects are simply stunning and deservedly picked up an Oscar nomination or two.

Master and Commander OSTTo complement the large number of classical and traditional pieces of music featured live on screen as Crowe and Bettany play the violin and the cello respectively, three composers were hired to write original score, namely Iva Davies, Christopher Gordon and Richard Tognetti. How it took three composers to come up with such a small amount of score is beyond comprehension, however what the trio achieved is an unobtrusive score that fits exceptionally well around the source music. In the film the score goes mostly unnoticed but on album, combined with music by Bach, Mozart, Boccherini and Vaughan Wiliams, it is a highly enjoyable listen. The score highlight is the opening track “The Far Side of the World” but it is still placed in the shadow by the classical music which is what listeners will also recall from watching the film. For the score alone, this soundtrack is not recommendable.

How much you will enjoy “Master and Commander” will depend on how much longevity in drawn out sequences you are willing to tolerate. For a throwback to stirring entertainment of a more serious nature (as well as for fans of the books actually), it will represent over two hours of great filmmaking with Peter Weir stretching back to the glory of his 80s and 90s success. And even though it is possible to enjoy both films equally, for most of those swept away by the slick “Pirates,” this will represent the most unimaginable bore.

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Michael Collins (1996)

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Michael CollinsThe part played by Michael Collins in Irish history is controversial to say the least and while history (and one Eamon de Valera) has come to recognise his significance, the animosity that is still felt today among many citizens of Ireland proved his biography a tricky task to commit to celluloid. Neil Jordan’s labour of love to his homeland proved itself adept in storytelling even if its deviations from fact polarised opinions pro-Collins, or rather anti-Dev further. For international audiences not initiated in the emerald Isle’s very recent and tragic past, the film’s politically explosive potential probably passed by without raising its ugly head. Considering however that the effects of the early 1920s can still be felt to this day and that an IRA ceasefire was wishful thinking in the mid 90s, it highly recommended the viewer crash-course themselves before watching this.

Beginning in the immediate aftermath of the 1916 Easter Rising, The film sets out to recount the final years of Michael Collins’ life through struggles for Irish independence and the resultant civil war. This sees him take charge of the fledgeling Irish Republican Army as the “Minister for General Mayhem” in the newly formed rebel cabinet, to hurt the British occupants in any way possible. Through a system of counter-intelligence, guerilla warfare and terrorism his efforts, though effective, prove exceedingly dangerous, and increasingly ruthless and bloody. Played with vigour and great spirit by Liam Neeson in one of the best roles of his career, this portrayal of Collins thankfully does not overly sweeten his role as a terrorist, balancing instead his personal life and friendship with Harry Boland (Aidan Quinn) to root audience sympathy. His relationship with Kathy Kiernan helps this also, although the choice of Julia Roberts for the role is questionable. The initial ally but ultimately political opponent of Collins, Eamon de Valera is played with usual relish by Alan Rickman who sees him as potentially dangerous. Using Collins as a pawn in the eventual negotiations with the British empire, de Valera is primarily portrayed as the villain, a position that is debatable historically but holds more truth than some would like. Overall the ensemble does a good job, no dodgy accents for example and the pairing of Neeson and Quinn in particular makes it all worthwhile.

The most unsung hero of “Michael Collins” is Neil Jordan however. Shooting in Ireland, at authentic locations as well as Ardmore studios, not only does everything look fantastic, Jordan has managed to create a historical epic that is easily viewable as a war or drama film even without being steeped in background knowledge. It is a human tale much more than a political one, even if its protagonist had a weighty impact on the fate of a country,  and will make this the pulling point for most audiences. That it also functions as excellent intrigue and thriller viewing, with a generous dose of – mainly dark – humour only shows the delicate balance that Jordan has successfully walked here. His detractors will mainly scorn the blurring of history and reality, particularly the film’s climax at Béal na mBláth. While the events onscreen do enter the realms of fiction at this point, the impact of the film is not diminished in any way by it. “Michael Collins” remains the most impressive and fascinating portrayal of one of the most significant Irishmen and a top-grade historical picture. Yet, despite being hugely popular in Ireland and positive reactions from critics, the film was not a great success abroad, a real shame.

Michael Collins OSTAfter “Interview With the Vampire” Jordan continued his collaboration with composer Elliot Goldenthal on “Michael Collins.” The resultant score is one of Goldenthal’s most easily accessible, not troubled by overbearing dissonance that prevents many of his works from reaching mainstream exposure. It’s a large-scale orchestral score, with Irish elements inserted through some soloist performances but never falling into cliche traps or becoming endlessly repetitive like some of James Horner’s celtic meanderings. Known best for an arrangement of “She Moved Through the Fair” performed by Sinéad O’Connor, the soundtrack album makes every cue into a highlight, from an energised bagpipe performance in “Winter Raid” to much more militaristic brass and percussion in “Fire and Arms” and “Football” and beautiful piano for “Collins’ Proposal.” In summation, it is a very appropriate and epic score for a film that could ask for no less and was rightly nominated for an Oscar. Highly recommended.

The best way to watch “Michael Collins” is in the company of Ken Loach’s “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” for the complete picture of political happenings as well as the impact on  normal citizens. However, even on its own, Neil Jordan’s film is something not to be missed for any enthusiast of Irish history or fans of good films.

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Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves (1991)

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Robin Hood - Prince of ThievesFilm history has shown little kindness to the legend of Robin Hood. With the exception of that loveable 1938 Errol Flynn caper, Hollywood has tried and failed again and again to create a truly great celluloid version of the man in lincoln-green tights. So too, this big-budget attempt of the 90s ultimately fails to hit the bullseye, no matter how hard it tries. It may be possible to enjoy “Prince of Thieves” simply as a fun adventure romp in its own right but, riddled as it is with a slew of continuity as well as factual errors and some truly awful casting, even the most liberal of fans will scratch their heads at many a turn, wondering just how so much great potential and opportunity was wasted.

Having escaped captivity in the crusades, Robin of Locksley (Kevin Costner) along with new-found companion Azeem (Morgan Freeman), returns home to England to find things have changed: His home has been ransacked and his father brutally murdered by the Sheriff of Nottingham (Alan Rickman) and his minions who have seized power in King Richard’s absence. Forced to hide in a certain Sherwood Forest, Robin joins with a band of outlaws and plots to overthrow the Sheriff in revenge. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Maid Marian is there somewhere, waiting to be wooed and there’s family trouble brewing with Christian Slater’s Will Scarlet. It’s an altogether darker version of the tale than Errol Flynn could ever have imagined, introducing a more serious atmosphere that would also prevail in Ridley Scott’s 2010 version “Robin Hood.” Director Kevin Reynolds seems unsure how to proceed with this however and tries to find a balance with humour – stemming largely from the ever brilliant Morgan Freeman – and some of the more brutal images. There’s nothing wrong with trying to create an adult version of the tale but its execution is often so poor that it is laughable. Critics and historians often snort at the amount of historical inaccuracies and continuity like the fact that the Chinese invented gunpowder or that printing was still a few hundred years away. But really, those are the least of the film’s problems.

What really kills the action is the lead: Kevin Costner, who was truly riding the high wave of success and popularity at the time, fails to ignite any spark whatsoever. Dubiously sporting blonde highlights and a Californian accent (Costner apparently tried to learn a British accent but found it, em, too difficult), we don’t believe his Robin for a single minute. Not only does he rob the role of all sense of fun, his attempts at making his Locksley into a troubled man fall completely flat. Mastrantonio is also one of the poorest Marians we’ve seen for a long, long time. Acting this bad should be made illegal, especially when as handsomely paid as Costner. Also well paid was Sean Connery who turns up at the end for a very pointless cameo. Indeed with a main duo this lifeless and dull, this film would probably have sunk into the dark ages a long time ago, were it not for the performance of one Alan Rickman. His performance as the Sheriff is wonderfully sleazy and furiously demented. What Costner fails to muster in terms of fun, the British veteran can almost recover through chewing scenery and calling off Christmas, this is really the campest of camp. Along with Hans Gruber and Severus Snape, this truly belongs in the gallery of great Rickman baddies. Taking the Sheriff into account, the film remains watchable but we will always lament for what might have been a real action and adventure matinee flick paying homage to the Hoods of yesteryear.

Robin Hood - Prince of Thieves OSTAnother aspect of the film’s enduring popularity is its end-credits song “(Everything I do) I do it for You” sung by Brian Adams. This power-ballad was written by Adams and composer Michael Kamen who also provided the rest of the film’s score. And unlike the film, his music conjures the swashbuckling spirit as it should have been. The opening title is of particular note, a rousing fanfare seamlessly incorporating the theme song. This combination is handled well by Kamen throughout although some listeners have complained of long, nondescript sound design passages which found their way onto the soundtrack. All in all however, the music can muster enough power to remain memorable. Sadly, the  orchestra’s performance leaves some things to be desired. So if any work is in desperate need of a rerecording to really bring out its quality, this is your score. Let’s hope the day will come.

An extended cut with 12 minutes extra footage was released on DVD but these scenes don’t really help shore up the film. Thanks to performance by Rickman and Freeman, the film just about manages to stay afloat. But definitely not Kevin Costner’s best work.

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Titanic (1997)

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TitanicThe ultimate disaster movie, or movie disaster, that’s how things were looking for James Cameron and his “Titanic” team in 1997 with both studio executives and critics waiting to strangle him with delight on the film’s release. Why? Well, firstly the project was stuck in production muck for a very long time, the film delayed again and again, as Cameron tinkered with his three-hour running time (20 minutes longer than it took the actual ship to sink mind) and action pieces that were quite literally sinking millions of dollars by the hundred. Just like the ocean liner 85 years earlier, “Titanic”, it seemed was going to hit the iceberg when let out into cold waters. It would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic of course, but Cameron (a man infamous in Hollywood for his short temper and over-sized ego) stubbornly stuck to his guns. The rest of course is history: The highest box-office gross of all time, a position it amazingly managed to hold for over a decade, until it was dethroned by Cameron’s own “Avatar”, and one of only three films to win 11 Academy Awards. Accepting his Oscar for Best Director Cameron famously declared “I’m the King of the World!” before heading into the wilderness for a decade. For the public, as for the Academy, however what began as a love affair, has eroded a bit with the years.

The cause of this disillusionment stems largely from embarrassment at the central and very old-fashioned boy-meets-girl love story. Jack Dawson and Rose DeWitt Bukater alias Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet respectively, board the Titanic in Southampton, she in first class with her uptight family and cold fiancé Cal (a wonderfully slimy Billy Zane), he a last minute passenger in third class who won his ticket in a lucky hand at Poker. They meet fatefully and, captivated by the free-spirited Jack, Rose finds herself falling in love with him. It’s all to go Cinderella were it not for a large block of ice floating somewhere in the mid-atlantic. The stories and lore of the famous ship’s sinking and the terrible loss of life are well known and retold in remarkable detail and with great passion by Cameron from his own screenplay. Some viewers and critics attacked the screenplay in particular for a failure in creating credible or period-correct exposition or for the cheesy dialogue. Indeed they have fair grounds for argument, Jack and Rose would probably not look out of place in your average episode of Coronation Street but really, this was never Cameron’s intent. “Titanic” is meant to be, first and foremost an old-style epic romance and disaster film. And Cameron directs with such gusto and style that it is extremely hard not to be swept along with the pure cinematics and just enjoy it for what it is. Think back to the famous disaster films of the 70s, the same criticism could be made of those, yet nobody does.

Once the iceberg does hit (that can’t really count as a spoiler), about one hour in, it’s highly unlikely anyone will care because at that point it becomes the best disaster film ever made. And for the (largely teenage) hearts the film has captured from the start, it becomes one giant survival struggle. Both DiCaprio and Winslet do extremely well here, keeping the focus as human as possible amidst all the carnage. They are helped by a huge supporting cast, of which each one has their own storyline to follow, and all acted to perfection: Aside from Zane’s Machiavellian Cal there’s Frances Fisher, Kathy Bates as “the unsinkable” Molly Brown, Victor Garber, Jonathan Hyde’s cowardly Bruce Ismay, Ewan Stewart, Ioann Gruffud, the ship’s captain played by Bernard Hill, David Warner and of course the musicians that played to the very end (real life Swiss chamber music quartet I Salonisti) as well as many more.

Cameron’s obsessive nature transpires into the action as well. The costumes and sets are all authentic down to the very last detail. It’s clear to see just where most of the money was spent especially when you consider the amount of takes required when sending all this lavish excess under water. The sheer size of the Titanic model constructed to almost life-size at the specially built Fox Studios Baja complex becomes apparent when first we see the ship moored in Southampton. From there Cameron’s shots become increasingly expansive: From wonderful aerial views of the ship, utilising the latest in computer technology to the scenes in the engine rooms where dozens of men slaved away shovelling coal while the passengers relaxed on the upper decks. And water is portrayed with particular power, the seemingly harmless liquid seeping slowly up corridors before eventually becoming this huge destructive force of nature. In this authenticity alone this “Titanic” outdoes all the foregone adaptions of the story. And the director finds a horrible beauty in the disaster as well, the “Nearer My God to Thee” sequence is likely to send shivers down your spine or bring tears to your eyes. My only criticism of the film must be of its conclusion. Once the ship has gone under, all bar one of the loose ends has been tied but Cameron presents us with an extended coda that really sprinkles on the cheese. Either the director is himself unsure of how it should end or he’s just indulging which with Cameron is a real possibility.

Titanic OSTComposer James Horner was riding the high wave of success in the mid to late 1990s and “Titanic” presented yet another fantastic opportunity to show off his skills. Inspired by the Irish elements of the story Cameron wanted singer Enya on the soundtrack. Instead Horner employed Norwegian vocalist Sissel, creating a sort of new-age sound that is today iconic of the picture. His intentions were to create a timeless sound through his use of synthesisers and the voice coupled with a traditional orchestra. The music is broken into three stylistic parts: The first is a distinctly Irish melody written as a love theme, the second a heroic choir-based theme which would serve for the triumphs of the Titanic and thirdly the action music for the sinking. All three work exceptionally well and the first forms the basis of the end-credits song “My Heart Will Go On” as performed by Celine Dion. Famously, Cameron didn’t want a song at the film’s end but Horner went away and wrote and recorded one anyway. On album, “Titanic” became the most successful soundtrack of all time, one of the rare occasions when a soundtrack really gains mainstream popularity. Subsequently a second album was released, entitled “Back to Titanic” and featuring extra score as well as some source songs including the beautiful “Nearer My God to Thee” hymn. It won Oscars for both score and song.

Love it or hate it (some people do), “Titanic” defied all expectations and stands today as one of the biggest and best films of all time. It wouldn’t be fair to call Cameron’s achievement anything less than that. As someone quipped, “They just don’t make movies like this anymore” and in a lot of ways this is true. “Titanic” is a throwback to the great epics of star-crossed lovers only, as with everything James Cameron tackles, twice as big as anything else.

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What’s your own opinion of “Titanic”. Is it one of the best films of all time or should it better be left at the bottom of the Atlantic. Let me know – leave a comment. Your thoughts are always appreciated. Also please follow me on Twitter or subscribe to the RSS feed. Thanks! Until next time, all the best to you!

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