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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Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004)

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DodgeballAfter the triple whammy of Greg Focker, Derek Zoolander and Chas Tenenbaum, Ben Stiller could be forgiven for taking a few years off to recover. However, his comedic talent bounced into theatres yet again in the summer of 2004 in the form of White Goodman, his most outrageous character to date. Though the sum of its parts make it truly memorable, it is largely due to Stiller’s outrageous self- and fitness-obsessed gym owner that “Dodgeball” remains one of the most quotable and hilariously dumb movies of the new millennium. Like the true underdog that it is, the tale written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber fought its way past expectations and made it to the top, eventually raking in its modest budget eight-fold.

Owner of “Average Joe’s Gym” Peter La Fleur (Vince Vaughn) and his loveable band of losers (that includes Justin Long, Alan Tudyk and Chris Williams) are stumped when hot-shot lawyer Kate Veach (Catherine Taylor) informs them that they have 30 days to repay their $50,000 debt before the bulldozers roll in. In desperation, they enter the national Dodgeball championships with their eyes on the healthy cash prize that would save the gym. However, the owner and founder of “Globo-Gym” (Stiller) who wants to build a parking-garage for his “beacon of human perfection” gym is also in the tournament, determined to see the foreclosure of “Average Joe’s” through. After a sorry display in a regional qualifying match (that they win only because a member of the opposing girl-scout team tested positive for beaver tranquilliser), our heroes get the backing of retired dodgeball all-star and coach Patches O’Houlihan (Rip Torn). With expectations low as ever, the team – also including the newly recruited Kate Veach – head to Las Vegas to have their shot at the final. It’s a non-stop rat-a-tat pile-up of gag upon gag that will take repeat viewing to catch them all. These take both a physical slapstick form and a highly intelligent one: On the one hand there’s something oddly satisfying about seeing people getting walloped by rubber balls (amongst other implements of pain) and on the other, there’s outrageously smart dialogue littered with kiss-off lines and bad jokes from Stiller that would put Arnie to shame.

But while White Goodman steals the show, there’s immense comedy delivered by the entire cast. Vince Vaughn is provided with one of the best roles of his career, sharing significant chemistry with Taylor (who is Ben Stiller’s real-life wife) and creating the sort of likeable (for lack of a better phrase) average Joe that grounds the movie when things threaten to get out of hand. Every supporting character gets his or her moments to shine, again with extremely humorous results. Rip Torn is clearly having a ball with his character, cheerfully throwing out politically incorrect insults (and wrenches) left, right and center. Strewn among the action are a set of great cameos from the likes of David Hasselhoff, Missi Pyle, Jason Bateman, Chuck Norris (!), Lance Armstrong and, in the film’s best sequence of a 30s sports infomercial, Hank Azaria as a young patches O’Houlihan. There are a few weak parts but even they are largely punctuated with great gags that breeze over these scenes and they are often acknowledged with a wink-wink, nudge-nudge poke by the filmmakers. For example, a spoilerific item towards the climax is conveniently labeled “Deus ex Machina.”

Dodgeball OSTTheodore Shapiro is one of the least appreciated composers in Hollywood, one that tirelessly churns out low-key scores for romantic comedies or, well, Ben Stiller movies. As a rule of thumb, these scores rarely get released commercially and like “13 Going on 30,” “Dodgeball” is no exception. And that despite the fact that Shapiro gets to have more fun than usual here: Likeable electronics with guitars and light drums accompany Vince Vaughn and Co. which explode with full force into the sports anthems of the film’s latter half. It’s a powerful and enjoyable listening experience in the film as the score, like any good parody, simply plays it straight with heroics and does not focus too much on the comedy. The variety of styles are all comfortably handled by Shapiro and for fans it is well worth seeking out a rare promo score released by the composer around the time of the film’s release. In the meantime we can only hope that maybe, just maybe, someone might decide to give this score an official release.

Chock-a-block with laugh-out-loud moments, “Dodgeball” is by no means a weak entry in the Stiller cannon. Though often labeled as a “dumb” comedy, vast stretches of it are in fact very intelligent indeed. See it if you can and just take care of your balls – and they’ll take care of you!

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Invictus (2009)

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InvictusFor an octogenarian it’s truly admirable how Clint Eastwood continues to churn out film after film, often managing multiple pictures a year. Most of his dramas have proven popular with audiences and a few disappointments aside, have real critical merit. In effect he’s one of those rare few in Hollywood that have managed super-stardom both as an actor and behind the camera as well. To follow up his “Dirty Harry” homage, the much lauded “Gran Torino,” Eastwood turned to a South-African true story for inspiration: Based on John Carlin’s book “Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Changed a Nation,” the film tells of the immediate post-Apartheid era and the newly elected president’s efforts to unite his divided country.

Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) sees his triumph in rugby, the Springbock team seen as a symbol of white superiority and something most black South-African’s would be glad to see the back of. As the rugby World Cup is due to take place in the country, Madiba (Mandela’s clan name) is determined not to let an opportunity like this to transcend the racial tensions pass and is eager to see the hitherto underachieving national side triumph. Thus he turns to the team’s captain François Pienaar (Matt Damon), lending him encouragement, inspiration and one or two pieces of sound advice. The film follows their relationship as well as that of the president’s bodyguards that must also learn to look beyond their prejudice and suspicion of their co-workers and collaborate to protect the president at the rugby matches. Considering the choices, there was only ever going to be one man to play Nelson Mandela: Morgan Freeman’s trademark is that of a peaceful-soul with a God-like narrative tones, one he’s been perfecting since “The Shawshank Redemption.” It’s a perfect match and Freeman is the heart and soul of the picture and the subsequent Oscar nomination was well deserved indeed.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Damon’s role even if the acting is not at fault (he too was nominated). It’s the character of Pienaar that remains sorely underdeveloped throughout as he’s given far too little exposition. Instead he’s reduced to giving rather run-of-the-mill pep-talks and a lot of contemplative stares into space. This immediately makes the film falter as Mandela is no longer the focus come the lengthy final match sequence. Some of the sports action is well captured by Eastwood’s lens, the players colliding with full force and the crunching scrums are spectacular but the games lack a narrative arc and ultimately fail to thrill as they should. Some of the spectator shots and a rather out-of-place aeroplane sequence betray some clumsy digital effects wizardry. Sadly, Eastwood’s faithfulness to the events come at a cost and the viewer will yearn simply to hear Freeman’s reassuring overtones again. Those qualms aside, it’s the portrayal of the security guards that succeed in transmitting the eventual reconciliation when the montages threaten to descend into the utterly predictable. The troupe allow Eastwood not only some comic relief but a powerful platform to turn a forced collaboration into friendship and thus the true unification of South Africa.

Invictus OSTThe music of Clint Eastwood’s films continue to be a matter for debate. An avid jazz fan, Eastwood sometimes composes himself or else hands the duties to his son Kyle Eastwood and collaborator Michael Stevens. As with “Letters From Iwo Jima,” the latter has been the case here but unfortunately the restrained, minimalist style employed by both continues to be the weakest link in the Eastwood cannon. The soundtrack for “Invictus” is largely built around source songs that enhance the African elements of the story, including among others “World in Union ’95” which, based on a melody by Gustav Holst plays over the end credits. What little score there is, gets lost on the album and really contains only one cue of note – Madiba’s Theme – a hymn-based piece fused with humming vocals and Eastwood’s signature lingering piano. In sum, the score simply cannot muster enough inspiration that the film calls for and while blatant heroism isn’t required, there’s no evidence here that a world cup could actually be won. Considering the great “African” scores that Hollywood composers have written, it’s a shame that Eastwood couldn’t simply have hired someone more up to the task.

It’s all too rare (sadly) that a film about Africa can be so uplifting. Of course, because of a rugby game, South Africa did not become a paragon of peaceful co-existence but “Invictus” provides hope. Morgan Freeman is sublime as Mandela and proves once again he is at the very pinnacle of acting prowess. If only the script could have been a little sharper and less predictable, this could have been one of the Clint greats.

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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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Rocky (1976)

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RockyThink of every sports movie you’ve seen and know that none of them would be the same without “Rocky.” Not only did Sylvester Stallone’s underdog tale inspire generations of wannabe stars to dream big, it was highly influential in defining the emotional and heroic conventions of the modern zero-to-hero sport flick. It doesn’t check the boxes, it created many of them. In perfect counterpoint to cinema’s other big boxing event, “Rocky” remains highly optimistic in the face of its critics and continues to shine, even in the wake of five sequels (some better than others) and 35 years of Stallone’s career which could go only one way after this high – down. Perhaps most importantly it’s a masterclass of a case study in how to create cinematic gold with only the most limited of means and on a virtual shoestring budget. Watch and learn.

Ageing second class boxer Rocky Balboa (Stallone) doesn’t have much to live for. However when heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) is out of a challenger and decides for an easy match against an unknown, Rocky is given an unexpected shot at a championship. Suddenly all those around him, including drunkard friend Paulie (Burt Young) and big-mouthed yet failed manager Mickey (Burgess Meredith) who previously passed him off, want in on the action. All this spectacle however, bothers Rocky less than Paulie’s sister Adrian (Talia Shire) who works at the local pet store and for whom he has always had feelings. Their romance develops slowly, awkwardly but surely and with some training, Rocky might actually have a chance in this fight. It’s easy to see where the film is going throughout but Stallone’s Oscar-nominated screenplay constantly one-ups the viewer with knuckle smart dialogue and clever exposition. Granted, there probably wasn’t much of a script in the first place – Stallone is simply playing himself throughout – but anyone who would doubt the macho’s brain capacity will be stumped at his instinctive feel for natural situations and flow of narrative. The fact that many sequences, including the film’s most beautiful on an ice-skating rink, were created out of necessity is testament to his talents as a filmmaker.

There are so many aspects of “Rocky” that make him so amiable: Firstly, he’s a gentleman and not a bum, he thoroughly admires his opponent and doesn’t actually want to win. Where the bull is raging, it’s “Rocky” that has the heart and hence the likability. There is one less-mentioned facet of the film though: While it is in essence Stallone’s film, it’s the supporting roles that are often overlooked. Talia Shire should be specifically mentioned for her flawless playing as an unusual romantic interest because in many ways the main focus of the film’s plot is a tender love story about two people that lead normal lives, only briefly emerging from oblivion – boxing is merely the stage for the drama. The first kiss she shares with Rocky is extremely poignant to watch. Sadly, her career in Hollywood never took off and is otherwise best remembered for her role as Connie Corleone in “The Godfather.” Not to diminish the film’s amazing triumph over adversity side though: There’s a very good reason tourists flock to Philadelphia every year to run up those steps in front of the city’s Museum of Art in track-suits and blaring out music. Sylvester just continues to inspire.

Rocky OSTThe film also launched the career of composer Bill Conti. Without doubt one of “Rocky’s” most iconic parts is the title theme “Gunna Fly Now,” written by Conti to accompany the movie’s major training montage. The song is largely responsible for the enduring popularity of the soundtrack release, as inspiring as the film itself and shamelessly optimistic. The remainder of the score tends to be somewhat neglected next to the song but is nevertheless a very strong effort by Conti and will likely remain the defining music of his career. Unfortunately, the album presentation is far from optimal, both in audio quality and length. In terms of a rounded score, some of the material Conti wrote for the subsequent sequels is superior. Do not let that deter you however. Even if only heard on a compilation, Bill Conti’s score is a worthy addition to every score collection and ranks next to Jerry Goldsmith’s works like “Hoosiers” and “Rudy” among the best in the sports genre.

Truly a classic for all ages, “Rocky” is the feel-good experience that justifies endless repeats on Christmas television and a whole cult-following. Regardless of what Sylvester Stallone has made since, this remains the absolute top of his game.

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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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The Tree of Life (2011)

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The Tree of LifeThe films of Terrence Malick are hieroglyphs and dream visions; their meaning or purpose often so cryptic that despite their obvious beauty they alienate many viewers. Great art is of course a matter of taste but the jury at Cannes saw fit to award “The Tree of Life” with the Palme d’Or. However anyone familiar with Malick’s back catalogue (a tiny five films in a career spanning almost forty years) will see their expectations fulfilled: the director’s thoughtful and meandering style permeates this picture as it did “The Thin Red Line” and “The New World.” It’s clear from the outset that the film isn’t for everyone – it’s not exactly Michael Bay after all – but if you have the patience to endure not only its running time but a few bumpier moments also, you will potentially be rewarded with a powerful and highly personal experience.

The film begins in the late 50s as Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) are informed of the death of their second son at the age of 19. Their tidy suburban lifestyle is torn apart. Simultaneously in the present day the couple’s eldest son Jack (Sean Penn) reflects on the same event as he goes about his work. As they question the significance of their story within the greater world and the universe, Malick launches into an abstract 20 minute montage, presenting images of space and nature before returning to 50s Texas to recount Jack’s formative years and the strained relationship with his father. It is difficult to coherently sum up the disjointed narrative that follows but perhaps the plot is only the means for posing much greater questions. Chief among these is the child’s innocence, the vision of a perfect or ideal world, a vision that is shattered almost immediately by a far grimmer reality. Mr. O’Brien is a devout Christian, a failed pianist who has become an engineer, trying to educate his sons through strict discipline thus choking off a more free spirited world embodied by Jessica Chastain. Malick calls this a choice between the way of grace or the way of nature – which might be which is an interpretation left to the viewer. The screenplay carefully sidesteps any mention of “God” (a greater being is simply referred to directly as “you”) but a spiritual significance can easily be divulged from the powerful images, if it be “Mother Nature” or otherwise is once again ambiguous.

The chosen setting of the 1950s is ideal for “The Tree of Life,” quite possibly hinting at a personal tale for the director. The look is absolutely authentic and Emmanuel Lubezki’s steadicam-driven images capture lend the picture a feel that is down to earth and natural. The entire cast is well chosen though the performances of the child actors easily eclipse what the adults can muster. Hunter McCracken leads as young Jack, Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan filling the other two roles. McCracken in particular has all the makings not of a star but of a serious actor, displaying both restraint and a huge spectrum of emotions – he  is without doubt the film’s greatest discovery. As the domestic relationship between the O’Briens deteriorates, the confusion at violence, the inability to understand a world that is so beautiful and yet so cruel are channelled through the boy and his experiences drive the film when Malick threatens to get lost in his own roundabout ways.

Several aspects do encumber the flow of the film some detractions are noteworthy. Several of the images presented in the montages seem out of place. A short episode with dinosaurs clarifies that Malick is expanding the question of significance across all of time but their presence feels jarring, CGI and out of place. Quite frankly if you have awesome images of space (and therefore time) why bother to bring Jurassic Park along? Arguably this montage as well as an extended coda presenting a utopia of sorts go on for a bit too long to maintain interest. It’s possible to simply sit back and enjoy the glorious imagery but the  family drama is far more enthralling. Some will find the work in it’s entirety to be far too ambiguous or even too philosophical and spiritual – it certainly won’t speak to everyone. However “The Tree of Life” is in the end an ode to the wonder of our earth and all the life in it. If you consider it a masterpiece or not, Malick remains a mysterious master of his art and continues to dazzle with films that are just, well, refreshingly different from everything else that’s out there.

The Tree of Life (OST)Among film composers, Malick’s work ethic of endlessly editing and re-editing is notorious. Very often Malick will substitute a written score with classical music at the last minute. Alexandre Desplat’s original score has been released on the soundtrack but unsurprisingly the end credits revealed a multitude of classical pieces, with Desplat’s work limited to less than 15 minutes. With music playing such a significant part in the film it is questionable why Malick hired a composer in the first place. On CD, the music makes for a pleasant if minimalist and relatively undemanding listen. The “great questions” are reduced to a simple piano theme that slowly turns this way and that much like the films itself. It’s reminiscent of some of Philip Glass’ work; nondescript but with an almost otherworldly beauty. In comparison to some of Desplat’s stronger works and to the classical replacements however, the music fails to reach quite the same level. And if you want to hear what was featured in the film, this is the wrong place to search.

“The Tree of Life” is in one word, beautiful. It’s not quite as powerful as “The Thin Red Line” but it’s unlikely you will see a more unusual film in 2011. Unusually for Malick, he has another film in the pipeline as soon as next year and you should definitely be stoked.

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