Friday, 29 June 2012

Captain America – Punching Hitler in the Face Since 1941

As much as I love 'The Avengers', it has one major problem; because it pretty much perfected the comic-booky superhero blockbuster, all other comic-booky superhero blockbusters pale in comparison. So watching Captain America post-Avengers maybe wasn't the best idea.  No longer can a superhero film just be a big action-orientated comic book blockbuster, they have to offer something new to stand out. Fortunately, Captain America does just that.

You see, Captain America isn't really a superhero film at all. Like 'Thor', Captain America has something new to offer to the superhero blockbuster catalogue. Where Thor had Norse mythology and Shakespearian family-based tragedy, Cap is a rip-roaring World War 2 action adventure. The 40s provides the back drop for 90% of the movie, and the period elements are fantastically realised. Seeing the 40s recreated with a blockbuster budget is a rare delight in modern day cinema, and seeing Brooklyn as it was 70 years ago is a step back in time. The design team also did some fantastic work on Captain America's suit for the movie. While it keeps elements from the classic costumes, it is far more practical and it actually looks like it could be used to fight in.

The futuristic alien tech harnessed by super-villain Red Skull (aka Johann Schmidt) is inventively integrated into an otherwise believable WW2-era arsenal, with the German submarine being a highlight. However, there is an over reliance on CGI, which doesn't always look as good as it should. While the scenes with ‘skinnified’ Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) do look pretty incredible, some of the later action sequences lack any sense of real danger and kind of pull you out of the moment.

Talking of Chris Evans, he does a solid job of playing a weedy little guy/national hero, and he certainly looks the part. He is helped out by a stellar supporting cast, featuring Hayley Atwell (looking fantastic in 40s get-up), Stanley Tucci (as the sympathetic scientist who knows what makes a real hero), Tommy Lee Jones (playing a fantastically grumpy army guy), Hugo Weaving (who just seems to have a villainous face) and Toby Jones (as Red Skull's brilliant right-hand man/scientist).

But, however enjoyable it is watching a good old-fashioned war adventure movie, the action is poor; possibly thrilling sequences completely fall flat. At one point Cap and the Howling Commandos (his hand-picked team of soldiers) zip-line onto a moving train just to fight inside a mundane corridor. The aforementioned CGI issues occasionally bring a comic-book style unobtainable with conventional methods, but too often they just make all the action seem more boring.

Also, the need to link this in with The Avengers occasionally gets in the way. The 10% of the film set in modern day  feels rushed and should really have been included in The Avengers itself, though that may have caused more problems that it fixed. The most interesting aspect of the character within The Avengers team is the fish-out-of-water stuff, which is barely developed in the few minutes Johnston had to work with.

I must finish by mentioning a fantastic montage of Cap touring the States to raise support for the war effort. Played over the top is an amazing song called 'Star Spangled Man' written by the films composer, Alan Silvestri (who Marvel were so pleased with they brought him back to write the fantastic Avengers score). What Joe Johnston (director) manages to cram into this three minute sequence is extraordinary; it shows Cap wearing a low-budget and completely impractical suit (a nod to Cap's original get-up from the comics), and at one point has him punching Hitler in the face (a reference to the cover of the first ever issue of Captain America). But, in a way, this sums up the entire film; when the best, albeit fantastic, sequence in the film is a propaganda montage with Cap prancing about on a stage, you know that the film hasn't entirely worked on a summer blockbuster level.

The action is below-par and it sometimes feels like a hastily put together introduction to a fascinating character, just to get the cinema-going public familiar before The Avengers dropped. However, the old-fashioned elements work well and the cast is fantastic, which leaves us with an enjoyable adventure yarn, but it could have been so much more. 


Sunday, 3 June 2012


People watching Alien 3 on opening night way back in ’92 will have had a very strange experience.

Everything starts well; with David Fincher (director) having the inspired idea of ending the Fox fanfare with a creepy space wail. The audience are on edge and ready for another two hours of ‘adult’ sci-fi.

Unfortunately, it never arrives. Instead Vincent Ward (the primary writer) kicks the audience in the teeth. The space-pod that Ripley, Hicks and Newt had used to escape at the end of Aliens has crash landed . . . with a conveniently placed egg on board, of course. Somehow Ripley survives, but Hicks and Newt aren't so lucky.

Not a good start.

Things don't get much better. But, it's not all bad; for every stupid plot turn, there is sometimes a wailing Fox fanfare. But, only sometimes . . .

The biggest problem the film has is not knowing what it is; not scary enough to be classed as horror, not exciting enough to be an action movie. This lack of true identity means that it never finds a worthwhile path, and what you end up with is strange mish-mash of genres; sometimes going for chills, sometimes going for straight out action, and a substantial chunk of space-based romance (which starts clunkily and then never really has any chance to develop).

One of the things that Alien and Aliens do so well is give you a handful of side-character that you care about, whether that be the marines in Aliens or the crew members in Alien. That is not the case here. Yes, you care about Ripley (but no more than in the preceding iterations), but all of the other character are just dull, with poorly judged criminals-after-redemption stories and weird prison guards, made even weirder by their off-putting English accents which wouldn't feel out of place in a Guy Ritchie film. The only character that I thought was remotely interesting was Charles Dance's Clemens, but, with his untimely demise, he is never explored as much as he could have been.

Another big problem is the cumbersome quasi-religious sub-text and the complete destruction of the pro-female message set up by Scott and Cameron. What started as trying to rectify the sexism in Hollywood has turned into 'men are awful, and it's all woman-kinds fault'. It's a puzzling U-turn and the nearly-rape scene is tough to watch and feels totally out of place. Instead, the aliens are shown as woman-respecting creatures, with the four-legged freak refusing to harm Ripley because she *SPOILER* has the new Queen growing inside her *SPOILER*.

However, as I have said, it's not all bad. David Fincher, in his first feature film, shows that he does have a good eye and sense of tone. The acting on the part of Weaver and Dance is good, with the latter stealing what little of the show he is alive for and it does get reasonably enjoyable when they knuckle down and decide to catch the alien.

The score should also be mentioned; it's not in the same league as Jerry Goldsmith's Alien score or James Horner's for Aliens, but it works for dramatic sci-fi, reminding me of something more akin to Star Trek than an Alien movie. 

A flawed film, especially considering the brilliance it followed and the brilliance Fincher went on to produce, and a step in the wrong direction for the franchise; one it never truly recovered from.


Friday, 1 June 2012


Aliens is a very different beast to Alien. Whereas Alien focused on slow tension, building to almost unbearable levels, Aliens is far more action orientated; aiming to thrill the audience rather than freak them the fuck out.

James Cameron brings his knack for blockbuster storytelling (which continued up until Terminator 2) to Ridley Scott's framework, and rather than exploring the mythology (Space Jockeys etc.) he pushes the same story forward, and keeps the focus firmly held on our favourite parasitic extra-terrestrials. 

Ripley is safe and she is woken from space-sleep 57 years after the events of Alien. She hopes for a peaceful life, but that is all disrupted when she is asked to go and explore some curious goings-on on LV-426, the planet featured in Alien, which is in the process of being colonised. Then, as expected, the shit very much hits the fan.

A mixture of hard boiled heroine, heart-pounding action, thrilling set pieces, a real heart (Bishop is one of the most likeable sci-fi characters ever), and the greatest monsters in cinema-history; Aliens is truly remarkable, and even the special edition (which is a whopping 154 minutes long) never gets dull. Yes, most of the action can be regarded as point-and-shoot, but when it is handled this well and executed with such panache, how can you complain? Also, the dialogue is not exactly Casablanca, but it's chock-a-block full of quotable marine lingo (“Game over, man!”). 

All this action takes place within the confines of a selection of important maternal issues. Not only with the Alien Queen (making her big-screen debut in an extraordinary fashion), but with the Newt-Ripley relationship and the news about her daughter; it's powerful stuff. Scott started it in Alien, but Cameron took it to a whole new level with this sequel, and together they created an action lead to rival any Schwarzenegger or Stallone. This was also Hollywood's introduction to the bad-ass heroine, and Sigourney Weaver's Ripley has not yet been matched.

The action is relentless, ending with a pretty much silent last half hour showing cinema in its true form; a visual medium. Too often filmmakers rely on people talking at you to get their message across, when instead they could just let the image do the talking; action, when used properly, can be the best form of exposition. This is cinema back to its silent roots; where the filmmaker uses action to tell the story rather than flashy dialogue. The score acts as another link with the silent-era; James Horner managed to perfectly capture the feel of the piece, it never becomes intrusive but is always there in the background, making the set pieces more dramatic and the moments of tension more nail-biting.

Though it may seem like a dumb 80s action movie, this is cinema at it most raw and thrilling. A masterpiece.


PROMETHEUS PREP: An Introduction

I would like to say I have been waiting for this moment for 33 years, but that's not exactly the case . . . it's more like 3. Buuuuut . . .

*drum roll*

Well in the UK, at least, and I'm off to my local world of cine to feast my eyes upon what Sir Ridley has concocted for us all on Monday.

So to fully gear myself up for what I hope will be an amazing cinema-going experience, I have decide to make full use of my shiny Alien Anthology Blu-ray set and watch an Alien-universe marathon; A film a night, leading up to Prometheus on Monday afternoon.

I decided to go with a slightly altered order, and started with Aliens (my personal favourite), Alien 3 (the assembly cut's pretty good), Alien: Resurrection (Let's be honest here, it's not great) and then Ridley Scott's dark, brooding masterpiece to lead directly onto Prometheus.

I plan on posting a review a day, finishing with the big one on Tuesday.

So, I hope you enjoy the ride. I know I will.