Friday, 26 June 2009

RIP Michael Jackson

So the King of Pop has passed on...I think it's perhaps important to separate the controversial public persona from the genius who made Bad and Smooth Criminal.

OK, so he also gave us Moonwalker but it's a nice curio hey? (I also grew up with that film).

RIP Michael

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Seminal Scores: Jurassic Park (John Williams, 1993)

A review 65 million years in the making...

No, not really but this will be the first (hopefully) in my Seminal Movie Scores series (has to be done in capitals), celebrating the finest in film music (orchestral, not songs)

We kick off with what I believe is John Williams' finest effort, Jurassic Park

Come and walk with dinosaurs and enjoy (or, you know, just enjoy)


Steven Spielberg had a banner year in 1993, receiving critical acclaim and Oscar glory for Holocaust drama Schindler’s List, and thrilling global audiences with the recreated dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. Fundamental to both films’ success but perhaps more overlooked in the hoopla, was composer John Williams. With a partnership stretching back to 1974’s Sugarland Express, and encompassing such classics as Jaws, the Indy trilogy and ET, it’s arguably the most successful of modern director-composer collaborations, Spielberg frequently providing the perfect canvas onto which the composer can project a bold musical soundscape.

Jurassic Park is one of Williams’ finest achievements. In a complete about face from the introverted, haunting Schindler’s List, it mixes both the rapturous Golden Age sound of his 80s heyday with the orchestral maturity to be developed further in darker 90s scores such as Nixon and Saving Private Ryan.

Shamefully, it was also overlooked for any major awards, in favour of the more dramatically subtle Schindler’s List. But there’s no doubt that Park is the better score. Traversing the full range of emotions from wonder to awe, terror to excitement, with at least two brilliant themes that have entered popular culture, it works brilliantly both inside and outside the film it’s designed for.

The moody Opening Titles begin with a burst of ominous choir and shakuhachi, immediately establishing a sense of danger and suspense, of man dabbling with forces beyond his control. The flipside is the glorious Theme from Jurassic Park, a majestic, beautiful representation of the resurrected dinosaurs in all their glory. Heard regularly throughout in various guises, its most famous rendition comes in Journey to the Island, an 8 minute tour de force that also weaves in the other central theme, a thrilling brass fanfare for the island itself.

As is usual with Williams though, the incidental tracks are as enjoyable and created with as much care as the big themes. Forgoing the stylistics of his earlier scores, his action compositions for Park are altogether darker, more uncompromising and utterly thrilling. Nowhere is this more apparent than with the frightening four note danger motif (used predominantly for the dreaded velociraptors) that dominates Incident at Isla Nublar, Raptor Attack, High Wire Stunts, Eye to Eye and T-Rex Rescue and Finale (the latter being one of the most breathlessly exciting, relentless pieces of Williams’ career).
By contrast there are also some truly gorgeous moments where the listener is allowed to bask in the beauty of the island’s more benign inhabitants. The moving, see-sawing strings of My Friend, the Brachiosaurus, show Williams at his lyrical, melodic best, utterly brilliant. A Tree for My Bed casts the main theme in a charming lullaby arrangement. Remembering Petticoat Lane sounds a melancholy tinkling lament for the island’s failed venture and experiment. Further bursts of tropical percussion come in Jurassic Park Gate, to be used more extensively in the 1997 sequel.

Pitted against the natural beauty of the location are the synthesised rhythms of Dennis Steals the Embryo, reinforcing the films core themes of science versus nature. Then there is of course the superbly rousing end credits suite Welcome to Jurassic Park that recaps all the major themes, although it’s strangely located mid-album; some programming is required to sort out the order.

It’s this regular fillip between beauty and horror, organic and synthetic, which marks Jurassic Park as a standout score, even by Williams’ standards. Coming at a pivotal moment after the more playful 80s but before the more subdued 90s, it really is a best of both worlds album and a magnificent score in its own right. A masterpiece.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

The Hangover

The morning after the night before has rarely seemed as extreme as in The Hangover, Todd Philips’ raucous and ribald new comedy peering through the beer goggles at the aftermath of a disastrous bachelor party.

So fundementally blokey is the jokey scenario, that it makes the film’s huge box office success all the more surprising. Lack of subtle female sketching (two types: hooker with a heart of gold or household bitch) and the relentless male leeriness make it somewhat too aggressive and heartless to be a completely satisfying experience. However it’s at least confidently realised in time jumping fashion by Philips and screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore.

Due to be married in two days time, Doug (Justin Bartha) takes his two best friends and oddball brother in law on a trip to Las Vegas. Phil (Bradley Cooper) is a brash schoolteacher (brilliantly introduced pilfering his students’ money for his Vegas run) and Stu (Ed Helms) suffers under his odious partner Melissa (Rachael Harris), while Alan (Joaquin Phoenix-alike Zack Galifianakis) is an idiot unable to distinguish a real Caesar’s Palace from the fake one. The alcohol-fuelled bonding soon begins on the roof of said Palace, some excellent cinematography showcasing Vegas in all its lurid glory.

But before you can say Sin City, there is the all crucial fade to black before the woozy bleary-cam horrors of the following morning take over. Their lavish suite is trashed; there’s a tiger in the bathroom; a baby in the closet; and, worst of all, no sign of Doug. The men have to follow any clues they can to find the groom before his big day.

It’s a nifty, high concept scenario, fusing a detective story (of sorts) with the usual brand of broad Philips humour found in his previous successful Old School. As the trail becomes more convoluted and hilarious, events also become genuinely intriguing, Stu’s current nuptial status and a stolen police car being giddy highlights, not to mention the unexpected appearance of a game Mike Tyson.

So story-central is Lucas and Moore’s narrative that it does in fact railroad more fundamental aspects, notably the, admittedly enjoyable, performances of the guys themselves which fall into easy brackets (obnoxious know-it-all, henpecked wimp, beardy weirdy). Skating lightly across themes of male insecurity, props go to the filmmakers for making a comedy with a backbone but more emotional investment wouldn’t go amiss.

More problematic though are incidental scenes and characters, with Heather Graham treated as a perfunctory cast-off and a mincing Asian gangster, a key role, coming off as simply annoying. Here one senses Philips is straining, relying on a tired bag of humorous tricks also including repeated attacks to gentleman’s areas and a verging-on-sadistic taser demonstration.

Yet it all comes together for a warm conclusion, as shamelessly sentimental as earlier exploits were simply shameless. If only we cared more about the characters it would linger longer in the memory. At least it has the balls (literally) to end on some true ratings bothering hilarity during the closing credits: the phrase ‘What the hell happened last night?’ never seemed more apposite.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Looking For Eric

Ken Loach’s films have a famously troubled distribution history in his native UK. His brand of kitchen sink, politico-realist drama (like compatriot Mike Leigh) is often a tough burp to swallow for Brit audiences keen to lap up the latest Richard Curtis fairytale instead.

What a surprise (and delight) it is then to see his latest, Looking For Eric riding a crest of positive buzz into the nearest multiplex, the perfect home-grown counterpoint to blockbuster explosions and robotic heroes (the latter of which apparently come in CGI form too).

The premise will really rub off on those familiar with Loach’s back-catalogue, for it’s the potent mixture of that familiar kitchen sink with a peculiar kind of magic realism previously untapped in the director’s oeuvre that marks it as both familiar and unexpected. Somewhat ironically it’s kind of a fairytale in its own right but, unlike Richard Curtis’ efforts, has Cinderella’s carriage firmly located in a grey, drab, recognisable Blighty.

Fears that the director has gone commercial or populist are unfounded; Eric is on occasion as gritty as before but there’s a delightful sense of heart-warming redemption waiting at the end of the tunnel. It’s the hook (Eric Cantona himself), not the film, that’s populist. The sucker punch melancholy of Sweet Sixteen this isn’t.

The construction of a story around a footballer who had his day in the mid 90s entwined with that of a main character, Eric Bishop (Steve Evets) who is always looking to the past and sees no hope in his future, feels entirely apt. Beginning en media res as Bishop, a postman, crashes his car, the director’s familiar hallmarks become apparent when we plunge into his home life on the return from hospital. Squalid house; distant stepsons; an estranged first wife followed by another who ran out; a loving daughter who refuses to give up on him. Such scenes (funny, profane, acidic) still ring with a vitality unmatched by most other directors.

It’s through a weed induced haze that Eric’s personal hero, Cantona, first appears, the Frenchman making the leap from footie fan poster to corporeal being. Encouraging Eric to re-forge the bonds with his first wife (a rock n roll teenage sweetheart) and his sons, Cantona is cleverly constructed as a slick, Gallic manifestation of Bishop’s inner thoughts.

Throughout the fleet footed soccer star shows a refreshing ability to mock himself, everything from inept trumpet playing to that infamous seagulls metaphor (‘I’m still getting over that’ Eric moans). However, this is Bishop’s story, not Cantona’s and the whimsical interludes simply add a new wrinkle to the well worn Loach formula: that of a character putting their lives back on track.

Evets in the central role is superb, a rough hewn northern hero, possibly the unlikeliest of 2009. It’s in Evets’, Loach’s and screenwriter Paul Laverty’s confident handling of routine domestic drama that makes Eric’s personal travails so involving; these are character problems everyone can identify with (no perma-tanned Malibu rich brats here, thank you).

Even when the script verges on the overstuffed, cramming in all of the above plus a late developing crime angle, it all somehow steers towards a delightful climax where Eric’s post office buddies take action and are united through their love of Cantona – it would be remiss to say how. Tonally, the film is a complete surprise: never before has a Ken Loach film teased us with, and then culminated in, such fantastical light-hearted charm. It’s a testament to Evets and a brilliant supporting cast (Gerard Kearns, Stephanie Bishop, John Henshaw) that, somehow, their characters are all believable on life's playing field. Ooh arr Cantona indeed.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Batman Vs Batman Begins

OK here's a controversial one...Tim Burton's 1989 Batman is better than Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins. Lets let the dust settle...

Done? Right, here's reasons why....

The Batmobile - so much cooler than the glorified Quad Bike known as The Tumbler (Nolan took a tumble clearly when he commissioned it). Reduces every grown man to status of 8 year old boy every time in appears in all its gadget laden glory

The Wayne parents death scene - so artistically done in Burton's original, with significant psychological repurcussions for Bruce himself, as well as connecting him to Jack Nicholson's Jack Napier; in Nolan's vision it's perfunctory and undercooked (despite, oddly, being one of the central narrative tentpoles)

A production designer named Anton Furst - for all Nolan's sleek updated skyscraper/ scumridden duality in the new Gotham, nothing matches the sheer Gothic power of what Furst achieved for Burton, his designs lending the film a truly idiosyncratic air (this is after all a comicbook world, yeah?)

And the cherry on the cake? Danny Elfman's thrilling score - Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard's anonymous droning (despite a few high points) has nothing on Elfman's terrific central march and other excellent incidental pieces (among them the might of the Sinfonia of London Orchestra during the action scenes and a twisted waltz for The Joker). After all this is a superhero - he needs a theme, be it subtle or otherwise (Chris Nolan clearly mistook subtlety for anonymity)

Of course, Burton's vision has nothing on The Dark Knight...but that's another story

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Seminal Scores: Basic Instinct (Jerry Goldsmith, 1992)

A few days ago I was carping about the death of the film score. Well, as a riposte of sorts to my own meanderings, here's a reminder of one of the all time greats....


In July 2004, the world of film music lost one of its great pioneers and innovators. In a career spanning over 40 years, Jerry Goldsmith scored for every conceivable genre, from war movies to comedy, drama to sci-fi, horror to sports flicks. Renowned for his invigorating incorporation of electronic rhythms and unusual instruments into his work, famed musician Henry Mancini (The Pink Panther) openly admitted, ' scare the hell out of us'.

His key, almost elemental ability to burrow inside the core of a film and amplify its very meaning in musical form is perhaps his most valued skill, and one that has secured his work as some of the most important ever to appear in cinema. As opposed to the 'surface' scoring of John Williams, who accentuates what is already obvious in a film, Goldsmith has been quoted as saying 'It [film music] isn't about what you're's about what you're not seeing'. Not that I'm daring to slight Williams in any way; he's a marvellous composer and brilliantly effective in his more emotionally direct way. But Goldsmith is, for want of a better word, more cerebral, more innovative, all the while still maintaining that valuable connection with the listener.

A case in point is his Oscar-nominated work for Paul Verhoeven's 1992 erotic thriller Basic Instinct. Goldsmith scored a lot of bad films in his career and this was another, yet it was inexplicably successful on release, no doubt due to the sleazy, gratuitous undertones and the frenzy surrounding the film's allegations of homophobia. Making a megastar out of a knickerless Sharon Stone, she stars as a bisexual novelist whose lover is murdered with an icepick. Assigned to the case is a troubled detective Michael Douglas, who instantly falls for the alluring prime suspect. She has an alibi - the same murder is described in one of her books - but are things that simple?

Goldsmith's genius notion with the score lies with the main theme itself, a malevolently attractive one for smooth strings and woodwind that both beckons the listener to come closer while also warning them of imminent danger around the corner. It's a brilliant duality, and sums up Stone's character perfectly. Also fascinating is his scoring of the endless sex scenes in the film: rather than take the obvious route and have blaring, sensual saxophones ringing out all over the place, he realises sex, as seen in the film, as a dangerous act that could lead to murder (and indeed it does in the films nasty opening scene), with stabbing strings leading to a suitably orgasmic climax.

Even the quieter moments, where electronics feature more prominently, offer a palpable game of musical cat and mouse, reflecting the edgy relationship between suspect and detective. Then there are of course the dynamite action cues that Goldsmith has become famous for throughout his career. These are the moments when the mystery of the murder case, and its inherent menace, are amplified tenfold with blaring drum machines and superb frantic orchestral writing.

Indeed, the score proved to be so successful and influential, it was to crop up in barely altered forms in many of Goldsmith's subsequent thriller scores (especially Malice, the following year). Once again, he got to the heart of the film (although not without difficulty - he almost walked when his initial work kept getting rejected by director Verhoven), namely the realisation of sex and murder as two sides of the same coin. Once again, his unsettlingly intuitive knack stepped in and elevated the film it accompanied. Making an erotic thriller seem classy and accomplished? No mean feat!

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Shutter Island Admits First Visitors

At the risk of sounding redundant (its listed in the news feed on your left), the trailer for Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island has wafted in like spectral vapour on the wind. Such flowery language will become clear when you watch - a lavish Gothic Cape Fear cum Wicker Man tale of murder and psychological madness starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo and Ben Kinglsey. Enjoy!

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Top Of The World

Far be it from me to clutter up my blog with amateur moviemaking - there are plenty of sites for that. But after visiting America last year, including the Grand Canyon, I was enchanted by the country's timeless cinematic appeal. So, here's a crude cinematic legacy to the astonishing Grand Canyon itself, scored somewhat appropriately to Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman's theme from Last of the Mohicans.

Trust me, if you have the chance to do a helicopter ride over this astonishing spectacle, as is shown in the movie below - DO IT. Then find a movie score to articulate your feelings with.

Ferrell Losing His Will-Power?

I suppose all good things come to an end or hit a bumpy spot - although whether Will Ferrell was ever truly a good thing is questionable. He started to irritate me a long time ago.

Lo and behold his new movie Land of the Lost (a big budget remake of a TV series no-one has heard of or cares about in the UK) has been duly trashed by critics for being 'family unfriendly' and it's tanked at the box office (what does it say when a movie takes $18 million in its opening weekend and is considered a flop?)

Still, considering it was sold with Ron Burgundy as a potent selling point, it would seem he's lost his lustre, at least for the time being.

Meanwhile, all hail the success of Pixar's Up, a company who are proving extraordinary at fusing adult and child friendly sensibilities into an immensely entertaining whole.

The only downside? I have to wait till October to see it!

Monday, 8 June 2009

The Death of the Film Score?

As is obvious from both my site and those who know me, I'm a big advocate of film music, one of the most important yet consistently overlooked aspects of moviemaking (think back to the kids adventure/fantasy films you grew up with - you may not know the composer but its guaranteed the music had an effect). With this in mind, I have to get something off my chest...

In the 1970s, composers such as John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith can be credited for making the large scale symphonic film score fashionable again. With films of the late 60s and early 70s increasingly capitalising on youth culture and hippy rebellion (Easy Rider), films were experimenting with pop music, electronics and sometimes no score at all (see Klute). However with the advent of lush sounds in films such as Chinatown (beautifully smoky jazz), Jaws with its urgent chopping rhythms and most significantly the blaring, exciting brass of much of Williams' action work (Star Wars, the Indy Trilogy, Superman), orchestrals were back in fashion. The sound was to reverberate well into the 90s, influencing composers like Alan Silvestri, James Horner and Michael Kamen.

Which brings me to today. Being of the opinion that 2008 was a great year for movies, one nagging thorn in the side remains: the scores for a lot of them were either lousy to mediocre, or altogether non-existent, with a few exceptions. Are we heading back to the mood of the 60s, where original film music is deemed increasingly unneccesary and intrusive? I hope not, because like it or not the film score is one of the determining aspects of how we enjoy movies. Of course not all movies use them, and not all movies are meant to use them; an orchestral score in a documentary will likely seem inappropriate and out of place. But in big budget crowd pleasers especially, the presence of an engaging, immersive soundtrack is key to pulling viewers into the world of fantasy and make believe.

Which brings me to Iron Man. A hugely enjoyable comic book movie (especially in the way there is none of the tiresome 'nuance' existing between good and evil; good is good and evil is evil), it's bolstered by an excellent cast of adult actorscand some marvellous special effects that demonstrate how computers should be used in service of the story. However, the one crucial misstep that director Jon Favreau made was the decision to omit a bold, memorable theme, one that could have helped seal Iron Man in musical terms as the new Indiana Jones or Luke Skywalker, in favour of some tedious, electric guitar fuelled noise courtesy of Hans Zimmer protege Ramin Djawadi. It adds nothing to the film, no emotion, no depth and definitely no why bother including it? There might as well have been no music at all.

Similarly Zimmer and James Newton Howard's effort for The Dark Knight is undeniably a superb techical achievement (the droning for The Joker is brilliant in context) but completely hollow, despite some excellent moments. Aside from Newton Howard's moving theme for Harvey Two Face, it fails to engage the listener with the world of the film, with the rich, involving characters, with the layers of morality on display. All of these areas were roundly praised by critics, even in some cases the score why can't the music be more, well, musical? I'm all for darkness in film scores but not noise for the sake of noise. Of course the criticism here can be directed as much at director Christopher Nolan who favours textural, ambient music in his films.

Of course, this isn't to dismiss all the scores in 2008 out of hand. John Williams made an excellent comeback with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, proving he can still write punchy, energetic action music with the best of them. James Horner wrote in anguished, considered tones (despite his continued self-plagiarism) for the acclaimed Holocaust drama The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. And Alexandre Desplat continues his hypnotic, haunting work with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. At the other end of the melodic scale was Johnny Greenwood's avant garde effort for There Will Be Blood, demonstrating to The Dark Knight's composers how to write in abrasive tones that are memorable as well as experimental. Danny Elfman also had his best year in ages, scoring Standard Operating Procedure, Wanted and Hellboy II and clinching an Oscar nom for Milk.

But such gems are becoming increasingly few and far between. It seems as if we have got to such a state of uncomfortable awareness that both filmmakers and audiences are afraid to have music reminding them about how to feel. But Beethoven with his 9th symphony did exactly the same thing, as did all the classical composers! Only in 2004 Gabriel Yared's effort for Wolfgang Petersen's Troy was chucked out, after a year of hard work and research on the part of the composer, for being too 'old fashioned', the dreaded test audience apparently having more than a helping hand in the decision. With every disrespect intended to those involved at that test screening, it was not their decision to make. How can music for a movie set in the Greek ages be 'old fashioned'?

Of course it's well within our rights to criticise the role of the score on a subjective level once the film has been released. But to have such an influence that the score is thrown out? That's not right. Like it or not, Yared's score was an integral part of the film; for better or worse, he was the composer originally chosen to score the film, and Warner Brothers should have stuck with the decision, rather than get cold feet. Audiences are demanding increasingly that scores are commentators on the action, rather than an integral part of it.

But, again, maybe the role of the film score has again gone back the other way, back to the increasingly minimalist role it played at the end of the 60s. This could be seen as a great pity or just another amble along the convoluted history of music in film. Who knows? Maybe in another 10 to 20 years the successor to the Iron Mans and Dark Knights will have a soundtrack to call their own.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Terminator Salvation

Having faced a raft of challenges before hitting the big screen - it's the fourth in a franchise that many believe should have stopped at number two, it's from the oddly named bloke who directed the awful Charlie's Angels films - Terminator Salvation is finally here.

However aside from any negative press about its lead star Christian Bale throwing a wobbly on-set and how to pronounce McG, the results are surprisingly effective. There are problems - Bale's glowering sub Batman John Connor is one note and tedious, it lacks the humour of James Cameron's classics - but the film has a secret weapon up its sleeve. More on that momentarily.

With Cameron's grungy apocalyptic wasteland seen in The Terminator having revived dystopian sci-fi action in the 80s (not to mention launching the career of a heavily accented Austrian bodybuilder), the sequel Judgement Day did the impossible. It was a better film: on a larger, sleeker scale, taking full and clever advantage of Ahnuld's then megastar status and of course bringing CGI effects into a new age with the astonishing liquid metal T-1000. T3 was always going to be a thankless task but took a brave turn with Cameron's mythology in the closing reels.

Having already completed his more interesting character arc (from rebellious teen to man reluctantly embracing his own destiny), Bale's Connor is the fulcrum of the film but consequently not an especially interesting one. However the film revels in detailing the contradictions of Connor's future past: this time the race is on to find Kyle Reese (played as a younger man by Anton Yelchin), Connor's past (future?) father. Should the machines get to him first, Connor's entire existence will be negated (hindsight is indeed a wonderful thing).

However it lacks the incidental ironies present in the earlier films where cyborgs battled it out in the world we recognise (the glossier McG visuals prevent the sandblasted nuclear earth being as gritty as it should). The new Transformer-esque machines (including a 100 foot behemoth capable of levelling buildings), despite the excellent effects, lack the terror we first felt when Arnie rampaged through the phone book.
So far, so competent. Enter Sam Worthington's Marcus Wright though, and the film delivers that extra kick it has been promising. Introduced donating his body to Skynet, the mysterious Wright's origins provide a mystique and emotional heart ironically lacking in the central character of Connor. Ultimately the tantalising exploration of man versus machine generates more fireworks than a blast from a phase plasma rifle in the 40 watt range.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Star Trek Review

Throughout its 40 odd year existence, Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek has had something of a chequered history, veering from camp (the original TV series), to pseudo intellectual (The Motion Picture) to Patrick Stewart’s mainstream exploits on Next Generation.

Now along comes new whiz kid on the block JJ Abrams (Lost, Mission Impossible III) and injects something long absent from the series: fun. The results are terrific.

Beginning with a striking and emotional opening sequence, in which baby Kirk is born while his father sacrifices himself by charging into a Romulan attack ship, commandeered by the ruthless Nero (a chilling Eric Bana), Abrams’ populist mix of character smarts and thunderous action immediately establishes a new tone (similar in fact to last years Iron Man) for the series.

The multi stranded story then picks up with the rebellious, fatherless Kirk showing a penchant for joyriding, while on the other side of the universe, young Spock is having trouble reconciling his half human, half Vulcan nature. Probably the most eloquent and engaging sequence in the film, the parallels between the two characters set up their collision course later in life, with Kirk played with boyish zeal by Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto giving the finest performance as the older, emotionally neutral Vulcan. Other pivotal Trekkies are also introduced in rapid succession, including the luminous Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and the perpetually frustrated Bones (Karl Urban, excellent), all on a crash course with destiny, the newly formed Enterprise and the villainous Romulans.

The central narrative in fact becomes so confusing when time travelling ships are thrown into the bargain that it reps the film’s weakest point – but it propels forward at such a ferocious and thrilling pace it hardly seems to matter. Refreshingly for a blockbuster, character is never compromised, the human element always being at the centre (especially the dramatic Kirk-Spock conflict).

Chock full of striking imagery (the opening reveal of the Romulan ship is magnificent), excellent effects and careful production design (the sleek white interior of the Enterprise has obviously been modelled after fan memories of the original), Abrams clearly has great respect for the franchise. Leonard Nimoy even gets a substantial role as opposed to a mere cameo.

Despite the absence of William Shatner and an underused Simon Pegg (as Scotty), the director demonstrates Spielbergian flair at fusing intelligent thrills with the latest in effects and entertainment. The film’s sense of humour is also delightful and remarkably confident, being worked into some of the busiest scenes. There’s also a pleasing sense of franchise expectations: when Pine’s Kirk finally takes up the Enterprise’s hotseat for the first time, there is the real sense of a self-aware revival thats also a legitimate series entry.

And when Michael Giacchino’s sweeping choral adaptation of the classic theme tune kicks in, the next franchise instalment isn’t only anticipated: it feels necessary. With so many more universes for Abrams and his crew to explore, even at warp speed it can’t come soon enough.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Drag Me To Hell

As if the retro Universal logo and portentous opening bars of Christopher Young’s marvellous score didn’t make it obvious enough, Drag Me To Hell is a delightful return to schlocky, icky, goopy horror for Sam Raimi. Bouncing back from the misfiring Spiderman 3, Raimi’s first proper exploitation outing since his classic Evil Dead trilogy came to a close marks his most confident helming in years – unlike Spidey’s frequent feel of moviemaking by committee.

The director is back on more personal and fertile ground here, playing the audience like an expert violinist with a classic campfire/morality tale of a sweet natured loan officer, Christine (Alison Lohman) in competition with a brown nosing colleague for an assistant manager’s post at her bank. Keen to make headway with her boss, Christine chooses to foreclose on the house of Mrs Ganush (Lorna Raver, superbly revolting), an elderly gypsy woman.

A gypsy, it transpires, also with a line in supernatural curses. The unfortunate Christine finds herself the recipient of a diabolical hex after a car park scrap both hilarious and horrifying with the sinister Ganush. Raimi’s bold Looney Tunes aesthetic and kinetic camerawork make a thrilling return in this pivotal scene where a stapler and some misplaced dentures will have audiences both gasping and grinning (the emphasis on fluids and the mouth also results in several other memorably horrible moments).

Tormented by the Lamia goat demon who will after three days drag her soul into the fiery abyss, Christine’s only hopes are her sceptical boyfriend (Justin Long) and a medium (Dileep Rao), the only one who understands what is haunting her. A pleasingly sick strand of humour finds the beleagured heroine returning to her old comfort food of ice cream that marked her younger, plumper years when she was a simple farm girl (how satisfying it is to have a halfway believable character reaction to an outrageous scenario).

Raimi, working from a script he co-authored with his brother Ivan, continues to mine a potent mix of belly laughs and boo gotcha shocks out of this deceptively simple premise. While clearly functioning with a lower budget than he has become accustomed to of late, ironically the director’s imagination is the most unfettered it has been in ages, putting the gorgeous Lohman through the wringer by flinging her into walls, almost drowning her in muddy graves and forcing her to make some unsavoury sacrifices of her own. One priceless moment involving flying eyeballs will invite welcome memories of The Evil Dead (as will a séance conducted with a pulse pounding dash of Grand Guignol).

Although never in a mean spirited or sadistic vein, Raimi proves that his skill at audience manipulation hasn’t slackened with brief lulls shattered by another moment of expertly timed fright (the film is a self-described 'spookablast', akin to a classic fairground ride). Lohman and Raver do brilliantly with physically demanding roles, veering just the right side of parody in both cases (although both Long and Rao come across as bland fodder). Forgoing gore (mostly) in favour of the hokey B movies of old – a storm-lit reveal of a graveyard couldn’t signal Raimi’s intentions more clearly – Drag Me To Hell proves there’s no director more adept at finding the funny side in macabre horror. And you won’t look at hankies in the same way again…

Angels and Demons Review

OK so it’s no act of divine intervention but Ron Howard’s Angels and Demons marks a considerable improvement on his wretched Da Vinci Code (a film experience that invites comparison to having an enema). The Roman Catholic Church voiced then revoked dissent it in realisation that the film is pure Hollywood fluff, nothing more (and thereby telling more about the film than any review could).

Recognising Dan Brown’s prequel to Da Vinci (although it’s a sequel on-screen) as nothing more than the enjoyable airport trash it is, Howard sensibly foregrounds the suspense and action this time. With brilliant use of the lavish Rome locations (although all the Vatican scenes were impressively done on-set), the film feels, without ever labouring it, on a grander and more portentous scale.

Devoid of the road kill mullet, a trim Tom Hanks is clearly more comfortable this time round, reprising the role of Professor Robert Langdon. This time the archival Indiana Jones is urgently summoned to Vatican City where the present Pope has passed away and the bishops are about to seal themselves in Conclave.

One problem: the so-called ‘God Particle’ has been stolen from the CERN laboratory in Geneva and planted somewhere in the Vatican. Evidence points to the secret society the Illuminati, who have come for revenge on the church after a history of persecution. Should it go off, the entire city will be decimated, and only a hidden trail through Rome will lead Langdon to the device and four soon-to-be-executed cardinals.

Howard stages Demons as a much pacier beast, charging past the frescoes, churches, fountains and statues of Rome with doomsday ticking down on the horizon. Of course this isn’t going to be mistaken for high drama any time in the future: Brown’s dunderheaded dialogue (i.e. everyone says everything out loud all the time) is a constant ball and chain around the ankles of the talented cast (there can never be too many helpfully pointy statues in the world of Hollywood) and it would be wise to credit the audience with more intelligence without having to always resort to exposition.

At least in this story we’re spared from perky Audrey Tatou miscasting. Instead, the more authoritative Ayelet Zurer as Vittoria Vetra, under whose nose the anti-matter was stolen, is on the same page as Langdon, keeping pace both physically and intellectually (although chemistry is inevitably non-existent). Ewan McGregor, for once, is used well in a big budget feature as the young Camerlengo struggling to assert his authority, although he himself struggles with a wobbly accent (those from Ulster will giggle incessantly). Stellan Skarsgard and Armin Mueller Stahl do the ambivalent European thing (if they have a foreign accent, they must be shifty).

Hans Zimmer’s thrilling score screaming bombast reveals the grand aspirations of this large scale thriller, although it never takes flight as it should (it’s a shame more daft puns weren’t injected into the movie for levity). However there is one final, albeit unintentional, joke: for all the church’s pessimism, it turns out to be ill-founded. The film’s ongoing theoretical battle between science and religion, rather poignantly (and with more than a hint of irony), sees faith as the one coming out smelling of roses.