Monday, 19 September 2016

AFS Screening: Tales of Hoffman

Following the Statham love-fest of the last couple posts, now for something completely different: The last of this year's AFS screening reviews; 1951's Tales of Hoffman.

Written, produced and directed by the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Tales of Hoffman is an adaptation of the opera by Jacques Offenbach, which in turn was inspired by the stories of 19th century writer E. T. A. Hoffmann (most famous for The Nutcracker)

At the time this movie was made, Powell and Pressburger were major players in the British film industry, and their work together -- including films such as A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes -- has been enormously influential. Martin Scorsese is one of their biggest fans, and counts The Tales of Hoffman as one of his favourite films (he recorded a commentary track for the Criterion edition). 

The film was recently re-released on Blu ray, which probably explains while the AFS included it in this year's programme.

The film is an opera. There is no dialogue -- every word is sung. If you like opera and ballet, you'll be in good hands. If you don't, stick around. Tales of Hoffmann is one of the most purely  cinematic experiences I've had this year.

The story is centred around Hoffmann, here played by opera singer Robert Rounseville. Waiting at a tavern during the intermission of a ballet starring his love, prima ballerina Stella (Moira Shearer, star of The Red Shoes), Hoffman regales the other drinkers with three tales of his lost loves.

The movie consists of three vignettes inspired by Hoffmann's stories, with Hoffmann himself as the romantic lead in each.

In the first, he falls in love with the daughter (Shearer again) of a famous inventor. The daughter turns out to be an automaton, revealed in a terrifying scene where the inventor's cheated collaborator tears her limb from limb.

In the second, Hoffman is in Venice, where he falls under the literal spell of a courtesan (Ludmilla Tchérina) who steals his reflection for her master, an evil magician.

In the third, Hoffmann is in love with Antonia, a beautiful soprano who is dying of consumption. Fearing that she will die if she keeps singing, her father forbids it. In the end, entrapped by the evil Dr Miracle, Antonia sings again and dies.

In each story, and the wraparound, Hoffmann's nemesis is played by Robert Helpmann. Though each role is different, he serves the same function of foiling Hoffmann's attempts at happiness.

The Tales of Hoffmann is a gorgeous movie, in every sense of the word. Though the Blu ray transfer is extremely unforgiving toward the make-up, sets and special effects, it does not detract from the power of Powell and Pressburger's film. Despite being stage-bound and being wall-to-wall music, the movie moves and is filled with weird, psychedelic images. 

But despite its worthy origins and presentation, the movie is filled with experimentation and a welcome dose of wit. Hoffmann's stories are dark and down beat, but the film never feels mired in the misery. The movie's darkness is more akin to Roald Dahl -- the wit does not blunt the violence or tragedy, but merely garnishes it. 

A one of a kind on release and even today, The Tales of Hoffmann deserves a wider audience. Find it on Blu ray and settle in. It is a truly one-of-a-kind experience.

Previous AFS reviews

Purple Noon (2015)

The Servant (2015)

Eyes Without A Face (2015)

Night of the Demon

Grand Central

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

STATHAM HITS: Safe (2012)

Sadly, this the end. I already wrote a review of this movie, but it was really short. Time to give Safe its due.

This is the most legit action movie Jason Statham has ever made. I love his other movies, but this is the one time where Statham attaches himself to a project without a hint of irony or silliness.

Not to say its a work of art. Evocative of the action flicks Eastwood and Bronson used to churn out in the seventies, Safe is a hard bitten, brutal action picture that manages to give Statham an interesting character to play, some sweet action and lashings of pitch black humour.

Statham plays Luke Wright, a homeless man whose life was destroyed by the mob. Tormented to the point of insanity, he wanders the city streets, completely detached from the world around him.

Mei (Catherine Chan) is a young girl with a photographic memory. She is the prisoner of triad boss Han Jiao (James Hong). Distrustful of computers, he uses the young girl as a human ledger. Sick of her life, Mei tries to escape and runs into Luke.

As word of her escape spreads through the city, various criminal groups descend on the pair, all determined to gain the knowledge in Mei's head.

Propulsive and extremely violent, Safe is a really fun ride that finds interesting ways to play with action movie conventions while never feeling cliche or hackneyed. This kind of premise has been done to death -- Statham kinda already did this with the Transporter movies -- but writer-director Boaz Yakin manages to squeeze every drop of originality out of it as he can.

Yakin is an inconsistent talent (he's most famous for Remember the Titans), but he earns his strips with this movie. And Statham, who is not exactly known for his versatility, is fantastic as the broken Luke. While he can still kick ass, this is a man who is dead inside, and Statham manages to make his redemption believable. Once again, this is an arc we've seen a million times before, but Statham actually manages to make the cliche feel, if not fresh, at least alive.

There are a lot of nice surprises in Safe, so I won't spoil them.

Sadly, the movie bombed on release, but it is worth checking out for one of Statham's strongest showcases. Since Safe, Statham has continued to churn out a movie or two a year, but he has yet to come up with a vehicle as solid as this one.

Here's hoping the success of Spy and Furious 7 give the Stath a better slate of projects, because as a film like Safe proves, with the right material he can be a compelling lead.

Previous reviews

The Transporter (2002)

Transporter 2 (2005)

Crank (2006)

Death Race (2008)

Crank 2: High Voltage (2009)

Monday, 12 September 2016

STATHAM HITS: Crank 2: High Voltage (2009)

Does this even count as a movie?

Crank High Voltage is the kind of movie that makes you laugh and question your sanity/morality/everything. Everything is pushed to the most deplorable extreme. Plot, character and sheer human decency get stuffed in a bunker with a frag grenade and blown up. Crank High Voltage  takes the template its predecessor established and blows it up.

This movie takes aim at every issue you can think of -- racism, sexism, the rights of porn stars -- and turns them inside out. You want David Carradine in yellow face as an Asian crime boss? You got it. A Godzilla-esque fight between a paper-mache Jason Statham and some nameless goon? We have that too. On top of that, you also get more public sex, horse nudity, a porn star strike, a talking decapitated head and scenes featuring Bai Ling.

This movie is not to everybody's tastes, including the half of my brain that I don't listen to. Every signpost of good taste gets uprooted and used as a bat to knock down road cones. This movie is MAD.

The most insane movie Jason Statham has ever been a part of, Crank: High Voltage just is. See it and laugh/hurl.

Previous reviews

The Transporter (2002)

Transporter 2 (2005)

Crank (2006)

Death Race (2008)

Sunday, 11 September 2016

STATHAM HITS: Death Race (2008)

Back in 2008, Jason Statham was on an upswing. The Bank Job, his first major dramatic lead, had opened at the start of the year to strong reviews and decent box office. Transporter 3 was scheduled for the end of the year. Death Race was Statham's first big studio lead, and was expected to break him into the A List. Unfortunately it did not do well, and Statham would not get another shot at the big time until the double-punch of Furious 7 and Spy last year.

I only just watched this recently, and was shocked at how much I enjoyed it. It reminded me of how awesome Jason Statham is, and inspired me to dedicate a few posts to his Royal Baldness.

A remake of the Roger Corman cult classic Death Race 2000 starring David Carradine, Death Race tells the story of Jensen Ames (Statham), a former car racer who winds up in a post-apocalyptic prison after he is framed for the murder of his wife. In this future, the economy has tanked so badly that services like prisons have been privatised. To keep the lights on, the prison's heartless warden, Hennessy (Joan Allen) has created a reality TV show in which inmates are forced to race each other in customised vehicles. A racer who wins five races wins his (or her) freedom.

Blackmailed with the promise of freedom and a chance to save his baby daughter, Jensen is forced to take the mantel of dead racer Frankenstein, a popular masked inmate who dies at the beginning of the movie (voiced by David Carradine). With their most popular star dead, the prison is determined to keep the ratings high, and will do anything to make sure that Frankenstein continues to race, whether Jensen likes it or not.

Aided by a ragtag team of inmates/mechanics (led by the great Ian McShane) and his female navigator Case (Natalie Martinez), Jensen is in a literal race for his life against a rogues gallery of rival drivers, not to mention the evil warden running the show.

I am not a Paul WS Anderson fan. Apart from this movie and parts of Event Horizon, I've found the movies I've watched of his to be sloppily made and extremely dull.

I was surprised at how neat and (relatively) strong the story was for this one. And while there are a few moments of handheld confusion, stylistically this movie is pretty easy to follow. It helps that the races are played for real. As a final title card informs us, all the vehicular mayhem was done in-camera, with real drivers smashing real cars into each other. It's terrific.

And the movie is pleasingly unpretentious. It's not striving for deeper meaning. It's a b-movie through and through: we get violence, a little sex, and some really corny one liners. And once the story runs out, the movie ends.

On the acting front, the cast do the job. McShane makes every silly line sound badass, Allen adds a touch of class as the ice queen-like villain and Tyrese Gibson, as rival racer Machine Gun Joe, does  a good job of playing the least crazy of Jensen's opponents.

Now to the Statham of it all. Statham in an action movie is good, Statham behind the wheel? Better. It helps that he gets someone to spark off with Martinez as his foil.

Statham does not really 'do' chemistry, but his rapport with Martinez is one of the few times it feels like he likes another human being.

Martinez is great -- there's a few shots early on where Anderson's camera oogles her like a dirty old man, but the rapport between her and Statham is more of a professional partnership. It works for Statham, who has never been believable as a romantic lead. I hope they star in another movie together -- they have  a cool dynamic.

While I would rank it a bit lower than the Transporters and Crank, Death Race is a solid genre flick and an excellent showcase for Statham's scowling, fighting and driving skills. On a scale of one to Statham, this one gets two thumbs up.

Previous reviews

The Transporter (2002)

Transporter 2 (2005)

Crank (2006)

Saturday, 10 September 2016

STATHAM HITS: Crank (2006)

If you thought Transporter 2 pushed the action movie as far as it can go, get ready to have your brain filled with TNT, 'cause Statham is just getting started Baby!

Released the year after Transporter 2, Crank is both a simple high concept action thriller and one of the most gonzo boundary- and taboo-busting  movies I've ever seen.

Statham plays Chev Chelios. Chelios is not a good man. He works for more bad men. Said bad men inject Chelios with a poison that will kill him if he does not keep his heart rate up. Chelios does. And kills the bad men.

This movie is so stripped down and pure -- actually pure is the wrong word for this movie. Crank is dirty. In his journey to keep himself alive Chelios is willing to do literally anything to keep himself alive -- from chugging Red Bulls to taking hard drugs to using a defibrillator to having public sex. And all the while, he is trying to find the people who crossed him.

The whole crazy thing defies plot description. There's a bizarre scene in a  hotel where models hang out in massive glass balls. In about the same amount of time it takes you to go 'What the f...', a shootout happens and all these poor women get wiped out. The whole movie is filled with bizarre non-sequiturs like this.

Directed by the diabolical twosome of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, Crank is the movie equivalent of a coke addict, veering from one debauched set piece to something even more insane.

And at the centre of the madness, Jason Statham is perfection. His natural stoicism has always had a whiff of irony (intentional or otherwise), and juxtaposed against the madness of Crank it is elevated to another level.  He is the straight man to the crazy, his scowl the punchline to the movie's sick joke. Spy didn't prove Statham was funny -- Crank did.

If you want to watch a great Statham movie, check this sucker out. It's a prime steak of Statham, garnished with a layer of Neveldine/Taylor BBQ sauce.

Previous reviews

The Transporter (2002)

Transporter 2 (2005)

Friday, 9 September 2016

STATHAM HITS: Transporter 2 (2005)

This is my favourite Statham movie. Everything that you loved about the first movie, everything you love about Statham, heck everything you love about going to the movies is here in this movie.

Having left the transporting game behind, Frank Martin has moved to Florida and become the chauffeur for a diplomat and his wife. The couple's relationship is on the rocks, leaving their young son to bond with the mysterious driver. When his little friend is kidnapped, Frank goes back into action to save him.

For a long time, I thought director Louis Letterier was a genius. I thought he had the perfect take on what an OTT action movie should look and feel like. That feeling didn't last (Clash of the Titans anyone?), but my love for this movie sure has.

And I would argue that while The Transporter showed that Jason Statham could kick ass, the sequel was the movie that made him a name in the genre. After Transporter 2, Statham's filmography becomes crowded with bullets, explosions and twisted axels.

Everything the first movie gets right, this movie does better. One had Martin fighting a gang while covered in motor oil, Two has Martin fighting a gang with a fire hose. One had bad man Wall Street. Two has bad girl Lola. One had Shu Qi screaming. Two has silence. This movie is great!

Sure, the plot is hackneyed, the attempts to humanise Frank fall flat, the subplot with the kid is cloying and stupid, and the dialogue might actually be worse than the first movie.

And yet.............

.... it doesn't matter. It never matters. In fact, all these supposed checks against the movie's quality merely add to its vibe.

I called The Transporter a live-action cartoon. This movie makes its prequel look like a Mike Leigh movie.

Every time the action Cranks up (heheheh), this movie is elevated to another plane of awesome. Frank Martin goes from action hero to superhero, using his car to perform a variety of gravity-defying stunts (including the bit where he jumps his car off a building, and turns it sideways so that a construction crane can knock off the bomb attached to the undercarriage). There's a fight on a plane which features some of the worst CGI ever but it's still cool, because it's an excuse to have a fight in low gravity.

This one even has a villain to write home about: Lola (Kate Nauta), the villain's psychopathic hench woman. She dresses in-appropriately, dances at inappropriate times and is constantly trying to shoot people in the face. Nauta's acting is patchy, but the character is so off-the-wall and entertaining it doesn't matter.

In the end, Transporter 2 is one of the best guilty pleasure action movies I've ever seen. In the Stathm pantheon, this one sits pretty high. Check it out.

Previous reviews

The Transporter (2002)

Thursday, 8 September 2016

STATHAM HITS: The Transporter (2002)

This is a list of my favourite Statham movies. Not movies starring Statham, but movies that epitomise the growly, balding awesomeness that is Jason [BLANKING] Statham.

The Transporter is the movie that introduced Jason Statham as the action god he is today. Some action heroes take a few movies to find their niche: Statham gets there in one movie.

Statham plays Frank Martin, a driver who carries packages for a fee. In his work, Martin follows three rules:

1) Don't change the deal

2) No names

3) Never open the package

If a client breaks the rules, Frank walks.

Frank has a pretty easy life, all things considered (those things being car chases, shootouts, and other death-involving things), until he accepts an assignment to take a large, moving package across country.

The package is a young woman, Lai (Shu Qi). When the clients try to double-cross him, Frank goes ballistic. 

This movie is not smart, this movie is not art, this movie is AWESOME. Come on, it features a bad guy called Wall Street. WALL STREET!

It's not as awesome as its sequel, but The Transporter is still great. The action comes fast and furious, with the oil slick fight in particular a stand out, as Frank oils himself up and then beats the crap out of a bunch of bad 'uns. 

Co-directed by Corey Yeun and Louis Letterier, The Transporter is fast and flashy, combining chop socky with a dash of Road Runner-style battiness that helps the movie stand out from the more earnest offerings of the same period. The movie is a live action cartoon, but in the best possible way.

But while the action is great, Statham makes the movie what it is. Physically capable, stubbled, and growling every line like he's in a one-liner competition at an arm-wrestling contest, Jason Statham turns Frank Martin into an anti-hero everyone can love. The lines may clunk, the acting may be of the finest mahogany, and the plot may be bobbins, but Statham is the unflinching, stoic centre that keeps the movie on track.  I've always had this vague sense that Statham's reticence as an action hero is some kind of meta piss-take on the whole idea of the monosyllabic hero, but who knows? Any way you slice it, it works. 

The heir apparent to old school hard men like Charles Bronson, Statham's deadpan intensity has rarely been better served than in this.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: District B13 (Pierre Morel, 2004)

I heard about this movie for years, but never got around to watching it until fairly recently. I had heard the parkour stunts were amazing, and the director, Pierre Morel, had gone on to direct the highly enjoyable Taken, with Liam Neeson. So when I found it in a bargain bin, it was a no brainer.

The story is fairly simple. In a future dystopia, a cop and a criminal team up to break into District B13 to prevent a WMD from going off. District B13 is a walled-off area of Paris ala New York in Escape From New York. Economically depressed and overrun by crime, the place is a virtual war zone.

There really isn't much more to the plot, but I have to admit I was slightly underwhelmed by this movie. 

The premise is pretty simple, and the opening chase sequence is excellent, but it takes over half the movie for our heroes to come together and break into District B13. And while David Belle (who plays the acrobatic crim Leito) is an amazing athlete, as a screen presence he is a little vanilla. The same goes for Cyril Raffaella as the cop, Tomaso. 

It's silly b-movies like this which make me realise how important action stars are. The Transporter is an incredibly simple, silly movie, but because it's Jason Statham playing the hero, the movie's ridiculousness can pass muster. He sells the movie, and maintains viewer interest in the moments between the action scenes as well as during them.

Without that kind of charisma in the lead roles, the movie sags between the action beats, and there are a lot of gaps between the action scenes here.

The opening is terrific, and the introduction of Tomaso is great -- but they should have been condensed considerably. The movie is only 86 minutes long -- 65 minutes of that should have been our heroes plowing through District B13 and tangling with its various inhabitants. Instead, we get one fight between our heroes and a very large and hairy man with no discernible fighting talents beyond his size and a low centre of gravity.

Overall, District B13 is just above passable as b-movie entertainment. But with more charismatic leads, and more economical and action-driven approach it could have been b-movie gold.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Ricochet (Russell Mulcahy, 1991)

This movie is awesome.

It has Denzel Washington as cool cop and John Lithgow as a crazy villain in a plot ripped off from Cape Fear, directed by the guy who made Highlander (1986). 

Washington plays Nick Styles, a cop-turned assistant DA. He has a political career in mind and is deeply involved with charity projects to rejuvenate his local community. His rise in prominence is thanks to an incident when, as a rookie cop, he took down psychotic criminal Earl Talbot Blake (Lithgow).

While Styles has all but forgotten him, Blake has not forgotten about Nick. Locked away in prison, he has bided his time, and put together a scheme to bring Nick's pristine life and career crashing down on top of him.

This movie feels like it was made from a comic book. Each character is a caricature, Mulcahy shoots everything with the emphasis on style for its own sake, and Alan Silvestri's score sounds like the overture for a circus act. It is awesomely excessive.

Washington's performance here is pure charisma. Without him, Nick would probably come off as a preening git, but with Washington playing him, the character becomes incredibly sympathetic. As an Obama-like lawyer looking to boost his election prospects, Washington has the intelligence and charisma to be believable in the role. 

On the batshit front, John Lithgow is wonderful as Blake. Simmering rage distilled into human form, Blake is a wonderfully deranged nemesis. Like Washington, Lithgow brings a wit and intelligence to the character which probably was not on the page. A welcome addition to Lithgow's strong rogues gallery. 

Despite its overheated style (or maybe because of it), the movie is enormously entertaining -- the premise is so crazy, and the characters so morally delineated, that the stylistic excesses feel totally appropriate. 

Overlooked and somewhat forgotten, Ricochet is a terrific early showcase for Denzel Washington as a nascent action star. 

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Von Ryan's Express (Mark Robeson, 1965)

Man, I love this movie. I have a thing for thrillers set on trains, and this is one of the best.

Frank Sinatra stars as US fighter pilot Colonel Joseph Ryan.

Shot down over Italy during the Allied invasion in 1943, Ryan is captured by the Italians and sent to a POW camp. Ryan finds himself imprisoned with the remains of a British regiment, led by Major Fincham (Trevor Howard). With their differing philosophies toward their situation (Fincham wants to escape while Ryan wants to wait for the Allies to arrive), the two are immediately at loggerheads.

Due to the Allied advance, the Italians flee the camp, and the prisoners attempt a breakout. They are caught by the Germans, and put on a prison train heading north.

What follows is a moving version of The Great Escape (John Sturges, 1963), as Ryan and his men stage a takeover of the train and then orchestrate passage to the Swiss border. 

A great old school war picture, Von Ryan's Express is more concerned with suspense and character than action. Hemmed in all sides by the German war machine, the prisoners are forced to using all manner of subterfuge to avoid detection.

The acting is generally good. Sinatra and Howard are great, but Edward Mulhare is the real standout as the regiment's German-speaking governor. He is the 'star' of the film's best suspense sequence -- masquerading as an SS officer, he has to get off the train and convince the authorities to re-route the train. 

I don't want to spoil too much, but if you have a chance, check this one out. An under-seen gem.