Friday, 16 December 2011

Life's Too Short review

My first non-film review, for the Ricky Gervais/ Stephen Merchant series Life's Too Short.

When someone with the magnitude of comic Ricky Gervais declares something ‘the funniest thing we’ve ever done’, people are going to sit up and take note. Add in a primetime slot on the BBC and you’ve got a sure fire winner. Gervais, along with writing partner Stephen Merchant, have already produced two hugely successful sitcoms for the network, The Office and Extras. Life’s Too Short is, like The Office, a mockumentary style show, following the everyday life of famed dwarf and actor Warwick Davis, who plays a fictionalised version of himself. Is the show another runaway success for Gervais and Merchant, or are there signs of them coming off the tracks?

Unforunately, based on the first five episodes (of a total seven), Life’s Too Shot is definitely evidence of the latter. The problems are plentiful. Gervais and Merchant come dangerously close to committing the cardinal sin of comedies set in the real world (and shot in a faux documentary style, no less) of making every single character completely unbelievable and impossible to relate to. The premise is much like that of Extras; celebrities, including Davis, play exaggerated and distorted versions of themselves (or what we imagine them to be like), and the show is about the social situations these personas get themselves into as they spark with regular people. However, where Life’s Too Short falters is that the normal people don’t act like normal people.

Much of the show is based around the difficulties Warwick faces as a little person, but it appears that the amount of material Gervais and Merchant had when it came to said difficulties was extremely thin on the ground, hence their reliance on Warwick interacting with bigoted, offensive members of the public; in one scene, two cashier workers talk loudly to one another about whether dwarfs would need special condoms because regular ones would be too big; in another, a maître d’ immediately assumes Warwick is meeting another little person for a drink, and refuses to relent when Warwick makes an issue of the fact. In other words, things that would almost never happen today appear to be an everyday occurrence in the world of Life’s Too Short. It’s this lack of characters and situations able to ground the series in reality that creates issues for the show.

As with Extras, Life’s Too Short is filled with a plethora of Hollywood names making cameos. However, whilst the former series’ appearances generally ranged from the good to the brilliant, Gervais and Merchant’s latest outing has been considerably more hit-and-miss. Helena Bonham Carter, Johnny Depp, and Liam Neeson all achieve the desired effect. Neeson‘s scene, as he tries his hand at decidedly risqué improvisational comedy (in his trademark deadpan delivery, of course) is quite possibly the highlight of the series. However, other cameos have not fared as well. Right Said Fred make a bizarre and, ultimately, boring appearance, whilst Steve Carell quite literally phones in his performance, appearing on a Skype call with Gervais to play out the tired ‘badmouth someone when they’re still listening’ gag, not once, but twice (made all the more implausible by the fact that Gervais believes he has hung up, and yet is fully aware that a documentary crew are filming his every word).

Gervais and Merchant’s characters in Extras were arguably the best thing about the show – Gervais’ Andy Millman providing a perfect straight man for the various stars to bounce off of, and Merchant as his incompetent agent Darren. Here, however, playing themselves, they are arguably the most irritating thing about Life’s Too Short, repeatedly popping up for no real reason to belittle and insult Warwick and generally coming across as unlikeable wankers. Merchant’s Darren character is resurrecent in the form of Warwick’s accountant, who also serves as his solicitor in his divorce proceedings, but is horribly misjudged, taking the original incompetence and bumbling charm and taking it to the point where the audience are left wondering if the character is meant to have some sort of mental disability. Warwick’s assistant works along similar lines, taking the ‘ditzy secretary’ stereotype to extreme and unfunny ends with unbelievable levels of stupidity.

That isn’t to say it’s all bad though. Davis is great, oscillating between being socially-inept and pitiless to bewilderment at the world around him (as well he might). For Gervais and Merchant, the writing is unbelievably flabby compared to their previous efforts, but there are still some gems to be found in the classic ‘awkward social situation’ style of the pair (one particular highlight is a scene in a bar where Warwick tells his accountant to chat up a girl with the line ‘Warwick’s a bad boy’, only for his friend to say ‘Warwick’s bad - he’s a rapist’ – the best Warwick can salvage is claiming he’s a racist, before leaving quickly). That being said, these flashes of comedic brilliance are just that – flashes. It’s not bad, but it’s a huge drop in quality from Gervais and Merchant, who one hopes will realise the error of their ways and move on to other, better things. For Life’s Too Short, unfortunately, life may not be short enough.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

300 Review

Director: Zack Snyder
Starring: Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, David Wenham

When a film is best known for a single line of dialogue, and that line has become infamous for its recyclability and sheer insaneness rather than its quality or humour, you can forgive me for not having the highest of expectations for it. Telling the story of the Battle or Thermopylae, 300 pits a group of (wait for it) three hundred Spartans against a Persian army of approximately one gajillion. If you’re already questioning exactly how historically accurate this film is, stop. According to director Zack Snyder the previously historically accurate battle formations were changed to ones that made the film ‘look cool’. ‘Nuff said.

Snyder has been Hollywood’s go-to guy for any project with the word ‘stylised’ (or anthropomorphised owls, if Legends of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole is anything to go by) in the description since this 2006 outing, and it’s difficult to argue against this reputation. The film’s look is certainly distinctive, distinguishing it from the sword and sandal epics of old, and the darker visuals lend themselves to the gory violence nicely. However, there is a thin line between ‘stylised’ and indulgent, repetitive crap, and Snyder doesn’t so much walk it as jump across it, spit on it, and then remove the line’s existence from history because it was stopping the group from ‘looking cool’. The visuals are all well and good, but so much of the action is in slow motion that it both stops being noticeable and simultaneously slows the action to a snail’s pace at points.

There are two basic formulas for successful action movies; relentless, balls-to-the-wall action for virtually the entire film, or more thoughtful, ambiguous movies which combine action with non-action sequences. Around ninety percent of 300 is the former, but the remaining ten percent drags to an almost impossible degree. The dialogue sounds as though every line has been specifically designed to be as hyperbolic and kitschy as possible. Whilst fans of the original graphic novel may claim this is part of the film’s appeal, for the casual movie goer, there’s only so many times you can hear one of umpteen variations on ‘FOR SPARTA! FOR FREEDOM! TO THE DEATH!’ before simply tuning out.

Speaking of tuning out, it’s probably best done for the soundtrack too; a frankly bizarre mix of Lord of the Rings-inspired operatic numbers, interspersed by anachronistic electric guitar pieces, it reeks of a film so desperate to be successful with its target demographic that it’s a wonder they didn’t give the Spartans M16s.

The two warring sides, the Spartans and the Persians, are moronic to say the least. The portrayal of the respective armies is so black and white that they may as well be referred to as ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’. The Spartans are shown to be muscle-bound demi-Gods whose penchant for violence is all for the good of their country. The Persians, meanwhile, are deformed freaks (their king Xerxes is nine feet tall for no apparent reason), stupid and barbaric. As loosely as the writers (Snyder, Kurt Johnstad, Michael Gordon) use their historical basis, it’s difficult to see these respective depictions as anything other than both revisionist and racist.

Given the amount of post-production and CGI-enhancing the film went through (only one shot wasn’t done in front of a blue screen) it’s a wonder Snyder and co. decided to use real actors at all. Despite some considerable talent (Dominic West, Michael Fassbender), the ‘acting’ in 300 essentially amounts to yelling epithets whilst waving their loincloths around. Gerard Butler’s acting brief appears to have been to growl two lines, shout one, repeat.

A 2013 prequel to 300 has been announced, which may well prompt a critical reevaluation of 300. I’m sure that the prequel will, rather than focusing on violent action, seek to answer questions raised by the first instalment, such as what happened to Sparta’s clothes? Why are all Persians shown to be subhuman barbarians? Why did everything happen so slowly back then? Until then, however, these questions will unfortunately go unanswered.


Sunday, 30 October 2011

Three films I'm looking forward to: J. Edgar, Lincoln, and The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt

J. Edgar
Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts
Release: January 2012 (UK)

Compared to the other two films in this article, J. Edgar Hoover is arguably the least important and, dare I say, the least interesting. However, that is putting him up against two of the most recognisable faces of American history. Hoover’s place in history is fascinating and hotly contested, having been the face of the FBI during Prohibition and the Red scare, two eras in which the relationship between right and wrong became confused; criminals like John Dillinger, who was killed during Hoover’s tenure, was a hero to many, and from a contemporary point of view, the issues with the time of HUAC and the John Birch Society are plentiful.

Unlike many actors, Leonardo DiCaprio has never shied away from a challenge; after Titanic, he could have quite easily settled into taking roles in romantic dramas and raked it in. Instead, and to his credit, he’s consistently taken difficult, varying roles, most notably those from his partnership with Martin Scorsese, portraying an up-and-coming gangster with ulterior motives in the nineteenth century (Gangs of New York), the neurotic Howard Hughes (The Aviator), and a US Marshall (Shutter Island). It’ll be very interesting to see him try to tackle such a complex character.

Eastwood’s output has been somewhat erratic of late, but he is always able to make the audience think about what they’re watching and make an emotional impact, so a complex character portrait may well be a good match.

Anticipation rating: 6/10

Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tommy Lee Jones
Release: December 2012

I’ve never been much of a Spielberg fan if I’m being totally honest – aside from his first few films, he seems to direct three or four average films to every good one. However, this biopic of America’s best known president Abraham Lincoln has all sorts of potential for one reason alone; Daniel Day-Lewis. Notoriously selective with his roles (he’s starred in just three films since 2005, including his Academy Award winning performance in There Will be Blood), Day-Lewis can stake a serious claim to be the greatest actor of his generation. Admittedly, for all his selectivity and his scarce appearances, the number of truly great films he has appeared in is disappointingly few, but this doesn’t take away from his ability. As much as my anticipation for Lincoln is fuelled by the wishful belief that he’ll simply carry his Daniel Plainview (his character from There Will be Blood) persona over into his portrayal of Honest Abe, complete with scene-dominating intensity and vein-popping anger.

I... drink... your... slaves... I DRINK THEM UP

As with all historical films, there’s the problem of accuracy and revisionism (as I mentioned in my review of The Help), and with Spielberg directing there’s always the risk that things could take a turn for the saccharine, but hope springs eternal.

Anticipation rating: 8/10

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt
Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio
Release: 2013

The final film of this piece, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt is yet another historical biopic, this time directed by the inimitable Martin Scorsese. Very little is known about the project so far, but Scorsese’s new favourite leading man Leonardo DiCaprio is widely believed to be lined up to play the former president in the film, which focuses on his formative years and his role in the Spanish- American war.

Whilst I’m no fan of Spielberg, and I do like Eastwood, Scorsese has a similar affect on me than Day-Lewis does; anything he does, I want to see. If those two teamed up again, I’d look forward to it no matter what it was, a biopic, a Plan 9 for Outer Space remake, literally anything.

Teddy, clearly thrilled that his love for Mean Streets has paid off in the best way possible

Another reason for looking forward to Roosevelt is that I like seeing people get their dues. To the young generations of today, they most likely associate Teddy with the eponymous bears named for him, Robin Williams in Night at the Museum, or his various Chuck Norris-esque achievements, such as being shot before giving a speech, and opting to give the speech before going to hospital. Whilst this is all well and good, and helps keeps the legacy of the man alive, it also sells him short. Read any book on Roosevelt and it will tell you how undeniably vital a role he played in the creation of the nation of America we know today. Lincoln ended secession and brought the North and South, but Roosevelt was critical in developing national pride and united the people under a national identity. He has a place on Mt. Rushmore for a reason beyond his feats of bad-assery.

Whilst there has been some dissent towards the casting of DiCaprio as Roosevelt, I suspect much of it is fuelled by people growing tired of Scorsese’s repeated use of him (just be thankful it’s not Burton and Depp), particularly as the film focuses on Roosevelt before he becomes president.

Anticipation rating: 9/10

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Fast Times at Ridgemont High

Article can be found here:

I realise I've completely ignored this site for a few months, I do intend to start updating it more regularly again. Also, for those of you who follow the blog, I'm sorry for not following back, I have absolutely no idea how; please comment and tell me!

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Four Badass Lines from Film History

There are countless film quote compilations knocking about, perhaps the best known being the AFI’s 100 Years... 100 Quotes list ('s_100_Years...100_Movie_Quotes). The problem with this list, however, is it includes quotes from all remits – love, sorrow, and all those other girly emotions. Everyone knows that the best quotes are badass quotes, so here’s four I've picked out specially.

1.     ‘It’s just been revoked!’ – Roger Murtaugh, Lethal Weapon 2 (1989)

Lethal Weapon 2 was released at a simpler, less politically correct time when filmmakers could call a spade a spade. In 1989, anti-apartheid sentiment was at its height, with numerous boycotts of various South African products and events regularly occurring. Nowadays, an equivalent antagonistic situation (say North Korea or Libya) probably would be shown in films through a made-up proxy country to avoid pissing people off too much. However, one of the great things about Lethal Weapon 2 is that they go all out – the villains are all extremely South African, and the writers and director Richard Donner don’t pull any punches, with numerous references to the villains as ‘Nazis’ ‘Aryans’ and ‘the master race’. Throughout the film, the audience is actively encouraged to hate the South African consult (with the exception of Patsy Kensit’s character, who’s there to show that not all South African’s are gigantic bastards), but the real pièce de résistance is in the final scene. Having killed all the henchmen (including Derrik O’Connor’s character, who dies when Riggs (Mel Gibson) drops a cargo container on him), all that’s left is a straight shoot-off between the generally by-the-book cop Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) and Arjen Rudd (Joss Ackland). As Rudd holds up his credentials and triumphantly yells ‘Diplomatic immunity’, on the assumption that Murtaugh won’t risk killing him, Roger takes aim and shoots him straight in the head, retorted ‘It’s just been revoked’. It’s an immensely satisfying moment, and it’s fitting that the African American Murtaugh gets to literally shoot apartheid in the face.

2.    ‘Garbage Day!’ – Ricky Caldwell, Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 (1987)

Think of the most mundane domestic chore you can. The likelihood that taking out the bins will come somewhere pretty near the top, right? Wrong. Did you know that putting your rubbish out for the bin men is actually the number one most common activity people are murdered doing? At least according to Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2. As you can probably tell from the title, Silent Night is one of those films which very much falls into the ‘so bad it’s good’ category. Unusually, it’s not really taking itself seriously or having a bit of a laugh – instead, it doesn’t seem to really have any idea what it is. The basic plot is that the brother of the killer from Part 1 (I don’t really need to fill you in on that, you all know that beloved yuletide classic) goes on a killing spree after his girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend sets him off or something. The plot’s not really important; what matters is the utterly bizarre dialogue spouted by the killer Ricky (Eric Freeman). It’s difficult to really do it justice in writing.

If you’ve visited this place called the internet before, you’ve probably heard of garbage day. So what changes it from the deranged yelling of a psychotic killer to a totally badass line? Well, first of all, there’s the sheer creative genius and quick wittedness of the line. Ricky has literally seconds to think ‘Hm, I need to yell a short, punchy phrase that references what he’s doing whilst simultaneously informing him of the substantial threat to his life – Wait, I’ve got it! GARBAGE DAY!’ The line is so good that the guy knows he’s gonna get shot without any other information (a more natural assumption would be that maybe you were getting robbed, or that the guy wanted to go through your bins, not that you were going to be murdered for taking your rubbish out). Secondly, there’s the fact he should have had no opportunity to even the deliver the line. Let’s look at this again:

 Guy’s taking out his trash.

 He lifts his trash can up...

 ... to reveal – holy shit! – the deranged killer. Now it’s all well and good for the audience to get this dramatic reveal, as we’re being shown the action from on the ground, behind a bin. However, the victim of the first annual Garbage Day™ is stood up, and he’s already put on bin by the curb. How the hell did he not manage to see the guy holding a gun stood in the middle of the bloody road? Needless to say, if this guy wasn’t blind (the only way the scene really makes any sense), we probably would have been robbed of one of the best thought-out lines in cinema history.

3. ‘There is no bathroom!’ – John Kimble, Kindergarten Cop (1990)

By the time Kindergarten Cop came along, Arnold Schwarzenegger was firmly established as the biggest action star in Hollywood, having appeared in The Terminator, Conan the Barbarian, Commando, and Predator, as well as starring in Total Recall (the same year as Kindergarten Cop), a film best remembered for featuring a woman with three boobs. Naturally, then, the next step for Arnie was to star in a light-hearted family comedy about a police detective who goes undercover as a pre-school teacher. However, the phrases ‘family comedy’ and ‘light-hearted’ clearly did not compute with Arnie’s cold Terminator logic, and he still finds time to act like a hardened action hero, except now he’s faced with five year olds rather than this guy:

John Kimble, Schwarzenegger’s character, grows increasingly frustrated with the kids - although who can blame him when they come out with stuff like this?

It’s hardly a surprise that he snaps eventually. Some may say he goes slightly overboard, and it’s difficult to tell where the character of Kimble stops and the real Arnie begins, telling the gormless/terrified kids that he’s going to turn their ‘mush into muscles’, which could well be an ad-libbed throw back to his suppressed memories of his bodybuilding youth in Austria. He then seals the deal by telling the children that they can never use the toilet again.

4.  'Yeah, well I’m taller!’ – Jack Traven, Speed (1994)

Before his sad passing last year, Dennis Hopper was one of the most highly regarded actors in Hollywood, with film credits for the likes of Apocalypse Now, Easy Rider (for which he was nominated for a screenplay writing Oscar for), and Blue Velvet to his name. In Speed, he played a guy called Howard Payne, who’s essentially a supervillain (how could he not be with a game like that), and the film was credited as introducing his versatile acting talents to a new generation of cinema goers.

Payne kills the partner of hero Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) and forces him on a nightmarish, hair-raising trip through the city on a bus rigged with a bomb that will detonate if the speed drops below 50 miles per hour. Obviously that’s a pretty tough situation in any vehicle, but having to do it in unreliable, smelly public transport is enough to send any man over the edge, even half-man, half-tree Keanu Reeves. One thing leads to another, and Traven and Payne end up rolling around on top of a subway train beating the crap out of each other. There’s guns, there’s punches, there’s a speeding train – one of them is bound to be the downfall of Payne, right? Wrong. He gets the upper hand on Traven, triumphantly yelling ‘I’m smarter than you!’ Unfortunately for Payne, he doesn’t account for the onrushing signal light, and Traven forces him into it, decapitating him. No blood, no gore, just a straight-forward, old-fashioned beheading.

His comeback? ‘Yeah, well I’m taller’. Perhaps not the best line (possible alternatives: ‘Don’t get bigheaded’, ‘Don’t lose your head over it’, ‘YEAH WELL AT LEAST I’VE GOT A FUCKING HEAD’), but, hell, it works, and given you’ve just broken the head off of one of the Hollywood’s most revered actors, you could pretty much make fart noises and it would still be the epitome of baddassness.

(Sorry, couldn't find a video for this one)

A quick update

It's been quite a while since my last post. Since then:

I've had my Bad Teacher review posted at Cinema Obsessed;

And I've written two new articles for Meet in the Lobby; one on American Graffiti, and one on the Harry Potter series.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Thoughts on 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes'

I'm quite fond of re-imaginings of classic films through prequels/ sequels, compared to straight up remakes. Often, both re-imaginings and remakes are pretty awful (Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes providing a very apt example). However, the reason I tend to side with new prequels/ sequels are the fairly obvious ones (pre/ sequels add to the general mythos of a film, remakes tend to pale in comparison etc.), but one of the real benefits is the way in which films based around classics reawakens interest in the original film, which brings me on to the latest film in  Planet of the Apes series.

The original film version (1968), directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, and starring Charlton Heston, has one of the most iconic, and best known, twist endings in cinema history. If you don't know what it is, stop reading now. At the end of the film, having spent the majority believing they have landed on an alien planet inhabited by a race of highly-intelligent apes, Taylor (Heston) finds the remains of the Statue of Liberty, revealing that the planet has been Earth all along.

Which is where my problem with the new film Rise of the Planet of the Apes comes in. Okay, so it may be the second most-spoiled film ending ever (after Darth 'I am your father' Vader), and may be so well known that Fox were fine with putting a picture of the Statue of Liberty on the actual DVD case, but there will be people who don't know what happens; those who have been in a coma since 1968, young children, people with parents whose hatred of apes led to them banning their kids from seeing the original - in short, a rich and diverse section of society. 

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is, if you can believe it, about the rise of the Planet of the Apes, which is actually Earth, so its really a film about how monkeys take control of the Earth. Whilst the producers clearly thought making the connection between the Planet of the Apes and Earth explicit in this film's title would be a spoiler-laden step too far (personally I think Rise of the Planet of the Apes: or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace our Ape Overlords is much catchier, but each to their own), there's no real getting around it with the trailer:

Even seeing that, you're left in no doubt that it's Earth that the apes will 'rise' on. Even the YouTube account is called ApesWillRise! There's no getting away from it. And with that, all the mystique and surprise of the original is destroyed for anyone who's managed to avoid hearing about it so far. The ending won't mean anything if seen for the first time by someone who's seen Rise (or even just the trailer) - they'll know it's Earth from the beginning. It'll deprive a generation (or at least a good portion of one) of one of the greatest twists in cinema history. And it'll probably make Charlton Heston angrier than ever.

'You Maniacs! You spoiled it! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!'

Monday, 27 June 2011

Bad Teacher review

Bad Teacher
Starring: Cameron Diaz, Justin Timberlake, Jason Segel
Director: Jake Kasden

Recently, there has been a spate of major movies which have failed to completely explain the premise of said movie through their titles. Films like The Green Lantern, for example; for someone unaware of the comic book series, The Green Lantern could be about literally anything, from an eerie horror story to product recall information from B&Q. Thankfully, Columbia have decided enough is enough, and brought us the imaginatively named Bad Teacher.

In Bad Teacher, Cameron Diaz plays Elizabeth Halsey, a (wait for it) bad teacher who finds herself embroiled in an extremely convoluted plot. Her rich fiancé leaves her, forcing her to remain a teacher (and a ‘bad’ one at that). She sets herself the goal of finding another rich man who will ‘take care’ of her, and this goal is quickly achieved upon the arrival of substitute teacher Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake). However, she becomes convinced that her repeated failures to snare Scott and thus the future of her dreams are due to her lack of cleavage, therefore meaning she must raise as much money as she can to fund cosmetic surgery.

Often with films which deal initially unlikeable protagonists, they can become bogged down in a moral quagmire, as the hero undergoes a life-changing transformation over the movie’s duration to reach the end a more endearing, well-rounded, happy human being. Writers Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg generously and thoughtfully avoid the moral high road and make next to no effort at character development whatsoever. Throughout, Elizabeth remains crude, vacuous, superficial, and one whose complete disregard for actually teaching her class goes inexplicably unnoticed and unpunished.

Rather than showing the audience the error of Elizabeth’s ways, Bad Teacher sets out a rather different set of moral guidelines; moral guidelines such as ‘drugging people is fine, as long as you can cover yourself by blackmailing them’ and ‘remember to cause as much harm to others as possible, especially if it advances you towards what you want’. It also takes a fairly dim view of teaching as a profession, showing the five main teachers as being idiotic, spineless, uncaring liars (especially if they try and appear anything other than the scum of the earth than they so obviously are). Elizabeth questions with a co-worker, ‘what went wrong in your life to make you a teacher’, and this is the message of the entire film.


Wednesday, 15 June 2011

‘We’d cut them in half with a machine gun and then give them a band-aid’ - The Vietnam War in Film

The Vietnam War

Conventionally dated as beginning in 1964 and ending in 1973, the Vietnam War represents not only America’s longest war, but the only war that the country has ever lost. It is widely considered a key watershed moment in American culture and society, as it brought crashing down the sense of omnipotence and invincibility that America had cultivated for decades. Historian Gary Gerstle adds that the Vietnam War officially destroyed the ‘Civic nationalism’ fostered by Presidents Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt, meaning that war was no longer a way to bring the American people together through national pride, a belief that still rings true today. Whilst the conflict itself is infamous for numerous political and military blunders, atrocities such as the My Lai Massacre, and the strong domestic antiwar movement, the war is also renowned for the impact it had on culture, dramatically influencing the way war is reported on the news, music, and, films. This article will deal with three of possibly the most famous Vietnam War films, Apocalypse Now (1979), Platoon (1986), and Full Metal Jacket (1987), and will aim to review, compare, and rank the three against each other.

Apocalypse Now

Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Sam Bottoms, Frederic Forrest, Albert Hall, Laurence Fishburne
Year: 1979

Arguably the benchmark from which not only Vietnam, but all War films are compared to, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 epic Apocalypse Now has proved to be one of the most enduring motion pictures ever created, thanks to its glut of memorable characters, superb acting talent (including Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper, and Robert Duvall), unforgettable lines (‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning’), soundtrack, and mesmerising cinematography.

Loosely based upon Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness and strongly influenced by war correspondent Michael Herr’s Dispatches, Apocalypse Now is the story of Captain Benjamin Willard. A well respected soldier, he is on his second tour of duty in Vietnam when he is given a high priority, top secret mission to ‘terminate with extreme prejudice’ the command of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, a highly decorated American who has broken away from command and raised an army in Cambodia. The film deals with Willard and the crew of the boat he travels on as they travel deep into the insanity of the Vietnam War, and reveals why Willard would ‘never want another’ mission ‘when it was over’.

Arguably the most impressive thing about Apocalypse Now is that it both develops its characters to a relatable, understandable level, and also deals with the wider conflict as a whole. Many war films either do not attempt to do both, and simply focus on individual soldiers or use characters as metaphorical tools to examine the war, or try to do both and fail to do either satisfactorily, hence why Coppola’s achievement is so remarkable. No character in the film is a black-or-white caricature; all the main characters (Sheen as Willard, Brando as Kurtz, the boat crew, Duvall as Lt. Col. Kilgore) are multi-faceted, and Coppola continuously encourages the audience to make judgements about the characters, before deliberately confusing and inverting their representations. However, the film is also loaded with metaphors and allegory for the war, its hypocrisies, and the insanity it induced; the fact that Coppola shot three different endings and made the one he used up whilst shooting is extremely reminiscent of the ambiguous way in which the war ended, and the uncertainty of the American people about their first military defeat. Coppola once said, in regards to the production nightmare of Apocalypse Now (shooting alone took 16 months), ‘my film isn’t about Vietnam, it is Vietnam’, and that certainly rings true in terms of the depth that it deals with the war itself as well as the individual characters.

Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography does a fantastic job at conveying both the beauty and the dark horror of Vietnam simultaneously, an oxymoron that many historians and writers, such as Herr, have alluded to in their work. The sound is also magnificent, with Coppola ingeniously blending pop culture (the film opens to ‘The End’ by The Doors) and classical music (famously using Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ in a helicopter attack scene), as well as a foreboding, synthesiser-driven score created by Coppola’s father, Carmine. Willard narrates throughout the film (with the narration excellently written by Herr), allowing the audience to see deep into the psyche of a man slowly being driven insane. These numerous aspects come together to create a truly memorable, powerful film.


Director: Oliver Stone
Starring: Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe
Year: 1986

Oliver Stone’s directorial breakthrough, Platoon is the story of Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), an innocent, voluntary participant in the Vietnam conflict. Through four key episodic events (a night-time patrol, the platoon’s infiltration of a village, an ambush, and a return to the site of the ambush to set up defences), Stone explores the development of the previously unworldly, unseasoned Taylor into a hardened soldier, and the cost of this transformation.

Unlike Apocalypse Now, which shows very few conventional battles between the Americans and the Vietcong, Platoon is fixated on these conflicts, and does a fine job of conveying the sheer tension and horror resulting from the guerrilla warfare that the Vietcong engaged in. While Willard is safe in the knowledge that the enemy can only attack from the sides, the confusion and large group of soldiers that Stone’s camera follows means it is, at points, nigh on impossible to determine where the enemy is coming from or how close he is. Platoon also does an effective job of showing the tensions within a single American platoon, with half of the group, largely pacifists, engaging in recreational drug use and listening to rock, whilst the more bloodthirsty half choose to drink and play cards. Indeed, Platoon is as much about the ‘civil war’ (as Taylor terms it) within the platoon itself than the conflict with the Vietcong.

However, certain aspects of Platoon let down what would have been a more interesting premise had it been pulled off more successfully. Firstly, Stone cannot help but engage in the occasional stylistic flourish, which do little but to detract from the immersive realism which the rest of the film aims to cultivate. One particular scene has a character taking all of two minutes to die in slow motion after being peppered with gunfire, which, whilst poignant, also destroys the notion that these soldiers can die in a second, with no prior warning. In addition to the fact that Platoon stars Charlie Sheen, son of Apocalypse Now’s Martin Sheen, which brings about inevitable comparisons between the two films, Platoon also seeks to emulate the voiceover narration style, through the horribly clichéd method of having Taylor write letters to his grandmother, making such trite observations as ‘That’s what this place feels like. Hell’.

Another area in which Platoon falls short is the music. Whilst, like Apocalypse Now, it boasts some excellent, recognizable rock and Motown, the super, synth-driven score by Carmine Coppola is replaced by the repeated use of Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’, which is played so many times (seemingly at every dramatic point in the film) that by the end it loses all poignancy and verges on satire. This rigorous conformation to traditional generic war film conventions is part of a wider problem, in that Platoon could realistically be about several wars, not specifically Vietnam. Postmodernist critic Frederic Jameson believes that the story of the Vietnam War ‘cannot be told in any of the traditional paradigms of the war novel or movie’, and one crucial failure of Platoon is its attempt to do exactly what Jameson says cannot be done.

Finally, there is the problem of characterization. Despite the huge number and diversity of the characters in Apocalypse Now, Coppola does a superb job giving each character depth and distinctiveness. Taylor’s story arc, whilst the classic one of sacrifice for attainment, is limited, as Platoon comes nowhere near Apocalypse Now in terms of the exploration of mental deterioration. The descent into madness of Apocalypse Now‘s secondary characters, such as Lance, is more elaborate and detailed than that of Taylor in Platoon, despite him being the main protagonist. As previously stated, many have seen Platoon as more about the inner war between the American soldiers than the war with the North Vietnamese. However, this ‘war’ is conveyed in a simplistic, unambiguous manner. Whilst Coppola explores the ambiguities and moral uncertainties that marked everything about the Vietnam conflict through his characters and the decisions that they make, Stone simply offers the audience two characters, Sgt. Barnes (Berenger) and Sgt. Elias (Dafoe). Barnes is brutal, warmongering, and relishes the chance to kill as many people as possible. Elias is more peaceful, honest, and moral. At no stage do these two characters waver from their assigned ideological standpoints, and the only character seen to struggle between deciding which one is right is Taylor. Apocalypse Now, with its veritable whirlwind of ambiguity and its expertly created, inescapable ‘moral quicksand’ (Marsha Kinder), clearly does a far superior job of recreating the Vietnam War.

Full Metal Jacket

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Matthew Modine, Adam Baldwin, Arliss Howard, R. Lee Ermey, Vincent D'Onofrio
Year: 1987

Full Metal Jacket (1987) is visionary director Stanley Kubrick’s take on the Vietnam conflict. Split into an unconventional two half structure, the first ‘story’ deals with the training of Marines in North Carolina in preparation for combat, and dominated by the Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (Ermey), the archetypal overbearing, demeaning drill instructor. The second follows Pvt. Joker (Modine) from his training into Vietnam in the crucial year of 1968.   

As with Platoon and Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket deals with the effects of war on the psyche of the soldiers. However, unlike Stone’s film, which deals with mental breakdown rather meekly through Taylor’s letters, Full Metal Jacket details the complete derailment and loss of humanity of one recruit, Pvt. Pyle (D’Onofrio), despite him never actually reaching Vietnam, thus laying the blame for the insanity and confusion of the conflict itself squarely at the feet of American command.

Of the three films examined in this article, Full Metal Jacket is the most grounded in the history of the war, with the second half of the film being set during the Tet Offensive in 1968, arguably the pivotal point of the war, as it was the first indication to the American public that they would not be victorious in Vietnam. This sense of hopelessness and despair is palpable in the Vietnam sequence, as one by one the men of the platoon that Joker joins are cut down. Kubrick directs the tone of the film masterfully, starting with a significant humorous slant, which gives way to brief hope as Joker tutors Pyle and helps him become a Marine, before imploding these tendencies; the second sequence is bleak, violent, and Joker’s wit is marked with bitterness and anger.

Full Metal Jacket also deals with tensions within the group itself. However, its characters are significantly more fleshed out and detailed than those found in Platoon. Kubrick opts for a more coherent, linear battle style, allowing the audience to keep track of where each soldier is, unlike Stone’s eclectic, deliberately disorientating style in the Platoon battle scenes. This allows for greater exploration and understanding on the audience’s part of the various motivations and internal conflicts of the soldiers. Whilst Platoon is dogged by the overly sentimental use of stylised techniques, Kubrick utilises them expertly, in one scene deliberately showing each Vietcong bullet hitting an American in slow motion in order to emphasis the effect it has on the soldiers watching and their motivation to run into what may well be an ambush.

Another issue with Platoon is its unambiguous, binary characterisations. Full Metal Jacket does a far better job at dealing with the psyches and motivations of its characters; Joker’s use of humour, Cowboy’s (Howard) struggle with authority when he becomes platoon leader, and Animal Mother’s (Baldwin) bloodlust are all examples of the stronger, more relatable characterisations in Kubrick’s film. Full Metal Jacket also represents a far more effective use of music than Platoon. Once again, contemporary 60s pop music is used to great effect, but the rest of the film, most notably the battle scenes, are left with no music, which is much more successful in creating tension and immersing the audience in the experience of a Vietnam soldier than the repeated use of ‘Adagio for Strings’ that Platoon resorts to.


Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket are three quite different films, despite dealing with the same war and many of the same themes as each other. Apocalypse Now is (in my opinion) by a distance the best of the three, a surreal, epic masterpiece which explores both the individual and the war as a whole. Full Metal Jacket is the next best, with Kubrick demonstrating throughout why he has come to be regarded as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, and one who is able to take any genre and make it his own. Oliver Stone’s Platoon, despite its various limitations, such as its over stylised approach and its basic characterisations, is still a good war film, although it is unable to compete with Apocalypse Now or Full Metal Jacket in terms of scope, character development, direction, vision, and execution.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Rango review

Starring: Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin

Director: Gore Verbinski

Johnny Depp has often been called a chameleon for his ability to embody vastly different roles. Clearly, Paramount took this description literally, as Depp stars as the Hawaiian-shirted reptilian Rango. To say that animated anthropomorphic movies have been common in recent years would be something of an understatement, meaning that new animated films really have to strive to stand out, or risk being forgotten. Rango certainly does the former.

Rango’s plot seems as though it could’ve come from any other cutesy animal animation. Rango is a domesticated pet lizard who finds himself stranded in a desert town. He assumes a Clint Eastwood-esque persona, and tasks himself with solving the mystery of the water shortage plaguing the town. However, the artistry that has gone into making Rango renders the plot, simplistic or not, almost irrelevant. 
The Nickelodeon production tag will no doubt carry a stigma, but Rango is unusual in that it makes little effort to balance the humour between adult and juvenile; instead, it aims almost completely at an older audience, with plenty of black humour throughout (the tombstone of the previous sheriff reads ‘Thursday to Saturday’), and numerous film references (at one point Rango is thrown onto the car of Depp’s Raoul Duke from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas).

Quite often, when a known live-action star voices an animated character, the result is less than fantastic, a recent example being Seth Rogen in Paul. However, Depp is exceptional as Rango. He sounds unrecognisable, and captures the dual-aspects of Rango’s character perfectly.

Accompanying Rango as he sinks into the ‘guacamole of his own deception’ is a near-whimsical trip into a fantastic, original world which fuses the old Wild West with Mexican owl mariachi bands. It’s a smart, loving homage to Spaghetti Westerns, and one not to be missed.


Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Justin Bieber: Never Say Never review

Another one written for the Uni paper. I will start writing specifically for Raging Blog soon.

Justin Bieber: Never Say Never
Starring: (if you can call it that) Justin Bieber
Director: Jon Chu

In 2008 Anvil! The Story of Anvil charted the twenty five year struggle of a metal band to achieve success, showing that despite their repeated rejection, their love of music kept them believing in their dream. This kind of story is common in the world of music, and the message given in Justin Bieber: Never Say Never is that everyone who’s experienced such adversity was completely wasting their time. As the title suggests, Bieber’s rise is shown to be one of great difficulty, an arduous journey which lasts for literally months, and involves Justin facing the seemingly insurmountable task of uploading a video of himself to YouTube. Needless to say, it’s a laughable comparison.

Obviously, Never Say Never is aimed squarely at those whose Bieber-fever has reached advanced stages, but the actual need for this film is extremely questionable. Bieber epitomises the new age of technology, and is seen Tweeting and blogging and whatever-elseing at numerous points throughout. He owes his success to YouTube, both for his initial discovery, and for his carefully cultivated image. His fans can know his every move and every thought, from the mundane (‘good morning world’) to the vaguely threatening (‘Kill it in LONDON usher. I will hold down Paris for u.’). This near unmitigated access begs the question of why make this film? The only real audience will be those who religiously follow him, and Never Say Never won’t tell them or show them anything new. It may sound cynical to suggest this is entirely a money-making exercise, but the fact that the film will be re-released at the start of March with a slightly altered soundtrack is damning evidence.

As a film, it caters perfectly for its target audience. There’s plenty of home videos of Bieber as a kid, so the tweens in the audience can go ‘Aww,’ 3D footage of Bieber’s concert at Madison Square Gardens is interspersed throughout, so they can go ‘Aww,’ and several swishy slow-mo shots of his fringe, so they can go ‘Aww’. For anyone else, it offers absolutely nothing, other than a stark reminder that modern music is less about lyrics and more about pretty hair. If you’re not a fan going in, you won’t be a fan when you come out, unless Bieber-fever is airborne.


Friday, 1 April 2011

Adjustment Bureau tagline and the trailers for Rio

The trailers for The Adjustment Bureau recently all screamed 'IT'S BOURNE MEETS INCEPTION'. Having seen the film a couple of weeks ago, it's safe to say that it's actually nothing like either of them; the storyline is actually much closer to The Matrix meets 1984, and it had very few of the action scenes that the Bourne trilogy are famous for (the only similarity was Damon stars in both). The two chases I remember are for the wrong reasons; one because it was punctuated with John Slattery running back to pick up his hat; the other because the music playing as Matt Damon chatted up Emily Blunt (or 'THE Emily Blunt' as she's called on the poster) whilst being chased by one of the Bureau employees was more reminiscent of a light-hearted rom-com than a 'serious' sci-fi. Essentially, they could have easily said 'IT'S JURASSIC PARK MEETS GOOD WILL HUNTING' if the formula they used was 'name a popular sci-fi film and a well known Matt Damon film'.

Another set of film ads which has been particularly irritating in recent weeks is that for Rio. I can't remember the last time when a marketing campaign was so systematic in its ensuring that I will never be interested in the product being advertised. In actuality, I've only seen the trailer a couple of times, it looks fairly standard talking animal CGI fare; the really annoying things have been the Orange adverts, which have been shown before just about every film I've seen for the last two or so months (it seems like so, so much longer). Not only do they not really make sense (Orange being a phone company and showing video calling to not only be undesirable, but also totally rubbish), but they have made me, and I'm sure others, loathe the main creature Blu weeks before the film is actually released. A true feat of advertising fail.

Thursday, 31 March 2011

Battle: Los Angeles review

Quite a few of my reviews (like this one) are written for my University newspaper, so they adhere to a strict word limit. Others will be more relaxed and most probably longer.

Battle: Los Angeles
Starring: Aaron Eckhart, Ramon Rodriguez, Cory Hardict
Director: Jonathan Liebesman

The special effects in Battle: Los Angeles were due to be done by the ‘Brothers Strause’, before they left the project last year and quickly released the alien invasion film, Skyline. As woeful as Skyline was, it’s not difficult to see why the pair jumped ship.

The key distinctive feature of Battle: LA is its valiant attempt to be the most cliché-ridden movie ever. Staff Sergeant Nantz (Eckhart) is nearing retirement and has one last shot at redemption after a chequered service record; leading a small group of Marines to try and save Los Angeles from marauding aliens. Sound familiar? That’s probably because it is. The scenario has been done countless times before, the group of Marines we follow are all two-dimensional caricatures, and the aliens are completely unimaginative.

Liebesman has spoken of his aim to make the film as realistic and plausible as possible, but this effect is ruined almost every time a character opens their mouth, thanks to the trite dialogue (for example, the soldiers being told ‘kill anything that isn’t human’, presumably meaning domestic pets as well as aliens). Handheld camerawork can add realism, but not quite as effectively when that hand is on the end of a constantly flailing arm, rendering the majority of the action an incomprehensible mess.

To make matters worse, there’s the unashamed nationalism. Rampant, flag-waving Americanism is something fairly commonplace in Hollywood disaster films, and this is no exception. Apparently, Battle: LA could be the first in a series of films, showing the invasion from different cities’ perspectives. Whilst this does go some way to excusing the nauseating patriotism, it does mean more Battle films. I’m not sure which is worse.