P is for Pitch Black

Some of the letters of my A-Z movie challenge have been… tricky. Not so, P. The obvious choice would be The Princess Bride. With 8.2 stars and #176 on the IMDb Top 250, and clocking in at 98 minutes (more or less the perfect length for a movie) it’d be a safe choice.

But instead I’m going for Pitch Black. A paltry 7.1 stars on IMDb and running to 109 minutes, it should pale in comparison.

Don’t be afraid of the dark. Be afraid of what’s in the dark…

Pitch Black popped into view in 2000, seemingly out of nowhere. Costing only $23 million it launched Vin Diesel’s action hero career – previously he’d appeared in Saving Private Ryan and interestingly, provided the voice for Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant. Also starring Radha Mitchell, Cole Hauser and Keith David, it was the appearance of Claudia Black which caught my eye at the time, being a big fan of Farscape. *fans self*

The plot is pretty simple stuff – criminal and All Round Bad Guy Richard B. Riddick (Diesel) is being transported to prison when the spaceship is damaged by some debris. It crash lands (rather spectacularly) on a desert (and apparently deserted) planet and Riddick escapes…

So far so good. Diesel’s Riddick is a completely wonderfully over-the-top ultimate bad guy. But you can’t help falling under his spell, the anti-hero who you’re rooting for from the off. The other characters are just tagging along in his wake. Diesel is utterly electric and steals every single scene he’s in.

The story takes a darker turn (sorry) as the planet’s three suns set and something comes out to feed.

Cue classic monster flick, very much following in the footsteps of Aliens – it’s a race to escape without being eaten.

Glorious fun. It’s spawned two sequels, the first of which I’ve seen (and urge you not to bother with) and the second of which  I haven’t (but have heard good things about).

previously, on The A-Z Challenge
A is for Alien
B is for The Breakfast Club
C is for Catching Fire
D is for Die Hard
E is for The Empire Strikes Bank
F is for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
G is for Goldfinger (and GoldenEye)
H is for Howl’s Moving Castle
I is for Inception
J is for Jurassic Park
K is for Kung Fu Panda
L is for Labyrinth
M is for Moon
N is for National Treasure
O is for Oldboy

O is for Oldboy

Oldboy.

Oldboy theatrical poster

We’re talking the original Korean version, of course. Apparently Spike Lee has remade it for the American market for some reason. I’m generally not a fan of remakes (with a few notable exceptions) especially where the original is as utterly stunning as Chan-wook Park’s 2003 movie is.

A very healthy 8.4 stars on IMDb, Oldboy comes in at #72 on the IMDb Top 250 and rightly so. Oldboy is the second instalment of The Vengeance Trilogy which starts with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and is followed by Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. I’ve not seen the other two films, but they’re now firmly on my List Of Films I Really Ought To Watch.

The story follows Oh Dae-Su (Choi Min-sik), an ordinary guy who is kidnapped on the eve of his daughter’s birthday and held captive in solitary confinement for 15 years. One day he’s suddenly released with a wad of money and a cellphone. He sets out on a trail of vengeance to find his captor and work out why he’s been held for so long.

And what a tale it is. Park’s tale is an deep, complex exploration of revenge, responsibility and violence. It’s not an easy film to watch at times and will stay with you for a long, long time after it’s over. Very bad things happen to a lot of people (and an unfortunate octopus). The corridor fight scene is one of the best committed to film and is all the more impressive when you find out it was done in one take (albeit shot over the course of three days) and the use of a claw hammer for some… amateur dentistry is both chilling and brilliantly done. The violence in Oldboy is never gratuitous though, unlike a lot of western movies of the same ilk. It’s always there to drive the story onwards.

The story itself is beautifully told and unfolds bit by bit, rewarding the viewer with a pay-off which, in the words of a friend, leaves you in need of a good shudder.

It’s gripping, mesmerising, masterful stuff, if you’ve got the stomach for it. Highly recommended. Not for the faint-hearted or squeamish though.

I’d also like to recommend you listen to the Xanadu Cinema Pleasuredome podcast, specifically Episode 7: Women, Vengeance and Claw Hammers in which Windy & Melissa talk Korean movies with special guest Lex. It’s a joyful thing hearing movie geeks geek out about movies.

I’ll definitely be investigating more Korean cinema following Oldboy, and am open to suggestions…

previously, on The A-Z Challenge
A is for Alien
B is for The Breakfast Club
C is for Catching Fire
D is for Die Hard
E is for The Empire Strikes Bank
F is for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
G is for Goldfinger (and GoldenEye)
H is for Howl’s Moving Castle
I is for Inception
J is for Jurassic Park
K is for Kung Fu Panda
L is for Labyrinth
M is for Moon
N is for National Treasure

N is for National Treasure

Someone mentioned that my A-Z was very… mainstream and family-friendly. Just wait until you get to O…

I don’t care – this is my A-Z! I got a bit carried away late last night and scheduled my O film for this morning. O is for ‘ooops’, it would seem, because I’ve missed out N! The alphabet is *hard*, man.

N then is for National Treasure. A pure ‘guilty pleasure’ film if ever there was one. That’s if you subscribe to the notion, of course. I *love* this film and every minute of its 131 minute running time. Yes, it’s long, but it’s a sheer joy from start to finish. 2004, a paltry 6.9 stars on IMDb, it spawned a sequel (Book of Secrets) which is fine, but the first one is where it’s at.

All his life Benjamin Gates has search for a treasure. No one believe to existed.
The greatest adventure history has ever revealed.
In order to break the code, one man will have to break all the rules.
The clues are right in front of your eyes.

Oh, this is *so* much fun. It knows *exactly* how silly it is, and plays it dead straight. The plot boils down to a standard follow the clues to find more clues to find the treasure, in the grand tradition of Indiana Jones. The parallels are writ large across the screen – imagine Indy in the 21st century and you’re not a million miles off. I’ve seen this film a dozen times, but would happily watch it now if it was on TV. I’ll even watch the last twenty minutes if it’s on. It’s pure saturday afternoon hokum of the highest variety.

The plot, if anyone cares:

Nic Cage plays Benjamin Franklin Gates, a historian searching for a lost treasure. There’s some gubbins about the Knights Templar and the American Freemasons who hid the treasure during the American Revolutionary War. Hijinks abound in good measure, and it turns out there’s a coded map on the back of the Declaration of Independence, which Gates and chums has to steal. Sean Bean turns up and tries to steal it too, and it’s a race to the finish.

It also stars stars Harvey Keitel, Jon Voight, Diane Kruger, Sean Bean, Justin Bartha, and Christopher Plummer, all of whom are also enjoying themselves immensely. Some critics feel that the sheer implausibility of it all spoils the movie, but for me the complete bonkersness of it all just adds to the enjoyment. This is not a film you sit and ponder, or examine in depth. There are holes in the plot you could drive through. Instead, just strap yourself in, hand Nic the keys to the car and brace yourself. We’re going on an adventure!

previously, on The A-Z Challenge
A is for Alien
B is for The Breakfast Club
C is for Catching Fire
D is for Die Hard
E is for The Empire Strikes Bank
F is for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
G is for Goldfinger (and GoldenEye)
H is for Howl’s Moving Castle
I is for Inception
J is for Jurassic Park
K is for Kung Fu Panda
L is for Labyrinth
M is for Moon

L is for Labyrinth

Labyrinth. 1986, 7.4 stars. Jim Henson’s final feature film as director, and produced by good old George Lucas himself.

I’d seen and loved The Dark Crystal in 1982, so was excited to see this new movie coming out in the cinema. Somehow (and time does dim the memory somewhat) the 15 year-old me had managed to get hold of a bunch of free tickets to a Saturday morning showing – I’d handed them out to various of my friends, but seem to recall that very few of them actually showed up.

On then, to Labryinth.

Jareth: You remind me of the babe.
Goblin: What babe?
Jareth: The babe with the power.
Goblin: What power?
Jareth: The power of voodoo.
Goblin: Who do?
Jareth: You do.
Goblin: Do what?
Jareth: Remind me of the babe.

The story is fairly simple. Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) is at home babysitting her baby brother Toby. He cries and cries and Sarah, while telling him a story to make him sleep, inadvertently summons the Goblin King (David Bowie in full-on scene-stealing trousers) who steals the baby (as well as every scene he’s in) and brings him to his castle, which sits in the middle of a labyrinth. Sarah has to rescue him before midnight, or the baby will became a goblin…

Along the way she meets all manner of wonderful creatures such as Hoggle the dwarf (though people usually forget his name, leading to Higgle, Hogwart, Hedgewart, and Hogbrain!), Ludo the gentle rock-summoning giant and Sir Didymus the fox terrier who thinks he’s a knight. Not forgetting his trusty steed, Ambrosius.

I loved this film from the start and have done ever since. The crystal ball juggling done by Bowie’s Goblin King was awe inspiring, and it wasn’t until years later that I discovered it was actually done by a chap called Michael Moschen, who performed the routines crouched out of shot without being able to see what he was doing. They’re still mesmerising to this day. If you get a chance, check out his work. Thank me later. (I’ve talked about Michale and a Japanese crystal ball perfomer called Otokampe in another post).

Henson’s puppets are masterful, as always. Sarah’s companion Ludo reminds me a lot of Sulley from Monsters, Inc. And this was Kevin Clash’s (the puppeteer behind Sesame Street favourite Elmo) first major role with the Jim Henson Company. I highly recommend checking out the documentary Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, which is also wonderful.

I’ve spent years as a juggler, but dabble occasionally with the contact juggling which Moschen made famous in this film. I’ve even got my own crystal ball…

Lensmagnet

previously, on The A-Z Challenge
A is for Alien
B is for The Breakfast Club
C is for Catching Fire
D is for Die Hard
E is for The Empire Strikes Bank
F is for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
G is for Goldfinger (and GoldenEye)
H is for Howl’s Moving Castle
I is for Inception
J is for Jurassic Park
K is for Kung Fu Panda

K is for Kung Fu Panda

Legend tells of a legendary warrior whose kung fu skills were the stuff of legend.

The second animated film of the A-Z (it won’t be the last). Kung Fu Panda came out in 2008, scores a respectable 7.6 stars on IMDb and was nominated for the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, though that went to the wonderful Wall-E.

DreamWorks Animation had always been in second place to Pixar when it came to making great movies. They’d produced some great films – Shrek, Madagascar are the standouts – and some good films, but the majority of their output was firmly in the ‘fine’ category.

Kung Fu Panda belongs firmly in the ‘great’ category. When I first heard about it, the idea of animals doing kung fu didn’t really inspire me, but I found myself in the cinema one rainy saturday afternoon with the kids and walked out at the end with a huge grin on my face.

What they’d done was not make a film about CG animals that did kung fu, but make a kung fu movie which happened to feature CG animals. There’s a crucial difference between the two, something which co-director John Stephenson understood:

“Let’s really make sure that our kung fu is as cool as any kung fu ever done, so that we can take our place in that canon and make sure it’s a beautiful movie, because great martial arts movies are really beautiful-looking movies and then let’s seen if we can imbue it with real heart and emotion. We kind of hoped that maybe when people see the movie, they’ll be surprised that they get a bit more movie than they may be expecting from the title.”

And the kung fu is really really good.

The story itself is a classic hero’s journey – bumbling noodle chef and kung fu fanatic Po (voiced by Jack Black on fine form) finds himself fulfilling an ancient prophecy when he’s chosen as the Dragon Warrior by Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), much to the consternation of the legendary Furious Five — Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Crane (David Cross), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Monkey (Jackie Chan) and especially Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), who is given the job of training the lazy panda…
Chaos ensues. Evil snow leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane) escapes from prison and comes to seek the Dragon Warrior. Can Po, Master Shifu and the Furious Five save the day?

The look of the film is simply gorgeous. It’s easily one of the most beautiful films which DreamWorks Animation have ever produced, and is on par with Pixar’s output. It’s a great story, with some wonderful set pieces – Tai Lung’s escape from the seemingly escape-proof prison is gorgeously done, as are all the fight scenes and the interactions between all the main characters.

It’s just a lovely little kung fu film. Highly recommended.

previously, on The A-Z Challenge
A is for Alien
B is for The Breakfast Club
C is for Catching Fire
D is for Die Hard
E is for The Empire Strikes Bank
F is for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
G is for Goldfinger (and GoldenEye)
H is for Howl’s Moving Castle
I is for Inception
J is for Jurassic Park

I is for Inception

Inception matches The Empire Strikes Back on 8.8 stars on IMDb, but with *four* Oscar wins (Best Cinematography, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing and Visual Effects) and at #13 on the IMDb Top 250 it squeaks in directly behind Empire. It’s a close-fought thing.

At a colossal 148 minutes, it’s a full 24 minutes longer though. For all my usual grumbling about long films, Inception is one I’d make an Exception for. Haha. And the running time of 2 hours and 28 minutes is itself a direct nod to the running time of the Edith Piaf song used as the film’s central motif, “Non, je ne regrette rien” which lasts 2 minutes and 28 seconds…

Directed by Christopher Nolan, Inception features a stellar cast headed up by Leonardo DiCaprio (who I never used to rate but who I think is really growing into himself as an actor and just keeps getting better and better). Admirable support from the likes of Michael Caine, Tom Hardy, Ellen Page and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and not forgetting Cillian Murphy, Ken Watanabe, Tom Berenger, Marion Cotillard, the list and talent on display is astonishing.

The story is wonderfully convoluted – Dom Cobb (DiCaprio) heads up a team attempting to plant an idea in the head of Robert Fischer (Murphy). This they do by going inside dreams, and dreams within dreams… It’s probably best not to think too hard about it and just let it wash over you. It’s visually stunning, with buildings folding on each other, Penrose staircases climbing forever and other weird and wonderful things going on as the dreamers dream and external effects cause internal shenanigans – people float in zero-g or get soaked as events in the real world impinge on the dreams. Time slows the deeper you go, just don’t go too far or you’ll never get back.

Every rewatch turns up something new & different. Wally Pfister’s cinematography is lush and gorgeous, with each level of dream new and distinct, giving the viewer a visual hook to locate them, even if the characters themselves are sometimes confused…

Ariadne: Wait, whose subconscious are we going into exactly?

Set-pieces are wonderfully realised – a fight between Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and the bad guys in the hotel starts to play with gravity as the corridor starts to tumble and roll. Nolan ended up building a full-scale corridor set on a giant gimbal which allowed him to rotate it with the actors inside, minimising the need for CG and giving the film a better sense of realism. A Bond-esque final assault on a snowy fortress. Folding buildings in Paris. Mazes within mazes within dreams.

And the ending! Ah, the ending. It seems to utterly polarise opinions – some say it’s genius whilst others feel it’s a cop-out, leaving the audience to decide whether Cobb is dreaming or not.

Me? I think it’s one of the most perfect endings of a movie – the ambiguity leaves it up to the audience to decide. Have we been watching a man in a dream the whole time? Or has he finally woken up? Will the totem topple?

Nolan isn’t saying:

“The real point of the scene—and this is what I tell people—is that Cobb isn’t looking at the top. He’s looking at his kids. He’s left it behind. That’s the emotional significance of the thing.”

Only you can decide. Interestingly, Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien” plays again at the end, and during the film that usually indicates it’s time to wake up…

 

H is for Howl’s Moving Castle

It’s about time we got to Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki. And here we have it. The utterly sublime Howl’s Moving Castle.

8.2 stars on IMDb and released in 2004, Howl’s Moving Castle clocks in at #156 in the Top 250 movies. Nominated for Best Animated Feature, it lost out to Aardman’s Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit – a worthy enough film, but for my money, Howl should have taken it.

Directed by the master himself, Hayao Miyazaki, he also wrote the script (based on the original novel by Diana Wynne Jones). The novel and the film are two different beasts though, and both wonderful in their own right. If you’ve seen (or read) one and not read (or seen) the other, I must insist that you read or see the one you haven’t. Chop chop.

As you’d expect from a Studio Ghibli film, the animation is simply gorgeous. It’s a proper feast for the eyes and offers something new on each rewatch.

The story centres around a young girl, Sophie who is cursed into an old body by the Witch of the Waste. Sophie sets off to find  a cure in the Wastes, but comes across the moving castle belonging to the wizard Howl. There she meets Calcifer, a fire demon trapped by Howl to power his castle. Calcifer offers to free Sophie from her curse if she in return will free him from his bond. What follows is nigh-on two hours of simply the most beautiful animation, with a walking, sighing, creaking castle (complete with magical doors which open into different towns), a scarecrow with a turnip head, war, a fallen star, true love…

With foreign films I usually prefer to watch the subtitled version, but for those who prefer the English language dub, Pixar’s Peter Docter (director of Monster’s Inc. and Up) did a cracking job and assembled an all-star cast. It features Christian Bale as Howl (after watching Spirited Away he immediately agreed to lend his voice to this film), Jean Simmons as the older Sophie (Emily Mortimer played the younger Sophie), Lauren Bacall as the Witch of the Waste and Billy Crystal as Calcifer.

If you enjoyed Howl’s Moving Castle, might I recommend two other of my favourite Studio Ghibli films, My Neighbour Totoro and Spirited Away? Both directed by Miyazaki, they’re wonderful movies, and you may just see them cropping up later this month…

previously, on The A-Z Challenge
A is for Alien
B is for The Breakfast Club
C is for Catching Fire
D is for Die Hard
E is for The Empire Strikes Bank
F is for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
G is for Goldfinger (and GoldenEye)