Sunday, 17 July 2011

That was the week that was (11 - 17 July) (Part One)

So, another weekly round up beckons. A pretty good group of movies on the whole this week - with one exception. To be honest, I've noticed that my grades have been very high on the whole for the last few weeks - maybe I need to be a bit tougher. If I start giving any movie worth its salt an '8', there isn't much room to move upwards, is there? On the other hand (as I may have mentioned before), the films which I watch fall into two categories:

(a) films which I'm watching at the cinema/ through LOVEFiLM for the first time
(b) films which I've seen and liked before, and have purchased on DVD to rewatch.

Obviously, the vast majority of films under category (b) are going to get high marks, as I'm rewatching them because I know I've enjoyed them before. Even under category (a), I'm pretty selective about the films which I watch and usually check to make sure a film has been well reviewed on Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes before seeing it.

I've dished out four marks of '8' or above this week, but I think that's fair enough.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

I suppose every film fan has a few classics which they've never gotten around to seeing. Butch Cassidy fits squarely into this category for me. I'm sure why that is - although I wouldn't say I'm particularly enamoured of the Western, I've seen plenty of other films in the genre which don't have as exalted a reputation as Butch Cassidy. Anyway, having seen the movie, I can certainly see why it's so highly regarded.  Paul Newman and Robert Redford (in one of his first major roles)play the eponymous duo, a pair of likeable desperados who are beginning to realise that the era of lawlessness in the Old West is coming to an end, and that the corporations expanding Westward into America do not want their sort hanging around any longer. Both lead actors are excellent - Newman is laid back, talkative and charming, a bank robber who relies on his wits rather than his gun to make his living; Redford is more taciturn and serious, relying on the menace that his reputation as one of the fastest shots around can bring him. The plot sees Butch and Sundance attempt a series of risky train robberies before escaping from the clutches of the authorities and heading to Bolivia for some fresh bounty. There is also a love triangle, of sorts, as the pair both seem rather enamoured of a schoolteacher played by Katharine Ross. However, all of this is really incidental - the film's strengths are the engaging performances of Redford and Newman, the witty script and the iconic setpieces. I'd already seen a number of homages and pastiches of the famous scenes where Butch and Sundance jump from a great height to avoid their pursuers, where Paul Newman rides around on a bicycle (the vehicle of the future!) with Katharine Ross to the sounds of 'Singing in the Rain', as well as the final showdown in which the pair battle against impossible odds and the Bolivian Army. Nevertheless, these scenes retained their power. The film still holds up as a classic, and I regret not having seen it sooner.

Rating: 9/10

Cape Fear (1962)

There seems to be a great number of remakes being made in Hollywood at the moment - at the cinema today, I saw a trailer for the new version of Footloose, and I know that remakes of The Thing (for a second time) and Fright Night. It seems a little odd that they see the need to remake films that are barely 30 years old - and in the case of The Thing, it seems pretty much impossible that they'll be able to top the Carpenter version (which is one of my all time favourite horror movies). I suppose if there's money in it, those sleazy Hollywood fat cats will do anything (that was supposed to be a reference to Mr Burns' election campaign, but I'm not sure it really comes off...). Anyway, on to the actual movie in question - Cape Fear was a film which was remade, successfully, by Martin Scorsese in 1991, and to be honest, I'd never seen the original until this week. On the whole, I probably slightly prefer the original to the remake, though both are solid pictures in their own right. Both films are set in a sleepy Southern town, where successful defence attorney Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck) is a pillar of the community, with a loving wife and daughter. However, into this idyllic scene comes ex-convict Max Cady; Cady blames Bowden for the eight year prison sentence which he has just served for rape, and intends to take revenge on Bowden and his family. There are a number of differences in the two versions of Cape Fear; in the earlier version of the film, Bowden is fair more clean cut, his marriage to his wife seems to be perfect, and his daughter is sweet and innocent. In contrast, family life is far more dysfunctional in the remake - there are marital troubles between the Bowdens, and Bowden's teenage daughter is notably more sexualised, and appears to have a genuine interest in Max Cady's advances. However, the key difference, and the one which really distinguishes the former film from the latter is in the performances of the actors playing Max Cady. Although I'm a big fan of many of De Niro's performances (particularly in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull), his version of Max Cady is ostentatiously unpleasant, almost to a cartoonish degree. On the other hand Robert Mitchum is far more restrained, but is able to generate just as much menace from his slow, drawling speech and menacing leer as De Niro raises with his tatooed physique. I should also mention how great the score is - Scorsese liked Bernard Hermann's effort so much he reused it in his remake. It was so good, Matt Groening used extracts of the score in the Cape Feare episode of The Simpsons - and there's no higher praise as far as I'm concerned.

Rating: 8/10

The Claim (2000)

Michael Winterbottom's epic Western is a version of Thomas Hardy's novel The Mayor of Casterbridge, relocated to California in the late nineteenth century. Peter Mullan plays Daniel Dillon, an Irish immigrant who has risen to prominence, as the mayor (and leading businessman) in a small town in the snowy mountains of the Sierra Nevada. However, Dillon has a dark secret - as a young man, he sold his wife and daughter to another man in exchange for a gold claim. When his (now ailing) wife and grown daughter return to town, Dillon's desire to atone for his past sins become his undoing. This is the one film this week which is going to come in for a bit of a slating, I'm afraid. There were so many aspects of The Claim which on paper seem to be very promising - I thought there were strong performances from Peter Mullan (as Dillon), Sarah Polley (as his daughter) and Natassja Kinski (as his former wife), the striking mountain scenery is beautifully shot, and the plot certainly holds promise. (The film also features Wes Bentley, who I last saw chasing a plastic bag around the place in American Beauty). However, the film is just too ponderous and inert to work - the action progresses at a snail's pace, and by about the halfway point in the film, I was just hoping for it all to be over as soon as possible. So, for me, the film is a failure, albeit one with certain redeeming features.

Rating: 5/10

Se7en (1995)

In which a naive young detective (Brad Pitt) is partnered with a cynical older cop on his last week on the job (Morgan Freeman). As the week progresses, it becomes apparent that something is terribly wrong - a deranged killer is 'teaching lessons' to the people of the city by carrying out a series of murders based on the seven deadly sins. I was planning to watch David Fincher's brilliant '90s serial killer picture as a double bill with the equally great (and similarly themed) Zodiac, but I didn't realise quite how long the second film is - as a result, I'm going to have to conclude the double bill at a later date. Regardless, Se7en was just as gripping and suspenseful as I remembered; the scene in which the apparently dead man who's been strapped to a bed for a year suddenly springs back to life still makes me jump out of my seat, and Fincher's vision of a hellish modern American city creates a relentlessly grim and oppressive atmosphere. As well as Fincher's powerful direction, the movie features a terrific script, great performances from Morgan Freeman and Kevin Spacey (as the killer), and tremendous attention to detail in the design of the film. From the opening credits, which feature remarkably gruesome looking pages from the killer's journal, to the killer's apartment and to murder scenes themselves, all aspects of the film look suitably macabre. Tremendous.

Rating: 9/10

Right, I'm running out of time now (may have gone on a bit too long on the Butch Cassidy and Cape Fear write ups. I shall return tomorrow with Part Two of this week's reviews. This shall feature the following movies:

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Parts 1 & 2)
Office Space

Stay tuned for more spine tingling adventures...

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