Category Archives: Reels Revisited

A re-evaluation of films that were released to some mixed reviews

Review: To Kill a Mockingbird

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There’s a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I could keep ’em all away from you. That’s never possible.

Cinema is filled with virtuous role models and noble characters but there are few better than Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch. I haven’t read Harper Lee’s book, so I came into the film with few expectations and found To Kill a Mockingbird to be a stunning look at prejudice and racism in the Depression-era south.

Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) is a lawyer in an Alabaman town in the 1930s that’s beset by racial prejudices. When a young black man is accused of assaulting a white woman Finch agrees to be his lawyer and prove his innocence, but will the truth come out?

I initially expected the film to be told from the perspective of Peck’s Atticus but it’s told from the viewpoint of his son and daughter, who witness the escalating racial tensions in the town as well as confront their own prejudices.

It’s a simple and effective way of talking about a thorny subject, introducing it through a child’s perspective that’s still developing. They come to understand the world and its complexities, of how right and wrong are not so black and white, while Peck’s paternal Finch tries his best to nurture them through this clash of cultures. It’s eminently watchable and the acting, especially from the kids, is of a high standard.

Finch tries as much as he can to shield them from the dangers of the world (he’s a single father). He’s a protector: an advocate for the truth and a responsible man who doesn’t rise to provocation and insists on the fairness and purity of justice – the levelling factor in contentious matters in which you hope prejudices can be put aside.

The last twenty minutes veer between being demoralising and uplifting, bringing the film’s themes of justice, bigotry, fairness and fear and making a point on how prejudice blinds people and the value of our actions in a society that blames others to cover up its own ills. A classic Hollywood story.

9/10

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Review: The King of Comedy

Robert De Niro in The King of Comedy

Better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime

Scorsese, like Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola and the rest of the so called “Movie Brats” from the seventies is recognized for a small collection of his titles and less his sprawling body of work. Spielberg has E.T, and Indiana Jones, Lucas Star Wars and Coppola The Godfather trilogy and in all cases it does the director a disservice.

Narrowing Scorsese to his gangster movies is reductive and simplistic, not taking into account that his attempts in different genres with emphatic (and sometimes not so emphatic) results. The King of Comedy is a film that if viewed through the prism of Scorsese’s work would look and feel distinctly unlike him. There’s little of the whirlwind-like energy he’s known for or a look at familial relationships. Take a peak beneath the surface and it does feel more like the director on a filmic and personal level.

The King of Comedy is about Robert De Niro’s Rupert Pubkin, an aspiring comedian who looks to gain the support of talk-show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis). At first what appears out to a series of amicable meetings soon devolves into a morass of obsession, ambition and fanaticism that takes both characters to strange places.

The title may imply a comedc tone but it absolutely is not. De Niro’s Pubkin is a desperate man, walking the New York streets in his smart suit and briefcase, constantly on the lookout for Langford. It’s apparent that something is not right with him, whether it’s his insistence on meeting Langford or that he lives in his mother’s basement (was he cinema’s first fanboy?). The film exposes his delusion, a man with no social skills and who’s may not even have a job. De Niro brings a fanaticism to the role, a character with the blinkers who can’t see that the world isn’t how he imagines it.

The film’s final reel provides is a fertile bed for discussion, playing with reality and fantasy and ending on an ambiguous note as to whether Pubkin has achieved his ambitions. It’s a fascinating end that could be viewed as a parable on fame. An ordinary person’s wish-fulfillment fantasy combined with a lack of talent makes you wonder if Scorsese was damming society’s relentless need to consume every detail about those who entertain us for a living.

8/10

Review: Alien 3

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You’ve been in my life so long, I can’t remember anything else.

Alien 3 disappoints on a number of levels but perhaps its biggest disappointment is its failure to get close to its predecessors. It’s a stale and feeble film that lacks a sense of its own identity.

The start sums up the film, a sense of stick, or twist, a question the film never provides adequate answer to. From one point of view, the killing of Hicks and Newt is a mistake but from another their deaths are needed necessary if the film is to succeed in its own right.

The plot revolves around Ellen Ripley’s pod which crash lands on a distant planet, a former maximum security jail now an ore refinery inhabited by prisoners who chose to stay. Living there until she’s rescued, Ripley discovers the reason for her crash is an alien stowaway and as the alien matures it begins to kill off the inhabitants one by one.

Alien was a slasher film set in outer space, Aliens a war film, Alien 3 returns to the slasher formula, but you surmise that’s down to a lack of new ideas. Setting the film in a former high security jail that’s full of men – pent up and full of aggression no less – should provide some tension. The resulting film fizzles, never sustaining a sense of dread or upping the stakes.

The lack of available weapons causes problems as the prisoners have to find inventive ways to kill the alien. It’s admirable to try and differentiate itself from Aliens‘ gung-ho action but flounders in scenes where former inmates have no means for protecting themselves.

The alien has developed in some way for reasons unknown, but isn’t as scary as previous incarnations. After the Alien queen and several aliens in one film, going back to one seems a mistake.

It doesn’t help that it stalks its prey in an unconvincing manner (the early use of cgi is bad). Little is made to give the human characters any sense of empathy. They’re cannon fodder (or alien dinner), that’s incapable of striking back and lack a reason to care about whether they live or die.

The last half hour loses momentum with a few instances where the viewer is made to be uncomfortable. Fincher’s approach to violence detached, creating sequences that make you squirm, one of the film’s few successful approaches.

The use of sound is effective in communicating the violence again it all fizzles out to an unsatisfying denouement. It’s ultimately an unconvincing entry in the Alien franchise that neither carves out its own character or push on from the franchises’ excellent foundations. It really ought to have, and should have, been better but for reasons in front of and behind the camera, it ends up failing.

6/10

Review: Them! (1954)

“No. We haven’t seen the end of them. We’ve only had a close view of the beginning of what may be the end of us.”

I been trying to plug some gaps in my filmic knowledge, I think it would be a bit boring to watch The Dark Knight for the gazillionith time (which I did anyway). So I logged into Lovefilm, saw my ridiculously long list (253 films/TV shows on my watch list, my aim is to reduce that to zero by the end of the year) and thought ‘maybe I’ll watch Them!’

Them! is not the French horror film from a few years ago but a Fifties science fiction film about giant ants. Yes, giant ants. Coming from an age where sci-fi was more a B-movie extravagance (much like the horror genre at the time) but striving for more Them! is adventurous in some ways and dour in others. A look at the premise (imagine this being uttered by the Fifties voice over man -‘the earliest atomic tests in New Mexico cause common ants to mutate into giant man-eating monsters that threaten civilization.’) is enough to make you think it’s low grade garbage but there’s a seriousness to the film that makes it just a little bit endearing.

Very much a product of its time, Them! starts of in an interesting manner. Two policemen, Sgt. Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) and trooper Ed Blackburn [Chris Drake], come across a young girl who’s lost and in shock. They eventually find out where she lives only to discover that the trailer has been utterly destroyed. They widen their search and come across a shop also suffering from inexplicable damage and when they find the shopkeeper dead they call it in. Peterson leaves while the Blackburn stays to patrol the area only he too disappears.  The disappearances set in motion an investigation as scientists and the Government try to uncover what happened and how to destroy the emerging threat.

Now while it’s hard to be scared by ants, even giant ants that look like they have antennae made out of felt, the feeling of Nuclear War is never far away. When Dr Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) refers to the ants causing the end of humanity in a prophetic manner you can imagine he’s referring to the prospect of all out nuclear war. There’s even a short interlude as we journey to the heart of power as the film expands to Washington and a meeting with some high ranking officials convened in the shadow of the Capitol House. It follows in the long trend of science fiction films told from a government/scientist’s view making the film overly serious in a manner you wouldn’t expect with such a genre premise.

 

It’s a very traditional film despite an attempt to alter the perception of female characters in science-fiction. Women were damsels in distress in most movies I’ve seen from this period (Forbidden Planet springs to mind) and although this film takes some confident enough advances in cementing a strong female character, you also are made aware that they’re being held back. You laugh at how surprised men are in this film when Joan Weldon (Dr Patricia ‘Pat’ Medford) announces her role and how taken aback they are when she accompanies them on a excursion, they reluctantly allow her to come on the proviso that they go first. How chivalrous.

It’s no surprise that when an ant attacks, it attacks her and the men come rushing in guns blazing or that she’s affectionately called Pat and not Dr Medford. Thankfully we’re spared a romantic subplot between her and FBI agent Graham (James Arness); nevertheless she fades from view as the film moves on.

The film lags in the second act and so did my interest as apart from an excursion into the ant hive nothing substantial happens until the third act. What follows are selfless sacrifices, ants set on fire with flamethrowers (I guess it’s better than scalding hot water) and heroic acts. It’s entertaining enough film but the ending fizzles (or should I say sizzles) and Dr Harold Medford pops up again to give another sermon. It comes across as a little trite and preachy, a film in search of some greater depth that ends up in a safe and familiar place.

 

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