Thursday, December 1, 2016

5 things to love about The 13th Warrior (1999)

What’s it about:
In the 900s an Arabian court poet, Ahmad ibn Fadlan (Antonio Banderas), is banished from Baghdad and sets out northwards. He meets up with and agrees to join a group of Vikings led by Buliwyf (as the titular 13th warrior) as they head out to protect a village that is being attacked by a vicious creature called the Wendol. Sound vaguely familiar? Yes, it’s basically the story of Beowulf told from an outsider's perspective. Based on the novel Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton, it tries to make a realistic origin for the fantastical tale.

5 things to love:
1. The reveal of the Wendol is fantastic. I won’t spoil it here but it’s a pretty good concept that works great visually. The first time you see the creature winding down the side of the mountain is awesome.

2. There’s a great central performance by Antonio Banderas playing Ahmad (one of the few positive Arabian character in a US film). The only downside is that the film can’t, by its nature, make him take the lead. Having him chronicle the adventure works perfectly in the book but it’s a little strange to have the protagonist be so sidelined in a film.

3. The film has great little bits of detail about certain Viking rituals which I’m sure are taken from Crichton’s novel. Crichton was always a stickler for filling his novels with as many facts as possible. One particularly interesting (though slightly unbelievable) bit is that initially Ahmad is speaking English (for the audience) and the Vikings are speaking un-subtitled Norwegian (I think) and then slowly, as Ahmad picks up their language, they start speaking English too.

4. The storming of the Wendol’s lair is a great set piece. The Viking group basically have to sneak into an elaborate cave system and abseil down a huge internal waterfall. It’s tense and very well directed by John McTiernan (and a little reminiscent of Predator which is never a bad thing).

5. Lastly, you’ve got to love that the film doesn’t shy away from some strong bloody violence and has some big, epic, practical sets. 1999 was a bit of watershed, most films this size would subsequently be made with CGI and be 12A rated (see The Mummy, also 1999).

1 thing it didn’t need:
The film suffered from some reshoots by Crichton rather than McTiernan which maybe(?) improved the film from its initial rough cut (I don’t know, it’s not available) but give the film a very disjointed feeling. You can especially tell that the ending was a hurried reshoot. It’s a shame because it spoils an otherwise solid film.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

5 things to love about Green Room (2015)

What’s it about:
A small time punk band called the Ain’t Rights are touring the US playing crappy bars and it’s not going well. They are flat broke and, desperate for a payday, they agree to play a neo-Nazi club in the middle of the woods. Though the concert goes okay afterwards one of them goes back to the green room to get their phone and they witness the aftermath of a murder. The band lock themselves in the room while the neo Nazis (led by Patrick Stewart) try to lure them out so they can kill them.

5 things to love:
1. How good is the premise for this movie? Neo-Nazis scare the hell out of me. For the first two thirds the film is super tense and unpredictable. The idea of a left leaning punk band playing a right wing punk club is highly believable. There’s a great irony that the band are in-your-face on stage but frightened and weak later on.

2. Like Blue Ruin, the film doesn’t make either the heroes or the villains superhuman. They both screw up, they are both weak, they are both resourceful. A lot of people call Green Room a "horror movie" but I think that does it a disservice. The director’s goal isn’t to take you on a rollercoaster, it’s setting up a scenario and watch it play out as messily and realistically as possible.

3. Anton Yelchin gives a great performance as Pat, the bassist. Such a shame he died just after the film was released. It’s easy to hype up an actor’s performance when they die but I genuinely think this particular role plays to all his strengths as an actor.

4. Again, the cinematography is great. There’s a sickly, oppressive green filter throughout the film which really sets the tone.

5. Having pretty much only known Patrick Stewart from Star Trek and X-Men I had reservations about his ability to play a neo-Nazi leader but he’s actually pretty good and disappears into the role. I won’t say it’s a stunning performance but it works. He’s actually most intimidating when you just hear his voice talking to the band from outside the door.

1 thing it didn’t need:
For me, the film went downhill a little in the last third. There’s a part in the film about halfway through where Anton Yelchin starts giving a speech but gets cut off by one of his friends. I was really glad because “the rallying speech” is such a movie cliché – one of the characters even says “Is that a pep talk?”. I was really hoping he wouldn’t finish it but towards the end of the film he does. I was a little disappointed about that.