Tuesday, 31 January 2017

The Alamo (2004)

"Remember The Alamo!" Problem was the movie going public didn't

Director: John Lee Hancock
Cast: Dennis Quaid (Sam Houston), Billy Bob Thornton (Davy Crockett), Jason Patric (James Bowie), Patrick Wilson (William Barret Travis), Emilio Echevarría (Antonio López de Santa Anna), Jordi Mollà (Juan Seguin), Leon Rippy (Sergeant William Ward)

“Remember the Alamo!” was the famous war cry of the Texan rebels fighting to make Texas an independent state from Mexican rule. Problem was, fast forward 90 odd years and it seems not enough people did. This lovingly reconstructed re-telling of the doomed attempt to defend The Alamo (a sort of Western Zulu with a downer ending) was a box-office disaster.

In 1836, a civil war raged in Mexico, which then included Texas. American immigrants and other groups fought to make Texas an independent state, with an eye on later joining the United States. A small force is sent to garrison the Alamo, a key fort recently captured from the Mexicans. But the Mexicans and their President Santa Anna are descending on the Alamo in full military force…

The Alamo is a pretty decent film. It’s not a classic and at times it’s a rather staid and straight-laced history lesson, po-facedly cramming in as much as it can within its running time. But it’s got many merits, not least the fact that it’s willing to focus on character rather than action, and embraces the fact that sieges tend to be rather long, dull affairs punctuated by moments of sheer terror.

Billy Bob Thornton gives a sharply intelligent and thought-provoking reading of Davey Crockett, playing him as man painfully aware that he is a legend, and wearily trying to balance this with also being a “normal” person, with the same fears and desires as other men. He plays Crockett as a gentle, even rather sensitive soul, a good listener, sharply self-critical and scared that he can’t live up to the reputation he has. As he says at one point: “If it was just me, simple old David from Tennessee, I might drop over that wall some night, take my chances. But that Davy Crockett feller... they're all watchin' him.” At one moment (in a scene that the film overplays by returning to at least twice in flashback), Crockett plays the violin on the ramparts to battle the Mexican drums, giving a brief Shawshank-like moment of freedom through the power of art.

The two main leads don’t disappoint alongside him. I enjoyed Patrick Wilson’s stiff-necked William Travis, whose cold and formal manner slowly reveals a decent man and a brave leader (though no master tactician). Jason Patric also manages to land just the right side of rogueish as a drunken James Bowie, the men’s leader of choice. Dennis Quaid has the dullest, least developed part as a larger-than-life Sam Houston. Impressive as these characterisations are, the film doesn’t really have time for anyone else to make an impression – while Emilo Echevarria’s Santa Anna is little more than cardboard cut-out of villainy.

The film’s main problem is its reverent regard for the moment in history that it is covering. For starters, its makers assume everyone shares this: there is no opening crawl, or scene setting voiceover, to tell us where we are, what’s going on and when. The filmmakers assume us to be as au fait with Texan independence as they are. I had to literally stop the film for a good ten minutes and read some quick timelines of Texan independence, as well as skim a few Wikipedia pages on Texan history, so I could follow the storyline.

Secondly, it’s so keen to cover all the major historical events, that at points it’s more than a little dry. Its slow pace has the upside of really allowing us to get to know the characters at its centre (the original run time was closer to 3 hours, which would have allowed many of the background characters to come to life as well). But with the runtime cut down, combined with the assumptions made about the viewer’s historical knowledge, it sometimes becomes a little tricky to either engage with the drama fully or to completely understand what’s going on.

The recut of the film after disastrous test screenings also means that the film has what feels like a tacked on “happy ending”, with the last twenty minutes given over to the (very shortened) Houston campaign against the Mexicans and Santa Anna’s capture. The film rockets through this, barely pausing to explain tactics or events, seemingly wanting to give meaning to the sacrifice at the Alamo. Some half-hearted attempts are made to contrast slaughter of the Mexican soldiers with that of the Alamo defenders, but not much.

But this is not a bad film by any means, just a fatally compromised one. It’s trying to be an intelligent, grown-up piece of film making – a character study out west – but it’s also trying to be an action film. It doesn’t quite succeed in being either, but it’s at its best as a character study, helped by some really strong, thoughtful performances. Hancock isn’t, to be honest, an original enough director to bring to life the epic scope and sweep that the film needs, but it’s clear he cares about this a lot. In fact that’s the best thing about this film: it’s clear that everyone in the film cared deeply about this story and desperately wanted this film to be a classic. 

It’s a shame that this story is one that seems to have less relevance to the masses today, and that this film can’t quite coalesce all the efforts of everyone involved into something really memorable.

Monday, 30 January 2017

I Am Legend (2007)

Rush hour is a lot easier to beat when its just you and your dog.

Director: Francis Lawrence
Cast: Will Smith (Robert Neville), Alice Braga (Anna Montez), Charlie Tahan (Ethan), Salli Richardson (Zoe Neville), Willow Smith (Marley Neville), Emma Thompson (Dr. Alice Krippin)

If you’re going to make a movie that involves the viewer watching one person, alone with just a dog, for well over an hour, you’d better be sure that the person you recruit to play that role can actually hold the viewer’s interest for that time. Factor in, for Hollywood, that the person you pick needs to be capable of getting big box-office, and you ain’t got a lot of choices. But casting Will Smith in this was a choice the studio largely got right.

The year is 2012 and the world has ended. Robert Neville (Will Smith) is a military virologist, the last surviving human in New York. A miracle cure for cancer went disastrously wrong three years before and killed 94% of the world’s population, mutated 5% into feral “darkseekers” who attack anything living at night, leaving just 1% of the world’s population immune. Neville lives alone in New York, with only his deceased daughter’s dog for company, and works to find a cure for the disease by capturing and experimenting on the darkseekers.

In a remarkably brave and unusual move for a blockbuster, Will Smith is essentially alone on screen for a solid hour. The film takes a measured, well-paced delight in following his daily routines, covering everything from his work in immunology to scavenging for supplies, hunting deer (escaped from the zoo), hitting golf balls off aircraft carriers, and having free run of a video store he has filled with mannequins. His Washington Square house is heavily fortified, but also remarkably homely and certainly not that bad a place to watch the end of the world from. 

Following this daily routine is, by far and away, the most interesting part of the film, as it is one of the few parts that actually feels unique and original. In fact, you wish it could go on longer and that the film didn’t need to revert back its more predictable “one man against the monsters” theme. The ingenuity of survival in extreme circumstances, and the eerie freedom of the busiest city in the world completely empty, makes you wonder not only “could I do that” but also, secretly “would it be fun for a while to drive a fast car around Times Square or whack golf balls off the wing of a stealth bomber?”.

“For a while” is the key thing here, as the film also explores the deeply damaging effect extreme isolation has had on Neville’s psychology. It’s here that Smith earns his chops. He’s an extremely engaging actor, so you’re happy to spend time with him, but he’s also skilled enough to play a cracked psyche without going overboard. Neville chats (and flirts) with mannequins, knows Shrek so well he can speak in perfect unison (inflections and all) with the film, and keeps up a regular stream of conversation with his dog Sam, including asking her what she is planning to do for his birthday. Much of this is played lightly, but at key moments Smith allows Neville to snap. He also plays the tragedy gently – his reactions to Sam’s death are genuinely quite moving because they are quiet and restrained.

This is all interesting stuff. Less interesting are the “darkseekers” and the film’s final resolution. Firstly, the darkseekers themselves are bog-standard zombie monsters – screaming, running, deadly creatures with their one quirk being their fear of UV light. Other than that, it’s nothing you haven’t seen in half a dozen movies before (better). Turning them into zombie creatures does make Neville even more isolated but makes encounters with them fairly predictable, mostly inspired by films past. Most of the film’s big confrontation set pieces have a slightly tired familiar feeling to them. I’m already struggling to remember them, and I only saw the film two days ago.

The major problem with this film is its ending. I Am Legend had its ending re-shot after test audiences saw it. Originally, a reveal would have been that the darkseekers were far more intelligent than appeared, and their motivation was to prevent Neville’s experimentation on them. Two scenes still make a point of discussing Neville’s Mengele-like wall of photos of dead darkseekers, killed by his cure experiments, and other hints remain through the film: the traps they set , the presence of an “Alpha” leader among the monsters, repeated shots of the tattoo on Neville’s last captured darkseeker, which was intended to be a crucial clue that she was the mate of the Alpha.

But test audiences weren’t having that. So in the final version, all this build-up and suggestion is shoved aside as Neville grabs a grenade and blows himself and them to hell to allow a cure to be taken to the rest of mankind. As the cure is taken to an idyllic community in the country (church and all) mankind’s future is his “legend” or some such guff. It’s a major loss of nerve that makes the film just another run-of-the-mill monster flick. It doesn’t match with hints that remain in the whole film and it doesn’t tie in with the more successful first hour of the film. It doesn't question the possible rights and wrongs of Neville's actions (at best comprehensive animal experimentation), but fully endorses them.

It’s a shame as this has ideas, its vistas of New York being reclaimed by nature are interesting and memorable, and Will Smith is pretty good in a straight acting role. But instead it settles for being a schlocky monster pic, where we can unquestioningly cheer as everything is neatly tied up with a bow and everything we thought about all of its characters is confirmed. As such, this film isn’t a classic and it hasn’t had the sort of life it might have been able to have. Despite good moments, it’s definitely not a Legend.