Dave and Rachel's movie reviews.


Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Muppet Christmas Carol

Year: 1992
Running time: 85 minutes
Certificate: U
Language: English
Screenplay: Jerry Juhl
Director: Brian Henson
Starring: Michael Caine, Steven Mackintosh, Meredith Braun, Raymond Coulthard, (voices) Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson

"Marley & Marley".
I was never really a big fan of The Muppets when I was a kid; I always found it kind of boring. When I got a little older I started to have an appreciation for the characters, the cameos and the comedy, which mixed broad strokes of mapcap zany slapstick for kids, but retained a tongue-in-cheek knowing wink, helping to make it accessible for all. However mixed my feelings for the show in general, I will always love this film.

Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843, and it is a testament to its brilliance that even now it remains a staple of the traditional Christmas period. It taps into that feeling that is particular to this time of year, that of goodwill and kindness stepping to the forefront. No matter how despicable Scrooge is in the beginning, he is a character to root for - you really want him to come to the realisation that acting like Donald Trump is really no way to live your life. The message, that one should take this feeling and keep it the year round is a powerful one that too many people ignore.

Gonzo as Dickens as narrator.
There is a huge number of adaptations of A Christmas Carol, so in order to standout from the crowd, new twists must be employed (like Scrooged, which successfully transplanted the story into a contemporary setting, turned it into a comedy and had the stroke of genius that was casting Bill Murray as Scrooge). The Muppet Christmas Carol certainly does that - while there have been musical versions and comedy versions before, using the Muppets to make a musical comedy version is one of those perfect ideas that is so obvious with hindsight, it is amazing it wasn't thought of before 1992. It has some outstanding casting ideas - Gonzo was, apparently, born to play Dickens, brilliantly funny writing (“Light the lamp, not the rat, light the lamp, not the rat!”), good musical numbers, in particular the song sung by the ghost of Christmas present (voiced by Jerry Nelson), which reiterates the lesson to keep the way you feel at Christmas throughout the year in the line "It's true wherever you find love it feels like Christmas".

The masterstroke is the casting of Michael Caine to fill the slippers of the famous old grouch - despite being in a musical comedy version aimed mostly at children, Caine's Scrooge is one of the most affecting - he does a fine job of bringing out the heart of Dickens' story, despite acting mostly opposite felt.

The best muppet movie and up there with the best versions of A Christmas Carol.

Score: 7/10

As you might expect, those who don't fall for for this heartwarming adaptation are few and far between, as shown by these reviews by Ian and Groucho Reviews.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Spirited Away

Year: 2001
Running time: 125 minutes
Certificate: PG
Language: Japanese
Screenplay: Hayao Miyazaki
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Starring (voices): Rumi Hiiragi, Miyu Irino, Mari Natsuki, Bunta Sugawara, Yumi Tamai, Yasuko Sawaguchi, Takashi Naitô

Yubaba tries to dissuade Chihiro from working for her.
There are so many fantastic coming-of-age stories that it is difficult to see how the well-worn trope could be utilised again with any originality. Enter animation legend Hayao Miyazaki. Ten-year-old girl Chihiro (voiced by Rumi Hiiragi in the original Japanese language version, which is how I like to watch foreign language films, and by Daveigh Chase in the English language dub, if subtitles aren't your thing) is moving to a new house and a new school. Forced to leave her friends behind, we first see her as a petulant little girl. This doesn't make her unlikable, however, it makes her believable - uproot a ten-year-old and move them from everything they've ever known and see how they take it.

When a wrong turn leads her and her parents to an abandoned theme park, things begin to get a little creepy.  There is no one around, but there is a stall with masses of delicious food. Mom (Yasuko Sawaguchi) and dad (Takashi Naitô) dig in with gusto, but Chihiro is freaked out and goes to look around. As she is away, night begins to fall and she is warned to leave by a stranger called Haku (Miyu Irino). As she heads back to her parents, lights come on and mysterious spectres begin to materialise everywhere. Finding her parents have been turned into pigs, she is stranded in the strangest world imaginable with no way home, which is scary even if you’re not a child. Things haven’t even begun to get weird yet. Advised to work to survive, she begs for a job from the sinister sorceress Yubaba (Mari Natsuki), who runs a bathhouse where six million gods come to rest every night.

The imagination that has gone into this film is astounding. Every frame is a work of art (I’m serious – pause it anywhere and literally bask in the quality), hand drawn and then enhanced by computer; it has got to be one of the most beautiful films ever created. The mixing of the mundane and the fantastical is seamless and incredibly effective - the steam powered basement where living soot supplies the fire with coal, or the bathhouse floor where legions of staff, including Chihiro, now called Sen since Yubaba took her name, work to scrub baths and floors between visits by the many and varied gods. One stand-out set-piece involves a visit from a river god who is so clogged with muck, rubbish and pollution he is mistaken for some kind of stink spirit.
Chihiro relaxes during a rare moment of peace.

With so much strangeness and action going on, it comes as a surprise that the most emotionally affecting scene in the film is a simple train journey. It is the moment that Chihiro has passed through the worst of it, has begun to take responsibility for her actions, and is no longer scared of being alone or of the monsters this world contains, but is only afraid for her new friend, Haku, who can no longer remember the name Yubaba took from him. The uneventful scene, mostly involving Chihiro simply sitting there, pinpoints the precise moment the girl bids goodbye to her childhood and is so bittersweet it provokes a reaction strong enough to be almost painful. He who can evoke this feeling from simply animating cartoons is a genius like no other.

Not only one of the best animated films I’ve ever seen, but one of the best films ever made, animated or not.

Score: 9/10

Spirited Away is universally adored, as it should be - see these reviews by Chris and Bill.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Wedding Singer

Year: 1998
Running time: 95 minutes
Certificate: 12
Language: English
Screenplay: Tim Herlihy
Director: Frank Coraci
Starring: Adam Sandler, Drew Barrymore, Christine Taylor, Allen Covert, Matthew Glave, Angela Featherstone

Robbie Hart, crooning for newlyweds.
Most Adam Sandler movies are the cinematic equivalent of root canal surgery – painful to experience, with nothing funny about them – for example, I Now Pronounce you Chuck and Larry (look everyone, isn’t homophobia funny!). Generally, with the exception of the decent Funny People, the further back you go, the less dreadful it is - Happy Gilmore and Billy Madison prove to be just about watchable. Having established that every now and again, even this monkey hits pay-dirt, this 80s homage is, along with The Waterboy, easily his best, and The Wedding Singer was the movie that made Sandler a household name in this country (something I’m sure most of us have now come to regret).

Enough Sandler-bashing (for now), back to The Wedding Singer.  Sandler’s Robbie Hart is a wedding singer who suffers the indignity of being stranded at the altar when his bride-to-be Linda (Angela Featherstone) decides he’s not cool enough anymore.  He meets Julia (Drew Barrymore), a girl who’s engaged to Glenn (Matthew Glave), a guy she’s too good for, yada yada yada, they end up together (I know that’s a bit of a plot spoiler, but I mean, come on, of course they were going to end up together).

Drew Barrymore: impossible not to love.
Sandler is genuinely likable, and Barrymore is as effortlessly sweet as she was in E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, and the two of them are helped out by a decent supporting cast, including the eminently unlikable Glave, nailing that 80s moral vacuum yuppie stereotype to great effect. The movie has an absolute heart of gold, and there are countless comedy moments that make up a really great whole – favourites being Robbie playing his Cure-influenced break-up song to Julia, Steve Buscemi (obviously), the rendition of Love Stinks and Sandler employing his angry-guy shtick before it got old at a newlyweds’ reception ("I have a microphone and you don't SO YOU WILL LISTEN TO EVERY DAMN WORD I HAVE TO SAY!") and, best of all, Billy Idol saving the day!

Funny, romantic, with a great soundtrack.

Score: 7/10

The Ace Black Blog is in broad agreement, but James is not a fan.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Lord of the Rings

Year: 2001 (Fellowship of the Ring), 2002 (Two Towers), 2003 (Return of the King)
Running time: 208 minutes (Fellowship of the Ring), 223 minutes (Two Towers), 251 minutes (Return of the King)
Certificate: PG (Fellowship of the Ring), 12 (Two Towers, Return of the King)
Language: English
Screenplay: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson (Fellowship of the Ring, Two Towers, Return of the King), Stephen Sinclair (Two Towers)
Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Orlando Bloom, John Rhys-Davies, Sean Bean, Andy Serkis, Liv Tyler, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Marton Csokas, Lawrence Makoare, Craig Parker, Sarah McLeod, Bernard Hill, Miranda Otto, Karl Urban, David Wenham, Brad Dourif, Bruce Hopkins, John Noble, Bruce Spence

Gandalf: Frankly, fucking kick-ass.
A quick note before we go on. As mentioned here, these things are nothing but some bloke wittering on about one of his favourite subjects: film. Just because these films are, probably, my favourites, it doesn't mean they are the best-made pieces of cinema ever. It just means I like them a lot.

When the news first broke that Peter Jackson of cheap splatter-movie fame was going to undertake the filming of this complicated but much-loved story, I don’t imagine anyone dared hope that the result would be quite this phenomenal. The fears that too much of the essence of the story would be lost in the transfer turned out to be unjustified (and the people that still complain about the absence of Tom Bombadil, the lack of The Scouring of the Shire and Frodo’s relative youth are missing the point entirely), as although changes have been made, and details have been lost, this film is undoubtedly imbued with the spirit of J.R.R.’s classic story. One of the main reasons for this is the extraordinary lengths the filmmakers went to in creating the detail of the world behind the main story (just like Tolkien himself did with The Silmarillion and other books on the history of Middle Earth, all unreleased notes until son Christopher brought them to light after his death). Most of the detail passes unnoticed until it’s pointed out to you (which, thanks to the most comprehensive collection of extra features imaginable you are able to explore in forensic detail), but it all helps to create an overall effect of history and depth.

Pursuing ringwraiths.
Jackson works hard to keep you wrapped up in the world and invested in the story and characters, and barely a moment goes by when he doesn't succeed. He doesn't do it all by himself however; credit must go to the cast for creating characters from the page that must have already been so firmly set in other people’s minds. It’s true that not every character is exactly as I imagined before the film, but it could never have been as everyone imagines these things differently, and every cast member does a nigh on perfect job. Every set, every scene, every moment is gloriously filmed, taking every opportunity to show off the spectacular New Zealand landscape, all put to music that compliments the tone of the story perfectly. The fact that this was compared to Harry Potter is beyond ridiculous and unfair on the boy wizard, as very little comes close to this in terms of scale and execution.

Sauron, being evil, hatched a long-running scheme to destroy or dominate all life on Middle Earth by fashioning magic rings which would allow him to inflict his will upon the leaders of the free folk - men, elves and dwarves. He then manages to go and lose his master ring - the one to bind and rule the others. Well, when I say lose, it is more like he gets his hand chopped off. Still, that's what you get for being an evil overlord wannabe. The ring finds its way to a little fellow (or hobbit, if you prefer) called Sméagol (Andy Serkis), who promptly falls under its spell and murders for it, steals it, and lives for half a century in a dank dark cave fawning over his 'precious'. Following some random chance and some Riddles in the Dark (see The Hobbit), Sméagol, now known as Gollum, due to the odd damp coughing noise he makes, loses the ring to a much nicer hobbit by the name of Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), who takes it back to his cosy rural home Bag End in the Shire. And that's kind of where we come in at the opening of Fellowship. As noted above, Tolkien invented a staggering amount of detail - thousands of years of history, countless other characters, places, peoples, languages that are not even a minor part of either the book or the film, but the makers know it is there and it gives the book and film a sense of weight unmatched in fiction.
Hero pose #16.
In an attempt to banish the newly powerful Sauron, a company of nine - the eponymous fellowship - take on a quest to destroy the ring in the only place it can be - Mount Doom, the volcano in Sauron's back yard where it was originally forged. Bilbo's favourite nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) is given responsibility for the ring, and is joined by friends Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin), Peregrine 'Pippin' Took (Billy Boyd) and Meriadoc 'Merry' Brandybuck (Dominic Monaghan). Also along for the ride are the dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), Legolas the elf (Orlando Bloom), humans Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Boromir (Sean Bean) and the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen).

The whole thing comes together beautifully; writing, acting, cinematography, soundtrack, art direction and visual effects (including the use of digital colour grading which helps to give each frame a unique look, be it vibrant green for Hobbiton grass or otherworldly silver for Lothlorien). As wonderful as Fellowship is, it is largely a road movie, so the challenge for Jackson and the others would be to successfully up their game for the larger scale Two Towers and Return of the King.
Gandalf brings victory with the sunrise at Helm's Deep.

What’s one of the highlights of a classic Bond movie? It’s the insane action sequence at the start, right? Well, The Two Towers’ opening scene of Gandalf following the Balrog of Morgoth into the depths of Moria manages to trump every single one of 007’s openers with ease, and is the perfect way to get yourself re-acclimatised with Middle Earth for the second and middle part of Peter Jackson's stonking trilogy. The second part of your standard trilogy is usually the weak link (apart from the noticeable exception of The Godfather Part 2), and this is due to the story being dragged out to fill the hole left in the middle of the plot. The first part usually sets up the story and characters, and the finale has the climactic moments and the sense of completion, leaving the middle part to simply bridge the gap. Well, The Lord of the Rings has no weak links. Instead of serving as simply a link, The Two Towers expands the scope of the story dramatically, introducing us to new major characters and countries without losing any of the tone of the first, much like The Empire Strikes Back, only, much better. Obviously a big part of this is down to the filmmakers working on all three films at once, allowing them to keep the feel of the story intact - a gamble that has paid off in spades.

The most notable part of the second piece is the battle at Helm’s Deep, in which a few straggles of men and elves take on the might of Saruman’s (Christopher Lee) Uruk-Hai army. Taking a cue from Zulu, and serving as the final third of the film, it really has to be seen to be believed; in particular, the sight of 2000 horses galloping full throttle down a mountainside will leave you a gibbering puddle of awe and wonder.

The music deserves a special mention; Howard Shore has created some wonderful themes, especially the lovely Rohan theme and the accompaniment to the last march of the Ents. But more than this, there are little snippets here and there that come in at just the right moment and are never heard again, three examples being the moment from Fellowship when Frodo first sets out from Rivendell, then in Two Towers when Gandalf and the others are riding to Rohan on Shadowfax and also when Aragorn is making his way towards Helm’s Deep; these small moments of music take the breath away and can bring tears to the eyes.
Oliphants at war.

The third and final slice of Jackson’s Middle Earth epic somehow manages to outdo even the two that have gone before, although how this is possible is difficult to fathom. This film goes so far beyond original expectations it’s mind-boggling. It should be noted that these are reviews of the extended cuts of the films available on DVD as opposed to the versions originally seen at cinemas, as these are more definitive cuts of the films (although the Blu Ray extended editions, which I do not yet own, are seemingly longer still). It is particularly important in the third piece, because it includes the demise of Saruman, a moment which was strangely absent from the cinematic release. With this scene reinstated, we quickly move on to the most astonishing set of the entire trilogy, and the unveiling of the seven-tiered mountain-high Minas Tirith; following Gandalf as he gallops to the top accompanied by the triumphant Gondor theme is an incredible vertigo-inducing moment that increases the huge scope of the story even further. The film continues to one up itself in this fashion throughout. Gandalf's arrival at Minas Tirith is followed by the explosive unveiling of Sauron's army marching out of the sickly corpse-light green gates of Minas Morgul right past the terrified Frodo. Next comes the sequence of the lighting of the beacons, where Minas Tirith calls for help from Rohan (much against the will of steward Denethor (John Noble)), in which fires are lit across a mountain range, Jackson's camera glorying in its eagle-eyed view of yet more incredible natural New Zealand scenery. Pippin's frightened singing soundtracking Faramir's (David Wehnam) heart-breaking charge to almost certain death, King Theoden (Bernard Hill) making a stirring call to arms before the charge of the Rohirrim, and on and on until the viewer is left dazed and in a perpetual state of unbelieving amazement. That this was done by a home-grown Kiwi director and his home-grown Kiwi production company must have ILM and Hollywood green with envy.

Despite the title referring to Aragorn, the real star of the third part of the trilogy is undoubtedly Sam, played to perfection by the under-rated Sean Astin, managing to carry Frodo the last few feet on his back after the ring bearer loses all strength. Elijah Wood also does a magnificent job and when at the very end of his quest, Frodo loses his fight and claims the ring for himself, your heart is left broken and you can hardly bear to watch as Frodo’s mouth turns into a twisted smile and his unblinking eyes reveal nothing of the innocent and joyful hobbit you remember from the opening of Fellowship 11+ hours ago. Thankfully, Frodo is saved from himself by the unsung hero of the piece, Gollum.
Frodo is finally broken.
Gollum is such an incredible feat of acting / animating that it is not possible to over-estimate the impact it has on the success of the story. Jar-Jar Binks he ain’t. You feel so much pity for the unfortunate Sméagol that you cannot bring yourself to hate him even after he betrays the characters you love. Andy Serkis and Weta Digital have genuinely worked technological miracles, paving the way for the almost photo-real CGI in Avatar.

The bittersweet ending (which is not too long for me, despite the numerous criticisms it received) may be hard for some to bear, but the fact is Frodo was never going to recover, and to pretend otherwise would have been an injustice to the noble hobbit, and the anti-climactic way in which Sam utters the final words is perfectly in keeping with the story. Quite simply, The Lord of the Rings trilogy is among the most astonishing achievements in the history of film and is the film I would always choose to watch before all others.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring: 10/10
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers: 10/10
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King: 10/10

Empire magazine is also a big fan of this franchise, judging by these reviews by Colin, Caroline and Alan, as is Ram. Roger Ebert's take on the trilogy is a little less overwhelmed: Fellowship, Two Towers, Return of the King.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Fifth Element

Year: 1997
Running time: 126 minutes
Certificate: PG
Language: English
Screenplay: Luc Besson, Robert Mark Kamen
Director: Luc Besson
Starring: Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich, Gary Oldman, Ian Holm, Chris Tucker, Luke Perry, Brion James, Tommy Lister, Lee Evans, Tricky, Charlie Creed-Miles

Leeloo struggles to come to grips with Luc Besson's
In a recent interview, Milla Jovovich, now arguably better known for the Resident Evil movie franchise, was asked what line she gets quoted back to her most often. The answer was one word: "Multipass". Such is the depth of love for this flawed yet fun epic sci-fi mess. The Fifth Element is a fairly unique film, in that it is a big budget Hollywood action movie but, thanks to director and writer Luc Besson retaining full creative control, it has a distinctly European flavour to it. The result is, frankly, weird. Set in the future where all life is periodically under threat from a flaming planet of evil known as Mr Shadow, only ex-military cab driver Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) can save us all with the help of the four elements Earth, Fire, Wind and Water (yes, apparently the ancient Greeks were right all along – anyone with the simplest grasp of modern chemistry will wince at the whole concept) and a mysterious fifth element – a supreme being. Despite sporting a bizarre blonde haircut, Willis is as charismatic a leading man as you’d expect. Two members of an ancient order of monks dedicated to thwarting evil, Vito Cornelius (Ian Holm) and David (Charlie Creed-Miles) convince President Lindberg (Tommy 'Tiny' Lister) of the seriousness of the threat, but it all goes horribly wrong when the alien ship containing the titular element is destroyed. Behind this dastardly act is millionaire and all-round bad egg Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg (Gary Oldman), who is working for Mr Shadow. The fact that it has taken this long to outline the opening and general plot illustrates just what a sprawling mess this is. Somehow, it only adds to the charm. ‘Serious’ actors Ian Holm and Gary Oldman are clearly having a blast and simply going with the ridiculousness. Stealing the film outright, however, is the magnificent Milla Jovovich, as the perfect supreme being Leeloo. Re-created from a piece of DNA recovered from the crashed ship, she soon escapes from her 'unbreakable' cage and goes on the run.

The plot is fluff and nonsense, simply providing an excuse to go from set piece to set piece, while showing off the wonderfully designed visuals. For example, the moment when Leeloo escapes out onto a building ledge and we and her get a first look of the sprawling city, with buildings that stretch beyond the clouds and layer upon layer of flying traffic it is breath-taking, even now, 15 years later. With nowhere to go, Leeloo takes a dive off the ledge, landing in Korben's taxi-cab. Action follows, and the Universe is eventually saved. Despite the expense and beautiful imagery, sometimes the sets appear cheap and cardboard-like – see the supposedly luxurious cruise liner floating above tourist planet Flotsam Paradise, for the most obvious example.

Korben Dallas, busy saving the Universe.
So, Bruce Willis (or Korben Dallas if you prefer) does his thing and saves the day– that part is all pretty standard. It is not quite that simple, though. Added into the mix, for example, are techno-opera performed by a blue alien diva carrying magic stones in her stomach and Chris Tucker as Ruby Rhod, a batshit crazy squeaky-voiced over-sexed DJ. Tucker is easily the most criticised thing in this film and for some he ruins the whole movie, while for others he’s only mildly annoying. No-one ever tells you they loved him. For me, the whole thing was already so insane, Tucker’s character made little difference - his obvious frustration at the one-word answers he gets from Dallas is actually quite amusing.

There is something about The Fifth Element that causes me to like it a lot more than perhaps I should. Despite Chris Tucker, the poor dialogue, overly complicated plot (Besson came up with the story as a teenager, and you can surely tell) and mad character and costume design, or even because of these things, it sets itself apart from its peers. Whatever the reason, I count myself a fan.

Score: 7/10

I'm certainly not alone in my slightly perplexed admiration of The Fifth Element - see these reviews by Bryant and Roger Ebert.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Breakfast Club

Year: 1985
Running time: 97 minutes
Certificate: 15
Language: English
Screenplay: John Hughes
Director: John Hughes
Starring: Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, Ally Sheedy, Paul Gleason, John Kapelos

Stereotypes unite.
The Breakfast Club is my favourite movie of the late, great John Hughes, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Sixteen Candles notwithstanding. This probably has something to do with the age I was when I first saw it. Having had some experience of being unpopular among my teenage peers, the story of five mismatched kids - 'Rebel' John Bender (Judd Nelson), 'Jock' Andrew Clark (Emilio Estevez), 'Nerd' Brian Johnson (Anthony Michael Hall), 'Princess' Claire Standish (Molly Ringwald) and 'Basket Case' Alison Reynolds (Ally Sheedy) - sharing a Saturday with each other and bonding over their differences seemed tailor-made for me. John Hughes got me, in a way that no other person did. Of course, it transpires that I was not alone in this, and most of a generation felt the same.

Granted, with the hindsight of adulthood, the message is rather obvious and without much subtlety, but that's exactly the point; adults really don't get teenagers, and these five, so wrapped up in their own petty (for the most part) problems and suffering a range of abuses at the hands of oblivious parents clearly mystify Richard Vernon (Paul Gleason), the teacher tasked with monitoring the kids throughout their Saturday detention. As the day goes on, each of them begin to open up, and they each realise the others aren't the stereotypes they suspected. Together they tear round the school avoiding Vernon, argue, get high and pour their respective hearts out.

It’s clear that the cast have an easy chemistry with each other, and each of them acquit themselves rather well, with Estevez impressing in a scene where he relates the incident that got him detention; under pressure from an over-bearing father, a violent act meant to humiliate a friend of Brian's, his character is completely bewildered as to why he did it and is at a loss as to how to even begin to apologise. Anthony Michael Hall probably impresses the least, his Brian pouring his heart out in manner which seems slightly over the top and feels a little fake.
Vernon struggles to control his temper.

Inevitably the point comes where the five of them consider what might come Monday morning; whether they will acknowledge their shared experience or carry on just as they did before. You get the uncomfortable feeling that the three who are more invested in protecting their image in the eyes of others (John, Andrew and Claire) will change little, despite the two new couples leaving the school together, while Brian and Alison might have been glad to make some new friends. I guess the best they can probably hope for is to become friends with each other.

Lots of fun, this will always be a nostalgia trip for me, and might help my cynical adult self remember how it felt to be a teenager.

Score: 7/10

The Breakfast Club is pretty much universally loved, as seen in these reviews by Stevee and Matt.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Pan's Labyrinth

Year: 2006
Running time: 119 minutes
Certificate: 15
Language: Spanish
Screenplay: Guillermo del Toro
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Ivana Baquero, Doug Jones, Sergi López, Ariadna Gil, Maribel Verdú, Álex Angulo

The fawn instructs Ofelia in her task.
Guillermo del Toro is a hugely talented director, who makes astonishing films just as long as he’s not working for Hollywood. For example, Blade 2, Mimic and Hellboy are all pretty atrocious films, but when del Toro is making films in his own native Spanish, it is almost like he's a different director; he can be fantastic, and Pan’s Labyrinth is definitive proof.

Essentially a fairytale, but this does not exactly make for family friendly viewing, as this fantastical story is interspersed with ugly scenes from the tale-end of the Spanish civil war. A young girl named Ofelia (played by Ivana Baquero who, unbelievably, was merely 11 years old at the time of making) comes with her pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) to a village on the edge of the fighting where the fascist captain Vidal (Sergi López), the unborn child’s father, is rooting out rebels in the forests.

Ofelia confronts the terrifying Pale Man.
Taking an intense dislike to her new life and in particular the nasty piece of work she’s now supposed to call father, Ofelia escapes into a fantasy world where she is the long lost princess of a fantastical race and must pass three tests in order to return to her people and leave behind the real world. The two worlds exist alongside each other; the 'real' world is a dangerous place, where everyone is on edge, and hidden rebels live in fear posing as servants and doctors in Vidal's household. Ofelia's fantasy world is every bit as disturbing and dangerous as the real one, beset as she is by giant toads and the Pale Man (Doug Jones, who also plays Pan, the helpful but frightening fawn the film is named for), a monster who sits surrounded by food to tempt the unwary and keeps his eyes in the palms of his hands.

The imagination at work here is wonderful; Ophelia's world is at once beautiful and grotesque, and never fails to astound. The masterstroke is never actually telling the viewer whether it’s real or not – you are left to make your own choice about whether it’s all in the mind or something tangible. This is especially effective at the climax, where one reality sees a violent end for all involved, while in the other Ofelia lives a charmed life as a returned long-lost, much-loved princess.

Score: 9/10

I'll have to agree to disagree with Mark, who was a little disappointed. More in agreement, on the other hand, is this in-depth review by A. O. Scott at The New York Times, which makes for an excellent read.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Kill Bill

Year: 2003 (Vol. 1), 2004 (Vol. 2)
Running time: 111 minutes (Vol. 1), 136 minutes (Vol. 2)
Certificate: 18
Language: English
Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, Vivica A. Fox, Daryl Hannah, David Carradine, Michael Madsen, Julie Dreyfus, Chiaki Kuriyama, Sonny Chiba, Chia Hui Liu, Michael Parks, Perla Haney-Jardine

Two down, 86 to go.
Supposedly originally conceived of by Quentin Tarantino and Uma Thurman on a napkin during breaks in filming Pulp Fiction, the story of The Bride and her quest for vengeance was originally a 90-minute movie in Tarantino’s head. Over the years, it began to develop into something much more. There are people who bemoan the loss of that short, fast-paced movie, but I couldn’t be more pleased at the decision to increase the size and depth of the story. Kill Bill is truly impressive, the two volumes being very different in character and style while still remaining a complete whole. Criticised for over-indulgence, it almost feels like the film Tarantino made for himself. Another criticism it received (from, unsurprisingly The Daily Mail who ranted and raged that “...it not only glorifies violence against women, it makes a quasi-religion out of it.”) was regarding the violent content, which is a bit like criticising PG Tips for making tea.

There is not a great deal to the story, basically being a revenge movie, following The Bride (real name Beatrix Kiddo) (Thurman), who, after finding she is pregnant, quits her career as an assassin and runs away to live a regular life. Her boss and her baby's father, Bill (David Carradine) does not take kindly to this and tracks Kiddo down and calls in her ex-colleagues, the other members of the Deadly Viper Assassin Squad to slaughter the regular family Kiddo intended to marry into and leaving the pregnant Bride for dead. Five years later, she awakes from a coma, childless, and proceeds to wreak bloody vengeance.
The making of O-Ren Ishii.

Volume 1 is Tarantino’s homage to the countless hyper-violent Eastern movies he clearly grew up on, such as Shogun Assassin (which is even name-checked in Volume 2) and Lady Snowblood. There are so many great ideas sprawling all over the film that the first time round you’re bound to miss some, which makes repeat viewings very rewarding. One of the most memorable parts is the back-story of Lucy Liu’s O-Ren Ishii, told entirely in anime. Instead of being a jarring distraction as you might expect, artistically it works brilliantly, really helping the character to stick in the memory. Another scene that jumps out is where The Bride entreats retired sword-smith Hattori Hanzo (a cameo from the legendary movie martial artist Sonny Chiba) to make her a sword, and we pause for a long but absorbing discussion about perfectly made swords. Despite these terrific moments, the film seems like a long lead up to the climactic show down in The House of Blue Leaves where The Bride takes on O-Ren’s Crazy 88 before dispatching the woman herself. This takes up pretty much the final third of the first film and is simply staggering - the best example I have yet seen of movie violence as high art. Witness the fountains of spurting blood, the running along banisters, or the moment where the lights go out and the fight continues in silhouette. These are just three moments out of a myriad of virtuoso shots. For sheer bravado it trumps anything in Volume 2.

A huge amount of kudos goes to Uma Thurman in these films – in her portrayal of The Bride she has created an icon every bit as recognisable and everlasting as Holly Golightly, Ellen Ripley or Marla Singer. It is not hard to see why Tarantino considered her his muse.

The Bride, at a wedding rehearsal she won't soon forget.
While Volume 2 still has large parts of it that recall the Eastern martial arts movies paid homage in Volume 1 (a mid-film flashback in which Kiddo trains with Bill's mentor Pai Mei (Chia Hui Liu) mainly), it feels much more like a Western, with a slower pace and a score prominent with Ennio Morricone’s music (he was originally going to write an original score for Tarantino, but scheduling problems meant he was unable). Tarantino continues to reference everything he's ever watched, including Volume 1 in the opening when The Bride demolishes the fourth wall and talks to the camera about the movie advertisements for the first film, which is, frankly, a little bit genius. There’s nothing to rival The House of Blue Leaves for sheer balls-out action set pieces, but it definitely has its memorable moments, the most disturbing of which is when The Bride is buried alive by Bill's brother Budd (Michael Madsen). While it loses something at home, in the cinema this whole sequence was incredibly unnerving. The claustrophobic fight with (the also extraordinary) Daryl Hannah’s Elle Driver is another moment that sticks with you – you can almost feel the bruises as each woman takes her turn to be kicked, thrown and smashed against things. Mostly, however, it’s the rather gross ending to the fight that sticks with you – an ‘eewww’ moment if ever there was one.

Training with Pai Mei.
The ending is another part of Kill Bill that has come under fire, for being action-light and dialogue-heavy. This is bizarre to me as by now we’ve had almost more than we can stand of action and fight choreography, but more than this, it’s Tarantino, who is as well known for his dialogue as he is for his violence. The Bride tracks Bill down, ready to confront him and instead finds herself face to face with her daughter B.B. (Perla Haney-Jardine) for the first time. This emotional sucker-punch is more than enough to conceivably put The Bride out of action, and it’s here that respect for Thurman goes up another notch. The whole cast has done a great job of making characters cool when they could so easily have been ludicrous, but here Thurman lends her character genuine gravitas. There is a moment when she sees her daughter for the first time and Bill simultaneously. The two of them (B.B. quite unknowingly) have turned Kiddo's quest for vengeance into a game. To spare her daughter the ugliness of murder, she manages to control herself sufficiently to play along with her game, and the moment is gut-wrenching. Similarly, the shots of mother and daughter lying together on the bed are beautifully poignant.

The late David Carradine also hits the mark, playing Bill with just the right balance of endearing warmth and bubbling-under psychosis to make you like him but stay wary of him. His obvious charm did make me a little concerned that The Bride wouldn’t be able to finish her mission to kill Bill, but the final fight, understated as it was, is just what was required, with Bill going out with dignity instead of a geyser of violence and blood, and The Bride grieving for the man she once loved, yet still strong enough to do what she must. Volume 2 is slightly better, but they should most definitely be viewed as a single four-hour movie.

Absolutely epic.


Kill Bill Volume 1: 9/10
Kill Bill Volume 2: 9/10

Despite the Mail's meltdown, there is a lot of love out there for
Kill Bill, like this review by Matt and, notably, Mr. Ebert hisself
(Volume 1 & Volume 2).

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Grosse Pointe Blank

Year: 1997
Running time: 107 minutes
Certificate: 15
Language: English
Screenplay: Tom Jankiewicz, D. V. DeVincentis, Steve Pink, John Cusack
Director: George Armitage
Starring: John Cusack, Minnie Driver, Alan Arkin, Dan Ackroyd, Joan Cusack, Hank Azaria, K. Todd Freeman, Jeremy Piven, Mitch Ryan, Michael Cudlitz

Well read and deadly: the man has it all.
This story of a hit-man returning to his hometown for a high school reunion starring the ever great John Cusack is an absolute gem. Steeped in nostalgic 80s sensibility (which isn’t half as bad as it sounds), Martin Q. Blank (Cusack) is a hit-man who wants to retire, returning to his hometown to pull off one last job. His visit coincides with the ten year anniversary of his graduation. Cusack does a fine job capturing that strange nostalgic yet freaked out feeling that accompanies coming face to face with old school friends after a decade. When he meets up with old friend Paul Spericki (Jeremy Piven), the two of them seem to pick up almost like they saw each other yesterday, until Paul's sudden outburst: "Ten years!"

Blank begins to reconnect with his roots to the sound of The Clash, David Bowie & Queen, Violent Femmes and a bunch of others in a great soundtrack that actually manages to make the 80s sound like a good decade for music. Some moments are quite sombre, for example when he visits each of his parents – a mentally disabled mother in a home who doesn’t recognise her son, and a father buried in the ground at a quiet gravesite. Other parts are played for laughs, such as finding a convenience store has been built on the site of his childhood home and reacquainting himself with his high school sweetheart Debi (Minnie Driver), whom he left heartbroken on the night of the school prom. Dan Ackroyd is on scene stealing form as Mr. Grocer, a rival assassin who first wants to induct Blank into his union for hit-men and then just tries to kill him, but the show remains Cusack’s from beginning to end.

The hit-man and her.
The soul searching sparked by the wave of memories and nostalgia (and a surprisingly emotionally affecting scene involving a staring contest with a baby) causes Blank to re-evaluate his life and he decides to get back together with Debi, provided he can survive the rival assassins and corrupt government agents long enough to convince her to take him back.

Full of great music and dialogue, deliciously black comedy and terrific acting, as well as a healthy dollop of romance and the effortlessly cool Cusack, this is superb fun from start to finish.

Score: 8/10

Rob is in broad agreement, as is Caroline at Empire.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Negotiator

Year: 1998
Running time: 140 minutes
Certificate: 15
Language: English
Screenplay: James DeMonaco, Kevin Fox
Director: F. Gary Gray
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Kevin Spacey, David Morse, Ron Rifkin, J.T. Walsh, Paul Giamatti, Regina Taylor

A tension-filled stand-off.
The Negotiator is one of those alright films that is only ever worth watching once or twice, if that. It’s not likely to ever be anyone’s favourite. It sounds great on paper – Sam Jackson is the best police negotiator in the force Danny Roman, able to diffuse some of the tensest hostage situations. He is on a roll of high profile success.  When he uncovers some internal corruption and his friend gets murdered he somehow finds himself framed and heading for prison. Reduced to desperate measures, he takes hostages himself and barricades himself halfway up the police internal affairs office block. Trying to prove his innocence, he insists on a negotiator completely impartial and with a reputation at least as good as his own: enter Chris Sabian (Kevin Spacey).

What you would hope for is a plot involving double-crosses, tension-filled scenes and plenty of action. Well, in a sense, that’s what you do get. It’s just that, well, it’s not as good as it should be. It doesn’t quite set the screen alight – Jackson and Spacey both excel and work well together, but they struggle with some of the dialogue that isn’t as clever as it thinks it is and twists that aren’t as surprising as they’re supposed to be. There are so many clichés presented as though they are earth-shattering it is impossible to take it as seriously as it wants you to.  The dialogue, while mostly passable, occasionally it degenerates into sweary ridiculousness (for example, one heated exchange simply goes "Fuck you!"  "Fuck you!"), which smacks of a screenplay running out of ideas.

Er, another tension-filled stand-off.
It looks good, making good use of plenty of shadows and finds ways to make the office in which most of it is set interesting throughout the overlong running time. A fine supporting cast (including the late, great J.T. Walsh in one of his final roles) do well in clichéd and underwritten parts, and help to lift the material a little.

It’s not too bad, but it just doesn’t live up to the potential of the central story idea - it isn't the L.A. Confidential it thinks it is.

Score: 6/10

It would seem others might think me a little harsh on The Negotiator, as evidenced by these reviews by Merrill and Gareth.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Jerry Maguire

Year: 1996
Running time: 139 minutes
Certificate: 15
Language: English
Screenplay: Cameron Crowe
Director: Cameron Crowe
Starring: Tom Cruise, Renée Zellweger, Cuba Gooding Jr., Bonnie Hunt, Jonathan Lipnicki, Kelly Preston, Regina King, Jerry O'Connell, Jay Mohr

Cuba broke the news that this wasn't Risky Business 2
Like Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise is often under-rated as an actor due to the megastar movie stud reputation. Not like Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise also has a reputation for idiocy (sofa jumping, scientology) that can often overshadow his abilities as an actor. Like Rain Man, Born on the Fourth of July and (in particular) Magnolia, Cruise’s turn in Cameron Crowe’s romantic comedy as a sports agent who has a crisis of conscience and loses almost everything as a result is strong evidence that he is in fact (like Brad Pitt) one of the finest actors of his generation.

When Jerry Maguire (Cruise) attempts to promote a new philosophy at the agency where he works which involves less money and more focus on the well being of the sports stars they represent, he soon finds himself fired by the smug, uncaring Bob Sugar (Jay Mohr). Maguire's humiliation for attempting to reverse the tide of corporate greed surrounding him is played out excruciatingly, and he manages to retain only one of his clients, Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr. in a performance that was deservedly Oscar winning, and, with the possible exception of Boyz N the Hood, is still his best, As Good As It Gets notwithstanding). It should seem a hollow victory, but Crowe's deft handling turns it into a scene that makes you want to punch the air in triumph.

Renée Zellweger is as delightful as ever in the role of love interest Dorothy Boyd, the single mother who follows Maguire and the only one genuinely touched by his change of heart. Jonathan Lipnicki is always hard to love, but he does well here as Zellweger’s son, Ray – he almost doesn’t make me want to throw him in front of a train.

Elastic band battles: very serious business.
What follows are two simultaneous plot strands. Maguire struggles to come to terms with what he’s lost and focus on his single remaining client, while falling for Dorothy. It’s done with flair, invention and the sharp witty dialogue typical of Crowe. The two happy endings of Tidwell's big game and Jerry and Dorothy finally pairing up are both very predictable of course, but Crowe and his cast make sure they are satisfying – the famous “You had me at hello” is sure to soften even the hardest of hearts.

Not bad for a rom-com. Not bad at all.

Score: 7/10

A couple of other reviews in general agreement from master critic Roger Ebert and Total Film.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Out of Sight

Year: 1998
Running time: 123 minutes
Certificate: 15
Language: English
Screenplay: Scott Frank
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: George Clooney, Jennifer Lopez, Ving Rhames, Don Cheadle, Denis Farina, Steve Zahn

Clooney & Lopez: Chemistry by the bucketload.
How do you make the coolest film ever? Having Steven Soderburgh direct George Clooney in an adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel would get you off to a fine start. The stylistic trappings of Out of Sight would later be refined by Soderburgh and Clooney into the hugely successful Ocean’s Eleven remake, but here it feels a little more adult. Clooney’s bungling but somehow still effortlessly cool bank robber Jack Foley manages to retain his charm even when frightening innocent tellers. As Foley lands himself in prison yet again, we are introduced to a range of great supporting players, from Don Cheadle’s psychotic self-styled gangster thief Maurice Miller and Foley's partner in crime Buddy Bragg (Ving Rhames), who has to call his sister to absolve his guilt prior to every job, to Steve Zahn's frightened henchman Glenn Michaels, who finds himself way out of his depth when caught up with Miller and his gang. The big draw however, comes in the surprising shape of Jennifer Lopez, as Karen Sisco, the FBI agent who crosses paths with Clooney as he’s making his escape.

It’s the electrifying chemistry between Clooney and Lopez that makes Out of Sight so special to watch. Clooney is frequently as brilliant as he is in this but Lopez has never since been able to scale such heights. Their first scene together in the boot of a car has got to be one of the sexiest meet-cutes in cinema. Better still is a later scene that leads up to the two leads sharing a bed. Sitting alone at a table in a bar, Sisco is approached by one cocky businessman after another and shoots each one down in flames. Foley walks up and asks if she’d like a drink. “I’d love one” she responds immediately and genuinely. The ensuing conversation is inter-cut with brief glimpses of the two of them in bed in an example of truly outstanding editing. It’s a style that feels Soderberghian in tone and is one of those scenes that are the reasons why I love cinema as much as I do.

Jack Foley: Not exactly hard on the eyes.
The complex plot is told with the liberal use of flashbacks and develops into a race to a job between Foley and Miller. Climaxing in a diamond heist at a private residence, Sisco is forced to choose between her feelings and her job in an impressively staged set piece that has equal amounts of tension (the potential rape of the maid of the house makes the scene feel potentially dangerous and leaves a slightly sour taste to the proceedings) and comedy (the moment when a clumsy henchman trips, lands on his gun and blows his brains out causes an involuntary burst of shocked laughter to erupt from the viewer).

Light, fun and as long as it isn't taken too seriously, this is a great watch.

Score: 8/10

This review by the Ace Black Blog has a very different point of view, but Denise at the BBC has a take on it more like mine.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Slumdog Millionaire

Year: 2008
Running time: 120 minutes
Certificate: 15
Language: English
Screenplay: Simon Beaufoy
Director: Danny Boyle
Starring: Dev Patel, Tanay Chheda, Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, Freida Pinto, Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar, Rubina Ali, Madhur Mittal, Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala, Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, Anil Kapoor, Sanchita Choudhary, Mahesh Manjrekar, Saurabh Shukla, Irrfan Khan

Jamal is hoping to win something more valuable than 
mere money.
I wonder if I’m one of the only people that wasn’t really thrilled at the prospect of a film based on a book (Vikas Swarup's Q & A) based on a TV quiz show. Even if Danny Boyle, who has an excellent, if not perfect, track record was directing it. Even if it had an interesting twist of being set in India's slums. Even a five-star review from Empire didn’t heighten my interest. Eventually I caught it on DVD. I always understood the meaning of the phrase ‘never judge a book by its cover’ but after watching Slumdog Millionaire I got a whole new appreciation of it. The film is just wonderful, deserving of all the critical praise and Oscars heaped upon it.

Jamal (Dev Patel) is on the verge of winning the top prize on India’s version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Suspected of cheating, he is bundled into a van and questioned by suspicious police officers (Sarubh Shukla and Irrfan Khan). Questioned with a wet sponge and an electric current, that is. As Jamal explains how he knows the answer to each of the questions we are taken on a remarkable journey, recounting Jamal’s life, starting when he was just a child (Ayush Mahesh Khedekar) of the slums getting covered in shit for a chance to meet a celebrity. Another answered question is explained by the harrowing murder of his mother (Sanchita Choudhary), forcing him onto the streets with his brother Salim (Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail), where they meet Latika, (Rubina Ali) who the young Jamal is besotted with.

As Jamal’s life story is told, we follow the young boys grow up (each of the main characters Jamal, Salim and Latika are played by three actors of different ages), embarking on some ingenious business ventures (like faking it as tour guides at the Taj Mahal, robbing unwary tourists), and we see them get mixed up with guns, gangsters (led by the thoroughly unpleasant Javed (Mahesh Manjrekar)) and a group of people who run the begging street kids like a business, thinking nothing of burning out a young boy’s eyes to increase the chances of people taking pity on him. It is not an easy watch at times, but despite these distressing moments, the film is unabashedly positive, a tribute to the wonderful resilience of kids despite living in the harshest conditions, and a love story following Jamal’s lifelong pursuit of Latika (Freida Pinto, who is so gorgeous here as to be almost unreal) who grows up to be mixed up, along with Salim (Madhur Mittal), with Javed and his gang.
Latika, the love of young Jamal's life.

One of the things that make this so special is the cinematography, saturating the streets of India with bright and vibrant colours, filmed using digital handheld cameras to make the visuals astonishingly striking (a technique that doesn't always work - see Public Enemies.) Danny Boyle’s films are often characterised by their flamboyantly energetic camerawork, but Slumdog Millionaire is by far the best example of just how effective his technique can be - in particular the montage set to MIA's Paper Planes is as mesmerising as it is breathless.

Another big plus is the outstanding cast.  Dev Patel (fresh off the first season of Channel 4's Skins) comes across as a bright-eyed lively presence, as streetwise in some things as he is naive in others.  It really is impossible not to root for him.  The support is just as strong, particularly the kids who play the younger versions of the characters and Bollywood hero Anil Kapoor playing the Indian version of Chris Tarrant with scene-stealing sneakiness, determined to prevent this uppity slumdog getting the top prize.

So despite my initial misgivings, this film is beautiful, striking and wonderful and as exciting as an episode of Who Wants to be a Millionaire is dull.

Score: 9/10

Roger Ebert would seem to agree, but this review by C.B. Jacobson suggests Boyle's constantly-moving camera doesn't appeal to all.