Dave and Rachel's movie reviews.

*THERE WILL ALWAYS BE SPOILERS*

Monday, December 16, 2013

It's A Wonderful Life

Year: 1946
Running time: 130 minutes
Certificate: U
Language: English
Screenplay: Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra
Director: Frank Capra
Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Frank Faylen, Ward Bond

George finds that it really is a wonderful life.
Sometimes life feels like it's a grind; relentless, difficult and changeless. If you're lucky like I am, these moments rarely last for long. And if you're like me, the right film at the right time is an easy way to restore your flagging soul. For filling this essential need, few films, if any are as powerful as It's A Wonderful Life.

George Bailey (James Stewart) lives in the small town of Bedford Falls. Although he's always wanted to travel, he's never managed to lift himself out of his place at the head of a small struggling savings & loan company, a legacy left to him by his father. While failing to leave Bedford Falls, George meets, falls in love with, and starts a family with Mary Hatch (Donna Reed). George's little business is in constant danger of being swallowed up by the greedy and unpleasant Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), who already owns much of Bedford Falls and has designs on the rest. When George's uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) misplaces $8,000 of the business's money one Christmas, which is found and hidden by Potter, it looks like that may finally happen. More than that, George is likely to end up in prison over the loss. This coupled with a number of other things cause him to momentarily forget he has a loving family and many friends and leads him to contemplate ending his own life. Standing on a bridge over running water, psyching himself up to jump, he notices another person fall in. Being the kind of man he is, previous thoughts of suicide dissolve, and George launches himself from the bridge and rescues who turns out to be Clarence, his guardian angel (Henry Travers). To bring George to his senses, Clarence shows him what Bedford Falls would have been like if he’d never been born.

Clarence works hard to show George that he matters
more than he thinks.
It’s ironic that the climax of a film so uplifting could be centred around one man’s attempt to commit suicide, but it is easy to forget that this is only the climax. What has gone before has moments of incredible beauty and light-hearted comedy and can't help but touch a cord in even the most unemotional person. Frankly, if this film doesn't fill you with warm gooey love, you are dead inside. The legendary Jimmy Stewart imbues George with such a gentle spirit, and such passion and warmth, that you cannot want anything but a happy ending for him. There's some indefinable magic about Stewart, and number of other actors from his generation (Fred Astaire, Humphrey Bogart, Rita Hayworth, Audrey Hepburn and others) - watching them is like crack for the soul.

While George is being driven to the realisation that his life is wonderful and important, you can't help but be reminded that you, the viewer, are also important. You effect the people and the world around you in unseen ways. You matter to others, and coming to that realisation, or being reminded of it is a boost that's a hell of a lot cheaper than six months of therapy. Sometimes you need a little lift and this story about coming together for the people you love in their time of need delivers in spades.

Score: 9/10

Unlike when it was first released, this movie is met with pretty much universal love out there - see these reviews by James and Laurie.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Ratatouille

Year: 2007
Running time: 111 minutes
Certificate: U
Language: English
Screenplay: Brad Bird
Directors: Brad Bird, Jan Pinkava
Starring (voices): Patton Oswalt, Lou Romano, Ian Holm, Janeane Garofalo, Peter O'Toole, Brad Garrett, Peter Sohn, Brian Dennehy

Remy admires Pixar's gorgeously crafted view.
There is no doubt that your average Pixar film is jaw-droppingly gorgeous and technically astounding, but if you think for a second that this is the reason for their phenomenal success as opposed to simply icing on the cake, then you are wrong. And a fool, to boot. Ratatouille is, of course, simply beautiful to look at, with, amongst other things, Paris being rendered with a warmth and vitality that most filmmakers could barely dream of. Like all Pixar films, however, the look takes second fiddle to story.

About a rat who has a talent for cooking and wants to become a chef, this is Pixar’s most autobiographical film to date. Remy (Patton Oswalt), the rat in question is Pixar, and the little rodent’s talent for taking initially surprising ingredients and turning them into something remarkable is the Pixar approach to storytelling and movie making. Moreover, the heart of this story is the idea that a true artist can really come from anywhere, with Remy fulfilling his dream from being a gutter-dwelling rat to world class chef paralleling Pixar’s journey from minor animation studio to one of the most successful animation studios in the world today.

Remy's clan is forced to move house and he finds himself separated, lost and alone in Paris. He manages to reach the famous Gusteau's restaurant, now a shadow of its former self since his death, and ends up at the mercy of Linguini (Lou Romano), who just can't bring himself to end the little rat's life. Partly because he's been tasked with re-creating a soup that Remy, inspired by master chef Gusteau (Brad Garrett), had made before being caught in the kitchen. The two team up and Linguini becomes the new star of Gusteau's, much to the annoyance of boss Skinner (Ian Holm).

Food for thought.
Linguini's nervous courtship of Colette (Janeane Garofalo) is sweet stuff, but it is Remy and Linguini who are at the centre of this story. When the merciless food critic responsible for the ruination of Gusteau's, Anton Ego (Peter O'Toole) returns to the restaurant see what all the fuss is about, Remy decides to hit him with a simple yet stunning ratatouille.

It is, like many Pixar films, difficult to imagine how they could have improved it, with the climax in particular being perfect – for all the dazzling action of the endings of Toy Story, Monsters Inc. and  The Incredibles, a scene of a man sitting at a table reacting to the food he is served is possibly the most emotionally affecting ending of any Pixar film. Just beautiful stuff.

Score: 9/10


A particular story conceit and a few other blips cause Ratatouille to fall short of greatness according to Bill, but Ian at Empire is right on the money about that conceit and the film as a whole.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Funny People

Year: 2009
Running time: 146 minutes
Certificate: 15
Language: English
Screenplay: Judd Apatow
Director: Judd Apatow
Starring: Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann, Eric Bana, Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman, Aubrey Plaza

Sandler could always crack Rogen up with a well-timed
dick joke.
Judd Apatow has established a hugely successful career writing and producing smash hit comedies that at first glance can appear to be fairly standard lowest common denominator stuff, but, given a chance turn out to have more substance than expected. Funny People is different, in that it is clear from the start that this is a drama about comedians. This makes it more complex and better written than Apatow's previous efforts, and makes the comedy somehow seem funnier. It's a drama set in the world of comedy and comedians, making the jokes feel more natural; the point isn't to be funny, the jokes are just part of the world in which the story is set.

Apatow regular Seth Rogen is Ira Wright, a stand up comedian struggling to make a name for himself. Adam Sandler, in one of those rare roles that doesn’t make me want to puke (it might actually be his career-high), is George Simmons, an ex-stand up turned successful film star (he's a mutant mix of Sandler's real-life career-path with added Rob Schneider) diagnosed with cancer. In an attempt to recapture how it felt to be young, happy, in love, and brimming with potential, he decides to return to his stand up roots and meets Ira. On a whim, Simmons offers him a job writing material for him, and an unlikely friendship slowly develops.

Nobody could understand why the dick jokes had no effect
on Bana.
George also makes the (possibly ill-advised, possibly not) decision to get back in contact with the woman he used to be in love with, Laura (Leslie Mann), because she is the person he was most honestly able to share his feelings with. The problem is, Laura is now married to the rather unlikable Clarke (Eric Bana). In preparation for the roles, Apatow had the cast write their own stand up material and deliver it in comedy clubs, giving them a taste of how difficult life as a stand up comedian can be. It shows, as everyone convinces when on stage, delivering decent material with good timing. In particular, Rogen delivers fine routines, genuinely funny.

It’s too long, and could have done with losing a few scenes to stop me checking my watch in the last third, although Ira's ill-judged dash for the airport is a great scene which helps to pick the film up just as it’s beginning to drag. The thing about clichés is, you just need to know how to handle them, and Apatow's handling of the airport dash as well as the garden-set man-tussle make potentially groan-worthy scenes work a treat.

Not amazing, but certainly not a bad way to pass a couple-and-a-bit hours.

Score: 7/10

Funny People is generally considered an Apatow high-water mark - see these reviews by the much-missed Roger Ebert and Mark at Empire.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Ghost in the Shell

Year: 1995 (Ghost in the Shell), 2004 (Ghost in the Shell 2)
Running time: 83 minutes (Ghost in the Shell), 100 minutes (Ghost in the Shell 2)
Certificate: 15
Language: Japanese
Screenplay: Kazunori Itô (Ghost in the Shell), Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell 2)
Director: Mamoru Oshii
Starring (voices): Atsuko Tanaka, Akio Ôtsuka, Tamio Ôki, Iemasa Kayumi, Kôichi Yamadera

The Major takes a moment to think.
Japanese animation is unique in a number of ways. Firstly, it is generally aimed at a much older and more sophisticated audience than animation in the western world is. In Japan it has a huge fan base, but it usually fails to find much more than cult appeal in American and European markets. In 1995, Mamoru Oshii was set to change all that. His futuristic cyber-thriller Ghost in the Shell was going to be the big cross-over hit that Akira so very nearly was. It was a bold vision, it was ambitious, it was...not to be. Despite all-round positive reactions from two thumbs up from Siskel & Ebert to gushing praise from James Cameron, it wasn't the hit its makers were hoping for. By the time the sequel arrived in 2004, however, Ghost in the Shell had finally conquered Hollywood, albeit rather more under the radar than was originally expected. Which is fitting, really. The Matrix trilogy is, pretty much, a three film live action remake in so many ways; thematically, stylistically, and even on a number of specific plot points The Wachowskis blatantly lift a ton of stuff from Ghost in the Shell.
A glimpse of some of the gorgeous Blade Runner-like
imagery.

It is with good reason that Ghost in the Shell is so venerated, as the artistry with which it is created is frankly mind boggling - the landscapes have a gorgeous Blade Runner-esque look that makes merely soaking up the imagery a joy. But the subject matter is also engaging. Set in a future where almost everyone is part cyborg, the story follows two government operatives Major Motoko Kusanagi (Atsuko Tanaka) and her partner Batau (Akio Ôtsuka), who are working for Japan's anti-terrorist division Section 6. While attempting to track down a mysterious entity who is able to hack pretty much any system, anywhere, Motoko and Batau find themselves on the trail of The Puppet Master (Iemasa Kayumi), a sentient program also known as Project 2501, a name which suggests it was created by the very government hunting for it. Project 2501 is looking for a body, and the Major may be just what it's been looking for.

While there is some of the graphic nudity and violence associated with Japanese animation, particularly in the show-stopping opening scenes, Ghost in the Shell is far from a non-stop orgy of action. It takes time to examine deeper undercurrents, and thinks nothing of slowing or even stopping the plot altogether to allow its characters to consider philosophical questions on what it means to be alive. By enhancing yourself using cybernetic implants and upgrades, as both Motoko and Batau have done to a great degree, are you sacrificing your humanity? The 'ghost' of the title refers to the small spark of life that remains inside the cybernetically enhanced 'shells' many people give up their flesh and blood for. If a person is entirely machine, are they still considered alive, do they not have a soul? Why? Should they not have the same right to exist as anyone? What, in the end, defines life?
Batau struggles on alone.
The sequel raises similar questions, albeit from a different perspective. When a pleasure model commits a brutal murder, one of a recent spate, we follow the now Motoko-less Batau as he attempts to solve the mystery of why. Batau feels somehow less than he was, and it seems he lost part of himself when his partner merged with Project 2501. Like the first film, Ghost in the Shell 2 has its moments of action and plot-forwarding, but won't think twice about putting the story on hold to mull over philosophical arguments or simply spend some down-time with Batau and his beloved dog. While some may find these changes of pace maddening, for me it enhanced the experience of watching hugely. Ghost in the Shell 2 is as much about Batau's attempts to move on without Motoko (although the body-less Major can still communicate and offer net-based assistance occasionally, which must make it much harder if not impossible for Batau to move on) and learning to work with his new partner Togusa (Kôichi Yamadera) as it is about solving the mystery of the killer sex robots.

Jaw-dropping animation.
Time is taken to consider the rights of the robot population; when you get right down to it, what, if any, is the difference between human life and any other life - particularly artificial in this case. Do you really need the 'ghost' in the 'shell' to be truly alive? We're not talking humans turning into machines here, like in the first movie, but life, sentient life artificial from the outset. Who decides and who defines what life is? The imagery is utterly jaw-dropping - the mixing of CGI with hand-drawn animation is genuinely incredible, so even if you don’t wish to consider the larger questions raised, you still have an artistic masterpiece to appreciate.

Both Ghost in the Shell and its sequel are entertaining and thought-provoking, which is exactly what a good film should be, but I suspect the changeable pace, which slows to a standstill at times, won't be for everyone.

Score:
Ghost in the Shell: 8/10
Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence: 8/10

Ghost in the Shell and its sequel are held in high regard: see these reviews of the original and the sequel at Cyberpunk Review and these by Fransisco: Ghost in the Shell,Ghost in the Shell 2.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Napoleon Dynamite

Year: 2004
Running time: 82 minutes
Certificate: 12
Language: English
Screenplay: Jared Hess, Jerusha Hess
Director: Jared Hess
Starring: Jon Heder, Tina Majorino, Aaron Ruell, Jon Gries, Efren Ramirez, Sandy Martin, Haylie Duff

Napoleon Dynamite: too cool for school.
Sometimes a character is created that is unfathomably popular. Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder) is one of these; obnoxious, teenage, bizarre, and yet, somehow, lovable. You’re on his side. Almost all the characters in this movie are oddballs, but that’s kind of its charm. It’s a small film, following these guys about their daily lives, where nothing much happens in their forgotten corner of the world. Napoleon lives with his brother Kip (Aaron Ruell) who spends his days trying to meet women in Internet chat rooms. When Napoleon's grandmother (Sandy Martin) - no parents in Napoleon's world - injures herself, his uncle Rico (Jon Gries) moves in to look after them while she recovers.

And then, well, nothing much. Their lives go on in their oddball way. Napoleon makes a friend in new arrival Pedro (Efren Ramirez) and there is an attempt to make Pedro class president. Kip joins uncle Rico in his work as a door-to-door salesman and there is a love interest in Deb (Tina Majorino). What people sometimes fail to realise is that most corners of the world are like this – small, uneventful and full of people that don’t fit the definition of ‘normal’. I would imagine that this, as out there as it is, might be closer to most teenagers' realities than High School Musical ever will be. And while the events may be small, they are big to the people they’re happening to. It’s quite touching at times, like the dance which Napoleon shares with Deb, who is there as Pedro’s date, and one of the final scenes where he’s not alone for once on the tetherball pole.
Deb's hair, like most things in this film, seems to be stuck in the 80s.

Much was made of the dance routine near the end, in which Napoleon steps up and supports his friend Pedro in a genius skit showcasing Jon Heder’s gift for physical comedy. However, for my money that is upstaged by the moment uncle Rico throws a steak in Napoleon's face. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything funnier.

Certainly not everyone's cup of tea, but worth a punt.

Score: 7/10

Unsurprisingly this got rather a mixed reception on its release; see this fairly positive review by Adrian at the BBC and this one from Edward isn't without misgivings.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Bee Movie

Year: 2007
Running time: 91 minutes
Certificate: U
Language: English
Screenplay: Jerry Seinfeld, Spike Feresten, Barry Marder, Andy Robin
Director: Steve Hickner, Simon J. Smith
Starring (voices): Jerry Seinfeld, Renée Zellweger, Matthew Broderick, Patrick Warburton, John Goodman, Chris Rock, Kathy Bates, Barry Levinson

Barry revels in this glorious new world outside the hive.
Jerry Seinfeld provides the voice of Barry B. Benson, a young bee who is disillusioned about the thought of spending the rest of his life doing one job, be it a stirrer like dad Martin (Barry Levinson), or spending the day strapped to a revolving wheel with a spoon on his head to catch drops of honey before they are lost, like best friend Adam Flayman (Matthew Broderick). Feeling rebellious, he tags along with a group of 'pollen-jocks', who have the dangerous task of leaving the hive and collecting the nectar and pollinating the flowers.

Through a series of accidents, Barry gets separated from the others, and his life is saved by florist Vanessa Bloom (Renée Zellweger), and the two strike up an unlikely friendship. Never mind that humans aren't that surprised that bees can talk; it's just one of those things you have to go with. Barry notices one day that supermarket shelves are full of honey and that humans are forcing bees to live in custom-built hives and make honey that they steal for themselves. Outraged, Barry goes on a mission to sue humans, which leads to a court case to reclaim stolen honey. The major point of the story, however is to illustrate to those of us who may not realise it, just how important to our world the little black and yellow pollinators are. Barry wins the court case, and bees get all their honey back. With no need to work to create honey, the bees all stay in. Without the bees, pollination effectively stops and all the flowers die. So begins a race against time to bring the bees back.
Barry and Vanessa: An unlikely friendship.

There are a few funny moments - Vanessa's boyfriend Ken (Patrick Warburton) goes slowly insane as he is gradually replaced by a bee, and when Barry meets Mouseblood (Chris Rock) on a windscreen wiper. The animation is OK, the story is OK, and combined with the average sound, jokes and voice-acting makes for a whole that is, well, OK.

Score: 5/10

It seems I am in synch the majority, in that Bee Movie has its moments, but is generally nothing special; see these other reviews by Josh and A. O. Scott at the New York Times.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Inglourious Basterds

Year: 2009
Running time: 153 minutes
Certificate: 18
Language: English, German, French, Italian
Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Cristoph Waltz, Eli Roth, Daniel Brühl, Michael Fassbender, Diane Kruger, Til Schweiger, Jacky Ido, Omar Doom, August Diehl, Denis Ménochet

Sgt. Donowitz (Eli Roth) and Lt. Raine wreak bloody
vengeance.
One thing that has always stood out in the movies of director Quentin Tarantino is the dialogue. From the argument about tipping in Reservoir Dogs, to the monologue about Superman near the end of Kill Bill, via Pulp Fiction’s discussion on the merits of bacon, Tarantino’s writing has a knack of turning practically any subject into an engrossing scene. There are three dialogue scenes in Inglourious Basterds that top anything written before. The first comes right at the opening, where we first meet famed Nazi Col. Hans Landa (Cristoph Waltz), nicknamed The Jew hunter. Arriving at the house of French family man Perrier LaPadite (Denis Ménochet), he clearly makes the man very nervous. It is soon established that LaPadite is hiding Jews in his cellar. The conversation stretches on agonisingly, covering mundane subjects, such as the quality of LaPadite's milk, slowly bringing us to breaking point. The way this scene is put together by Tarantino’s writing and directing, as well as Waltz’s remarkable delivery (more so even than Samuel L. Jackson, the man seems born to deliver Tarantino's lines - see Django Unchained for further evidence) is an absolute masterclass in creating tension and forms an unforgettable opening. When the expected slaughter finally takes place, leaving only Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent) alive, blood-spattered and running for her life, it is almost a relief to be able to breathe again. That Tarantino repeats the trick twice more equally effectively during the rest of the film is the strongest testament so far to the man’s extraordinary gift for writing and directing.

If you know anything about me, you'll know that I do sometimes have reservations about trivialising the Nazi treatment of Jews for the sake of entertainment, and it wasn't without reservations that I fired up the DVD for the first time (sadly, I didn't catch this at the cinema). I've written before, for example, about the unpleasant taste Life is Beautiful leaves in my mouth. The same could be said, although to a lesser degree, about The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, or Ben Elton's novel Two Brothers. A big difference is the hateful whimsy with which Life is Beautiful treats this most devastating period of human history, while The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and Two Brothers make no bones about the true horror of the holocaust. Inglorious Basterds is, like Indiana Jones, so gloriously bonkers and executed with such panache, that it is able to remove you from the distressing truth of the time and place in which it is set. While I am aware this proves me to be somewhat of a hypocrite, it has been noted that I am no stranger to my awareness of my own hypocrisy.
Shosanna prepares for war.

Shosanna manages to escape with her life and, hiding her Jewish descent from the occupying Nazis, becomes the proprietor of a small cinema in Paris, where she has to fight off the unwelcome attentions of Nazi war hero Frederick Zoller (Daniel Brühl). Zoller is the hero of the latest Nazi propaganda movie and, drawn to Shosanna, convinces the top brass to hold the premiere at her little cinema. Unable to resist the temptation, Shosanna begins to plot vengeance for her murdered family.

Also planning to wreak bloody vengeance is a small company of Jewish soldiers calling themselves the Basterds, led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) tasked with bringing down on the Nazis the worse possible hell they can imagine, realised in all its brutal glory by Tarantino’s most violent effort to date. I know the director has always had a reputation for violence, but until Kill Bill, most of it was mere suggestion, the gory details usually off-camera. Kill Bill itself was more like cartoon violence, but Inglourious Basterds truly makes you shudder at times.

The news of the premiere soon comes to the ears of the Basterds, and they hatch their own plot to use the opportunity to take out some high-ranking Nazi officials, setting everyone on track for the inevitable climactic collision course. A planned meeting in a bar in a cellar that goes dreadfully wrong forms the film’s centrepiece and the build-up to the explosive violence forms another of those dialogue-heavy scenes that make for almost unbearable tension (the third being a scene in which Shosanna comes face to face with Landa in a classy restaurant.) The Basterds go in undercover, posing as German soldiers to plot with famous German actress and secret Allied sympathiser Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger). By pure coincidence there is a member of the Gestapo, Major Hellstrom (August Diehl) drinking in the same bar, who sees through the Basterds and their disguise. The Basterds are left in disarray after this, but the news that not only Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth), but also one Adolf Hitler (Martin Wuttke) himself will be attending the premiere gives them a new-found urgency and they resolve to push ahead with the plan even with the dramatically reduced odds of its success.
"That's a bingo!"
Tarantino’s gift for unexpected yet perfect soundtrack choices makes itself known again, with some slow-burning shots of Shosanna before the premiere set to David Bowie’s Cat People setting the scene for the insane climax. And believe me, insane is the word. When the teaser trailer announced ‘You haven't seen war until you’ve seen it through the eyes of Quentin Tarantino’ it truly was not kidding. Historically accurate this ain’t.

Every cast member gives a fine performance, but it is without doubt that it is Laurent and especially Waltz who distinguish themselves the most, the former portraying Shosanna with a striking blend of world weariness and barely hidden white hot fury at those who have persecuted her people and murdered her family, and the latter giving Landa traits that make him detestable and yet oddly likable. For a Nazi.

Completely brilliant, and exactly what you’d expect from a Tarantino World War II movie.

Score: 9/10

Perhaps not entirely unexpectedly, Inglourious Basterds tends to split critical opinion: Peter at The Guardian's cerebral and well-considered opinion is pretty much the complete opposite of mine (what thrilled me, bored him), but, as usual, Chris at Empire is more on my wavelength.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny

Year: 2006
Running time: 93 minutes
Certificate: 15
Language: English
Screenplay: Jack Black, Kyle Gass, Liam Lynch
Director: Liam Lynch
Starring: Jack Black, Kyle Gass, JR Reed, Troy Gentile, Dave Grohl

JB sets fire to the mic. With awesomeness, presumably.
Jack Black is a funny man with an obsessive love of rock n’ roll, channeled to great effect in the riotous School of Rock. You get the feeling, however, that with Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny Black really savours being let off the PG leash. Tenacious D is a comedy rock band fronted by Black and his brother-in-rock Kyle Gass, who is one of those rare people who are hilarious even when doing nothing. Previously, The D had already released a successful album and now has its own movie in the form of this origin story. Pick of Destiny is stuffed to bursting with swearing and knob gags, which is fine for say, half an hour, but eventually it begins to grate something awful. While there are some genuine laughs (the young JB's (Troy Gentile) foul-mouthed rocking-out in front of his outraged parents near the start and the crotch push-ups gag are the two that, ahem, ‘stick out’ the most), the formula soon becomes tired, much like the album released previously.

JB (Black) leaves the home of his overly religious parents on a mission to form, to use a disagreeable modern parlance, the most awesome rock band ever. His quest leads him to KG (Gass) and the two form Tenacious D. JB learns the secret of all great rock guitarists; that they all used the supernatural pick of destiny, made from a piece of Satan's tooth which instills incredible guitar skills in all who use it. The two of them set out to steal said pick and much like a romantic comedy, split up briefly before getting back together for the ending. Of course most romantic comedies don't end in a rock-off with Satan (Dave Grohl), Karate Kid style.

Where was Ralph Macchio when you needed him?
Tenacious D has never quite realised its potential, with the possible exceptions of singles Tribute and Fuck Her Gently, and this is no different. Even the endlessly energetic and manically likable Black struggles with the sloppy material, which is a shame, because this had such a great deal of opportunity for comedy rock gold. Jack Black completists will be sure to get it, but for a more casual fan, there are two superior music-based roles in both the aforementioned School of Rock, and a show-stealing supporting role in High Fidelity.

Score: 4/10

It appears as though Mark is even less impressed than I am, but it seems to hit the spot for Alex.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Goonies

Year: 1985
Running time: 114 minutes
Certificate: 12
Language: English
Screenplay: Chris Columbus
Director: Richard Donner
Starring: Sean Astin, Josh Brolin, Jeff Cohen, Corey Feldman, Jonathan Ke Quan, Kerri Green, Martha Plimpton, Robert Davi, Joe Pantoliano, Anne Ramsey, John Matuszak

Mouth still hadn't realised the map was upside down.
There are many films that you remember fondly from your childhood, but a good percentage of them aren’t so wonderful when you revisit them in later life. Fortunately, The Goonies is one film definitely not in that camp. It's great fun right from the off, with intro music that catches the mood of the period exactly (somehow the film feels stranded in its 80s time period and yet is still timeless) sound-tracking great introductions to our main characters.

A group of kids are soon to be evicted from their homes by evil developers and only a big pile of money coming from nowhere will save them. After finding an old treasure map, they decide to go on an adventure in the very best Spielberg tradition, but the criminal Fratelli family - Mama (Anne Ramsey), Jake (Robert Davi) and Francis (Joe Pantoliano) - are giving chase.

The scenes of the central cast together are buzzing with a natural comedic energy that only kids having fun have, going off at bizarre tangents, but the plot still races along like it’s on rails.  Every one of the characters, with the unfortunate exception of the girls Andy (Kerri Green) and Stef (Martha Plimpton), who are there mostly to scream and kiss, is a gem, but in particular it is Mouth (Corey Feldman) and Chunk (Jeff Cohen) who stand out as the comedy highlights – witness the ‘translation’ of simple house-keeping instructions into Spanish (not real Spanish, but, hey, it's a kids comedy/adventure/fantasy movie, accuracy be damned!) and a well-timed Marx Brothers-esque line by Mouth and the time when Chunk is locked in the freezer with a corpse, or he tells the Fratellis everything, culminating in a genius confession of a time when young Chunk had fun with some fake vomit. These were talented youngsters to have such outstanding comic timing and delivery.
One-Eyed Willie was proving a poor choice of dinner guest.

The central character of Mikey, played by a young Sean ‘Samwise Gamgee’ Astin is a little less convincing, but still, as Cyndi Lauper might say, good enough. The more sombre moments don’t come across as well as the comedy, with the exception of Corey Feldman’s Mouth, who is surprisingly effective when he turns off the laughs and reveals the disillusioned kid underneath who’s bitter about losing his home and effectively his childhood before he was ready.

On top of everything, the character of Sloth (John Matuszak) is simply a masterstroke – what kid could fail to love this neglected, ice-cream and chocolate-loving giant? The gang finally make their way to the X on the map, realised by an impressively large set filled with water and a huge pirate ship captained by the skeleton of One-Eyed Willie himself, where the showdown with the Fratellis takes place (complete with another great physical gag from Feldman who, thanks to some clever cutting, appears to have a mouth that can hold enormous quantities of treasure).

Huge fun and a childhood classic (depending on your age, obviously) that has never lost its touch.

Score: 8/10

As you might expect, the strong streak of nostalgia mixed with the quality of the mood and cast chemistry makes The Goonies well loved out there - see these reviews by Samuel and Mat.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Almost Famous

Year: 2000
Running time: 122 minutes
Certificate: 15
Language: English
Screenplay: Cameron Crowe
Director: Cameron Crowe
Starring: Patrick Fugit, Kate Hudson, Billy Crudup, Jason Lee, Frances McDormand, Zooey Deschanel, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, John Fedevich, Mark Kozelek, Noah Taylor, Jimmy Fallon, Anna Paquin, Fairuza Balk, Liz Stauber

Penny Lane: Queen band-aid.
Almost Famous is, 12 years on, still Cameron Crowe's high watermark. Borrowing from the time he blagged a job as a rock journalist for Rolling Stone magazine, it is a loving tribute to lost youth and discovering rock 'n' roll. Stuffed full of beautiful moments that highlight Crowe's contagious love of music, the 15 year-old William Miller (Patrick Fugit) is introduced to life-enhancing rock 'n' roll music by his rebellious sister Anita (Zooey Deschanel who, as always, makes you fervently wish she was never off the screen) before she leaves home to be an airline stewardess. Their mother Elaine (Frances McDormand, also every bit as consistently wonderful as you'd expect) has previously banned rock music from the house based on the assumption that all the musicians are on drugs. Derailed from his prior ambition, William finds himself on tour with the fictional band Stillwater.

While trying to get interviews with the band he has an experience of a lifetime; including falling in love with the irresistible Penny Lane (Kate Hudson, who has never topped this role and thanks to a descent into a McConaughey rom-com nightmare from which she may never escape, probably never will) and losing his virginity to three girls at once. There are comedy moments approaching Spinal Tap-levels of hilarity, such as Stillwater's lead guitar player Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) turning up with William at a house party, getting wired on LSD and screaming “I am a golden god!” from the rooftop before jumping into the swimming pool and the argument about a T-shirt that preceded it, including the great line from lead singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee): “Your looks have become a problem!” Both of these moments are topped by the great confession scene when, assuming they're all about to die in a plane crash, they all start to come clean about what (or who) they've done. At other times it can be genuinely touching, such as the time the band make up after falling out simply by singing along to Tiny Dancer.

Stillwater take to the skies with their new manager.
It’s made with such love that to watch it is to feel like you’re in a comfortable bubble of nostalgic childhood memories of one unforgettable experience – never mind that the experience was neither yours nor mine. The final scenes are beautifully poignant - deflated, without his interview, Anita spies William sitting dejectedly in an airport lounge and takes him home, fitting, as it was Anita who indirectly sent William on this journey in the beginning. The point of the film is summed up when William finally gets his interview with Russell: "So Russell...what do you love about music?" "To begin with, everything."

That is what the film is about. It's all about the music. Everything else is unimportant. It's a simple point, but the film spends two hours making it in the most joyous way possible.

Score: 9/10

These reviews by Lukas, Colin and Emily are illustrative of how well-loved Almost Famous is, and it wouldn't be right not to read the review by Peter at Rolling Stone, would it?

Friday, January 18, 2013

Young Guns

Year: 1988 (Young Guns), 1990 (Young Guns II)
Running time: 107 minutes (Young Guns), 104 minutes (Young Guns II)
Certificate: 18 (Young Guns), 12 (Young Guns II)
Language: English
Screenplay: John Fusco
Director: Christopher Cain (Young Guns), Geoff Murphy (Young Guns II)
Starring: Emilio Estevez, Keifer Sutherland, Lou Diamond Phillips, Charlie Sheen, Dermot Mulroney, Casey Siemaszko, Terence Stamp, Jack Palance, Alice Carter, Christian Slater, William Petersen, Alan Ruck, R.D. Call, James Coburn, Balthazar Getty, Viggo Mortensen, Leon Rippy

Billy the Kid: liked to shoot stuff.
The Brat Pack stir many nostalgic memories for me, because I saw those films at just the right time to influence my youth – Sixteen Candles ignited a sense of romance, The Breakfast Club made me realise that there's no shame in being different and to never let anyone fix a label to me and Ferris Bueller's Day Off just made me laugh a lot. However, save Flatliners and The Lost Boys, it was these two movies that stayed with me the longest from that era.

They were just so cool. Having that Brat Pack sensibility applied to the western, America's most classic and self-identifying genre was a beautiful touch, and made for a hugely enjoyable couple of films. Each character is played with such relish, the cast are obviously having the time of their lives, riding horses and shooting guns. Pretty much everything about these films rested on Emilio Estevez as Billy the Kid, and he gives the part such a manic energy, you begin to doubt his sanity.

The Regulators, regulating.
William H. Bonney is a no good scrote who gets taken in by John Tunstall (Terence Stamp) and begins to form a more useful existence as one of Tunstall's 'regulators'; other young men taken in and mentored by Tunstall. That is, until Tunstall is gunned down by rival cattle ranchers. The six young men he had taken in are made sheriffs and given the task of bringing the killers to justice. But Billy is a loose wire and kills them instead, forcing them to turn outlaw.

Revisiting the films recently, I could see the 80s sensibility as clear as day, and in no way could they ever hope to compare to the magnificence of the classic John Ford westerns, but, then again, that isn't was it was ever trying to do, and they are as much fun as they ever were. The drug-trance scene from Young Guns remains one of the funniest scenes I think I've ever seen ("Did you guys see the size of that chicken?"). Both films are peppered with cheesy but memorable and ever-quotable dialogue – “Hello Bob! (Shoots Bob) Goodbye Bob!”
"Yoohoo! I'll make you famous!"
The sequel is given an extra depth and a sense of melancholy, as Billy begins to feel remorse for some of the people he kills, and it soon becomes clear that the title Young Guns II: Blaze of Glory is more than just a meaningless phrase (particularly for Keifer Sutherland's Doc, who genuinely does go out in a blaze of glory after trying so hard to get away).

Not exactly high art, but still cracking good fun.

Score:
Young Guns: 7/10
Young Guns II: Blaze of Glory: 7/10

It seems I may be viewing these movies through rose-tinted nostalgia specs, judging by this review of Young Guns by Alex at The Guardian and this one of the sequel by Samuel, not to mention Empire's thoughts on them: Young Guns & Young Guns II.