Dave and Rachel's movie reviews.


Sunday, December 14, 2014


Year: 1984 (Gremlins), 1990 (Gremlins 2)
Running time: 106 minutes
Certificate: 15 (Gremlins), 12 (Gremlins 2)
Language: English
Screenplay: Chris Columbus (Gremlins), Charles S. Haas (Gremlins 2)
Director: Joe Dante
Starring: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Hoyt Axton, Frances Lee McCain, Corey Feldman, Dick Miller, Jackie Joseph, Keye Luke, Polly Holliday, Judge Reinhold, Glynn Turman, John Glover, Robert Prosky, Robert Picardo, Christopher Lee, Haviland Morris, Kathleen Freeman, Gedde Watanabe, Tony Randall (voice)

Billy and Gizmo try to save Kingston Falls.
Some films are so much better suited to a certain time period. If either Gremlins or its sequel were released now, I doubt they would work as well. The films were shot back in the time of practical effects and the puppet work on display is extraordinary. They would almost certainly be replaced by CGI today, and as a result I have no doubt they would lose much of the humour that makes them so great. That said, it's probably only a matter of time before they do remake them. They are, in fact, doing that very thing to Thunderbirds right now over in New Zealand, although Peter Jackson's and Weta Digital's involvement is encouraging, because if anyone can make CGI look less soulless, it's those folks.

Randall Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) is looking for a Christmas present for his son Billy (Zach Galligan). In a dark back alley he finds a shop run by the very elderly Mr Wing (Keye Luke) and his grandson (John Louie) where he acquires a mogwai, a fantastical creature he decides will be perfect for Billy. Peltzer is given three rules about caring for the mogwai - keep him out of the light, especially sunlight, which is fatal, don't get him wet, and don't feed him after midnight. Billy loves his present, promptly names it Gizmo and it doesn't take long for Billy's friend Pete Fountaine (Corey Feldman) to break the second rule, by accidentally knocking a glass of water over Gizmo. It turns out breaking the second rule leads to reproduction. Gizmo's offspring are jolly unpleasant little things, and set out to cause havoc from the off.
Gremlins: digging Disney.

The film steps up a gear when Billy is tricked into feeding them after midnight and they go into slimy cocoons that look a little like the eggs from Alien. It's here we discover that mogwais are like caterpillars and go through a metamorphosis, only instead of butterflies, you get scaly, murderous little fuckers the paranoid neighbour Murray Futterman (Dick Miller) names gremlins.

For a while after this point, Gremlins is a cracking little horror story in which the newly-hatched gremlins, led by Stripe get revenge on a blood sample-taking science teacher Mr Hanson (Glynn Turman) and terrify Billy's poor mother Lynn (Frances Lee McCain). But when Stripe finds his way into the local swimming pool, it changes to something else entirely, as a knee-high army of gremlins start to take over the town: suddenly it’s a series of comedy skits that come across as a live action Warner Bros. cartoon and any story simply disappears. There are many brief moments of blackly comic brilliance in every scene, from Mr Futterman and his wife Sheila (Jackie Joseph) having a snow plow driven through their house, through mean old woman Mrs Deagle (Polly Holliday) flying out of an upstairs window to her death after her stair lift is tampered with to a set of genius skits all taking place in the local bar.
Billy, Kate and newly Rambo-ised Gizmo brace themselves for more anarchy.
The moment during all the chaos when everything stops and Kate Beringer (Phoebe Cates - my biggest teenage movie crush? It's either Phoebe Cates or Meg Ryan in Innerspace) tells the tragic story of the death of her father, it has got to be one of the most blackly comic moments in film history, a moment which is perfectly spoofed in the sequel where the suggestion that Kate had a traumatic experience as a child involving a guy dressed as Abe Lincoln sparking uneasy laughter. It saunters its way up to the boundary of good taste, and, frankly, just keeps going, but in director Joe Dante's hands, the movie gets away with it.

There's something satisfyingly right about the gremlins meeting their end while laughing their asses off at Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in a cinema. Being such a huge part of my childhood, Gremlins is kind of synonymous with the movies for me, and I guess that's why it fits so perfectly for me. Stripe, having escaped the movie theatre meltdown, is on the verge of triggering the next generation at a mall water fountain when the first rule is broken and the sunlight melts him in a spectacularly gross death scene.

Preparing to take New York with a song.
The sequel retreads pretty much the same ground, just transporting the story to a New York skyscraper, and adding genetic engineering into the mix to brilliantly creative effect: “They come in electric too?” Billy and Kate now live together in New York and they both work in the headquarters of developer / media mogul Daniel Clamp (John Glover). Following the death of Mr Wing, Gizmo finds himself trapped in the lab of Dr Catheter (Christopher Lee). Events conspire to get Billy and Gizmo together and to get Gizmo wet and well, the movie tag line 'Here they grow again' says it all really. Dante once again cracks the black comedy into overdrive and it's once more a case of sitting back and enjoying the crazy as it flies past in quickfire skits. The fact that it is pretty much the same film in a different setting does Gremlins 2 no harm whatsoever, because the viewer is too busy laughing themselves into a stroke to notice.

Great, great stuff, but you may have to be part of a certain age group to appreciate it fully.

Gremlins: 8/10
Gremlins 2: The New Batch: 8/10

It's very hard not to love the anarchic spirit Dante injects into these films - see this review of Gremlins by Nathan and Scott and this one of its sequel by David.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Usual Suspects

Year: 1995
Running time: 106 minutes
Certificate: 18
Language: English
Screenplay: Christopher McQuarrie
Director: Bryan Singer
Starring: Stephen Baldwin, Gabriel Byrne, Benicio del Toro, Kevin Pollack, Kevin Spacey, Chazz Palminteri, Pete Postlethwaite

The Usual Suspects is one of those films that has a plot so layered, so intricate, delivered so beautifully that it's just a joy to lose yourself in its twists and turns. It's no surprise that multiple viewings are rewarded, as new little things that you missed last time round are revealed.

McManus doesn't take kindly to Kobayashi's threats.
Roger "Verbal" Kint (Kevin Spacey) is one of two survivors of an explosion on a boat that left 27 corpses behind. The other is dying of his injuries in a hospital bed. In return for immunity, the small-time con-man agrees to recount events leading up to the explosion to cop David Kujan (Chazz Palminteri). The plot then unfolds in flashback interspersed with scenes in Kujan's cramped office and Kint's narration.

Five cons are put together in a line up: Hockney (Kevin Pollack), McManus (Stephen Baldwin) & Fenster (Benicio del Toro), corrupt cop Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne) and Kint. It turns out none of them appear to have been involved in the crime for which they were brought in, so they decide to indulge in a little criminal activity together to stick it to the cops, as Kint says at one point, "A little 'fuck you' from the five of us". Before long they meet attorney Kobayashi (the late and very great Pete Postlethwaite), acting for legendary crime lord Keyser Soze, whose reputation is so frightening even hardened cons like Keaton and co get a serious case of the willies. It turns out one of them did something to annoy Soze sometime in the past and now they all have to make it up to him lest Bad Things Happen.

Events get pretty convoluted and if you miss a few moments of dialogue, you’ll probably have to go back and listen again, or you may well be lost for the rest of the film. That sounds like a bad thing, but it really isn't. The thickly layered plot unfolds beautifully, and there's nothing wrong with having to pay attention while watching a film every once in a while. And pay attention you must. Even Gabriel Byrne was sure that he was Keyser Soze through the entirety of filming, and he ain’t stupid.

Master story teller, Verbal Kint.

Every line of every scene is masterfully delivered under Bryan Singers’ direction, but it’s particularly Kevin Spacey who steals the show as Kint, guiding us through the twisting plot. Spacey, to be fair, pretty much steals every show he’s in.

There are many films that have twist endings, but few can compare with the jaw-on-floor factor at the climax of this complicated story. It didn’t make big waves when it was released, but has since become an all time favourite through word of mouth, like both Fight Club and The Shawshank Redemption.

Keep up with the story and you will be rewarded. Then watch it again knowing how it ends and see every elaborate detail from a new perspective. Marvellous, although the swearing is sometimes a bit much.

Score: 8/10

Ian at Empire is a big fan, as is Peter at Rolling Stone.

Sunday, October 5, 2014


Year: 2009
Running time: 162 minutes
Certificate: 12
Language: English
Screenplay: James Cameron
Director: James Cameron
Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang, Sigourney Weaver, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovani Ribisi, Laz Alonso, Joel David Moore

Jake meets his avatar for the first time.
James Cameron has long been a director associated with excess. His sequel to Alien remains one of the most over the top actioners Hollywood has ever put out, topped by only a few, including Cameron’s own T-2: Judgement Day. The Abyss is one of the most legendary shoots in Hollywood’s history, full of stories of Cameron’s giant ego and quick temper bludgeoning the cast and crew in the director’s attempt to attain his own excessive perfection. True Lies got into the record books by being the first film with a budget of more than $100 million. He returned to the water with Titanic, the first film to make more than $1 billion at the box office. Say what you like about Titanic and its unconvincing melodrama in the overlong first half; when the iceberg hits and the ship goes down, there’s no denying Cameron’s stamp is all over it. For years, Titanic was the film that ate the world, its $1.8 billion gross putting all other contenders in the shade. It’s fitting then that the film to finally take Titanic’s crown is the next Cameron effort. Avatar smashed even Titanic’s impressive gross, taking almost $1 billion more than The Boat Movie.

The story had been bouncing around Cameron’s head for years, while he patiently waited for the technology to catch up with his imagination. He eventually tired of this and decided to design and build said technology himself. The cameras, the technique, all the tools used to make this film are newly designed from the ground up. There is a wealth of articles out there going into great detail on every aspect of the technology, from the 3-D cameras, through the CG effects to the motion capture work. While I’m not going to go into great detail on this, suffice to say it is an incredible achievement, that, quite possibly, nobody but James Cameron could have managed. It’s rumoured that all this caused the budget to swell to $400 million or more (more conservative estimates put it at a still not inconsiderable $250 million or thereabouts), and there is no doubt that every single penny of that is up there on screen to see.
Neytiri goes to war.

So the tools to tell the story are nothing short of revolutionary, but what about the story itself? Well, it isn’t bad, as such, but it is rather clichéd and not wholly original. Sam Worthington plays Jake Sully, a soldier of the distant future who’s lost the use of his legs. When his scientist brother dies, he is offered the chance to go to Pandora, a moon that is home to the N’avi, a race of blue, cat-like humanoids. In order to understand the Na’vi and to build peaceful relationships with them, genetically grown avatars are used, in which a human’s mind is transferred to a waiting Nav’i host (the avatar). The moment when Jake stands up on Na’vi legs and, feeling dirt between his toes, is giddy with delight is a lovely touch, and shows early on that the technology works beautifully – Worthington’s features emote perfectly on his Na’vi face, and there really is no understating the effectiveness of seeing it for the first time. Jake and his fellow avatars are under pressure to befriend the Na’vi quickly, because the eventual goal is to convince them to move home to allow the mining corporation that has set up on Pandora to dig up the ‘Unobtainium’ (should’ve called it ‘MacGuffinium’). Following a promise to be given the use of his legs back, Jake is convinced to act the scientist and peacekeeper, but report back to military bigwig Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) with tactical information.
Stephen Lang's Quaritch: Scenery-chewing villain extraordinaire.
Jake proceeds to fall in love with the Nav’i people and one of them in particular (Neytiri, played by the ever-incredible Zoe Saldana) and ends up fighting for them against the invading humans. With almost 3 hours to fill, the plot is a fair bit more detailed than that, but essentially this is Dances with Blue Cat People. I think the well-worn narrative clichés actually worked in the film’s favour and helped it to gross the huge numbers it did. The story type is popular for a reason – people like it, and with the huge risk Fox and Cameron were taking (this was no sure thing by any means) a well-liked story idea gave it a better chance.

Some of the dialogue is clunky, especially the direct references to the recent Iraq war – the phrase ‘shock and awe’ coming out of a character’s mouth is particularly cringeworthy, and the hippyish love Mother Nature stuff (and this coming from a bit of a hippy vehemently opposed to the Iraq war), but then dialogue has never been Cameron’s strong point.

Pandora's floating mountain range: spectacle upon spectacle.
So it’s not the unoriginal story, or the clichéd characters that make Avatar so impressive, it’s the canvas on which that story is painted. It isn’t a case of style over content, because as mentioned, there is content, and most of it is pretty good, just unoriginal. But when Jake, stranded on Pandora at night, sees the bioluminescence of the plant life for the first time, it is so striking, that’s it’s really like nothing I’ve seen before. And there is much more; the creatures (which form part of a conceivable ecosystem designed from the ground up by Cameron), the perfection of the CG Na’vi, the devastating scene in which the Na’vi’s home is destroyed, and, most of all, the astonishing climactic battle in the air and on the ground. It’s a feast for the eyes previously unimaginable.

Avatar is also that very rare thing – a film that is improved by the use of 3-D. It’s not in your face or gimmicky, but is employed subtly to give a feeling of depth to the environment, with Cameron’s advanced technology ensuring there is no motion blur, even in the busiest sequences. It is one of the only examples where visuals are more important than story – we know the story by heart, it’s the manner in which it is told which is new and exciting here.

Visually revolutionary with a central story idea that is very much been there, seen that, the effort that has gone into making this is Herculean, and as such it deserves to be cherished.

Score: 9/10

Avatar was a huge hit critically as well as commercially, as evidenced in these reviews by Chris at Empire and Roger Ebert, but even the self-appointed King of the World can't please everyone - Sukhdev at the Telegraph was much less impressed.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Calendar Girls

Year: 2003
Running time: 108 minutes
Certificate: 12
Language: English
Screenplay: Juliette Towhidi, Tim Firth
Director: Nigel Cole
Starring: Helen Mirren, Julie Walters, John Alderton, Linda Bassett, Annette Crosbie, Philip Glenister, Ciaran Hinds, Celia Imrie, Geraldine James, Penelope Wilton 

The first of the girls to disrobe gets plenty of moral support.
Calendar Girls is based on the true story of a group of WI women who decided to do something a little different for their yearly calendar in order to raise money for a worthy cause. They decided to strip for it. Chris (Helen Mirren) and Annie (Julie Walters) are lifelong best friends who are members of their local WI group. While they are good friends with a number of the other women at the group, they do express a frustration with the relentlessly dull meetings and guest speakers on subjects such as rugs (in fact, all kinds of carpeting - "Oh, thank god for that" mutters Chris sarcastically under her breath). So you've got a frankly wonderful leading pair in Mirren and Walters who can bring both comedic and dramatic chops to their roles in spades.

When Annie's husband John (John Alderton) dies of cancer she is determined to raise money for a memorial, and they hit upon the idea of making the yearly calendar a little more interesting. It's a giant success, hearts are warmed and everybody's happy. There is more to it - Calendar Girls shares DNA with other recent comedy hits uniquely British like The Full Monty and Billy Elliot, and like those films, it will not appeal to everybody. Walters is so good that Annie, while mostly fairly positive gives small hints at the deep grief hidden just under the surface and the support cast are all engaging.
Annie and Chris discuss the fruits of their labour.

The film manages to hold the attention for the first two thirds, but it does lose something when the girls become famous and go to Hollywood to be exposed to the evils of American corporate advertising, but this doesn't detract too much from the film as a whole.

Not a bad film, but won't be everybody's cup of tea.

Score: 6/10

This review by Cidtalk rates the film more highly than I do, and Peter at The Guardian also has positive things to say.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The X-Files

Year: 1993-2002 (series), 1998 (Fight the Future), 2008 (I Want to Believe)
Running time: 45 minutes (per series episode), 121 minutes (Fight the Future), 104 minutes (I Want to Believe)
Certificate: 18 (series), 15 (Fight the Future, I Want to Believe)
Language: English
Creator (series): Chris Carter
Screenplay: Frank Spotnitz (I Want to Believe), Chris Carter (Fight the Future, I Want to Believe)
Director: Rob Bowman (Fight the Future), Chris Carter (I Want to Believe)
Starring: David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, Mitch Pileggi, William B. Davis, Tom Braidwood, Bruce Harwood, Dean Haglund, Nicholas Lea, John Neville, Martin Landau, Robert Patrick, Annabeth Gish, Amanda Peet, Billy Connolly, Xzibit

Mulder and Scully, clearly investigating something very serious.
Launched in the early 90s, The X-Files was a TV show that quickly captured the imaginations of millions of people. Every week was like a miniature movie in itself, lending itself to paranormal themes. Even from the very first season, the stories were fantastically structured to keep the viewer guessing and interested at the same time. What was probably most important, however, was the note-perfect chemistry between the two main players, FBI Agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson). Even when the stories on the show get really ridiculous, even when you get the distinct impression that Duchovny is getting very bored of playing Mulder, the way these two spark off each other is often the show's saving grace.

It didn’t take long for the show to develop a beating heart, in Mulder’s search for his lost sister Samantha. He is convinced she was abducted by aliens when they were both children and has devoted his life and his career to finding her. He is based in the basement of the FBI headquarters, the J. Edgar Hoover building, where he investigates the Bureau's X-Files; unsolved cases featuring weird or unexplained phenomena. Believing he is pissing a promising career up the wall, his superiors assign him Scully as a partner. Scully is to report back on Mulder's work, the intended result being Scully's reports would prove Mulder's continued work on the X-Files is untenable, essentially debunking his life's work. What actually happens is the two develop a mutual respect for each other and evolve a strong partnership as they investigate freaky shenanigans over the course of nine seasons and two feature films.

Mulder with fellow conspiracy theorists The Lone Gunmen.
The episodes featuring Mulder's search for his sister, dubbed the ‘mythology’ episodes become the main focus on which the entire show hinges, leading to a conspiracy that gets massively complex, in turn leading to extremely personal costs being paid by our two heroes. This isn’t to say the stand-alone episodes should be discounted (indeed, they became many people's preferred episodes when the mythology began to get too elaborate for many viewers in the later seasons), as an astonishingly high percentage of episodes maintain an extremely high standard.

A central strand to their partnership, being the idea of the believer versus the sceptic was also something that was an interesting element to the show. Mulder would tend to leap to fantastic possibilities to explain the events they were investigating, while Scully would attempt to stay as rigidly scientific as the strange nature of the cases would allow. There were occasional episodes where this would be flipped on its head and Scully's religious belief, not shared by Mulder would come to the surface and make for really nicely played juxtapositions. Although Mulder usually turned out to be right, the writers were very careful not to make Scully sound ridiculous; in fact, even though she’s wrong most of the time, she still comes across as the sane one.
A nasty extra-terrestrial secret is discovered underground in Texas.
Many people claim that the first three seasons were really the best, but I find that bizarre. For me, the best seasons are four and six, with almost every episode brimming over with wit and originality. A criticism these ‘early days’ fans often level at the show is that the ideas get a bit silly from season four onwards, but let's just remind ourselves of the third episode of season one: a story about a liver-eating mutant named Eugene Tooms (played to creepy perfection by Doug Hutchinson) who sleeps for thirty years at a time, only coming out of hibernation to eat five peoples' livers. Oh, and he can squeeze through almost any gap. Squeeze is truly a classic episode, but I ask you; what, on paper, could be sillier than that?

Mulder and Scully fight the future in a cornfield.
Considering the pressure that must be on the makers to hit deadlines and turn in shots on time, there is a wealth of beautifully cinematic moments within so many of the episodes; take season four's Home as a case in point; the murder of local sheriff Andy Taylor (Tucker Smallwood) and his wife Barbara (Judith Maxie) at the hands of the inbred Peacock family is gut-wrenchingly distressing but is sumptuously filmed and set to a cover of the Johnny Mathis song Wonderful Wonderful. For something filmed on a mid-90s TV budget (they tend to be much bigger nowadays) it is miraculous and is but one example of many, many wonderful scenes and episodes. Take also season six's Triangle, which experiments with long, long takes (with a few cheeky cuts you're not supposed to notice) and split screens.

Bridging seasons five and six, the movie X-Files: Fight the Future is more of the same, but on a bigger scale. Questions are (finally) answered, but in true X-Files fashion, the answers only lead to more questions. The film is kind of unique in that it is a big budget summer movie that is nothing more than a bridge between seasons of an ongoing TV show. The goal was for it to play well with those new to The X-Files but also be something the long time viewers would enjoy. Surprisingly the film walked this delicate balancing act pretty damn successfully, bringing the hugely popular show to an even wider audience. During the mid to late 90s, Mulder and Scully owned the TV world, and with Fight the Future they also took a big chunk out of 1998's cinematic haul. There was a little nagging feeling by now however that Carter and co didn't know exactly where the mythology was heading and what had been astonishingly tight for five years began to show a few signs of frayed edges. Considering the complexity, it is pretty incredible that it took this long to start falling apart - Lost didn't make it to the third season before it was clear the writers had no clue where the show was going. The mythology did get progressively more difficult to follow as the later seasons went on and went from being the reason viewers were hooked to the least popular part of the show. Despite this the writers persevered and, credit where it is due, when the whole thing is compressed into two episodes in the season nine finale The Truth, it does hold together from beginning to end. It just didn't feel like it at times when it was parceled out over nine years.

The last-act heroic rescue of the first X-Files movie.
Throughout the later seasons, the writers pull a few big rugs out from under us, by killing off the shadowy conspiracy that had been at the heart of the show for six and a half years, and not even as a season finale; viewers were truly reminded to expect the unexpected. Another controversial decision was to continue the show even after its star decided to leave. The decision not to replace or ignore Mulder, but to keep him as an integral part of the story, even though he’s not there is an effective way to get us to accept the series continuing without him. Robert Patrick had a very tough job as John Doggett, the agent assigned to find the abducted Mulder who eventually takes over the X-Files. Over the course of the eighth season, you come to not only accept him, but to care for him. Scully has now graduated to the role of the believer (although she struggles with making the kind of intuitive leaps that came to Mulder so naturally), and Doggett assumes the role of doesn't-go-for-any-of-that-paranormal-shit-but-is-almost-always-wrong partner.
Boo! Long-standing antagonist C.G.B. Spender, or, as he's
affectionately known, 'Cancer Man'.
Obviously, after what Scully had built with Mulder over the course of the previous seven years, no one would accept a Scully / Doggett romance, and the writers were smart enough to never suggest such a thing. They did however, turn the duo into a threesome by bringing in another new character, Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish), who, unlike Doggett, was instantly likable and an easy believer. It's really a credit to the writers and both Patrick and Gish that Doggett and Reyes became such an integral part of the show, even thought they only had two seasons, especially with Doggett, because they made him so damn unlikable in his first episode. There is also a loose character similarity between Doggett and Mulder in that they have both lost family members. While Mulder spent years searching for his lost sister, Doggett must live his life having lived through the death of his son when he was still a child. This similarity could have been damaging, but it was sold well, and when in the outstanding season nine episode John Doe Doggett must suffer the knowledge of his son's murder returning when recovering from amnesia it is one of the most upsetting scenes in X-Files' long history. In another one of those examples of extraordinary production values, the whole Mexico-set episode is over-exposed, making the washed-out, sun-bleached visuals incredibly striking.

Agents Doggett and Reyes try to pick up the pieces
following Mulder's departure.
Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, the popularity of The X-Files began to wane, even before the departure of Mulder. However, it is my honest opinion that the quality of the writing was maintained to the very end, with seasons eight and nine more than holding their own against the supposedly better earlier seasons. In fact, for me, the weakest seasons are five and seven, with five being at the height of the show's popularity. Among the best television shows ever broadcast.

Six years after we left Mulder and Scully on the run with the certain knowledge of an apocalyptic alien invasion on the way in 2012, Chris Carter and Fox finally managed to sort through the red tape to bring us another X-Files movie. It’s common knowledge that The X-Files: I Want to Believe was critically battered (with the heartening exception of Roger Ebert) and that it under-performed, probably scuppering the chances of us ever seeing the mythology truly tied up in a 2012-set third film (although both Duchovny and Anderson continue to express eagerness to return to Mulder and Scully even now, but it is Fox they must convince). This is a shame, because it isn't the total loss it appears to have been written off as.

Assistant Director Walter Skinner: Boss, antagonist,
saviour, enigma, balding.
It has been written and filmed like an episode of the show, and that is both its strength and weakness. Our two leads clearly still have a great deal of chemistry, and as a big fan of the show it was a true joy to see them back together. Billy Connolly is rather left field casting (as is Xzibit, rather less successfully as FBI agent Mosley Drummy) but nonetheless is very impressive as Joseph Crissman, a paedophile priest turned psychic medium, managing to both disturb and elicit sympathy in equal measure. The missing persons and dastardly experiments element tied together with the supernatural visions is common X-Files story territory, but there are also problems with the decision to make it like an extended episode. Scully does much religion versus controversial medical techniques soul searching, which covers ground we have gone over again and again on the show, which makes it feel slightly stale here. Something that genuinely filled me with joy here is the late appearance of Walter Skinner, a character that became a firm favourite on the show, who's exit at the end of final episode The Truth made me truly fear for him. A scene near the end showing him cradling and reassuring an injured Mulder in the snow is lovely and surprisingly emotional.
Mulder and Scully try to figure out what happened to their
audience in I Want to Believe.
The first X-Files movie was clearly a movie – bigger in scale, pushing the show to new heights. Not so in this one, and this lack of scale is something I can find no reason for – stay true to the show, sure, but don’t be afraid to get a little more cinematic. This may seem like an odd criticism as I've previously waxed lyrical about the myriad cinematic touches on the show, but there is still a notable difference between the show and Fight the Future which is distinctly missing on I Want to Believe. Aside from some admittedly gorgeous wintry scenery, this looks like it could have been made on the show's budget. This does make it work much better on the small screen, and is far more satisfying watched at home as a feature-length episode rather than at the cinema. As great a writer and TV director as Carter is, The X-Files: I Want to Believe seems proof that he isn't really cut out to direct movies.

As a fan, then, I found it enjoyable, but it just seems too small scale to be anything other than an episode of the show that found its way onto the big screen.

Season 1: 8/10
Season 2: 8/10
Season 3: 8/10
Season 4: 9/10
Season 5: 7/10
The X-Files: Fight the Future: 8/10
Season 6: 9/10
Season 7: 7/10
Season 8: 8/10
Season 9: 8/10
The X-Files: I Want to Believe: 7/10

I fully and readily acknowledge that I probably rate The X-Files more highly that it deserves, having been an obsessive fan back in the 90s. This is borne out by Sam's review of the show. Fight the Future generally does better; see this review by Garth. Roger Ebert is sadly in the minority with I Want to Believe, however; this review from Nathan is par for the course.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Lost in Translation

Year: 2003
Running time: 101 minutes
Certificate: 15
Language: English
Screenplay: Sofia Coppola
Director: Sofia Coppola
Starring: Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Giovanni Ribisi

Directionless lives, an incomprehensible city; Bob and Charlotte
take solace in each other's company.
Sofia Coppola's second movie as director turned out to be pretty divisive, and it seems to me that a person's reaction to it depended largely on whether they are able to relate to the characters and the feeling of disconnect that Coppola expertly evokes in practically every frame. Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is an American movie star that has spent the last few decades of his career doing mindless movies for the cheque. He is in Tokyo to make easy money doing commercials for whiskey. Trapped in a luxurious hotel in a place where he has nothing in common with anyone; not culture, not height, not even language, he is adrift and lonely and you get the feeling he isn't quite sure how he ended up like this.

Staying in the same hotel is another American Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a recent Philosophy graduate here with her new husband John (Giovanni Ribisi). John is in Japan to photograph rock stars and spends practically no time with Charlotte, leaving her to spend her time observing both the traditional Japan and the neon-flooded modern Tokyo. Snatches of conversation with a friend reveals that she feels nothing during these observances and she feels like she doesn't know who she married. Bob also evidently has marital problems, evidenced by telephone conversations with his wife that revolve almost entirely around unimportant home-improvement questions.

There’s a strange and frightening feeling of detachment when you’re alone in a place where nobody has anything in common with you. Murray (probably the best he's ever been) and Johansson (also excellent, signalling the start of a long lasting love affair - I'd even watch The Island again because she's in it) portray the feeling of drifting alone, both bored and anxious in an unfamiliar place in a convincing manner and Coppola’s slow, meandering direction and endless shots out of hotel windows and taxis bring home the feeling of not belonging brilliantly. Rarely is boredom portrayed in a manner so watchable.

Bob and Charlotte share a final tearful, private moment.
When the two of them find each other in the hotel bar, they are able to ground themselves and cling to each other like lifelines in the middle of an ocean. While there is an age difference, there is the feeling that romance is not entirely off the cards, but the film avoids such clichés and instead Bob and Charlotte indulge in a genuine friendship, heart-breaking in its inevitable brevity. Chemistry, these two have it. After the two meet and start killing time together, the lack of any real plot and the directionless direction remain, but the feeling of despair in disconnection is gradually replaced by a comfort and happiness that the two characters are finding in each other. It’s not the traditional kind of love, it’s something different, and Coppola nails the feel of it perfectly, and as the viewer, like Bob and Charlotte, you come to savour every single moment because, like them, you know it will end all too soon.

When the ending does come it’s bittersweet – they don’t want it to end, but they both understand that they can't continue to live in the little bubble they've created for themselves. It really doesn’t matter what he says to her at the end, and actually I love that we never know - Coppola respects their privacy enough not to intrude on this most personal of moments. What matters is that their relationship is not soured by the need to give them a Hollywood ‘together happily ever after with your soul mate’ ending, but instead lets each of them go their separate ways with the memory of their experience in their hearts forever.

Brilliantly acted, beautifully crafted and delivered with realism and honesty.

Score: 9/10

Peter at Rolling Stone and Roger Ebert appear to be on the same page.

Thursday, May 8, 2014


Year: 2006
Running time: 85 minutes
Certificate: 15
Language: English
Screenplay: John Carney
Director: John Carney
Starring: Glen Hansard, Markéta Irglová, Hugh Walsh, Gerard Hendrick, Alaistair Foley, Geoff Minogue, Bill Hodnet, Danuse Ktrestova

A chance meeting on the streets of Dublin leads to a
strong new friendship.
Once is the little Irish film that took the world by storm, and it’s really not hard to see why. It's a simple story about two strangers becoming friends via a mutual love of music and developing an achingly romantic relationship that never quite blooms as it might have had this been a more traditional romance. Guy (Glen Hansard) works in his dad's (Bill Hodnet) vacuum repair shop and busks on the Dublin streets in his spare time. Guy meets Girl (Markéta Irglová), a Czech immigrant who convinces him to fix her vacuum cleaner.

Guy is struggling to put together a demo tape to take to London, and it turns out that Girl is an accomplished musician in her own right, so she helps him put together his demo over the course of a few days. Girl is married with a young child, her husband still in her native country, so Guy's romantic advances are soon shut down with a heavily-accented "no hanky-panky". The bond that develops in place of the usual is arguably deeper and more meaningful, and gives the film a lovely heartfelt bittersweet feel that very few Hollywood efforts are able to manage.

Guy and Girl struggle to define their feelings for each other.
Casting musicians instead of actors in the lead roles (Hansard fronts Irish guitar band The Frames and Irglová is a singer songwriter first and foremost) was a very clever move indeed, because it makes all of the songs throb with a passionate vitality that actors who happen to be able to sing could never hope to match. It turns out that Oscar agreed, awarding Best Original Song to Hansard and Irglová for Falling Slowly. There is such a genuinely lovely chemistry between the leads that the developing platonic relationship that simmers with unreleased longing is entirely believable.

The ending strains the limits of realism just a tad - I’m not quite sure about the fact that although they are both very poor, they can somehow afford to buy expensive instruments like pianos on a whim. That said, the surprise present at the end just when the relationship appears to have come to crushingly disappointing nothingness, is simply wonderful, and, although completely different subject matter recalls the emotional sucker-punch ending of About Schmidt.

A lovely musical romance that does the heart good.

Score: 7/10

Although I think rather highly of Once, it seems others rate it even higher than I do; see this review from A. O. Scott at the New York Times and this 9.5 out of 10 review from Edward.

Sunday, April 13, 2014


Year: 2002
Running time: 99 minutes
Certificate: 12
Language: Mandarin
Screenplay: Feng Li, Bin Wang, Yimou Zhang
Director: Yimou Zhang
Starring: Jet Li, Tony Chiu Wai Leung, Maggie Cheung, Ziyi Zhang, Donnie Yen, Daoming Chen, Zhongyuan Liu

At a time when the magic is all but gone from Hollywood cinema, it took the Chinese to show us how an action movie should be made, with the double whammy of Hero and House of Flying Daggers coming within a year of each other, and by the same director.

Nameless takes on Sky.
This film looks nothing short of astonishing. Taking advantage of a door into western markets opened by Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and pushed through it by Quentin Tarantino, who convinced Miramax to distribute it in the States, Hero became the highest grossing movie in Chinese box office history at the time, and with good reason.

About the unification of seven warring Chinese states into a single country, Jet Li plays Nameless, a minor law enforcement officer in Qin. The king of Qin is waging a bloody war against the other six provinces and is the target of three legendary assassins, Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Chiu Wai Leung) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung). Nameless claims to have vanquished the three assassins and is invited into the presence of the king to explain how he managed this remarkable feat. However, all is not what it seems, and there are a number of twists and turns with much being told in flashbacks; some true, some not. The most affecting part of the whole meandering plot is the love between Broken Sword and Flying Snow, which is at once both beautiful and tragic.

Flying Snow, ready to begin a gorgeously-
realised duel with Moon (Ziyi Zhang).
There is a slightly sour taste to the ending which could be accused of trying to romanticise China's sometimes appalling human rights record - China under the rule of one emperor hasn't historically been the peaceful utopian ideal Hero's characters so willingly lay down their lives for. The ultimate ideal of swordsmanship may be to be sword-less, but China's totalitarian history does not bear out this peace-loving message. But, to be fair, China is hardly alone in this type of cinematic hypocrisy.

The story then, is passable, but in the end of little consequence. After all Hero is a wuxia (translated usually as 'swordplay' or 'martial chivalry') movie, and what matters most here are the fights. Each battle is given its own colour scheme, which is an ingenious idea; an early duel where Nameless takes on Sky all in grey in the rain and the one which tells of Broken Sword and Flying Snow's previous assassination attempt, shrouded in countless green drapes, are among the most gorgeous, but make no mistake, the visuals are incredible throughout.

While there are obvious deficiencies between the real China and the one Hero paints for us, this doesn't hurt the film one bit, because, hey it's a story duh. It is shot through with a real feeling of old-fashioned romance and the characters are imbued with a sense of nobility and the willingness to die for their ideals that the Hollywood movie machine just cannot hope to contend with.

Stirring, epic stuff.

Score: 9/10

Few people have a bad word to say about Hero; see these reviews by Edward and Czarina, who's description of the film as 'visual poetry' hits the nail on its beautifully described head.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Miss Potter

Year: 2006
Running time: 92 minutes
Certificate: PG
Language: English
Screenplay: Richard Maltby Jr.
Director: Chris Noonan
Starring: Renée Zellweger, Ewan McGregor, Emily Watson, Barbara Flynn, Bill Paterson, Lloyd Owen, Anton Lesser, David Bamber

The real star of Miss Potter: The Lake District.
No, this is not a film about Harry’s sister, but instead centres on another famous Potter; Beatrix (Renée Zellweger), creator of some of the most beloved children’s books the world has ever seen - Peter Rabbit & Friends. Set firstly around her struggle to free herself from the marriage designs of her mother Helen (Barbara Flynn) then to get her books (written off by her mother and passed over by most prospective publishers) published, and then her wish to marry a mere ‘tradesman’, Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor) when her parents would have her marry someone of more suitable repute. Warne is the younger brother in a family-run publishers who is given Potter's books because his older siblings are so convinced of their limited potential. It’s a pleasant enough tale that keeps the viewer engaged, just, throughout.

Renée Zellweger is every bit as wonderful as you’d expect her to be (it would be a real shame if her turn as Bridget Jones became her most memorable role, because she is capable of so much more), and Ewan McGregor does just fine as the inexperienced publisher willing to take a chance on her books. There is happiness (the books are popular! Yay!), romance, tragedy and moving on (Potter eventually becomes an effective conservationist). It's all delivered with that stereotypical twee Englishness that's the filmic equivilant of having tea and cake under a parasol.
She pretended to consider the artwork, but couldn't take her
mind off that mustache.

However, as easy to watch as Zellweger and McGregor are, they both pale in comparison to a much grander star, and that is the stunning scenery of the UK countryside on offer – it suits the style of the film perfectly and is really a joy to behold. The world that inspired her creations and later her conservation efforts is right there onscreen and it can be genuinely breath-taking.

It doesn’t exactly set the world alight, but fills 90 minutes well enough. If you're bored.

Score: 5/10

Two opposing viewpoints show that opinion is not exactly unanimous on Miss Potter; this review by Lexi declares it to be a movie both adults and children can enjoy. Conversely, Phillip at the Observer  thinks it will appeal to neither children nor adults. I find myself somewhere between the two.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Back to the Future

Year: 1985 (Part I), 1989 (Part II), 1990 (Part III)
Running time: 116 minutes (Part I), 108 minutes (Part II), 118 minutes (Part III)
Certificate: PG
Language: English
Screenplay: Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Micheal J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover, Thomas F. Wilson, Claudia Wells, Elisabeth Shue, James Tolkan, Marc McClure, Wendie Jo Sperber, Casey Siemaszko, Billy Zane, J. J. Cohen, Jeffrey Weissman, Mary Steenburgen, Matt Clark

Marty and Doc, having just seen some serious shit
when that baby hit 88 miles an hour.
There are many reasons why the 1980s should be forgotten – the fashion, the hair and a good deal of the music being just three. However, if the decade that taste forgot was ever wiped from our collective consciousness, there would be nothing to fill the gaping hole in my childhood left by the absence of Back to the Future. Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is pretty much the most perfectly-realised typical 80s American movie teenager - obsessed with cars, plays guitar, has a girlfriend (Jennifer is played by Claudia Wells in the first film, and by Elisabeth Shue in the sequels), but has enough insecurities, geekiness and confidence issues to stop you losing any and all sympathy for him. Right from its initial set up, the film gets everything right. McFly is a great main character – the average (at least, average in a movie sense) school kid with a slightly bizarre family is something that many of us can relate to. Fox is just great; Marty is a guy we immediately want to spend time with, making him the ideal character to follow on this convoluted journey through time.
"Do you know what this means? It means that this
damn thing doesn't work at all!"

Just as we’ve got accustomed to Marty’s world and to his oddball family, including alcoholic mum Lorraine (Lea Thompson) and completely wet dad George (Crispin Glover), who lives his life very much under the domineering thumb of bully Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson), the film plays its trump cards – Christopher Lloyd’s portrayal of the slightly wired Dr Emmet Brown and the genius DeLorean / time machine unveiling. What follows is a jump through time to when Marty’s parents were at school, and following the mess he made of his parents original meeting, McFly has to get his mum and dad back together for the first time for the sake of his own existence.

The film is full of quotable dialogue (I still find myself barking “Slacker!” at people I don't think are pulling their weight), and, brilliantly, the three main characters all have their own catchphrases. This lends itself to a great drinking game – whenever Marty says ‘Heavy’, Doc says ‘Great Scot!’ or Biff calls someone ‘Butthead’, down a shot – if you can handle your drink as inefficiently as me, you will be plastered way before the end of the trilogy.
Roads? Where they're going, they don't need roads.
Because the film is so much fun, the Freudian twist of Marty being the object of his own teenage mum’s desire is not as creepy as it could have been, and instead adds to the comedy. When you meet George, Lorraine and Biff in the 1950s you realise just how effective the ageing make-up is on the three actors in the opening scenes; all three are extremely convincing as older versions of their characters. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for Fox's attempt to play Marty's teenage daughter Marlene in Part II (although admittedly, this was played for laughs and not realism).
Marty and Doc find themselves in the wrong 1985 in Part II.

The film builds great characterisation on great characterisation and leads up to two of the most memorable climactic scenes in movies - Marty finally gets to play to an audience in a hilariously over the top cover of Johnny B. Goode, which moves on to an incredibly tense sequence involving clock towers, vertigo, stalling cars and lightning. I find myself on the edge of my seat with my fists clenched even though I've seen it a hundred times.

The sequel is one of the biggest mind benders in film history, with Marty and Doc going back to the past to save the future, or the present, or both..? It is truly a masterstroke to retread the events in the first movie five years after it was made, and having two plots literally run side by side. In the first film Biff, while unpleasant, was a bit of a buffoon, but, given the keys to obscene wealth, we get to see just how ugly a person Biff could become.

As with many stories that involve time travel, it pays to not give the finer details too close a study, lest your brain turn to cheese, but the whole thing does hold up extremely well, with most of the inconsistencies so minor that you can only applaud the practically watertight writing.
The DeLorean heads to 1885 for Part III.

Despite a startling change of style, for the most part the third film shows the makers of Spider-Man, The Godfather, X-Men and Shrek among others how to get the third part of your series right. Shifting a good deal of the main focus from Marty to Doc is a good idea, with the good Dr. Brown falling in love with teacher Clara Clayton (Mary Steenburgen). There is some retreading of certain events from the first movie, for example the building of the model town for a demonstration of the climactic plan, and (of course) the Biff-equivalent Buford 'Mad Dog' Tannen (Wilson again, obviously) clocking a face full of shit. One particularly reminiscent retread is the scene in which a female character turns up at an awkward moment with one of the pair trying to stay cool while the other flaps behind their back until they leave. What works is that this time, Marty and Doc’s roles are reversed from the relative scene in the first film. The trilogy climax is also a sort of retread of the original, it just happens to be on a bigger scale, with Marty and Doc hijacking a steam train and using it to push the DeLorean up to 88 mph in a fantastic sequence which is somehow even more suspenseful than the ending of the first movie.
Marty and Doc at the Shonash/Clayton/Eastwood Ravine.
A brilliant, brilliant trilogy that will endure in the movie going public’s hearts indefinitely.

Back to the Future: 9/10
Back to the Future Part II: 8/10
Back to the Future Part III: 8/10

My own scores follow the general feeling in that Back to the Future is an absolute bona fide classic, while the sequels are not quite on a par, but a great deal of fun nonetheless. See Matt at Total Film's review of the original, Roger Ebert's opinion on Part II and Empire's Kim Newman's take on Part III, as well as Jonathan's video review of the whole trilogy.