Dave and Rachel's movie reviews.


Friday, December 25, 2015

Jackie Brown

Year: 1997
Running time: 154 minutes
Certificate: 15
Language: English
Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster, Robert De Niro, Bridget Fonda, Michael Keaton, Michael Bowen, Chris Tucker, Hattie Winston, LisaGay Hamilton, Tommy 'Tiny' Lister

Jackie Brown: down on her luck, but still formidable.
It seems that for a lot of people Jackie Brown is the duffer in Tarantino's body of work so far. The problem was it followed Pulp Fiction, an astonishing powerhouse of a movie, and people were expecting much the same, or at least something similar. What they got was something very different. This is a slow burning film by comparison, taking time to set up all the characters (with the exception of Jackie herself (Pam Grier), who arrives onscreen fully formed and cool as fuck to the sound of Bobby Womack's Across 110th Street in one of cinema's most criminally under-rated character intros) and getting itself into a very convoluted plotline (of course, anyone familiar with Elmore Leonard's novel, Rum Punch, on which this is based, would've had a clearer idea of what to expect). When people were waiting for more of the razor sharp dialogue that Tarantino writes so well, the characters began talking about what it’s like to get older and had conversations about The Delfonics.

I make a point of trying never to go in with any expectations of what a film should be, and in this case I think it paid off. While my friends complained about the lack of, for want of a better word, Pulp Fiction-ness, I was intrigued by the characters and hooked on the plot. The story revolves around six people, half a million dollars and everyone trying to double cross each other to get their hands on it. Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson) is the biggest gangster-fish in his particular little pond. He's got some money to smuggle in from some arms deals he's pulled off and he needs someone to bring in the cash. A large part of the first act is spent showing just what kind of a person Robbie is, bailing out one Beaumont Livingston (Chris Tucker), only to elaborately plan and execute Beaumont's murder to prevent him from talking to the police when he inevitably goes back to prison. Associates of Robbie include Louis Gara (Robert De Niro), a bank robber recently out of prison and Melanie Ralston (Bridget Fonda), in the words of Robbie "...one of the bitches I got set up" who is very happy to spend her time getting high and watching TV, until the opportunity to relieve Ordell of his ill-gotten gains presents itself.

Ordell talks guns with his non-too-bright henchman Louis.
Max Cherry (Robert Forster) is an ageing bail bondsman employed by Robbie to bail out first Beaumont and then Jackie after she is arrested when caught smuggling cocaine and cash in for Ordell to supplement her meagre wage. Cherry is very taken with Jackie and, against his better judgement, agrees to help Jackie swipe Ordell's cash. Watching over everything are Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton), a confident ATF agent and Mark Dargus (Michael Bowen), of the LAPD who arrested Jackie in the first place and have agreed to let her go in exchange for co-operation in catching Ordell. Everything hinges on this half a million dollars and which character will finally end up with it after the dust clears.

Similar plot lines have been done to death, but this still sparkles, thanks largely to three things; the outstanding source material, Tarantino's superb adaptation and direction, and the excellent cast - not one of them puts in anything less than a thoroughly great performance (Grier outshines them all, and out of the support, my favourite is the brilliant Michael Keaton - Nicolette also appears in Out of Sight, another Elmore Leonard adaptation that made its way to screens the following year). As with every Tarantino movie, music plays a huge role, and the records on offer here are just as inspired as any of his films; as well as the aforementioned Bobby Womack and Delfonics, the soundtrack includes the likes of Johnny Cash and Bill Withers, amongst others.

So, Jackie Brown, far from being a duffer, is one of the crown jewels in the collection of a man who, so far, has made nothing but crown jewels.

Score: 8/10

Other reviews for Jackie Brown are largely gushing, like this one of Roger Ebert's, but there are some people who appear to have watching a different film entirely, like Janet at the New York Times.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Con Air

Year: 1997
Running time: 115 minutes
Certificate: 18
Language: English
Screenplay: Scott Rosenberg
Director: Simon West
Starring: Nicolas Cage, John Malkovich, John Cusack, Ving Rhames, Colm Meaney, Mykelti Williamson, Nick Chinlund, Danny Trejo, M. C. Gainey, Jesse Borrego, Steve Buscemi, Renoly Santiago, Dave Chappelle, Rachel Ticotin, Steve Eastin, Monica Potter, Landry Allbright

Nic had forgotten to pack the Pantene again.
Like many movies produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, Con Air is a bit of a guilty pleasure – you know that it’s not clever, artistic or attempting to relay a message; it’s just that blowing shit up is cool. And nobody blows shit up like a Jerry Bruckheimer movie.

Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage, on his post-Oscar action-hero credibility-wrecking trip) is a U.S. soldier who fatally injures a man while fighting off an attack by a group of drunken town hicks. Sent to prison for eight years, his pregnant wife Tricia (Monica Potter) must raise their daughter Casey (Landry Allbright) alone until his release. When he finally does get released, he really should get sent straight back for crimes against hair. But then again, what's a Nic Cage film without ridiculous hair? Catching a ride with Poe, we just so happen to have the scummiest scum on the planet, led by Cyrus 'The Virus' Grissom (John Malkovich), who have plans of their own, largely involving escape while causing maximum carnage.

After this, it's up to our hairy hero to save the day and get Casey's bunny to her in one piece pretty much single-handedly - there is some on-the-ground assistance given by U.S. Marshall Vince Larkin (John Cusack), but he spends most of his time bickering with grumpy DEA knob Duncan Malloy (Colm Meaney). That's the high-concept set-up, all there is to do after grasping that is watch the sparks fly. And my, my, what sparks.

You can forgive Nic Cage’s awful accent (how Cage kept a straight face while delivering the line "Put the bunny back in the box" is beyond me) and dreadful hair, you can almost forgive that horrific theme song, because, well, they drag a sports car through the air behind a plane, and then crash said plane into Las Vegas. The action isn't particularly bloodthirsty, but does enough to earn Con Air an 18 certificate - a point brought up here because I remember when I saw it at the cinema it was only a 15, and became an 18 when released on video/DVD, and the only other film I know of that did that is Verhoven's Starship Troopers. I've never worked out the reason why - did the BBFC change its mind, or are there additional scenes? One of life's great unsolved mysteries, I guess.

Cyrus 'The Virus' Grissom: Poster child for the criminally insane.
Cusack, usually being rather more cerebral in his choice of parts, doesn’t quite seem at home in this film (which actually makes him a fine choice, because that pretty much describes his character), but everyone else, particularly Malkovich and Steve Buscemi (as nut-job serial killer Garland 'The Marietta Mangler' Greene) are obviously having a whale of a time - the two of them share of the best lines between them, with the exception of Cage's aforementioned bunny/box fiasco.

The ending is great as well – not because Poe gets to give the bunny to his little girl after all, but because Grissom gets possibly one of the most bizarrely elaborate death scenes ever and especially because the movie ends on a joke about a convicted, obviously insane (but, just possibly, following a sing-a-long hymn with a little girl, reformed) serial killer being free and on the loose.

Long live the Bruckheimer action movie!

Score: 7/10

Whether you like Con Air or not I think depends on how much disbelief you'll be willing to suspend - the film knows full well it's ridiculous, but it's determined to have fun all the same. That's why you get reviews with varied opinions in them like this one from Janet at the New York Times, who quite liked it, or this one from James at Reelviews, who didn't.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within

Year: 2001
Running time: 106 minutes
Certificate: PG
Language: English
Screenplay: Hironobu Sakaguchi, Al Reinert, Jeff Vintar, Jack Fletcher, Ramin Mebdy, B. L. Jurgens
Directors: Hironobu Sakaguchi, Motonori Sakakibara
Starring (voices): Ming-Na, Alec Baldwin, Donald Sutherland, James Woods, Ving Rhames, Steve Buscemi, Peri Gilpin

Aki's dreaming again.
Final Fantasy is, of course, better known as a hugely successful video game franchise, but developers Square thought it a good idea to make a CG movie and stamp the well-known name on the product.

The big thing about this movie was to show what could be done with computer technology, and the results were undeniably very impressive. Even now, they hold up reasonably well. It was a not-quite-but-almost successful attempt to render photo-real humans on screen. Before we get to the humans though, the gorgeous landscapes deserve special mention – particularly the final scene and the dream sequences, which look spectacularly, stupendously good.

On an Earth of the future, humankind is under threat from an invading force of alien phantoms. Much of the planet is uninhabitable, with survivors cowering behind cities encased in gigantic force-fields. Dr Aki Ross (Ming-Na) and her mentor Dr Sid (Donald Sutherland) are on a mission to find a peaceful solution before the sinister General Hein (James Woods) launches a massive attack on Earth to wipe the alien invaders from the face of the planet, likely along with the remnants of humanity as well. Helping Aki and Sid find the evidence they need in the dangerous wasteland outside of the protective walls is the Deep Eyes military squadron, led by an old friend of Aki's, Captain Grey Edwards (Alec Baldwin). Under the shell of flashy animation and action set-pieces lies a heart of spirituality. Peace is the key to saving all, and Aki and her team race to resolve the conflict before Hein destroys everything.

Dr. Sid tries to press the case for peace.
The animation is genuinely impressive, with lingering moments spent on Dr. Aki’s exquisitely animated hair and the creases in General Hein's black leather coat as he stands in his office or glides through zero gravity. A particularly astonishing job was done with Dr Sid, with lifelike blemishes and liver spots making the old man look more convincingly human than the others. However, for all the technical wizardry, the characters are not quite 100% convincing. Sometimes they don’t quite move like they should, and there are awkward pauses that only come from matching voice-work to animation and not from real people acting.

So the animation is impressive, including the landscapes, the action and the characters. The story, although not the top priority here, isn’t too bad either, if a little re-hashed, covering a number of emotional bases, including spirituality, unresolved love and sacrifice, with the obligatory ray of hope at the end.

Score: 6/10

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within doesn't seem to be quite as vilified as I had thought, if this review at Triple J and this one from Roger Ebert is anything to go by.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Year: 2000
Running time: 106 minutes
Certificate: 12
Language: English
Screenplay: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Starring: George Clooney, John Tuturro, Tim Blake Nelson, Chris Thomas King, Holly Hunter, John Goodman, Charles Durning, Wayne Duvall, Michael Badalucco, Ray McKinnon, Daniel Von Bargen

Everett, just prior to his meeting with the blind seer.
I read a quote once in a review of The Big Lebowski, which said something like: ‘In a perfect world, all movies would be made by the Coen brothers’. While we would undoubtedly miss the likes of Hitchcock, Kubrick, Jackson et al, while you’re watching a film like this one, it’s difficult to disagree. An original take on Homer’s Odyssey, the action is relocated to America’s deep south, with our hero Ulysses now being a rather dim-witted fellow (full name Ulysses Everett McGill) (George Clooney). Everett has just escaped from jail with two buddies in tow. They are Pete Hogwallop (John Tuturro) and Delmar O'Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson) (the Coens' reputation for ingenious character names is never more deserved than here). These two happen to be even more dim-witted than Everett, and the three are played with perfect comic charm.

If you know the story, you will recognise particular beats here, but it is all played through such a wonderful prism, that everything feels built from scratch while still feeling familiar. Pursued by Sherriff Cooley (Daniel Von Bargen), possibly the devil himself, our intrepid trio run into all manor of characters, including George Nelson (don't call him Babyface) (Michael Badalucco), the Sirens (Mia Tate, Musetta Vander and Christy Taylor), Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King), having just sold his soul to the devil for extraordinary guitar-playing skills, and face many dangers, only for Everett to make his way back home to find his wife Penny has taken up with new suitor Vernon T. Waldrip (Ray McKinnon), who may be bona fide, but is no goddamn paterfamilias.

The Soggy Bottom Boys: Pop stars in the making.
Cast-wise, there is not a single dud, with Coens’ regular John Goodman being particularly stand out in a minor role as the Cyclops (re-framed here as Big Dan Teague, a bible salesman/mugger with an eye-patch).

The wonderful Coen wit and originality is very much present and correct, but here we’re given a wonderful bonus – music with its roots in the old deep south bluegrass style which is simply gorgeous. Every single second is a uniquely Coen visual and aural treat.

Do yourself a favour, and get acquainted with the Coen brothers – you’ll never regret it.

Score: 9/10

The Coens and O Brother, Where Art Thou? are well-loved - this review shows that Kim from Empire and I are in agreement, and this one from David makes the points more eloquently than I can manage.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Year: 2005
Running time: 109 minutes
Certificate: 12
Language: English
Screenplay: Douglas Adams, Karey Kirkpatrick
Director: Garth Jennings
Starring: Martin Freeman, Mos Def, Zooey Deschanel, Sam Rockwell, Alan Rickman (voice), Warwick Davis, Bill Nighy, John Malkovich, Stephen Fry (voice), Helen Mirren (voice)

Arthur steadies his nerves with a cup of tea.
If your initial thought is that a movie cannot possibly hope to compare to the near-perfect series of stories by Douglas Adams, well, you’d be right, but The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is pretty damn good all the same. The style and humour of the books is, I would imagine, one of the most difficult things to successfully transfer to the screen – the TV show had its moments, but left me underwhelmed (blasphemy, I know, but there you are), but they do surprisingly well here.

Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) is pretty average, and when we first see him, he is desperately trying to prevent his house being bulldozed to make way for a new bypass. In his pyjamas, slippers and dressing gown. This soon becomes the least of his problems, as the Vogon fleet (alien civil servants, basically) have arrived to demolish earth to make way for a new interstellar bypass. Luckily for Arthur, his best friend Ford Prefect (Mos Def in a surprising piece of leftfield casting, who turns out to be a really excellent choice) isn't human, but is just on earth to write about it for the most useful and well-read book in the universe: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Stephen Fry, who is simply the best possible choice they could have made), and manages to smuggle the two of them onto a Vogon ship before the earth is obliterated.

To recount the plot in any great detail would be to miss the point entirely, so I'll keep it brief. Arthur meets a fellow human survivor, Trillian (Zooey Deschanel), whom he had previously failed to chat up at a party. Trillian had instead left with Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), who, it turns out, is the President of the Galaxy and Ford's cousin. Zaphod has stolen the spaceship Heart of Gold and is making use of its Infinite Probability Drive to stay one step ahead of the Vogons. Along for the ride is Marvin (Warwick Davis and Alan Rickman), a depressed robot, the original paranoid android.

Ford, Zaphod and Trillian try to fly Heart of Gold as Marvin looks on,
Parallels are often drawn between Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Monty Python's Flying Circus and for good reason: it's so random yet brilliant at times, that it does feel a little like the Pythons made a sci-fi movie. Even the moments that don’t appear in the book blend with the overall feeling (it shouldn’t surprise you that Adams himself conceived of them before his death and wrote much of the screenplay).

It doesn't follow traditional narrative structure, and it's definitive Britishness did prevent it from becoming a huge international hit, but don't let that put you off; take it for what it is and enjoy the ride. Just don't forget your towel.

Score: 8/10

I thought I was alone in enjoying this film to the degree I did, but these reviews by Keith at the A.V. Club and Manohla at the New York Times suggest otherwise.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Austin Powers

Year: 1997 (International Man of Mystery (IMoM)), 1999 (The Spy Who Shagged Me (SWSM)), 2002 (Goldmember (GM))
Running time: 94 minutes (IMoM, GM), 95 minutes (SWSM)
Certificate: 15 (IMoM), 12 (SWSM, GM)
Language: English
Screenplay: Mike Myers (IMoM, SWSM, GM), Michael McCullers (SWSM, GM)
Director: Jay Roach
Starring: Mike Myers, Seth Green, Michael York, Robert Wagner, Mindy Sterling, Elizabeth Hurley, Mimi Rogers, Fabiana Udenio, Paul Dillon, Will Ferrell, Heather Graham, Rob Lowe, Verne Troyer, Beyoncé Knowles, Michael Caine, Fred Savage

Powers gets into a spot of bother.
For Mike Myers, the Saturday Night Live graduate behind Wayne’s World and its sequel, the Austin Powers movies are likely going to be remembered as his high water mark. With a joke hit-rate that is so high, it’s in the realm of The Naked Gun and Airplane for sheer the-next-joke's-already-on-the-way-before-this-one-lands comedy, which is something very few comedies actually manage. Myers, however, has now done it a total of five times with only two ideas – Wayne Campbell and Austin Powers.

Austin Powers (Mike Myers) is an English James Bond-spoofing super-spy in the 1960s who, when not chasing his nemesis Blofeld-alike Dr. Evil (Mike Myers, again), is, basically shagging and grooving his way through the decade of, like, free love, man.

Dr Evil & co: Team Scene Stealers.
Cryogenic freezing and other gimmickry allows Myers to send his creation and his super-villain other half to various time periods, allowing him to create running jokes not only around time-periods, but around his characters' attempts to grasp the differences between these time periods and their own.

Although Austin's name is on the titles, it is undoubtedly Dr. Evil and his cronies that reign supreme in the laughter stakes; lines are so random, but so perfectly executed that you can find yourself almost hyperventilating with laughter without really being sure why. The relationship between Dr. Evil and his son Scott (Seth Green) frequently mines comedy gold, and even skits involving now outdated things, like a spot on Jerry Springer are outstanding ("The world is mine, the world is mine you f**kers!").

Austin with his dad: "Shat on a turtle!"
The Austin Powers movies are a very rare breed indeed, in that they don't less get funny as they go on – the original is great, but the sequel is every bit as funny, and even outdoes it occasionally, and the trilogy climax Goldmember (“He’s got the Midas touch, but he touched it too much”) is full of inspired moments. Myers adds new characters each time to maintain interest, playing many of them himself (Fat Bastard and Goldmember are both played by Myers, as well as the two main characters), but the best additions are probably Mini-me (Verne Troyer), and the casting of Michael Caine as Austin's father is simply perfect casting.

The Austin Powers movies will not only cheer you up if you’re down, but may even make you cry with laughter.

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery: 8/10
Austin Powers: The Spy who Shagged Me: 8/10
Austin Powers: Goldmember: 8/10

Cinemablend.com seem to agree on the first 2 movies but would say I overrate the third one; see these reviews of the first film by Nate and the second and third by Joshua.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Pursuit of Happyness

Year: 2006
Running time: 117 minutes
Certificate: 12
Language: English
Screenplay: Steve Conrad
Director: Gabriele Muccino
Starring: Will Smith, Jaden Smith, Thandie Newton

Smith's Chris Gardner, giving a more inspiring version of Gordon Gekko's
'Greed is Good' speech.
Call me cynical if you must, but the first thing I thought walking out of the cinema after watching The Pursuit of Happyness is: Is it Oscar season already? That time when the big stars and directors release their ‘serious’ films. Jaded as I am, I can still see that The Pursuit of Happyness ('happiness' is spelt wrong on purpose in reference to an early scene) has some good points. It’s a story about surviving any way you can and protecting your dreams and other Hollywood clichés. It is done with smooth professionalism and Will Smith puts in a very fine performance (he is by far the best thing in this film) as Chris Gardner, a man struggling to make something of himself (although if he didn’t win for Ali, how can he possibly win for this?).

His marriage falls apart and his wife Linda (Thandie Newton) leaves him to look after their son Christopher (played by Jaden Smith, Will Smith's real-life offspring, giving their on-screen relationship real heart). Having made a bad investment, Chris now needs to find a way to support him and his son following the loss of everything he has. He takes on a six-month unpaid internship with little chance of a job at the end to become a stockbroker, during which he needs to sell the bone density scanners he bought (the previously noted bad investment) to stay afloat until his first pay cheque.

Rock bottom, shortly before turning it all around.
The biggest problem I have with this, is that you can substitute the word ‘Happyness’ in the title for the word ‘Money’ and the film will remain identical in every way. It's the American Dream come true, where if you're determined enough, and lucky enough you can become very rich (never mind those who aren't as lucky - they obviously didn't want it as much and as such deserve the hardship they must endure until death is the unspoken cold, clinical and unsympathetic message regarding the many, many people unable to pull a miracle out of a hat like Chris Gardner managed; that this is a true American rags-to-riches story where cut-throat capitalism is not only accepted as the only way to live, but revered as some kind of wonderful way of life makes me feel more than a little queasy). But, to be fair, when things are so bad you and your son have to sleep in a train station toilet, money probably is the same thing as happiness.

It’s alright, but certainly doesn't speak to my particular sensibilities.

Score: 5/10

It seems I'm not the only person to place this film in the middle of the pack, as shown by these reviews by Chris at Empire and Lexi at Cinema Blend.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

War of the Worlds

Year: 2005
Running time: 116 minutes
Certificate: 12
Language: English
Screenplay: Josh Friedman, David Koepp
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin, Miranda Otto, Tim Robbins

No escape.
The cheesy 1953 adaptation of H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds was one of my very favourite movies growing up. I reckon I must have watched it 100 times or more. It's been said, not entirely without justification, that I have a bit of a hard-on for Steven Spielberg. But now here he is updating one of my most treasured childhood memories. This, then, would be a real test. Would he ruin everything? Turns out he wouldn't, and my accusers can continue to accuse.

Although Spielberg is well known for films involving aliens, until he made this remake his visitors from the stars were benevolent and friendly. All that changed with War of the Worlds. These aliens are certainly not here to return missing navel officers or to retrieve a lonely family member left behind. These guys want our planet, and they want it bad. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Spielberg movie if it didn’t have an average family unit at its heart. Here, Tom Cruise is blue-collar regular Joe Ray Farrier, who is having his kids to stay over the weekend. He's not dad of the year, but then who is when you get right down to it? He's separated from the mother of his children Mary Ann (Miranda Otto), and while his son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) is resentful, his younger daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) still has a soft spot for him. So far, so standard broken family unit.

Ray runs for his life as the chaos begins.
During the weekend a very odd storm hits. Right from the off, this is disconcerting stuff; the striking sound effects accompanying each lightning strike feel like a punch to the heart. The tension is there from the beginning and only cranks up as the story progresses. Soon after the lightning strikes, gigantic three-legged machines erupt from the ground and start laying waste to all around them. There is a real sense of there being no escape from the marauding tripods, and Spielberg frames the action in a way that makes you feel the terror right alongside the characters. There is spectacle, and much of it, but the film is never afraid to leave huge events off screen if Ray and his kids aren't witnessing them directly - take for example the moments that leave them cowering in a basement while all hell breaks loose outside. The next morning, when all is quiet, they leave the basement only to find the neighbourhood destroyed and the wreckage of a plane spread all over. It makes the reveal of the destruction all the more effective and the way we never leave the central characters' sides serves to amp up the tension that bit further. Spielberg may be an old hand at this type of cinematic thrill ride, but he really can pull this stuff off like no-one else.

The most affecting scenes, however, tend to come when there are no aliens at all. Take for example, the scene shortly after the opening attack, which Ray narrowly survived. He notices in the mirror that he is covered in dust, and then slowly penetrating his shock is the realisation of what the dust is, or used to be, causing a suddenly desperate need to get it off him. There is also the horrific scene when Rachel witnesses the debris of corpses floating down the river. As Rachel, Dakota Fanning spends much of the film screaming, shouting or running, but during these quieter-but-nastier moments she is terrific.
Horrifying, terrifying, yet so beautifully filmed.
Far worse than these scenes, however, is the moment when our family becomes the victim of fear driving ordinary people to become a dangerous mob. Fighting for the only working car, they almost tear Ray’s daughter from him in their desperate bid to escape. My heart felt like it was literally in my throat. As well as the director doing the thing he does best, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and particularly the cast are on good form, being creditably believable as their world falls apart around them.

If there is a weak link, it is the writing. The machines have supposedly lain dormant underground for many years until the unnatural storm deposits an alien pilot in each of them at a time predetermined by the invaders. There are some problems inherited from H. G. Wells' original classic novel; the three-leg structure, while undoubtedly iconic, is highly impractical, and the fact that this obsessively planned invasion by entities capable of interstellar travel is thwarted because they forgot to consider some rudimentary biology issues. And there is the whole red weed thing (although this gets a pass due to the supreme creepiness of the idea). It seems odd then, that the writers saw fit to introduce even more impracticalities, the primary one being that for some reason the aliens planted a load of machines underground, none of which were discovered, and then go away to wait for ages before unleashing them. Spielberg's expert execution does much to paper over these cracks, but it wouldn't have hurt to have made the writing a little smarter.

Ray and Rachel's short-lived refuge in Ogilvy's basement.
After Ray must let his son leave to take up arms with the military to try to fight back against the seemingly unstoppable machines, he and Rachel find shelter in the basement of paranoid survivor Harlan Ogilvy (Tim Robbins). Ogilvy has long been driven out of his wits, and is entirely oblivious to the danger he's putting the three of them in when he starts to panic loudly. Murky survival morals set in when Ray gently covers his daughter’s ears and shuts the door to demonstrate exactly what lengths he will go to in order to protect her. The whole subplot within the basement felt tense almost beyond my ability to stand it, and although it deviates from the main story, it serves to ratchet up the claustrophobic terror to almost unbearable levels.

When the end comes, it feels like the first breath you’ve taken since the storm hit at the start, and although Robbie's survival does seem a little too tidy, there's an almost desperate need for this family to be given a chance to fix itself, so I found Spielberg's traditional over-sentimentality very welcome.

Phenomenal, but terrifying.

Score: 8/10

Spielberg's adaptation is generally fairly poorly thought of, but this review by Jake makes a compelling case, finding the film resonates with America's War on Terror in the wake of 9/11. The late Mr Ebert, however, couldn't get past the tripod issue.

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Devil's Backbone

Year: 2001
Running time: 106 minutes
Certificate: 15
Language: Spanish
Screenplay: Guillermo del Toro, Antonio Trashorras, David Muñoz
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Fernando Tielve, Marisa Paredes, Federico Luppi, Eduardo Noriega, Irene Visedo, Íñigo Garcés, Junio Valverde

The orphanage's unexploded bomb, dominating the landscape.
Guillermo del Toro has said that The Devil’s Backbone is a companion piece to Pan's Labyrinth. Both films are set around the same time in history (the Spanish civil war) and set supernatural events alongside some of the ugliest reality human history has to offer. There are a number of thematic similarities, but the most marked difference is where Pan’s Labyrinth is a fairy tale, The Devil’s Backbone is a ghost story.

During the closing stages of the Spanish civil war, a young boy named Carlos (Fernando Tielve) arrives at an orphanage seemingly in the middle of nowhere, run by two supporters of the left-wing Republicans Dr. Casares (Frederico Luppi) and Carmen (Marisa Paredes). They are assisted by a young teacher Conchita (Irene Visedo) and groundskeeper Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega). In the middle of the grounds sits the striking image of the mother of all Chekhov's Guns (albeit one that never actually goes off), an unexploded bomb, which fell to earth on the night one of the young boys, Santi (Junio Valverde) died.
Santi's ghost tries to communicate with  Carlos.

Whispered talk about the ghost of Santi haunting the orphanage spreads among the kids, and before long Carlos suffers through some terrifying encounters. In spite of his fear, Carlos works to uncover the mystery around Santi's death and the realisation that we have a lot more to fear from the living than we do the dead is powerfully brought home thanks to del Toro's skillful direction.

The juxtaposition of the ghostly terror and the real life danger is very effectively handled, giving us a tense supernatural thriller, that hides a core of melancholy, showing the characters doomed to repeat their actions without end, as much ghosts themselves as Santi, defined at the beginning and end of the film as "a tragedy doomed to repeat itself time and time again". Considering what must have been a modest budget, the ghost effects are very nicely handled, and del Toro's command of his colour palette, showing the days as sun-baked yellow and brown give way to otherworldly green and gold at night is absolutely masterful.

Well worth a look.

Score: 8/10

The Devil's Backbone is widely considered among del Toro's best films, as shown in these reviews by Dorothy and Orrin.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015


Year: 2007
Running time: 96 minutes
Certificate: 15
Language: English
Screenplay: Diablo Cody
Director: Jason Reitman
Starring: Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Allison Janney, J.K. Simmons, Olivia Thirlby

Ellen Page is very impressive as the quick-witted Juno.
When Juno was first released it became the little indie film that could, with positive word of mouth helping it to break into the mainstream consciousness. It’s not hard to see why, with wittily sharp dialogue and impressive performances all round, particularly Ellen Page, who gives the title character a depth that is slowly revealed as the film goes on.

After having sex once with her best friend Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), 16 year-old Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) finds herself pregnant. Imbued with a sarcastic wit and fierce intelligence, thanks to a remarkable debut script from Diablo Cody, Juno refuses to become just another teenage pregnancy statistic, and instead researches and carefully considers her options, and after an aborted visit to an abortion clinic, she decides to have the baby and give it up for adoption. She finds and contacts a couple herself and comes to an agreement with them. By the time she tells her father Mac (J.K. Simmons) and stepmother Bren (Allison Janney), she's already got it all planned out.

Of course, nothing is ever that simple. The would-be adoptive parents Vanessa and Mark Loring (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman) run into marital problems stemming from the fact that Mark hasn't ever really given up on his adolescent dreams of being a rock star and doesn't particularly want a child.
For all its sarcasm and wit, Juno's true power lies in its characters, who you
will come to love.

It feels genuinely original in its portrayal of a pregnant teen, showing her as intelligent and fully able to sort her problems out for herself, and the lack of stereotyping in this regard is extremely refreshing. The most surprising thing in this film for me however is Jennifer Garner, who, it has to be said, I’m not exactly a fan of. Here I finally saw that she is a fine actress in the right role, playing a woman quietly desperate for a child of her own with a touching and understated skill I’ve never seen in her before.

When Juno makes the decision to go ahead with the adoption even though Vanessa will be a single mom it's a happy ending as cleverly unexpected as the rest of the film. After watching this, you find yourself wishing that the subjects of abortion, adoption and teenage pregnancy could be approached with the same intelligence and empathy by everyone.

Consistently circumventing expectations, Juno tackles a well-worn subject in a new and refreshing way.

Score: 7/10

The excellent performances and even better writing are rightly celebrated in other reviews, such as this one by A.O. Scott at the New York Times and this one by Roger Ebert.

Monday, January 19, 2015

101 Dalmatians

Year: 1961
Running time: 79 minutes
Certificate: U
Language: English
Screenplay: Bill Peet
Directors: Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton S. Luske, Wolfgang Reitherman
Starring (voices): Rod Taylor, Cate Bauer, Betty Lou Gerson, Ben Wright, Lisa Davis, J. Pat O'Malley, Martha Wentworth, Dave Frankham, Fred Worlock

Pongo, Perdita and the pups indulge in the age-old American
past-time of watching TV.
101 Dalmatians, like most classic Disney, is an wonderful example of remarkable artistry being used to entertain children in a way that, for a long time, possibly not until Studio Ghibli, and then Pixar, no other movie studio could hope to match. Having said that, following the commercial failure of the ambitious Sleeping Beauty, a cheaper animation technique was developed for 101 Dalmatians, and while it certainly looks rougher around the edges than some of its fellow classics (Walt Disney hated the look), it still retains a certain charm and in fact stands out somewhat because of it.

Bored dalmatian Pongo (Rod Taylor) decides that his bachelor owner Roger (Ben Wright) needs some companionship, so he engineers a meet-cute with Anita (Lisa Davis) and her dalmatian Perdita (Cate Bauer). Before long the four of them are living happily together and Pongo and Perdita have a litter of 15 puppies. Enter one of the most memorable and dastardly Disney villains Cruella De Vil (Betty Lou Gerson), who wants the pups for herself so she can turn them into a new coat. Bumbling henchmen Horace (Fred Worlock) and Jasper (J. Pat O'Malley) are tasked with keeping watch over the abducted pups while De Vil gathers enough for her new coat.

"Dah-ling!" The undisputed star of the movie makes her entrance.
There are some really lovely touches in the writing, such as the film starting with Pongo on voice-over duties referring to Roger as his pet, and the animal-emergency-broadcast system. Making use of this ingenious communication system, Pongo and Perdita, with the help of heroic cat Sgt. Tibs (Dave Frankham) manage to recover not only their own 15 puppies, but a total of 99, with Pongo and Perdy themselves making up the 101 of the title. The escape is followed by a mad race to safety with Horace, Jasper and the bananas De Vil in pursuit. This animated incarnation of De Vil is gloriously bonkers and is among the very best Disney villains - Glenn Close never had a chance in the inferior 1996 live action remake (is it a good thing or a bad thing that so many of the best Disney villains are female? – see also Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs, Sleeping Beauty and The Little Mermaid).

Not among Disney's very best, but that is no easy task, and in Cruella De Vil it has a villain that makes it much more memorable that it might otherwise have been.

Score: 7/10

Classic Disney never really loses its charm, as evidenced by this review by Pete. While this review from Eric at Slant Magazine shows a fair bit of contempt for much of Disney's back catalog, Cruella De Vil makes the film for him as she does for me.