Dave and Rachel's movie reviews.

*THERE WILL ALWAYS BE SPOILERS*

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Beetlejuice

Year: 1988
Running time: 92 minutes
Certificate: 15
Language: English
Screenplay: Michael McDowell, Warren Skaaren
Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Michael Keaton, Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Winona Ryder, Jeffrey Jones, Catherine O'Hara, Glenn Shadix, Sylvia Sidney

Betelgeuse, ready to bring the mayhem.
Beetlejuice is a bona-fide modern classic, bringing strangeness and black comedy in spades to a tale of an afterlife with as many frustrations and problems as the world of the living ever had.

Happy, sweet and boring couple Adam and Barbara Maitland (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) meet with a tragic accident thanks to a dog who likes walking in the middle of roads, and come to learn that death finds them stranded in their home with only an indecipherable guidebook for help. To make things worse, weird and dysfunctional family Charles (Jeffrey Jones) and Delia (Catherine O'Hara) Deetz and their daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder), whom the newly-ghostly Maitlands find incomprehensible, move in. Charles has moved out here for some relief from a stressful job, but Delia, an aspiring sculpture artist is aghast, and, with help of her friend Otho, proceeds to completely gut and redesign the house, in the name of modernisation.

Things just get weirder and weirder from here on in, as the Maitlands, looking for help from their book, find they’ve been assigned a caseworker in the afterlife, which appears to be run like the civil service. Juno (Sylvia Sidney) informs them that, basically, if they want the Deetz family out of their house, they will simply have to scare them away. Unfortunately, nobody can see their attempts to terrify. That is except Lydia, with whom they form a bond. After an inspired scene possessing the Deetz family and their dinner guests and making them dance to Harry Belafonte fails to scare them off and only makes them eager to meet them, they take desperate measures and ask for help from the title character, also known as Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton).

Adam and Barbara trying, unsuccessfully, to haunt their house.
Keaton's turn is a comedy whirlwind, full of manic energy, obliterating everything in its path. It moves the film up a gear, from merely great fun, to an unforgettable comedy that ranks up there with Ghostbusters and The Goonies. There is plenty to love about this film – from the bizarre cast of supporting characters to the superb Burtonesque afterlife, but it is Keaton’s turn that stays with you. He’s technically the bad guy, but you can’t help but love him.

Completely bizarre and brilliant because of it, Beetlejuice finds both director Tim Burton and star Michael Keaton on top form.

Score: 8/10

A surprisingly mixed bag of other reviews out there for Beetlejuice, from Roger Ebert, who was less than impressed (with the exception of the deliberately overly-whimsical opening - he's well wide of the mark here in my opinion) to Eric at Slant, who loved it.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Cat Returns

Year: 2002
Running time: 75 minutes
Certificate: U
Language: Japanese
Screenplay: Reiko Yoshida
Director: Hiroyuki Morita
Starring (voices): Chizuru Ikewaki, Yoshihiko Hakamada, Aki Maeda, Takayuki Yamada, Hitomi Satô, Kenta Satoi, Mari Hamada, Tetsu Watanabe, Yôsuke Saitô, Tetsurô Tanba 

Haru in a brief moment of quiet reflection.
Studio Ghibli didn't always need to rely on Hayao Miyazaki's genius to produce great work. While The Cat Returns is certainly proof of that, it does feel like a lesser work. Rest assured, however - it is gorgeous, engaging and a lot of fun.

As is the trend with many Studio Ghibli films, The Cat Returns explores a fantastical fantasy world through the eyes of a young girl. 17 year-old Haru (Chizuru Ikewaki) is walking home from school when she saves the life of a cat, preventing him from being run over with inventive use of her lacrosse stick. It turns out that the feline life she saves is none other than Prince Lune (Takayuki Yamada), heir to the kingdom of the cats. In addition to gratitude, Haru is betrothed to Prince Lune and somehow needs to find a way to escape the cat kingdom before she turns into a cat herself and marries the prince.

Haru and her new friend, The Baron.
Helping her in this endeavour is The Baron (Yoshihiko Hakamada), the cool top hat, tails and cane sporting cat and fat cat Muta (Tetsu Watanabe). The Baron and Muta have featured in a previous Studio Ghibli feature (the beautiful ode to the awakening of the creative urge in the young Whisper of the Heart, which is truly impossible for me to recommend highly enough) and it's great to see them again, this time in a much more hands-on (paws-on?) role. The escape is packed full of moments of comedy and breathless action brought to life by staggeringly good animation.

Less sophisticated than most of Studio Ghibli's other output, this is nevertheless another splendid addition to the studio's stellar collection.

Score: 7/10

Opinions of The Cat Returns as a lesser-yet-still-worthy Ghibli release seem fairly uniform across the board - see these reviews from Hannah at T.H.E.M., IGN and Kuma at The Nihon Review.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events

Year: 2004
Running time: 108 minutes
Certificate: PG
Language: English
Screenplay: Robert Gordon
Director: Brad Silberling
Starring: Jim Carrey, Emily Browning, Liam Aiken, Kara Hoffman, Shelby Hoffman, Billy Connolly, Meryl Streep, Jude Law, Timothy Spall, Catherine O'Hara, Luis Guzman, Jennifer Coolidge, Jamie Harris, Jane Adams, Craig Ferguson, Cedric the Entertainer

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events was another book adaptation of a hugely popular series that was released in the wake of Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. Like The Golden Compass, Lemony Snicket failed to trigger a franchise (corporate shake-ups at Paramount didn't stop years of talk of a sequel that never materialised), but unlike that absolute stinker, it does a fine job of nailing the quirky tone suggested by what I've read of the books. It skews perhaps a little younger than Rings and the later instalments of Potter (although not by much), but is still full of great invention and storytelling smarts.

The ever-resourceful Baudelaire children.
The film covers the events in the first 3 of 13 books, and although it did reasonably well, it didn't do enough to secure any sequels. Although Netflix have produced a new series which is due to launch in January 2017, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld and starring Neil Patrick Harris, giving the property a well-deserved new lease of life.

The film has an impressive style all its own, with the muted colours still allowing for striking visuals and the well-suited soundtrack creating an overall effect of dreary negativity which still manages to be funny and emotionally engaging. It’s an odd contradiction, and the makers have made it work well.

Centred around the three Baudelaire children Violet (inventor) (Emily Browning), Klaus (book lover) (Liam Aiken) and baby Sunny (biter) (Kara and Shelby Hoffman) who soon become the Baudelaire orphans after their parents are killed in a mysterious house fire, the film tells of their struggle against the sinister Count Olaf (Jim Carrey), who is trying to get his hands on their late parents' fortune. Shipped from guardian to guardian, it is up to the siblings to outwit the adults who, through sheer bloody-minded incompetence, always seem to place them in danger. I suspect bright children often feel something of the frustration the Baudelaire orphans do here, controlled and written off by useless adults who simply assume they know best when almost always, they are either well-meaning buffoons or malicious idiots.

There are occasional moments when the siblings are given brief moments to grieve the loss of their parents (and their safety), and the rarity of these moments make them all the more affecting - particularly at the end of the film when they visit the ruins of their home. The scene hit me hard enough to bring tears (that is, since having children of my own - this being another scene, like so many other moments in so many other films, that means so much more now than it ever did before).

Count Olaf: Most assuredly, up to no good.
The cast are fabulous; Liam Aiken does well as Klaus, but is upstaged in every scene by Emily Browning's Violet - she deserves much more than to be remembered for this and Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch. She was very brave to take on Sleeping Beauty, and was excellent in it, but the disturbing subject matter and large amounts of nudity means it will only ever be niche. The stellar adult cast including Timothy Spall, Billy Connelly and Meryl Streep all impress. It is, however, the casting of Jim Carrey in the role of the despicable Count Olaf that gives the film its standout performance. A master of disguise fooling all the adults but never managing to outwit the Baudelaire orphans, the role of the dastardly and slightly wired Olaf is perfectly suited to Carrey, and leaves Neil Patrick Harris a hell of a shadow to fill.

A special mention is necessary for the superb end credit sequence, which may just be the best I’ve ever seen, with the animation and music summing up the style of the film beautifully.

Better than I was expecting, I was happy to be taken by ‘supreeze’.

Score: 7/10

Reviews are certainly mixed out there - Scott at Cinemablend liked it a lot with the notable exception of Jim Carrey, while Peter at The Guardian was much less impressed. Interestingly, most of the reviews at the time presumed a franchise.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Prestige

Year: 2006
Running time: 130 minutes
Certificate: 12
Language: English
Screenplay: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson, Piper Perabo, Rebecca Hall, Samantha Mahurin, David Bowie, Andy Serkis 

Borden and Angier, in a rare moment of not scowling at one another.
Every now and again a film comes along and blows minds. Fight Club, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Matrix. There are, of course, many others. In this esteemed company is where, in my opinion, The Prestige belongs. It's an astonishing film from modern day Kubrick (or at least, if not quite there yet, is certainly on his way) and director of Memento, Inception and the glorious cinematic mind-bender Interstellar, Christopher Nolan.

Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) are both magicians who, due to a tragic mistake leading to the death of Angier's wife Julia McCullough (Piper Perabo), go from being great friends to bitter rivals. Borden and Angier each forge their own way and go to greater and greater lengths to outdo and sabotage each other. Eventually Borden gets the edge with the unbeatable trick 'The Transported Man', in which he appears to walk into one door and out another on the other side of the stage. Maddened and desperate to work out how he does it, Angier becomes ever more bitter and vicious. The more the rivalry spirals out of control, the worse the acts Borden and Angier inflict on each other are until murder rears its ugly head.

In the leads, Bale and Jackman are both intense and mesmerising, and Michael Caine as mentor to both of them Cutter threatens to steal the show on more than one occasion.

Michael Caine's Cutter and the under-used Scarlett Johansson as
Olivia Wenscombe, Angier's glamourous onstage assistant.
Everything about the production is extremely high quality, from set design and costumes to sound and cinematography - following Borden's encrypted notes on a possible trail to the secret of The Transported Man, Angier finds himself talking to Nikola Tesla (played to eccentric perfection by David Bowie) and the moment when he is suddenly surrounded by a field of blazing lights is a gorgeous, awe-inspiring moment.

Refreshingly, the film isn't interested in making things easy for the viewer, and you need to pay attention to make sense of the fractured chronology. The meticulously detailed script lays the foundations, but, like the best magic tricks, leaves you astonished and trying to work out exactly what happened. It demands multiple viewings and even then, there is room for near endless debate about exactly what took place.

An incredibly well crafted film, The Prestige  is spine tingling and keeps you holding your breath on the edge of your seat until the very end.

Score: 8/10

The Prestige is well-loved - see this review by Philip at The Guardian and this one from Czarina.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Night Watch & Day Watch

Year: 2004 (Night Watch), 2006 (Day Watch)
Running time: 114 minutes (Night Watch), 132 minutes (Day Watch)
Certificate: 15
Language: Russian
Screenplay: Laeta Kalogridis (Night Watch), Alexander Talal (Day Watch), Timur Bekmambetov
Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Starring: Konstantin Khabensky, Maria Poroshina, Vladimir Menshov, Valery Zolotukhin, Galina Tyunina, Dmitry Martynov, Yuri Kutsenko, Aleksey Chadov, Zhanna Friske, Viktor Verzhbitsky

Anton has his eye on some treaty-breakers.
Night Watch was released to a reputation of hype. Based on the first third of the book of the same name, Night Watch promised a uniquely mind-blowing treat. In truth, it was fun, but ultimately needed to spend more time making sense than trying to be cool. We find ourselves in the middle of an uneasy truce in the eternal battle between good and evil, with each side policing the other to ensure the truce is held to. The light side have the night watch, who keep an eye on their enemies during the darker hours, while the evil-doers have the day watch to maintain constant vigilance on the other side. Without the truce, the two sides are so evenly matched the only possible outcome to all out war would be mutual destruction. A new struggle emerges, with each side relying on the free will of others choosing which side to join, each side trying to find a way to tip the balance of power in their favour.

When we first meet the story's main protagonist Anton (Konstantin Khabensky) he is on the verge of striking a deal with a witch to get his wife to come back to him. A deal which will involve the miscarriage of her child. Before the deal can be struck, the witch is stopped by officers of the night watch and it soon becomes apparent than Anton is an 'other' and then we move forward 12 years where we see Anton has joined the night watch. One striking thing about these films is the shades of grey blurring the lines between light and dark, Anton's terrible unfulfilled deal being an obvious example of this.

What follows is a high octane, tension-filled coolfest that is great fun to watch, if sometimes a little difficult to follow. There are some slightly dodgy effects at times, but considering what must have been a fairly low budget, they hold up relatively well.

While on the trail of a vampire who is intending to feed on 12 year-old boy Yegor (Dmitry Martynov), Anton sees a terrifying vision of a woman who appears to be under a terrible curse, and then manages to kill one of the vampires while saving Yegor. Killing a member of the day watch brings a boatload of crap down on Anton's head and it also turns out that the woman he saw is Svetlana (Maria Poroshina), who has a 'vortex of damnation' above her head (as you do). In addition to this, Yegor is Anton's son, the one he almost killed to strike a deal with a witch 12 years ago.

The climax is suitably spectacular, but it also contains some though-provoking ideas, as the light-side Anton sees bad decisions he made earlier in his life come back not only to bite him, but to significantly shift the odds in dark-side's favour, as Yegor turns out to be a long-prophesised powerful other that has now chosen the side of evil. It elegantly posits the assertion that you can claim to be on the side of good all you like, but if your actions are evil, you will reap the consequences.

That was one way to get ahead of the traffic.
There appears to be some confusion about this, but it seems (according to Wikipedia) the sequel Day Watch, filmed at the same time, covers the events in the final two thirds of the book Night Watch, and not, confusingly, the book sequel Day Watch. It seems that there was an intention to make it a trilogy, but we're still waiting on Twilight Watch. Like the first movie, Day Watch is fast paced, beautifully stylised and occasionally baffling.

Early on, we're introduced to the highly unusual McGuffin, the Chalk of Fate. Apparently this is a piece of chalk that one can use to change decisions you made in the past that have turned out shitty. Despite his son choosing the dark, Anton tries his best to protect Yegor and covers up his treaty-violating attacks on humans. Agents of both sides race for the Chalk, Yegor resents Svetlana's growing relationship with his father and the whole thing culminates in most of Moscow being destroyed when the centuries old stalemate is broken. Not many people get the kind of second chance Anton does here, as he uses the Chalk of Fate to reverse the terrible decision he made right back at the start of Night Watch, thereby restoring Moscow, the truce and wiping the events of the two films from history (although not from the memory of some of the main characters).

To some this might seem some kind of Bobby Ewing-in-the-shower type of cop-out, but it feels right to me having events come full circle, leaving you with the determination not to make bad decisions before it's too late to reverse their consequences.

Lots of fun. Not as mind blowingly revolutionary as The Matrix, which is clearly a big influence, but enough smarts under the extensive special effects to get you thinking.

Score:
Night Watch: 7/10
Day Watch: 7/10

Opinion on these movies seems to be mixed to good, so I seem to generally be with the majority - for example this review of Night Watch by Steve and this one of its sequel at Cherub Cow.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Holiday

Year: 2006
Running time: 138 minutes
Certificate: 12A
Language: English
Screenplay: Nancy Meyers
Director: Nancy Meyers
Starring: Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Jack Black, Eli Wallach, Rufus Sewell, Edward Burns

Amanda and Graham take refuge in a home-made den.
I am ashamed to admit that I have a prejudice. It’s true. Romantic comedies are generally crap. Crap, crap, crap, crap, crap. I’m sorry, I can’t help it. It was a wonderful genre, back in the time that scenes in this movie allude to, when they had sparkle, originality, when they were fun (see Some Like It Hot, It Happened One Night, Pillow Talk and countless others). But now, the genre is choking to death on one too many Sweet Home Alabamas (and that’s nothing against Reese Witherspoon, who in the right role is wonderful).

Well, there are always exceptions, and The Holiday goes some way to restoring some of my faith in the rom-com. Of course, casting four cracking lead actors goes a long way to make this what it is; without them, this would likely be barely average.

Iris (Kate Winslet) is a journalist writing a wedding column suffering from unrequited love; she pines after Jasper (Rufus Sewell), a sorry excuse for a human who clearly intends to string Iris along for as long as he can while continuing his other relationship. Amanda (Cameron Diaz) is a trailer producer in LA who has just kicked out her unfaithful boyfriend Ethan (Edward Burns). In an attempt to leave their disastrous relationships behind, they spend some time in each other's homes via a house-swap holiday website.

While on the other side of the world for a holiday, both women fall in love with new men, because of course they do. Amanda meets Graham (Jude Law), Iris' brother and impossibly perfect widowed father of two adorable children. Iris meets elderly retired screenwriter Arthur (Eli Wallach) and composer Miles (Jack Black). It is Iris' story that I find to be more absorbing, as both Arthur and Miles are infused with a love of film, be it explaining the 'meet-cute' or discussing favourite soundtracks, and, frankly, I could listen to that shit all day long.

Iris and Miles talk soundtracks.
Other things lifting this out of the myriad of mediocrity that is this genre include the lovely English Winter scenery and the accomplished direction of Nancy Meyers - I think being a writer-director in this type of genre means she may not have got the credit her skill deserves - Want Women Want and Something's Gotta Give are other examples of her quietly professional style.

It's not all good, though - Meyers' direction is better than her writing here. The dialogue is clunky at times, and it is Winslet that gets the majority of the most difficult lines. Even with so fantastic an actor, some moments of dialogue just don't work. In addition, the final scene of all these fabulously rich and deliriously happy white folks enjoying themselves in a giant mansion having overcome their problems which were never really problems to begin with (like not being able to cry - turns out she just needed to be away from Jude Law for a while) genuinely makes me want to punch them all. I do try not to let that ruin the rest of the film for me, however.

Overall, this is funny, warm and romantic but entirely unmemorable; just what you need for some brain-disengaging entertainment for the holidays. Which begs the question why I'm reviewing it in August. Oh well.

Score:  6/10

The Holiday is not particularly well-reviewed out there - see this one from Richard Roeper, for example. And Peter at the Guardian really didn't like it.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

A Bug's Life

Year: 1998
Running time: 95 minutes
Certificate: U
Language: English
Screenplay: Andrew Stanton, Don McEnery, Bob Shaw
Directors: John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton
Starring (voices): Dave Foley, Kevin Spacey, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, Hayden Panettiere, Phyllis Diller, Richard Kind, David Hyde Pierce, Joe Ranft, Denis Leary, Jonathan Harris, Madeline Kahn, Bonnie Hunt, Michael McShane, John Ratzenberger, Brad Garrett

Now that's the look of an ant that's done something stupid.
Along with Cars, its sequel and more recently The Good Dinosaur, A Bug’s Life is generally considered one of Pixar’s least impressive releases to date. Of course, it is Pixar, so that means little, and it still tells a quality story full of great characters brought to life by bright and beautiful animation and a superb cast of voices (particularly good are Dennis Leary as bad tempered ladybird Francis – “So, just because I’m a ladybug it automatically makes me a girl, is that it fly boy?” and David Hyde Pierce as posh stick insect Slim – “I’m the only stick with eyeballs!”).

Flik (Dave Foley) is an ant that doesn’t fit in with the rest of his colony. He likes to invent things to improve the way the ants do things, but his natural clumsiness thwarts him every time. The only person who likes him is Dot (Hayden Panettiere), a little princess eager to grow up as quickly as possible. Flik's colony is under the thumb of a bullying group of grasshoppers led by Kevin Spacey’s Hopper. Spacey's delivery is note-perfect as you might expect, with Hopper unpredictably switching from comedy to genuine menace on a dime. Hopper’s gang force the ants to provide them with an offering of food before they are allowed to collect for themselves.

Flik and his new friends on the look out.
When Flik’s well-meaning attempt to help accidentally deposits the offering in a nearby stream the colony leaders conspire to trick him into leaving the colony, on a mission to find some ‘tough bugs’ to protect them from Hopper and co. The others assume they’ve got rid of him on a wild goose chase, but Flik actually succeeds. Sort of. He employs a troop of circus bugs who mistake him for a talent scout. In the way these things tend to play out, challenges are faced and overcome, the day is saved, outsiders are accepted and lessons about being true to oneself and standing together in the face of adversity are learned. As is usual with Pixar, this rather clichéd resolution is accomplished in a delightfully funny and unorthodox manner.

Targeted at audiences a little younger than many of the better Pixar releases it may be, but it’s still great fun.

Score: 7/10

Despite being minor Pixar, A Bug's Life is pretty well reviewed out there - see this review from James at Reelviews and this one from Nathan at the A.V. Club.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Frighteners

Year: 1996
Running time: 110 minutes
Certificate: 15
Language: English
Screenplay: Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson
Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Peter Dobson, John Astin, Chi McBride, Jim Fyfe, Jeffrey Combs, Dee Wallace, Jake Busey, Troy Evans, Julianna McCarthy, R. Lee Ermey, Elizabeth Hawthorne, Angela Bloomfield

Frank with his spectral business partners.
The Frighteners is an example of post-splatter but pre-Rings Peter Jackson, and is very much recognisable as his work. The manic energy and unusually imaginative camera angles are present and correct, and in addition there are a number of Jackson-esque gags and some surprisingly dark moments.

Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox) is a paranormal investigator, taking jobs getting rid of ghosts haunting the houses of punters. But he's a conman. A traumatic incident in his past has left him capable of seeing the dead. Rather than freak out in a Sixth Sense kind of way, Bannister senses a business opportunity and goes into business with three ghosts The Judge (John Astin), Cyrus (Chi McBride) and Stuart (Jim Fyfe). They agree to haunt the houses and point the marks in his direction (although I'm not entirely sure why they'd bother, being dead an' all).

Before long Frank starts to see another apparition, one that is killing the living. Before each victim is offed, a number appears burned into their head, visible only to Frank's second sight. Shaken from his stupor, Frank goes after the killer ghost before it kills anyone else. Watching this, as with watching Back to the Futurethere is a bittersweet feeling for the lost roles Michael J. Fox might have played, had it not been for his illness. He is a likeable leading man, and even though you know his Frank Bannister is dishonest at the start of the film, you still root for him - Fox has a gift for keeping the trauma of Bannister's past just below the surface.

The comedy dries up entirely as Frank and Lucy relive a grisly massacre.
While there is much comedy in The Frighteners, there are scenes that are genuinely disturbing as well, in particular a sequence in a hospital where Bannister and Lucy Lynskey (Trini Alvarado), a widow for whom Frank had agreed to be a medium, talking to her recently deceased husband Ray (Peter Dobson), relive a gut-wrenching murder spree through visions.

Like Heavenly Creatures, this seemed like a testing ground before stepping up to bigger projects, and I would imagine that New Line found themselves with a fair bit of confidence in Jackson’s directing ability after seeing this.

Score: 7/10

It seems The Frighteners isn't everybody's cup of tea. Time Out thought it was alright. Ebert really didn't like it much though.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Catch Me If You Can

Year: 2002
Running time: 141 minutes
Certificate: 12
Language: English
Screenplay: Jeff Nathanson
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, Nathalie Baye, Martin Sheen, Amy Adams, Jennifer Garner

Frank Abagnale Jr. faking the high life.
Just after the turn of the millennium, Steven Spielberg directed three films that marked the start of a kind of reinvigoration. It's not like he'd become a bad director or anything, but this trio of films seemed to kick-start a new period of inspiration for the director, and with last year's outstanding Bridge of Spies and a new version of The BFG not far away, it hasn't stopped yet. It's a bit like Bruce Springsteen and The Rising. And what’s more, he seems to be improving with age. Catch Me If You Can made up one of those three films, along with Minority Report and A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Lightest in tone of the three, it is a wonderful story, skilfully told, about a boy who runs away from home and forges more than $4 million worth of cheques while impersonating an airline pilot, a doctor and a lawyer. Brilliantly, this is based on a true-life account; that of Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio).

As with many Spielberg films, it is a broken family unit that sits at the heart of the story – it is the breakdown of young Franks’ parents’ marriage that is the catalyst for these events. In his youth Frank idolises his father Frank Sr. (Christopher Walken). When told his parents have split up and he must choose which one of them to live with, Frank makes a run for it and doesn't look back. As Frank forges a living he sparks the interest of F.B.I. agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) who invests years in the chase of cat and mouse.

It is this relationship that forms the core of the story; the two move from grudging respect to genuine friendship, with Frank making a point of calling Carl on Christmas Day just to be able to talk to someone who understands him.

Carl Hanratty, closing in on Frank.
Decap is on fine form, and of course, Tom Hanks is as good as ever, but what makes this such a joy is the way they work so well together; it’s almost like watching Rock Hudson and Doris Day. It goes without saying that Christopher Walken as down-on-his-luck Frank Sr. is great to watch – that man is truly a highlight in any film he’s in.

Another standout is John Williams' beautiful jazzy score; a departure for both Williams and Spielberg which really compliments the light and breezy feel that much of the film is saturated in. The stylish animation and jazzy music that form the opening credits are wonderful and really highlight that this is a change or tone for the director, falling somewhere in between the crowd-pleasers and the Oscar-baiting 'serious' ones.

It may be just a touch too long, but this can be forgiven when it’s so much fun to watch.

Score: 7/10

There's a lot of love out there for Catch Me If You Can, as evidenced by this review from Mark at Empire and this one from Stephen at the New York Times.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

12 Monkeys

Year: 1995
Running time: 129 minutes
Certificate: 15
Language: English
Screenplay: David Peoples, Janet Peoples
Director: Terry Gilliam
Starring: Bruce Willis, Madeline Stowe, Brad Pitt, Christopher Plummer, David Morse

Cole meets Jeffrey Goines, possibly setting the whole thing in motion.
It would seem, based on his cinematic output, Terry Gilliam the director is completely insane. But, luckily for us, he’s also a total genius, and 12 Monkeys is proof of both. Set in a bleak future where the surviving 1% of the human race has been driven underground by a deadly virus released in 1997, James Cole (Bruce Willis in a role which, along with The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, shows that he has acting talent far beyond what he’s often given credit for), is selected by a group of ruling scientists to go back in time to try to collect a sample to bring back, which they hope will help them reclaim the surface, long since the domain of wild animals. What follows is a fractured, mind-bending ride.

Cole is sent back too far at first, all the way to 1990, where he is promptly locked up in a mental institution. While here he meets the manically insane but oddly charismatic Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt, in a film highlight), an animal rights activist whose scientist father (Christopher Plummer) is experimenting on lab animals using the very virus that almost wipes out the species. He also meets psychiatrist Kathryn Railly (Madeline Stowe). Moving in time again to the original target of 1996 (via a quick detour to WWI, where he conveniently gets his photo taken), Cole kidnaps Railly in an attempt to prove that his insane story is true. They find their way into Goines' underground movement the Army of the 12 Monkeys, which Cole is convinced are responsible for the release of the mutated virus.

Battered in mind and body, Cole begins to doubt his sanity, wondering if he really is a time-traveller after all. In a great juxtaposition, Railly begins to find evidence showing that Cole's story really is true. As the audience, Gilliam keep us as off-balance as Cole with jarring framing devices and connections made across time periods, even referencing a scene from Hitchcock's Vertigo; the twisting plot really does defy expectation.

Cole and Railly, doomed to attempt to change the unchangeable.
The pieces come together during the course of the second half, when Cole and Railly try to change the course of the future, which turns out to be impossible, as Cole knew all along, although he still couldn't stop himself from trying; a pretty perfect distillation of what it means to be human. The climax takes place at an airport where a young Cole sees himself, living out a recurring dream that has haunted him for years. One of the best things about this film is the unconventional ending, which refuses to break the rules it has established - the timeline cannot be altered, and our hero ultimately fails and loses his life in the process. You get the feeling that the Hollywood machine would have gone down the Back to the Future route and had Cole saving the world. Thank the gods of cinema for Gilliam's artistic integrity.

However, when we see one of the scientists from the future on the plane at the end, we’re given a little glimmer of possibility that maybe he did enough to give a ray of hope to the future - they finally have their sample, and now maybe they can begin to rebuild.

Disorienting, striking and uncompromising, this is a lasting testament to the film-making genius of Terry Gilliam.

Score: 8/10

12 Monkeys is very well-liked out there, as shown by this review from Peter at Rolling Stone, but while she also has some positive things to say, this review from Katie offers a different perspective.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Lethal Weapon

Year: 1987 (LW), 1989 (LW2), 1992 (LW3), 1998 (LW4)
Running time: 110 minutes (LW), 114 minutes (LW2), 118 minutes (LW3), 127 minutes (LW4)
Certificate: 15
Language: English
Screenplay: Shane Black (LW), Jeffrey Boam (LW2, LW3), Robert Mark Kamen (LW3), Channing Gibson (LW4)
Director: Richard Donner
Starring: Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Darlene Love, Traci Wolfe, Steve Kahan, Mary Ellen Trainor, Damon Hines, Ebonie Smith, Gary Busey, Mitchell Ryan, Tom Atkins, Jackie Swanson, Joe Pesci, Joss Ackland, Derrick O'Connor, Patsy Kensit, Jenette Goldstein, Dean Norris, Rene Russo, Stuart Wilson, Chris Rock, Jet Li, Kim Chan, Eddy Ko, Calvin Jung

Riggs & Murtaugh: The beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Written by the brilliant Shane Black, the original Lethal Weapon is a bona fide classic and the original and best of the 'Buddy Cop' formula. It would have made a star of Mel Gibson if Mad Max hadn’t already done so. Gibson as the suicidal cop Martin Riggs grieving for his recently deceased wife is a joy to watch (I know how odd that sounds, but it is no less true for that), and seeing him teamed up with ‘too old for this shit’ Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) for the first time is to witness film history every bit as hallowed as the Ben Hur chariot race or Indy’s escape from the big rolling ball at the start of Raiders. The plot is incidental - the death of a young woman who happens to be the daughter of an old friend of Roger's leads to the reluctant partners taking on some ex-military drug lords, the best of which is easily nut-job mercenary Mr Joshua (Gary Busey). What really matters here is these two characters and the bond that grows between them, which helps Riggs to get past his lost wife. Murtaugh pretty much adopting Riggs into his family literally saves his life by giving him something new to live for. The chemistry these two have while on the screen together is a thing of beauty and, thanks to Black's script, there are many moments of bro-bonding through banter (choice line: "I was driving before you were itchin' your daddy's pants"). However, that said, the ending is ridiculous – ‘we’ve caught him now, so I just want to prove my balls are bigger than his by having a big manly fight’. Cheesus Extremis.

When we come back for the sequels, I’m afraid it’s a case of diminishing quality with each successive film (probably something to do with the fact that Shane Black didn’t write them, and only contributed to the story for part 2). That said, there are moments to like in all of them (even the fourth one). In Lethal Weapon 2 the two of them are taking on a group of racist South Africans committing crime behind the protection of DIP-LO-MAT-IC IMM-UNI-TY! Joss Ackland as chief evil-doer Arjen Rudd really hams the accent up to the extreme and is not as menacing as he probably thinks he is. Joe Pesci as Leo Getz, a witness Riggs and Murtaugh are assigned to protect is a welcome addition, as is seeing Riggs' new love interest Rika Van Den Haas (Patsy Kensit) and her ridiculous accent bite the dust. Perhaps that is a little harsh, but she wasn't a character, she was a plot device. Innocent secretary to the bad guys, a way to tie the South Africans to the death of Riggs' wife and chance to see a pair of tits. Bad, bad writing.

"I'm gonna die on the toilet aren't I?"
It may not be as good as the first one, but it still has some really great moments; take for example, the scene where Murtaugh creates a diversion in the South African embassy by trying to buy a ticket to help his 'oppressed brothers and sisters' with the line "Free South Africa you dumb son-of-a-bitch!" Or the fall from the hotel window into the pool, or smashing a car out of a shipping container full of cash. Of course none of them can top the genuinely classic bomb on the toilet moment, which is played perfectly for both laughs and poignancy. Black's original idea was for Riggs to die at the end, which certainly would have made the ending, and the film, more powerful, but Warner Bros weren't ready to kill off one of their prize franchises just yet.

Lethal Weapon 3 takes yet a further dip in quality, and has fewer memorable moments. This time round we're on the trail of corrupt cops dealing in armour-piercing, cop-killing arms. There are still laughs to be had, and there are still some pretty spectacular action set-pieces, as well as some emotional character stuff after Murtaugh kills a kid in a street shoot-out. It all feels a bit by-the-numbers however - a bit of a cash-grab. The villains are a definite step-down, with corrupt ex-cop Jack Travis (Stuart Wilson) making much less of an impact than Gary Busy or Joss Ackland. One thing the film does get right is the introduction or new character Lorna Cole (Rene Russo). Sure, when it boils down to it she's just another new love interest for Riggs, but unlike pointless plot device Patsy Kensit, Cole is good match for Riggs: she has strength, she takes no shit, she is every bit as badass as he is, and she can only help to reign in Riggs' wilder tendencies. She's a character in her own right and she compliments him rather than being there to simply drive plot forward.

New addition Lorna Cole is more than a match for Riggs.
Franchise finale Lethal Weapon 4 is on a par with 3, perhaps even slightly worse. This time
there are babies, because hey, something's gotta happen, right? Lorna and Riggs are expecting, as is Murtaugh's eldest daughter Rianne (Traci Wolfe), only Roger doesn't know who the father is yet. Despite treating Leo like shit and acting like they hate him, they still seem to hang out with him quite a lot, which is a bit weird, but hey, he's funny so why not? (A lot of stuff about this franchise doesn't make much sense when you think about it.) He's joined by additional comic relief in the shape of Detective Lee Butters (Chris Rock). The writing is lazier than it's ever been before on the franchise in this fourth part - much of Butters' lines and Rock's delivery is like he's delivering a stand-up routine - undeniably funny, but doesn't help with the old suspension of disbelief. There is, however, a nice touch when it's Riggs who finally begins to feel 'too old for this shit', which makes for one of those great character moments Gibson and Glover do so well - thousands of shitty rom-coms would kill for this kind of long-running chemistry.

They think they have him. They really, really don't.
The case they're trying to crack this time is hideously complex - a group of Triads are importing slaves to work on a counterfeiting operation to buy four imprisoned crime lords back from a corrupt general. Only, far more elaborate. Luckily, the glowering presence of super badass Jet Li as nasty Triad Wah Sing Ku allows you to put much of that to one side and instead focus on a once-more formidable foe after part 3's damp squib. In terms of both action, comedy and chemistry between the two leads the later films are up there with the first two, but they are sorely lacking in some way it is hard to define, but might be put down to nothing more than a lack of Shane Black. It’s just painful to see these two characters become nothing more than parodies of their once-great selves. In particular, it is the final line of part 4, with the entire cast saying "We’re family!" to the camera that really makes me cringe.

On the whole, well loved, but I'm glad the once mooted part 5 never materialised, allowing Riggs and Murtaugh to go out with what little dignity they had left.

Score:
Lethal Weapon: 8/10
Lethal Weapon 2: 7/10
Lethal Weapon 3: 6/10
Lethal Weapon 4: 6/10

It seems my thoughts on this patchy but enjoyable franchise are largely shared by others - see these reviews of Lethal Weapon from Roger Ebert, Lethal Weapon 2 from Guy at Den of Geek, Lethal Weapon 3 from Brian at Variety and Lethal Weapon 4 from Josh.