Dave and Rachel's movie reviews.


Tuesday, October 3, 2017


Year: 2007
Running time: 127 minutes
Certificate: PG
Language: English
Screenplay: Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Starring: Claire Danes, Charlie Cox, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert De Niro, Mark Strong, Jason Flemyng, Kate Magowan, Sienna Miller, Melanie Hill, Ricky Gervais, Dexter Fletcher, David Kelly, Ben Barnes, Henry Cavill, Nathaniel Parker, Peter O'Toole, Mark Heap, Rupert Everett, David Walliams, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Adam Buxton, Sarah Alexander, Joanna Scanlan, Jake Curran, Mark Williams, Struan Rodger, Olivia Grant, Ian McKellen (voice)

Yvaine, wondering what the hell just happened.
Based on Neil Gaiman's novel / graphic novel, Stardust at first glance could be easy to write off as a Lord of the Rings / Harry Potter fantasy adaptation bandwagon jumper. In fact, it’s significantly different to both, being more whimsical and funnier. The English village of Wall appears to be your average rural village in the middle of nowhere. But the wall the village is named after hides a secret behind its ordinary-looking stone. It serves as a barrier / gateway to Stormhold, a fantastical kingdom not found on any map, filled with magic, witches, sky pirates and murderous princes. A young man named Dunstan Thorne (Ben Barnes) fools the elderly gatekeeper (David Kelly) and escapes for a night beyond the wall where, for want of a better phrase, he gets lucky with a beautiful woman (Kate Magowan). Some time later, a baby boy is left outside his door.

When the baby has grown into a naïve young man named Tristan (Charlie Cox), to prove his love to local girl Victoria (Sienna Miller), much to the annoyance of her suitor Humphrey (Henry Cavill), he proposes to recover a fallen star and bring it back to her. This sets him on a quest which will take him over the wall, but not before his father (Nathaniel Parker) reveals to him the nature of his parentage.

He's not the only one on a quest. The sons of the king (Peter O'Toole) are in a deadly race to retrieve an heirloom that will give them the kingdom, as well as trying to stay alive long enough to claim it. This soon focuses on generally honourable Primus (Jason Flemyng) and the ambitious moral-vacuum Septimus (Mark Strong). The ghosts of the deceased brothers wait and watch to see who will emerge the victor. Elsewhere a trio of ancient witches, desperate to regain their youth which, conveniently, requires the heart of a star, despatch Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) to hunt for and retrieve said star.

First on the scene is Tristan, who finds, to his great surprise, the fallen star has taken the form of a woman named Yvaine (Claire Danes), and she is non too impressed to learn of Tristan's plan to bring her back to Victoria. The stage is set for a chase across Stormhold for love, for power and for youth.

Lamia, about to get witchy.
There is much to delight here. The scenery is beautiful and beautifully shot, and the energetic score is a perfect fit for the type of fast-paced fantasy storytelling from director Matthew Vaughn on show. The characters are a major reason why this film shines so much, which is due largely to Gaiman's novel and the adaptation by Vaughn and Jane Goldman. The casting is a starry as is gets (pun intended): Michelle Pfeiffer channels a more sinister and sexier take on Bette Midlers' witch in Hocus Pocus, Robert de Niro is surprisingly funny and obviously having a ball as Captain Shakespeare, a camp skyship captain with a ruthless reputation to uphold. The scene featuring the crew of Shakespeare's airship fighting is filmed as though it is a dance and is an absolute ball. Ricky Gervais' Ferdy the Fence lets the side down a bit, as he basically plays to type, but he’s still pretty funny.

The absolute star, both literally and figuratively however, is the magnificent Claire Danes as the fallen star with a bad attitude. She is marvellous and in the later scenes when she’s falling for Tristan and beginning to shine you are utterly convinced that she is being completely bowled over by love. Her smile is infectious.

The climax takes place in the witches' palatial home, as all the players left in the game converge and struggle for supremacy. Septimus comes off poorly here, and I suspect Vaughn was really pushing the limits of the PG certificate, as he gets a really rather grim death scene. It's probably not much of a spoiler to confirm that love prevails, but there is an interesting decision to make the ending different to the rather melancholy ending to the source material. This is a prime example for me of where sometimes when adapting books into films it is sometimes advisable to make changes. Gaiman's ending is bittersweet and suits the tone of his story perfectly, while the movie benefits massively from the decision to lighten the end. Both endings fit their particular medium, and either would have been made lesser if they'd had the other one.

Much better than you may have been led to believe.

Score: 8/10

It would seem that I'm out here pretty much alone in my high opinion of Stardust, the general consensus being generally more middling like these reviews from Roger Ebert and Dan at Empire.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017


Year: 1993
Running time: 94 minutes
Certificate: 18
Languages: Spanish, English
Screenplay: Guillermo del Toro
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Frederico Luppi, Ron Perlman, Claudio Brook, Tamara Shanath, Margarita Isabel, Mario Iván Martinez

Despite its failings, Cronos has its fair share of beautifully-framed shots.
Being the debut work of director Guillermo Del Toro, Cronos makes interesting viewing as it allows you to see a man of astonishing talent developing his craft. While overall it’s not up there with his later high-water marks, it isn't without moments of greatness.

In the 1500s, an alchemist (Mario Iván Martinez) creates a mysterious device that bestows eternal life on the person it attaches itself to, but the price to pay is a craving for blood. This is a pretty cool take on the vampire movie, and when we find out that the alchemist is still alive in the present day (that is, until his building collapses on him, staking him through the heart), we get some idea of the power of this device. It finds its way in to the hands of elderly antiques dealer Jesus Gris (Frederico Luppi) who lives with his granddaughter Aurora (Tamara Shanath).

Jesus finds it harder and harder to resist.
A dying millionaire De la Guardia (Claudio Brook) learns of the device and what it can do and sends his nephew Angel (Ron Perlman) to retrieve it. That's the basic set up, but Cronos is more concerned with the idea of immortality and the affect it has on the human psyche. It does fall short of its lofty premise, relying too much on B-movie horror effects in the final third, which is at odds with the stylistic approach that the first half of the film took.

Del Toro's stamp is all over it, despite it being his debut, and while it doesn't quite work, it's interesting to see flashes of the astonishing director he'd become, and it contains striking imagery, for example one scene at night where Jesus is struck by a raging thirst and is crouched in front of a blue refrigerator light gulping water, while almost all around him is pitch black, and, perhaps even more striking, bright red blood on the floor of a gleaming bathroom.

Beautiful (at times), bizarre, but only really for Del Toro completists.

Score: 5/10

It seems Cronos is thought of more highly by others, if these reviews by Richard at the Washington Post and Matt at Collider are anything to go by.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017


Year: 2014
Running time: 107 minutes
Certificate: 15
Language: English
Screenplay: Damien Chazelle
Director: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist, Austin Stowell, Nate Lang

Fletcher, looking closely for the smallest mistake to punish.
There is a school of thought that says to be a genius at anything requires mere practice. 10,000 hours of relentless, focused practice. Not having spent that long doing anything, and not being a genius, I'm not really in any position to comment, but I would have thought that a natural aptitude for whatever it is you're practising is probably required as well. Whiplash is a story of Andrew (Miles Teller), a young jazz drummer at the Schaffer Conservatory of Music, a music school in New York for the very best up-and-comers. Andrew has both a natural aptitude for drumming and the determined will to work at it until he's one of the greats.

Andrew gets the attention of Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), who picks him for the school's jazz band. Fletcher is a monster, relentless in his pressure to push his students to greatness, belittling then for even the smallest mistakes - he is genuinely outraged when the music isn't completely flawless. Simmons skirts the edges of caricature, but never crosses over, becoming instead a towering presence, terrifyingly single-minded in his attempts to mould greatness.

Andrew is determined enough to respond to Fletcher's goading and pushes himself harder and harder. Neither of these two characters are particularly likable - Andrew sees everything other than practise as an unwelcome distraction, from girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist) to dinner guests, whom he sees as mediocre nobodies to regard with only contempt. It's when these two are together, Andrew behind the drum kit, Fletcher ready to vent his spleen at any imperfection, that Whiplash is truly terrific. The tension between them, winding higher and higher, makes for glorious viewing.

Just the end of another day of practice.
The two of them clash against yet feed off each other, Andrew slowly making his way to his goal of being world class, but it doesn't (can't) last. Desperately rushing to get to a performance in a hire car, Andrew gets into an accident. Dazed and bleeding, he insists on playing. When he can't, the tension finally boils over, leading Andrew to attack Fletcher, causing the end of his studies.

After the air has cleared, following Fletcher losing his job due to his abusive teaching methods, the two appear to be on slightly better terms, but it just sets the scene for the blistering finale. Fletcher, guessing correctly the Andrew had testified against him, sets him up to destroy any hope of a career, but it is here you finally begin to route for Andrew. Refusing to let his tormentor/mentor get the better of him, the performance at the climax focuses on just the two of them, ignoring almost everything else, including a packed concert hall, becoming as intimate as a sex scene. Teller is utterly convincing in his performance, appearing to play the drums as well as anyone in the world, and Simmons, conducting with a rapturous intensity, conveys everything with his eyes - beaten in this game of one-upmanship, he is nevertheless delighted by the extraordinary talent his excessive methods have produced.

The film doesn't appear to judge Fletcher's methods; it leaves it for you to decide if it was worth it, but there is no doubt in the minds of both Andrew and Fletcher - it was worth every last drop of blood.

Just mesmerising to watch.

Score: 9/10

Praise is overflowing for Whiplash, as shown in these reviews from Robbie at the Telegraph and Geoffrey at the Independent.

Monday, July 10, 2017

True Lies

Year: 1994
Running time: 141 minutes
Certificate: 15
Language: English
Screenplay: Claude Zidi, Simon Michaël, Didier Kaminka, James Cameron
Director: James Cameron
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Arnold, Bill Paxton, Tia Carrere, Art Malik, Eliza Dushku, Grant Heslov, Charlton Heston

The movie in one picture: balancing family with world-saving with the
help of astonishing technical effects.
Here’s a bit of pub quiz trivia – True Lies was the first film ever to cost more than $100 million to make. Nowadays, there’s not a blockbuster around that doesn’t cost nearly twice that; indeed, a mere 3 years later saw Titanic, also directed by James Cameron, become the first film to cost more than $200 million. Not such a big deal now, but back then it was mind-boggling. And not a single cent was wasted – the whole thing looks sublime. I know it’s technically violence and as such should be pretty ugly, but some shots – jets flying over turquoise waters, a road bridge being detonated around a moving truck – make action cinema a bona fide art form.

Cameron's script is fairly closely based on the 1991 French film La Totale! So much so the original three writers are given screenplay credits. Harry Tasker (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a super spy, saving the world (or on off days, just America) with his partner Gib (Tom Arnold). However, Harry has another life; married to Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis), with daughter Dana (Eliza Dushku). As far as they know, Harry is a computer salesman who doesn't go on globetrotting adventures to save the world, but merely goes to sales expos with other likeminded dullards. True Lies is about what happens when those two worlds of Harry's, separate for so long, collide.

On the trail of a deal to sell some stolen nuclear weapons to a terrorist group called Crimson Jihad, led by Salim Abu Aziz (Art Malik, who, to be honest, is slumming it a bit here in a role he's far too good for), Harry discovers that Helen is having an affair. Or at least he thinks he does. Truth is, Helen is a little bored of her life and responds to the advances of sleazy car salesman Simon (Bill Paxton) who (ironic coincidence klaxon!) pretends to be a spy to sleep with women.

Harry goes undercover to get to know the man trying to break up his marriage.
What the film does at this point is something that is quite a big risk for a tent-pole summer blockbuster. The first act has been chockfull of remarkable action set pieces, including toilet-set shoot-outs and horse-motorbike chases up to the tops of skyscrapers. Cameron conceives of and directs action like nobody else out there, and pushing up the comedy in the action scenes with the able help of Arnold, who fits the comedy sidekick role like a glove, makes for enjoyably thrilling set pieces. When Harry discovers what Helen is doing ("Welcome to the club!" replies a jaded Gib in reply to Harry's heartbreak), the second act becomes a 40 minute swerve away from the main plot, as Harry pulls helicopters, operatives, phone taps and all sorts of government resources to devote to getting to the bottom of Helen's 'affair'.

On the pretext of Simon's spy persona, Harry brings them both in for interrogation, scaring Simon into pissing himself and deciding to give Helen a little of the excitement she's been craving. By making her impersonate a prostitute and strip for what she thinks is a total stranger, but is in fact Harry. Unsurprisingly, True Lies came in for some stick here, and when it's set out like that, it isn't hard to see why. No doubt Harry loses much audience sympathy when he puts Helen through this ordeal just to ease his own anxious heart. Watching as a 15 year old at the time, I was entirely oblivious to the darker undercurrents of the comedy, and I wonder what that says about social attitudes towards abuse and harassment. But, at the risk of offering an unpopular opinion, I think there is a little more to it than that.

Consider Ellen Ripley, or Sarah Conner. Towering icons of female strength in action movies. This is James Cameron. I think Cameron knows full well what he's dealing with here, and I don't think it's fair to label a writer misogynistic because he writes a character who does some questionable things. True Lies is a screwball comedy, a farce set within a James Bond movie. Limits of behaviour (both in terms of what Harry puts Helen through and the misuse of resources) are different to a real world scenario, and if the comedy lens through which it is presented makes you uncomfortable, I think that's the point. Action films in general, and James Bond movies in particular, in terms of the way they treat and objectify women, should make you uncomfortable.

One of the sexiest scenes ever? A grossly misogynistic tonal error? Or both?
Much of the characterisation, seemingly so shallow on the surface, has hints of deeper feelings and redemptive qualities. Gib, such a misogynist on the surface, pulls Harry up short at one point, pointing out that of course Helen was going to feel unsatisfied in a marriage where she spends much of her time alone. Salim shows signs of being more than a depthless terrorist caricature during his speech that makes it clear Cameron is well aware that America's foreign policy has a large part to play in the creation of terrorist groups. The relief on Harry's face when, under interrogation, Helen declares that yes, she still loves her husband, "...have always loved him. I will always love him", while not excusing his actions, do explain them; Harry is a manchild used to getting everything he wants suddenly having to confront the real possibility of losing, through his own neglect, that which is most precious to him. Misusing government resources is probably quite low on the list of things he'd be willing to do to prevent that.

But it is most obvious with Helen. Cameron makes True Lies as much about her journey from bored, meek housewife to a pillar of strength remembering to make decisions for herself as it is about Arnie saving the world. Curtis deserves equal billing. Manipulated by Simon, frightened by an interrogation under harsh lights by distorted voices, she lays out exactly why she did what she did, how it is she's feeling this way and rather than sidelining these feelings, she brings Harry, Gib and, by extension the audience, around to her point of view. Yes, there is sexism in True Lies, but there are enough moments to make it clear that Cameron is on Helen's side, and makes sure that after this transformation, she is the equal of her male counterparts, commanding more respect than them.

Apparently, the bridge is out.
I almost feel disappointed when the main plot kicks the door in and Harry and Helen get taken prisoner, but this is James Cameron, so I don’t feel like that for long. The final act of the movie is relentless in its technical brilliance - the shot of Helen being lifted to safety from the sunroof of a limo by Harry, who is dangling from a helicopter, just as it flies off a destroyed bridge is the movie's money shot. That whole sequence is astonishing even by today’s standards and is proof that Cameron is the master of action direction and photography, who in my opinion, not even John Woo can top.

Genuinely funny comedy peppers the film throughout, delivered with superb timing, even by the Austrian Oak himself. Not counting his recent career renaissance where in lower key roles he is (whisper it) actually quite a good actor, the big man was never better than when he was being directed by Cameron. Nobody is terrible (in fact, both Arnold and Paxton are both great in smaller roles), but this is definitely the Schwarzenegger and Curtis show, and the two of them shine.

A great deal of fun, unless I'm missing the point and Cameron really is a woman-hating bastard.

Score: 8/10

There are a fair few reviews out there that judge True Lies more harshly, particularly the middle section, and it's hard to argue - this review from Steven at Grantland finds it very much a product of its time, falling short under modern day sensibilities. Contrasting that is a review from Caryn at the New York Times. Both perspectives have value and I'll leave it to you to decide where you sit.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Wizard of Oz / Return to Oz

Year: 1939 (Wizard), 1985 (Return)
Running time: 102 minutes (Wizard), 113 minutes (Return)
Certificate: U (Wizard), PG (Return)
Language: English
Screenplay: Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, Edgar Allan Woolf (Wizard), Walter Murch, Gill Dennis (Return)
Director: Victor Fleming (Wizard), Walter Murch (Return)
Starring: Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Billie Burke, Margaret Hamilton, Charley Grapewin, Clara Blandick, Fairuza Balk, Nicol Williamson, Jean Marsh, Piper Laurie, Matt Clark, Sean Barrett (voice), Denise Bryer (voice), Brian Henson (voice), Lyle Conway (voice), Emma Ridley, Justin Case, Pons Maar

Dorothy and friends are having second thoughts about visiting the wizard.
An undeniable classic, The Wizard of Oz is a delight to experience for the 1st or 41st time. Brimming over with character, colour and weirdness, it entertains and confounds in equal measure.

Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) is a young girl living on a Kansas farm who dreams of seeing the big wide world. Her wish is granted when a tornado rips through her farm and knocks her unconscious. She comes to in the fantastical land of Oz, where she embarks on a quest to get back home, befriending Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), Tin Man (Jack Haley) and Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) on the way to ask the mysterious Wizard of Oz (Frank Morgan) to grant her wish. All the while, the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) is determined to destroy her.

That extremely brief plot synopsis was probably entirely pointless, since pretty much everybody is familiar with the story, whether they've actually seen it or not. The Wizard of Oz is one of those beautiful examples, like Bambi, Toy Story or Spirited Away (all of which tap similar thematic material as The Wizard of Oz, being childhood fears of finding yourself alone, having to fend for yourself, forced to assume responsibility before you're ready), of a children's film that is actually amongst the best films ever made despite the limitations involved with ensuring suitability for a younger target audience. While it taps some primal childhood fears about losing the safety net of your family, it also hits a nostalgic sweet spot for adults, allowing them to reminisce about how they managed to negotiate the choppy waters of growing up.

To be fair, Dorothy has just dropped a house on her sister...
Judy Garland's wistful delivery of Over the Rainbow is mesmerising and remains the best version by a comfortable margin, Eva Cassidy notwithstanding. The switch from black and white (or sepia, depending on the version you're watching) to full on Technicolour is still dazzling even now; goodness knows how effective it would have been in 1939, when a lot of films were still being released in black and white.

There are imperfections. Some of the songs, particularly the overlong introduction to the munchkins and If I Were King of the Forest are pretty dated. Of course, the signature tunes are all still brilliant, and just because a couple of them are slightly off it doesn’t detract much from the overall quality of the film. The effects are what you might expect from the time, but they somehow manage only to add to the charm in a way that seamless CGI wouldn't.
Dorothy's collection of freaky new friends.
46 years later comes Disney's sequel, Return to Oz. Cleaving much closer to the spirit of L. Frank Baum's Oz novels, it is an entirely different beast. It does, however, manage to defy all expectations by being a glorious, horrifying childhood headfuck. While The Wizard of Oz is a fantasyland dreamt up by an unconscious Dorothy, Return to Oz is an escape from an asylum and electro-shock therapy, as because of all her talk of munchkins, Dorothy's family have had her committed. Dorothy is played by a young Fairuza Balk, who nails the look and mannerisms of a haunted, wide-eyed young girl perfectly.

Oz is no longer a Technicolour marvel, instead it's a little post-apocalyptic, where the rightful king Scarecrow (Justin Case. Seriously, that is his name) and his subjects have been usurped by the sinister Nome King (Nicol Williamson). Gangs of roaming creatures called the wheelies (oh-my-god-what-the-hell-are-the-wheelies-get-them-off-the-screen-they’re-freaking-me-out) harass Dorothy in a scary, nightmarish world.

Dorothy tries not to get freaked out by the Nome King.
Even here, she makes a few friends - Tic-Tok (voiced by Sean Barratt, performed by someone inside the suit walking on their hands!) is a mechanical man and Jack Pumpkinhead (voiced by Brian Henson) is literally a collection of sticks with a pumpkin for a head. Before taking on the Nome King, Dorothy must best Princess Mombi (Jean Marsh), a woman so obsessed with retaining her youth she's taken to stealing the heads of young women and changing them over to suit her mood like some kind of macabre Worzel Gummidge.

So much of this film defies logical expectation and comes on like some kind of weird fever-dream it really shouldn't work at all, but, scaring young kids half to death aside, it really does. It shares stylistic DNA with Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, but for some reason isn't as readily remembered.

What we have then is a wonderful film fully deserving of its classic status and a forgotten fever-dream sequel that deserves reappraisal.

The Wizard of Oz: 8/10
Return to Oz: 7/10

You'll be unsurprised to hear that the original is beloved by all, evidenced best in this Roger Ebert review. I was pleasantly surprised by the love the sequel has out there, as shown in this review by Louisa at Den of Geek.

Monday, May 1, 2017


Year: 1992
Running time: 90 minutes
Certificate: U
Language: English
Screenplay: Ron Clements, John Musker, Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio
Directors: Ron Clements, John Musker
Starring (voices): Scott Weinger, Linda Larkin, Robin Williams, Jonathan Freeman, Frank Welker, Gilbert Gottfried, Douglas Seale 

Princess Jasmine's slightly sexualised character design did very strange things
to my 12-year-old self...just as I was getting over Jessica Rabbit.
What's the best Disney Classic ever? For my money, Aladdin has a decent chance at claiming the title. Disney was riding high on its Clements/Musker/Menken-led resurgence, and following huge hits The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin smashed it out of the park (it is generally thought that the following year The Lion King hit a creative peak even higher than Aladdin, but I can't find myself agreeing).

Agrabah street rat Aladdin (Scott Weinger) ekes out an existence by stealing food and living hand-to-mouth with his only friend, a little monkey called Abu (Frank Welker). Sultan's daughter Princess Jasmine (Linda Larkin) feels trapped by the luxury of the palace and resents being forced to choose a husband from a line of suitors just because the law dictates that she must. Jafar (Jonathan Freeman), scheming vizier and the top advisor to the sultan (Douglas Seale), makes secret plans with his parrot Iago (Gilbert Gottfried) to retrieve a magic lamp from the mysterious Cave of Wonders (Frank Welker). Jasmine runs away and meets Aladdin in the Agrabah marketplace, where they hit it off (naturally). Jafar learns that Aladdin is the only one who can enter the cave and retrieve the lamp and sets some sinister plans in motion.

Betrayed by Jafar, but, thanks to the light-fingered Abu, betraying him in turn, Aladdin finds himself stuck in the cave with the lamp. Noticing it's dull, he rubs it to give it a little shine and the rest is Disney history...

A little on the nose, but following the show-stopping 'Friend Like Me', it's hard
not to break into spontaneous applause.
The animation is of the superbly-drawn quality that is typical of early '90s Disney, with some use of computer generated imagery adding some additional layers, barely hinting at the glorious CG animation the following years would bring. The well-trodden story is given a wonderful freshness and is funny as hell (even without the Genie (Robin Williams), Abu and Iago provide plenty of laughs), emotional, scary (at times, Jafar is truly frightening), with just the right amount of cheese. Some of the very best songs in Disney's hugely impressive musical canon. It appeals to adults and kids alike. There's even a little hidden sexual innuendo (“Would you like to go for a ride?”).

To be fair, there are a great many Disney classics with all those things, but Aladdin has an extra ingredient to raise it above all others: Robin Williams as the Genie. When the character is on screen there are so many quick-fire jokes and impressions that you can barely catch them all. I heard a story once that Williams caused a huge headache for Disney by ad-libbing many of his lines, causing much of the initial work to be scrapped and reanimated from scratch. This, according the story, led to Williams not being paid for his work, presumably due to the extra cost of redrawing. Then when the film hit massive pay-dirt, the corporation gave him a Picasso for his trouble. Whether any of this is true, I cannot tell you for certain, but the Genie does have a humour that is distinctly Williams-like that nobody else could have delivered with anywhere near the same effectiveness. He even looks like him. Aladdin is great from start to finish, but when Williams has the mic it soars above every single one of its peers.

True genius, and, in my opinion, possibly Disney's best ever.

Score: 9/10

Other reviews are also full of high praise, although generally place Aladdin slightly lower in the pecking order, below The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast - see this review from Janet at the New York Times. There is also some fascinating information on the making of Aladdin in this review from Olly at Empire, which no doubt has more truth to it than the story I described hearing above.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Pulp Fiction

Year: 1994
Running time: 154 minutes
Certificate: 18
Language: English
Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Bruce Willis, Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer, Ving Rhames, Eric Stoltz, Rosanna Arquette, Christopher Walken, Maria de Medeiros, Harvey Keitel

Jules and Vincent get to work.
Still recognised as Tarantino’s high water mark, Pulp Fiction is a brilliantly crafted piece of writing and directing. Telling three separate stories in a jumbled timeline and with overlapping characters, this could easily have been a bit of a mess, but in QT’s assured hands the pieces fit together perfectly.

Set in LA, we open with a brief intro spent with Pumpkin (Tim Roth) and Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer), a couple in love discussing giving up robbing liquor stores and moving onto restaurants. (Unsurprisingly, 'Pumpkin' and 'Honey Bunny' are their pet names for each other, rather than their actual character's names. We eventually learn that Honey Bunny's real name is Yolanda, while Pumpkin is referred to either as Pumpkin or Ringo, neither of which appear to be his real name.) Leaving Pumpkin and Honey Bunny behind for now, we're introduced to a couple of two-bit hoods Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (John Travolta), who while on a job to murder an apartment full of young men on behalf of their employer, gang boss Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), spend time bickering over the finer points of extra marital foot massages as excuses for throwing people out of windows. This serves as another extended intro, and the first of the three stories starts proper as Vincent takes Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman), wife of Marsellus, out for dinner, on Marsellus's order.

Later, for the second story, following a brief appearance earlier on, we spend some more time with Butch (Bruce Willis), a boxer nearing the end of his career having failed to set the world alight, being paid to throw a fight for Wallace. When he double-crosses the gangster and runs with the money, an ill-advised trip back to his apartment to pick up a treasured watch leads to some, to put it mildly, unexpected twists and turns. For the third and final story we catch up with Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, who happen to be robbing a restaurant that Vincent and Jules are eating in following a particularly rough morning. Characters pop in and out of each other's stories and by the end you can see how the pieces fit together.

Mia Wallace, comfortably sharing a silence with Vincent.
The film is an absolute masterstroke of casting; the part of Vincent Vega single-handedly saved the career of John Travolta, and the inspired casting choices run right through the film even down to the minor characters, such as Christopher Walken’s glorious five minute monologue as Captain Koons, telling a young Butch (Chandler Lindauer) the history of the watch that would come to mean so much to him. The only blip here is Tarantino’s decision to cast himself as Jimmie, Jules' associate who reacts badly to being put on the spot, but it doesn’t detract from the otherwise tremendous acting, which is helped along greatly by the inspired dialogue. Tarantino’s writing has a recognisable and unique style all its own, appearing to sound naturalistic on first listen but shown to be meticulously crafted when studied in any depth.

The soundtrack choices are also perfectly judged and another Tarantino trademark – for two great examples see the long, one-take, dialogue-free shot in Jack Rabbit Slims as Vincent stumbles around in search of a table or the scene set to Girl, You’ll be a Woman Soon in which Mia Wallace loses herself in the music before overdosing.

Equal parts violence, comedy and thrilling tension, Pulp Fiction confirms what Reservoir Dogs suggested: that Tarantino was a man born to write and direct movies.

Score: 9/10

Peter at the Guardian is also a fan, but Sam at the New Statesman appears to assume that writing characters that use racist or other offensive terms means the writer is racist, which is a problem that has beset Tarantino throughout much of his career.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Demolition Man

Year: 1993
Running time: 115 minutes
Certificate: 15
Language: English
Screenplay: Daniel Waters, Robert Reneau, Peter M. Lenkov
Director: Marco Brambilla
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Wesley Snipes, Sandra Bullock, Nigel Hawthorne, Benjamin Bratt, Bob Gunton, Glenn Shadix, Denis Leary, Bill Cobbs 

Hero pose #28
Ah, cheesy action movies from yesteryear, how we love you. Opening in the ‘future’ of 1996, depicting a world gone wild where crime rules, Demolition Man is always good for a laugh. Hero cop Jon Spartan (Sylvester Stallone, working at the peak of his comedy-action powers) is nicknamed 'The Demolition Man' due to the building-wrecking fallout of his particular type of police work. To be fair to Spartan, however, he does tend to go after the most psychopathic of villains - "Send a maniac to catch a maniac," goes the repeated refrain. But what good is a destructive, wise-cracking hero cop without a suitably barmy nemesis? Enter Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes), the hyperactive, unstable foil for Spartan, evil yet somewhat difficult to take seriously with ridiculous peroxide blonde hair.

During an altercation, Spartan gets framed for the deaths of a busload of civilians, and he and Phoenix get sent down together. In the future of the mid-nineties, however, a prison term is served while cryogenically frozen, undergoing rehabilitation in the form of subliminal suggestion. After 36 years in the freezer, Phoenix is mysteriously set loose and proceeds to cause murderous havoc. In 2032, it seems the world has managed to completely reorganise itself into a non-violent utopia, and as such the modern day police department is entirely unequipped to deal with Phoenix.

Simon Phoenix, a psychopathic kid in a non-violent candy shop.
Lenina Huxley (Sandra Bullock), love interest (nobody ever said a 90s action movie was going to be original) and a cop bored with her perfect world and obsessed with the violence-filled past becomes involved with a hair-brained scheme to recapture Phoenix - defrost Spartan and send him after him. Spartan's pursuit of Phoenix reveals the mystery behind Phoenix's escape as well as the dirty underbelly hiding below the new Utopia's peaceful surface, while indulging in several fun action set-pieces on the way.

Always an enjoyable watch, but the cracking concept, the competent (if not spectacular) action cinematography, Stallone and Bullock are all upstaged by the explosive turn from Wesley Snipes as the cold-blooded mass murderer with his own line in comedy one-liners and highly suspect style choices.

Decent set-pieces and lots of foul-mouthed fun make for a great, if rather silly, whole.

Score: 7/10

There's more to Demolition Man than meets the eye - take a look at these re-appraisals from Ryan at Den of Geek and Matt at The A.V. Club.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Ocean's Eleven

Year: 1960 (Original), 2001 (Remake), 2004 (Twelve), 2007 (Thirteen)
Running time: 127 minutes (Original), 116 minutes (Remake), 125 minutes (Twelve), 122 minutes (Thirteen)
Certificate: PG (Original, Thirteen), 12 (Remake, Twelve)
Language: English
Screenplay: Harry Brown, Charles Lederer (Original, Remake), Ted Griffin (Remake), George Nolfi (Twelve), Brian Koppelman, David Levian (Thirteen)
Director: Lewis Milestone (Original), Steven Soderbergh (Remake, Twelve, Thirteen)
Starring: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, Angie Dickinson, Richard Conte, Cesar Romero, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts, Andy Garcia, Bernie Mac, Casey Affleck, Scot Caan, Carl Reiner, Don Cheadle, Elliott Gould, Shaobo Qin, Eddie Jemison, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Vincent Cassel, Albert Finney, Robbie Coltrane, Al Pacino, Ellen Barkin

Danny and co. begin to suspect something has gone very, very wrong.
The original Ocean’s Eleven isn't counted among the best movies to come out of Hollywood. As far as I know it's not even counted among the best of the Rat Pack. Without the remake I doubt many would remember it, and I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have heard of it. As a showcase for the effortless cool of the Rat Pack, it mostly works, with Danny Ocean (Frank Sinatra) bringing together some wartime buddies to rob five Las Vegas casinos in one night. It's enjoyable enough with the gang cracking wise and having a jolly good time in their escapades. It is, unfortunately, really rather forgettable. It turned out that Frankie & co. tried just a little too hard to be effortless.

Steven Soderbergh's remake, on the other hand, employed the coolest cast Hollywood had to offer, having the role of Danny Ocean taken over by George Clooney and bringing along a pile of talent to make up his Eleven. Honestly, Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. had style to spare, but Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts, Casey Affleck, Bernie Mac, Elliott Gould...and more. It's got to be one of the most stellar casts that's ever been assembled for a single film. Soderbergh makes the most complex of camera tricks seem as simple as breathing – just watching it while paying attention to camera placement is a revelation. Frankly, it did everything the original Rat Pack vehicle was supposed to do.

Taking a moment to enjoy their success.
So, we have a rare thing here; a remake that is easily better than the original film it's remaking. The only possible exceptions are Don Cheadle’s worse-than-Dick-van-Dyke’s accent as explosives expert Basher Tarr (although it's so bad, it has a weird kind of charm all its own) and the ending – the Rat Pack don’t get away with it in a great finale (their faces as their loot is being cremated is splendid), but George’s bunch get away free as birds minus a minor jail sentence. Even there though, while the original is funny, the remake's ending is more satisfying. One thing both films fall down on is that women are horribly underserved - Angie Dickinson and Julia Roberts both do what they can in the role of Danny's wife, and while Roberts does have a little more to do, both are almost the only female characters and both are side-lined. Not entirely unexpected for a film released in 1960 perhaps, but in the intervening 41 years you'd think that could have been something they'd have fixed. The sequels barely improve matters, adding little more than Catherine Zeta-Jones. Luckily Ocean's Eight, coming soon, looks set to restore balance.

Still cool, no matter how poor the sequel.
And then we have the curse of all successful Hollywood movies – the unnecessary sequel. Ocean’s Twelve is disappointing and, like the original, it tries too hard to look like it’s not trying at all. The plot is far more complicated, and frankly, I don’t want to be confused, I want to be entertained. Stylistically, it hits all the right beats - the dialogue is generally sharp and funny, and Soderbergh's cinematic flair is undimmed. The big difference is, in the original (that is the remake of the original), as a viewer I always felt like I was on Danny Ocean’s side, almost like I was one of the Eleven. Not so in the follow-up. I'm left in the dark as to what is actually happening until near the end; I feel like I've been kept out of the loop, like I was betrayed; hell, like I was one of the bad guys, and it’s rude to exclude me from the club. It was obviously a lot of fun to make, but nowhere near as much fun to watch. And Tess Ocean (Julia Roberts) impersonating Julia Roberts because – here’s the funny part – she looks just like the real Julia Roberts? Does not work. Not even a little bit. I'm not sure I've ever groaned as loudly in a place in a film where I was supposed to laugh.

Danny sizes up his latest mark.
But then, something miraculous. Well, sort of. Ocean's Thirteen remembers why the original (remake) was so good and Ocean's Twelve sucked, and does something about it. In Ocean’s Thirteen, I'm once again part of the gang, back in on the play, and it’s so cool it’s plainly not trying in the slightest. Al Pacino is a welcome addition as Willy Bank, causing Danny's friend Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould) so much grief he suffers from a heart attack. Even on just above auto-pilot, Pacino is so effective at portraying menace, it lifts the whole film. Danny reassembles the crew to go after Bank, not for the money this time, but payback for the way he's treated his friend. A very welcome return to form.

So, as Basher might say, after the sequel they were in Barney, but they remembered how to be cool for the finale.

Ocean’s Eleven (Original): 6/10
Ocean’s Eleven (Remake): 8/10
Ocean’s Twelve: 5/10
Ocean’s Thirteen: 7/10

Back in 1960, Bosley of the New York Times disliked the lack of morality in Sinatra's original, while Emma at Empire loved the remake. Matt at IndieWire makes a very good case for reappraising Ocean's Twelve and Vince at Qwipster also enjoyed Thirteen.