Dave and Rachel's movie reviews.


Monday, December 25, 2017

The Hobbit

Year: 2012 (Unexpected Journey), 2013 (Desolation of Smaug), 2014 (Battle of Five Armies)
Running time: 182 minutes (Unexpected Journey), 186 minutes (Desolation of Smaug), 164 minutes (Battle of Five Armies)
Certificate: 12A (Unexpected Journey), 15 (Desolation of Smaug, Battle of Five Armies)
Language: English
Screenplay: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo Del Toro
Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, James Nesbitt, Aidan Turner, Dean O'Gorman, William Kircher, Stephen Hunter, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, Jed Brophy, Mark Hadlow, Adam Brown, Ian Holm, Elijah Wood, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Andy Serkis, Sylvester McCoy, Lee Pace, Barry Humphries (voice), Jeffrey Thomas, Michael Mizrahi, Manu Bennett, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lily, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mikael Persbrandt, Luke Evans, Stephen Fry, Ryan Gage, John Bell, Billy Connelly, Conan Stevens, Lawrence Makoare, John Tui

Rivendell - tonic for the soul.
The original announcement around the adaptation of The Hobbit, produced by the team behind the wildly successful Lord of the Rings trilogy, but directed by Gullermo Del Toro, was met with great rejoicing. What might the amazing mind of Del Toro come up with when let loose in Tolkien's universe? Unfortunately, it was not to be. Contract-wrangling led to delays and Del Toro had to move on to other commitments, whereupon Peter Jackson took up the reigns. There will always be a part of me that regrets never getting to see the Del Toro version, but Jackson's no slouch.

Lord of the Rings came under some criticism from Tolkien purists for making some changes to the novel, but even so I still think it is evident it retains a healthy respect for the original story while not being afraid to make changes if it served the film. It is, frankly, much harder to make the same assertion when talking about The Hobbit. Just the fact that it is a trilogy almost as long as the Rings trilogy (as with that review, here I am talking about the extended versions available on Blu-Ray, rather than the theatrical releases) with a book only a fraction of the size is a fairly clear indication that there are many more liberties taken with the text. Of course, all of the extra stuff is mostly informed by appendices written by Tolkien himself, but there is still plenty here to outrage the purists.

Bilbo riddles for his life, while Gollum plots murder.
Before the events told in The Lord of the Rings, when Bilbo was a young man (Martin Freeman) he was conscripted by Gandalf (Ian McKellen) into joining a group of dwarves attempting to reclaim their lost homeland from the humongous clutches of the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch). On the way, Bilbo meets an unusual creature named Gollum (Andy Serkis) and comes into possession of a magic ring, which just so happens to change the entire course of history in the future.

The first part An Unexpected Journey takes its time to get going, rather than diving headfirst into the adventure, spending time in Bag End with Bilbo and the dwarves. Much of the criticism the film faced was in regards to the slow pace set in these early scenes. For my money, I'm happy enough to spend time in the Middle Earth imagined by Jackson, Weta Workshop, Weta Digital and New Zealand that I'd probably be happy watching Bilbo wash up for 2 hours. The dwarves are realised in a way that is different to the book; rather than coloured hoods, each dwarf has a distinctive look, usually based around hair. I wasn't quite sure about it at first to be honest, but I soon got used to it.

Bilbo and Thorin, facing up to something awful.
Once we set off, there's no shortage of trolls, fights, elves and underground goblin kingdoms, but the absolute standout scene in the first film is Bilbo and Gollum facing off in a game of riddles in the dark. Serkis, following years of honing his extraordinary motion capture acting techniques is electrifying as Gollum; innocent and childlike one moment, intensely menacing the next. With all the adventuring going on it's easy to miss crediting some genuinely great acting from Freeman as well - he invests Bilbo with just the right mix of curiosity, stuck-up-ness and courage - during his battle of wits with Gollum and afterwards, explaining his decision to help the dwarves regain their home he is wonderful, and only very occasionally now reminds me of Tim from The Office. The ending of the first film somewhat mirrors that of The Fellowship of the Ring, in that there is a pitched battle between our heroes and those that seek to destroy them (but nothing compared to what is to come), and ends with the journey a long way from being completed.

The Desolation of Smaug bucks the trend of the middle film of a trilogy being weaker (as did The Two Towers) and is actually my favourite of the three. There is a great deal of iconic Tolkien imagery brought to life here; Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), Dol Guldur, Mirkwood and the spiders, Thranduil's (Lee Pace) hidden woodland realm, Laketown; for someone like me who can often feel more at home in these locations than in the real world, it's a dizzying smorgasbord of visual treats. Jackson and his team take more liberties than even An Unexpected Journey did, but somehow, the film is just so much fun that most of it goes by, forgiven. The invention of an entirely new character, the female elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lily) doesn't feel out of place - in fact it highlights how starved of female characterisation Tolkien's novel was, and goes some way to addressing that. Falling for Kili (Aidan Turner) might have been a bit of a stretch, however, and featuring Legolas (Orlando Bloom), I must admit, took some swallowing.

Bilbo may have bitten off more than he can chew...But then again, he is a hobbit.
There is a particular sequence that angered many fans of the books and that is when Bilbo and the dwarves escape from the elves by hiding in barrels and riding down the river. It's an action-packed chase full of gags that bears no resemblance to the equivalent chapter in the novel. One way I can tell that movies had a bigger impact on me than books in my youth is that I genuinely love the sequence, despite the liberties it takes with Tolkien's text. Like the riddles in the dark section of An Unexpected Journey, there is a part of The Desolation of Smaug that sits above the rest of the film as a stand out sequence, and it's when we finally meet the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch). Bilbo enters into another verbal fencing match, but unlike Gollum, he's no match for the wily wyrm. Following his failed attempt to first burgle and then charm Smaug, the dwarves and Bilbo have no choice but to play a deadly game of cat-and-mouse throughout the ruined kingdom of Erebor, ending in an enraged dragon bearing down on the human settlement of Laketown.

The Battle of the Five Armies picks up the thread and early on Laketown is laid waste by dragonfire until Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) brings the vengeful dragon low. The third film is about what happens around the power vacuum that Smaug left behind - the Kingdom under the Mountain, empty again, save for a massive pile of gold and jewels. The dwarves, led by Thorin Oakensheild (Richard Armitage), set up shop and barricade themselves inside. Thranduil leads the elves to the mountain to reclaim some long-lost elven treasure, while Bard brings the now-homeless survivors of Laketown to try to prevent them from starving. Both are rebuffed by Thorin, who is being driven slowly mad by the corrupt Arkenstone, a giant gem from the heart of the mountain that inflicts a dragonish greed on its possessor.

A redeemed Thorin bids his friend farewell.
Thorin's back-up arrives in the shape of an army of dwarves from the Iron Hills led by Thorin's cousin Dain (Billy Connelly). Just as the elves and dwarfs start tearing shreds off each other, a giant army of orcs show up, led by the major antagonist across all three films, Azog (Manu Bennett) - this is another fairly major change from the source material, as Azog is long-dead during these events in Tolkien's timeline. If there is one thing the original Rings trilogy taught us, it's that Peter Jackson knows his way around a battle, and the titular fight here is every bit as amazing, outrageous and epic in scale as you could hope for. Given the time he was denied in the high-pressured run-up to the film's cinematic release, the battle in the extended version is bigger, more graphic and chock-full of imaginative set-pieces.

The over-use of CGI is much-bemoaned in regards to modern films, and there is no doubt The Hobbit is bursting at the seams with digital artwork, but the way in which Jackson employs it makes it much less of an issue that it might otherwise have been. Across the whole trilogy, from An Unexpected Journey's escape from the underground goblin town, through the barrel ride and dragon hide-and-seek in The Desolation of Smaug, through to pretty much most of The Battle of the Five Armies, the film-maker is clearly the same guy who made Braindead, Bad Taste and Meet the Feebles (he is still working with some of the same people, even now). The same manic energy, gift for a surprising-yet-perfect angle and warped sense of humour is still there; he's just using different tools.

One of the most beautiful shots in the series, including Rings, is the brief, dialogue-free moment near the end, featuring Bilbo and Gandalf just sitting there, together alone. The sense of exhaustion is palpable, and one can only surmise is shared by Jackson and his crew. The effort that has gone into making these six films is momentous; decades of work, so this small moment feels appropriate, a short snippet of reflection. Like so many moments in these films, it is a strikingly constructed shot despite being so simple - a testament to the great work of the late Andrew Lesnie, cinematographer on all six films.

Bilbo and Gandalf: Palpable exhaustion.
The Hobbit is a lesser trilogy than the preceding Rings, but considering the source material, this was inevitable. It holds the novel on which it is based in perhaps slightly less esteem, but is made with an abundance of talent and is actually quite a lot more fun than Rings. If the novel isn't like a religious text to you, I think you could find much to like here. If it is, it's probably better you avoid.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: 8/10
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: 9/10
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies: 8/10

As with The Lord of the Rings trilogy, I seem fairly close to Empire's take on the films, as shown in these reviews by William, Nick and James. Elsewhere, there is evidence to suggest I slightly over-rate them, although not by much if these Guardian reviews by Philip, Peter and, to a lesser degree, Mark are anything to go by.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Flushed Away

Year: 2006
Running time: 85 minutes
Certificate: U
Language: English
Screenplay: Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais, Chris Lloyd, Joe Keenan, Will Davies
Director: David Bowers, Sam Fell
Starring (voices): Hugh Jackman, Kate Winslet, Ian McKellen, Bill Nighy, Andy Serkis, Jean Reno, Shane Richie, Kathy Burke, David Suchet, Miriam Margolyes

Roddy and Rita smiling at...something.
Flushed Away was Aardman Animation’s first step into the competitive world of CG, and unfortunately, it shows a little. Aardman brought us the likes of the Wallace and Gromit shorts, full-length feature Curse of the Were-Rabbit and Chicken Run, which are all great and brimming with imaginative stories and characters, and on that front, Flushed Away is no different. Teaming up with DreamWorks Animation, they go to great lengths to retain the Aardman aesthetic. The creation of a city in the sewers of London populated by rats, toads and slugs is fabulous, and it’s brimming over with hilarious characters, invention and wit.

Roddy St. James (Hugh Jackman, doing a note-perfect Hugh Grant-type) is a pampered pet rat in a Kensington house. While his owners are away Roddy has the run of the house, busy enjoying himself while trying to distract from the obvious loneliness, when another rat makes his way up from the sewer. The home invader goes by the name of Sid (Shane Richie), and Sid thinks he's hit the jackpot and decides to move in. While trying in vain to convince Sid the toilet is a Jacuzzi, Roddy finds himself flushed from his cosy home into the depths of the London sewer system, where he finds a bustling 'ratropolis', mirroring the city above.

While attempting to get home, Roddy crosses paths with Rita (Kate Winslet) and soon gets swept up with her ongoing spat with the villainous Toad (Ian McKellen, the comedic highlight) and his plan to wash away the makeshift city and make a home for him and his tadpole offspring. There follows a fine yarn with much comedy, both pun-based and slapstick, as well as some joyfully funny action set pieces.

Toad fancies himself a bit of a Shakespearean villain.
The sticking point is the quality of the animation itself; it’s just not a patch on the beautiful CG stylings of Pixar, DreamWorks, or even Blue Sky Studios (the animation house producing content for 20th Century Fox). The characters don’t move fluidly, and when they speak it’s almost like a stop-motion technique. It’s likely that the makers did this to make it look like the Aardman output we all know and love, but it just doesn’t retain the charm of genuine stop-motion. If you're going to move onto CG, then commit to it. A shame, because the delightful story certainly deserved more.

Still worth a watch.

Score: 6/10

Reviews of Flushed Away are a little mixed out there: Peter at The Guardian wasn't particularly impressed, but James at Reelviews was rather charmed.

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 as 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.