9 ReviewsOrdered By: Date
Jodhaa Akbar (2008)
A stunning epic, but occasionally superficial
17 February 2008
Warning: Spoilers
Jodhaa Akbar is three hours and twenty minutes of truly glorious film-making. It's almost impossible to fault the production design. Director Ashukosh Gowariker's ambition is breathtaking - and, more often than not, he achieves it. You won't see more beautiful costumes or sets, hear more rousing music, or watch more imaginative choreography (dance and fighting alike) in any film from any country in the world.

In particular, the various fights and battles put Hollywood to shame. Where Western epics of recent years have overdone cheap visual effects to reduce costs, and eliminated blood and gore to keep ratings low, Jodhaa Akbar doesn't pull its punches for a moment. When Akbar fights, he really fights. Steel connects with steel, flesh with flesh; horses and elephants stampede; armies charge; blood splatters all over the place. Gowariker and his team have an amazing knack of filming violence that is simultaneously elegant and visceral. Famous Hollywood battles of recent years - the likes of Lord of the Rings and Troy - look limp and embarrassing by comparison.

Furthermore, there are some commendable performances here, especially from the supporting cast. Sonu Sood and Ila Arun are particularly wonderful, as is Nikitin Dheer in a remarkably compelling debut performance as Sharifuddin Hussein. I have to admit that I hadn't really thought much of either Hrithik Roshan or Aishwarya Rai Bachchan as actors, but I was mistaken. Both of them, especially Hrithik, pull off extremely well-pitched and charismatic performances under Gowariker's expert direction. Also, of course, it's hard not to notice that they make one of the most gorgeous screen couples of all time.

I have only three criticisms, and only two of them are serious.

1. Gowariker has a weakness for cheesy visual moments. There are a couple of points in the film where glowing light is supposed to add to the emotional effect. Unfortunately, these have been cheaply done and don't really work. Gowariker also tends to use various hammy cross-fades. The end result is that the otherwise purely brilliant visuals are undermined by the occasional dated, jarring fade or effect. These things remind me of a low-budget 1970s TV cop show and aren't suitable for a major film like this.

2. The romance between Jodhaa and Akbar follows a fairly standard pattern of hate-each-other, like-each-other, misunderstanding, resolution. The pattern is fine, but the effect would have been much more striking if Gowariker had taken a few risks. He's not prepared to push the characters to real extremes, and so we end up with 3.3 hours of a love affair which meanders along on a fairly even and predictable keel. The misunderstanding stage is cleared up too quickly and relatively painlessly. It's a pity: Hrithik and Aishwarya are both giving the performances of their careers. Though they're very watchable, you get the feeling that even more drama could have been wrung out of their relationship.

3. This isn't a very serious criticism, but... I don't think they had invented deep-pile fluffy white towels in the 16th century. So when Sharifuddin got out of his bath and wrapped himself in one, it was impossible not to giggle. I was expecting him to get out a hairdryer and an electric razor next.

Still, despite a few minor faults, Jodhaa Akbar is a remarkable, dramatic and brilliant film, with a rare beauty and powerful sense of ambition. It's also extremely enjoyable. I'll definitely be going to see it again. Should any Hollywood epic directors see it, I expect they'll be shuffling their feet and blushing at how decisively Bollywood has surpassed their efforts. Akbar zindabad!
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Camelot (1967)
A gift to Monty Python
28 March 2007
Warning: Spoilers
I am a huge, huge fan of musicals, especially the overblown kitsch ones with wobbly sets from the 1960s and 70s, so I really thought I had found my dream in Camelot.

Not so.

Even if, like me, you actually enjoy a camp classic once in a while, Camelot is such an unwatchable stinker that you'll be fast-forwarding in wide-eyed disbelief well before the intermission.

Camelot is a truly dreadful musical, with a totally forgettable score and one of the clunkiest scripts I've ever sat through. Richard Harris presents King Arthur as a drooling, retarded, camp flibbertigibbet, prancing about in purple eyeliner like a profoundly stupid and tone-deaf child. Franco Nero plays Lancelot as a vain, preening Muscle Mary, whose sexual tension with Arthur so overshadows any hint of romance with Guenevere that the entire film briefly promises to take a far more interesting direction.

Meanwhile, Vanessa Redgrave plays Guenevere as a spoilt, tiresome and vaguely sadistic halfwit. Stick a bodice and a garland of mayblossom on Paris Hilton and you'd get roughly the same effect. I nearly tore out my own eyes in horror during her ghastly rendition of "The Simple Joys of Maidenhood", a song that seems to have been written with the sole purpose of torturing anyone with an IQ over 60.

At the end, when Guenevere was rescued by Lancelot from being burned at the stake, my friends actually booed.

The thing that is most striking about watching Camelot these days, apart from a sharp pain in your frontal lobe, is the degree to which it provided all the material for Monty Python and the Holy Grail. All the elements of the Holy Grail are right here: Arthur is a prig, Lancelot is a comically violent moron, all the supporting characters are either Brave Sir Robin or Wise Sir Bedevere, some of the songs are virtually identical (though significantly worse), Merlin is a dead ringer for the Old Man From Scene 24, etc etc. These parallels almost redeem the film, but really you'd still be far better off just watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Worst of all, this dire mess goes on for three interminable hours. I don't believe anyone with a soul could actually get through it alive. I really did want to love it, but this isn't so bad it's good; it's so bad it's terrible.
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Swept Away (2002)
It's much worse than you can possibly imagine
2 December 2006
Warning: Spoilers
Plenty have people have talked about how this film is badly made, and Madonna is about the worst actress ever to burn up celluloid, and Guy Richie couldn't direct a cast of actors to the nearest post-office. All of which is basically true. Moreover, the film looks awful, with preposterously saturated colours, clumsy composition, banal locations and ridiculous costumes.

But the worst thing about Swept Away isn't any of these things. The worst thing by a long way is the philosophy behind it. I went to see Swept Away because I thought it might be a 'so bad it's good' film: that, even if it was terrible, it might be kind of funny. How wrong I was. Here's the plot, in a nutshell: Madonna plays a nasty, rich woman, and the entire film is a long process of watching a man humiliate her, beat her and even rape her. At the end, she emerges a 'better' woman for all the abuse she has suffered, and is grateful to her rapist. Just to remind you: this is supposed to be a comedy. Ha ha ha! Because raping and beating women is just so darn funny!

It's not funny, it's horrible. It doesn't matter how spoilt and nasty Madonna's character is. Seeing a woman undergo violence and abuse - and 'enjoying' it - is vile and would only appeal to a twisted mind.

The film honestly left me feeling sick to the stomach. I dread to think what this film says about Richie's relationship with Madonna, but one thing is certain: he hates women. If you remade Swept Away as a 'hilarious' comedy in which a black person was beaten and punished by a white person until he/she started to love being a slave, and was pathetically grateful to his/her white oppressor, it would be banned. And rightly so.

This is a sick, nasty film. If you haven't seen it, I really recommend that you don't.
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A thrilling journey into the presence of a dictator
19 October 2006
This is a stand-out brilliant portrait of Idi Amin's rule of Uganda, from a fascinating and unique angle. A young Scottish doctor, totally ignorant of African politics or society, goes out to work in a village hospital, and gets sucked in to Amin's personal clique.

Nicholas, the doctor character, is subtle and wonderfully conceived, and played with great charm by James McAvoy. He's an excellent protagonist - most of the audience will know very little about Uganda or Idi Amin, but this doesn't matter, because he doesn't, either. Gradually, he goes through a process of developing his thoughts, taking the audience along with him. By the end of the film, you suddenly realise you know a lot more than you did at the start - although the film is far too thrilling to be classed as a history lesson.

McAvoy's performance, while first-class, is inevitably overshadowed by the real treat of the film - Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin himself. To anyone familiar with the dictator, there will actually be times when you'll find it hard to believe that you aren't watching him in person. It is completely impossible to tear your eyes off Whitaker whenever he's on screen: he's compelling, terrifying, dynamic, and oddly tender at moments. It's the performance of a lifetime, and he deserves to be richly recognised for it. For me, Whitaker in this film stands alongside Bruno Ganz's extraordinary performance as Hitler in 'Downfall', as the best on-screen depiction of a dictator I've ever seen.

The only problem, for those not familiar with Idi Amin, is that at times you might almost think the filmmakers are exaggerating - that he seems too evil, too insane, too cartoonish. Unfortunately, the portrait is totally accurate. The real Amin was everything the film shows him to be, and more.

The Last King of Scotland is stunning, shocking, and the best film about Africa I've seen for years. See it!
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A total stinker
1 September 2006
It's very hard to understand why this film is so beloved of IMDb commentators. I'm a fan of Shaw, Rains and Leigh, but I found the pacing tedious, the screenplay lightweight and trivial, and the performances ridiculous. Leigh, normally so luminous, is like fingernails being scraped down a blackboard in this performance. She plays the Queen of Egypt as a spoilt fourth-former from Mallory Towers. Rains attempts Julius Caesar in the manner of a mildly camp scoutmaster. There is no chemistry between the two of them, and only a slight whiff of rather dubious romance predicated on a sort of indulgent father/daddy's little girl relationship. The racial stereotyping of the characters may be a mark of the film's time, but it's no less tiresome for that. Black Africans are represented as wide-eyed, wordless imbeciles; Flora Robson is half-heartedly blacked up as the evil, controlling Ftatateeta; the Egyptian aristocrats are all played by white actors as if they came from Kensington.

Caesar and Cleopatra are two of the greatest figures of history, and it is hard to imagine that they could be done less justice than they are here. The whole thing comes off like a badly-improvised school play, with the occasional hints of sexism and racism doing absolutely nothing to cheer the mood.
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V for Vacuous
27 March 2006

Alan Moore's graphic novel V for Vendetta is an elegant, thought-provoking and complex exploration of the meaning of freedom and the politics of protest. The Wachowski Brothers and James McTeigue have somehow reduced this to a film that pretty much says 'Whoa, dude! Terrorists ROCK!!!111!'

It's hard to imagine how anyone who is a fan of the book could have produced this film. The novel is clever where the film is dumb, engaging where the film is boring, and subtle where the film simply blows stuff up. Where Moore's V is erudite and sophisticated, the best McTeigue's V can manage is a big speech of words mostly beginning with the letter 'V'.

Principally to blame for this must be the screenplay, which is full of unwieldy clunking additions which are supposed to make you think REAL HARD YOU GUYS about how this is LIKE RELLEVUNT to NOW. The screenplay takes a piece which is about Thatcherite Britain and tries to use it to bang home a message about George Bush's USA. So, instead of Moore's extreme conservative regime, we are presented with a 'British' government of the religious right, which seeks to ban homosexuality and Islam in the name of Christianity. Anyone who is actually British will find this confusing and nonsensical, as there is no popular religious right in Britain. And Americanisms like 'lever' (pronounced 'levver' rather than 'leever') and 'elevator' don't help.

Still, no one could really have expected the Wachowskis to produce a subtle or clever screenplay. But you might reasonably expect that this would be a super-stylish, high-action thriller. It isn't. The production design is sloppy - we're expected to believe that, thirty or forty years into the future, people are wearing exactly the same clothes and using exactly the same technology as they are now, with the sole exception of a little red bleepy machine which doesn't seem to have a function but might perhaps be a dictaphone. And, as for your high-octane thrills, well... don't get your hopes up. The action moves at around a quarter of the pace of the Matrix, and fight scenes are few and far between. In the climactic fight at the end, wherein V slays a whole troop of men, the film's signature visual effect finally kicks in: and it's... *drumroll*... knives leaving vapour trails. Wooooo. No need to bring a spare pair of pants to the cinema. Bullet time, it ain't.

There are many problems with this film: poor editing, appalling performances, the pointless addition of a love story. But the main crime is undoubtedly the sheer stupidity that the Wachowskis have brought to the table. Moore's novel deliberately does not end with firm conclusions, but asks you to consider relative evils: the government is obviously oppressive and fascist, but V is no less totalitarian in his own convictions. When he blows up symbols of democracy and justice like the OId Bailey, murders those who don't agree with him, or tortures Evie to 're-educate her', he becomes more and more like the government he despises.

In the film, this duality is forgotten, and V is presented as a straightforward hero. The conclusion, therefore, is that terrorism works, terrorism is good, and the ends always justify the means. The film of V for Vendetta misses the principal point of the novel, and ends up being offensive as well as boring and rubbish. Read the book, please, but don't waste your time watching this. And let's pray they never make Watchmen.
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Is there an interesting movie to be made about transvestism?
9 January 2006
Warning: Spoilers
If so, Breakfast on Pluto isn't it. A few minutes into this film, the sinking feeling began. (Well, to be honest, the sinking feeling began with the ridiculous CG robins, but I was prepared to forgive them if it got any better.) So: we have a parentless, crossdressing boy in repressed rural Ireland. How long until he runs away to the big city, becomes a prostitute and gets beaten up? Too long, it turns out. At 129 minutes, I can't resist the pun: this film's a real drag.

We're treated to thirtysomething 'chapters' in the life of Patrick 'Patricia Kitten' Braden, but unfortunately there's no effort to tie these all together into some form of overall plot arc. Instead, lots and lots of cut-out-and-keep characters - mad tranny, priest-with-a-heart, wicked stepmother, sadistic kerbcrawler, blah blah - go around and around in circles not really doing anything or making any difference to anyone. Cillian Murphy certainly makes a pretty lady, but his character Kitten is a wittering, self-obsessed idiot. Why on earth the audience is supposed to give a monkey's about what he/she does with his life, or what clothes he/she wears to do it, is never clear.

Most frustratingly of all, along the way we are given snapshots of better stories which aren't followed up. Violent thug who finds gainful employment dressing up as a Womble? Better story. Lonely magician who can only fall in love with another expert in the art of illusion? Better story. Irish priest with a secret passion for a local girl? Better story, although largely covered by 'Ballykissangel'.

A man dressing up in women's clothes is not, in and of itself, an interesting thing. It can become interesting if there's a proper story woven around it, and characters you cared about - something at which Neil Jordan has occasionally excelled in the past. But Breakfast on Pluto is just overlong, depressing and very, very boring.
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Stoned (2005)
Brian Jones: the boring years
16 November 2005
Warning: Spoilers
So much is wrong with 'Stoned', it's hard to know where to begin. The cinematography is a hideous, vomit-inducing mess. The performances are laugh-out-loud dreadful. The screenplay is excruciating. The editing is confusing. The direction is absent. Worst of all, the entire thing is so achingly boring that you may well find yourself willing Brian Jones to hurry up, get into the pool and die from about five minutes in.

The actual story of the Rolling Stones is, surely, some sort of mind-blowing, smack-addled, adventure-filled Technicolour romp full of wild sex, drugs, devil worship and The Blues. So how, and why, has Stephen Woolley spent ten years researching it and produced this tedious heap of tosh? Every so often, I see a film that makes me wonder how on earth the producers had the chutzpah to say 'Yes, this is a finished work, and I feel we can demand money from the general public to view it.' Stoned is an exemplar of this genre. One can only imagine they thought they'd have a Rolling Stones-style party making it - but the overriding impression is one of grinding drudgery.

This is a truly abysmal mess of a film, with really no redeeming features. Whether you're a Stones fan, or you loathe every note they've ever played, there's nothing here that could feasibly be of any interest whatsoever.
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Cock and, indeed, bull
16 November 2005
Tristram Shandy is, supposedly, unadaptable. On the strength of this effort, there will be no need to revise that verdict.

In an attempt to capture the prototype postmodernism of the novel, Michael Winterbottom has interwoven the rambling story of Shandy's birth (which draws in the fate of various members of his family and surrounding ensemble) with the supposed 'real-life' story of the cast and crew making the film. So, we have Steve Coogan in a pair of breeches addressing the camera in full-on Laurence Sterne mode, and then Steve Coogan in a conspicuously fashionable t-shirt and jeans, making a fuss about his character's shoes and having a casual affair with one of the production girls. On the way there are plenty of in-jokes about Coogan's other projects: Alan Partridge, Around the World in 80 Days, visits to lap-dancing clubs, etc.

The thing about all this is that it would be absolutely riveting viewing if Steve Coogan was the most important person in your entire universe. To me, however, he is a moderately famous comic with too many cars who is best known for not impregnating Courtney Love. Therefore, sitting through the long and indulgent sections of A Cock & Bull Story that were about him was a bit of a trial.

If you haven't heard of Steve Coogan at all, so much the worse - none of this is going to make any sense to you whatsoever. It's a messy, irritating movie, which forces its impressive cast to the margins as they all have to flutter around the gigantic ego of a bitter and dislikeable central performance.
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