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Mission: Impossible III (2006)
M:I III, "Alias" Tom's latest mission, is quite forgettable
Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is back in action for his latest Impossible Mission; to track down arms dealer Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and rescue his new wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan). He is aided by his old buddy Luther (Ving Rhames), Zhen (Maggie Q) and Declan (Jonathan Rhys Meyers)...
Tom Cruise has not had it as easy as he'd like these days, has he? That infamous "out of the closet" South Park episode, in addition to his blatant showboating of his relationship with Katie Holmes, has left him looking less like the dependable low-key leading man he can be, and more like the smug, insufferable wannabe scenery-chewer he also can be. Alas, the third incarnation of Ethan Hunt, his Mission: Impossible alter ego, comes closest to the latter. It's not that the performance is awful, but let's just say that all that publicity has not helped his cause at all.
It also casts a huge shadow over Mission: Impossible III (hereafter M:I III). The film is loaded with problems, and they don't just exist within the film itself - a change in director and the loss of the likes of Scarlett Johansson from the cast didn't help the film's production. Nevertheless, I had good reason to be optimistic - the final, credited director was none other than J.J. Abrams, the man behind my current favourite TV show, Alias.
For those of you uninitiated with the world of Alias, let me briefly bring you up to speed with what it offers - complex characters, excellent acting (Melissa George excluded), numerous plot twists and brilliantly staged action sequences, all topped with elements of suspense and intrigue.
Abrams' skill with some of the above elements help to redeem M:I III to an extent. Some of the action sequences towards the end of the film are quite gripping, if not breathtaking, there are plot twists (even if a couple are preposterous), and most of the second half of the film is suspenseful.
And, of course, that terrific theme tune is all over the place. (What would the film be without it?) Unfortunately, something else is all over the place - the first half of the film, which is incoherent as well as being uninvolving.
Also, being his first film, it seems that Abrams is frustrated at not having the additional time you get in TV shows to develop your characters. It shows - both Davian and Julia are written as little more than plot devices. Yet Philip Seymour Hoffman (who's always good) and Michelle Monaghan rise above the material to make these people interesting. In fact, thanks to Hoffman, Davian is the best of the M:I villains to date (ahead of the slightly irritating Jon Voight and the low-key Dougray Scott). His Almost Famous co-star, Billy Crudup, is also impressive, though Ving Rhames and Jonathan Rhys Meyers are both underused.
Now if the problems I've discussed so far were the only problems the film had, then I'd recommend it. But there's more. If you thought the shakycam was overused in The Bourne Supremacy, you ain't seen nothing yet; every single one of the fight scenes is very difficult to follow.
And is it just me, or do Simon Pegg and Laurence Fishburne bring certain characters from Alias to mind? Are the IMF headquarters reminiscent of the Alias' CIA offices? It only shows a lack of imagination on Abrams' part when he seems to be cannibalising from his own show.
I understand that M:I III will probably be more appealing to those who haven't seen Alias. But I suspect that even they will be underwhelmed. I know from seeing his TV work that J.J. Abrams can do much better than this cobbled together, recycled effort.
J.J., you have the potential to become a good film director, but you've a long, long way to go. As for this film's position in the M:I series, well, it's an improvement over the last one, but that's not saying much. I certainly won't lose sleep if there isn't another entry in the series.
Gameshow Marathon (2005)
It seemed a good idea at the time, but when watching it you realised it was a bad one
The Mirror's Jim Shelley was right.
Not - well at least not ENTIRELY - about classic UK Gameshows ("Popular, but rubbish") but this.
I watched just one of the specials, The Price Is Right, and right from the beginning I knew something wasn't right.
I get the feeling that those who were born at the beginning of the '80's or thereabouts (like myself) were unaware of how horribly tacky those gameshows of the past were.
Nostalgia, the abominable standard of most TV today, the overuse of modern technology (Satellite TV, DVDs, etc) and the large audiences of the past have allowed us to look back at Sale Of The Century, The Price Is Right, Bullseye, 3-2-1 and the rest through rose-tinted glasses. We grew up with them, so whether we like it or not, they are etched into our memories. And I will be quite happy to watch a repeat of one of those shows - even though sitting through 3-2-1 on Challenge TV recently was more of a chore than I thought.
But we don't have such tacky prizes today. Not in the era of Millionaire. And audiences seem far more - how do I put it - reserved. The screaming audience on the '80's TPiR was natural. The screaming audience of the 2005 revival seemed false.
And then we have Ant and Dec. A winning formula on kids' TV, they haven't really been as successful in the adult arena for me. Dec's attempt to host the classic TPiR game "Cliffhanger" made me cringe more than ever. On this stage, he didn't have the touch of either Brucie or the late Leslie Crowther. In a sense, I pitied him - he looked like he was trying to make the show as exciting as possible.
But it wasn't. And why? It was too long. And the producers weren't doing the show with ordinary people who truly cared about what they won, but with celebrities. Carol Vorderman looked like she'd rather be anywhere else.
Yes. Those classic game shows were junk, but they were still perfectly watchable pieces of junk that will live in my memory permanently. The Gameshow Marathon revival was junk that I'd rather forget.
An undeniably powerful but puzzling liberal lecture
The writer of Traffic, Stephen Gaghan, digs even deeper into corruption with this much ballyhooed political thriller.
Like Traffic, there are several plot threads that all eventually weave together into a whole. Whereas Traffic's central theme was the corruption that resulted from drug trafficking, Syriana's is the corruption that springs from large corporations and the battle for control of the world's oil supply. One subplot involves CIA operative Bob Barnes (George Clooney) and his efforts to discover the truth about the whole situation, which brings about rather gruesome results. Another subplot involves the merger of two oil companies, Connex and Killen. Then there's the prince (Alexander Siddig) who has plans to carry out liberal reforms that will help his country obtain full value for their oil. He forms a partnership with a troubled energy analyst played by Matt Damon. On top of all this, Syriana also takes time to focus on the trials and tribulations of a group of Pakistani teenagers, and some laid off Middle Eastern workers.
I personally regard Syriana as a brave and complex motion picture, and for those reasons it stands out among 2005's motion pictures.
As I hinted in my review of Munich, however, bravery and complexity are not enough when it comes to making a great movie. A film such as this one needs to focus more clearly on what it is dealing with. For a portion of its running time, Syriana is - quite literally - all over the place. (Traffic shared a similar flaw; Gaghan tried to fit so much into his screenplay for that film that the director, Steven Soderbergh, had to fight valiantly to keep it under control.) At times, Syriana plays like a more adult, less violent version of Three Kings (which, incidentally, is no bad thing, considering how highly I regard that film). There are many moments where it is really effective at being the Very Important Message Movie that it wants to be, with regards to not only oil and government, but also family values. Unfortunately Syriana treads a fine line between conveying a serious message and being liberal propaganda - I didn't believe that Gaghan was ambiguous enough in his treatment of the material.
At least his cast don't put a foot wrong. Any cast which includes George Clooney, Matt Damon, Christopher Plummer and William Hurt is an impressive one by me. And there are many surprises here. No, I'm not talking about Clooney's weight gain and beard - he'd have been almost as effective had he been slightly less unkempt (although I'm not knocking his performance). Rather, Matt Damon, who eventually won me over as a family man despite his interminably young features. Amanda Peet and Jeffrey Wright (recently seen in Broken Flowers) do their reputations no harm either, and Alexander Siddig (impressive in the underrated Kingdom Of Heaven) continues to enhance his.
It's very difficult for me to put a finger on Syriana. On one hand, it's intelligent, it asks questions and leaves plenty of food for thought - on the other hand, it's incoherent, at times blatantly one-sided and occasionally reliant on cheap tricks to keep the audience interested. It's like a lesser Munich, the difference being Spielberg has a better grasp of how to keep the audience involved. However, I admire Syriana's subject matter and general refusal to compromise, and for its artistic value alone, I recommend it.
Walk the Line (2005)
Walks a fine line between success and failure
Walk The Line is the latest Oscar-baiting biopic, the subject in this case being twenty-five years in the life of Johnny Cash (played as an adult by Joaquin Phoenix). Naturally, his rise to the peak of his success as a recording artist is chronicled, but additionally, his relationships with his father (Robert Patrick), first wife (Ginnifer Goodwin) and fellow band member June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) play a prominent part in this tale, as well as his personal battle against the pills.
A really, really good biopic could have been made out of this. And it should have been. So why hasn't it been? After all, the actors play their parts so well (more on them later) and the music in the film is so good (more on that later too). Alas, something is lacking in the script department.
An uplifting tour through Johnny Cash's life will certainly satisfy most viewers. But as a Cash novice, I wanted something of more substance. Something that would help us understand Cash's character more, rather than just routinely showing us what he did. Director James Mangold not only fails to develop the characters convincingly enough (yeah, we see the two leads' families, but little else) but also struggles to retain hold of a meandering narrative that sometimes bores. Some emotional scenes don't hit the mark, and Mangold has a tendency to hammer home the few rather banal messages that his script has for us. (When watching the film, I thought "Alright James, we get it!" at least twice.) Yes, Cash fans. I do realise that you may not notice most, if not all, of the things I complained about above. But we have to take all viewers into account here.
Anyway, onto the positives...
Joaquin Phoenix has established himself as one of the decade's most dependable actors. Four films he has starred in (Gladiator, Quills, Buffalo Soldiers, Hotel Rwanda) have been among my favourite films of their respective year of release. It's somehow ironic that Walk The Line will not be one of those, for his portrayal of Johnny Cash is definitely one of his better portrayals. It's especially enjoyable to watch him perform Cash's material on stage (and yes, he did sing the songs himself). Unfortunately, the script doesn't allow him to inhabit Cash's character entirely, and that may well cost him the Oscar.
As June Carter, Reese Witherspoon brings her usual charm back to the screen. Thankfully, there are no traces of Elle Woods in this down-to-earth portrayal. She even manages to flesh her character out a little near the end of the film. It's not quite an Oscar-worthy performance, but it is very impressive nonetheless. She and Phoenix help to keep you almost consistently interested in the proceedings, and the supporting cast capably assist them.
Finally...I must mention the music. The decision to hire O Brother, Where Art Thou?'s composer, T-Bone Burnett, was inspired. Don't be surprised to find yourself humming some of the songs you hear after you have seen the film.
The above elements are enough to make Walk The Line a watchable film, if not a particularly inspired one. One thing it has definitely done is make me interested in finding out more about the life, times and music of Johnny Cash. I'm sure it may do the same for others who are relatively new to Cash's material.
Spielberg wrestles with moral ambiguity
The Olympic village, Munich, 1972. Eleven Israeli athletes are taken hostage and murdered by a group of Palestinian terrorists known as the Black September group. The Mossad strikes back by launching a team of Israelis led by Avner (Eric Bana) to hunt down and kill those responsible...
Before anyone starts asking if Steven Spielberg's Munich really is better than his "crowning achievement", Schindler's List, I think I'd better get to the far more important question - is the film a valuable artistic experience? To that, my answer is an emphatic "Yes".
From the moment you are transported back to Munich, you are "in the moment". That, to me, has always been the key to Spielberg's success. When his methods succeed, you are genuinely immersed in the experience. He can even handle sentimentality better than any other director. Unfortunately, when it goes wrong for him, it really turns nauseating; consider, if you like, the endings of A.I. and War Of The Worlds as examples.
Consistency isn't one of Steve's greatest strengths either. How many times have you seen him try to force an over-emotional moment into a dark film, even if it does work? (Key example: Schindler's List.) However, there are times when he manages to reign in the emotion successfully, resulting in more consistent works like the underrated Empire Of The Sun and Catch Me If You Can. Munich is worthy of inclusion on that list of works.
Yes, there is sentiment and "shocking moments" (which he is especially good at) but he carefully sprinkles them throughout, never letting them get in the way of the story. Rather, they assist the story brilliantly. In fact, remove them and the all-too-recognisable (if admittedly superb) camera-work of Janusz Kaminski and you'd find it hard to tell that Munich was a Spielberg film. It is a remarkably controlled, brilliantly staged and very well acted work. Of course, it helps that he has (once again) chosen a talented multi-national cast Eric Bana, Mathieu Kassovitz, Ciaran Hinds and future 007 Daniel Craig all stand out. Bana especially; there is nothing remotely exaggerated or forced about his performance.
Perhaps most striking of all is Munich's moral ambiguity. Spielberg has been constantly under attack over the years for his "black and white" view of the world. (The way he treats the Nazis in his films, with the possible exception of Amon Goeth, is concrete evidence of this.) Avner doubts the rationality of the revenge mission early on and the rest of his team soon follow suit unfortunately, some of them don't find out what is really going on until it's too late. The tables are eventually turned on Avner and the group. Once hunters, they become the hunted. They realise what it is like to be the "enemy" and wonder why they weren't more opposed to the movement he joined in the first place. A Spielberg detractor once said that the director could never make a film that showed that "potentially, we are (the bad guys)"...well, he may not quite have made it, but with Munich, he's come as close as you ever can expect him to. The scenes that show the dying "targets" are deeply affecting.
The only serious problem with the film is the length. For all of its strengths, it just isn't taut enough for me to regard it as a masterpiece. That, my friends, is what prevents it from reaching the heights of Schindler's List. But that is irrelevant. Since when was Munich about topping the earlier film anyway? With Munich, Steven Spielberg has given us a thought-provoking history lesson that may, eventually, have more valuable historical impact than any of his previous serious films.
The Harry Potter franchise is maintaining a high standard
Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) has entered his fourth year at Hogwarts' school of witchcraft and wizardry. Both him and his best friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) are into their teenage years and are having to face the trials and tribulations that come with them. Harry will face a greater trial than either of them, though, when he is selected to perform in the deadly Tri-Wizard tournament...
One thing that has struck me about the adaptations of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books is that they have just kept on getting better with age. The Prisoner Of Azkaban was an improvement over the Chamber Of Secrets, which in turn was an improvement over the disappointing Philosopher's Stone.
I knew that Mike Newell had a hard act to follow when he took the responsibility of bringing The Goblet Of Fire to the screen. After all, according to yours truly, Alfonso Cuaron had not only improved "on (Chris) Columbus's (two) Potter instalments more than we could have expected", but he had created "a Potter film that truly stands on its own." The bad news is that the run of improvement seems to have come to a halt. The good news is that The Goblet Of Fire really is no worse than the last instalment. I can't say that it stands too well on its own (indeed, character familiarity will help) but this is a very minor complaint. This is a fast moving and energetic adventure capable of being enjoyed by all members of the family.
It's as if Newell realised that he would not be able to match the dark atmosphere Alfonso Cuaron created - indeed, I have heard that he did not have as big a budget to work with - but he has focused on his skills with actors, personal issues and storytelling. Despite a slow start to the film, those skills are very much in evidence.
The problems associated with adolescence are dealt with capably and in an entertaining fashion, and there is a wide array of striking set pieces for fans and non-fans to enjoy. The way Chris Columbus handled the Quidditch match in the first film now seems rather limp compared to the treats that Cuaron and now Newell have served up. Although the "wow" factor in terms of special effects is down from the previous film, there's still some delightful visual moments. That, and the film seems scarier than before.
The acting appears better than it ever was. Never mind the criticism that is being directed at the acting ability and ageing of the three leads - Daniel Radcliffe IS Harry Potter. The same is true of Rupert Grint & Emma Watson and their respective characters. I wrote last year that the best thing to do would be to hang on to the young leads for as long as possible, for stability's sake, and I maintain that stance. My only concern is that nearly all credibility will be lost by the time The Half Blood Prince comes around.
Every other regular (including a returning Jason Isaacs) is as solid as ever. Newcomers include a rather giggly Miranda Richardson as an irritating journalist, Brendan Gleeson as probably the most interesting (and bizarre) Hogwarts teacher of them all, and Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort himself. As if this wasn't enough, we have David "Doctor Who" Tennant playing somebody who's rotten to the core (this actor is more versatile than you think) and Jarvis Cocker making a surprise cameo.
As I said earlier, The Goblet Of Fire has not improved on The Prisoner Of Azkaban, but it has maintained a standard that we can only hope The Order Of The Phoenix will match.
David Yates, the camera is yours.
The King, The Queen and everything else is in The Wardrobe - including excitement?
Even in an age that includes such highly regarded fantasies as The Lord Of The Rings, C.S. Lewis's Chronicles Of Narnia are still beloved by many. Not that I would know, having read very little of the books (shame on me, I know), but I enjoy a good fantasy as much as the next person, and with Harry Potter and LotR successfully reinventing the fantasy genre in the 21st century, The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe seemed like an adaptation to look forward to.
Especially at Christmas. Last Christmas, we'd had the very entertaining Lemony Snicket's A Series Of Unfortunate Events. Alas, it has not lingered long in the memory, and I fear that this adaptation, despite being entertaining, will follow suit. Like Lemony Snicket, it wants to be a young children's fantasy, and succeeds on that level to a greater extent. After all, it has a higher pedigree. The problem only begins when director Andrew Adamson (of Shrek fame) starts trying to emulate Peter Jackson.
This, the first of the Chronicles Of Narnia (there should be many more to come) begins with the four Pevensie children - Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley) sent to the house of Professor Kirke (Jim Broadbent) during World War II. While playing a game of hide and seek, Lucy decides to hide in the wardrobe, and while moving towards the back, finds herself in the kingdom of Narnia. Many surprises and adventures follow, not just for Lucy, but for all the Pevensie kids.
I think there are many treats in store for those who haven't read the book. Now I knew that Narnia was "in the wardrobe" (who didn't?) but I didn't anticipate the several interesting characters and remarkable visuals that were to be seen in Narnia. Not that they eclipse the young leads - all four are credible, and I'm sure they will go on to even bigger things. The biggest names in the cast - Jim Broadbent (in a cameo) and Tilda Swinton, don't disappoint, with Swinton being especially chilling as the White Witch. Recognisable voices are all over the place, from Ray Winstone to Dawn French to Liam Neeson.
Friends of mine have told me the film is very faithful to the book. That seems like another huge plus point, and in a way I suppose it is. But it's worth pointing out that what works so well on the page does not always work so well on the screen. I discovered this when watching Tim Burton's attempts to recreate classic moments from Charlie And The Chocolate Factory; however well he did them technically, they lacked a spark.
It seems that Adamson realises this, and it's at that point he enters LotR territory. Before long you will see (POSSIBLE SPOILER WARNING) birds soaring from overhead in a key battle, the "resurrections" of important characters, a "crowning" moment - it's all been done before, and done better, by Peter Jackson. Even the effects were better in LotR - just compare some of the computerised animals to Gollum and you will see what I mean. Additionally, there's some blatant blue screening on more than one occasion.
It's not that the battles are bad. They do have their effective moments, such as a memorable duel between Peter and the White Witch, but they sometimes border on tedium and confusion. And the film is not without its moments of unbearable cheese - just watch, for example, how some characters are "resurrected".
Despite the best efforts of Andrew Adamson and his crew, the order of things in the fantasy world hasn't changed. The Chronicles Of Narnia have got off to a satisfactory start, but Harry Potter and The Lord Of The Rings are still - clearly - in front.
Corpse Bride (2005)
The ghost of Jack Skellington hangs over this
Am I the only one who's beginning to think that even though Tim Burton is still churning out solid entertainment, his magic touch deserted him ages ago.
To be honest, I don't think he's been involved in a really spectacular film for over a decade. And this "really spectacular film" comes to mind when watching his latest, Corpse Bride. Because both that film and his latest are stop-motion animations.
Yes, I'm talking about The Nightmare Before Christmas, that near masterwork which had some remarkable elements, including a wickedly original sense of humour, interesting characters, a well-played romance, and songs that weren't brilliant but grew on you.
Barring the songs (which are unmemorable and difficult to make out) Corpse Bride has got all of those. But the storyline is less coherent. That, and the film seems more trite and sentimental. Is this because we're getting a little too used to Tim Burton's style of film-making? Or is he just becoming too methodical? Victor (Johnny Depp) is getting cold feet before his arranged marriage to Victoria (Emily Watson). Somehow, he can't even remember the vows before the big day. So he goes for a wander in the nearby forest, where he can rehearse and hopefully put things right. But just as everything seems to come together for him, a venture into the forest unearths the sinister Corpse Bride, Emily (Helena Bonham Carter).
The story is told competently enough to keep you involved, and the animation is superb. At least Burton's visual gift hasn't been diminished; the production design and the faces of some of Corpse Bride's characters, especially the title character, prove that. These stop-motion figurines are voiced by a wide array of talent. Although truthfully, that means little these days; Charlie And The Chocolate Factory's gifted cast couldn't lift it above the mediocre. Fortunately, Corpse Bride is certainly more than "mediocre"; it's guaranteed satisfaction on all levels.
My problem with it is that I was personally looking for more than just mere "satisfaction." Perhaps I'm drawing too many comparisons to The Nightmare Before Christmas? I know this review may sound negative to you, but don't get me wrong. I did like Corpse Bride and I think you will enjoy it. I just expected more. Now, if only Burton could truly rediscover his magic touch once and for all...
I've got to admit something about this show
Until a few weeks ago, I hadn't watched this show for nearly twenty years (and I'm in my mid-20's now).
I still have vague memories of the last ever show, the 1988 Christmas special. It had a panto theme, Linda Nolan was in it. That's about all I remember.
Yet somehow - SOMEHOW - I got the urge to watch it on Challenge TV recently. Possibly because I've just discovered the fine TV Ark website and ITV's 50th birthday celebrations have made these old gameshows part of primetime again.
And...well, it really made me cringe.
The one I watched was from the last full series, in 1987. I struggled to sit through a couple of the entertainers (the infamous Brian Rogers connection and yet another rendition of I Will Survive) yet the sight of a then unknown Shane Richie, an amusing Ken Dodd and Kenny Baker (yes, R2 D2) made the entertainment a little more bearable.
Add the quiz round (possibly the most interesting part of the show, and that's saying something), the mildly amusing Dusty Bin, Ted Rogers and his 3-2-1 hand movement, some tacky prizes, some pretty decent prizes, some pretty clueless answers to questions, the puzzling cryptic clues...
Why did I watch this, even as a child? I think, in spite of everything it had going against it, there was something...well, welcoming, probably endearing about it. After all, you had prizes, entertainment (if you could call it that) and a money-winning quiz in one. That, and in its prime, most of 3-2-1's entertainers were really appreciated.
But I'd have to agree with UK Gameshows here and say that Ted Rogers was the one who really "carried the show off". He pretty much summed up 3-2-1 to a T; harmless and kind of likable, with several funny moments and not ashamed of what it was.
It's the kind of show you just don't get nowadays.
That said, I hope they never resurrect it. It's more than had its time, and I think Ant and Dec are doing more than enough "resurrecting" of old gameshows at present...
The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005)
Almost everything we could have hoped for
With so much computer animation around today, Nick Park and his clay figure movers at Aardman were bound to find it difficult to prove themselves in the cinematic world. Nevertheless they managed it five years ago with Chicken Run - a great escape inspired romp that, while entertaining, seemed just a bit too bland and mainstream. And it lacked something.
Or should I say some THINGS? Two things, in fact. Two characters. Yes, after five years in the making, Aardman have finally brought the names that truly put them on the map, Wallace & Gromit, and placed them in a cinema near you. And the result is everything you could hope for. Well, almost everything...the plot isn't particularly strong or unique (you will be reminded of King Kong, An American Werewolf In London and The Hulk, among others). Additionally, the humour doesn't seem to be quite as cutting edge as it was in the Wallace and Gromit short films. But the film does keep you completely involved from beginning to end, with the extended running time passing rather quickly. So yes, it can be said that the transition from small screen to big one has been a success, despite those aforementioned minor complaints.
Anyway... (minor spoiler warning in the next paragraph) Our heroes now run a critter-trapping business, Anti-Pesto. Wallace (voiced by Peter Sallis, as always) and Gromit have the unenviable job of keeping rabbits away from their owner's vegetables. With a vegetable competition in the town soon, business is blooming. It'll bloom even more now that Lady Tottington (an unrecognisable Helena Bonham Carter) has a rabbit problem that even Wallace and Gromit seem incapable of dealing with. But they do, much to chagrin of Tottington's fiancée Lord Victor Quartermaine (Ralph Fiennes in full on snide and ruthless mode) who believes killing them is the best solution. (Reminds you of at least one of Fiennes' characters, doesn't it?) However Wallace has come up with an ingenious invention that will stop the rabbits thinking about eating any vegetables. Some kind of mind manipulation machine, as he puts it. Great idea, sure, but a minor mistake results in the creation of the dreaded Were-Rabbit. Cue trouble.
What the film lacks in thematic depth it makes up for in good all round entertainment value. Chicken Run showed us that claymation could be visually astounding, but The Curse Of The Were Rabbit is even more impressive to look at. Not that you get much of a chance when the plot picks up the pace, however. For the shorts had the amazing ability to create tense sequences and mix them with fascinating scenes & fine jokes, some more subtle than others. You want those? Well, you've got them. There's even elements of pathos and romance (just like there were in The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave) and wisely, the filmmakers do not overplay them. Any audience members who haven't seen the shorts stand a very good chance of being won over by what they see here.
I really do think that The Curse Of The Were Rabbit, or any Wallace & Gromit short for that matter, is impossible to dislike in the slightest. If this isn't a huge hit already, it will be, and deservedly so.
Serene this ain't
A few years ago, Joss Whedon's television show Firefly was axed after half a season. We should definitely be thankful, then, that the show has since attained a cult following, thus allowing Whedon the permission from Universal to reunite his lost characters for a highly entertaining romp.
Summer Glau plays the unpredictable River Tam, a telepathic teenager who Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and his crew aboard the ship "Serenity" are suddenly in doubt about protecting. This is because a certain event has caused her to lash out against her own defenders. However, they maintain their protection instincts, but have to try even harder to do so since The Operator (Chiwetel Ejiofor, at his best) is attempting to chain down River at all costs.
It's not very original, of course. The stunts are a bit like Buffy's (maybe even Matrix-lite), you'll have seen similar battles in the likes of Star Wars and there's tons of exposition that only true devotees (and I'm not one of them) will fully grasp. But it is carried off with a degree of charm and playfulness as well as seriousness. Whedon has little or no time for the broodiness of Chris Nolan or the pompous approach of George Lucas. If you've watched Buffy, Angel or any of his TV shows, he uses the same tone here, and it works. His largely unknown cast acquit themselves well.
Serenity may seem like a lightweight space opera at first glance, but there's more to it than you think. The film and its characters become more interesting as the film goes on; interesting enough, actually, for the film to deservedly earn its two hour running length. At this stage I am happy to declare it one of 2005's hidden treasures, and a welcome antidote to the big budget let downs we have already had this year.
Burton is his own worst enemy
Numerous people, including Roald Dahl himself, felt that his highly regarded children's classic, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, was poorly treated in its first filmic interpretation. Mel Stuart's 1971 film (which went as far as being named after Willy Wonka) was indeed flawed and sometimes cringeworthy, yet it has numerous original and endearing moments that leave a lasting impression. Enough, in fact, to make it a cult classic.
But that hasn't stopped the detractors complaining. So with so many remakes around these days, why not at least try and put things right? And who better to do so than Tim Burton, that strange and interesting director who has given us a handful of mini classics in the past? He understands Roald Dahl better than anyone else, or so it seems.
Now, for the few of you who don't know, the story revolves around the enormous chocolate factory of the reclusive Willy Wonka (Johnny Depp). No one has seen him for years, and he has suddenly decided to invite five children - just five, and no more - to accompany him on a tour of the factory itself. Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore), despite his poor conditions, never stops hoping that he will be one of those five. But even he cannot imagine what surprises lie in store for him.
Like The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy before it, everything seems set up for a wonderful modern film adaptation. There's so much acting talent (Johnny Depp, relative newcomer Freddie Highmore, Helena Bonham-Carter, Edward Fox, Noah Taylor, Christopher Lee), so much wonderful production design (courtesy of Alex McDowell, who did an equally impressive job for Minority Report) and numerous brilliant moments. And yet...and yet...it all feels so rehearsed. There's a lack of spontaneity, there's little feeling. As Shakespeare would put it, it's "all sound and fury, signifying nothing." Let me make it clear that I love the book. As a result, one of the things I personally found dissatisfying about Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was its tendency to leave out many of the book's classic early moments. Burton and screenwriter John August overcome this flaw by ignoring the earlier film and successfully re-imagining some of the best scenes in the book in their own right. Unfortunately, these scenes are all too literally replicated, so while fans of the book will be happy to see them, they lack inspiration and leave little to the imagination. Which, it should be said, was one of the key themes of the original story.
I could also argue that the pre-chocolate factory section of the film is rather rushed. This is more costly than you'd expect, and it leaves us with a poorly written leading protagonist. Freddie Highmore does his best with Charlie, but there is little in the film that suggests he will become the truly deserving winner of the prize that Wonka has in store for his favourite child.
The arrival of Johnny Depp enlivens things immensely. Twenty minutes inside the factory with this guy, and I thought "He makes Gene Wilder look sane." Unfortunately, Depp's fantastic performance is hampered by Burton's interference, in the form of childhood flashbacks for Wonka. These may be innovative, but they are distracting and forced. It's as if Burton felt he had to justified to give Wonka a personality, when really he should have let Depp do most of the work. (Pretty much in the same way Gore Verbinski did in Pirates Of The Caribbean.) Roald Dahl managed to find the correct balance of pathos and irreverence in Wonka; neither Mel Stuart nor Tim Burton have been able to do so. It's a shame.
Of course, those who have come along just to see their favourite book faithfully and stylishly recreated, with a few twists here and there (and these include the way Burton has staged the Oompa Loompas' songs) won't be disappointed. It even appears, at one point, that he has given the film a remarkable ending; unfortunately, the film ends up closing with a poorly handled, overly moralistic sermon on "family values", that is jarring in the context of the film.
So there you have it. For all that Tim Burton does right with this film, he misses an opportunity. And thus we have another "Hitchhiker's Guide" - enjoyable, but could and should have been much, much more.
War of the Worlds (2005)
Will Spielberg ever truly reach the dark side?
There is a simple reason why Steven Spielberg is so popular among many. He has an ability to place you in the moment that few other contemporary directors have. Even his worst films have their redeeming qualities - qualities that generally stay with you, and make those films worth a glance. He is undeniably sentimental and manipulative, but he is one of the best - if not THE best - at being so. His best films have made drama genuinely moving, rather than nauseating, and most of the suspenseful set pieces he has created have been inspired and stood the test of time, even if they have (unfortunately) driven on endless imitators.
With War Of The Worlds, Spielberg has attempted a bleak vision of the future for the third time. In his previous two attempts - AI and Minority Report - he came agonisingly close to the dark side (in my view, he has never come closer than Schindler's List, and even then he stumbled a tiny bit), but overly sentimental and not-entirely-logical endings severely damaged both efforts. However, they were still enough positives about Minority Report to earn it more widespread critical acclaim and a strong recommendation from me (which still stands today).
War Of The Worlds looked promising. The central crew of all his films from Schindler's List onwards was still in place. Realising just how successful his last collaboration with Tom Cruise was, he recalled him to play the lead role. Respected actors such as Miranda Otto (recently made more famous thanks to The Lord Of The Rings trilogy), Tim Robbins and gifted child actor Dakota Fanning were also cast.
A modern-day remake of the classic H.G. Wells story, War Of The Worlds' protagonist is dock worker Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise). His family life is in pieces - neither his son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) nor daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) fully appreciate him. So when his ex-wife Mary Ann (Miranda Otto) leaves the kids around for a weekend visit, it looks like another case of awkward bonding. Then a bizarre storm starts brewing...
And at last, we think, the dark side will not elude Spielberg. The aliens are coming, and their goal is, in one word, extermination. And so we watch as the human race fights to survive against the aliens in the tripods.
All of the action scenes hold your attention, and some are truly breathtaking. One of these is a suspense scene that's reminiscent of the spy-der search from Minority Report. I might even argue that it tops that particular scene. There's holocaust-style imagery that leaves an incredible impact. Once again, Spielberg manages to draw a reasonable performance from Tom Cruise (although he was acting a little too smarmy for my liking in the early stages of the film). And, as always, Spielberg shows his indefatigable gift for getting the most from child actors. Dakota Fanning proves to be the perfect choice for Spielberg's latest wide-eyed protagonist. Refreshingly, her character is not such a cheap ploy for sympathy.
But hang on...didn't I mention earlier on that Spielberg doesn't seem to know how to end these kind of films? I won't spoil the ending for you, but I can say that while it's not as damaging as AI's ending was, it is still poorly executed. The ending's not the only cop-out; I seem to recall an action scene that was all-too-conveniently resolved. I can also recall a couple of references to ET. Nice touches though they are, we're not really looking for "nice" in War Of The Worlds, are we? And somehow, I think we could have done without Morgan Freeman's voice-overs, Steve.
Worst of all, when we look at the picture as a whole, we suddenly see that War Of The Worlds doesn't really add up to much. It's brilliantly executed, to be sure, but the best science fiction has always dealt more with ideas as well as action. For the sake of crafting a modern blockbuster, Spielberg tends to have set almost all meaning aside at the expense of action scenes and only marginally successful character bonding moments. (Then again, maybe this is more the fault of the screenwriters...) When you see what Spielberg is capable of as a director you find yourself expecting more than what he delivers here.
In a nutshell, War Of The Worlds is another missed opportunity in the Spielberg catalogue. It's undoubtedly worth watching, and it fits the bill as a summer movie, but like Minority Report before it, its lack of focus has prevented it from realising its true potential.
Batman Begins (2005)
Batman Begins...just as we wanted it to
Co-written and directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, Gary Oldman, Tom Wilkinson, Rutger Hauer, Morgan Freeman
I can now understand what David Goyer has been saving his energy for. After the calamitous mistake that was Blade: Trinity, he has teamed up with Memento helmsman Christopher Nolan to try and bring us the definitive tale of Batman's origins. Probably even the definitive Batman collection. And if the latter is the case, then it has got off to a very promising start.
We begin with a young Bruce Wayne watching his parents' murder in an alleyway. His quest for vengeance eventually lands him in a Far East prison, where Bruce (now played by Christian Bale) is rescued and recruited in the art of self-defense by Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson). He then makes the decision to return to a decaying Gotham City (even more so than the one Tim Burton envisioned), and finds his beloved family business, Wayne Enterprises, now under the corrupt corporate control of Earle (Rutger Hauer). This helps spur him on to create his famous crime-fighting alter-ego, with the help of family friend Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman).
This re-imagination of Batman appears to be taking its cues from several previous comic book adventures. It combines the fun of Spider-Man, the dark style of Tim Burton's Batman movies, the intelligence of X-Men and the tragic elements of The Hulk. However, The Hulk played itself so straight that it failed to grasp the enjoyment factor so crucial to comic book films. Nolan doesn't make the same mistake as Ang Lee did, carefully sprinkling humour throughout and generally investing the right amount of time on characters. Where the Spider-Man and X-Men films lacked depth and ambition, Batman Begins is certainly not found wanting in those areas. It takes a gifted director to juggle the best elements of all the aforementioned films and yet still make everything seem fresh. But Nolan has somehow done it.
As a bonus, Batman Begins is not an overly violent film, as Sin City was. While it contains its share of gripping action sequences, the film never lets us forget the consequences of its characters' actions, on both sides of the coin. An aura of realism and gloom surrounds the whole picture. Again, credit goes to Nolan here.
The villainous plot, set in motion by The Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) is silly (as with most comic book films), but is carried off with the right element of gusto and believability. There are a couple of things that let the film down a little, however; a couple of characters could have been better developed, and why was there so much quick-cutting in a key chase? But those are minor quibbles.
Nolan seems aware that his script is not enough to carry the work, and so he has assembled an incredible cast. The top-billed names aren't just stars, they are genuinely gifted actors. Christian Bale had the most expectations on his shoulders before the film, but he brings out more depth in Bruce Wayne than any Batman in the Burton/Schumacher era. His is the most human and vulnerable, although the vulnerability almost flies out the window when he dons the Batsuit. (Speaking of which, fans, just wait until you see the gadgets...)
As Bruce's childhood friend/love interest, Katie Holmes plays on the adorability factor that she's acquired from TV and previous movies. Liam Neeson, as always, is excellent, and in some ways acts against type here. Cillian Murphy and Gary Oldman also act against type, though Oldman is more successful than Murphy. While I never saw a terrorist lurking behind the glasses of Oldman's Lieutenant Gordon, it was slightly harder for me to accept the more "everyman" Murphy as a bad-to-the-bone villain. Nevertheless, he just about pulls it off. Everyone else, including Ken Watanabe, Tom Wilkinson and Michael Caine, is solid, with Caine getting a chance to enjoy some fine moments, comedic or otherwise.
At last, the Joel Schumacher abominations can be laid to rest and this franchise can start anew. There will probably be better, more serious films than this one in 2005, but it will take one heck of a comic book adaptation to top this one.
Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005)
A wasted opportunity
No relation to the 1940's Alfred Hitchcock comedy of the same name, Mr. & Mrs. Smith is an actioner/comedy/thriller that manages to entertain in spite of some serious limitations.
John Smith (Brad Pitt) and Jane Smith (Angelina Jolie) are not your typical married couple. (Yeah, I know, we've heard stories like this before, but this film's hardly original). They both live a seemingly normal life together, in a nice house in a nice neighbourhood. Both are trained assassins, but they don't even know the truth about one another. That is, until they are dispatched to kill the same target.
Shades of Alias, The Incredibles and True Lies consistently surface, from the deceptions to the violence to the thrills. What differentiates Mr. & Mrs. Smith from those other works is its sense of fun.
Director Doug Liman showed with The Bourne Identity that he is adept with action, and films such as Go have shown his skill with plotting and character. Unfortunately the film's plot is all over the place, even when the film is at its most entertaining, and the character moments are rather ordinary.
It is saved mostly due to the sparring between the two leads. When Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are on screen together, competing with one another either verbally or physically, this film really soars. (Jolie has more than just atoned for her performance in Alexander here; for the first time in a long while, I found her tolerable.) This, in addition to some inventive set design and cool gadgets, is what effectively constitutes half, it not more, of the film. At one point I was convinced that this would be my first truly unqualified recommendation of the summer.
Alas, not long after John and Jane find each other out, the fun, laughs and excitement give way to a succession of eventually tedious chases and shoot-outs. After being very entertaining for long periods, the film begins to outstay its welcome very quickly. There are still some enjoyably quirky moments hidden in there, but I doubt that most viewers will still be as attentive by this point.
I would have appreciated Mr. & Mrs. Smith more if it had maintained the tone that came before the generic action scenes throughout the entire film. Then again, that probably wouldn't have filled up the two hour running length, would it? Mr. & Mrs. Smith is entertaining enough, I suppose, but in my opinion it's a wasted opportunity. And that's not the first of those I've come across this season.
Directed by Danny Boyle
Starring Alex Etel, Lewis McGibbon, James Nesbitt, Daisy Donovan
Trainspotting helmsman Danny Boyle softens up to create a child-friendly film, and hits the mark without leaving a particularly hard or memorable impact. Millions is an inoffensive, charming film with some moments of irreverence, which makes it perfectly suitable for a quiet evening's family entertainment.
Millions isn't exactly about finding millions, but it seems like 7-year old Damien (Alex Etel) has done just that when he discovers a bag with hundreds of thousands of pounds in it. With only days to go until Britain converts to the Euro (OK, Boyle's probably getting a little ahead of himself here), Damien and his brother Anthony (Lewis McGibbon) must quickly think about what to do with the money.
Obviously, saving it would be pointless, so the only choices left to the brothers would be to return it or spend it. Or even give it to the poor. But as Damien finds out, treating "poor" people can backfire. This isn't the first (and will hardly be the last) film to underline the evils of money, but it does so in a fresh enough manner, from a child's eye view.
From a remarkable child's eye, that is. Damien has strong spiritual beliefs, and we get a chance to see him demonstrate these from his point of view throughout most in the film. He even - literally - sees dead people, but this is no Sixth Sense. Rather, we see how he views the Saints, and his idea of what constitutes St. Francis of Assisi and St. Peter (to name but a couple) is bound to keep you amused. As are several other moments in this film.
The cast pull all of this off winningly, though I have to say the kids clearly outshine the adults. Yet for all Millions' charm, there doesn't seem to be much to it besides that charm, its simple quirkiness and rather simplistic message about money. That, and the film's plot occasionally takes the easy way out. (OK, perhaps I am nitpicking...) Millions may be among the best family fare of the early summer season, though considering the competition, that isn't saying much. Danny Boyle may have convincingly widened his range here, but he'll need to do a little more if he wants to win over the general public in the same way that he has won over the Trainspotting generation.
Seed of Chucky (2004)
In Seed Of Chucky, we join Chucky the talking, slashing doll (voiced by Brad Dourif) for the fifth time. The seed in question has led to him producing an offspring with female slasher doll Tiffany (voiced by Jennifer Tilly). Offspring (voiced by Billy Boyd) stows away aboard an aircraft and jets to Hollywood to find Father and Mother. A thin narrative follows involving Jennifer Tilly (playing herself) trying to get a part in a film at all costs. This is merely a crutch for a series of sly film and pop culture references, not-very-scary horror sequences, and a series of very funny moments.
Seed Of Chucky isn't a particular frightening slasher film. But it is still entertaining - in fact, I'd go as far as saying it's among the best in the recent crop of repetitive, cheap horror flicks. It has a tone very reminiscent of Team America: World Police (which is very welcome), but has neither as sharp an edge nor as broad a scope. This means that it will be more quickly forgotten; for all the fun to be had from watching Seed Of Chucky, there is really very little to it. Nevertheless, it's a good excuse for a time-passer. There's nothing pretentious about it. If you sit down and relax, you're definitely guaranteed some entertainment value. Better this than the likes of Ocean's Twelve and Be Cool.
"Revenge" is sweet
Written and directed by George Lucas
Starring Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Hayden Christensen, Ian McDiarmid, Samuel L. Jackson, Christopher Lee, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew, Frank Oz
In the midst of the generally positive response to the final Star Wars prequel, there are still those that say the new films are just not up to the standard of the original trilogy. They say things like: The spontaneity and the magic have gone, we know what's going to happen, Star Wars is nothing but a cynical franchise now, does this story really need to be stretched out over three films, etc., etc.
Well, after viewing Episode III (aka Revenge Of The Sith) myself, I've concluded that perhaps some of the above criticisms are right, but not all of them. Some of the "magic" is still there. Admit it, didn't the trailer leave you optimistic? And of course it is possible for a film to enthrall even though you know what's coming. Look at the joy we have got from re-viewing the best action and suspense films. The key to these movies' success is not so much what they do as how they do it. And Revenge Of The Sith is implemented well enough to rank as the best of the prequels, even if it is a tiny cut below even Return Of The Jedi.
While Episodes I and II were watchable, their problems were too obvious. Effects had taken over. The bad dialogue was more ever-present than before. The characters and stories just weren't as interesting. Episode III has rectified these errors to a large extent, if not entirely. The result is a crisp, thrilling and occasionally brilliant narrative with some of the best battles in the whole Star Wars saga. It's not exactly the "Titanic in space" that George Lucas said it would be, and I'm thankful for that. I doubt many would have tolerated another big and wooden love story, especially after the mess Lucas made of it in Episode II. Fortunately, he knows how to restrain himself this time. Love is still a prevalent theme in Star Wars (and to an extent, it always has been) but the focus is on, as the opening title card states, "War!" Indeed. The moment the famed scrolling text disappears, we are plunged straight into the action as the Jedi attempt to save Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) from his captors, Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) and General Grievous.
What the Jedi council don't know about yet are the corrupt plans that Palpatine (or Darth Sidious) has for Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen). These plans will help Anakin obtain power that could preserve Anakin's secret marriage to Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman). Of course, Anakin is taken in by Palpatine's idea, but the likes of Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson), unsettled by Palpatine's growing influence, are uneasy about this. Of course, they can't prove anything yet, and they still have the matter of attacks on the Republic to take care of.
Signs of Anakin's eventual transformation into Darth Vader appear right from the beginning. Palpatine plays a key role in the conversion, but the triggers for it are different, and rather shocking. So too are the results. There are scenes in this movie that you would have thought were beyond Lucas' ability as a filmmaker. He outdoes himself not only with some of the emotional scenes (yes, even Padmé and Anakin have one genuinely bearable moment together) but also with some of the battles (such as the final light-saber showdowns between Palpatine & Yoda and Obi-Wan & Anakin/Darth Vader respectively). There's good chase scenes too - one between Grievous and Obi-Wan stands out. When Episode III takes off, it really soars. Episode II only postponed the inevitable; the conclusion of this film is especially hard-hitting.
That could probably be because Lucas has better actors here working with him than in the original three films. Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman and Samuel L. Jackson have nothing to prove here, and to a degree, they transfer the skills they already have (although Portman is criminally wasted). But if I had to give someone real credit, it would be Ian McDiarmid, the most under-appreciated actor in the entire saga in my opinion. His transformation from Chancellor to Emperor is one of the film's standout moments. Watching him subtly lure Anakin to the dark side is eerily chilling.
The jury is still out on Hayden Christensen, however. He has won over critics with his performance in Shattered Glass, and is significantly better here than he was in the shoes of the whiny and sometimes annoying Anakin of Episode II. And the way he handles his light-saber duels has to be seen to be believed. Alas, there are times when his old weaknesses come seeping through. But is this more the fault of George Lucas?
It probably is. You know how Harrison Ford and Alec Guinness felt when speaking their lines. And dialogue's not the only problem. Lucas has taken these prequels far, far too seriously. Of course they're entertaining, but the playful tone of the originals has been toned down too much. I can't help wondering if only the true, hardcore fans will fully appreciate Episode III, and it's not likely to welcome any new fans to the saga. Those who are expecting it to hit the heights of Episodes IV and V will definitely be a little disappointed.
But let's forget about what Episode III isn't and appreciate it for what it is - a well produced, gripping summer blockbuster that brings this saga to a dignified, if not earth-shattering end. And that's pretty much all that needs to be said.
Not as good as it should have been
Directed by: Garth Jennings
Starring: Martin Freeman, Mos Def, Sam Rockwell, Zooey Deschanel, John Malkovich, Bill Nighy, Anna Chancellor, Alan Rickman (voice), Stephen Fry (voice), Warwick Davis
I haven't read any of the five volumes of Douglas Adams' five-part "trilogy", the Complete Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, so you could say that my expectations were not matched by those who expected it to stay faithful to the radio show, the early '80's TV show, or the books. To be honest, I was drawn to this by its irreverent look and promising cast.
Now, for anyone else unfortunate enough to be uninitiated...
Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) is having one of those days. The local authorities want to build a bypass through his house, in the country (yes, I know it sounds silly, but that's the whole spirit of the thing). His best mate, Ford Prefect (Mos Def) is an alien. And the Vogons are coming down to destroy Earth! No fear, Ford will get Arthur out of danger - and into an adventure with some more crazy characters, like the president of the galaxy, Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell) and Marvin the Paranoid Android (Warwick Davis; voice of Alan Rickman). Thankfully for Arthur, there is another human on board - Tricia "Trillian" McMillan (Zooey Deschanel), so you could say that his sanity stays intact to a certain extent.
Sanity's not a good word to use when describing the film. Both fans and non-fans expect the film to be "far out", and the film delivers.
The talent behind the camera knows this. The director, Garth Jennings, was behind that crazy-but-brilliant video for Blur's "Coffee and TV". The composer is long time Divine Comedy collaborator Joby Talbot, and the ironic tone of his score fits the scene perfectly. (As a bonus, he even has Neil Hannon sing the closing credits song!) The talent in front of the camera is exceptional. Everyone - and I mean everyone - is perfectly cast. I don't think anyone but Martin Freeman could have played Arthur Dent as well. On this evidence, he may have a very good future as an everyman. Zooey Deschanel also deserves a mention (although she had one scene where she appeared to be forcing emotion). She may be one of today's most underrated and underused actresses.
Like Doctor Who, The Hitchhiker's Guide has numerous intelligent and innovative ideas, quite a few of which are heard in Stephen Fry's voice-over of the book itself. It also has a strong sense of fun and doesn't rely on its effects. Nevertheless, it uses the budget it has to create some of the most memorable moments in the film. Watch out for the scenes where Slartibartfast (Bill Nighy) literally takes Arthur on a moving tour of another world, or when the gang encounter Humma Kavula (John Malkovich).
It all sounds so good. So why is this reviewer not as satisfied as he could have been? Let's start with the nit-picks. More Marvin at the expense of Zaphod and Ford wouldn't have gone amiss. No disrespect to Sam Rockwell and Mos Def, but their characters do get a little tiresome after a while. Here's a plot hole for you too (POSSIBLE SPOILER WARNING) - what exactly becomes of John Malkovich's character? You can be sure I don't know the answer. (Maybe a sequel will resolve things.) The real problem lies where I don't want it to lie - the Arthur-Trillian romantic connection, which apparently wasn't in the first book. I've no qualms with it being in the film, but it is poorly executed. It doesn't have enough feeling to it. Freeman and Deschanel do their best to make it work, but the script lets them down. If these two had even a hint of the subtle chemistry that Freeman and Lucy Davis shared in The Office, the love story may have been special. Instead it seems entirely forced and obligatory. The near cop-out at the end of the romantic subplot was enough to leave me disgusted (and cost the film a mark). I wonder if Douglas Adams would have been that pleased with an ending that feels a little too happy-clappy.
The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy is a perfectly fine adaptation, but it should have been more considering the amount of talent on board.
Directed by: Breck Eisner
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Steve Zahn, Penelope Cruz, Lambert Wilson, Delroy Lindo, William H. Macy, Rainn Wilson
Sahara is a run-of-the-mill action adventure flick that borrows heavily from the best of James Bond and Indiana Jones. It has a cast lacking charisma and an incoherent plot that isn't worth thinking about.
I've made the film sound pretty derivative and pointless so far, haven't I? Well, derivative it undoubtedly is. Regarding its pointlessness, I'm not so sure. It does have some really good jokes and a few wonderfully staged action sequences. That's perfectly alright if you're into those kind of films and are looking for a tolerable diversion for an empty evening. But we should expect modern blockbusters to be more than just "tolerable diversions". Having characters worth caring about, for example, goes a long way. As does not having such clueless bad guys and huge plot holes that are hard to ignore.
For what it's worth, Sahara's based on a novel (although you wouldn't think so when watching it). It tells the story of Dirk Pitt (Matthew McConaughey) who is in Africa at the same time as World Health Organisation doctor Eva Rojas (Penelope Cruz). He's searching for treasure, she's looking for the cure for an epidemic. By chance, their paths cross. This leads them to eventually uncover a deadly scheme, and to attempt to stop whoever's behind it.
The acting by the leads in this film will have many wishing that The Mummy's leads (Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz and John Hannah) had been in the lead roles instead. I can't believe that I once thought of Penelope Cruz as a talented and radiant performer. Here she is both wooden and unsexy. Matthew McConaughey lacks any kind of presence as an action hero. Indeed, of the three leads, only Steve Zahn manages to come away with any kind of credit, and that is mostly from the comic relief he provides. He's fun to watch, as is Rainn Wilson (who's currently acting like Gareth Keenan in the American version of "The Office"). Sadly, their energy doesn't extend to the rest of the supporting cast. Delroy Lindo and William H. Macy are both wasted, while Lambert Wilson is as insufferable here as he was in the Matrix sequels. (I suppose that's a good thing though, in a perverse way - he is the villain, after all.)
As I've already stated, Sahara isn't completely pointless, but what's in it has been done too many times before. There are better things that you could do with your time.
Be Cool (2005)
"Fun" is definitely an "alibi for mediocre" here
Director: F. Gary Gray
Starring: John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Vince Vaughn, Cedric The Entertainer, Christina Milian, Harvey Keitel, The Rock, Danny De Vito, Steven Tyler
The title of the latest Elmore Leonard adaptation, Be Cool, couldn't be more apt. Unfortunately, the title is apt in the wrong way. This movie desperately wants to Be Cool, but fails.
Be Cool FEELS like something "cool", as the title says. The stars are present. The movie seems slickly made. There's some pretty smart dialogue. So what's missing? Simple. The two key elements that made its predecessor, Get Shorty, so enjoyable - consistency and energy. The smart dialogue may have remained, but it is not as smart and only surfaces occasionally, rather than throughout the movie.
Chili Palmer (John Travolta) is back. Bored with the film industry, he's decided to go wandering into the music industry. He finds his prodigy in the shape of Linda Moon (Christina Milian). With the help of the widow of a music producer friend, Edie (Uma Thurman), he believes he can make her a star. But he has opposition from several angles, including Linda's managers (Harvey Keitel and Vince Vaughn) and a music producer (Cedric The Entertainer) to whom Edie owes quite a large sum of money.
There's a few fine performances to note. The casting of singer Christina Milian was certainly inspired. Thanks to her, Linda is a charming and bubbly character who you want to see succeed. Cedric The Entertainer is pretty good, and The Rock steals the show in nearly every scene he's in. Perhaps he has a good future as a comic actor, if not an action one. Sadly, these actors, in addition to a cameo appearance from Steven Tyler and some smart and/or funny moments, are the only things that make the movie watchable.
F. Gary Gray, the man behind the decent enough Italian Job remake, directs without any flair. The movie, for the most part, has a dull and recycled feel. His approach is uninteresting, and so are most of his cast. Back when Get Shorty was released, John Travolta had just made a wonderful comeback with Pulp Fiction. Now, films like Battlefield Earth and The Punisher have done more than enough to heavily tarnish his reputation. So obviously, he is hoping that Be Cool will set him back on the right track again. If so, he's wrong. He's cool during the role, all right, but too cool. Too laid back. This performance is phoned in. As is Uma Thurman's (obviously, too much of her energy was spent on killing Bill) and Harvey Keitel's. Vince Vaughn is just irritating.
The entertaining last half hour comes far too late to save the film. Get Shorty not only appealed to a wide audience, but was smart and worked on many other levels. So, for that matter, did Jackie Brown (Tarantino's most underrated film) and Out Of Sight. Be Cool must be the first Elmore Leonard adaptation that has left me seriously disappointed. If you think that I'm taking this film too seriously, and that I should just lighten up and enjoy it because it's fun, the film really is not that much fun. Sunday Times critic Cosmo Landesman noted in his review of Ocean's Twelve that: "Fun is an alibi for mediocre". I don't think that this statement is entirely correct, but it's correct enough in the case of both Ocean's Twelve and Be Cool. If mediocrity is what the "cool" actors in Hollywood are now aspiring to, I dread the prospect of continuing to buy tickets for these kind of films.
Hotel Rwanda (2004)
An easily accessible and very valuable history lesson
Co-written and directed by: Terry George
Starring: Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo, Joaquin Phoenix, Nick Nolte, Cara Seymour
First things first; Hotel Rwanda is an excellent film, possibly my favourite of the last twelve months. Terry George's film successfully places an uplifting story of survival in the midst of a real-life disaster, rarely slipping into melodrama. It is content to tell its tale in an understated and unpretentious manner.
The disaster in question is the Rwandan genocide of 1994. In the space of three months, one million people were murdered in Rwanda - and frighteningly enough, not many people around the world seemed to notice. Most of these people were the Rwandan Tutsi's, murdered by the Rwandan Hutu's. The Hutu's described the Tutsi's as "cockroaches", "traitors" and "invaders" who "stole our land".
While all this went on, a Hutu hotel manager, Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) campaigned to save as many Hutu's and Tutsi's as he possibly could. He felt especially close to the Tutsi's, his wife, Tatiana (Sophie Okonedo), being one herself. And so his hotel effectively became a camp for refugees. But he knew that it couldn't stay that way forever.
Certain film intellectuals slam these "manipulative" films for making us "feel good about feeling bad", and not teaching us anything new. Others will certainly give Hotel Rwanda a hammering for focusing too much on the survivors and not enough on the victims. I seem to recall some people stating similar things about Schindler's List and The Pianist, two critically-acclaimed historical dramas.
In my opinion, these writers are way off the mark. Detractors must remember that the aim of both Hotel Rwanda and Schindler's List is not to be the definitive film of the Rwandan genocide or the Holocaust, respectively. They are not documentaries either. Rather, they are stories about how one man made a difference during a horrific tragedy. They never let you forget the seriousness of these situations, aiming to show you how you can find hope and optimism in those times - and they both do so brilliantly.
It's questionable, however, how much of an impact such films can have after all, as one character states at one point during the film: "After they see this, people are gonna say 'My God, That's terrible' and then go on eating their dinners". But if film-makers like Terry George and Steven Spielberg believe they can make a difference, then why shouldn't they try? Mainstream audiences should be reminded of events like the Rwandan genocide, and it's to George's credit that he presents the situation in such an effective manner.
A hero such as Paul Rusesabagina did exist, so why deny him the compelling story that he deserves, based on the evidence before us? No two-hour film could possibly do justice to the Rwandan genocide, and George understands that. So rather than constantly bombard us with exploitative, over-the-top footage of people dying, he instead focuses on Paul's story, which is the right thing to do. George doesn't take sides either - the film might be seen by some as a battle between "good" Tutsi's and "bad" Hutu's, but not for one moment is the film as simplistic as that. That we sympathise with the Tutsi "cockroaches" is largely down to the treatment that they are receiving.
I've known that Don Cheadle was a gifted performer for a while, but to anyone who only remembers him from Ocean's Eleven, the strength of this performance may come as a real shock. The film lies almost squarely on his shoulders, and while his role is largely an underplayed one, it does call for him to be emotive numerous times, and he is up to the task. His Oscar nomination was merited, as was Sophie Okonedo's. We find Tatiana both sympathetic and believable despite the fact that she doesn't figure as prominently. Cara Seymour's Red Cross worker also stands out (in fact, she features heavily in two of the most moving scenes in the film). With the exception of Joaquin Phoenix and Nick Nolte, the rest of the cast is largely unknown, but no less effective.
Hotel Rwanda would have been a worthy Oscar winner, and is, without doubt, an easily accessible and very valuable history lesson.
Rating: ***** (out of *****)
Bride & Prejudice (2004)
Co-written and directed by: Gurinder Chadha
Starring: Aishwarya Rai, Martin Henderson, Naveen Andrews
The title says it all; within minutes, you should easily be able to draw parallels between Pride & Prejudice and this. Elizabeth Bennet has become Lalita Bakshi, and there is a Mr. Darcy and Mr. Wickham. That means that the story should be pretty clear to fans of Jane Austen and/or films such as Bridget Jones's Diary, but to those who aren't so clear, I'll give a brief recap:
Lalita (Aishwarya Rai) is one of five Indian daughters born to sisters born to Mr. Bakshi (Anupam Kher) and Mrs. Bakshi (Nadira Babbar). The Bakshis are eager to marry their daughters off to rich people, and believe they are on the way to finding a solution when Mr. Balraj (Naveen Andrews) and Mr. Darcy (Martin Henderson) arrive in the country, but complications will inevitably arise.
Gurinder Chadha scored a surprise hit two years ago with the enjoyable but inconsequential Bend It Like Beckham, and she improves on it slightly here to create a very enjoyable concoction, one that may make a few false steps but overall leaves a very pleasant taste in the mouth.
If you're going to transport a classical novel to Bollywood, the best way to do it is light-heartedly. And whatever you do, don't forget the music. Chadha has done exactly that, adding boundless energy and a couple of memorable musical numbers to an ordinary but generally well told story. I say "generally" because the plot construction is questionable in some ways.
I could also point out that there aren't too many genuine laughs, and the lip-synching on the songs is a little obvious (yes, apparently the actors and actresses didn't sing on screen). But the story, music and enthusiasm of the cast help cover for these faults. Speaking of the cast, the jury's still out on them as actors, but here they're perfect for their roles. If Bride & Prejudice is a success, it could help move former Miss World Aishwarya Rai to bigger roles outside Bollywood. She looks fantastic, and, like nearly all the film's characters, is very likable. However, she could fall into the same trap as Keira Knightley if she isn't careful; that is to say, a rather limited actress who initially looked like she had a lot of potential.
But for the moment we should forget about such trivialities and embrace a film like Bride & Prejudice - good, generic clean fun that is always entertaining, a film that leaves mediocre sitcoms like Wimbledon in the dust.
Rating: **** (out of *****)
(AUTHOR'S NOTE: I wrote this review back in October '04, and my opinion of the film still stands.)
Ocean's Twelve (2004)
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan, Don Cheadle, Matt Damon, Andy Garcia, Elliott Gould, Carl Reiner, Shaobo Qin, Eddie Jemison, Bernie Mac, Vincent Cassel
Smug. No other word can come to mind when watching Ocean's Twelve, Steven Soderbergh's latest step down the ladder of respectability.
When he brilliantly re-made the 1960 Rat Pack flick Ocean's Eleven for the New Millennium Audience, critics thought he was just taking time off. Yet films like these seem to be his bread and butter these days. Why else would he even contemplate making a sequel? Perhaps he might have been better off not going mainstream after all. Since Out Of Sight, his standard has gradually fallen. (I was one of those not overly impressed by Traffic.) Well, in fairness to him, you could do worse. I can't think of many other directors who could get such a cast together for a popcorn film, and then photograph them so well, before proceeding to waste them. Sure, they might be having fun (perhaps too much fun), but you know they could be doing better. That wasn't really a problem in Ocean's Eleven, because the audience were enjoying themselves too. This time, though, the audience appears to have been left out of the "fun", so to speak.
During the opening 20 minutes, Ocean's Twelve looks like it might just be the rarity of a sequel that bests the original. Casino boss Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) is set out on taking revenge against Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and his band of eleven after their successful heist in the first film. When Benedict tracks them down, he quickly lays down his orders: pay back what you stole, plus interest, in two weeks.
Sounds like the set-up for a worthwhile sequel, doesn't it? Well, it gets more ambitious. The gang decide to jet off to Europe to find the money, but soon, they become tracked by sexy Europol agent Isabel Lahiri (Catherine Zeta-Jones). And this, my friends, is where the heists - and the problems - begin.
Screenwriter George Nolfi tries to impress us with dialogue that isn't really that impressive. The heist subplots twist and turn so much that they aren't worth caring about. A character illogically switches to the good side. Two admittedly innovative scenes nearly come off, but end up feeling self-indulgent.
While all this is going on, the cast (and the director, you sense) seem to be smirking throughout. (The biggest offender of the lot would have to be Vincent Cassel, who makes his supposedly important character irritating.) All in all, it's reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino at his absolute worst. Even David Holmes is in below par form as he produces a rather forgettable score.
In a way, watching Ocean's Twelve is like watching a dozen Jose Mourinhos. But at least that man has a good reason to be pleased with himself.
Rating: ** (out of *****)
Almost excellent...but a little uncertain
Co-adapted and directed by: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Starring: Audrey Tautou, Gaspard Ulliel, Dominique Pinon, Chantal Neuwirth
This film has been touted as "Amelie goes to war"...
Sigh. It seems that I can't even get past my first sentence without mentioning Amelie. I guess the sight of Audrey Tautou on this film's poster will make it hard for viewers to think of any other film.
Yes, the film that put the aforementioned actress on the map and helped restore the reputation of director Jean-Pierre Jeunet has resurfaced in our minds. The director and his muse have re-united for A Very Long Engagement, a darker, if not entirely dissimilar, period tale.
The year is 1920. Audrey Tautou plays Mathilde, a polio victim who stubbornly refuses to believe that her fiancé Manech (Gaspard Ulliel) is dead. This is despite the fact that his whereabouts have been a mystery since he was allegedly lost in the Somme during World War I. Not even the evidence at hand will distract her from finding the truth; and, hopefully for her, the love of her life.
If you look at A Very Long Engagement on the surface, it seems like a hodgepodge. You could call it Amelie meets Saving Private Ryan, with some Murder, She Wrote and a little bit of Cold Mountain thrown in for good measure. Those who have not read the novel will seriously be questioning the film's originality.
Yet the story still stands out from the crowd, thanks to its implementation. The straightforwardness and star power of Cold Mountain is replaced by an always fascinating (if convoluted) mystery plot, and a wonderful cast. At the beginning of the film, you'd think you were watching another Amelie in Mathilde, but just like she did in Dirty Pretty Things, Audrey Tautou gradually makes you forget her all too famous alter ego and makes her character her own. She forms quite a strong chemistry with co-star Gaspard Ulliel in the process. Watch out for several Jeunet regulars (including Dominique Pinon) and a surprisingly successful cameo from Jodie Foster. (OK, maybe I wasn't completely right about the star power.)
Jeunet has always scored highly technically, and he does so again here. The Paris we see is beautiful, but not too beautiful. The director doesn't need gore to get the point about the horrors of war across (take that, Spielberg!). He also throws in some of his beloved "quirks", technical or otherwise, from Amelie...and while Jeunet thinks that such a thing will surely please his audiences, it actually made me feel a bit uneasy.
The tone of the film keeps veering from breezy to grim and vice versa. Wait until you see the habits of Mathilde and her family for example. They are all wonderful touches, but it's debatable whether they belong in a film like this. A film that refuses to glorify war whilst simultaneously trying to make us smile runs the risk of being disjointed. This is how A Very Long Engagement sometimes felt, for me anyway.
In many ways, I loved A Very Long Engagement. From Bruno Delbonnel's stunning cinematography (he tops even Amelie) to the cleverness of the script, this is one to recommend. But I could never shake off that uncertain feeling I had, and, as a result, a five-star rating is out of bounds.
Rating: **** (out of *****)