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just needed that touch more integrity, 2 June 2003

In 2054 Washington, the cop in charge of a pilot programme using human precognitives to detect crime before it is committed is himself accused of an upcoming murder and goes on the run to prove his innocence.

Minority Report is a frustrating piece of future-noir; a classic example of a good film which could have been great but for the infuriating compromises of mainstream Hollywood.

So much about this film is excellent; the thoughtfully imaged future, taking modern concepts of computer technology, architecture, consumerism and urban living to believable representations of where they are likely to be in 50 years time. Social concepts of disfunctionality, drug abuse, abandonment and invasion of privacy are equally well observed, and done so with impressively little moral comment.

The photography is suitably grainy, harsh and washed out, the casting excellent and the premise, very much influenced by American detective fiction, agreeably stuffed with plot twists and memorable characters.

There are basically only two things wrong with Minority Report, but they are both serious misconceptions which damage the films integrity and originality. The first involves the action sequences, which jar from the otherwise sombre and realistic tone and put the characters straight into over-the-top superhero territory. Cruise leaps across skyscraper-climbing cars like Spiderman. With the aid of a jet-pack he goes flying across buildings, through ceilings and plummeting down alleyways like Superman. He emerges from frantic fist-fights on automobile production lines without a hair out of place like James Bond.

It doesn't need to be like this. Minority Report is an action thriller crying out for realism and suspense delivered by believable human characters with proper physical limitations, not the gratuitous pyrotechnics of comic books. Spielberg shows a loss of nerve here, like he wants to remind us that he can still compete with the Wachowski brothers in the OTT action-showman stakes and never mind how out of place it all looks with the rest of his film.

The second mistake is even more grave. Without giving too much away, there is a point about three-quarters of the way through the film when the plot comes to a shocking, downbeat, but entirely appropriate end. It completely makes sense in context of the plot and in terms of the film's, bleak dystopian viewpoint. Popcorn-munchers and action junkies might moan, while still finding it acceptable; finding it true. Instead the Hollywood bean-counters, the marketeers and worst of all Spielberg and Cruise themselves can't bring themselves to go along with it. Faced with the choice between an artistically correct conclusion or a cynical, audience-friendly, uplifting and utterly jarring curtain they pump for the latter. By this stage of their careers both of these Hollywood powerhouses should have the guts to go for what's right rather than what's blandly thought to be commercially acceptable; but neither, it would appear, have quite enough conviction. The dollar wins out in the short term while the film's reputation, which could have been gigantic, loses out almost immediately.

The difference between a great Hollywood movie and a merely good one is often simply a matter of courage and integrity in the script, in the cutting room or in the board room. Spielberg and Cruise had another Blade Runner right in the palm of their hands here, and let it slip.

0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
still kicking, old boy, 2 June 2003

Setting out to foil a rogue North Korean Colonel bent on invading his southern neighbour, James Bond is tortured and imprisoned before setting out on a convoluted road to revenge.

The first half of this testosterone-loaded entry in the long Bond catalogue is sprightly and at times even surprising stuff. Imprisoned, tortured and only reluctantly traded back by his bosses, it's a long time before the familiar sleek, debonair master-spy emerges from the wreckage. You can't help but wonder what Roger Moore would have made of it all.

Starting off muddied and rain-lashed in combat fatigues, Bond then takes a severe beating during the Madonna-fuelled title credits to emerge after 14 months of imprisonment battered, bedraggled and encased in Robbie Coltrane's Hagrid wig and whiskers. This whole bizarre sequence reaches a delicious climax when our hirsute hero, clad only in sodden pyjamas, walks into a posh Hong Kong hotel and - deadpan - asks for his ‘usual suite'.

Even by the time the plot starts to veer towards more familiar territory, Director Lee Tamahori manages to keep the inventiveness flowing for awhile. For the first time in his 40 year career Bond actually gets to have sex onscreen (okay its not Basic Instinct, but not bad for PG rated). The veteran agent also gets to do a bit of serious swashbuckling against his sneering nemesis Gustav Graves which is actually as good an action sequence as the series has mustered in its long history.

Brosnan clearly relishes pushing at the boundaries of Bond's patented characteristics of smooth invulnerability. The first hour of this film gives him loads of opportunities to display anger, frustration, pain and even hate. Just look at his work during the sabre duel with Toby Stephens - is this guy seriously pumped up or what! Bond is essentially an absurd superman, but there are times when Brosnan makes him close to credible.

With this film, you always get the feeling that the quality can't quite last, and the second half, while still perfectly enjoyable, gradually loses sight of its plot and characters to wander down the well-trodden path of outlandish action set-pieces for their own sake. High-tech hardware and expensive sets get blown to bits, designer cars and motor bikes screech and tumble and the series' first major use of CGI technology looks distinctly threadbare in comparison to other blockbusters of the day. As so often happens with Bond films, plotlines become murky and confusing and it gets difficult to know just who is doing what, to whom, and for what reason. Its all nicely done in the familiar manner, but just a bit of an anti-climax after the imagination shown before.

Brosnan apart, most of the cast get few opportunities to shine. Toby Stephens is something of a one-dimensional pantomime villain; Halle Berry, although supposedly a crack American agent, gets surprisingly little to do and spends most of her time being either captured or rescued. Newcomer Rosamund Pike is the exception; cool, enigmatic and deadly, she easily steals the film from Berry and is one to watch.

Although it doesn't quite sustain its own early excellence, Die another Day keeps up the high standard set by Brosnan's Bond films and, in terms of the series as a whole, is among its better adventures. With probably just one film left during his tenure in the role, we can only hope that Brosnan can sign off with a bona fide Bond classic under his belt. He has been tantalisingly close so far; his films being easily the best since the 1960s adventures, but just lacking that final little touch of magic. Here's hoping the team can raise the bar just a little further next time around. It might be worth abandoning the recent - and generally successful - policy of hiring a fresh director for every movie and giving Tamahore a chance to build on his work here.

55 out of 62 people found the following review useful:
Still quality stuff, 23 May 2003

A brilliant young scientist creates life from the dead but lives to regret it when his creation goes on the rampage.

Though inevitably dated and primitive by modern standards, Frankenstein remains a tremendously impressive film and a tribute to its still somewhat under-rated director, the eccentric Englishman James Whale.

Where so many early talkies were static and wordy, Frankenstein skips unnecessary dialogue and exposition and drives through its plot at a speed that seems almost indecent nowadays. Compared to overblown remakes like Kenneth Branagh's 1994 version, Whale's work now seems like a masterpiece of brevity and minimalism. His constantly moving camera, incisive editing and dramatic use of close-ups are a mile ahead of anything far more prestigious directors were doing at the time. Expressionist photography and eccentric set designs lend atmosphere, menace and help augment some rather ripe performances; a foretaste of the paths Whale would tread in the sequel Bride of Frankenstein four years later.

And then of course there's Karloff. With comparatively few scenes and no dialogue he nonetheless manages to create a complex, intimidating, yet sympathetic creature - one of the great mimes in talking cinema and thanks in no small degree to the freedom given to him under Jack Pierce's iconic make-up.

A historic piece of cinema, and one that still stands the test of time as both art and entertainment.

Billy Liar (1963)
52 out of 59 people found the following review useful:
Maturing like good wine (and no lie!), 23 May 2003

Tragi-comic misadventures of a young man who invents a fantasy world as cover for his troubles and dreary middle-class existence in sixties Yorkshire.

Billy Liar was always a terrific film, but like so many of its kitchen-sink contemporaries (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, A Kind of Loving) it has actually grown in substance and depth since its release. Part of the reason is the extensive use of on-location filming all these movies utilised: a post-war industrial landscape long since lost and therefore all the more vivid in its posterity. But where Billy Liar gets a bigger march on its predecessors - whether by intent or accident - is that it captures this landscape on the cusp of the swinging sixties, when architecture, culture, leisure and morality were all rapidly changing. In doing so it heralds many of the themes and issues that were to dominate western culture for the remainder of the 20th Century: pop culture, advertising, media obsession, celebrity, race relations and fantasy lifestyles.

Billy seemed an endearing but essentially lost soul in his day; an immature weakling unable to face up to the realities and responsibilities of adulthood. But looked at from the hindsight of 40 years he now seems symptomatic of what is today regarded as normal, almost aspirational, behaviour: self-absorption; avoidance of responsibility; glorification of celebrity; escape culture.

Whether director John Schelsinger and writers Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall foresaw all the cultural and sociological changes they captured is something only they would know (they surely couldn't have seen the significance of casting Julie Christie - one of the ultimate swinging sixties icons). Whatever the case, what makes Billy Liar such a fascinating film is the casual, uncritical and unselfconscious way its many themes are observed. Its lack of preachiness or self-righteousness help keep it a fresh and funny entertainment that can be enjoyed at that level. Its historical importance as a perfect snapshot of a country at a time of rapid and fundamental change is nothing less than priceless.

5 out of 9 people found the following review useful:
Get a move on, Stanley!, 23 May 2003

The rise and fall of a lusty Irish adventurer and social climber determined to sleep his way to the top in 18th Century Europe.

Elephantine Stanley Kubrick adaptation of Thackery's novel containing all his characteristic detail and realism and equally characteristic flatness and emotional distance.

As usual with Kubrick, every frame is painstakingly composed and lingered over in tribute to its own craftsmanship. Actors, landscapes, props and even the weather are designed to emphasise the words DIRECTOR IN CHARGE. From a cold, technical perspective its all very impressive and polished, with a clinical auteur in evident control throughout. Kubrick doesn't so much tell a story as present a lecture in film craft; no wonder the arthouse critics and film academics love him. But there's about as much life, spontaneity, joy and emotional connection in this film as in a dead lab rat; especially in the last hour when Kubrick's attempts to engineer some audience sympathy with his anti-hero are cringeworthy.

The acting? Well it never does get much of a chance with Stanley does it? Ryan O'Neal always was pretty wooden but you can almost feel his boredom as Kubrick puts him through the wringer of take after take, with the drained and laboured results so typical of his later films. Now here's a director who really would have loved digitally created performers to manipulate like a micro-surgeon.

King Kong (1976)
19 out of 21 people found the following review useful:
Definately has its moments, 23 May 2003

In an era when many hollywood blockbusters are criticised for an over-reliance on sophisticated special effects to the detriment of everything else, this poorly remembered remake stands as a cautionary example of what can happen when a basically decent film gets let down by low-tech back up.

Producer Dino De Laurentis both cheated and deceived his audience here; selling the film on the hype of a state of the art full-size hydraulic ape that would re-define the effects landscape. Instead, what we got was the tired old fallback of the man in a monkey suit waddling bow-legged around some highly unconvincing sets.

Its such a shame because this film actually has a lot going for it. The screenplay is sprightly, good-humoured and faithful to the original while updating it with some then topical issues like fuel crises, feminism and even pornography. The makers also have a whale of a time with endless phallic imagery and self-referential quips more common to movies of the 90s than 70s.

The characters are far more quirky and idiosynchratic than you normally get in this sort of fare; a hippie academic, a star-struck, dipsy blonde and a buttoned-up corporate shark. Lange has gone on to become one of the most honoured and respected actresses of her generation, yet her career almost died right here. She was actually so good at playing the shallow, D-list airhead that critics and public alike thought it a reflection of her real self and dismissed her out of hand. Yet looking at her performance in hindsight she just oozes skill and star quality.

The film hardly puts a foot wrong until Kong appears. The production is smooth, the photography impressive, the locations superb and the story and characters engaging. But a fantasy adventure stands and falls by the suspension of disbelief achieved at the crucial moment. The first act of the 1933 Kong drags interminably until the King himself appears - then it soars. The reverse happens here; Rick Baker turns up in his ape suit, knocking down plastic trees and fighting a big rubber snake and the spell is shattered - in fact it was never even cast. The problem is also compounded by the screenplay's only serious error; making Kong sympathetic and pitiable far too early. The original Kong was always awesome and scary, even when he began to become sympathetic. Here he is just a bit too likeable, to quickly.

That the film remains just about watchable after this point is a testament to the performers and the strength of the story, but ultimately this effort has to go down as a missed opportunity to make a quality remake of a legendary film. Lets hope Peter Jackson doesn't make the same mistake next time round. You can't imagine him getting the film visually wrong, but it would be ironic indeed if he fell into the modern malaise of neglecting other key elements like story and character. Indeed, he could do worse than give the first hour of this movie a peek before he puts pen to paper.

150 out of 176 people found the following review useful:
Right said Bob!, 23 May 2003

Robert Altman's long, fragmented and very hit-or-miss career reaches another of his periodic highs with this clever and beautifully realised dissection of the English class system and skit on the classic Agatha Christie whonunnit.

Altman's preferences for kaleidoscopic social observation has sometimes failed in the past due to the weight of its own ambition: multi-plotted and multi-charactered snapshots of time and place held together by loose ties or a general thematic framework. Sometimes it pays off spectacularly (Nashville); sometimes it flatters to deceive (Short Cuts).

It works well here due to the necessary discipline of the single location and the greater opportunities for interaction among the characters this affords. Add to that an exemplary cast of (mostly) British character actors and a knowing script by Julian Fellowes that gives Altman's keenly observant camera plenty of time to make its own points.

Rightly, Altman is less concerned with the murder mystery, which is almost an aside, than with the opportunity given by a shooting party at a 1930s stately mansion to observe the English aristocracy and their servants in social interaction.

Never happier than when involved in a bit of human anthropology, Altman lightly dissects the complexities and hierarchies which go on both above and below stairs; in which many subtle and unsubtle rituals are played out among groups of people who clearly dislike each other but are forced through circumstance, need or employment to observe the fundamental social practices required.

1932 is also a time of intruding change into the nature of the old English ruling classes, slowly disintegrating in this between-wars period and, in this case, largely reliant on the wealth of one particularly reluctant patron to keep them in furs and flunkies. In on this act comes the (to them) faintly odious whiff of 20th century new money, represented by Hollywood and popular culture. These intruders are kept in their place, but the message is clear - change is coming, and coming fast.

The muted colours and autumnal setting continue this theme of a world in terminal decline and of a group of characters keenly conscious of place and tradition yet also wearied and exhausted by it. Only at the very end, when fundamental change has occurred and many characters are left to face up to very different destinies do we see a bit of sunshine creeping in, heralding the dawn of a new era.

The cast are all excellent, with special mention deserving of Maggie Smith's effortless scene stealing as a bitchy but broke old Countess; the ever reliable Jeremy Northam as matinee idol Ivor Novello, well aware of his place in the great scheme of things and young Kelly Macdonald in the pivotal role of Smith's harassed maid who's inquisitiveness rattles a whole load of family skeletons.

A class act thunders on, 25 February 2003

Director Peter Jackson wastes no time with prologues or resume's in this breathless, no nonsense mid-point to his ground breaking trilogy. Apart from a brief reprise of Gandalf's fate to deliver a rousing opening, its straight on from where the original story left off as the Fellowship, now divided into three clear factions, pursue their individual fates.

In being denied both a begining an an end, the film is inevitably more episodic than its predecessor and the story is less clearly defined and progressive. Indeed one of the film's few real flaws is that after three exhausting hours of spectacle the story has not really moved on in any meaningful way. Jackson compensates for this by delivering a full-blooded action adventure, more grounded in genuine fantasy than 'Fellowship' with no compromises made on the more fantastic elements of Tolkien's imagination, such as the tree-like Ents, which might have been by-passed by a less confident director. If the action and special effects are more to the forefront in this effort than the characterisation of 'Fellowship', it is a consequence of the plot and Jackson's need for some rather brutal editing to stick within three hours. It will be interesting to see if his special edition DVD restores some of the character balance lost here. For all that, the actors continue to get plenty of opportunity to show their worth, particularly Sean Astin and Viggo Mortensen, whose heroic, leading man status is cemented here. Ian McKellan and Christopher Lee are dissappointingly underused this time around and even Elizah Wood becomes more marginalised (again a reflection of the book).

Inevitably, the real star here is Jackson himself; ceaselessly inventive, bold, uncompromising, relishing the detail and sheer mad imagination of Tolkien's text, he delivers an exhilerating spectacle. What next for the Kiwi Hobbit?