19 ReviewsOrdered By: Date
8/10
Accomplished short.
15 September 2009
Mizugumo Monmon (or Monmon the Water Spider) is one of six short films shown exclusively in the theatre at the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, a short train ride out of Tokyo. It is perhaps the best-suited for foreign visitors, being as it is completely free of dialogue.

It follows the titular Monmon, first seen carefully manoeuvring a precious air bubble back to his lair. On the way, he bumps into a (seemingly female) water strider, and is enraptured. When the object of his affection is endangered, Monmon is forced into action...

Hardly a totally original premise, then, if you ignore the fact that it's about an aquatic arachnid in love with an insect of another species, but it is exceedingly well executed. Monmon himself is a beautifully endearing protagonist, and the slapstick is superbly handled. A good comparison would be to the first half of Pixar's recent Wall-E, not only in terms of comedic style but right down to the nature of the leads: a timid, eccentric heart-of-gold weakling infatuated with a strong, feminine beauty.

The animation, as always, is top-notch, with a genuinely thrilling action sequence to boot. While not quite up to the standard of the other short this reviewer has had the pleasure of viewing at the museum (Hoshi o Katta Hi, or The Day I Harvested a Star, absolutely superb) it is nevertheless a privilege to have experienced.

Those planning to visit the museum should be aware that tickets are best booked at least a month in advance, more if you wish to go on a weekend or public holiday. It may not be possible to determine which film will be showing on the particular day one visits, either....
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Dora-heita (2000)
7/10
Engaging and amusing, though slightly disjointed.
7 July 2009
As a random pick from the shelves of a Japanese DVD store, largely chosen simply on the basis of having English subtitles and the words 'Kon Ichikawa' in big roman letters, the list of names attached to Dora-heita comes as quite a surprise, though it never really stacks up against the best work of any of its four writers. Which is not to say it's a bad film; far from it. It is, though, a rather uneven one...

The story is solid enough; Mochizuki Koheita is the newly appointed magistrate in a small rural fiefdom, sent to clean up the corrupt town of Horisoto in his own unorthodox way, facing off against a trio of gang bosses and the complacent and complicit council. In the lead, Koji Yakusho plays the part perfectly, making Koheita both genuinely likable and credibly hard-nosed. Support ranges from the fairly good to the utterly mediocre, though none of the actors come off too badly. The strongest scenes of the film are those set in the streets of Horisoto, Mochizuki's first visit to the slum being the most striking sequence in terms of visual flair. Elsewhere, there are a few great scenes; the visit to Nadahachi's abode in particular, despite the paint-by-numbers action scene that follows.

It's certainly a film with plenty to keep the viewer's attention, but it never really coagulates into a sleek, unified whole. There are problems with some of the comedy elements and with the Kosei character, both of which feel as though they were shoehorned in at the last minute, in the misguided fear of putting off viewers with too serious a story. In actual fact, it would probably be possible to cut Kosei out completely; contrary to expectations, she actually has no connection at any point to the main thread of the story, instead providing only a couple of laughs, an underwhelming brawl with some smugglers and a penultimate scene that errs the wrong side of ridiculous.

Still, it's entertaining enough, though it'd be best not to have too high expectations simply because of the names on the screenplay...
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8/10
Solid franchise anime.
22 June 2009
It's worth noting before I begin that this was my first encounter with the Patlabor series - I went in knowing nothing of the characters or overall plot of the series. I mention it because, though it posed absolutely no problems for my understanding of the piece, it does relate to the one criticism I have.

Positive things first, though, of which there are many. Most impressive, as with much of Ishii's work, is the scenery. From the highly industrialised city streets to the run-down shacks mastermind Hoba made his homes, each location is fantastically rendered and informs the mood of the piece easily as much as any of the characters. Not that Patlabor - The Movie is really lacking there, though; Both Asuma and Gotoh make for brilliantly likable protagonists, while aforementioned and never-seen villain Hoba is a more than worthy foil. The plot moves along at the right kind of pace - brisk enough to keep the viewer interested, but relaxed enough to allow one to savour the rich atmosphere of the world Ishii creates.

If there's a problem, then, it stems simply from the fact that this is what it is; a spin-off movie which is only part of an ongoing series. As such, and great as the characters may be, there is very little in terms of development - next to none, in fact. Yes, this is an expected and necessary result of the movie's very nature (it can't do anything that's really going to significantly affect the plot line of the series); still, it dulls the impact of an otherwise excellent film. Of course, there may be (and I expect there are) many nuances of dialogue, story etc. that are lost on a viewer with no prior knowledge of the series and perhaps viewing the film in context would provide a more rounded experience. Regardless, as a stand-alone film, it's less involving than it could be.

Despite this minor quibble, though, Patlabor - The Movie is a great introduction to a series I plan to familiarise myself with further in the future.
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7/10
Extraordinarily pleasant.
24 February 2009
It's pretty easy to see why The Magic Hour went down so well with audiences in its native Japan. Ridiculously light-hearted, enough to put even Jeunet's Amelie to shame, with a sort-of all star cast that includes Haru no Yuki/Dororo star Satoshi Tsumabuki, delightful young up-and-comer Haruka Ayase (sadly given little to do here) former Monkey star Toshiyuki Nishida and perennial Kitano stooge Susumu Terajima amidst a host of other recognisable faces. It even has a cameo from Kon Ichikawa, sadly shortly before his death. The show really belongs, though, to Koichi Sato, verily hamming it up as, well, a very hammy actor...

This kind of self-reference permeates the film, occasionally to its detriment. Ayase's short monologue early on, for example, enouncing her feelings of being in a movie, is particularly grating. It's not the film's only problem; it suffers from a particularly weak female lead (in fact, all of the female roles are criminally underwritten), a total lack of logic or flow and a fairly bloated running time that the material doesn't really justify. Luckily, these concerns matter little in a film clearly intended solely to entertain - a feat which it accomplishes in abundance. Particular highlights include Sato's bizarre knife-licking antics during the first meeting between Murata/Togashi and Boss Teshio, the dialogue between Sato and Terajima about "where you're shooting from" and the sight gag early on involving cement shoes and painted toenails. As with any out-and-out comedy, the jokes are hit-and-miss, but it easily scores enough hits to warrant a viewing.

As throwaway as they come and not without its flaws, but ultimately satisfying nonetheless.
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Death Note: Desu nôto (2006–2007)
8/10
Superbly entertaining.
14 July 2008
The central premise of Death Note is one that, to say the least, left me rather sceptical, the whole idea seeming like something dreamt up for someone's high school creative writing homework.

It doesn't take long, though, to realise the error of such a judgement. The skill and precision with which the story unfolds is rather breathtaking - the central battle of wits between Light Yagami and his nemesis 'L' must surely rank amongst the subtlest ever laid out on screen, yet the pace never seems to drop for a moment. A mere self-introduction has surely never been as electric in any other story as 'L's is to Light here...

Much of the success of the story can be put down to the brilliant characterisation of these two protagonists, engaged in a life-or-death struggle that essentially boils down to a difference in moral opinion - each considering himself a bastion of justice. It's a story that's been done many times over, sure, but it's kept fresh here by the particularities of the set-up. Indeed, Death Note is a story where everything comes down to the minutest of details, where one simple slip-up could mean total failure or death.

The supporting characters work exceedingly well too; the Shinigami (Death God) Ryuk in particular, playing the role of the voyeur, providing some blackly comic moments of respite from the ever-present tension. Amane Misa is, perhaps, a little grating at times, but even she eventually charms.

If there's anything to criticise in Death Note, it would probably be the slightly disjointed final act. The events at the end of the second act are understandable from a storytelling perspective, and a very bold move in terms of writing. From then on, however, it somehow fails to quite measure up to what has come before. A shame, really, but it doesn't do much to dampen the brilliance of a quite extraordinarily entertaining story. Highly recommended for fans of quality anime. Or, indeed, anyone.
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Beowulf (2007)
6/10
Highly amusing, if little else.
12 December 2007
Warning: Spoilers
Robert Zemeckis' Beowulf is the tale of a man whose hobbies include killing monsters, embellishing stories and shouting his own name (often combining the three). During the course of the movie he fights a huge, rather nasty-looking bloke while completely in the nip, shags his demon mother and then marries what appears to be a transsexual; thus putting his sexuality under serious question. The fact that he looks like a beefed-up David Beckham but speaks like Ray Winstone doesn't help either...

It's in Beowulf's best interests for this review to refrain from venturing into the realms of a serious appraisal. The story, heavily re-jiggered as it is, is feeble to say the least. The voice acting ranges from decent to absolutely atrocious (to give some credit to the actors, though, they hardly have a fantastic script to work with). The animated actors, though highly impressive, still fail to resemble actual human beings consistently enough to convince. In reality, the only things in Beowulf that really work are the two monsters - Grendel and the dragon. The former in particular is fantastically rendered and his loss at the midway point is a major nail in the movie's coffin. Never again does the movie really thrill, although there are a couple of mildly stirring moments near the end.

However, there's something else at work here - something which lifts Beowulf from the "take-it-or-leave-it" doldrums into the heights of "worth a look." Simply this - it's funny. At times, uproariously so. Rather than raising memories of previous action/monster flicks, Beowulf is much more likely to call to mind decidedly comedic predecessors. The titular character's fondness for screaming his own name at times recalls South Park's Timmy (particularly in one hilarious moment involving him bursting from a creature's eyeball). The Malkovich character's penchant for arbitrarily beating his servant is somewhat Pythonesque. There's even a 'hide-the-sausage' sequence to rival Austin Powers.

It's difficult to say how much of this is intentional. It's certainly hard to believe lines like "We swam for five days neck and neck. I was conserving my strength for the final stretch" were ever intended to be taken seriously. Whatever the intention, though, the fact remains - a stirring, thrilling epic it ain't, but a bloody good laugh it most definitely is.
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9/10
Exhilarating, visceral cinema.
22 February 2007
It seems many critics are either getting hung up on searching for some kind of political meaning in Children of Men or endlessly theorising about the possible cause of the global sterility that is central to the plot; missing the point on both counts, in this reviewer's opinion, as both the political and science-fiction aspects of the movie are merely means' to an end - the end of crafting a breathtaking, human and incredibly visceral cinematic experience. If you'd like a sketched-out political message (let's face it - when it comes to politics, there's little room in any movie for more than a mere sketch) then, hey, the internet is your big, fat, rusty-coloured pearl vomiting oyster. Likewise, if you would like a dry and quasi-scientific or laughably mystical explanation of a highly improbable scenario that adds absolutely nothing to the story then, well, I believe The Outer Limits is available to purchase on DVD. If, however, you'd prefer a magnificently filmed, brilliantly acted and absurdly thrilling depiction of a society tearing itself to shreds in the face of the ultimate despair, and the fragile glimmer of hope struggling through the darkness at the centre, well, welcome to Children of Men.

The movie plunges us into a society without children - a society, therefore, with no future, no hope. In the effort to keep some kind of order, the British government has resorted to ruthlessly hunting down and detaining all illegal immigrants/refugees. The country is riddled with terrorist factions, the most prominent of which being The Fishes, a radical group ostensibly fighting for immigrant rights. It is a country teetering on the brink of an abyss into which the rest of the world has already fallen. Amongst all of this, we follow Theo (Clive Owen); a man who, along with everyone else, has little left to look forward to. That is, until he gets involved in the increasingly desperate struggle to protect a miraculously pregnant young girl who just might hold the key to mankind's survival...

It's a plot of very grandiose proportions, to be sure, but Cuaron does the sensible thing and keeps it tight on Theo; throughout the movie we never really leave his side. It's a part Owen pulls off with aplomb, a performance of wearied charm with glimpsed moments of emotional turmoil seeping through the cracks. The support cast is uniformly excellent, too, particularly Claire-Hope Ashitey as the rather-too-symbolically-named Kee.

What really makes Children Of Men, though, is the dazzling technical brilliance of the film-making. The two central action pieces, filmed in extended, continuous hand-held takes, mark a triumph of carefully planned, visceral cinema over effects-laden bombast. The near-final sequence, in particular, set inside the explosive battleground of a disintegrating refugee camp, really has to be seen to believed. Reportedly a nightmare to shoot, it's worth any and all effort expended and ranks among the finest achievements in cinematic history.

This is not to say that this is a movie without any flaws - in the first half, certainly, there are a few moments of rather clumsy plot exposition and, as mentioned above, some of the symbolism is a little too on-the-nose. However, these are largely minimal complaints when faced with a film as arresting and exhilarating as this. Children of Men is a brilliant study of humanity on the brink, of a society gripped by fear and despair, turning on itself, and of a man at the centre struggling to salvage some kind of hope. It is an action movie, sure, but one with a deep understanding of human weakness at its centre. Despite what some might say, it doesn't attempt to preach any kind of message, contenting itself with an investigation of our deepest fears. Some might argue that it is undeserving of an Oscar as it presents no significant political or moral message; this reviewer would argue that that is precisely why it should get one.
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4/10
Conclusion to mutant saga lacks human element.
26 October 2006
The prospects for X-Men 3 were, on the face of it, fairly promising - the same able cast as the first two instalments, bolstered with the (quite frankly, genius) casting of Kelsey Grammar as Hank 'Beast' McCoy. Indeed, the movie starts very well, introducing some genuinely sympathetic characters in the form of Angel and Leech (the early scene of Warren's attempt to hide his mutation is an extraordinarily affecting one for a movie of this kind). Even more impressively, it then goes on to bravely dispense with some of the series' key characters, creating a genuine sense of unpredictability (although, it has to be said, these deaths could have been handled with a hell of a lot more respect). From then on, though, the film gradually descends into what can only be described as a bloated mess.

The problem here is too many characters, too little development. After spending two movies (plus the opening of this one) fleshing out the backgrounds of the X-Men we are left with a film that is, for the most part, a series of increasingly OTT fight scenes tacked on to a cheesy paint-by-numbers plot. Perhaps the most important character in the movie, Famke Janssen's Jean Grey, does little more than walk around in a daze, occasionally becoming either angry or horny. Elsewhere, stories are either underdeveloped (see Rogue's sub-plot) or completely unfinished (despite his being one of the few characters in the movie to retain any kind of pathos, Warren/Angel's contribution to the final third is simply a blink-and-you'll-miss-it enactment of one of the biggest superhero clichés of all time). Even such essential characters as Wolverine and Magneto are left with little to do but fight and look cool, while new addition Juggernaut fails to even muster the latter - Vinnie Jones appearing, quite frankly, ridiculous in every scene he intrudes on. Furthermore, comic-book fans will be disappointed to discover that the considerably important relationship between Professor Xavier and Cain Marko/Juggernaut is not merely glossed over but totally unmentioned.

Stir in one of the most atrocious and intrusive scores since Batman & Robin and you have a film that is enjoyable bombast at best and, at worst, a lactose-dripping nonsense-festival. In its favour, it has a few great set pieces and some rather impressive special effects. Little recompense, though, for the total lack of involvement and the rather offensive stench of Camembert that it frequently emits.
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9/10
A harrowing gem of a film.
2 September 2006
On paper, perhaps, Dead Man's Shoes is a revenge thriller that is much of a muchness, bringing to mind a whole range of films with similar plot lines, most notably Mike Hodges' seminal Get Carter (1971). Indeed, comparison with Carter is, to an extent, entirely justified - both revolve around a 'soldier' of sorts returning home to exact revenge (in Carter's case a Mob gunman, here an actual military man), both feature an assortment of unpleasant small-town lowlifes caught in the firing line and both provide increasingly unsympathetic lead characters with little chance of redemption. The difference, however, is largely in the nature of these leads.

Where Carter was an ice-cool, confident and calculating vigilante, Richard is here a desperately seething mass of rage, a man struggling to hold onto his sanity. From the outset he exudes menace, as exemplified by his early encounter with Herbie in a local café. Rather than a man entirely accustomed to doing questionable things, as with Carter, we are presented with an otherwise upstanding citizen trained as a killer, released back into a community where he can no longer resolve his disputes in any other way than the violence to which he is now accustomed. If Carter's menace came from our knowledge of his character and what he was capable of then Richard's comes from the complete unpredictability of how far he is willing to go, of what he has left of his morality.

It is a part Considine wears with terrifying intensity, maintaining a degree of sympathy even while exuding an air of pure hostility. What's so scary about Richard is the blind forthrightness of his demeanour, such as in the confrontation between himself and Sonny in their early exchange on the street ("Yeah, it was me.") His intentions are clear at the start; the tension, therefore, comes from the question of whether he is actually willing to carry out these intentions. This tension builds to a suffocating intensity during the final act, a dizzying and chaotic orgy of violence and emotion with a conclusion simultaneously harrowing and poetic.

Director Shane Meadows amply proves his worth here, working on what is, even by the standards of a movie such as this, a microscopic budget. Particular praise is reserved for the sequence where Richard drugs his hapless victims before submitting them to a nightmarish ordeal; a slight stretching of plot credibility, perhaps, but an exquisitely torturing scene nonetheless. Much credit also to the supporting cast, who provide the film's light relief in the first half and manage to inject a degree of sympathy into even the most loathsome of characters during the second.

Really, though, this show belongs to Considine and Meadows. Between them they provide a magnificent showcase of what the British film industry is still capable of when it's not busying itself with endless remakes of Four Weddings... and Lock, Stock.... A visceral, chilling and strangely moving gut-punch of a film that, like its folky soundtrack, stays with you long after the last drop of blood has been spilt.
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Shoot the Writers! (2004– )
1/10
Please do.
2 September 2006
It would be considered a humanitarian act.

Apparently, according to IMDb regulations, I have to fill 10 lines of text about this show. So let's just say this - Shoot The Writers is, quite simply, the worst UK comedy show I have ever seen. That makes it worse than Gimme Gimme Gimme. Think about that for a second, then stab yourself in the eye with a bleach-filled syringe while rubbing your genitals on a red-hot belt sander. You may then come close to understanding exactly how painful this show is. Ah, but I still need more lines. Okay, how about this:

Leprosy

Is

Funnier.
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5/10
Who and the Chocolate Factory?
30 August 2006
It's interesting to compare titles between this version of the beloved Roald Dahl novel and Mel Stuart's 1971 adaptation, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Why? Because, for Burton's movie in particular, the 1971 choice seems far more appropriate.

It's not that I have anything in particular against Johnny Depp's performance here. I don't rank it as one of his best, granted, but it's a perfectly respectable interpretation of the character. However, as the title of both movie and book should make abundantly clear, Willy Wonka is NOT the main character in this story. Why, then, does Charlie seemingly become a minor character as soon as Wonka enters the fray? It certainly isn't a reflection of Freddie Highmore's performance as Charlie, which is by all accounts absolutely brilliant and undoubtedly the highlight of the movie. It can't be explained in terms of the flow of the film, as for the first fifteen minutes or so we are entirely focused on Charlie. So why, Burton, why? All it achieves is a complete negation of audience interest in the film, transforming Wonka from mysterious outsider to sympathetic protagonist.

Burton's Charlie... is potentially a great adaptation. Stylistically it is great and the humour is in places both hilarious and very Dahlesque (particular highlights being the 'house of flags' sequence and Veruca's downfall at the hands of the squirrels). However, it completely fails to work as a real, fully-fledged movie as it seems to completely forget which character it's actually about. Such a calamitous mistake is particularly disheartening from a director with such a brilliant track record with outlandish character studies - see the likes of Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands, Big Fish, Batman... - although, looking at such a list, one can maybe see why. Burton's fascination is always with the exotic, with the outcast rather than the everyman. The problem here is that, in adapting a novel concerning an ordinary boy's encounter with an extraordinary man, he only manages to shift the focus halfway. Disappointing, to say the least.

Just one more thing: in a movie where some of the plot exposition is related through song, it is generally advisable to make the lyrics intelligible. Oh, and the songs actually decent.
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Birth (2004)
6/10
Intelligent, thought-provoking, uninvolving, listless...
17 August 2006
Birth is proving to be a remarkably difficult film to review, as it managed the quite rare feat of simultaneously enthralling and boring me. Never before have I felt such a disparity between my intellectual and emotional appreciation of a movie.

On the positive side, it is a refreshingly honest and rather insightful investigation into what it means to love. Anna's gradual slide into the hopeless situation of being in love (or, at least, being convinced that she is in love) with a ten-year old boy can be interpreted in a myriad of ways. Does she truly believe that this is her husband reincarnated? Aside from his seemingly extensive knowledge of Anna's life and his constant profession that he is indeed the dead Sean, the kid is hardly forthcoming. One cannot shake the feeling that whatever it was in Sean that Anna fell in love with in the first place is entirely missing from his supposed reincarnate. Is it, then, simply because she wishes so much for this to be her husband, for him to still love her unconditionally, that she moves into such an increasingly untenable position? Is her 'love' real, or is it merely a desperate attempt to grasp some meaning from the ether and to restore some fatally wounded pride?

All of these questions are dealt with in a highly sensitive and sophisticated way, in a film which steadfastly refuses to spoon-feed any answers to its audience. It also has a beautiful score and some exquisite cinematography. Sounds good, right? Well... it is, in a way. It's a movie which you'll find yourself thinking about for days, even weeks afterwards. The problem, though, is that all this philosophising is never connected to characters capable of emotionally engaging an audience. We may care about the concepts it discusses, yes, because these are universal, but we sure as hell don't care much for the characters on screen. This is by no means a fault of the actors but rather stems from the combination of an over-intellectualised script and excessively solemn presentation. The entire film is swathed in a kind of austere moroseness, a pondersome melancholy that ambles along without ever really pulling you in. With so much talent involved the movie should rightly be an absolute joy to watch yet, in many places, it feels more like an evening spent doing homework.

More of an essay than a work of art, Birth is a movie that excels at making you think, but utterly fails to ever make you feel.
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Chica de Río (2001)
6/10
Surprisingly watchable...
2 August 2006
...in a you-always-know-exactly-what's-going-to-happen kind of way. Girl From Rio is hardly going to have you glued to the screen, or really make you think in any kind of way, but it makes for a pleasant couple of hours all the same, spattered through with a few decent laughs and the delightful Vanessa Nunes (or, to be more exact, Nunes' delightful backside).

Most of the movie's charm is, unsurprisingly, attributable to Laurie's performance; while hardly stretched (Raymond is the sort of character he can probably play in his sleep by now) he nonetheless remains both sympathetic and genuinely likable throughout. So much so, in fact, that you can forgive the quite remarkable implausibility of the whole thing, along with some absolutely horrendous support turns, a lazy script, pedestrian direction and some ridiculous soundtrack choices (such as when Raymond finally gets to dance with Orlinda and the samba beat bizarrely fades into a fromage-encrusted swell of strings). Indeed, that a movie so intrinsically flawed and worthless can be made perfectly enjoyable is a sturdy testament to Laurie's charisma.

Well, that and Nunes' arse...
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Rape Me (2000)
5/10
Simply not very good.
8 June 2006
Amidst all the controversy about the porno-style sex scenes, random acts of violence, liberal depictions of drug use and so on it seems the central question has been lost - is Baise-moi actually any good? Well, the answer is "No - not really."

It starts well enough, nicely setting up the two main characters with some very well-acted, almost documentary-like scenes. Well, I say nicely - the word seems hardly appropriate when these scenes include Manu and another woman suffering a genuinely harrowing rape while Karen prostitutes herself, along with a liberal smattering of general sex, violence and substance abuse. Nevertheless, the opening is well-played out and directed with surprising flair (especially considering that this is the debut movie for both its directors).

However, when the plot kicks in proper and the two women end up on the run together the film's interest begins to drop fast. Oddly, the further out of control the two protagonists get the less exciting the story is - it gradually becomes a mere retread of countless other low-grade revenge/exploitation movies, simply with a slightly more porno feel. By the denouement, to be brutally honest, I was bored stiff (a stiffness which is nothing to do with the pornographic element of the movie, I assure you).

One of the main problems is the inherent lack of any kind of point. The beginning of the movie seems to be setting the film up as an analysis of our responses to violence - of how an upbringing in a cruel and violent environment can manifest those tendencies in ourselves - and also as a commentary on the parallels and links between violence and the act of fornication. However, it completely fails to deliver on either of these promises in the second and third acts and, increasingly, one gets the feeling the film's only reason for being is that it thinks it is cool. Unfortunately for Baise-moi, it isn't. It's a wasted opportunity. It's only real use is as a shock tactic, but even this is wasted on anyone who's seen a porn film - the violence side of it is no worse than is seen in any number of straight-to-video action/thriller flicks.

Ultimately, all there is to recommend Baise-moi is a couple of impressive acting performances, a few amusing lines of dialogue and a thought-provoking 20 minutes at the start. The rest, sadly, is nothing to get excited about.
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Naked (1993)
10/10
Savage, Brutal, Brilliant.
2 June 2006
There are precious few movies to which I would give a perfect rating and none so difficult to justify as Naked. Indeed, when I mention the depth of my appreciation for the film most who have seen it tend to reel in horror whilst deriding its unpleasantness...

So how do I justify it? I could witter on about the brilliance of David Thewlis' performance, the excellent support cast, the devastatingly witty dialogue and Leigh's assured direction until the cows came home, but this still wouldn't totally do it. I can't say a lot about the plot because, well, there isn't a great deal of plot to speak of. So what is it?

I'll tell you what it is: it's the honesty of it. The brutal, searing, sickening honesty. Here is a film unafraid to hold a mirror up to the dark, venal, destructive underbelly of our society - a film that portrays relentlessly and unflinchingly a side of our character which we'd prefer to simply sweep under the carpet. It takes everything that is immoral, degenerate and depraved in modern society and smears it all over the screen in a grubby orgy of loathing. It is not simply a movie with teeth but one with rabid, venomous, acid-tipped fangs, tearing and gnashing at our pompous ideas about our own natures.

There are many movies which are fantastically enjoyable and make for a sterling night out with friends and family. This is not one of them. Naked is disturbing, unpleasant, frightening and utterly bleak. It is also quite brilliant.
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9/10
"It's what's inside that counts."
2 June 2006
So reads what is quite possibly cinema's most exquisitely positioned billboard in the final shot of Joshua Marston's film. Refreshingly, for a movie concerning the drugs trade, this is about as didactic as it gets, and given the context of the movie even this has a myriad of meanings.

No political rhetoric or attempts at apportioning 'blame' here, then. Maria Full Of Grace keeps things simple, offering up a tight and beautifully crafted character study of a resourceful young Colombian girl's involvement in a ruthless and often brutal industry. We follow Maria from quitting her soulless job as a rose de-thorner in a Colombian factory, through taking up the offer of acting as a mule, to her facing an increasingly desperate situation upon arrival in New York. We are with her every step of the way and, though she makes a lot of wrong decisions, one can't help feeling that she always makes them for the right reasons.

Much of the success of the film can be apportioned to Catalina Sandino Moreno, with a performance utterly deserving of the movie's title. Maria is portrayed with a quiet dignity and unshaking resolve in the face of a terrible situation, a portrayal made all the more involving by a total lack of histrionics and melodrama. Quite simply, the performance is a masterwork of understatement. Writer/director Marston too, however, deserve's a great deal of credit. His script treats a highly controversial subject with humility, while his direction remains unintrusive and allows the film to breathe. Special notice should be given to his treatment of the gut-wrenching plane ride - a hushed nightmare filled with claustrophobic tension.

The strength of this movie is exactly what is hinted at in the title - its grace. The subject matter is given the sensitivity it deserves and at no point does the filmmaker's point of view intrude on the very personal drama being played out on screen. Maria Full of Grace is not really a movie about drugs at all - at its heart is a deeply affecting and highly intimate portrayal of a young girl learning the meaning of responsibility. It is far more personal than it is political, and it is much richer for it.
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9/10
Hilarious Structuralism - not a common phrase...
6 April 2006
In The Black Tower, as with many of his other shorts, Smith demonstrates that a Structuralist short can still engage without the need for close textual analysis, whether or not that was his intention...

The premise is a simple one - Smith edits together a set of still shots of a foreboding black water tower near his London home, taken from various angles, and weaves a narrative around them. Taking cues from the area in which the photograph was taken he concocts a story wherein the narrator is haunted by the tower wherever he turns - thus a shot from an area of grassland becomes his vacation in Shropshire, whereas a shot from a nearby hospital lends the hospital itself to the narrative. Smith has stated that he is surprised at how much his viewers have taken to the narrative, since he originally set out to satirise the narrative form - however, it is not difficult to see why this is the case. Smith has a beautifully observed sense of humour which shines throughout the film; a quality that is especially refreshing when the film is viewed alongside other rather more austere works in an Avant-Garde film class.

The Black Tower is a film where the narrator tells of how, after surviving on Strawberry Mivvies from the ice-cream van for a few weeks (chosen for the vitamin C) he is initially confused when an ambulance arrives - "At first I thought it was the ice-cream van and wondered why they were playing a different tune." Elsewhere he explains how he "took to wearing a cap with a large peak, so there was no danger of the tower entering (his) periphery vision." The absurdity of this humour combined with the foreboding gloom of the tower itself create a remarkable atmosphere of tension within the piece - one cannot help but be drawn into the dark and strange world of the hapless narrator. The beauty of Smith's work is that, despite it's structural investigation of the fabric of the filmic medium, it is always infused with the endearing personality of Smith itself. It is this quality that has made Smith a firm favourite of students of the Avant-Garde. Myself included, naturally.
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4/10
Butchery, but not in a good sense.
5 April 2006
While at university I was introduced to the original Kazuo Koike/Goseki Kojima 'Lone Wolf & Cub' graphic novels by a half-Japanese friend and instantly became a fan. After a time we tracked down the movie versions and I was pleasantly surprised at how faithful they were to the original material - indeed, in many sequences it was as though the movies had used the Kojima graphics as storyboards for the filmed versions. All was well and good until, just yesterday, I saw this.

Shogun Assassin is, in essence, a badly stitched together hack-job of the first two films in the series - Sword of Vengeance and Baby Cart at the River Styx. Eschewing the need for a coherent plot or any sense of pacing, it is merely a crude assembly of all the action scenes of the original films, with all the characterisation and plot development removed to make way for a nonsensical series of fights. It is, quite possibly, the worst editing job I have ever seen and, now that a box-set of the original movies is widely available, there is absolutely no point in seeing it. If you are at all interested in the Lone Wolf & Cub saga then seek out the originals immediately, but don't waste your time on this.
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8/10
Genre Thriller, Cronenberg Style
13 March 2006
Ostensibly, the plot of A History of Violence is remarkably 'normal' for a Cronenberg film, following the well-worn model of 'violent incident uncovers a seemingly ordinary man's hidden past'... Indeed, on the surface it's probably the most specifically generic movie he's made since The Fly. However, as with that movie previously, what set it apart is Cronenberg's mode of presentation...

Firstly, and as a potential warning, A History of Violence is BRUTAL. It's representation of cinematic violence has a similar surreal, hard-to-stomach nature to it as that of David Lynch's Wild At Heart, and it induces much the same effect. No glossy Hollywood violence here - flesh gapes out of facial bullet wounds, noses are reduced to wet masses of pulp and bone, windpipes are sickeningly crushed underfoot... It's not a film for the faint-hearted, but it is an extraordinary riposte to the casual, airbrushed way in which violence is treated in much of contemporary cinema. This is a film where the audience feels every punch and is invited to test the limits of how much they can stomach. And, while not as shocking as, say, Noe's Irreversible, it works precisely because of the generic envelope in which it is placed. In the final sequence, where convention dictates they should be cheering the hero, the audience instead find themselves flinching at his every deed. Also, rather than the violent acts performed by Mortensen's character resolving his particular conflict, they serve only to destroy his persona and distance him irrevocably from his own family.

As the bold title might suggest, A History of Violence attempts to examine the root causes of violent deeds. And, in a pared-down way, it does so: greed, revenge, pride, sadism, self-preservation, heroism and, in true Cronenberg form, violence as a sexual act are all represented here in some form. In addition to the main plot (involving Tom Stall being pursued by mobsters after he foils a robbery attempt at his diner) there is a well-played subplot involving Tom's son Jack and his response to being bullied at school. Seemingly pacifistic at first, Jack is drawn into the violent events surrounding his father...

Performance-wise, A History Of Violence is practically faultless. Mortensen excels in the lead, and handles the slow descent of his character with great subtlety. Maria Bello convinces admirably as Edie, Stall's increasingly distanced wife, while Ed Harris is brilliantly unnerving as mobster Fogarty. The real revelation here, though, is Ashton Holmes, whose beautifully understated performance as Jack lends the movie warmth and the audience a grounded point of reference. An actor to watch out for.

Overall, an emphatic recommendation to anyone who likes movies with teeth. But a warning to those with a weak stomach...
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