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I like Jean-Claude Van Damme, because I like dumb action films that know they are dumb and don't put on airs and graces, and Jean-Claude has never been one to take himself too seriously.
Give him a beautiful, heartfelt script, and some great supporting characters, however, and the results are truly astonishing. Would I have believed anyone who told me that Jean-Claude Van Damme could actually bring a tear to my eye through his delivery of an extended and almost painfully frank soliloquy direct to camera? Don't be ridiculous! But he did...
Don't believe the stupid blurb on the DVD, which makes every effort to make it sound like another dumb rock 'em sock 'em action flick. It isn't. It is far far more than that, and if you have ever enjoyed Jean-Claude Van Damme in anything else he has ever done, you owe it to him (let alone yourself) to watch this film and see what he can really do.
The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009)
Superb, lunatic fun
A gaunt-looking George Clooney as a delectably whacked-out and washed-up psychic warrior! Jeff Bridges as a hippie peacenik army colonel! Kevin Spacey doing a predictably convincing turn as a sinister Machiavelli! Goats falling over! One of those movies that is decidedly greater than the sum of its parts. Just let it wash over you, and marvel at the delightfully subtle touch surrounding the central question of the film: superhumans or complete nutters. I left the movie theatre with a huge grin on my face.
Ewen McGregor sports his customarily appalling American accent. And that is the only thing I can say against this film.
Date Night (2010)
Superior rom com
If you have seen the trailer, you very much know what to expect of this movie. What raises it well above average, however, is the light touch and the genuine heart of the relationship between the two main characters. Steve Carell excels at the under-appreciated task of being a comic everyman, without having to resort to over the top gurning and mugging, and Tina Fey is a worthy partner for him. For many, far too many, recent romantic comedies, the makers seem to think that "come up with high concept plot device, get two stars together, whether they have an iota of on-screen chemistry or not, and you are done". "Date Night" is that rare creature that understands that even for light comedy, you have to care about the protagonists before you care for the movie. If Carell and Fey make another film together, you can count me in.
District 9 (2009)
How long have we had to wait for this?
When I saw this movie for the first time, I was completely blown away. The documentary style of the opening scenes is more than just a film-making conceit: the whole realisation of the characters, the aliens, the slum is treated in a matter of fact way. No big reveals or false buildups to be seen. And this prosaic approach perversely gives ones reaction to the prawns, probably the most perfectly realised aliens on film so far, more of a sense of wonder than if they had been given the usual big Hollywood buildup.
In fact to me this same factor explains the success of the film on many levels, and unfortunately a large part of this is the contrast between other recent efforts in the same genre. Watching this movie throws into sharp relief just how unutterably shallow efforts such as the Transformers films and Terminator Salvation really are, to name but two. For example, the main character's climactic battle in the alien power suit more than held its own against any action sequence you can name, being genuinely viscerally exciting, but the development of the character through the film, the beautifully understated and touching relationship with his wife, and even the development of his relationship with Christopher, the alien he was trying to protect, also made it profoundly affecting at the same time.
It will be very interesting to see how this movie lasts the test of time. Looking back on it the underlying plot is only just strong enough to carry the film, and there are a number of implausibilities that call for the willing suspension of disbelief just a little too often. However, as a movie of its time, it currently stands out like a lush tropical glade in the middle of an otherwise pretty barren desert for the sf fan. Please please let this be the first step in a new direction.
Wonderful, but uneven
Anybody at the other studios who believes they are catching up with Pixar in the realm of computer animated movies will watch Wall-E and weep. The visuals are just staggering: almost photographically super-real, and packed with breathtaking detail. The opening half hour of the movie is absolutely stunning, not least for the way in which character and emotion is conveyed by the robot protagonists.
However, halfway through, the movie undergoes a radical change in direction, look and feel. As soon as the humans enter the story, things take a turn for the worse. The visuals become more cartoonlike, and the plot can't seem to make up its mind whether it is focusing on Wall-E's quest for Eve, or getting the humans back to Earth. More fundamentally, however, the human characters are just not as well drawn, in any sense of the words, as the robots, failing to make any impression on an emotional level. Not only was it hard to care whether they made it back to Earth or not, but the total disregard of the fact that they would have both starved and collapsed under their own weight was just a bit too much of a strain on the willing suspension of disbelief.
Take the plot elements concerning only the robots, and you have one of the greatest short films ever made. Take the movie as a whole, and you have a good but ultimately disappointing mishmash.
The movie also epitomised a recent and very unfortunate trend of giving far too much away in the trailers (Kung Fu Panda being another egregious recent example of this). The first teaser trailer, a year ago or more, with Wall-E looking up at the stars, was surely all this film needed. The more recent trailers, including large chunks of the plot line with Eve, just lessened the impact of the film itself.
Melinda and Melinda (2004)
Leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth
If your idea of a good time is seeing a collection of fundamentally unsympathetic characters dumped into a glass box and then poked with a stick, you might just be able to muster up some enthusiasm for this film. Otherwise, if you want to watch half a drama that is undramatic, and half a comedy that is not even remotely funny, then go right ahead.
Other comments have suggested that the acting in this film is not up to par. I disagree. Many of the actors have done far better things elsewhere, so it is not that they are incapable. The basic problem is the appallingly stilted dialogue and unengaging situations into which they have unreasonably been asked to breathe some life. Woody Allen speaking his own words is, well, Woody Allen, and you judge him accordingly. Other people speaking Woody Allen can be, as in this case, simply painful to watch.
By the time the end credits on this movie rolled, I felt distinctly unclean. Next time I feel like watching a Woody Allen movie, I will watch something by the Coen brothers instead.
Meet the Robinsons (2007)
Wonderful, sparkling, joyful film
After a recent string of increasingly schmaltzy, predictable and mind-numbingly formulaic CGI films (Barnyard, Chicken Little, and the execrable Cars spring to mind), I had limited expectations of Meet the Robinsons, but I was completely blown away by it. Fantastic visuals, some cracking dialogue and throwaway jokes, and a delicious splash of inspired lunacy made it one of those films that renew my faith in the movies as entertainment.
Yes, underneath it all was a very Hollywood-traditional message of redemption and "believing in yourself", and the wackiness teetered on the edge of trying too hard, but the whole thing was done with tongue sufficiently firmly planted in cheek, and with a whacked-out lightness of touch for it not to matter. And Bowler Hat Guy has to be the best movie villain in recent memory.
My younger kids were a bit restless during the movie, my beloved partner came out of it scratching her head and boggling her eyes a bit, but my teenagers and I just loved it. I went into the movie theatre after a bad day, feeling incredibly grumpy and with a severe headache. I came out feeling electric, with a huge grin on my face. Any movie that can do that to you is worth treasuring.
The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005)
Don't give your kids this movie on DVD unless you have plenty of time on your hands. It is one of the only movies that no matter which scene is on when you come into the room, you will inevitably find yourself thinking "Oh! This is a really good bit!" and being drawn in again. :-)
Not that that is any bad thing, as each time you watch, you will get more out of it. Not just the wonderful hare-brained (sorry) plot, and the supremely daffy characters, but all the detail and visual jokes in every scene.
Don't over-analyse this film. Just revel in the sheer joy of a movie that simply could not have been any better, and hope to goodness that they are working on the next one.
And while you are about it, thank Dreamworks for having the good sense not to meddle, but to let Nick Park and Aardman make this movie the way they wanted to.
How bad can a formula cash-in sequel get?
I have to admit that I was not looking forward to watching this, but the kids wanted to see it, so off we went.
You know those movies where the best bits are in the trailers? Well this is one of those rare examples where not only are the best bits in the trailer, but they are actually funnier in the trailer than in the actual movie. A plot with zero imagination or originality that lurched painfully to its inevitable conclusion; a staggeringly clunky script (oh! Joel Cohen, NOT Joel Coen); a collection of quite frighteningly unendearing and irritating animal "characters"; and the usual tiresome "Americans in London" stuff. An undistinguished display of acting all round, with even Billy Connolly looking like he was sleepwalking through his stereotyped scheming villain role. Even the CGI looked pretty second rate in places. Come on, people, technology has moved on in the last couple of years; do try to keep up.
There are very very few "comedies" where I am unable to raise a smile at least once. During this movie, Buster Keaton had nothing on me for a stone face.
Best summed up by the kids, 6 and 9: "So boys, what did you think of the movie?" "It was funny when the dog bit his bottom." "Would you like to buy it on DVD when it comes out." "No, I don't think so..." I have given it three rather than one only because movies like Deuce Bigalow European Gigolo and Little Man exist, and you need some head room for them.
A surprising disappointment
How could you go into a movie directed by John Lasseter without the highest hopes for it? He isn't great just because he is one of the best computer animators around, but because his plots, characterisation and structure are simply sublime.
Well, in Cars the animation, CGI work and characterisation is top notch as you would expect (although it has to be said that cars don't give you much to work with in expressing character, and sometimes the strain shows). Oh dear, though, what has happened to the plot? If you want to tread down a staggeringly familiar path of big city fish out of water, cast of "kooky characters" proving how worthwhile they all are, and bucketloads of schmaltzy Hollywood redemption, then Cars is your movie. As for me, the final hour at least of the movie unwound with painful inevitability, with very little to keep me diverted along the way. I almost found it embarrassing to watch such prodigious talent being squandered on such a vehicle (sorry). It was noteworthy that a few of the adults in the movie theatre were laughing sporadically at some of the adult in jokes, while the kids were fidgeting and getting restless.
If you do go to see it, stay for the credits. You don't get the usual outtakes, but the neat cameos of other Pixar movies (if that is what you call them) definitely did raise a smile.
The short before the feature was a Pixar gem called One Man Band. Absolutely razor sharp in every department: animation, characterisation, and wit, with not a single word spoken. Worth the price of a ticket on its own, but it only pointed up how weak Cars is by comparison.