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Oz strikes again
19 January 2004
Australia has produced some absolutely cracking kids TV series that anyone of a certain age will remember extremely fondly: Girl from Tomorrow, Round the Twist, Pugwall and many more. These series were quirky (sometimes downright loopy), well made and are a great testament to the fact that good kids TV is smart and sharp, hires good actors, makes careful use of often tight budgets and doesn't talk down to its audience. The Genie from Down Under fits well into this mould being an amiably bonkers premise brought vigorously to life through thoroughly well made production.

When Penelope Townes (a perfectly appalling Alexandra Milman) comes across a magic opal in a trunk in her rambling old house she releases two genies: Bruce and his son Baz. It's an immediate culture clash since Penelope and her mother Lady Diana (the gorgeous Anna Galvin, who also played Marion in 'The New Adventures of Robin Hood' for a bit) are breathtakingly posh Brits while the well meaning but hopeless genies are Aussie beauts who just happen to have special powers. Penelope's extreme selfishness combined with the genies' talent for mischief and incompetence in equal measure leads to giggles aplenty. The fact that Bruce is absolutely head over heels in love with Penelope's mother also complicates matters for all concerned. It's 'I Dream of Jeannie' for the 90's with a twist and I thoroughly recommend it.

Keep putting out stuff like this ABC - you beauty.
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A slice of glorious early nineties garbage
7 October 2003
Michael Lehmann has had a somewhat checkered career: on the one hand he is responsible for the excellent 'Heathers' and the warm and competently made 'The Truth About Cats and Dogs' and on the other hand he also produced not only 'Hudson Hawk', a textbook flop of the highest order, and the awful '40 Days and 40 Nights' but also My Giant, a film so bad that audiences leaving the theatre should have been provided with complementary hypnotism to remove the experience from their memories. However it is no surprise that the team responsible for this film - Lehmann and the wonderfully named Redbeard Simmons - should have produced a film entitled Beaver Gets a Boner. Applegates is the duo's followup and what a delicious wedge of trash it is, a tart with a heart kind of a movie easily mixing the downright unpleasant with the lightly comic and a bit of social and environmental commentary.

The Applegates are not your ordinary suburban American family: they're giant insects bent on world destruction. I started watching this expecting that the bug natures of the family (excellently played by Ed Begley Jnr, the always brilliant Stockard Channing and two bright young things whose careers have since faltered) would be played down because of the tight budget. I hadn't realised what sort of territory this film is staking out: mention of John Waters is totally justified in the best possible way and there is also a whiff of Troma. Someone somewhere has decided ropey-schmopey they're going with the effects lending a wonderful air of B-movie to proceedings.

I said before that the Applegates weren't an ordinary American family but they are recognisable as a sort of hellish recreation of one in the late twentieth century and they evolve fast. Developing their personae from a sort of Janet and Jim book the family arrive as fifties cardboard cutouts, in that curious way that only a film born of the 80's and that decade's fifties fixation can achieve. That in a sense is what this film is really about for exposure to Bush Mark I's America leaves Dad jerking off to insect porn in the bathroom, Mom a hopelessly addicted shopaholic, Johnny a rather scuzzy ultra-pothead and daughter Sally stroppy, pregnant and rather more than bi-curious. Best of all, that's not even the plot. There's lots to love here: cross dressing Queen Bea (a lovely turn by Dabney Coleman), Kevin and Kenny the twin dealers who now look like something out of a time warp and a whole lot of gore. This isn't a film for the easily offended or the weak of stomach and even I found one or two moments a touch unpleasant. But a broad streak of comedy and a thin veneer of environmentalism gives this in many ways bleak film plenty of heart and if the dialogue sparkled a bit better then this quite political tale (is it really about communism vs. capitalism?) would be a trash classic. As it is this is quirky, unpredictable and looks dated in the best way possible. Don't get me wrong this is no Citizen Kane. They don't make films like this any more and maybe they shouldn't but I'm glad they made this one like this, so sit back, relax, crack open the beers, light up whatever and enjoy because this film - though at times a touch heavy handed - is lots of fun. Just don't show it to Granny.
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Holed (1996)
Neat and petite golf satire
24 August 2003
I've been trying to track down this sharp and well made short film for a while after seeing it on the BBC a couple of years ago. Tony Robinson (of Blackadder fame) plays Hugh, a frail and bitter golf fanatic who is off on the links in a annual golf match with two 'friends' - the unpleasant and ultra-competitive Henry and Slim Jim - which Hugh has never yet won. Accompanied by Nick whose father died in a rather murky golfing accident the race is on to find out which pair will triumph. It's a dark, quite twisted, black comedy the outcome of which I won't reveal but suffice to say that not all four players make it back to the clubhouse for a martini afterwards. The parts are all excellently played - though Duncan Preston has perhaps played one too many amiable roles to be totally convincing as the slimy Slim Jim. Tony Robinson's performance as Hugh is a particular highlight. This biting little take on middle England is worth your time and is certainly the only golf film I have ever bothered to watch.
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The Avengers (1998)
The stillbirth of a franchise
29 May 2003
Firstly I feel I ought to say that this film isn't quite as bad as some people make out. Don't get me wrong, relative to the series this film is an outrage not so much failing to capture the magic of the original as dancing on its grave. What could have been a whole series of campy-surreal Avengers flicks produces instead only this choppy mess. There are some fun moments - none involving Sean Connery - the sets look fabulous, the soundtrack is excellent and it's always lovely to see Fiona Shaw and Eileen Atkins whatever they are doing. That this movie is such an appalling mish-mash with only a very few scenes indicating the original intention to make a decent movie is I believe entirely down to the terrifyingly bad judgement shown by the film's director Jeremiah Chechik, perhaps (indeed for his sake hopefully) under duress from Warner Bros.

The selection of Chechik himself to handle such a big project given his relatively undistinguished career seems eccentric, perhaps it was felt that as a Canadian he might have an inside track on a series whose distinctive British quality might have made the suits uneasy. However like Lee Tamahori he shows very little understanding of the way the series actually works and his directing of Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman is hamfisted enough to ruin the film on its own. Steed, supposed to be witty, urbane, charming and warm is reduced to a man who emotes less than the furniture in his chic London pad. Mrs. Peel is simply a mess - with no real explanation given for her behaviour in the script Uma Thurman's performance lurches to different extremes from scene to scene like a drunk playing hopscotch.

The real villain here, however, is Sean Connery. Not, I'm afraid to say in the film, in which he delivers one the worst performances of his already one-note career but in the effect that his casting had on the script. In early drafts the character of Sir August Merryweather (as he is called) was a harmless old buffer, the real villain being someone else entirely and the plot hingeing on the death of Mrs Peel's husband thus giving her some sort of motivation and explaining why at the start of the film she is no longer running the Prospero Weather Programme.

The studio executives, salivating at the fact that Connery was interested in the script ripped it to shreds to find a role to accommodate him. When the film was screened before test audiences they reacted badly to its eccentricity, the lousy direction of the two leads, the fact that Connery was terrible and the new plot involving him incoherent. The studio's solution was another celluloid massacre performing big cuts making the already messy film a total disaster.

What I find most disappointing in this movie is that there are just enough moments in it to realise that what you are actually watching is the corpse of a good film and that a splendid opportunity to revive a bit of British telly history has been comprehensively ruined. The cut footage may have made things better but really, aside from a good early draft of a script, there is nothing here for anyone involved to be proud of. What a shame. Sixty million dollars of shame in fact.
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Another clanger from Todd Haynes
11 February 2003
The success of this film leaves me utterly baffled: as baffled as the film itself left me cold. Far from Heaven thinks that it is shining a light into the dark recesses of fifties America and exposing the prejudices. It is instead simply rehashing other, equally glutinous movies such as 'Driving Miss Daisy' which allow - and excuse me for ranting ever so slightly - Hollywood to convince itself that it isn't institutionally racist. There's really nothing new or interesting here: 'My God, you mean people were queer in the fifties too?' doesn't really cut it. The film seeks to confound expectations but always confirms them, though the ending is a particular disappointment leaving nothing resolved not in an intriguing way but by simply coming to an end without having much of anything with the characters. The pace is so laid back it's practically horizontal, the characters mostly cardboard - Julianne Moore turns in her worst performance for years. Everyone is suffocating under a script which goes nowhere aided and abetted by a horribly intrusive score by Elmer Bernstein. It's not bad per se but horribly misjudged enveloping the film like a burqa. Never shocking, scarcely even interesting, when is someone going to make a proper film about this era?

On the plus side of the balance sheet, the film is excellently photographed and designed. The Whitaker family's period suburbia is beautifully reconstructed and the lighting is excellent even slightly noirish at times. Some of the other performances, notably Dennis Quaid are effective - it's nice to see him in a high profile role - but limited by the material. Dennis Haysbert as Raymond is a prime example of an actor given almost no opportunity by his role to demonstrate talent. All in all a derivative cinematic non-event, convinced of its bold and novel stand but instead looking rather like the emperor with no clothes. Like Velvet Goldmine, Haynes picks an interesting period and smothers it. The fact that this film was made at all shows Hollywood's continued empoverishment of discourse, s'cuse the pretention, in its treatment of minorities.
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A mishandled piece of Restoration fluff
31 August 2002
Garrick and Coleman's play on which this is based really isn't all that good, but it's a harmless enough bit of period fun and so making this film wasn't a bad idea in itself. Making it like this however, displays very little of anything regarding talent in either its director or writer. The original doesn't have any sparkling lines and the screenwriter also appears too lazy to insert any. The shooting is similarly undistinguished and the soundtrack, over-intrusive and devoid of anything resembling a good idea.

The poor cast struggle manfully to keep the viewer interested, with particularly charismatic performances from Timothy Spall, the late great Sir Nigel Hawthorne and even the often disappointing Tom Hollander and Paul Nicholls clown and smoulder respectively. Joan Collins just struggles. There is little any of them can do, however, with this pretty dire succession of period drama cliches and falling-over gags. This film would be just about watchable if it wasn't such a waste of talent.

The costumes and locations are pretty though.
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Brilliant, evocative, memorable, classic. A bit cheap.
3 May 2001
The criticisms of this BBC adaption, made as the first in what proved to be a set of four of C.S. Lewis' books are largely unfair. The budget was small - by American standards, at the time in the UK it was positively lavish - and the effect achieved given these constraints and the fact that the show is now almost 15 years old is pretty impressive. The adaption is an even-handed one, the leads are relatively engaging the animals don't look at all bad with Aslan clearly having the majority of the budget for the whole show lavished on him. Only those drunk on the slick fantasy effects of the 90's could complain. Above all Barbara Kellerman is the standout, however, as the White Witch, sending a chill into the hearts of even the most confident of seven year olds; as I was when this was first shown on British television. As far as I'm concerned the whole series was seminal. They don't make them like this anymore - though some would say thank goodness.

Narnia requires a big-budget adaption for the big screen. But until that comes along this is easily the best screen version of C.S. Lewis' best known story out there. And the music is absolutely fantastic.
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The only barbarism is having to sit through it
13 November 2000
Don't be deceived. This film is terrible and I mean awful. How it launched Arnold Schwarzenegger's career I will never know. After this rotten piece of celluloid it's a miracle he wasn't consigned to the acting equivalent of the black pit of despair. I'm not sure where to start really. The cast does include a number of top actors, such as Max von Sydow and James Earl Jones but they are wasted. They really could be anybody. They struggle with the leaden dialogue and the impressive but utterly ridiculous costumes.

The dialogue is an interesting point because the screenplay would probably fit on the back of a beer mat. Exposition is deemed a waste of time and large sections of the film are almost silent. I'd like to think this was an executive decision to avoid Arnie's poor English being exposed but I think it might just be dire scripting. When characters do speak, you rather wish they hadn't. The lack of exposition from the characters mean that (with things happening seemingly for no reason due to absurd plotting) you are quickly left with no idea of what is actually happening.

The other point is that the wretched thing is so long. It goes on and on and really, if you don't leave the room repeatedly, it's my duty to warn that you might find yourself losing the will to live. If you like the soundtrack (which is very good but only in places - it can't save the film) then buy it but at all costs stay away from this atrocious excuse for a film. Watch Willow instead. Anything.
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Taxi (I) (1998)
A technically perfect film
12 November 2000
I was not expecting a lot from this film to be honest. Luc Besson is not a name that inspires that much confidence given the terrible Leon, lacklustre Fifth Element and excreble Joan of Arc but this is an absolute humdinger of a movie for its genre. Clearly Besson is happier with just a pen than when in overall control because this film excels in every way. The script is great: both packed with one liners and tightly (and often hilariously) plotted. I confess could only keep up with the subtitles - the characters talk like machine guns if you're not used to colloquial French - but the dialogue really sparkled.

The cast of unknowns are also spot on. Samy Naceri and Frédéric Diefenthal are a great double act as Daniel the savvy, sexy speed demon taxi driver and Emilien the handsome but hapless non-driving cop. Marion Cotillard is drool inducing as Daniel's long suffering girlfriend Lilly and the aptly named Bernard Farcy is excellent as the prejudiced police chief with a penchant for stupid operation monikers.

The film is very tightly shot with plenty of action (car chases and the like) but the witty script and great performances make it far more than your standard actioner. It also boasts a kicking soundtrack and some great set pieces. I cannot overemphasise how impressive this film is and it's a crying shame that, being French, it isn't more widely appreciated.
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A superb comedy with a hint of the black stuff
25 September 2000
I was lucky enough to catch this film on a trip to Dublin. Doubly so in fact because not only is it absolutely fantastic but it is also virtually impossible to find. It is, in the South Park mould "a foreign film" from Ireland and so has, even in England, been consigned it appears to the video pit of despair.

This is an enormous shame because this is a uniquely Irish film without any of the baggage that this would usually imply. Or rather the film cheerfully acknowledges Irish cinematic stereotypes and then proceeds to hit them with a stick.

Timmy, the protagonist, is a somewhat confused young man who regularly seeks guidance from his doctor mentor played spectacularly by the wonderful Ian Richardson (why doesn't he get more film work?). He lives in (I kid you not) the Bates Motel with his mother and dreams of being a writer. His books are however too self-consciously Irish, his writing teacher tells him and thus too misery filled and angsty for popular consumption in the 90's.

Timmy is forced to rethink his own life (sort of) and the world around him and try to free himself from the grip of the strongest of all forces, that of the force of habit.

I will not apologise for essentially having had to lie a lot during that synopsis because to reveal the main element of the plot would be to ruin the entire film. Suffice to say there is an element of the Shining here, albeit far more relaxed and beautifully realised. This is essentially a comedy with a hint of the black stuff (stylistically rather than alcoholically).

The Fifth Province is a rare example of a film which does everything it sets out to do with elan, it is funny, looks gorgeous, has an excellent cast, a good soundtrack and has a premise which is unexpected and deftly handled. I would give quite a bit to see this film again. I urge you to brave the uncharted wildernesses of your video shops and seek it out and if you do - can I have a copy?
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A fascinating look at a town hitting the Modern head on
21 September 2000
Some seem to have missed the whole point of this engrossing documentary. I wouldn't normally regard myself as a documentary person but this film is stylistically excellent using period photographs and specially shot black and white footage mixed in with colour shots of the town of Black River Falls (which the movie examines at the turn of the century) as it is now. To put it bluntly, and I don't feel I'm spoiling anything by saying this, the population is suffering from insanity ranging from the homicidal to the simply inexplicable. Ian Holm provides a haunting narration culled entirely from the local newspaper of the day and this is interspersed with excerpts from the records of the local asylum to which many of the towns inhabitants are committed.

The story is one of collapse as harsh victorian values prove incapable of dealing with the economic and social conditions the town is experiencing. The towns inhabitants are simply incapable of dealing with their circumstances. Suicide and mania are the results.

An excellent film let down almost not at all by the slightly banal comparisons made between the town in its victorian 'glory' and its modern status as a crime capital which falls a little flat but is not without interest. Proof of the effect of environment on psychology.
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