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Big Daddy (1999)
Improved my view of Sandler
Having vowed never to see another Sandler film after the scarring experience of the execrable Billy Madison, I watched this with some trepidation. I was however more than a little surprised to find this one not nearly as objectionable, and even on occasion amusing.
There's Something About Mary (1998)
More than just a few jizm gags
Ben Stiller carries on the loser shtick, this time coming off slightly below his Flirting with Disaster high point but perhaps a nudge better than the more recent Meet the Parents. In this one he's got less of a leading man type role, letting some of the other players (Matt Dillon, Lee Evans) get the odd word in edgeways, which is nice, and also giving Cameron Diaz' Mary a fair bit of screen time. This central group of characters are pitch perfect, from the tight and hilarious script down to every face and gesture they make, and with a clever but not overcomplicated plot and plenty of top-notch gags there's plenty of fun to be had. It's a lot more reliant on wit and plot, and less on puerile toilet humour, than much of the Farrelly's output (and that of their recent successors/acolytes), which makes it a much more rounded and enjoyable comedy. Great fun.
Supercheesy, but good in a kiddy way
OK so this didn't please a lot of kids of the seventies, but trying to look at it without the rosy eyewear of the old trilogy's massive influence it's not a bad film. Some of the 'keep the kids happy' stuff is a bit daft and the whole thing with Jar Jar Binks (and his entire race, especially Brian Blessed's ruler) is quite shockingly poorly judged, but the podrace sequences are awesome, the sabre-fighting scenes are stunning though far too few, the story is OK and looks like it could build into something even better in the next parts, and the CGI is pretty impressive too. Should be given a chance.
Great Expectations (1998)
Slow, but intense retelling doesn't quite work
This intense retelling of Dickens' classic was always going to struggle to escape the shadow of David Lean's classic black and white version, featuring that highly memorable opening scene between Pip and Magwitch. That the Magwitch role has been given to Robert DeNiro is typical of this film's ambition; that he is nothing like as scary as Finlay Currie in the original is symbolic of this version's failure to quite overcome the obstacles put in its way. Adding some raunchiness and colour to the story helps, the modern, swampy southern US setting works out OK, even having Miss Haversham transform into a ditzy grand old dame isn't too bad, and the cast is passable throughout. Somehow, though, it just isn't quite there, the story really needs the social structure it satirizes to hold everything together. The admittedly class-ridden society of the modern US is a far simpler structure, one of extreme wealth looking down on extreme poverty, without the added difficulty of ancient breeding structures to overcome. Dickens' Pip could never truly escape his squalid upbringing, as Ethan Hawke does here; modern society could have no problem with him winning his Estella. What it all boils down to is a sad story about a poor kid who gets caught up with a rich tease, with added incidental odds and ends tagged on around, lacking the epic sweep, societal critique and flowing unity of the novel.
Lone Star (1996)
Mellow, scorching small town saga
A beautifully told tale of jealousy, power, corruption, cruelty and family, this little gem piles in heaps of characters and masses of backstory, betraying its literary origins in its complexity but losing nothing for it. The intricacy of the tale is wonderfully well-worked, allowing the alert viewer to follow the story without assuming stupidity and flagging every hinted-at event or emotion for the hard of thinking. The heat surrounding our Texan characters is reflected in the heat of their passions, as a town sheriff investigates his local hero father's possible involvement in the death of a previous, corrupt lawman, portrayed with vigorous meanness by the great Kris Kristofferson. A proud moment for all involved, this is powerful, intelligent filmmaking, portraying real people, situations and emotions with great skill. Definitive modern-day western viewing.
Wild Side (1995)
Brutal, mental, maybe brilliant thriller
Intriguing, eye-opening thriller this, featuring an outrageous, insane and over-the-top performance from Christopher Walken even compared to his usual crazed output. Essentially a romance between the two leading ladies, Walken is the central figure and catalyst of all events as his loopy as hell gangster feller messes around with some women, is picked on by some dodgy coppers, and generally acts like a total loon. Joan Chen and Anne Heche are good as, respectively, his longtime girl and partner in crime, and his newest conquest and hobby, both putting in subtly sensual and remarkably sympathetic performances, and Steven Bauer is impressive (in the first role I've really noticed him in since Scarface) as the totally twisted, corrupt undercover cop on Walken's back, but this is really all Walken's show, as he chomps at the scenery with massive gusto. The atmosphere is dark and warm and a little steamy, there's plenty of expensive looking whisky about the place and people leading lives on the edge of sanity; the tragic Cammell's last film is a dark, intense, often inspired and occasionally hilarious gaze into the wilder side of sexuality and empowerment. Definitely one to watch with an open mind.
Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995)
Horribly hilarious adolescence movie
This is a brilliantly twisted black comedy featuring some of the most touching performances from child actors ever - the two central kids are quite amazingly good in their roles. Solondz deftly plays around with the hearts of his audience, creating moments of quite awful sadness, awkward mirth and occasional joy when something goes right for our unfortunate heroine, slipping from one to another with great skill and verve. As we follow the girl through her cruel adolescent world, we marvel at the pain of youth and the joy a little kindness can bring. All the film needs is more of a punchline ending to make it a 10/10 movie - and all this from a pretty inexperienced director. Can't wait to see Happiness now.
Get Shorty (1995)
Often hilarious, lightweight Leonard
Great fun little piece this, lacking the harder edge of Jackie Brown and Out of Sight and going for the gentler, more comic side of Elmore Leonard. Travolta is resplendent, in a full post-Pulp Fiction high, supercool as the shyster heading for LA to pick up a debt and finding himself drawn by the mad movie world. Alternately mocking the extravagance and self-absorbtion of LA and the staples of the gangster genre, this is a great little bit of fun featuring a superb cast, some nice camerawork and a groovy pace and soundtrack, Get Shorty is a great bit of entertainment, without so much of the cinephile stylings of Soderburg or Tarantino's work but holding its own as a more comic, less violent spin on the genre.
French Kiss (1995)
Shame Kline isn't French
This is a pretty decent romcom featuring a typically off-kilter performance from everymouse Meg Ryan, and another lovable rogue from Kline, with some nice little set-ups and lots of fun gags. The only quibble I would have with the piece is that with the great wealth of wonderful French talent available, Hollywood would only accept one of its own putting on a fairly decent but occasionally ropey comedy French accent in the lead. Not that the target audience would worry though, as this is easy-watching no-brain romcom fun done well.
The American President (1995)
A pretty lightweight bit of romcom, but enjoyable nevertheless, centred on the premise that if you're the president, no-one's ever going to believe it's really you on the other end of the phone line. OK, maybe there's a bit more to it than that, but this is a romcom with the emphasis more on the romance than the comedy, it's a nice little love-story with the odd bit of social commentary thrown gently in, an undemanding, well made bit of fluff.
Lightning Jack (1994)
Formulaic comedy western
Basically a standard western story with a few gags thrown in, this is alright if you're a fan of either star but doesn't really do much, Hogan is just a slightly pathetic version of his Crocodile Dundee persona, an outlaw who never quite makes it to the big time fame he's always longed for, while Gooding does another soppy turn as a mute who communicates by gurning and simpering. But it's fairly easy on the mind if you've got a couple of hours to kill.
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
Near-divine Capra spin
The Coens do Capra, with their inimitable style and wit. More specifically, this is the innocent hick in the corrupt big city thing of Mr. Smith, Mr Deeds and Meet John Doe, complete with Tim Robbins as a suitably lanky substitute for Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper, and a wonderful fast-talking tomboy journo turn from Jennifer Jason Leigh. Paul Newman is similarly fantastic as the evil corporate bigwig, and the tale of a patsy turning the tables on his manipulators through his own naivety and innocence is perfectly packed with inspired moments, wonderfully fantastic set design, nutty dialogue, great music and that streak of brilliant lunacy running through all of the Coens' magical oeuvre. Makes my "top ten of the decade" for sure, this beauty can only mature and grow in stature over time.
Waga jinsei saiaku no toki (1993)
Supercool detective stuff
This is a fun little flick, a kind of retro private eye kind of thing, all very stylish and cool. It's kind of a blend of hard-as-nails gangster movie, chopped off fingers, gore and all, with a bit of Jackie-Chan-stylee daft comedy. Well worth watching, specially for anyone interested in modern Japanese culture and society, or Mike Hammer.
Good formula western with twist
A good old-fashioned flight-and-revenge western, given a twist and a touch of gravitas by injecting a little black social history into its plot. Lead by Mario Van Peebles, who does OK, the gang of misfits on the run from Billy Zane's (seemingly unstoppable) army bigwig all acquit themselves well, their adventures plausible yet fun and exciting. There're some nice moody flashback scenes setting up the hero's character and backstory, a good shoot-out ending as our heroes defend the town from greedy white landgrabbers, and even Stephen Baldwin isn't bad in this enjoyable, quite powerful western.
Raising Cain (1992)
Daft psycho/evil twin/mind game thriller
Perhaps I'm being a little hard on John Lithgow here, maybe I just can't see past his association with Third Rock from the Sun, but for me he just can't cut it in this role, a part which would have stretched the very greatest of actors. Perhaps no-one could really have pulled off the twists of character Lithgow has to deal with and not come across as hammy as Lithgow seems here. Maybe even the most electric performance from an Olivier on the top of his form would have been dragged down by the soap-opera style plotting and ludicrously simplistic psychology propping up a fairly, but not hugely interesting story. But then again, maybe it wouldn't have been worth the effort.
A lot of this film is just pure cheese, it's piled high with silly acting, stupid dialog and dumb characters. Lithgow at least tries hard enough, but he doesn't stand much chance in the face of a flood of cheesy plotlines recycled from soaps (check out the dying-wife-in-hospital scene, or any of the evil-twin moments, for examples) and pretty poor support - some of the characters seem barely able to keep a straight face as they deliver their admittedly stupid lines. At least it seems to make some sense by the end, having seemed hopelessly confused most of the way, and for that at least some credit is due.
Though normally I would count myself a De Palma fan (I even thought Bonfire... was quite watchable), I would have to class this as a bit of a turkey - for some discerning viewers it may even cross into so-bad-it's-good territory, but for me the few decent ideas on show disqualify it even from that, leaving it floating in the dreaded no-man's land of stupid, uninspiring and insipid. Pants.
Die Hard (1988)
Original monster action spectacle
Wow what a whopper, this beast was an instant classic of monster proportions, and it's easy to tell why - Bruce Willis on top form, getting his vest filthy for the first time and pouring out those witty asides, Rickman scorching as the teutonic baddie in his tailored suit, the constant stream of banter keeping the less active moments racing and those action set-ups to die for. But this is far more than just some jokes and some explosions, the whole setup is a masterpiece of cunning simplicity, one man against them all, trapped with nowhere to run and nothing to do but fight for his life, using the high-tech tower as the ideal arena for Willis' particular flavour of wiseguy superhero, with every move carefully prepared for and in keeping with the overall picture. The characters are believable and even charming, the dialogue constantly snappy, the music perfect, and the attention to detail fantastic - every character is allowed a bit of interest to make them all memorable (perhaps they were thinking sequel even then?), there's so much little stuff going on, so many minor details of plot that all just keep on ticking along until their turn in the sun arrives, the logic always totally on the money with none of the gaping holes in reason that typify yer average cheapo actioner. A genuinely intelligent action blockbuster that really made an effort and pulled out all the stops to create a really top quality experience, deserving of all its success and two (almost as good) sequels. Movie magic.
Wooden but spectacular
Classic dumb Arnie actioner here, with all manner of awards due to the cast for managing to keep straight faces throughout. Arnie is a retired superman dragged back into fighting and army stuff for some reason or other, he picks up some nice lady who randomly starts firing bazookas all over the shop, goes and kills a few thousand baddies, rescues the princess, kills the evil honchos and heads home to live happily ever after. But who cares, this is about one man who never misses and never gets hit by the million bullets sprayed at him by hordes of baddy machine guns (maybe they sell defective ones to evil-looking people), sloggin his way through an awesome number of enemies, while slurring out one-liners of incredible wit and sophistication. Well, one-liners. Like watching an expert play a console shoot-em-up, big dumb fun.
Top Secret! (1984)
This has got to be in the running for the most gag-packed film of all time, there seems to be something going on pretty much constantly, with no opportunity for a quick laugh overlooked. Though of course they can't all be classics, there's a pretty good strike rate and many of them are inspired, moments of sheer comic genius cropping up every four or five minutes. All this and a story and characters too - an awesome film that deserves far more fame and recognition.
Awesome, with cheese
See the cute little furry things overcome the evil clunky soldiers! See Luke take on the evil Emperor while trying hide his funny looking face! Great finale to the series does overdo the cuteness factor a little, and features one of the cheesiest finales of all time, but nevertheless is gripping throughout, a real joy.
The Producers (1967)
Classic, nearly unbeatable comic masterpiece
This will always be a personal favourite, right from those trendy sixties credits it just grabs me every time, there's just so much joy pouring out of every moment, especially the Wilder-Mostel thing, two top geniuses doing their stuff to full effect. Some of it has obviously dated a bit poorly, but it still has more than enough magic to captivate and inspire, an everlasting pleasure. The moment when Blum realises he can do whatever he wants and starts running around the fountain is to me one of the most beautiful and uplifting moments in cinema, and every second of Zero's performance is inspired brilliance. Dreamy.
Room at the Top (1959)
Gritty, somewhat dated class tale
A tough-talking kitchen sinker about a low-bred northerner with aspirations above his station, this is grim-up-north stuff about the working classes and how they shouldn't try to marry the bosses daughter. Very angry.
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
Not as good as the old one
Lovely little thriller from Hitchcock, with lots of nice shenanigans surrounding a murdered spy, a kidnapped child, a nasty church, a foreign plot and some random taxidermists. Jimmy Stewart is as ever a great hero for Hitchcock, the story rips along to its cool climax at an embassy function, but it lacks the brooding menace of Hitchcock's black and white, low-budget original. Nevertheless yet another wonderful film from the great master's stable.
Thoughtful, stylish old classic
This is the original Crouching Tiger, really opening up the minds of Western audiences to the delights of oriental movies, and it's still a bit of an eye-opener. The slightly surreal visuals, lots of symbolic-looking shots of masks lying cracked on the ground, sparsely shot courtroom scenes and that awesome rainfall around the storytellers, set you up for a mad story set in some woods on the road to Yamashina, where a group of mentalists have gone a bit mental and one of them ended up dead. The style of the storytelling, with all the flashbacks and restructured scenes, is really an essential part of the tale itself (based on a story by Akutagawa Ryunosuke, taken from his Rashomon collection) but Kurosawa can be credited with bringing a good few new ideas and crazy tricks to the cinema with this monster hit classic. The tiny cast all act out of their skins, especially the bandit Toyomaru, laughing like a crazed hyena all the way through, the ideas and sentiments expressed are fascinating and ultimately beautiful, and all it all it pretty much deserves its status as top classic Japanese thing. Great.
The Four Feathers (1939)
Superb, proud adventure story
One of those all time classic yarns, this is obviously a little dated (some of those captions are hilarious) but still has the power to move, and most of the attitudes still work. A fine cast of the cream of British thespianism run bravely around country houses and the sahara, being tremendously brave and upstanding and saving their friends whatever the cost. And all that. Magical. Hope the remake doesn't desecrate its memory too much.
Empire Records (1995)
Great cheesy feelgood teen comedy
Despite a fairly heavy layer of schmaltz, this is a fun, heartwarming film. More in the style of an eighties, John Hughes-style teen comedy than the more clever-clever nineties batch it came along with, this basically follows a gang of semi-stereotyped kids all working in a wacky record shop, dealing with their adolescent issues and trying to save their store; of course the answer to all their problems turns out to be a big party at the end. Most of the characters are pretty lovable, all interesting; the actors, particularly the less well-known ones, all perform brilliantly and seem to be having a great time doing it. Even the most hardened cynic will find it hard not to smile, particularly at the end.