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Just couldn't sit through it all
5 May 2015
To begin, I should confess to a prejudice against modern films shot in a dark palette. In part, it is because I always suspect them of using low light levels to make SFX easier to do, but mostly it's just that it makes for a dreary and tiring viewing experience, especially at home. I think it's in consequence of this that every Batman film I've ever started to watch I've given up on quite quickly. Because DK received so many plaudits I did try a lot harder with it but ultimately found it just too hard going.

It's: bloated (3 hours plus), pompous, hammily acted (plenty of dodgy American accents by Brits), humourless, repetitive, camp, silly, juvenile and shallow. It's just plain boring.

H Ledger, as psychopathic villain The Joker gives the only performance that rises above blandness. He is animated and imbued with lots of Method ticks, but fantasy films like DK lack so few points of real emotional reference that it comes across as high camp - he plays a pantomime villain. A special commendation for thespian woodenness should go to Mr Caine - his role in this is on a pair with his contributions to The Swarm and Jaws 4... but he won't care two figs - he will have laughed all the way to the bank, and who could blame him?

In summary, quite unpleasant but with very expensive special effects - which will keep adolescents, young and old, excited over the reputed rebirth of this weary, dreary franchise.
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Have a look at the BFI restoration with new score
5 February 2015
I thoroughly recommend watching the wonderful BFI restoration of this enthralling documentary. The picture quality (with some nice blue and lavender tints) and the specially commissioned score are superb. It benefits also from having no voice over but relying solely on the title cards to narrate the footage.

Some of the original anthropological observations smack a little of colonial condescension but considering the era in which the film was made they are quite mild, and all such negatives are outweighed by the very rare cinematic portraits of Tibetans.

And then there are the mountains - beautiful and terrible - and the mountaineers - heroic and tragic. I couldn't take my eyes from the screen.
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The Book Tower (1979–1989)
Every generation should have their own Book Tower
18 October 2013
The Book Tower was an evolution of the Jackanory style of children's TV - simple story telling based around actual books. It was more of a "magazine" program for children's fiction - each episode featured a number of books (new publications and old) that were introduced by the presenter, part of the story was either read or performed and then the story was left hanging, encouraging the viewer to go out and read the book for themselves. In effect it was an early book-club for children.

The series started in 1979 with Tom Baker as presenter, and the atmosphere was wonderfully Gothic and exciting - I have a feeling that Tom Baker only presented the first few series and as it moved into the 1980s that over-the-top, brooding, dangerous tone was replaced with a somewhat blander less threatening one.

I didn't see it from 1981 onwards but the list of presenters and actors pays testament to its quality (it won a BAFTA sometime in the 80s). It was graced by no less talents than: Stephen Moore, Alun Armstrong, Quentin Blake, Neil Innes, Roger McGough...

... Wincey Willis(?)... and errr!.... yes! the strange and irritating Timmy Mallet(!). My! how the 1980s saw a decline in kids TV! How producers ambitions decayed!

I don't know if todays generation have their own TV version of the Book Tower - I hope they do - they certainly should - though I doubt it will be as exciting or dangerous as those early episodes hosted by the mesmeric Tom Baker.

I'm slightly surprised and disappointed that more people haven't remembered it here.
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Corrupted by decadent western jazz!
17 October 2013
Many decent films in the 60s must have been greatly diminished by an over-bearing and inappropriate jazz score (here Quincy Jones) but this is the most egregious example I've encountered. It adds almost nothing to the film and usually just swamps it in annoying air-headed and un-nuanced musak-jazz. At the time is was undoubtedly thought to be the height of nouvelle vague cool.

The grating soundtrack aside, almost everything else in The Deadly Affair is first class. Some very good character performances - special mention to Harry Andrews and Simone Signoret - good script and dialogue, good cinematography, atmospheric London locations and good plot pace all make this a thoroughly enjoyable film.

Largely a detective story, The Deadly Affair is most notable for an early appearance of the character Charles Dobbs/George Smiley and his unfaithful wife Anne. Here he is ably played by James Mason but the modern viewer can't help but make unfavourable comparisons to the 70's TV portrayal by Alec Guiness - it's unfair but inevitable. This is very much a prototype Smiley, not yet fully formed as calculating spy-master. Mason plays the wounded and cuckolded older husband well, but in this early Le Carre story the character doesn't have the quiet controlling menace of the later Smiley. Mason is still good, though the love-triangle is the worst realised element of the film - it's not helped by a miscast Harriet Andersson as Anne Dobbs.

Some great moments, some real suspense and some fine acting - shame about that irritating score!
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A simple tale of a closet mobster dad.
10 April 2013
After a thrilling first 45 minutes in which the viewer is introduced to the interesting central premise of the story (a seemingly mild-mannered man in a small town has a past he'd like to forget), this film disintegrates amid an avalanche of ridiculous dialogue, unbelievable situations and unbelievable characters. This makes you realise that the aforementioned premise is itself unbelievable, that not even the 'magic' of film can paper over that crack, and that in fact those first 45 minutes were a wasted cinematic journey.

The ludicrous script is strung together by a series of violent and bloody scenes which are all strangely similar to each other - so the scenes of violence end up being boring as well as exploitative and comic-book in nature.

I wasn't surprised to find that the script was based on a graphic-novel (they generally lead to the worst kinds of film adaptation) and as one of his most mainstream films this marks a low point in David Cronenberg's work. In the past, even when his films have been flawed I have still usually found them original and interesting, but A History of Violence sees him capitulate most completely to commercial Hollywood tastes - it's a shame.

A very strong cast fights hard against seemingly impossible odds - but their fate was sealed long before ... during the writing process. At one point Sheriff Sam says, "... I'm sorry Tom but it just doesn't seem to fit together...". I know how you feel Sam, I know how you feel.
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Macbeth (1948)
One irritating feature - but still fascinating
1 April 2012
Macbeth is an interesting film despite its flaws. At times it's very, very interesting, but unfortunately the work is undermined by the use of cod-Scottish accents throughout. All the modernist visual touches and expressionist feel, all the talented delivery of Shakespearean verse (and there is some good acting in parts, especially from Welles) is undone by the insistence that the cast talk as though on the set of Lassie Come Home. One can just about endure non-Scottish actors making a lame attempt at nailing the accent in a film like "Whiskey Galore!" (where there is no alternative) - but it has never been necessary for Macbeth! We know the story is set in Scotland and don't need to be fed constant verbal reminders. Quite the contrary - the (often bad) Scottish accents actually makes the verse harder to hear. Imagine Romeo & Juliet staged with Leonardo Di Caprio using an accent copied from the Dolmio pasta sauce adverts! I suspect that the mistake of using accents was recognised quite soon after production and I have heard that a different re-dubbed version was soon released. One can understand why they did this but the re-dubbed (and cut-down) version must have been worse as the version with brogue is now the preferred one.

This massive distraction aside Welles does a good job on a small budget. It does inevitably look stagy, confined and rather monotonous (all shooting being done indoors) but his attempt to create interesting and visually striking cinema from the limited ingredients at his disposal has to be applauded. The nature of the dramatic material doesn't help - Shakespearean text inevitably means lots of lingering shots during soliloquies, and striking design elements that look quite good at first start to look tired when lingered on. The expressionistic, dark, brooding, angular barrenness starts to oppress and bore one after a time. In between the choice speeches there is a lot of rather wooden movement going on as characters shuffle on and off "stage" but this is compensated for by some moments of very good interpretation of the text and compelling drama.

Whilst some elements of the film are clumsy (the drunk scene with clichéd tuba music) many exhibit Orson Welles' great vitality and cinematic flare. All his films have these last two qualities to one degree or another and that's why they are ALL very very interesting and worth watching.
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One for the kids and not quite as naff as many other R Hood outings
27 March 2012
The best you can say about K Costner's RHPoT is that it's not as bad as many other Robin Hood films that have littered the history of cinema. The folk-story itself has become pantomime (literally) and the worst you can do is to try to play it straight, which thankfully doesn't happen here due to the presence of the likes of Alan Rickman and Geraldine McEwan. Unfortunately there are enough attempts at gravitas to make it an excruciating watch for an adult. The standard R. Hood clichés abound as do the anachronisms - which I suppose won't bother kids.

The really odd thing though is that the film even looks ten years older than it's 1991 date would indicate - I'm sure blow-dried mullet haircuts were old hat (or old-hair even) by 1991. Any money spent on it doesn't really seem reflected on screen - the sets look very much like sets. I also noticed a few scenes taken straight out of the great Errol Flynn film of 1938 - homage or desperate plagiarism? Producers should stick well clear of Robin Hood - but they come back to it time after time like wasps to a can of fizzy drink, and the results whether on film or TV are invariably dire. The exception of course is Errol Fynn's classic 1938 romp, but no-one will ever come close to that. Mind you comparing a film which has an "original song" by Bryan Adams to one with a soundtrack by Erich Korngold is a bit unfair.
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Time is not on our side
19 March 2012
Warning: Spoilers
If it weren't for the original TV series I fancy that this version of Dennis Potter's 'The Singing Detective' would be regarded as an unusual and interesting film, maybe with something of a cult following. But inevitably it is compared to the original series and can't help but shrivel in its illustrious presence.

So why remake the 1986 TV series as a feature film? The original is one of the best works ever made for TV and it runs to almost seven hours. It could be that the producers wanted to bring the piece to a wider audience and that is laudable, but the time constraints mean that much of the original narrative is stripped away and with it goes most of the emotional power, leaving a peculiar and spare story about a bitter, misogynistic man who is hospitalised with psoriasis and who is haunted by feelings of guilt concerning the death of his mother. This means that fresh audiences of the story will probably see it as a piece of rather clichéd psychodrama made interesting only by its visceral dialogue and quirky dream sequences, rather than as the masterpiece it is.

Maybe if the producers were really committed to the work they would have added another 30 minutes to the film to give it a better chance of success as a work of art. I suspect a half-hour more running time wouldn't have saved it but it would have allowed more material from Dan Dark/Philip Marlow's childhood to be included, for that is where the emotional core of the work lies. The fantasy sequences are meaningless without reference to the real emotions that Dan Dark has left behind. This lack of context drains the film and its characters of meaning and it is left just being quirky and slightly interesting; a sort of puzzling crime scene. The question being: who stole the story's soul, and where has it been stashed?

In parts, RDJ's performance is very good (he excels hamming it up as the fictional detective of the title), but in parts it slips, and generally the acting comes across as more mannered than the British TV original (makes one appreciate just how great that cast were). In particular Mel Gibson , in dodgy prosthetic comb-over, is rather grating.

The finger-prints of the Hollywood studio can be found all over the cinematic crime-scene. The songs should have stayed in the 1940s. Shifting them to the 1950s seems like an attempt to make them have more commercial appeal and perhaps allow RDJ to look a bit more cool when lip syncing - which rather misses the point of the songs. He gives the game away when he actually sings a song over the end credits - I bet Dennis Potter didn't put that into his screen adaptation - more likely it was RDJ's agent. It has the effect of eradicating any lingering sense that you've been watching a drama. Of course by the time the credits are rolling you've already been served up an ending even more anodyne than the problematic ending of the original, with RDJ strolling out the hospital looking like he's just got back from a two-week vacation in Florida.

There are some well crafted scenes but ironically the film looks rather small and studio-bound compared to its TV predecessor. I think this is partly because of the originals' brilliant direction by Jon Amiel. It was shot in film often in wonderful locations such as the Forest of Dean and so even cinematically it was a hard act to follow.

So many considerations make one realise what a doomed artistic enterprise this was. Potter was at his most brilliant when writing about the things he was most familiar with, especially the Britain of the 1940s and 1950s with its repressive class system, and his childhood in the Forest of Dean. Removing this cultural setting (along with 5 hours of complex interwoven imagery) renders The Singing Detective impotent. I can't help but think he knew this - and I'd also like to believe that any adaptation he handed over was hacked to pieces in the making of this film. It may also be that he wanted to leave an extra financial legacy to his family, and handing over his most celebrated work to Hollywood was the best way of accomplishing that end.

My plea to first-time viewers of The Singing Detective is: do not be put off by this feature film version. Please, please watch the original! It's breadth is enormous and it will make you think and weep like the best art should.
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More stanzas of Vogon poetry than any other film of 2005
19 March 2012
Inevitably this is a film that divides opinion. Without wanting to sound vindictive it seems to me that those who pan this film are, with few exceptions, zealots of the Church of the Immacculate Hitch-hiker; the sort of devotees who could quote large chunks of the original radio script word for word, and who, to my great annoyance at University in the 1980s, often did. Ironically, this only served to greatly diminish my fondness for the original three books which I had read and enjoyed as a teenager. I'm convinced Douglas Adams would have found the whole nerdy HHGTTG cult thing intensely amusing.

But this film is OK - admittedly it's far from perfect, but it has enough good things going for it to make for a thoroughly enjoyable two hours viewing. Yes, it's patchy but it's very quirkiness, wittiness and humanity (Douglas Adams' star shines on) make it worth watching.

The original Hitch-hikers Guide is a series of satirical sketches and monologues pulled beautifully together by the thread of some incredibly inventive sci-fi camp and, as such, it does lend itself to being condensed into a film format, albeit with the inevitable consequence that much gets sidelined... to the great chagrin of the cultists. I readily admit that problems abound with the imposed new narrative elements (mostly in the form of half-developed characters and skimmed over plot - much undoubtedly left on the cutting-room floor - Anna Chancellor's character was all but edited out entirely) and the film definitely sags badly in the middle after a very good first 45 mins, but this is countervailed by the wonderful cast, the big budget sfx (which are fun rather than mindlessly destructive as is the Hollywood norm) and a nice (though admittedly weak) romantic theme... oh! and those old troupers the Vogons (undoubtedly their best film to date).

There are also one or two very good new jokes and new satirical bits (I think the Alternative Point of View Gun is new - I could be wrong) as well as plenty of the Guides monologues from the original (S Fry is a fine substitute for the sublime Peter Jones). What's missing of course are the large chunks of Adamsian hyperbole and ironic juxtaposition from the original - they're great and you can always find them in the books... or failing that pop down to any Student Union bar and at any given time you'll be able to find a group of science undergraduates who'll recite the books for you word-for-word... causing you to be instantly overwhelmed by a nostalgia for Vogon poetry.
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A light, frothy, but somewhat patchy, comic delight.
11 October 2010
If you can hold on through some lame one-liners and weak slapstick in the first half-an-hour of 'Small Time Crooks' you'll be amply rewarded with some much better comedy in the second half.

There's oodles of comic talent on show (Tracey Ullman and Elaine May playing the dumb and dumber broads are wonderful) and there are enough gems in the dialogue to keep the brisk, frothy plot bouncing merrily along for a thoroughly enjoyable 90 minutes.

Comic highlights? Without giving too much away look out for the Sunset Farms documentary at about half way and Elaine May's (she seems to have all the best lines) reference to her first husband Otto. In fact Elaine May, in a rare appearance, is an absolute treat.
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Bungala Boys (1961)
Sun, sea, surf and skullduggery...
2 August 2010
Between 1971 and 1975, on any given rain-sodden Friday afternoon (and there were many of them), when it seemed just too cruel to send a herd of under 12s outside to chase a lace-up football around a field, the teacher taking games would announce to us, "OK kids, you're staying in and watching The Bungala Boys." I must have watched it a dozen times, but the thrill of seeing it never seemed to pale. There we were on a grey, wet winters afternoon in London staring at what seemed to be a sun-soaked slice of paradise.

The school only possessed one film that wasn't a documentary about rubber production or human biology, and The Bungala Boys was it. It was the Emergency-Keep-The-Kids-Occupied film, and you only really needed one, it was really the excitement engendered by a change of routine that kept us transfixed on the flickering image; it didn't matter that it was always the same film. Maybe though, the teachers were more canny than that - what better film to show 40 children from a grim council estate on a miserable wet afternoon than one set in an Australian surfing community (I seem to recall that the plot involves skullduggery in a life-saving competition).

For years I thought that the Bungala Boys had to be a famous piece of Australian cinema, but in adulthood every Australian I met looked perplexed when I mentioned it. It was a CFF production and so maybe it was never even shown in Australia... all along it was simply intended as a way to cheer up the rained-in school children of Britain.

I haven't seen it since the age of 11 so I can't really say whether it's even a good children's film (I have a feeling it's not bad... for its day), but it will definitely always have a special, sun-kissed, brightly-coloured place in my film-watching heart.
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Not one of Mike Leigh's best... but still interesting
29 April 2010
I'm assuming that Mike Leigh is still employing his well-known workshop method of dramatic creation, because if ever a Leigh film of recent years carries the mark of improvised rehearsals and group character development Happy-Go-Lucky does. Unfortunately, the methods that in the past have delivered such wonderful humane drama have, in this case, failed to produce a coherent piece of work. It's striking and interesting but the characters often don't ring true and their dialogue often comes across as rather forced. In fact much of the film jarred with me, not least the central character of Poppy who really was too irritating to be believable as the optimistic, sensitive antidote to modern life that I think she was meant to be.

The film is a sequence of scenes (often prosaic) in Poppy's life which don't have a strong driving narrative connecting them. In some ways this produces a realistic style of story but the narrative thread is the character of Poppy and her behaviour is at times just too extreme to really keep the viewer emotionally engaged. Much of the time I felt I was watching a very talented actress (Sally Hawkins) just trying too hard at being a quirky character - the face-pulling and the giggling, rather than being endearing, were often so eccentric (almost Chaplinesque) and inexplicable that they created a barrier to liking her.

The cast is brimming with talent and some of the individual scenes have that quality of character, acting and dialogue that one expects from a Mike Leigh film. I liked the brief appearance of Poppy's pregnant sister and her husband in particular, and Poppy's encounter with a mentally-ill tramp while walking home is full of pathos and jeopardy.

An interesting two hours but a relatively poor example of the the great directors' work - can't strike gold every time I guess.
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The most entertaining and erudite TV polemicist ... ever?
24 September 2009
Very occasionally (very, very occasionally nowadays) a TV personality of true originality emerges. Jonathan Meades' work for British TV over the past 10 years, most recently 'Abroad Again', 'Magnetic North' and now the superb 'Off-Kilter', show him to be just that. I can't think of a British cultural film series that has extended the boundaries of polemical writing and film production so imaginatively... and has also provided so much entertainment to boot.

They are densely-layered, seemingly eclectic (though always with a coherently structured polemic), erudite, intensely cultured (architecture and food, with their attendant histories, form the backbone of Meades' televisual essays), opinionated, iconoclastic and refreshingly irreverent works; but as well as being very intelligent they are also, most importantly, very, very funny.

Obscure facts jostle side-by-side with linguistic inventiveness. His prose is at times tongue-in-cheek (Meades mixes the invented word with slang and the language of intellectualism to great and often comic effect) and is also at times genuinely moving (not a bad feat given the dry delivery), and flights of satire abound. Imaginative visuals are always complimented too by an interesting soundtrack.

The screen persona of Jonathan Meades is as central to the films as the buildings, landscapes and histories he describes. He seems an unlikely icon - the paunchy, dead-pan, heavily jowled, middle-aged man in trademark black suit and Reactolite glasses (perhaps best described as Reservoir Dogs meets Droopy), but he plays the outsider peering under the surface of modern culture wonderfully. His skewed view of his subject is reflected in his detached expression and unwavering dress-code; he is the alien showing us our world from a knew angle.

'Off-kilter' is a series of films presenting, avowedly and unashamedly, a foreigners' view of modern Scotland; or, more modestly, certain aspects of it. It is aptly timed to coincide with the Scottish governments promotion of The Homecoming and its plans for a referendum on independence from the UK, and I would recommend its iconoclastic take as essential viewing for any Scot or diaspora Scot interested in Scotland and its culture. Meades style doesn't always inspire optimism and could sometimes here be interpreted as Sassenach sniggering, but, though it is true that some of the old clichés of Scottish life are wheeled out (heart disease, alcoholism, deep-fried Mars Bars etc.) the uplifting is presented along with the depressing; Meades has a sense of compassion for the society which underlies the cultural facade that he seeks to peer behind; but then, why should the truth about modern Scotland be swept under the carpet as politicians, and the ruling cliques of Scotland (and the UK) would have? Real societies are always far more interesting than the phoney ones promoted in tourist brochures and cosy, twee TV documentaries.

If you get to see only one of the series make it episode three which is loosely based around Scottish football teams; not the Old Firm but those more obscure ones that are listed in the British football pools; it's pure genius. As a TV humourist and social commentator there is no one to rival Jonathan Meades at present.
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Sin City (2005)
Visually stunning... but pretty much just pornography
13 September 2009
It's hard to think of a film that has such visual inventiveness and strange visual beauty... or one that is so utterly empty. All the techniques of the fetish fantasy film maker (arch-exponent one Q Tarantino) are there: the ultra-violence, the juxtaposition of the extreme with the prosaic (example: a cannibalistic sadist with super martial arts powers called... Kevin... Oh! how I laughed!), a Columbinesque obsession with fire-arms; along with a sackful of other fantasies beloved by teenage boys: big-breasted women, samurai swords, suicide, leather-clad Amazons; happy hookers; seemingly indestructible heroes, more fire-arms, revenge, strangely-shaped knives, stabbing people and getting stabbed (often with strangely-shaped knives)... the list goes on.

Overlaying the orgy of sad comic-book teenage fantasy is a wonderful visual landscape. It is peopled though by cardboard cut-out characters, who woodenly spout clichéd drivel (the chief graduate of the Chippendale school of thespianism on parade is Brit, Clive Owen... maybe he just gave up on the tosh). They perpetually do and say obscene things to each other with a botoxed lack of facial expression. In fact, everything other than the artwork is disgracefully poor in Sin City, which I suppose is indicative of its comic-book origin; indeed, it is a sort of animated ultra-violent comic-book. Even the soundtrack is dull; at least Tarantino produces ultra-violent fantasy films with interesting background music.

Sadly, many teenage boys will drool over this film. Even more worrying is that many grown men I know think it's a brilliant film too... I think about them differently after they tell me this. I strongly suggest any parents with teenage boys encourage them to watch hardcore pornography instead... it will screw them up, but marginally less than watching a film like Sin City.
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This world's gone topsy-turvy! Suspend your disbelief and enjoy...
1 September 2009
I take on board all the criticisms cited here about this film and I accept that most of them are justified, but I have to say that I had an enjoyable hour watching it (missed the first 20 minutes... cooking my tea). Yes, it is clichéd, the plot has been done many times before, the script is often disjointed and has more holes than a Swiss cheese, the characters are left half painted, the actors are playing to type (though that never hurt Bob Hope, Cary Grant, Carole Lombard, etc., etc) and elements of the story seem to be largely superfluous (the most egregious example being the climactic hurricane); but it is a romantic comedy... and I found it both romantic and gently funny in places. The weaknesses in the script and the editing can't be laid at the casts feet; and they perform really well. Sandra Bullock and Benn Affleck's romance isn't the most believable you'll come across, but they do work well together and have the chemistry needed to carry the heavily flawed plot.

It also should be noted that very little in the story is believable; so much so that, at one point, Affleck and Bullock arrive at a bank where Ben Affleck is due to pick up some money that will enable them to get to Savannah, only to find the bank engulfed in flames. They turn to each other and laugh at the sheer improbability of it all; it's as if the characters are momentarily saying to the audience, "yeah! we know that you know that it's all so fantastical and contrived... so don't worry, it's meant to be". Lazy script writing or a foray into the realm of magical realism? The former I suspect, but the film obviously set out to have a fairy tale quality about it, and it has enough charm, wit and warmth to compensate for the holes in the script. Sadly many of the comical shoots do seem to inexplicably wither before they get a chance to bear fruit, but the comedy is without exception well-played by the cast. It just needed tighter scripting.

I can't believe it has such a poor rating on IMDb - it has many faults, but I was contented to spend an hour-and-a-half watching Sandra Bullock looking lovely and being charming and witty on screen. Compared to so much of the exploitative, clichéd, adolescent, emotionally empty, fantasy violence out there that gets higher ratings, 'Forces of Nature' is Palm D'Or material... maybe it's rather naff title hasn't helped it...
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Let me just put readers straight about one thing...
22 July 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Bette Davis' cockney accent in this film is absolutely appalling. I totally understand that Americans and other nationalities mightn't realise this and that's fine; but believe me, it's about half as good as Dick Van Dyke's cockney accent in Mary Poppins, and that was a right load of old pony (slipped into London vernacular there - many apologies).

The remarkable thing to me is that the strange accents and exaggerated acting styles don't detract from the films' power. Of Human Bondage is a fascinating piece of cinema despite its superficial faults. It also has to be viewed in perspective. The technical and cultural limitations of film making at the time have to be appreciated, and given those limitations John Cromwell does a very good job directing the camera and allowing the narrative to develop cinematically rather than solely via the mannered acting and stilted dialogue. A fine example of his skillful direction is the scene set at Victoria Station. It is beautifully conceived, shot and edited. Note too the stark shots of the prostrate Mildred towards the end of the film; they owe more to the early days of artistic film making than the sanitised, formulaic world of the studio that was about to dominate.

The themes of the film are universally familiar and compelling ones: sexual obsession, unrequited love, scorned passion, self-loathing, manipulative relationships, social divides and youthful folly. Though the dialogue is often rather hackneyed, the difficult task of portraying these themes and the inner lives of the characters is tackled well albeit in a low-key way. Some of the scenes of obsession and emotional rejection are uncomfortable to watch but the story doesn't descend into cliché; we're aware that the characters (even the poisonous Mildred) are both victims and perpetrators, and that their actions are motivated by their misunderstanding of each others feelings as well as by wilful selfishness. Whilst naive in style the story reaches to the complex heart of the human condition and the mannered nature of the acting and the occasionally grating exchanges don't diminish the veracity of the work.

Of Human Bondage was one of the films that got Bette Davis noticed in Hollywood and whilst watching it you are conscious of being witness at the birth of a celebrated career. Her unconventional beauty and screen charisma (no one flounced or did disdain quite like Ms Davis) grab your attention from her first appearance. Whilst hers is definitely the memorable performance in the film, Leslie Howard is also excellent as the sensitive and fragile student Philip Carey. They are a good combination, though, why oh why didn't he help her with that terrible, terrible accent!?
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The Master of Suspense but, on this evidence, an apprentice of comedy
12 June 2009
I think most film fans approach this film desperately wanting to like it. With Hitchcock directing and Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery taking the leading roles it has a wonderful pedigree and should be hugely entertaining; but, I'm sad to say, this is not a great film. It has some fine comic moments in it, and it has glamour and style, but unfortunately the story and characters are basically unappealing. By the end of the film, instead of being charmed and entertained by their antics, the two main characters have become very, very annoying. One could even describe Carole Lombard's character as sadistic, so awful and callous is her behaviour; but we are meant to like her and her husband; we are meant to want them to be reconciled, and so as a concept it just doesn't work. Here style and wise-cracks win out over believable human emotion, and any dramatic work is doomed when you stop believing in its characters. The script (by Norman Krasner) is definitely where the problems lie and I doubt there was much Hitchcock could have done to make it work without major rewrites.

As a rare Hitchcock foray into pure comedy this is a curio - a disappointing film but definitely not proof that he didn't have a talent for the genre; after all he did have a great (if dark) sense of humour, and comic touches abound in many of his successful suspense films. Taken in isolation there are a number of funny scenes in Mr and Mrs Smith, but unfortunately they don't meld to make a coherent and entertaining whole.
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The Canterbury Tales (1998–2000)
An especially good animated Canterbury Tales for children...
9 June 2009
... and adults will enjoy it as well.

This is a 'popular' introduction to The Canterbury Tales, which, like the animated Shakespeare series, is sure to fascinate inquisitive children (and adults for that matter); a point some detractors here seem to have overlooked. OK, if you're well-versed in the stories then you probably won't want to watch this adaptation (much edited and abridged as it is), however, you might want your children to see it - they'll love it; and maybe sometime later they'll be inspired to pick up the original stories and explore the rich and vibrant world of Chaucer more fully.

The animation is superb and each tale is presented in a different style. Each style is beautiful in it's own right and has obviously been picked to match the style of the individual tale. The voice-over is courtesy of a quality cast of British actors. For those who are studying the original text, or who just revel in the exotic, there is a parallel Middle English voice-over (the advantage of animation now becomes clear) and that alone makes this a really worthwhile project.

I'm not sure if it's available on DVD but it certainly should be - it seems perfectly suited to that format. All three episodes (with ME) could be packaged onto one disc with subtitles for the ME, and with historical background stuff included in the "extras" section. I'd certainly grab one if it was released.

(Correction: apparently the DVD has all the above elements on it - excellent value)
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Looks Familiar (1970– )
Embers of a passing showbiz age
8 June 2009
I was too young to really appreciate Looks Familiar in the 1970s, but I'm so glad I sat through some of the episodes and was at least aware of the existence of the world of variety; a world that had, by the 1970's, passed into history. I would love to watch it now, grown up and a bit more "Familiar" with the subject. Many great showbiz stars guested and as an archive of theatrical stories Looks Familiar must be unique. Let's hope the programs still exist on tape... and what's more that someone screens them again.

It does seem ironic that a paternalistic approach to broadcasting, as exercised by the BBC in those years, did in many ways lead to much greater cultural choice - like most other kids I'm sure I would have avoided shows like "Looks Familiar" or "Play for Today" if I'd have had 999+ channels to choose from; but the fact that I didn't (or rather couldn't) has made me culturally richer. I can now even empathise with the brilliant Dennis Norden's senior consternation at the modern world. So come on BBC - open up your archives and let's explore the treasures of your golden age... in fact even the a lot of the base-metal stuff would be fascinating to see again.
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Christie with a touch of Vaudeville
1 June 2009
What is a Whodunnit? It's essentially a puzzle; a puzzle that has murder as its theme. Almost invariably it's a requirement of the genre that the intense human emotions that would in reality accompany such a dramatic subject (murder) are, if present at all, subordinated to the needs of the puzzle, and the protagonists must go through their paces behaving like... well, behaving like the characters in a Whodunnit. However, just as good comedy, even at its most surreal, must hold on to a central truth, a good murder mystery must never entirely forget that its dramatis personae are indeed just that, and that their emotions (whilst molded by the needs of the puzzle) make an essential contribution to turning a curious riddle into a gripping Whodunnit.

Unfortunately, the script in René Clair's adaptation of Ten Little Indians rather neglects dramatic considerations and plays the story more for laughs than tension. It's almost as though, in recognising that Whodunnits stand aside from real-life (and none more so than the rather cold-blooded British affairs of the 'golden age' of crime novels) the studio decided to make a piece of family entertainment where the puzzle is preeminent and the cast are relegated to playing characters who behave more like they have found themselves on a somewhat disappointing mini-break in Devon than as cornered prey of a crazed murderer. As such it's still an enjoyable piece of cinema, but watching it one can't help but be aware of what is missing. Most glaringly, the characters show little sense of horror or fear at their predicament (with one exception no corpse is shown and one murder is even merely reported). The action does become more urgent towards the end but it never rises above a sort of murder-farce. It's a shame considering the acting talent on display, and the few moments of genuine drama that pop up remind us that a murder mystery, whilst frothy, can still have depths. For example, the moment that the character of Miss Emily Brent describes her cruelty to a child in cold, unrepentant tones is briefly gripping, but it is one of the few moments in the film that one becomes interested in any character. The attempt at adding a romantic thread to the story is so unbelievable and at odds with the situation that it is laughable.

Then There Were None does have many fine qualities, not least the sets and the cinematography, and a lot of charm. It's thoroughly enjoyable to watch, but it is a shallow affair. Prepare to be puzzled and charmed but not gripped.
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RocknRolla (2008)
A bit better than Swept Away... a bit
12 September 2008
The consensus seems to be amongst contributors here that RocknRolla is a 'return to form' for Guy Ritchie. I should point out at this point that I don't accept the premise that he had ever struck vein of 'form' in the first place. He did to some extent (and not necessarily to his credit) create a distinctive genre of British film with Smoking Barrels and Snatch and, in the sense that this is almost identical to those earlier films, RocknRolla it is certainly a return to something.

I'm a Londoner; my parents were Cockney and my grand-parents were Cockney (in fact my Auntie Elsie lived only a few streets away from Violet Kray), and as such I have always thought of Ritchie's Mockney gangster genre as the rather sad fantasy of a bored and insecure middle-class public schoolboy sitting in his 'dorm' reading "A Profession of Violence" and wishing that Mad Frankie Fraser was his dad and that Frankie would turn up in the senior common room one day and give a good slapping to all those rotten school bullies.

I've never found any of Ritchie's films funny and I certainly didn't laugh at RocknRolla. It's juvenile, has a silly plot and is too long as well. The characterisation is poor and the dialogue is annoying and dotted with the kind of toe-curling phony philosophising that would probably not even make it into a Kabala recruiting video.

Ritchie is a director of some technical skill but his limited imagination and interest in the human world at large means that he will never make a film outside this Mockney Gangster genre (Swept Away showed us the disaster that ensues when he tries). The fans are there for the Mockneys and I'm sure he'll continue to make more at ever lengthening intervals, probably with decreasing budgets and eventually going straight to DVD. They will all follow exactly the same formula and I won't sit through another.
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A literary who-dunnit ... but I feel dirty and used
2 July 2008
There was something about this film that intrigued me deeply. The day after watching it I paid a visit to my local Waterstones to try and solve the mystery once and for all. I wanted to know if Paul Theroux had written all that awful, stilted, clichéd dialogue (I actually laughed involuntarily at a couple of exchanges) or was it some sort of set up? Was the screenplay for Half Moon Street a literary mugging of the acclaimed authors' work (he has his enemies you know), or was the original story (Dr Slaughter) just as unbelievable, unsubtle and irritating as the film?

I was puzzled by something else too. I knew the dialogue was bad but why did Sigourney Weaver's part seem so much more wooden than Michael Caine's? Were her lines being tampered with while she was having her hair done? Was Sir Michael somehow involved in the whole intrigue, or is he such a fine screen actor that he is able to rise above bad writing and deliver a reasonably believable performance in the most adverse of circumstances? I felt a pang of sympathy for Sigourney. She certainly had had a tough job on her hands not only having to spout forth such hackneyed drivel but also having to give depth to a thoroughly unappealing and one-dimensional character. I started to formulate a theory that perhaps Jackie Collins was somehow involved in rewriting the part of this supposed independent and intelligent women, so ham-fisted was it; but who had hired her? Who had it in for Sigourney so badly? As I neared the counter to pay for my copy of Dr Slaughter I began to realise that I was falling prey to the kind of half-baked conspiracy theories that often pass for the plots of films like Half Moon Street. What's more, it started to dawn on me that perhaps I had been lured into watching it by the prospect of seeing the beautiful Sigourney in various (often gratuitous) states of undress; these included a shower scene and a scene where she pulls on a tight white cotton singlet; were the producers cynically cashing in on the whole Alien/Ripley thing?. I was starting to feel exploited and vaguely sullied (pretty much like Sigourney Weaver must have felt). The DVD had been free, but upon discovering that the book was not, I made my excuses and left.

I can't advise anyone whether or not to watch this film; I suppose it really depends on how valuable your time is. It's not an erotic film though, if that's what you're expecting - psychological depth is conspicuous by its absence. If you're a Sigourney fan then I think you'll be so disappointed by her wooden performance that her charisma and sheer physical allure won't compensate. The film is dated (if nothing else was amiss with Half Moon Street then the soundtrack would kill it single-handedly), the plot is confused and boring, and the characters lack depth.
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A thumbs up from a member of the 'grocer' class
28 June 2008
Michael Caine has been involved in some stinkers in his career (let's face it every actor has to pay the bills); he has also made plenty of very good films and also plenty of films like 'The Whistle-Blower': an above average and very watchable drama of the second-rank. In fact it's Caine's solid acting (mostly low-key though he does get to fly off the handle in his own inimitable style a couple of times) which invests the film with believable emotion and elevates it above it's many clichés. The supporting cast is strong too; a cynical, amoral, self-serving and oft sinister intelligence industry is portrayed ably by Gordon Jackson, James Fox and John Gielgud.

It's a shame that the demands of marketing mean that a film is often plugged as something it isn't. In this case 'The Whistle-Blower' is not a thriller (in fact the one and only 'action' scene - a car crash -is pretty rubbish and looks a bit tacked on), and it is only superficially a story about cold-war espionage (there are plenty of references to Anthony Blunt et al, but it's no 'Smiley's People'). Essentially it's a drama about loss; a man's loss of faith (in this case in his country) and, of his son. I'd point any harsh detractors of this film to the scene where, soon after learning of his sons death, Jones (Caine) attempts to discuss what happened with his son's neighbour and colleague, Rose (Dinah Stabb), and I challenge them not to be moved and at the same time chilled by the exchange.

Yes, this film does have plenty of flaws. Cinematically it is pretty dull and dated; it has a bit of that naff 1970's/80's home-counties feel to it (though in some ways one could argue I suppose that this style aids in the depiction of the stolid, grey, snobby, repressed British establishment of the story... an establishment trying to cope with it's diminished, subservient place in the world while keeping up the public pretence that Britannia still rules the waves). It's full of clichés and undeveloped characters, and the screen-play has plenty of downs as well as ups; but credit where credit is due, it is at times thought provoking and engaging. It shouldn't be put down for trying to cram a lot of things in and so appearing sometimes a bit unsubtle as a result (as I said previously it's no 'Smileys People').

I felt compelled to follow Jones' journey through a cynical, venal and uncaring world, and in that fundamental manner, for me, the film is a success.
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The funniest game of cards in cinema?
28 May 2008
Born Yesterday is at times naive and unsubtle, but as a fairy tale about the triumph of knowledge and truth over ignorance and corruption its heart is always in the right place.

It has plenty of romance and humour, but amidst the wise-cracking it also has flashes of wit and pathos, and even has a real sense of menace in the form of the self-made millionaire Harry Brock; played wonderfully by Broderick Crawford (the character of Harry Brock, has been rather oddly described as 'boisterous' on this site - call me old-fashioned but I'd say he was closer to being homicidal).

All these dramatic elements are brought together by fine writing and an excellent ensemble of actors. Judy Holliday and Broderick Crawford eclipse the other cast members (Holden included), and their performances make wonderful viewing. As well as being very entertaining, their characters' tense and abusive relationship is wholly believable. The scene where they play gin rummy is a tour de force of comedy... in fact, Born Yesterday is worth watching for that card game alone... it's quite brilliant.

The message at the heart of the film, whilst worthy, does now seem somewhat naive. At one point Howard St John (an enthralling performance as the venal self-loathing attorney Jim Devery) claims that corrupt US senators and congressman are few and far between... well, at best that's a rather rose-tinted view of politics (especially in the US in the 1950s). The beautiful, intelligent and highly talented Judy Holliday later found to her cost that the beacon of freedom that is meant to shine from Capitol Hill doesn't always burn as brightly as this film wished to suggest. Soon after making Born Yesterday she was investigated by the FBI and the US Senate as part of the anti-communist witch hunts. She had an IQ of 172 but at her Senate hearing Judy managed to appear every bit as clueless as her dramatic creation Billie, and so avoided implicating anyone else in the lunacy, whilst at the same time avoiding any major blacklisting for herself. What a performer!
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Two hours of tasteless ham courtesy of the Prizzi Meat Co.
21 August 2007
Eight academy nominations? It's beyond belief. I can only think it was a very bad year - even by Hollywood standards. With Huston as director and Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner as leads I probably would have swallowed the bait and watched this anyway, but the Oscar nominations really sold it to me, and I feel distinctly cheated as a result.

So it's a black comedy is it? Can anyone tell me where the humour is in Prizzi's Honor? It's certainly tasteless (the shooting in the head of a policeman's wife is but another supposedly comic interlude in this intended farce about mafia life) but with the exception of a joke about 'your favourite Mexican cigars' (which I imagine is an old joke for Americans who have been officially forbidden from buying anything Cuban for the last 50 years) I failed to spot anything of a comic nature - and I did try. There is a lot of Mafia cliché but cliché doesn't constitute humour in my book.

Is it a romantic comedy of sorts? Never. The characters and their relationships are so completely incredible and shallow that they are on a par with Ben Afleck and Jennifer Lopez in Gigli.

Is it a cleverly devised parody about the Mafia? Not in a million years. The plot is just pointlessly absurd rather than comically absurd, and it usually just has the feel of a really bad (and cheap) Mafia movie. It feels more like a homage than a parody.

With one-dimensional characters and little in the way of humour written for them, the actors are left doing dodgy accents and pulling faces. Well it isn't enough; even when the face is being pulled by that master of the comic facial expression, Jack Nicholson (repleat with puffed up top lip ... now is that meant to be a parody of Brando's padded jowls in The Godfather?... Oh! Who cares?... all I know is, it isn't funny).

Throw in some slow, plodding direction (this film drags on for 2 hours), some hopelessly daft and clichéd dialogue such as; "You remember the Camora? Well we're far bigger, we'll track you down wherever you go", and clichéd mannerisms and you'll be reaching for that fast forward button before you can say "capiche?". Prizzi's Honor is far from being Huston's "masterpiece" and is rather a very poor last work. It's definitely one work in the great director's canon that should be given a concrete overcoat and tossed into the Hudson River.
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