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Orange County (2002)
A worthy effort
Having been hunting down a copy of this film for a while after its rather limited cinema release, I have to confess that I didn't know that it was made by an MTV team until I started watching it.
Unfortunately, once you do, that pedigree's obvious.
To borrow a description from the late, great Eric Morecambe: it was playing all of the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order.
It just comes across as trying to straddle into the standard teen comedy formula on occasion - presumably trying to capture as much of the teen audience as it can get, without losing MTV street cred by having the gall to be clever.
Compared to other members of the "intelligent" teen comedy sub-genre, like 'Ten Things I Hate About You' or 'Loser', the jokes're just a little too unsubtle, slapstick or even just borderline lowest common denominator in places, the soundtrack's just that bit too loud and obtrusive...
It strikes me as either a cynical attempt to play both the slacker and intelligent sides of the teen audience, or an honest attempt at a more cerebral comedy by a team that's not familiar enough with that side of things to quite do it right.
The cast can't be blamed. Colin Hanks is definitely his father's son, with that same geeky charm (that also puts me in mind of Tobey Maguire) that makes him an appealing, everyman lead.
As Hanks' permanently-drugged up older brother, Jack Black plays essentially the same character as always (although he doesn't sing this time), but as ever, steals every scene he's in. As the workaholic father who can't make his second family work any better than his first, John Lithgow is underused just to the point of making you want to see a little more of him, but also to the point where you appreciate what might've happened if his screen time'd been taken any further.
The storyline was standard for the genre. The morality and messages were all there. Everyone on screen did what they could with the available material.
But although there were some points of real empathy for the lead character, to me, the heart wasn't.
To me, a film like this can work if the situations're as outlandish as you like, but the relationships between the leading characters come across as real.
But the characterisations weren't all on the same level. The leads (with the possible exception of Jack Black) were all fairly real, but the supporting cast were pushed too far into parody.
The friendships and family relationships just didn't feel real and plausible enough to have that *click* factor, drawing the viewer into the protagonist's story. It's little wonder that Hanks felt like an everyman when you'd probably've had to be a martian to be more of an oddball than the characters he was surrounded by.
All in all, an okay little film. But not great.
To quote (I believe it was) Doctor Johnson when describing the Giant's Causeway: "Worth seeing. But not worth going to see."
The Ruling Class (1972)
Low, hard, dark, nasty - and brilliant!
You couldn't make this film today. They wouldn't let you.
And by "they" I don't only mean what remains of the film's archetypes, but their 21st century successors: the politicians, broadcasters, pundits and columnists; the do-gooders, moral guardians and the political correctness lobby.
Our new alleged betters, who believe that the country would be so much better if they were the only ones running it, and who're convinced that what the world really needs is a steady diet of anodyne intellectual rice pudding; otherwise, they'd be either be risking (shock and horror!) offending someone or actually making people think about the situation they're in - at the risk of upsetting their own privileged positions.
Before I saw it, I'd never even heard of it or the original stage play. But now more's the pity that I'll probably never see both.
When the first five minutes of anything features an unfortunate death involving a cavalry sabre and a tutu, it's a reliable indicator that snooks may be cocked in any given direction, and the following film doesn't disappoint.
No "establishment" institution is left unsullied by the cast's sardonic touch and the production is all the better for it. Any punches being pulled would've instantly rang hollow and seemed false in a production with this much raw, snarling energy.
This wasn't comfortable viewing and I don't think it was meant to be. I don't agree with the majority of views expressed in the film and I don't think I was meant to.
It's like peeping into Bedlam and wondering what the inmates will do next an image made all the more powerful by the liminal sense of time used to ram the mothballed banality home. There're only a few scenes when you can remind yourself that this film is set in its own time, rather than any period over the last few hundred years.
But, ye gods, it was some of the most compelling viewing I've ever seen. I can't vouch for whether or not it was a perverse sense of schardenfruede to peep at the seedier underbelly of my own nation's largely sacrosanct and untouchable upper classes, or just an urge to see how far the film would go before it reached its grimly inevitable, tragic conclusion; but once it started, I couldn't even bear to hit the pause button.
O'Toole's performance is nothing short of mesmerising and magnetic, evolving Jack's character and treading a fine line between sympathy and revulsion in the emotions he provokes.
My first thought upon seeing some of the monologues involved in Jack's role was that if this man didn't get an Oscar nomination for this role, he should've done so it's a relief to've found out that he did, and more's the pity that he didn't get the win he deserved. The emotional range and energy involved owns the screen in every scene he's in.
The cast are almost all recognisable, mesh well and visibly give their all, even if any fan of 'Blackadder II' may have difficulty not picturing Patsy Byrne in a cow costume.
Arthur Lowe's bolshie manservant provides many of the more blatant, straightforward comic moments as his masters' opposite extreme, but still comes across as a three-dimensional, dramatic and even unashamedly dark character the latter being an undertone that even the cleanest of sight gags can't fully temper.
Almost all of the principle cast members and quite a few of the minors and extras can also hold a note and get the opportunity, in the biting musical numbers. Or at least, if they're dubbed, then the dubbing team deserve additional praise for pulling off the illusion so smoothly.
The songs vary between classic and contemporary. The likes of opera and music hall mingle to convey the cavalier attitude of the characters to often murky or distasteful subject matter, adding a further layer of perky surrealism.
And yet none of this mixture of genres, mise en scene, times, places and imagery seems overly forced.
This sort of alchemy of genres and use of the cinema as a platform for outspoken statements used to be something that really could attract the cream of the acting profession, rather than have to be left to unknowns and independent production teams because no studio or "star" would dare to risk the bad publicity and drop in revenue and/or credibility.
When I initially began attempting to write a summary of this film, I felt that there was no way that I could possibly cram everything that I feel about this film into a well-ordered 1,000 words. And I still believe it. I'm normally capable of far more ordered reviews than this, but I just don't know how to put everything I should be foregrounding into any sort of prioritised order without unjustly diminishing some of it.
I could carry on explaining, but I doubt that I could do this film justice in the space allowed.
See it, and find out for yourself.
Sonic X (2003)
Whose show is it, anyway?
(Note: at the time of writing, this is based on viewing of both the complete subbed and dubbed series, but concentrates mostly on generalisations of the two and the sub in particular.)
This is where I change my viewpoint slightly. When a series is so faithfully borrowing from the games and obviously making a conscious effort to do so, I reserve my right to resent what I see as pointless deviations from that.
It looks lovely. The characters seem to've stepped right out of the games, right down to the use of locations, devices and the occasional power-up, as the plots follow recognisable game lines.
The Japanese soundtrack was nifty, with a good vocal range and plenty of catchy - and appropriate - incidental music. I have a selection of MP3s from it on my hard drive.
It's a shame about the cookie cutter Saturday morning soundtrack of the US dub, which simply doesn't have the same impact. Watch both versions of episode 26 for a case in point.
The plots largely step right out of the games, too. Except for one thing.
Those pesky humans.
Especially one very pesky human.
Chris "Sonic, don't leave me or I'll kill myself!" Thorndyke.
It still defeats me why the series had to focus on quite so many humans in the first place. But at least most of them seemed to have some sort of use in developing the furries, even if they shared the furries' roles sometimes (Chuck's technical aptitude, for instance).
Chuck provided a mentor for Tails. Ella provided a mentor for Amy and a mother figure for Cream. Sam game Sonic a rival. Topaz gave the loner Rouge someone to spar with (since Knux wasn't always around), and allowed us to see that the bat could care about things other than jewels.
Even the other kids were semi-bearable, but they weren't over-used. Frances and Danny were just refreshingly normal, and I thought that Helen was a great idea.
I'm sorry, but it was just nice to see the complete juxtaposition between a character who relies on speed as his one outstanding trait, and a character who couldn't even walk. It gave Sonic an opportunity to think about things, and even visibly care.
But Chris had no role other than that of parasite, leeching the roles of the central furry cast as necessary and cramming them into the background.
Best friend/sidekick from Tails.
Shadow's conscience from Rouge and Amy.
And "character psychotically in love with Sonic" from Amy, to the point where he made so many moist doe eyes in the hedgehog's direction that I don't know why the production team didn't just turn the series into yaoi and get it over with.
The fact is that there was simply no reason for him to be there. From his first meeting with Robotnik (in episode four) onwards, he proved to be nothing more than a whiny, none too bright liability whose only outstanding traits were an uncanny ability to get captured and an extremely loud crybaby scream.
Yet mysteriously, Tails still had to build an extra seat in the X-Tornado for him (just because he asked!), so that rather than leaving the adventuring to the characters who knew what they were doing, the brat could just sit in the back seat, enjoy the view, and make everyone else's job more difficult by needing babysitting at every turn.
This continued even after he proved that his only concern was not losing his wonderful new living toys, and he didn't care which bits of the world he blew up in the process.
If SatAM was Sally's story - and it was - then 'Sonic X' was Chris'.
I think that we were supposed to feel sorry for this poor little rich kid whose parents were away all the time, and who suddenly got these exciting new friends and all of these adventures.
But the fact is that, as far as I'm concerned, he was a spoilt pest who acted about a quarter of his twelve years. Even if I was looking at this from the angle of a series that just happened to have Sonic in it, rather than a Sonic series, I don't find Chris a likable lead in the slightest.
And this had the knock-on effect (especially after episode 50), of making Sonic fairly unlikeable, too.
If he claims he hung off Chris' every word because Chris saved his life, I'm sure Tails should bear that in mind the next time the Tornado's the only thing between Sonic and a blue and red greasy smear on the landscape.
With the exception of Cream, Rouge and Shadow, the furries had all had at least a decade's worth of character development in their own right, and are all characters more aggressively marketed in Japan.
So it's not as though the series needed a human kiddie to guide us through these characters' personalities or paper over any cracks in our knowledge, like 'Pokémon'.
And stories of human kiddies having to learn life's lessons've been done to death. Just why did a franchise like Sonic absolutely need to get involved in one?
For me, two of the best episodes are the first and last ones - the ones which prove conclusively that 'Sonic X' could tell perfectly good stories with minimal human interference, and with Sonic's new boyfriend only showing up for five minutes at the end.
If these new episodes of 'Chris X' that're supposedly in the pipeline really do happen, the time differences between Sonic's world and Chris' will hopefully mean that the dimensional gate at the end of episode 52 was a red herring, and the series can actually concentrate on being a Sonic cartoon. But the early indications don't look good.
Sonic the Hedgehog (1993)
aka 'Sally: Princess of Power!'
Probably the only Sonic series that gives the appearance that it could've survived without the hedgehog. A bunch of environment-loving freedom fighters against a mechanised dictator is a common enough motif.
Probably the best looking of the western Sonic cartoons, and although it had its slapstick episodes, a darker edge - with genuine threat and bad things happening (albeit not to any character we actually knew - the robotocisation of Cat in 'Sonic Boom', for example) made it a different ball game to 'AoStH'.
A classic cartoon cast for the era: Kath Soucie, Charlie Adler, Frank Welker, Jim Cummings and even Tim Curry, to name a few - all names popular with big studios like the WB at the time.
But it wasn't Sonic's show.
I once mentioned SatAM to a couple of people whose response honestly was "'Sonic the Hedgehog'? Wasn't that some show about some whiny squirrel?", and I'm inclined to agree.
It was Sally's show. Sally and the Freedom Fighters.
The opening sequence showed what it was about: Sally leading the rebellion; the FFs doing the work; Sonic running around distracting SWATbots, or doing anything that needed doing quickly.
Although he had moments where he had to attempt to learn things (coping without his speed in 'Super Sonic' or learning to use his head in 'Sonic's Nightmare'), Sonic seemed to be merely a device to move Sally's plot along.
Sally had the major plot hook in trying to restore her father and her kingdom (yes, Sonic had his Uncle Chuck to worry about, but that was nowhere near as foregrounded across both series). And Sally also seemed to do most of the work both physically and mentally.
One thing I'll say for 'Sonic X' was that Sonic lacks book-smarts and he thinks as fast as he runs, but he's not stupid.
Even 'AoStH' credited Sonic with quick-thinking and wit, but SatAM's Sonic was downright dumb without someone to bail him out; and it was almost always Sally.
Tally up the number of times that Sonic himself actually has the idea or makes the action that saves the day.
Then try the number of times that someone else pulls his behind out of the fire.
Sometimes it was one of Rotor's inventions; but more often it was the fact that Sally thought that something was a bad idea in the first place and was therefore hanging around waiting for him to screw up, or had an idea whilst he was still scratching his head, or miraculously produced some device for splitting the atom that she'd produced between din-dins and nap time at kindergarten.
(Exactly when else would a fifteen year old who'd been hiding in a forest for ten years have time to build a device for communicating with terrapods, when her hideout's technological height wasn't even a water wheel until several episodes later?)
Or else she'd hand him one of the "power rings" which, without, he seemed to be just a rather dim hedgehog who was light on his feet.
Sally had real emotions and actually developed (witness her attitude to strangers transforming from 'Warp Sonic' to 'Game Guy'), but am I the only person who thinks that she wasn't even that likable?
Sally seemed to be the epitome of "Treat 'em mean, keep 'em keen". You just have to look at her playing Sonic, Antoine and Griff like cheap fiddles in 'Warp Sonic' - right up to and including getting Sonic on his own to tease him about whether he was jealous.
Sonic's self-obsessed and slow on the uptake, but Sally was just as arrogant, outright immature and rude when it came to knocking him down.
Although this may just've been her communicating on his level, Sally's general attitude with the opposite sex was that of someone who's been told she's nature's gift to them too many times. In that respect alone, this couple deserved each other.
SatAM managed to try to give Sonic some emotional development, even without giving him any kind of ability to learn from his mistakes - surely the writers could've evened out the amount of screen and development time he got in his own series?
Devices such as the Floating Island and the Time Stones were there, but DiC's home-grown stable had the story so woven around them that the only other Sega character present apart from Robotnik - Tails - was a ten year old background extra who was lucky if he got one scene or one line in most episodes, which was usually "Sonic, help me!" or "SWATbots, I'm juicin'!" if a bunch of flowers looked at him the wrong way.
Sally was the sidekick - generally getting a better deal than the eponymous alleged hero, at that. Rotor was the techie. Why should Tails even have been there?
It could've been worse. I've read the SatAM "series bible". I mustn't be the only Tails fan whose stomach lurched at its description of him as a thumb-sucking four year old in a cowboy hat.
But it shouldn't have taken until the ante-penultimate episode for Tails to be recognised as competent (although by the second series, he was actually allowed on lookout), with his major development in a third series that never happened.
He was part of the franchise before Sally-come-lately and her clique of rich-kid friends got in on the act- he shouldn't have needed to prove himself. He was already developed.
I don't mind it as a piece of storytelling - even if a "cool dude", a prissy princess, a techie, the comic relief, the cute kiddie etc. put together every fantasy party cliché in the book.
But SatAM came across as a showcase for DiC's original work, not the Sonic licence.
Sonic Underground (1999)
Try spending the CGI budget on paying the writers next time, folks!
I know that this show has its fans. I don't generally view deviation from the Sonic norms as an automatic reason to dislike a series - I reserve dislikes for series that simply aren't of decent quality with any licence.
And 'SU' came across as one of those.
I won't start by taking chunks out of the lack of Tails or the addition of Sonia, Manic or Sonic's royal bloodline. There's so much deviation in settings between Sonic continuities that to say that one's bad because it doesn't take place in the Green Hill Zone is a waste of time in my book.
But let's just look at the concept, shall we? A trio of disinherited rock musician royalty, travelling around in a battered camper van, fighting evil with a set of medallions that can turn into musical instruments or weapons on demand.
The weapons were straight out of 'Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers'. The van even looked like the Mystery Machine. To me, the whole feeling was of every cheap and nasty 1970s Hanna-Barbera super-team that I wanted to forget.
The use of Jaleel White as the voice of all three hedgehogs, for all it was probably meant as a "cute" gimmick, was a mistake. For me, Sonia came across as though she was gargling with gravel, and the fact that it was so obvious that one man was having a three-way conversation with himself just came off as cheap.
But there was an overarching story under there. And it seemed to develop. Knuckles turned up, and whether or not you count Sonia's little crush on him as just adding up to a Rouge-Julie-Sonia debate as bad as any of Sonic's triangles, the story made sense within itself.
Knuckles was even handled fairly well (all profiles I've seen say that girls're one of his weak spots ;)). It was just a pity that that oddball spinning fist punch of his where he started whirling his gloves like a pair of parallel windmills was animated to look as though he was charging his enemies whilst holding a pair of dumbbells. Even today, when I read Archie, I can still here Knux's 'SU' VA (although he may've been slightly nasal) reading the lines.
All of the downsides could probably have perhaps been forgiven - and the series vaguely average and bearable, if not outstanding - if it hadn't been for the soundtrack. The absolute insistence on cramming at least one alleged "song" into each episode wasn't only a squeaky assault on the ears for me (couldn't they've hired some better songwriters and session singers?), but crowbarred them in and broke up the action at moments when just telling the darned story would've been far more use.
The use of the cheap and nasty pop video effects seemed almost calculated to show off exactly how big a CGI budget the series hadn't got.
'SU' never seemed to be able to make up its mind who its audience was. It had the style and look of SatAM, but the execution of 'Jem and the Holograms', right down to the music style. It seemed designed to make absolutely no sense to anyone from any age group who'd come across any of the Sonic continuities before.
I'm afraid that every time I think of 'SU', I picture a group of forty-something W.A.S.P. males in grey suits, sitting around a boardroom table on the twentieth floor of a skyscraper and saying: "Today's kids like rock music and being rebellious, so let's make Sonic a way past bodaciously rad rebellious rock musician! Tubular... umm... man!"
I know that there're 'SU' fans out there. They've attacked me for this stance, saying that I shouldn't attack a Sonic series like that if I'm a "true" or "real" fan of the franchise.
And I'm sorry. The fact is: I'd like to've been an 'SU' fan - but when a series is what I feel is sub-standard, I'm not going to put up and shut up just because it has Sonic's name attached. I'm going to be vocal, rather than risk watching the licence get dragged any further down because some executive or other things that they can get away with it.
The show that ABC refused to air because it was too corny
It wasn't the most intelligent show in the world, but it didn't try to be, or make any pretence about being so. The music was synthesised, the backgrounds were cheap and stylised, and the character models and animation quality were classic Saturday morning fare.
The plots weren't exactly taxing and the humour wasn't exactly subtle. In fact, both were downright lowest common denominator at times. My father wouldn't let me watch it if he was in the room, because he disliked the level of loud noises and the complete lack of substance.
As a Tails fan, watching Tails be transformed into a portable rent-a-hostage - and a four year old to boot - was rather galling.
But at least, in that department, the series got one thing right: he was a tech whizz. You didn't need to be able to read or write to cook up scientific or mechanical marvels at short notice, and he not infrequently did.
Don't laugh, but I used to keep a tally, classing each episode according to whether Tails was presented overwhelmingly as the portable victim/gullible idiot, did something outstanding/helpful or didn't sway in either direction.
All three lists were fairly expansive, but at least the list of positive episodes didn't consist of only three or four, or have episodes where Sonic's alleged sidekick and best friend was barely more than a background extra or only seen in the opening credits. Which is more than can be said for SatAM.
All in all, I'd say that 'AoStH' was probably the series that got closest to the games as we knew them back then: the adventures were picaresque, with the occasional recurring characters but no completely overarching plot; the story lines weren't overly deep; Mobius *ducks hail of missiles from SegaSonic purists* even had the occasional human other than Robotnik, but you weren't beaten over the head with it.
People try to knock it down, but it was never trying to be SatAM or 'SX'. It was there for cheap laughs, and it did what it did pretty well.