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This Life (1996–1997)
Postscript: This Life +10
3 January 2007
Part of what made This Life such a landmark television series was its uncompromising trendiness – its utter refusal to comply with standard dramatic devices. The shaky camera, the rough cuts, the sex and the swearing were genuinely ground-breaking, which is why Amy Jenkins' decision to make a one-off comeback 10 years on has just a tinge of sell-out about it. I suppose this is how die-hard Beatles fans felt when Paul McCartney released the Frog Chorus.

Still, getting a glimpse of the whole "what happened next?" thing is always intriguing. In This Life +10 the group of law graduates reunite for gay biker Ferdy's funeral. The cause of his demise remains unexplained (maybe Ramon Tikaram was busy that day) though we do learn that he got it together with Welsh milksop Warren (Jason Hughes) in the years following the end of the series.

It is swiftly apparent however that the five original housemates have drifted apart: Anna (Daniella Nardini) is the only practising lawyer and has quickly motored up the ranks of high-class defence attorneys; Miles (Jack Davenport) has acquired a country mansion, a hotel business and a Vietnamese bride; Egg (Andrew Lincoln) has written a best-selling novel based on the gang's experiences and is still with Milly (Amita Dhiri) who has popped a sprog; and Warren is dealing with Ferdy's death admirably thanks to his burgeoning career as a life coach/self help guru.

Egg's status as a celebrity author prompts a sexy young filmmaker to organise a reunion between the flatmates at Miles's stately pile as part of a fly-on-the-wall documentary, and this is where the faintly absurd amateur psychology and pent-up tension begins to emerge.

But, hey, this is a study in recent social history after all and Jenkins just about gets away with the clichéd set-up largely thanks to the edginess of the group dynamic (which is still as well observed as ever) and the chemistry between Lincoln and Davenport whose old buddy routine provides just about the only realistic friendship of the whole lot of them.

Frankly the whole project is little more than an excuse to drum up the old neuroses and insecurities that plague those trying to come to terms with lost youth: Career woman versus housewife? Playboy versus responsible adult? Clapham Common cottager versus weird, over-analysing sperm donor? They are the identity crises that face us all…

Still – there is much to enjoy. The soundtrack to Egg's ostentatious cooking routines and the group's booze-fuelled slanging matches has shifted from Massive Attack and Portishead to The Killers and Kaiser Chiefs – the use of contemporary music once again proving integral to This Life's success - but, in a nice conceit, as the action comes to a climax, the whole gang dance around like middle-aged loons to the Manic Street Preachers. Clearly these are nineties children at heart.

Whether intentional or not, there is a spooky symmetry between the fates of the characters and their real life alter egos. Miles's success in industry and Egg's fame mirror the career paths of Davenport and Lincoln who clearly didn't need this nostalgic trip down memory lane as much as the others and it is a tribute to their evident respect for Jenkins and the original series that they agreed to the reunion at all.

The biggest problem with the show has always been empathy. These people are egotistical, hopelessly unstable and borderline unlikeable - but they perfectly bring out the screwed-up wretch in all of us. One can easily forgive Jenkins her indulgence, for This Life +10 is a triumph of reminiscence and guilty pleasures.
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A Dirty Job
7 May 2006
Albert Pierrepoint was Britain's most prolific executioner, overseeing the hanging of more than 600 condemned men and women including Derek Bentley, Ruth Ellis and Lord Haw Haw. Adrian Shergold's film starring Timothy Spall in the title role is a dark period piece exploring the stark relationship between compassion and work ethic.

Pierrepoint approaches his grisly duties with pride, professionalism and a stoical detachment – a third generation hangman, he is well accustomed to checking his personal life at the prison gate while he gets on with the job at hand.

But duty and morality are constantly battling in the back of his mind - a struggle neatly illustrated when he is seconded to Germany after the War and tasked with dispatching Nazi war criminals. His clinical work here is deliberately and uncomfortably linked to the crimes of the Nazis who gassed their Holocaust victims with the same brutal precision.

Back in England, as liberalism begins to take hold and high-profile executions enrage a population bubbling with discontent, Pierrepoint's reputation in the eyes of the public slides swiftly and irretrievably from British war hero to callous murderer – a bewildering descent perfectly captured by Spall's mesmerising performance. Juliet Stevenson is not bad either as Pierrepoint's loyal wife gradually embittered by years of turning the other cheek at her husband's double life.

The film celebrates dignity and humanity but is laced with a uniquely British attitude evocative of Vera Drake and The Remains of the Day. Like these earlier social dramas, Pierrepoint culminates memorably in a momentary quivering of its previously resolute stiff upper lip.
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Super Size Me (2004)
Pointless but Entertaining
7 April 2006
I was travelling through America just as this movie came out on DVD and the improbably named Morgan Spurlock was touting his wares all over the place. On the promotional material French-fries (or, to give them their correct name, "chips") were crammed into his smug, opportunistic handlebar-moustache-surrounded gob, and all indications were that this was merely another leftie having a pop at the big corporations in a bid to make a name for himself.

A month eating nothing but McDonalds? Pah. Gimmicky nonsense, I thought.

Over a year later I actually sat down and watched the thing, and I'm big enough to admit I was only partly right. It IS gimmicky nonsense, but there is an undeniable charm to Super-Size Me that I never gave it credit for.

First the nonsense: It is supposedly a damning indictment of American fast food and the grotesque effect it is having on an increasingly obese and inert population. OK, it won some awards, but it strikes me that movie academies are now handing out Golden Globes and Oscar nominations for stating the obvious.

Of course eating nothing but burgers and fries and fillet-O-fish is going to leave you bloated, pallid and unhealthy. Do the same thing at Claridges – a month's worth of gorging on foie gras, Beef Wellington, crème brule and all the trimmings - and you're going to feel pretty soporific and have a distinctly Stilton-y taste in your mouth.

Spend a month drinking nothing but Jack Daniel's and you're likely to wind up dead. But no-one's going to win any awards for dragging round a film crew while they swig relentlessly from a brown paper bag, belch loudly and aim wayward punches at passers-by (otherwise Judy Finnegan would have a stack of statuettes to balance out the empties).

Actually sitting down and watching Super-Size Me has not caused me to change my opinion on the futility of Spurlock's experiment, but it is at least an entertaining ride. There are splendidly jovial pokes at twitchy authority figures and ingeniously selected vox pops with crazed Big Mac addicts and porky consumers.

Most importantly for the success of the documentary, Spurlock himself is disarmingly engaging. He employs an unashamedly Michael Moore approach but does not have the same swagger or self-importance. And though his findings do lead to negative conclusions, he does not overtly condemn McDonalds, just urges caution and moderation.

The physical evidence is pretty compelling – Spurlock put on two stone and his GP labelled him a medical phenomenon – his liver was on the kind of fast-track to oblivion usually reserved for career alcoholics and his cholesterol and body mass index sky-rocketed.

Predictably he spends a fair amount of time forecasting doom and gloom for a nation of inactive children addicted to fast food, but for an advocate of healthy school dinners he comes across as considerably less punchable than our own Jamie Oliver.

A hint to his motivation for this film could probably be found in Spurlock's fearsome girlfriend, who just happens to be a Vegan chef. At one juncture she quizzes him over his affection for meat and suggests that ham is as addictive as heroin. Maybe stuffing his chops with chicken McNuggets and double quarter-pounders was just a cunning way of avoiding her lentil pie.

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Tuturro Faces the Music
27 March 2006
Direction duties on the latest Coen brothers release have been entrusted to an able lieutenant in John Tuturro – the scene-stealing actor from O Brother, Where Art Thou, Miller's Crossing and The Big Lebowski. In his hands, Romance and Cigarettes embraces all the staple Coen nuances but is unsettlingly gritty – less kitsch, more kitchen sink.

Predictably, the film is just a fraction beyond offbeat. For starters it is a musical – original songs and irreverent covers belch incongruously through the pithy dialogue – and, while appearing slightly amateurish at times, in the main it is shot with a grimy panache.

The anti-hero is Nick Murder (James Gandolfini) - an overweight, chain-smoking construction worker who is married to Kitty (Susan Sarandon), but having a torrid affair with ballsy English slapper Tula (Kate Winslet). Nick has a trio of daughters (Mandy Moore – precocious sex bomb, Mary Louise Parker – punk and Aida Tuturro – chubby mummy's girl) who pass the time knocking out grungey rock music in their back garden. Plot-wise, that's about your lot - superficially, the movie is about a family coping with adultery, but this is the Coen brothers, so there are always points of interest lurking in the mundane subject matter.

If you're going to have a stab at unconventional drama, it is best to arm yourself with some quality to beef up your oddballs. So Tuturro has called in favours from Steve Buscemi who raises more than a few chortles as Nick's philosophising co-worker, and an elaborately coiffed Christopher Walken who lends the fancy footwork he cultured on that Fatboy Slim video to some of the more surreal dance sequences. Weirder still is Eddie Izzard's new age church choir organist who distributes marital advice to Mrs. Murder in between belting out gospel hits.

A stellar cast then, and one cannot fault the promotional poster, which is so dominated by Winslet's mountainous, and, let's face it, almost certainly air-brushed breasts (no offence Kate) that it has been crudely censored on the London Underground.

The poster hints at Winslet being some sort of femme fatale, but she actually has few scenes to demonstrate anything other than jiggling, pouting and athletic sexual gymnastics. Much of her dialogue (delivered in an ambiguously mid-Pennines northern accent) is absolutely filthy dirty and is, if you close your eyes, uncomfortably evocative of Kathy Staff in Last of the Summer Wine. No wonder I had nightmares afterwards.

Winslet is following in the footsteps of Helena Bonham Carter, shrugging off the corset and the irritating "English rose" label by taking increasingly earthy roles. Serious, cerebral critics (their spectacles steaming up with every cleavage shot) will no doubt call this performance "brave", "challenging" or even "career defining". More realistically, she probably saw it as an ideal chance to prance around in hot pants and spout smut breathlessly into a telephone whilst trying desperately not to giggle. Either way, it's obviously some sort of trend among English actresses – watch out for Keira Knightley in the new remake of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

But beneath the silliness beats a mournful heart. The Coens' influence, though undeniably prominent, does not swamp Tuturro's serious side and the last third of the movie sees a significant mood change.

Buscemi, Walken and the quirky choreography take a back seat as Gandolfini and Sarandon muscle their way to the fore. It is an impressively gripping finale to a curiously disjointed film, and one which, on balance, just about tips it towards triumph rather than turkey.

The story is wafer thin and the musical set pieces veer dangerously between hit and miss. Frankly it's a bit of a shambles at times, but no less enjoyable for that.

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Capote (2005)
Hoffman's tour de force leaves little room for entertainment
22 March 2006
It's easy to say actors are "born to play" certain roles, and, without question, Philip Seymour Hoffman bears a striking resemblance to the notorious writer and professional celebrity Truman Capote. But this is no easy ride. It is a film that ruthlessly exploits the perfection of its casting with constant tight close-ups focussing on Hoffman's extraordinary facial contortions and rambling monologues in his uncannily accurate tinny drawl.

We follow Capote as he researches his most famous book – the documentary novel "In Cold Blood" – a shocking story about the massacre of a respectable family in a sleepy Kansas town. In particular, it reveals how the author developed an eerie fascination with one of the perpetrators, Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr) – a brooding drifter on death row. This obsession ends up jeopardising the legal process and serves to paint Capote as complex, neurotic and relentlessly unlikeable.

At the endless fashionable soirees he attends, he surrounds himself with fawning sycophants – and even though he enjoyed famously close relationships with iconic women (including Jackie Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor) – in the film his cronies are faceless yes-men and ghastly society hags who hang on his every word and laugh uproariously at each self-congratulatory anecdote.

This superciliousness is neatly contrasted by the gruff Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper) - the Kansas lawman in charge of the murder investigation. He is unimpressed by Capote's patronising tales of New York high society, and brings some much-needed perspective to what is, essentially, a gruesome multiple homicide.

The two most important people in Capote's life gently attempt to instil some of this compassion in their flighty chum: "In Cold Blood" is dedicated to best friend Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) and lover Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood), and they come across as caring and unbelievably patient, but both are criminally under-appreciated. The crunch comes when Capote is sitting alone at the premiere of the film version of Lee's even more revered novel "To Kill a Mockingbird" unable to offer her any congratulations as he is too busy wallowing in his own self-pity. This is the moment we lose any straggling empathy.

While his book contains exhaustive characterisation of the victims and the killers, the movie has little in the way of back-story. It is a troubling letdown for viewers looking to understand what is a shocking crime and develop compassion for the Clutter family. The flashbacks to the killings are late in arriving and serve merely as jolting snippets of ultra-violence, rather than emotional stepping-stones.

This is a movie that is unapologetically egotistical. Its fixation with Capote directly represents the character's own self-absorption. As such, Hoffman's Oscar is a triumph of role-ownership. He truly manages to maintain interest and repay the viewer's investment in a film where the detachment is disquieting and the lack of any real redemption is a constant niggle.

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Denzel Prone to Over-Acting
20 February 2006
This is a very silly film.

Denzel Washington has obviously reached that tiresome but inevitable point in a glittering career where he wants to stretch himself as an actor. "He's a cop, and he's in a WHEELCHAIR!" was, I guess, the original pitch - an echo back to "Ironside", if you will - only Washington evidently vetoed this on the grounds that being quadriplegic wasn't quite disabled enough.

"Wheelchair-bound cops are ten a penny," he probably told his agent. "I want to be bed-ridden, on the verge of merciful euthanasia and only able to communicate with wistful eye-rolling and the occasional dignified grunt. Who needs to be an action hero? I'll win the Oscar through facial expressions alone."

His character is Lincoln Rhyme, a genius crime-scene investigator crippled by a falling girder but retained by the police as a consultant due to his encyclopaedic knowledge of all New York's grizzly murders.

And when a devious serial killer with a penchant for mutilation and historical copycatting runs amok, rookie cop Angelina Jolie (forensics experience: zero) is brought in to act as Rhyme's eyes and ears, before those pesky professional crime scene teams get in there and contaminate the evidence. Meanwhile, much of the New York Police Department ups sticks and relocates to Denzel's bedroom.

At this point, all plausibility has officially left the building. Washington smooth-talks Jolie into a little light amateur amputation, along with several other flagrant breaches of forensics protocol. I can't claim to be an expert, but I've seen enough CSI to know that William Petersen et al would not tolerate an uninitiated beat cop zooming in and cutting up their corpses, before they've had time to seal off the area, remove their aviator shades and stare quizzically into the middle distance.

Hey ho.

Jolie is almost as constricted in her role as Washington is in his, shorn, as she is, of any kind of sexuality. Indeed, she spends most of her time covered up in either clunky body armour or an unflattering blue boiler suit with only those famous bee-stung lips betraying any hint of trademark glamour. Her modest appearance would make sense if the institutionalised sexism storyline (implied by the early quips at Jolie's unsuitability for the case and the barefaced recruitment of Michael Rooker as the brash police captain) was fully thought through, but the director (Phillip Noyce) seems reluctant to make it an issue, so the rest of an impressive male cast (including Ed O'Brien, Mike McGlone and the genius Luis Guizman) are frustratingly underused.

Surprisingly, what little empathy there is, comes from Queen Latifah's no-nonsense nursemaid who dabs Washington's brow tenderly and provides pithy asides to the masculine posturing of the police officers.

Any Se7en-influenced cleverness accumulated during the intricately planned trail of clues at the murder scenes, is immediately ruined by a shockingly lazy ending, and, though Washington manages a melancholic smile during final fade-out, all dreams of Oscar-winning pathos have been long since banished.

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Munich (2005)
Spielberg Strikes a Balance
3 February 2006
Just before I watched Steven Spielberg's Munich, there was a documentary on Channel 4 that followed the first half of the movie almost shot for shot. Apart from allowing me to brush up on my distinctly hazy knowledge of the Arab-Israeli conflict, this also provided a clear lesson in distinguishing between political history and intelligent film-making.

And, yes, there are discrepancies in the two accounts. Of course there are. But even assuming the documentary was rooted firmly in fact (and remember, it WAS on Channel 4 – never an organisation to favour balanced reporting over controversial muck-raking), I would suggest that Munich is close enough to the truth to discredit the nay-sayers and educate the neutrals without compromising its entertainment remit.

Set in the immediate aftermath of the 1972 Olympic Games hostage crisis, the film charts the Israeli response to Palestinian terrorism. Keen to eliminate members of the Black September group who carried out the atrocity but equally reluctant to outrage the international community, Security Service agency Mossad employs a secret hit squad to do its dirty work and then distances itself from the whole operation.

The team is led by Avner (Eric Bana), the son of an Israeli hero, and contains an eclectic bunch of bomb-makers, fixers and heavies. And it is here that the film starts to distance itself from fact (or at least the documentary). Spielberg humanises his hit squad. They are fallible and conscience-driven and a world away from the unapologetic, bristling assassins depicted in the Channel 4 film where surviving members are interviewed and come across more in the traditional mould - their faces in shadow, but their distaste for the enemy very much apparent. Only Daniel Craig's brawny South African mercenary comes anywhere near the clinical coldness of these testimonies, but Avner and the others are perpetually questioning their motivation.

Spielberg purposefully omits any personal links between the innocent athletes cut down in Munich and those who seek retribution. There are no tearful widows or blinking, wide-eyed orphans. Avner and his team are not on a vendetta – they are merely following orders. Himself Jewish, Spielberg never glosses over the shady nature of Israel's response to the kidnappings, but he doesn't side with the Palestinians either. The terrorists are shown as brutal chancers and the other victims of the hit squad are simply targets, not martyrs.

If you look past the challenging material, this is intense human drama, perfectly captured by Bana's superb depiction of a patriot torn between his family and his country. Despite the risk of melodrama in the scenes where he justifies his job to his wife, he is strong enough to carry Spielberg's intrinsic message that conflict of this nature is futile: Victims will simply be replaced and the cycle of violence is endless.

There are some annoyances – The squad moves from inept amateurism to polished assassination machine in the time it takes to pepper an elderly gentleman with bullets in a Rome elevator shaft – but one cannot really fault the casting, especially, the spellbinding Ciaran Hinds who has gone from ham-actor extraordinaire in the bloated TV series Rome, to this terrifically controlled performance as "cleaner" Carl. Geoffrey Rush and Michael Lonsdale round off a mature ensemble and, despite the nature of the film, the violence and the gun-toting, the emphasis is not on gung-ho action, but on its consequences.

You cannot make a film like this without accusations of bias or glib preaching, but Spielberg has managed to counter these with a balanced, dignified endorsement of peace. That he has also made an enormously entertaining and challenging movie is a considerable achievement.

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Sex Comedy That Keeps Its Trousers On
18 January 2006
I would cautiously venture that not many men who have made it into their fifth decade without doing the deed get the opportunity to break their duck with nymphomaniac, hard-bodied, blonde book-shop assistants, busty, wardrobe-malfunctioning speed-daters or, for that matter, Catherine Keener. But the fact that these are the potential partners put in front of our hero here, reminds us that 40-Year-Old Virgin is, first and foremost, a bawdy sex comedy, despite the critical acclaim and hints of depth.

And our hero's name is Andy. He's polite, clean-cut and conscientious, rides around on a bike and collects action figures, but his workmates at the computer store think he could well be a serial killer. One night, during an illicit game of poker on the shop floor, the testosterone is flowing and Andy's swiftly concocted sex tales are less than convincing. His new buddies twig that he's a virgin and decide to help him rectify the situation.

Quickly, the crux is established: For all their bravado posturing, Andy's colleagues are considerably less fulfilled than he is. Wise-cracking Jay (Romany Malco) may act the player, but he is hen-pecked and insecure; David (Paul Rudd) is still pining over a lost love from the distant past; and wild man Cal (Seth Rogen) lurches from day to day in booze-fuelled, over-sexed stupor (OK, so his life may be more fulfilling…)

Despite some false starts with an array of unsuitable though aesthetically pleasing women (this IS a sex comedy, if you remember), Andy eventually finds the perfect partner in "hot grandmother" Trish (Keener). Now if only he can get his rocks off…

And here's the clever bit. Andy is a grown man. A little repressed, certainly, but he still has the world-weariness of someone who has experienced many of life's petty annoyances. It would have been easier comedically to make him some kind of desperate oaf – a constantly horny dog who humps legs and chases schoolgirls down the street. But if you get to 40 and have never done it, it is likely that you simply aren't that fussed. Steve Carrell plays Andy perfectly with a child-like quality but no sinister perversions.

This can be seen in the very first scene, where he goes about his morning business with a persistent erection. It's a nice parody of Porky's – only here there is no furtive self-gratification, it is just part of the routine. For a puerile concept, this is a film that actually explores sexuality. A bit. Obviously, it loses its nerve on occasion as Carrell lapses into Saturday Night Live mode, but the intentions are good.

Take the time-honoured masturbation scene. Instead of the standard montage of sensitive guy exposed to a barrel-load of smut, mistakes lube for super glue hilarity, Andy can't get into it and ends up chortling contentedly to an innocent episode of Everybody Loves Raymond.

Indeed, these offbeat endings to such telegraphed set-ups are what give the film an edge over traditional preppy skin flicks. The beauty (if that is the right word) of the American Pie franchise, Wedding Crashers et al is that we can see the pay-off (apple pie defilement etc) coming a mile away. Here Carrell's Andy is ambiguous enough to surprise us with the way he handles certain lewdly choreographed scenarios.

It's not all high praise. For starters it is absurdly long for a film of this nature. Some of the scenes in the middle don't go anywhere, and while this adds to the quirky, unpredictable feel, the actual ending (when it finally arrives) is oddly uninspiring. Perhaps this is supposed to represent the inevitable anticlimax of your first sexual experience, which would be an extremely bold cinematic statement, but probably not that bright. Anyway, there follows a bizarre musical post-script that has been cunningly cribbed from every Farrelly brothers movie ever made, and by that stage I was fuming as I had missed most of Match of the Day – so anyone expecting a higher rating can blame it on that.

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Talk to Her (2002)
Pedro's Jobs for the Boys
7 January 2006
Pedro Almodovar's dynamic direction, shot selection and creative verve turns a simple story of obsession into a gripping feature-length drama laced with intrigue and black humour.

As with many of his films, Talk to Her is devoted to sexually ambiguous male protagonists. This is not the first time the female leads have missed out on extensive characterisation – indeed, his ladies here spend the majority of their screen time unconscious in hospital beds while the men are intensely studied.

World-weary travel writer Marco forms a friendship with hospital porter Benigno when his matador girlfriend Lydia is critically injured by a bull. Benigno, an oddball who spent early adulthood tending his ailing mother, dedicates all his time to caring for another comatose patient, ballet dancer Alicia, upon whom he has a somewhat unhealthy fixation.

Much of the film explores the benefits of talking to brain-dead patients in the hope of channelling positive energy and triggering miracle recoveries, but this is far from inspiring, feel-good fare. Marco, a cynic, clings to Benigno's positivity as Lydia's life ebbs away, but remains troubled by Benigno's overzealous affection for Alicia. Eventually he retreats leaving Benigno alone and unstable in a uniquely precarious situation.

Through flashback, we learn how Benigno started to stalk Alicia shortly before the car accident that almost killed her. Now he is her constant companion, bathing her, dressing her – even supervising sanitation during menstruation. Her father, a psychiatrist, is more interested in Benigno's sexuality and lack of social skills than any potential danger to his daughter – after four years in a coma, he has reasoned that she will never recover.

The plot is peppered with neat metaphor, usually relayed through Benigno's frank revelations – the most memorable being a black and white vignette about a magic shrinking potion. In fact, it is a testimony to Almodovar's mischievous style that he can include a scene where a man dives head-first into a giant woman's open vagina without relinquishing his 15 certificate. Actually it is this scene that is pivotal to the story. Faced with such overtly sexual thoughts, Benigno's already questionable motives for tending Alicia spill over into physical action, and what was once a quirky, off-beat tale of love and friendship, now becomes a powerful study of mental instability and serious crime.

This is tricky for the viewer to deal with for while we have previously enjoyed Benigno's disarming comic naivety, his sinister exploits make us feel duped and guilty.

But an Almodovar film is not meant to be a comfortable ride and while a lot of the credit must go to a nicely layered performance by Javier Camera as Benigno, it is the direction that lifts this movie above the mediocre. It is bursting with originality, and typical of Almodovar's style that the traditionally conventional characters (here represented by Alicia and her self-important ballet instructor) are ignored and even ridiculed, whereas the freaks and the miscreants are portrayed sympathetically and intimately – the director is evidently fascinated by the workings of twisted minds and refuses to judge them. As a result, his films are witty, engaging and can never be accused of predictability.

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King Kong (2005)
Action Jackson the King of the Swingers
4 January 2006
I think that Peter Jackson must be contractually obliged to make swirling epics. To see his name at the top of the bill is to guarantee a parched throat, throbbing head and cripplingly numb buttocks – it is as if he has been told that if any of his movies rock in at under three hours he will be immediately dumped by the Hollywood studios, deported back to New Zealand and forced to make art-house flicks on a shoe-string for the rest of his life.

Still, it's been sixty-odd years, so King Kong is probably due a face-lift and Jackson's eye for intricacy and respect for the original material amid his customary cinematic extravagance ensures it doesn't disappoint.

Fame-hungry movie director Carl Denham (Jack Black) is determined to get his epic picture made despite the studio pulling their financing. So he hoodwinks unknown actress Annie Darrow (Naomi Watts) and ace writer Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) into joining his film crew on a boat trip to Singapore. En route he bribes the creaking vessel's shifty captain (Thomas Kretschmann) into detouring to the mysterious Skull Island where a giant beast is rumoured to roam.

After fending off some nefarious natives, they decide to scarper, only to discover that Annie has been kidnapped and offered up as a sacrifice to the hairy monster. Jack (who has by this stage fallen in love with Annie) resolves to rescue her, and the rest of the party escort him into the terrifying, prehistoric undergrowth with varying degrees of enthusiasm. King Kong himself, meanwhile, develops something of a fixation on his tiny captive and thus the key conflict of the movie is introduced a mere hour and a half into the film which, for Jackson at least, must be a record.

But we shouldn't grumble, for the build-up is hardly pedestrian and the action sequences on the island are simply mesmerising. I guess Jackson figured that if a 25-foot ape with "feelings" was plausible, he might as well eke out the animatronics budget out a bit further. Other residents include giant centipedes, veloceraptors, T-Rexes and various hulking behemoths that make Jurassic Park look like a petting zoo in Tunbridge Wells.

But the highlight for me was the scene where our plucky heroes are chased down a narrow ravine by a rampaging herd of Diplodocuses (diplodoci?) – A truly ingenious use of technology that perfectly sums up the Jackson philosophy of set-piece envelope-pushing.

To Kong though, the dinosaurs are little more than petty annoyances and he sets about their destruction in ultra-violent fashion. Indeed, there is one incident where he fractures an enemy's fearsome jaw with a venom I can only equate to the gruesome pavement kerb scene in American History X. Evidently graphic bone-crunching brutality is acceptable among CGI characters. Either way, despite the 12A certificate, there are some moments in this film that are certainly not for kids.

If I were being pernickety, I would respectfully suggest that there are a few too many crazy animals impeding the rescue mission – the T-Rexes-falling-off-the-cliff-and-getting-tangled-up-in-the-creepers scene was audacious but just a mite indulgent, and any cuts to the running time could have occurred while Jackson was introducing yet another murderous arachnid/stegosaurus/swamp monster. But this is a minor quibble.

The film hits top gear in the climactic return to New York where Jackson has fashioned an awesome 30s skyline to backdrop Kong's battle with a squadron of vintage bi-planes, and this unusual love story reaches its bitter conclusion.

Jackson has easily enough time to draw empathetic performances from all directions and Watts and Brody are perfectly cast as earnest, courageous leads. Black has drawn criticism for his bullish film director, but I thought he was terrific – just enough subtlety, just enough heart – a glimmer of dignity behind his crass, self-serving exterior. The crew of the good ship "Venture", despite an ongoing, clunking Heart of Darkness analogy, contain just the right mix of benevolence and villainy leaving you guessing as to their motivation throughout. Watch out for Jamie Bell (of Billy Elliot fame) as a perky Jim Hawkins style deck hand.

Andy Serkis lends his grizzled features to one of the earthier sea dogs, but will collect more plaudits for his work bringing the mighty Kong to life. It seems he is destined to spend the rest of his professional life rigged up to a computer and prancing around in front of a blue screen like some kind of loon. Still, I bet the money's good.

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Rowling's Roller-coaster Gathers Pace
7 November 2005
First, a confession: I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a Potter fan, so I felt something of a fraud as I sneaked into a media screening of Goblet of Fire while many bona fide devotees have had to wait it out.

My interest in the franchise has thus far consisted of sitting through the first film in a freezing cinema wondering what all the fuss was about, and skim-reading the second book on an aeroplane to appease my curiosity as to the young wizard's appeal. I have long been astonished at the sheer scale of Rowling's achievement, and while I may treat many of my fellow commuters - the regressive thirty-somethings who are buried in her CHILDREN'S novels on the tube – with something approaching contempt, I realise her success is very much deserved. It's a bit excessive though, and frankly enough to reduce any impoverished wannabe writer to a jealous whimper.

Being an outsider who will undoubtedly get all the names wrong, I won't spend long here on the plot, save to say it revolves around the "tri-wizard tournament" – an epic and dangerous event that threatens to split Hogwarts loyalties asunder.

Instead, I'll concentrate on the performances, and, first up, I fear I must say I have reservations over the casting of Harry. Daniel Radcliffe looked an inspired choice after the first film – floppy hair and specs and an earnest charm - but I'm afraid to say, he is an ordinary actor. The trouble with hiring an eleven year old for a film project as massive as this, is you are rather in the lap of the gods when it comes to puberty. It's a bit like doting on a baby puppy and then being terribly upset a year or so later when a bloody great Alsatian smashes up your living room and defecates on your carpet.

Much better are his faithful chums. Rubber-faced Ron (Rupert Grint) handles the adolescent grunting with considerably more aplomb than Radcliffe, and he also says "bloody hell" a lot which elicited gasps of delight from some of the younger viewers around me. There is some nice chemistry between him and the hitherto gawky and posh Hermione who has blossomed into a snooty English rose, and the theme of teenage angst runs deep throughout the excellent supporting cast.

"Dark and difficult times lie ahead" is the smartly worded tagline, and one gets the impression Harry is far more comfortable dodging fire-breathing dragons, than he is tiptoeing around the opposite sex. The growing pains are neatly handled by director Mike Newell, himself no stranger to the awkward whimsy of love's young dream after sterling work on Four Weddings and a Funeral – Indeed, many of the light-hearted interludes around the school dance scenes betray Newell's penchant for bittersweet comedy and romantic pratfalls.

And, of course, the adults in the cast zoom around with a zest inspired by their youthful co-stars. Robbie Coltrane's Hagrid fashions an unlikely romance with a giantess played by Frances De La Tour; Michael Gambon is a sprightly Dumbledore; and Gary Oldman's screen time is restricted to one scene where he thrusts his head through the burning coals of a roaring fire to offer Harry some sage advice. Perhaps they should have simply hired a stunt double and saved on his fee.

Most impressive of all is Ralph Fiennes who is genuinely terrifying as the evil Lord Voldemort. Fiennes is ably assisted in his wickedness by a suitably conniving Timothy Spall and also the most fearsome set of nostrils to grace the silver screen since Hannibal Lector flexed his snout at Agent Starling in The Silence of the Lambs.

It is pretty stirring stuff – visually extraordinary in places – and nicely paced. Potterfiles will love it and detractors may just find their criticisms stuck in their throats. However, my disdain for adults who proudly devour the novels on public transport without any sense of shame remains absolute.

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Choccy Horror Show
23 August 2005
Well it's not really that bad, but it's difficult to think of a chocolate-related pun for a review that will hopefully convey a sentiment of adequacy and mild disappointment.

Hmm. Where to begin? I suppose the comparisons with the original 1971 Gene Wilder film are inevitable, so let's get them out of the way quickly: This is better. Marginally. My biggest beef with the original (aside from the rubbish spying sub-plot) was the kid they got to play Charlie – a bouffant-haired, no-mark sycophant, so ludicrously saccharine and brown-nosing, that I would have sooner sawn off my own arm than offer him a controlling stake in my chocolate empire.

No such problems here. Freddie Highmore is an astute piece of casting – he has the Dickensian urchin look down pat. Indeed, the whole Bucket family is steeped in a homely grime that is never quite managed in the more Americanised original.

I think the key to that is Tim Burton's decision to exploit the ambiguity over the setting of the action by making the Buckets English. I'm not sure there is anything in the book clarifying the location of the chocolate factory, or indeed the nationality of Charlie's family (there is talk of "dollars" in the film, but enough evidence to suggest an industrial town somewhere in the South of England. Slough maybe. Or maybe not.) It is an important judgement though because the British do poverty and old people so much better than the Americans who tend to be rather too chipper. Give me a bedful of ancient, dotty sitcom stalwarts and Helena Bonham Carter in a floury apron any day.

Whatever, after a promising beginning, the film descends rapidly towards the brown stuff (and I'm not talking about the contents of the chocolate river). The special effects are impressive and diverting, but one would expect nothing less in these days of bells and whistles. But the children are bland and don't lend anything new to the story other than to fuel the debate over the very purpose of remakes. One can only watch a fat kid getting sucked up a glass pipe so many times before ennui sets in.

Much of Burton's film is faithful to the book, but he can't resist an extra plot line reinforcing Dahl's fondness for generational conflict and his deep-seated mistrust of adults. Here, he seeks to explain Wonka's sociophobia by introducing a series of childhood flashbacks where a petrified Willy, his face encased in a fearsome metal contraption, is lectured on the importance of dental hygiene by none other than the Prince of Darkness himself, Christopher Lee, and if that's not enough to send a small child spiralling into a dark world of isolation and illicit confectionery, then I don't know what is.

I guess the key to the whole project was always going to be Johnny Depp, and I'm afraid to say he didn't really do it for me. I can kind of see what he was going for. He's obviously studied the raw material carefully and put his own unique spin on Wonka and, while his performance is undoubtedly a triumph of make-up and gauche comic timing, I was left slightly deflated and not a little alarmed by his striking resemblance to Dave Hill out of Slade.

I'm not suggesting there is an easy way to portray Wonka, but Wilder played him far too knowing and disingenuous, while Depp strives too hard to be the antithesis of adulthood, which, in this climate, and with a forty-year-old actor in the role, is difficult to achieve without drawing uneasy comparisons to Michael Jackson.

I always remembered the actual character to sit neatly between the two – crotchety and misanthropic, but with a childish playfulness that neither screen incarnation truly manages to capture. Also, as I recall, in Quentin Blake's original artwork for the books, Wonka is shown to have a rather rakish goatee beard – a detail studiously ignored by both sets of filmmakers - and I cannot help but conclude that this chin-nudity goes a long way towards explaining the flaws in characterisation.

As for the Oompa Loompas (in this case all played by the amusingly named Deep Roy and electronically duplicated) I will reserve judgement save for saying that both films neatly side-step any awkward racist questions by making them bright orange so that any moral outrage will be confined to Dale Winton and Kat Slater out of Eastenders.

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Mystic River (2003)
Not much fun
18 November 2004
Three Hollywood powerhouses spar for screen time in this worthy but essentially cheerless yarn from director Clint Eastwood.

Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon have racked up some impressive credits between them over the years so to cast them all together in a lugubrious, narrative-driven drama smacks a little of over-indulgence. These guys dominate every scene, squeezing out even their distinguished co-stars: Laurence Fishburne, Laura Linney and Marcia Gay Harden won't have found themselves on the support card very often in recent years. Clint, it seems, really knows how to drum up a decent cast. He has also well and truly hung up his spurs and holstered his .44 Magnum. Mystic River is a million miles from Dirty Harry or Unforgiven - this is slow and thoughtful fare that offers little in the way of audience satisfaction.

Jimmy (Penn), Sean (Bacon) and Dave (Robbins) are childhood chums in Boston. After Dave survives a four-day ordeal of rape and torture at the hands of a local paedophile, the three drift apart. Their paths cross again years later when Jimmy's daughter is murdered. Dave, still suffering from the mental scars of his own tortuous past and now a paranoid schizophrenic, is fingered as a leading suspect, while Sean is the detective leading the investigation.

Jimmy, a reformed gangster, trusts more in his own methods of retribution than those of the authorities and clashes with Sean who wants to do things by the book.

Nothing original there – childhood friendships jeopardised by more complicated adult scenarios – the whole 'wouldn't it be easier if we could just put all our differences aside and have a nice game of street hockey like the old days' routine has been done to death over the years and much better than this, frankly.

Stand By Me is probably the best example of the knowledge-through-experience idea, where kids are coloured by significant incidents in their youth and grow up subconsciously gripped by the past.

Likewise, other films have dealt with child abuse more thoroughly than Mystic River: Sleepers, for example, is quite evidently a film of two halves: First come the pathos-driven scenes of cruelty and torture and then the predictable score-settling.

This is where Eastwood is perhaps too subtle for his own good. The scenes of the young buddies, these comrades-in-arms, are all too brief. We know they are 'friends forever' because they write their names in the unset cement; we also know that Dave is pretty comprehensively screwed-up by his ordeal, and that his mates suffer from a form of survivor's guilt because it was him and not them. But we aren't shown enough to really care. Perhaps some of the poignancy is lost by not allowing the audience to empathise deeply with the characters' younger selves.

Still, there is plenty to sit back and admire. Robbins' breakdown is slow and skilfully played while Penn's despair is graphically and intensely studied. For a good part of this movie, the two of them seem hell-bent on out-gurning each other. Penn cleans up on the anguished sobs and tearful resentment stakes, while Robbins delivers a masterclass in staring dolefully out of windows. It would be almost comical if it weren't so darn depressing.

Naturally things build to a bitter and inevitably grim conclusion that Eastwood seems pretty pleased with as he drags it out way beyond what is strictly necessary.

The whole affair is suitably gripping, well acted and commendably free from sentimentality. Indeed, there is a startling lack of incidental music throughout (which is a big bonus in my book). Instead, silence is used to great effect and gives a slightly sinister edge when scenes are teetering on the brink of melodrama.

Well crafted it may be – but a barrel of laughs it ain't.

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City of God (2002)
Magnificent, gut-wrenching and utterly compelling
26 October 2004
Warning: Spoilers
Do not be fooled by the coy charm of the promotional poster. The image of the girl shyly leaning over to kiss the cheek of a bare-backed boy on golden sands drenched in sunlight represents an ideal that many residents of the City of God strive for, but few achieve.

The rewards are all too tangible: The football, the music, the heady culture of samba and carnival joie de vivre is never far away, but escaping from the slums of Rio is a little more complicated than sloping off to the beach for the afternoon. The City of God is a raging maelstrom of violence, drugs and gang warfare, and its inhabitants are indoctrinated in the way of the gun from an early age.

Fernando Meirelles' film (based on a true story) is a breathtakingly convincing interpretation of life in the notorious Rio favela. Using hundreds of real-life slum children to supplement a superb central cast and shooting entirely around the dusty streets and abject poverty of the neighbourhood, Meirelles charts the history of the area through the narration of Rocket, a peaceable soul with journalistic aspirations who is entirely at odds with the mayhem around him.

Rocket explains how the slum was used as a dumping ground for all Rio's undesirables in the 1960s. Despite a population of criminals and ne'er-do-wells, the early part of the film is an homage to plucky underdog cheeriness and community spirit. Rocket's brother is a member of the 'Tender Trio', a dashing group of bandits who go about brandishing pistols and holding up gas trucks like latter day highwaymen.

Despite an elegant notoriety, the Trio's crimes tend to yield less than impressive fiscal reward, so they plan a heist on a motel-cum-knocking shop in an attempt to up the ante. It goes badly wrong. The gang's lily-livered tendencies mean they make a sharp exit at the first sniff of trouble but, unbeknownst to them, their lookout, unhappy with his passive role in proceedings (as bored nine-year-old little brothers are wont to be), strolls into the motel and fires at will, chortling psychotically as each hooker and john crumples to the floor.

The kid in question is L'il Dice, a chubby Arnold-out-of-Diff'rent-Strokes lookalike with an insatiable lust for mayhem. The motel incident marks a shift in emphasis for the City of God and the following years see the slum descend into chaos as L'il Dice (later renamed L'il Ze) builds a narcotics empire by ruthlessly eliminating the competition.

The streets become a recruiting ground for drug dealers and gang lieutenants. Small children (or 'runts' as they are affectionately known) come to see guns and criminal activity as the only viable rungs up the status ladder. 'I smoke, I snort, I've killed and robbed - I'm a man,' one prepubescent boy states defiantly.

The film culminates in all-out war between L'il Ze's bunch of hoodlums and an idealistic group of insubordinates who throng behind the handsome Knockout Ned after he stands up to Ze's cruel regime. Meirelles is careful not to lionise Ned. Turning him into a hero figure would, I suppose, have romanticised a bitter and essentially futile conflict. Rocket, caught in the middle of the hostility highlights the ultimate irony: 'By the end, after years of fighting, nobody could remember how it all started,' he says. The war becomes the way of life in the favela. Being affiliated to one of the gangs gives the street kids credibility and, more importantly, access to weapons. Before long, guns are being handed out like lollipops, and the runts are running about excitedly firing their new 'toys' indiscriminately. It is the ultimate in power without responsibility.

In their breathless exaltations, many reviewers have dubbed City of God 'Brazil's answer to Goodfellas'. It is a comparison that may be sound in terms of structure – Meirelles has certainly mastered Scorsese's canny editing and daring method of chronicling events over long periods of time – but overall this is a different beast. It is more of a Lord of the Flies with AK-47s. The most alarming aspect of all is the shocking lack of parental presence.

This is essential in conveying the choices these street children have (or rather don't have). L'il Ze and his barbaric ilk become all these poor, impressionable little tykes have to aspire to. In short: they don't stand a chance – a fact sharply illustrated in one particularly distressing and almost unwatchable initiation scene where a young gang recruit is required to murder a cornered infant in order to appease his older colleagues.

But Meireilles does not let this base, visceral tone swamp his movie. In Rocket he has an inspirational protagonist – the perfect foil to the madness and despair. His coming of age scenes where he bashfully attempts to flirt with girls and lose his virginity; and the sequence where he and his mate resort to petty crime only to bottle out when their intended victims turn out to be 'way too cool' to rob are the glue that holds the drama together. Without the light relief this would be intense and depressing fare.

As it is, City of God is a triumph of story-telling: Magnificent, gut-wrenching and utterly compelling, it is cinema of the very highest order.

Do not miss it.

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Little Nicky (2000)
14 October 2004
I must be missing something here. I was under the impression that this was some kind of comedy. Evidently not. Oh well, at least there are a raft of top class actors and comedians queuing up for cameos and supporting roles – maybe they will be able to inject some class into proceedings. Nothing doing there either, I'm afraid.

This is rubbish. Thoughtless, childish pap that adds considerable credence to the notion that Adam Sandler is as overrated as he is irritating. It is a sad state of affairs when filmmakers believe they can simply unleash this goofy, rubber-faced moron on a trusting and frankly deluded public and gleefully scoop up gazillions of dollars in takings. But why wouldn't they think that? Sandler is a veritable Box Office cash cow.

This has been a mystery to me for years. Sandler is a comedian who (in his films at least) HAS NO GAGS! Not only does he not do jokes, but his physical comedy is pretty ordinary too. His success is based purely on the pathos generated by the losers he plays. The man is obviously no mug. He has worked out that producers are falling over themselves to offer him twenty million bucks a throw to fall over a couple of times and wear bad 1980s clothing. Nice work if you can get it.

I will grudgingly give him The Wedding Singer where he fortuitously stumbled on some decent chemistry with Drew Barrymore, but aside from that his movies are generally overly sentimental and woefully short on substance.

Little Nicky is another opportunity to build a weak, convoluted story around one of Sandler's lovable schmucks. Well they got it half right. His eponymous 'hero' (and I use the term in its loosest possible sense) is certainly a schmuck, but he is about as lovable as herpes.

Nicky is the youngest son of the Devil (Harvey Keitel. Really.). When Dad reaches pensionable age (10,000 years in this case), he is supposed to retire and hand over the reins to an heir. Not believing any of his diabolical offspring suitable for the job, he decides to stay in charge himself. This incenses his other two sons (Rhys Ifans and Tom Lister Jr) and they decide to snub life in Hades in favour of running riot up on Earth. Their departure freezes over the gates of Hell and begins to physically debilitate old Satan. If parity cannot be restored and the naughty boys returned down below, Harvey is in serious danger of disappearing into thin air (which, it strikes me, would actually be a blessing).

Anyway, sweet-natured, not-evil-enough-to-rule, Earth-virgin Nicky is dispatched up to retrieve his errant brothers. With hilarious consequences, obviously. Well, I guess that's the theory.

But the expected barrage of fish-out-of-water stereotypes never materialises. Instead, there are a series of bizarre, contrived scenes many of which centre around the toilet habits of an annoying talking dog.

The biggest problem (and there are many) is Sandler. His previous characters may have been absurdly insipid and one-dimensional, but at least he injected them with a modicum of warmth. A thirty-four year old man shuffling about in a duffel coat and trying to portray a blushing adolescent is more frightening than cute. He is severely hindered by an appalling nasal whine that may have sounded amusing on a thirty second Saturday Night Live skit, but begins to grate when affected for the entire duration of a ninety-minute feature. He sounds like a cross between a hood on the Sopranos and Muttley out of the Wacky Races. In short, the character is decidedly unlovely, borderline creepy and, most importantly, relentlessly unfunny.

No supporting cast can sustain a lead like that. Keitel, Rodney Dangerfield, Quentin Tarantino, Patricia Arquette and Reese Witherspoon (as a Clueless-cliché angel) do not disgrace themselves but won't see this as their finest hour. Ifans at least looks like he's approached the project with his tongue firmly in his cheek. His perpetual look of amused bewilderment almost made me smile. Almost.


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Snake Eyes (1998)
No Dice
17 September 2004
Warning: Spoilers
I'm a sucker for the steady-cam. Scorsese's famous entry-to-the-nightclub scene in Goodfellas that was so perfectly aped by Jon Favreau and co. in the wonderful Swingers is probably still the daddy, but the shot that glides around Mark Wahlberg to the sultry strains of 'Best of my Love' in Boogie Nights runs it pretty close. For sheer audacity though, you need look no further than the opening section of Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes.

I own a thesaurus and am fairly adept at the old 'Shift+F7' trick, but this scene left me clutching thin air for superlatives. The beauty is, it comes from nothing. The film opens up on ground that is not so much well trodden as mercilessly stamped upon: A local news reporter helpfully sets the scene for all her faithful viewers and of course, for all of us too.

But from the moment she hands over to her colleague inside an Atlantic City casino, banality is banished. What follows is a mesmerising, one-take, directorial tour de force. It is fight night and we follow bent copper Rick Santoro (Nicolas Cage) as he swaggers around making shady deals and collaring nefarious snitches for bribes and pay-offs. He checks in on heavyweight boxer Lincoln Tyler (Stan Shaw) who is preparing for the feature bout and then goes in to the arena. There he meets up with old chum Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise) who is head of security for the evening and settles down for the action.

The fight doesn't last long. Tyler is caught by a massive haymaker in the first round and windmills backwards. At the same time a sniper high in the rafters takes aim and assassinates the US Defence Secretary who is seated just behind Santoro. Chaos ensues and the curtain closes on the first act with the camera swirling upwards at the end of its long journey. Unbelievably fifteen minutes have passed by the time De Palma shouts cut.

Impressive stuff. Indeed, De Palma seems so pleased with the shot that he decides to hang the whole movie on it, revisiting events from different perspectives using flashback and CCTV footage as Santoro tries to piece together what has happened.

Sadly, from such high, heady beginnings, Snake Eyes has a long way to fall. And fall it does. Spectacularly. Nose-dives would be a better assessment.

Cage does his best, rolling out both familiar personas: the extravagant clown and the intense, introspective everyman, but he can't fight his way through a clunker of a plot.

Conspiracy-wise, I don't suppose it would be an outrageous spoiler for me to mention that Dunne is up to his neck in it. If you want to shroud your movie in ambiguity, you are probably better off not casting Gary Sinise as the villain of the piece. Let's face it: he's no Jimmy Stewart. Sinise must be one of the shiftiest looking men on the planet – the furrowed brow, those furtive eyes - the military uniform simply tops off the caricature of a disillusioned ex-soldier with a chip on his shoulder. I wouldn't buy a used car from him, let alone put him in charge of security of an event attended by a major dignitary.

The acting is not bad, the cinematography remains slick and glossy throughout – even the direction is solid and unpretentious – but the lesson here is that nothing will work if you don't have a story. This is insipid nonsense that meanders along pointlessly and then confusingly and abruptly just ends. There is no steady build up of tension and no devious twist. Instead we have a bizarre and strangely out of place postscript which is probably an attempt to cleverly keep the camera rolling beyond the standard good triumphing over evil, lovers clinch, stretch out into widescreen and roll credits finale that closes most action flicks.

It backfires spectacularly. Rather than being innovative and bittersweet, the last scene is irritating and mildly deflating. Action heroes are meant to be flawed, we don't want to watch them screwing up their lives, we know they are gamblers and alcoholics. I would rather see them save the day, kiss the girl and I'll take the rest on faith thank you very much.

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Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Superior superhero
20 August 2004
As a kid, your traditional DC/Marvel comic book heroes didn't really do it for me (I tended to plump for the biting historical satire of Asterix and Obelix or the complex, highbrow morality of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe). I think my credulity was stretched too far by the sheer lack of imagination in the whole dual-personality idea: Now, let's see… How do we differentiate between Superman and Clark Kent? I know, we'll stick a pair of spectacles on him and instruct him to act goofy. Surely everyone who watched Christopher Reeve or Dean Cain lumbering around the newsroom at the Daily Planet lantern-jawed and biceps busting out of their suits must have joined me in screaming insults at Lois Lane's short-sightedness: 'My God, are you BLIND? It's the same man that pulled you out of that burning building, you myopic harpy!'

Batman isn't much more convincing. He has at least got that ridiculous pointy-eared visor to disguise him, but even that becomes superfluous when you have a dimple like George Clooney's on your chin. The Dark Knight might as well have a sign above his head saying, 'Just call me Bruce.'

Kudos, then, to Spider-man for being just a touch more believable with the secret identity thing. That said I was quite disappointed with Sam Raimi's first stab at transferring our web-spinning hero to the big screen. It was a curiously disjointed film preferring to fall back on slick CGI and a ludicrously artificial villain (Willem Dafoe's Green Goblin) rather than intelligent story development. The sequel is an altogether more polished affair and Raimi has evidently warmed to his task. The action sequences are kept to a minimum (which actually gives them greater impact) and the emphasis is more on more weighty matters.

Still struggling to come to terms with his arachnid super-powers, Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) is working as a pizza delivery boy to fund the college course he is flunking. He also earns the odd buck providing cantankerous tabloid hack J Jonah Jameson (JK Simmons) with candid photographs of the elusive Spider-man (though quite how he manages to take the pictures of himself is anybody's guess – maybe he has a timer and a tripod, or collars a tramp to take the snaps for him in return for a nickel and a can of Kestrel – who knows?). Not only is he stressing over his crime-fighting responsibilities, but his nascent romance with childhood chum M-J (Kirsten Dunst) has hit the rocks and his other best pal Harry (James Franco) holds him responsible for his father's death.

Understandably miserable, Peter starts to doubt that swinging between sky-scrapers and chasing police cars is any great shakes after all and decides to can the Spidey suit and knuckle down to studying. But isn't it always the way that the moment you start to settle down enjoy the simple life, some selfish megalomaniac comes along and ruins it. In this case it is genius scientist Otto Octavious (Alfred Molina) who has morphed into a crazed, tentacled psycho after a botched experiment. Purpose re-installed, Peter sets about saving the day.

All fairly standard super-hero fare, so why does Spider-man 2 seem just a little bit classier than the usual wham-bam effects-laden romp? Well, for starters, the casting is nigh-on flawless. Raimi is greatly assisted here by his hero's all-over mask of anonymity. Other directors have been hindered by having to squeeze muscle-bound hunks into nerdy alter egos: Witness Reeve and Cain as the bumbling Clark Kent – are we really meant to feel sorry for these handsome devils? Raimi has carte blanche and can make Peter Parker as pasty as he likes without having to turn him into a convincing world-saving dreamboat. In Tobey Maguire he has struck gold – the kid is a walking Clearasil commercial. This is a proper loser - one the audience can really empathise with - and the central emotional conflict works fantastically well as a result.

Raimi has also reined in any temptation to ram the special effects down our throats. He cleverly lets the thrills creep up on you rather than orchestrating a telegraphed car chase or fight sequence. There is one great scene when a tender will-they-won't-they moment between Peter and M-J is rudely interrupted by a car flying through the window of a restaurant in super slo-mo. It is just a pity that the promoters decided to ruin the shock impact by showing it in all the trailers.

Molina's Dr Octopus is about as preposterous as the Green Goblin, but somehow he manages to make him entertaining if not entirely convincing. Maguire is a talented actor, switching from comic to dramatic mode seamlessly. The Bert Bacharach 'Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head' musical interlude is as charming a scene as you will see all summer. His chemistry with Dunst is also spot-on – she has carved out a niche as a refreshing alternative to the bland new Hollywood brat-pack – and by the end you are really rooting for the pair of them.

I hear there is a third installment in the pipeline which will inevitably drag the franchise back down into the realms of the mediocre. It is my humble opinion that they should just leave it be at two, but I suppose the lure of the dollar will prove too tempting to refuse. This is a shame, because Spider-man 2 really is a cracking film and it deserves to be recognised in its own right.

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Believe the hype
10 August 2004
On the outside, Frank Darabont's directorial piece de resistance does not look promising: Scripts purloined from little-known Stephen King novellas, hacked up and padded with sentimental Hollywood schmaltz do not tend to yield cinematic gold. King, a master of unnerving, psychological drama would never be so trite as to tag one of his stories with a vague, syrupy axiom like 'Fear can hold you prisoner. Hope can set you free.' – that kind of corny meddling smacks of the ad men tugging mercilessly at the heart strings, ripping the freshness and originality out of every project they come across. I am also immediately wary of prison melodramas (especially those with the word 'redemption' in the title) – they are all so predictable.

These were my thoughts as I first contemplated watching The Shawshank Redemption almost a decade ago. Then there was nothing like the hype and fervour that surround the movie now. I had only the rapturous, breathless testimony of a friend of mine to go on, and he was something of a philistine when it came to the pictures (I believe his previous favourite film was Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, so you can forgive my scepticism).

Still I did some research before going in: Yup, thought so: Idealistic young man, banged up for a crime he didn't commit – I'll bet he soon bears the brunt of some pent-up sexual aggression from his misanthropic fellow inmates. What's that? He befriends an institutionalised black guy played by Morgan Freeman? I would imagine he'll be providing a wise voice-over throughout, perhaps whimsically tinged with an ingenuous Southern drawl. And the Warden: He'll be a stern, God-fearing fellow with steel-rimmed spectacles and a shady secret.

I went along and watched it anyway of course (my social diary as a teenager was hardly cram-full) and as I sat, I soon realized I was right on all counts. But still I watched. Past the grim depictions of new recruits being raped and beaten by both guard and lag; past the scene on the roof with the insurance advice and the ice-cold beers; past the bittersweet tale of Brooksy's freedom and Tommy Williams' fateful revelations. I watched through the ever-changing posters on Andy Dufresne's wall, and at the end I, like everybody else in the cinema emerged blinking, dry-of-mouth and my heart soaring.

Teenagers aren't supposed to be awash with optimism and joy. They slouch and scowl and lock themselves in their rooms with the stereo on full blast, but, despite myself, I couldn't take the big soppy grin off my face or shake the shiver from my spine. After watching The Shawshank Redemption, I smiled so hard my cheeks ached.

Because what cynical young sods like me didn't realize was that some films are formulaic for a reason. You cannot reinvent the wheel every time. What I also learnt was that redemption (when it is done right) can be the most moving and satisfying cinematic theme of them all. Shawshank excels in its simplicity. It is by no means the only great prison drama: Cool Hand Luke oozes, well… cool, but the young Paul Newman was such a screen god that the film ends up being more of a slavish homage. Other prison revenge flicks (Murder in the First and Sleepers spring to mind) are more obsessed with action or courtroom finger pointing than any thoughtful resolution and the protagonists are bitter and angry.

Not here. The characterisation is crisp yet understated. Tim Robbins' Dufresne draws empathy and respect in equal measure, while Freeman's Red has an extraordinary dignity. When we meet him, he has served 20 years for a murder he committed as a kid and any angst and aggression has gradually ebbed away. Now he is revered as 'a man who can get things.' Inside his ability to procure contraband has made him influential – much more so than he ever was as a free man – but instead of using it to bully and menace his fellow cons, he sits back in quiet reflection. This is Red's redemption.

Dufresne meanwhile has a grander plan and it comes to fruition in the most splendid fashion. Unusually, we see it all through Red's eyes and that leaves us as wide-eyed and incredulous as the warden after he throws the pebble through Raquel Welsh's midriff.

I am not usually in favour of the retrospective voice-over. It is a lazy, mawkish device that is all to often used to paper over plot holes or lack of imagination. This one is different. I suppose it is all in the voice and Freeman sounds like he has been gargling with a heady mixture of rich New England soil and spitting whiskey. It is quiet but wholly convincing – much more so than his subsequent authoritative Presidential ramblings in Deep Impact. The language he uses is easy and uncomplicated but breathtakingly effective:

'His first night in the joint, Andy Dufresne cost me two packs of cigarettes. He never made a sound,' he says when the new convict refuses to buckle, wryly encapsulating the intricacies of a friendship based on a mutual respect and true affection.

Who will ever forget Red as an old man 'so excited I can hardly sit still or hold a thought in my head' as he shuffles along the stone wall in the cornfield towards the big oak tree and Andy's hidden treasure – a true moment of silver screen magic. 'Get busy livin', or get busy dyin',' is the final maxim, and by that stage, no matter how cold or hard-nosed you purport to be, I defy you not to have a lump in your throat. Maybe for once the ad men got it right.

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Catwoman (2004)
The Cat's (Leather) Pyjamas
4 August 2004
I suppose it doesn't take much to get a green light in Hollywood these days. Catwoman wouldn't have been particularly difficult to pitch: Halle Berry crammed into a leather bodysuit, kicks ass, saves world. The End. Oh and she is handy with a whip. And has a bitch fight with Sharon Stone. Did I mention the leather bodysuit? Good - that ought to do it.

I guess some wag in the pre-production meetings may have tentatively ventured some concerns about lack of any plot or characterisation, but he was evidently shouted down and told not to be such a worrywart.

Much of the criticism levelled at this film is unhelpful and frankly misjudged. If you want to be intellectually stimulated go and watch Kubrick or Truffaut or, better still, read a book. This is a no-brainer, an event movie aimed at the school holiday market with tie-in video game potential. Anyway there is actually a fair bit of mileage in the idea behind Catwoman: The comic book traditionally transfers well onto the silver screen – Spiderman 2 opened recently to rave reviews, and the Batman franchise from which the character is taken has enjoyed immense critical and commercial success (the dreadful fourth installment Batman and Robin aside). Add to that Berry's considerable Box Office clout and you have what is surely a recipe for success.

Unfortunately though, even the best ideas will flounder if they are not fully thought through. Berry may be a good, nay Oscar-winning actress – better, certainly, than the catsuit's previous incumbent, Michelle Pfeiffer, and light years ahead of Eartha Kitt and Julie Newmar who rubbed up against the Dark Knight in the original sixties Batman TV show – but she cannot salvage anything from this.

She plays Patience Philips, a lonely, browbeaten graphic designer at a large cosmetics firm run by slick businessman George Hedare (Lambert Wilson) and his glamorous wife Laurel (Sharon Stone). After unwittingly stumbling upon a dastardly plot to thrust an anti-ageing product with hideous side effects on an unsuspecting public, Patience is bumped off only to be reanimated by a bunch of mystical moggies. Invigorated with feline zest, she seeks her revenge and falls for hunky cop Tom (Benjamin Bratt) en route. Cue lots of computer animated leaping about and plenty of catty anthropomorphism including Berry scoffing down tuna by the tinful, hissing at dogs and the obligatory milk moustache scene. Interestingly, Patience's alter ego is also surprisingly adept at basketball and kickboxing – not skills you would traditionally associate with the domestic pussycat.

Berry, as always, looks terrific, but she still falls someway short of Pfieffer's seminal Catwoman. The character in Tim Burton's Batman Returns is part of a wider ensemble. Fewer scenes enable Pfeiffer to cloak her Catwoman in ambiguity and maximise her impact – most memorably when she backflips effortlessly across a deserted lot, pauses and miaows sardonically as a massive building explodes behind her. It helps that she is directed by Burton, the master of the dark, acerbic fairy tale. Berry can count herself unfortunate that her movie is helmed by the curiously monikered Pitof, a Frenchman who seems to have arrived from nowhere (and, on this evidence, will be scuttling back there before too long).

Still, Pitof has obviously at least watched Batman Returns, for his movie simply lifts Catwoman's plot line out, dumbs it down and sets it to a pumping soundtrack. There is no heart, no ingenuity and there sure as hell isn't any depth. We learn nothing of Patience's past or why she has been selected to be blessed with superpowers. The villains of the piece are ludicrously unimpressive – you can imagine them being laughed out of the Global Confederation of Comic Book Baddies for sheer lack of imagination: 'So, what fiendish plans for world domination have you come up with? A super virus? Nuclear War, maybe?' – 'Er, no, but we have developed a face cream that will give people a nasty rash…'

Wilson is a tired, identikit evil genius, and Sharon Stone is more of a loony Bridgett Neilson clone than an exotic femme fatale. Neither can touch the sinister malevolence of Christopher Walken's Max Shreck or Danny DeVito's Penguin. Their plot is also so pathetic that Catwoman needn't have bothered with a dangerous, elaborate showdown to bring them to justice – simply reporting them to Watchdog would probably have done the trick.

Catwoman certainly isn't the car crash it could have been. Bratt's cop is pretty bland, but his chemistry with Berry is OK, and the computer animation whilst over the top makes for a slick cartoon landscape that is appropriate for a film like this. And, of course, if you can stomach the dizzying camera angles and stodgy dialogue, the pay-off is Halle Berry clad in leather and wiggling delectably. I would suggest that many red-blooded cinema-goers might well consider that a fair trade.

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King Arthur (2004)
History for Dummies
2 August 2004
Much has been made of the historical significance of Antoine Fuqua's take on the story of Arthur and his knights. The ad men purport it to be the `untold true story that inspired the legend', while scornful detractors have dismissed it as being as fictional as the traditional myth. Unfortunately, the end product leaves the viewer caring little either way.

Far from the magical medieval world of Camelot with all its swashbuckling sword-fights and sorcery, Fuqua sets his story a thousand years earlier in the barren, misty wastelands of Northern England. A group of Sarmatian conscripts plucked as boys from their Eastern European homeland to fulfil a debt of gratitude to the Romans have just completed their 15 year tour of duty in Britain. Having served under legendary Roman soldier Arthur (Clive Owen), they have developed into a tight-knit fighting unit revered by their public and feared by the insurgents who plot raids from North of Hadrian's Wall.

The Romans' occupancy of Britain is coming to an end. Arthur dreams of a return to Rome with all its culture and liberty, while his knights are looking forward to going home to Sarmatia, but before they can leave they are given one final mission to rescue a wealthy Roman family caught in the far North in the middle of a Saxon invasion.

Hence we have the time-honoured scenario of a bunch of brave warriors outnumbered by thousands to one marching glibly into certain death, wise-cracking all the way. It is fairly standard stuff: The pretty boys with the wavy locks, neatly trimmed beards and chiselled features, led by the irritatingly handsome Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd) are offset by the lumbering, gurning Bors (Ray Winstone). All are fairly tidy in the fighting department, though it helps that arrows seem to bounce off them and opponents appear to queue patiently before being slaughtered by axe or sword. This film is so full of epic-battle, courage-under-fire staples and stereotypes, it makes it hard to take its sincere historical credentials seriously.

It doesn't help that Jerry Bruckheimer (never a man to favour substance over style) is producing it. With him, it seems, all subtlety and nuance is immediately binned in favour of another sweeping battle scene or Ray Winstone making tiresome gags about flatulence. Which is a shame, because there is a lot of potential intrigue amongst the trite, ham-fisted set-pieces. Lancelot and Arthur are best chums, but both harbour feelings for the beguiling Guinevere (Keira Knightley). You get the impression Fuqua is keen to explore this conflict more, but was perhaps vetoed by Bruckheimer who evidently wanted to forego an emotion-wrought love triangle in favour of more footage of men in armour running at each other really fast.

Performance-wise, King Arthur is adequate, but it is very difficult for actors to be believable when they are spouting such clichéd, clunking dialogue. When it comes to brooding, it is hard to match Owen, but he is hardly physically imposing. When he brazenly stands alone on a hilltop in full battle regalia facing hordes of Saxons, he is not so much the bristling epitome of menace as the simpering pinnacle of high camp. As it becomes clear to him that his beloved Rome is tarnished with corruption and greed, he faces an identity crisis: Half-Roman and half-Briton, he is forced make decisions about who or what he must fight for, but all his inner demons are masked by the same drab, humourless expression. Even the prospect of bedding Knightley isn't enough to put a smile on his face. There is just no pleasing some people.

The rest of the cast are OK. Winstone is ludicrously over-the-top as the boisterous Bors and Stellan Skarsgard is a scene-stealer as the Saxon leader Cerdic. The excellent Australian actor Joel Edgerton plays Gawain, but is underrated and hence woefully underused. None of them, however, are good enough to make this anything other than a turgid time-filler.

Bragging about accuracy is fine, but to then employ every unimaginative device in the book is nonsensical. The Saxons here are portrayed as filthy, snarling savages raping, pillaging and looting their way through the countryside while the knights have honour, comradery and dashing good looks on their side. Fuqua would have been better off saying `bugger historical precision', slapping a pair of tights on Gruffudd and Owen and settling for a more traditional Camelot. Instead we have ghastly allusions to the established Authurian legend – the scene where Arthur retrieves Excalibur from the stone is particularly awful, and Merlin, instead of being a kindly old wizard, is a bizarre tree-hugging loon caked in body paint.

It is difficult to be too critical. Filmmakers deserve credit for trying new ideas and straying from the beaten path, but this effort doesn't know whether to be wholly original or stick to well-worn formulas and it ends up as a curious hybrid of the two. There is no mystery and no magic, but nothing new cinematically either. The film itself is, like the argument between the producers and the historians, essentially pointless.

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Big Fish (2003)
Curiouser and curiouser
21 July 2004
When Helena Bonham Carter recently gave birth to Tim Burton's baby and settled down to blissful (if presumably slightly quirky) family life, it finally dawned on me that we were probably not going to end up together. This was a thumping blow to say the least – I have carried a torch for Britain's most elegant and enigmatic actress ever since she flapped her arms about in a cornfield in Room With a View in 1986 - and I knew that if I was to finally allow myself to move on, I would need to stop thinking of Burton as a scheming, manipulative freak-show who was holding my precious English rose against her will and just be happy for the pair of them. So I stopped sticking pins in my crudely crafted Burton effigy and began to grudgingly concede that he was actually a pretty good director.

Still, he doesn't half take liberties with his missus: Not content with turning her into a talking gorilla in Planet of the Apes, his latest offering, Big Fish, has her playing both a scabby, one-eyed witch and a wistful middle-aged spinster who couldn't even lure Ewan McGregor into the sack.

Bonham Carter is not the only one readily jumping through hoops for Burton in this movie. He has a knack of creating unique and irresistible characters that light up his narrative and captivate his audiences. Why has nobody else ever cast Danny DeVito as a pint-sized, moustache-twirling ringleader or Steve Buscemi as terrible poet-cum-bank robber? What other director could assemble such a blistering supporting cast in what is essentially a glorified fairy tale? Big Fish was never the sort of project that was going to win truckloads of academy awards – the reason the cream of Hollywood are queuing up to be in his films is not one of artistic recognition, but because it looks like it would be a bloody good laugh.

What is also clear is that if you happen to land one of the plumb roles, you strive with every sinew to make the most of it. Albert Finney plays Edward Bloom: Charismatic, popular and richly entertaining, but dying of cancer. Billy Crudup is his son Will, who has endured a life of drudgery by comparison. Will is fed-up with his father's preposterous tales and it eventually drives them apart. As it becomes obvious Edward has only a short time to live, Will seeks reconciliation and acknowledgement from his father that his stories are all whopping great lies.

But Edward is a stubborn bugger and maintains that he only ever speaks the truth. And so, his history is recounted in a succession of vivid flashbacks where we follow his younger self (Ewan McGregor) through a life that was certainly less ordinary and frankly (to Will anyway) pretty unlikely. Young Edward, it seems, was a gifted individual to say the least: His anecdotes include a long list of sporting accolades; tussles with witches and giants; joining the circus and falling in love; escaping from the far East with the help of Siamese twin cabaret singers and saving a whole town from debt and destitution.

The tales are brought to life by Finney's sparkling voice-overs and McGregor's wide-eyed enthusiasm – Edward Bloom's past is Tim Burton's Wonderland; The town of Spectre, Alabama is his Bedford Falls, 'a place so great, nobody ever leaves!'

References and sly nods are scattered everywhere and colour and imagery stream out of every set. Here it is the present that is dreary and sepia. Edward, stymied in his later years through the relentless march of time and eventually bedridden, lives vicariously through his splendid reminiscences. Because, as Will eventually realises, his father is not interested in showing off or telling porkies – he just wants to remember the good times.

Big Fish is about cherishing memories. In Burton's book they can be as rose-tinted as you like. The cold facts are not important; feelings are what count. How he can pull off such an unapologetically sentimental motto like that without drowning in a fetid swamp of cheese and schmaltz is anybody's guess. But he does, and with his own inimitable aplomb. Burton just has this incredible imagination (although it helps that he is as mad as a snake).

My final word must rest with Helena. These pages are laced with praise for the entire cast of Big Fish. All the aforementioned actors deserve credit as well as Alison Lohman and Jessica Lange as the young and old incarnations of Edward's wife Sandra (Lange in particular is the foxiest pensioner you are ever likely to meet), but Bonham Carter proves once and for all she is one of the most talented and versatile actresses currently around. Once mocked as being fit only for corsets and period drama, she has laughed off the criticism and taken a series of challenging and thought-provoking roles. She is not afraid to experiment or risk looking silly and has a laissez faire attitude to stardom that is as admirable as it is unusual. If this film is Burton's homage to his new family lifestyle then it is a fitting tribute indeed.

OK, now I have closure.

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Lavish and indulgent - a work of flawed genius
16 July 2004
I read somewhere that Martin Scorsese has been trying to get this film made for decades. That is a long time for ideas, plot-threads and themes to be swirling around in such a talented, creative mind. It seems that when he finally got the green light, everything exploded out in a seismic gush of violence and vivid colour. This is movie-making on a mammoth scale – no quarter given, no corners cut, no concessions. CGI is for wimps.

The star of this film is New York itself. Scorsese uses great sprawling sets that disappear into the distance; a vast array of props, period pieces and extras; bloody fight scenes that are almost unparalleled in their intensity and ferocity; and a general air of bubbling discontent.

New York is and evidently always has been a cultural melting pot. This is the 1860s version and the key conflict is between the vicious, snarling patriots and the boatloads of Irish immigrants who arrive daily. There are no heroes here – no moral high ground – just angry mobs of hoodlums perpetually spoiling for a fight. We join the action just before an almighty dust-up between nationalists led by William 'Bill The Butcher' Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Priest Vallon's (Liam Neeson's) Dead Rabbit gang over control of the notorious Five Points district. It is a blood bath, but Cutting slays Vallon and emerges victorious. He goes on to rule the Five Points with an iron fist, exploiting the fear his legend has generated.

Fast forward sixteen years, and Vallon's son Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) returns to the Five Points with a sizable chip on his shoulder and planning vengeance on Cutting. Before he can act, he becomes embroiled in all the sleaze and corruption and is soon fast-tracked to the upper-echelons of Bill's inner circle. He also finds time to fall for sexy pickpocket Jenny (Cameron Diaz) – not bad for a chubby Irishman with a bum-fluff goatee and a bizarre mid-Atlantic brogue. After being taken under Cutting's wing and learning how he reveres his father's character and memory, Amsterdam suddenly has a crisis of confidence and sees Bill in a different, almost paternal light.

You can see his problem: It is difficult not to warm to The Butcher. Day-Lewis injects an impressive amount of passion into a man with admirable commitment albeit to a questionable cause. He may be a psychopath, but he's not afraid to fight for what he believes in and he strongly believes in quixotic notions like honour and respect for one's enemies. He also has a rather splendid moustache.

Day-Lewis is undeniably superb in this film and DiCaprio and Diaz are both fine, but it is difficult for an actor to shine through the grandiose direction. Gangs is littered with Scorsese trademarks – the steady cam shots that swoop around Vallon as he strides out to meet Bill dominate the opening scene, but their impact is disappointingly weakened by the slo-mo and speeded-up footage of the otherwise breathtaking fight sequence. Such visual jiggery-pokery may have graced a film like Casino, but here it is strangely out of place – I suppose he was going for a clever juxtaposition of raw hand-to-hand combat with more modern Matrix-style shenanigans. Whatever, I don't think it really works.

Scorsese also has a fair bit to say about class. There is social comment all over this film and in the main it is beautifully handled: The (I presume) fictional yarn about Amsterdam's revenge segues neatly into depiction of the real-life conscription riots that took place at the time. Indeed, fact spills into fiction during the thrilling denouement when the showdown between Bill and Amsterdam is overtaken by events around them. Scorsese has little time for the upper-classes – here they are nothing more than a snobbish hangover from British high society - cowering in fear as the angry masses steam-roller through their flimsy security and eject them from their own billiard rooms.

Lincoln's presidency, widely regarded as being the fulcrum for modern American life, is here derided as ineffectual. As if to sum this up, William Cutting survives an assassination attempt in a theatre. Famously, Abe was not so lucky. Scorsese's America, as the tag-line suggests, was born on the streets – not in the Whitehouse.

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Should have dug a little deeper
7 July 2004
The common trend amongst modern documentary-makers seems to be to step back from the subject matter and let it speak for itself – no voiceovers or preaching – simply fly-on-the-wall stuff. Perhaps the perception is that investigative journalism is too intrusive a medium for the movies and better served on hard-hitting TV shows. But a story such as the Friedmans' needs some further digging despite the impressive raw materials. We have interviews with the major protagonists and oodles of camcorder footage but no incisive questioning or comment from the filmmakers and as compelling and interesting as this film is, the ultimate feeling is one of frustration.

The story of the Friedmans is murky and disturbing and needs poking around with a big stick before the truth can begin to emerge. The family is superficially ordinary: Jewish, middle-class and pillar-of-the-community. Patriarch Arnold is a well- respected and award-winning teacher; wife Elaine is typically supportive and subordinate and their three boys have a touching and incredibly close bond neatly recorded for posterity in hours of home-video footage. But all is not well in sunny suburbia. The police intercept a package intended for Arnold that contains a magazine of child pornography and dirty secrets and wild accusations are soon sullying the family name.

Former pupils come out of the woodwork and accuse Friedman of abusing them in the computer classes he ran out of his own home. His youngest son Jesse is also implicated. In all, over 200 separate charges of rape and child molestation are brought against the two despite no complaints being made by pupils at the time of the alleged assaults and not a shred of physical evidence. An intriguing tale, undoubtedly, but what makes this film unique among all the other tepid yarns about serious crime is that the Friedmans kept the camera rolling.

After Arnold and Jesse are bailed, the family closes ranks and plots their defence. It is fascinating stuff. Arnold retreats into a mumbling, guilt-ridden shell while the rest of the family is split asunder by Elaine's scepticism and despair and the boys' fierce defence of their father. Eldest son David is the most bitter. He is incredulous that such absurd charges have been brought against his father and brother and is determined to clear their names. His video diaries and monologues are insightful as are the family arguments he faithfully films. He emerges as the least stable of the lot of them: A confused, angry, indignant voice petulantly and blindly mitigating his father's flaws; devastated and helpless as his cherished family idyll crashes down around him.

I will not detail events of the trial suffice it to say that the outcome asks more questions than this film can answer. Arnold's history of sexually abusing his own children is hinted at but never fully broached despite long and otherwise candid interviews with both David and Jesse and Arnold's younger brother. All are steadfast and confident in Arnold and Jesse's innocence.

It is difficult to say whether the film sides with the Friedmans or not. Certainly it does not hold back in detailing the hideous crimes that are alleged: Prosecutors, frustrated defence lawyers and victims are all wheeled out but are not truly convincing in their condemnation of Arnold. He actually emerges as a meek, dignified martyr who, at his death, leaves a string of embittered, broken people still adamant that the whole affair was one hideous misunderstanding. This is not your standard paedophile. The true extent of his crimes may never be known and the footage of his loving family make the allegations against him all the more unpalatable and grisly.

As an interesting footnote, eldest Friedman son David (the wrathful, resentful brother) is also the premier children's entertainer in New York. While there is no suggestion he has any history of sexual crime himself, one would have thought his family name may be something of a hindrance in his line of work. But he is still clowning away merrily and the mud doesn't seem to have stuck – America is a strange place.

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Bad Education (2004)
Give it a try
23 June 2004
Us Brits don't really 'get' European cinema, either intellectually or in a very literal sense (ie. our screens are so saturated with mainstream, MOR, Hollywood froth that there is no room for anything else). Occasionally the odd gem might slip under the radar (Amelie, most notably), but we are generally a stubborn bunch - anything with subtitles can be safely disregarded as foreign nonsense by most muliti-plex denizens.

Pedro Almodovar though, is one European filmmaker with a consistent (if commercially miniscule) presence on this proud island of ours. The giant of Spanish cinema for the past two decades, he is also the darling of the British art-house scene thanks to movies such as Todo Sobre Mi Madre (All About My Mother) and Hable Con Ella (Talk To Her). His successful crossover probably stems from his flamboyant style. Bad Education is nothing like the grainy, offbeat output traditionally touted by pretentious European liberals – it is a loud, luridly colourful romp. The content may be sensitive and a touch controversial, but it is a sideshow to the Tarantino-esque dialogue and a plot that could have been penned by Elmore Leonard. The characters are so orange-skinned and white of tooth, they could have been airlifted in from Venice Beach. This is Costa Del Hollywood.

The story is simple but twisted audaciously and fantastically around past and present, fact and fiction. Enrique (Fele Martinez) is a film director short on ideas. He is approached by an old school friend, Ignacio, who is now a jobbing actor looking for work. Enrique is intrigued but suspicious – the two were pre-pubescent lovers at their strict Catholic school, but have not seen each other since. Ignacio leaves behind a screenplay he has written called 'The Visit' which is a factual account of the abuse he endured as a child coupled with an entirely made-up ending in which he confronts and blackmails the priest who molested him.

The film criss-crosses between realities seamlessly. We follow Enrique through the script and his ensuing detective work as he becomes obsessed with Ignacio and making a movie out of 'The Visit'. Unwittingly he becomes embroiled in the shady world of Ignacio, his younger brother Juan and the elusive Father Manolo – 'star' of 'The Visit' but now a publisher rather than a man of the cloth. By the end, all truths are blurred and laced with bluff and deceit. In the blink of an eye, the movie shifts from revenge black comedy to a more standard murder mystery and it is to Almodovar's credit that you don't even notice.

All in all, the pace is cracking, performances perfect and it is visually sumptuous, but the really admirable thing about Bad Education is that it doesn't preach. Here is a movie about homosexuality, institutional child abuse, transvestisism (if that is a word) and paedophilia. These issues are integral to the plot, yet completely incidental to the moral tone and I don't think the big studios in America would be able to comprehend that. Ignacio spent his childhood being raped by his teacher, but his motives for revenge are driven by greed rather than regret at his lost innocence. Manolo's character would have been demonised in Hollywood (I can just imagine an interminable court scene where Ignacio tearfully points to him in the dock amid much frowning and righteous indignation in the public galleries) but here he is simply another character. The film-director, the actor, the transvestite and the paedophile – This film lets us make up our own minds on how we feel about them. Most people know that fiddling with small boys is wrong – we don't need traumatic flash-backs and heart-wrenching scenes of redemption or condemnation to ram it down our throats.

It is similarly refreshing to see a film where homosexuals are not all card-carrying, Gucci-clad interior designers armed with Chihuahuas and pithy one-liners. That said, some of the sex-scenes in Bad Education do go marginally beyond what is strictly necessary to the story. I certainly wouldn't want to watch it with my Granny, and those people who uphold more traditional family values may wish to steer clear also. Personally I giggled childishly at the sight of all these bronzed gentlemen bulging in their tighty-whities.

A final thought: Without wanting to sound condescending, I would urge people to give foreign films more of a chance. This is one of the better-advertised offerings, but it still to me ages to find a cinema actually showing it. I concede there is much fun to be had by sticking with US and UK output, but eating steak every day would soon become dull (and play havoc with your bowels) and there are plenty of tasty little 'amuses bouches' being served up by our foreign friends.

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Troy (2004)
Trojan Triumph
15 June 2004
I consider myself fairly well read, but I must confess to never having waded through a Homer epic. Indeed, before last week my knowledge of Greek mythology in general was hazy to say the least. I knew a bit about the Iliad, some bird called Helen, and never looking a gift-horse in the mouth, but that's about it. After close-on three hours watching Wolfgang Petersen's Troy, I am not really any the wiser (aside from learning that the Achilles fellow slept in the buff and Trojan Prince Paris had ongoing facial hair issues).

But that's not really the point of Troy: Hollywood epics rarely let anything as humdrum as historical or literary accuracy get in the way of a good story. I subscribe to the theory that the further back in time you go, the more artistic licence you are entitled to. This one is set in 1200 BC, so Petersen has a fair bit to work with. I went in with low expectations. The reviews were mixed at best – all the usual bleating about wooden acting and pretentious dialogue – but I am happy to report they are all wrong: Troy is a triumph. Actually, they are right about the acting and the dialogue, but I'd feel short-changed if the stars of Hollywood didn't try to affect ridiculous Alec Guinness accents when faced with a project like this. I can also only applaud Sean Bean's decision to make Greek king Odysseus sound like he was born and raised in Sheffield.

As an epic piece of cinema, I can't praise Troy highly enough: Yes it is a touch showy and overblown, but when you put as much oomph into the special effects and fight scenes as this, some extravagance is justified. The key point is that Troy is not simply a straightforward conflict between good and evil. Hollywood has an exceedingly tiresome habit of lionising its epic heroes and demonising its villains. William Wallace maybe had some quixotic notion of freedom, but he was also a savage and an outlaw – watching Braveheart, you'd think that he spent all day skipping through meadows with baby lambs and still found time to end world poverty and find a cure for cancer.

Troy spends no time polishing halos. The characters here are rough-hewn and spiky. Achilles (Brad Pitt) may have smouldering eyes and abs you could eat your dinner off, but he is cold and self-important. He is not interested in wishy-washy abstract ideals such as cultural identity – his legend is all that matters. The Trojan Princes are the opposite. Hector (Eric Bana) and Paris (Orlando Bloom) love their country and their people, but these are no saints. Hector's army will stop at nothing to repel the Greek invaders (including sneak attacks in the middle of the night), while Paris does a nice line in wife-stealing. Petersen's one concession to stereotyping is the greedy, power-crazed Agamemnon (Brian Cox in full pantomime villain mode) whose relationship with bolshy star soldier Achilles provides the key conflict of the movie.

Troy is not without its flaws. Diane Kruger is either wildly miscast as Helen or a lot of her good scenes ended up on the cutting room floor. Petersen seems a little puzzled as to what to do with Helen despite the fact that her relationship with Paris is the reason for the Greek invasion of Troy. Indeed, of the female characters, only Briseis (Rose Byrne), Hector's devoutly religious cousin who develops an unlikely alliance with Achilles, has any real clout. Mostly they serve as eye-candy, which is fine as far as it goes, but irritating when it impedes the plot. Main offender is Saffron Burrows, who gurns and squirms and clutches her baby to her bosom, but serves no real dramatic purpose as Hector's wife Andromache. Indeed, the pivotal sword fight between Hector and Achilles which is very close to being a cinematic work of art is marred by pointless cutaways to Burrows anxiously biting her bottom lip.

There is terrific unintentional humour as well such as Odysseus studying a Greek soldier carving a small wooden horse for his son back home, sitting back and stroking his beard thoughtfully. Evidently having devised some fiendishly clever scheme, he eventually looks up triumphantly – all that is missing is a light bulb pinging over his head. Sure enough, moments later, the beach is deserted save one massive creaking Trojan Horse.

Bean may be playing it for laughs, but this movie belongs to Pitt. Alec Guinness impersonation aside, he truly convinces as a (literally) well-oiled fighting machine simply bristling with menace. Much has been made of his body and especially the copious amounts of rippling flesh that is constantly on display, but what really comes through is his sheer athleticism. I don't know if he did any of his own stunts, but hats off to his body double if he didn't. At any rate, his performance certainly left the ladies walking out of the cinema with big soppy grins on their faces and their boyfriends surreptitiously squeezing in their stomachs.

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