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Kill for Me (2013 Video)
Standard - very standard - thriller in the loosest sense of the term
29 March 2013
Kill for Me seems such a by-the-numbers standard 'thriller' that there is almost no need to watch the film at all. Nothing about the film is particularly bad, but then there is nothing about it that is particularly good or original either. As a throwaway 90 minutes of diversion, Kill for Me is adequate, mildly interesting but almost instantly forgettable, given that it is almost entirely derivative of other, superior films - Single White Female and Horrible Bosses being just two that come immediately to mind. The very definition of a straight-to-DVD movie.

The plot is obvious enough for even Ray Charles to see coming - university law student Amanda (Green Arrow's Katie Cassidy) takes in a new roommate, vet student Hayley (Tracy Spiridakos) when her former roommate goes missing. Meanwhile her ex-boyfriend has taken on creepy stalker-ish tendencies, while Hayley's dad is apparently quite free and happy with his fists. Amanda bonds with Hayley over their shared pain. Can you tell where it's going yet? Hayley of course seems fairly normal to begin with, and Amanda sees in her a kindred spirit. When thoughts inevitably turn to murder to solve each other's problems, things take a turn for the even more predictable and cliché, with one or two 'twists' that might as well have signposts signalling their imminent arrival.

Yet there is a reason that this kind of story has been done before; it generally works quite well, and, for all its predictability, Kill For Me is relatively enjoyable. Admittedly it will never be in the running for an award for best original screenplay, but the performances of the leads do enough to gain the audience's investment in their fates, and are easy enough on the eye to measure up to other sorority house-style killer thrillers. There's even the inevitable Sapphic turn of events, which again regularly seems to appear in films featuring sorority age university girls. But the film is not sexy enough to be a true sorority flick, not bloody enough to be a real slasher, and not tense or unpredictable enough to be a genuine thriller - an isolated farmhouse, a mysterious disappearance and a few taut violin strings are not enough to automatically ratchet up the suspense.

Overall, an average, adequate, run-of-the-mill (or any other synonym of merely satisfactory) thriller, that will provide 90 minutes diversion without the audience clamouring for a refund, but without much applause either.

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Exit to Eden (1994)
Neither erotic nor funny - call trade descriptions!
26 March 2013
Irritating voiceovers, amateur acting, corny dialogue that a porn star would be embarrassed to deliver, racial stereotypes, gratuitous nudity, hazy dream-like flashbacks, a performance by Rosie O'Donnell and Dan Aykroyd with a moustache - all the ingredients for a Razzie award-winning film - and win it did! Coupled with an overly long plot that regularly goes MIA, and drags when it does show up for duty, 1994's Exit to Eden makes notable turkey Gigli seem as romantic as Brief Encounte! It's all so comically bad it feels like it should be in German - a la the old late night movies found in the higher channel numbers in the early days of satellite TV. In the right hands, or with a more daring director or provocative censor, this film set in a holiday resort run by a dominatrix could have been quite interesting, but unfortunately tiptoes around anything more controversial than an occasional tap with a hairbrush.

The laughable, risible plot involves a pair of jewel thieves and a pair of cops going undercover at a BDSM resort to retrieve a film canister containing photos of a jewel robbery, while various couples visualise and act out their assorted TV-friendly fantasies. That's pretty much all that is needed.

It's hard to know what aspect of the film drags it down the most, but perennially bad actress Rosie O'Donnell probably takes! Her awful dialogue delivery, grating voice-over, and even her harsh New York accent for an LA cop is grating. Meanwhile the plot is almost incidental to the film, serving seemingly only as a way to string a few soft bondage scenes and awkward interactions together, and the reason for why the cops and thieves are there is largely forgotten for large portions of the film. But the scenes aren't particularly arousing enough for the film to be much of an erotic thriller, and the story isn't even remotely gripping enough to fulfil the thriller aspect either. Meanwhile Dan Aykroyd's hammy delivery, while seemingly perfect for Ghostbusters, seems to merely add to the film's overall corniness. When the plot finally does make a return to the film, it drags the already-meandering pace of the film down to an absolute crawl, and by the time the film approaches its 'climax' (and never was a term so inaccurate on so many levels) after nearly 2 hours, a life of celibacy may suddenly have some appeal.

Ask for a refund of both your time and money.

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Die Hard (1988)
The action movie that defined a generation - and spawned a thousand imitations!
25 March 2013
Die Hard is regularly ranked as the greatest of all the 80s action movies, and among the greatest of all time, and even 25 years later, it is not difficult to see why. Die Hard really is action film-making at its best, and began a new type of actioner - the everyman caught in a unique situation - that many films would try to copy; some more successfully than others, but none would ever measure up to the original. That even includes the 4 (and counting) sequels! It would launch the careers of Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman skyward - admittedly on different trajectories - and even become a bizarrely popular choice for a seasonal festive film each December! John McClane (Willis) is a New York cop who has travelled to Los Angeles to reunite with his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) at a Christmas party in a city skyscraper, when an armed band of villains march in with machine guns and take over, led by Alan Rickman's evil Hans Gruber, holding the partygoers to ransom. McClane must then work his way through the building, picking off the terrorists one by one, fighting a one-man war while the LAPD pontificates impotently on the doorstep.

The recipe is incredibly simple, yet brilliantly effective; the ludicrous situation is tempered by the Regular Joe nature of Willis's character, allowing the audience to identify wholeheartedly with his efforts and motivations, while hissing at the Machiavellian machinations of arch-criminal Gruber. The action itself is replete with some superb and exciting shootouts, spectacular set pieces and a new level of violence not often seen in such a mainstream action film before now - just watch for the scene with the broken glass, and you'll be wincing for weeks! Bruce Willis so perfectly captured the essence of his character, that the image, hair and even name have become synonymous with action heroes for all movies hereafter. The iconic shaved head and dirty white vest perfectly captured the feel of the right man caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, but it was not just Willis's physique and wardrobe that made John McClane such a hero. His fight scenes are brutally brilliant, and his delivery of both threats and sarcastic one-liners will have audiences punching the air and chuckling in equal measure. His radio exchanges with Rickman's Gruber are superb, and his charming banter with Sgt Al Powell on the outside - also over radio - lend the character an extra warmth that could easily have been missed, which would have made the character slightly less sympathetic.

But every great hero needs a villain, and Alan Rickman produced a performance of a lifetime; one which would lead him to being pigeonholed as a great British 'character actor' - Hollywood code for 'plays great villains!'. Admittedly this would lead him to even further success, most notably as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, and of course Professor Snape in the Harry Potter films, but it was unquestionably this role that set him on the role to a reputation as one of the greatest villainous actors of the twentieth century. His performance is never overstated, and without resorting to scenery-chewing, makes every single line positively drip with threat and menace. But he is also allowed a few light moments of his own in between his shooting of innocent bystanders - darkly comic interplay with the FBI outside in particular. His arrogant dismissive nature of the FBI while reeling off a list of names the group want freed is particularly black - his request for one group that he then mouths to his associate that he 'read about them in Time Magazine' a standout. His ability to produce a villain who is both positively loathsome and yet darkly charismatic makes Die Hard just as much Rickman's film as it does Bruce Willis's. Jeremy Irons' attempt to reproduce this balance in the film's third entry pales in comparison, producing a villain that is fun, but unfortunately occasionally too camp to be truly hissable.

The majority of the other characters are generally rather 2-dimensional, in particular McLane's estranged wife Holly, whose character is unfortunately lacking much in the way of back-story that could have made Willis's mission even more effective, whilst the henchman are as typically anonymous as you might expect from such an actioner. The rest of the attendees at the party are also mostly anonymous, making it difficult for the audience to truly get invested in their fate.

But such quibbles are unquestionably minor next to the brilliance of the whole, and such was the film's success that virtually every action film of its type would thus be labelled as the 'new Die Hard' or the even more derivative 'Die Hard on a plane/train/boat/submarine' (delete as applicable). So to see how films like Die Hard actioners should be done, it can only be Die Hard itself. A true era-defining film, one that even gained numerous name-checks in 'Friends' to demonstrate its iconic nature, that became a perfect template for all subsequent action films to follow.
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Lifeforce (1985)
Cheap and exploitative - to be only enjoyed ironically!
25 March 2013
In the aftermath of the massive success of the Alien and Star Wars films, it seemed every director in Hollywood - and elsewhere - wanted a go at the Sci-Fi-/Horror genre, with each film trying to put its own slightly different spin. The results varied from the very good to the downright abysmal, and more often than not efforts were much closer to the latter. But with Tobe Hooper's pedigree including The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist, expectations for Lifeforce would have been generally optimistic. However, hopes would soon have been dashed.

The fairly standard plot takes elements from both the sci-fi and horror classic film staples - creature from outer space and vampires - to produce this latest entry into what would become the Sci-Fi channel's catalogue. A space shuttle investigates a ship that is discovered floating inside the core of Hailey's Comet, and discover 3 human-looking life forms in suspended animation, two male and one female - naked obviously! Ignoring every horror cliché in the book, the crew decide to bring them back to the ship. Inevitably, the ship returns to earth - but is now apparently abandoned - and the life forms are brought in for study. The female - played by Mathilda May - escapes and proceeds to wander around London -still naked of course - sucking the life force out of victims rather than blood (perhaps too cliché even for this work?) and chaos, death and zombies ensue. The story then plods along diligently, joining all the dots but seemingly devoid of any actual life force of its own.

The cast is a veritable who's who of B- and C-list actors, with the interesting exception of a pre-Star Trek Patrick Stewart in an extended cameo, which perhaps makes this film valuable as a historical curiosity if nothing else. Unfortunately, with the vast number of sci-fi, horror and combination films that filled cinemas in the late 70s and into the 80s, something special would be needed to make a film such as this stand out, and Lifeforce doesn't have it, and it merely comes across as a cheap exploitation flick - which is ironic considering it was at one point shut down for running out of money, and was nearly named 'Space Vampires'! The cast in general seem devoid of inspiration, and stage and small-screen stalwarts such as Frank Finlay and Peter Firth appear to be merely there for the pay cheque.

Next to films such as Star Wars and Alien, Lifeforce looks exactly what it was intended not to be - a cheap exploitation flick. The space scenes in particular (many of which were cut before release) look positively dated when placed next to the works of George Lucas and Ridley Scott, and Henry Mancini's score (which was partially re-edited and replaced with another composer's work upon US release) certainly doesn't measure up to his previous work, filled with toneless cues and un-atmospheric phrases that don't come close to his iconic work on films such as Breakfast at Tiffany's and The Pink Panther.

Wooden acting, lousy special effects, a dull story and atonal music combine to make this nothing more than just another sci-fi cash-in from the mid 1980s. Seeing a young French actress spend an entire film naked may be a novelty for a scene or two, but this crass exploitation gimmick is certainly not enough to save Lifeforce from, at best, mediocrity. Perhaps it could only be 'enjoyed' in the way films such as 'Plan 9 From Outer Space' and films of that ilk are enjoyed today - with a large dose of irony.
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Better than 2, but that's enough
24 March 2013
After the delightful originality of the first Men in Black film, there was really only one way for the film series to go with the sequel - down. But no one expected the second instalment to be as woefully short of the first film as it was, leaving the franchise's reputation in tatters. This meant that MIB III had a major job to do to get the film series back into the black, critically speaking (pun intended). While the third instalment does repair some of the damage done by part 2, the lack of the dynamic between Smith and Jones for the majority of the film seems to leave a whole in the plot.

Men In Black III's latest plot line takes a new (but probably inevitable) direction by using time travel to send Will Smith's wisecracking Agent J back in time to the time of the moon landing and to work with the earlier incarnation of Agent K, played with excellent Tommy Lee Jones impersonation by Josh Brolin. The usual hijinks that we have come to expect from the Men in Black ensue, including some terrific sight gags and pop culture references to famous people revealed as aliens. Meanwhile, while the Tommy Lee Jones-shaped hole in the majority of the film is felt, the refreshing new take on the partnership dynamic added by Brolin does inject some impetus into what would have been an otherwise ailing franchise. However, the replacement of Rip Torn's Z with Emma Thompson as new chief O seems one alteration too many, lacking the spark that made Z's character such a favourite. Mercifully though, Frank the Pug is notable by his absence.

Generally, MIB III is much better than its predecessor, but still lacks the charm, wit, warmth and originality of the first film - although learning more about how K got to be such a crotchety old man does provide some interesting developments, and as always, the creatures are very effectively realised by excellent special effects and make up teams. However, Will Smith's Fresh Prince shtick is now starting to wear a bit thin after so many years since the TV show ended - his more grown up efforts in films such as 'I Am Legend' showed there was more to him than that, which he should pursue. He's outgrown this stuff - a fact proved by the lack of a Will Smith track on the film.

Overall a relatively good film to enjoy, but let the franchise rest now - enough's enough.
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Boogie Woogie (2009)
Dull ensemble piece or overly pretentious art flick?
24 March 2013
A comment on the pretentious and wealthy but ruthless world of art and art dealers, where it is difficult to tell if it is taking itself seriously or not. The plot is not just one paper-thin story, but in fact seems to be several strands that randomly inter-connect with each other, all loosely revolving around the painting from which the film gets its name. Numerous characters seem to want to purchase the painting, while the owner refuses to sell, even to ward off financial ruin, as he clings to his 'most prized possession'. What follows is the ensemble bickering over numerous pieces of art in several plot lines, but the attempt at a multi-character multi-strand plot a la Magnolia only comes across as a pale imitation - or art merely imitating life!

The characters all have different roles in the high-end art world of London, with dealers, artists and gallery owners all vying with each other, backstabbing each other - and sleeping with each other -to demonstrate their various arty credentials. Unfortunately, with nearly all of them having more money than they know what to do with other than spend it on the latest ridiculously over-priced 'masterpiece', very few of them appear to have any redeeming features, leaving barely a single character for the audience to actually like.

Quite the ensemble cast lends the piece considerable artistic weight - including Gillian Anderson, Stellan Skarsgard, Heather Graham, Joanna Lumley, Danny Huston, Alan Cumming, Charlotte Rampling and the venerable Christopher Lee, who all serve to highlight the film's seemingly lofty art house ambitions. Most of the cast do their jobs adequately but without really standing out from the cluttered cast list, although Danny Huston's attempt at scenery-chewing and film-stealing is little more than grating, with the pseudo-evil chuckles and 'god-damn its!' only missing a scene chewing on a stogie and bacon sandwich to make his performance any more hammy.

The plot (such as it is) manages to be both dully pretentious and simultaneously ludicrous; even the title itself adds to the film's uncertain nature - is it a serious comment or a satire? It's rather difficult to tell, and with very little in the way of narrative thrust, the film just meanders seemingly aimlessly along. The numerous plot strands are occasionally difficult to keep track of, It's a good job most of the cast are quite pretty - better works of art than the paintings and statues that they squabble over.

Overall, rather a load of pretentious, self-important twaddle.
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The Matrix (1999)
Yes, it really is as good as you remember
23 March 2013
With all the imitations, spoofs, parodies, rip-offs and sequels that have come from it, it is easy to forget just how groundbreaking 1999's revolutionary film The Matrix really is. Yet even 15 years later, it still has the power to amaze and shock as much as it did on the day of release - power not wielded by many since, and certainly not the two cash-inspired sequels.

Back in 1999, the Matrix was a genuine original - something rarely seen in the movies in the latter decades of the twentieth century. It was a film that took such an interesting concept that it seems amazing that it hadn't been done before, and coupled it with genuinely mind-blowing special effects to produce something very special indeed.

The story itself is almost so simple it's genius. The film's premise rests on the idea that the entire world is an elaborate construct of machines, and that we are unaware that the entire population of the earth is simply plugged into a virtual reality which feeds the sentient machines which now rule the earth. Those few who have escaped are now able to re-enter this 'Matrix' at will, and bend its rules of gravity and physics as one would bend the rules of a computer program. This leads to spectacular shootouts, furiously fast fight scenes, jumping and dodging that would put an Olympic triple jumper to shame, and all of which featuring the now much-parodied slo-mo camera spinning that became synonymous with the film itself, and which made it stand head and shoulders (and knees and toes) above the rest.

It seems odd to think that Keanu Reeves was not the first choice to play the lead role of Neo. Usually being able to display only a single emotion might be a drawback, but in the sepia-tinted dulled colours of the grimy world of The Matrix, Reeves' constant single expression of permanently mildly perturbed seems a perfect fit somehow, and the thought of Will Smith's excessive personality in the lead role (as was apparently the first choice) seems like a completely incongruous thought now. Meanwhile Lawrence Fishburne's presence as a 'Morgan Freeman-in-training' mentor with muscles role is perfect, while Hugo Weaving's minimal yet menacingly effective turn as the villainous Agent Smith nearly steals the show from the effects gurus' noses. His understated delivery is at times positively chilling - in particular his addressing of Reeves' Neo as 'Mr Anderson' in a manner ice-cool yet dripping with malevolent intent. Interestingly now, this role seems perfect preparation for him for his role in a second monumental trilogy of films, as shades of his performance as Agent Smith are apparent in his similarly brilliant role as Elrond in the similarly blockbusting Lord of the Rings. It's just a shame that other roles aren't similarly fleshed out - particularly Joe Pantoliano's potentially fascinating role of 'Cypher' - leaving the central quartet as the only real roles with significant screen time. Additionally, Carrie-Anne Moss lacks the warmth and charm to be a convincing (and inevitable) love interest.

Yet these are only relatively minor quibbles. Which brings us on to the special effects themselves - which are, quite simply, the most visually impressive since Terminator 2's T1000 morphing, if not ever. A number of standout shots have made their way into popular culture - including the camera-spinning freeze-in-midair kick which forms the standout part of the opening scene. Having been imitated so much in numerous subsequent comedies and spoofs such as Scary Movie and Shrek, their impact has perhaps been diluted over time, but to go back and see the shots in their original context still will transport an audience to a state of wonder that only the cinema can bring.

The Matrix is a film that is always well worth a revisit - whether it has been a few weeks or a few years since you have last seen them. It's just unfortunate that it raised the bar so high that few films were able to subsequently raise their game enough to match it - including two average, serviceable but pale-in-comparison sequels that inevitably thought that more equals better. But as a stand-alone film, The Matrix is one that will stand the test of time, and will no doubt come to define the era in the way that classics such as Casablanca, Gone With The Wind and The Godfather have defined theirs.

A true masterpiece.
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Ted (2012)
Funny despite itself, and oddly enjoyable
17 March 2013
Ted is rude, crude, full of crass humour and 'clever' references, self-aware to the point where the characters do all but wink at the camera, and absolutely ludicrous. Yet it is this acceptance of what it is, and complete lack of loftier ambitions, both genuinely funny and actually endearing in a bizarre kind of way.

The premise is so simple it's genius: A boy wishes his teddy bear would come to life, and by a miracle that is exactly what happens, and the boy and the bear promise to be friends for ever. But rather than a childhood friendship story, Ted flashes forward to what happens when the boy grows up, and the bear ages along with him. What we see is the now grown-up Johnny (Mark Wahlberg) living with his long term girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis) and the eponymous bear (voiced by Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane), who is now a foul-mouthed, weed-smoking and generally hard-living waster. The plot then (such as it is) leads to a somewhat obvious theme of learning to grow up and take responsibility.

Unfortunately, the paper-thin predictable plot only seems to serve to detract rather than add to the film's premise, which in itself grows slightly wearing after a while. Certainly there is a great novelty value in seeing a grown man eating, drinking, talking and fighting a talking teddy bear, and in hearing the bear swear and tell vaguely racially offensive jokes, but the novelty starts to wear off when the film tries to enter the more serious middle third. Fart jokes and an actual reference to Family Guy's Peter Griffin all serve to point out that this actually is all rather derivative after all. No doubt fans of MacFarlane's earlier work will love it (and will cry shame that MacFarlane remains "misunderstood"), but they would no doubt have watched it anyway. And therein lies the problem. This almost feels like a feature-length live-action version of a Family Guy episode, which might be great for some, but it is unlikely to win any new fans to MacFarlane's work.

Most of the characterization is very simple and 2-dimensional, with Wahlberg himself, for all the film's message of taking responsibility and growing up, not actually developing much as the film goes on, leaving the audience to wonder why on earth the similarly-bland Mila Kunis is with him in the first place. The rest of the supporting cast are little more than paint-by-numbers stereotypes, particularly Joel McHale as Lori's sleazy boss, while the underused Giovanni Ribisi could have been something interesting, had his wannabe-bear owner Donny been given more than a few minutes of screen time here and there. However, Patrick Stewart's opening and closing voiceovers do provide some genuine laughs, and hearing Captain Picard/Professor Xavier swear is quite an eye- (and ear-) opening experience!

Having said all that, Ted does contain a large number of genuinely funny lines (even if a lot of them do appear in the trailers) and did produce a few laugh-out-loud moments, particularly with the numerous references to 80s movies, although sense of taste and political correctness may need to be left at the door. A liberal sprinkling of the F-word (and isolated stronger swearing) ensures that this film should definitely not be mistaken for a family-friendly film. In the end, Wahlberg and Kunis do not need to do a great deal, and allowing themselves to be out-acted by a computer-generated teddy bear in a predictable growing-up plot line, while slightly embarrassing for their CVs, somehow does not detract from the overall appeal of the film. There is something about the predictability, and seeing the friendship endure between Johnny and Ted that is both enjoyable and somehow strangely comforting.

Just like a teddy bear.
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Simple effective reboot of a comic-book staple
17 March 2013
Comic book movies in recent years have tended to be greeted with great regularity with the description 'darker' or variations thereof. This culminated with the excellent but 'darker' Dark Knight Rises, which bordered on pitch-black and outright depressing. However, the latest incarnation of the Spiderman movie series, the reboot Amazing Spiderman has followed in the footsteps of The Avengers by lightening up and getting back to the roots of the comic, with puns and one-liners galore giving the film a much more entertaining vibe than the convoluted and take-themselves-too-seriously original trilogy. However, the comedy generally doesn't overshadow the story too much, and themes of loss and isolation are more deftly dealt with, making this new Marvel superhero film a more rounded experience, which again paves the way for yet another franchise.

The Amazing Spiderman, which was born from Sam Raimi's aborted Spiderman 4 and wiped the slate clean of Tobey Maguire's stories, goes back to the beginning and focuses on Peter Parker's schooldays - a time period largely glossed over in the original films. Science again plays a big part in the genesis of both Spiderman and his latest nemesis - the Lizard. This time however, the science doesn't even attempt to make itself plausible, resulting in explanation that can be just accepted blithely without too much head-scratching. Otherwise, the story follows the -by-now standard origin story format, so no prizes for guessing any plot twists (such as they are): Hero starts life as an outsider in school, aptitude for science, freakish pseudo-scientific incident, tragic loss, responsibility of new powers, etc etc. Everyone knows how the story goes, yet seeing how it gets started is always enjoyable in comic-book adaptations, and this one is no different.

In the perfectly-named Marc Webb's reboot, the red and blue spandex is taken on by Andrew Garfield, while Emma Stone's Gwen Stacy replaces Kirsten Dunst's Mary-Jane as the webslinger's love interest. Both do an adequate job, although Garfield is perhaps too perfectly groomed, buffed and coiffed to play the geeky, nerdy wimp that is Spiderman's alter ego. Martin Sheen and Sally Field are perfectly suitable as Garfield's surrogate parents, but the real standout of the piece is Rhys Ifans - of Notting Hill and 51st State fame - in a surprisingly understated and effective performance as Dr Curt Connors, the hero's mentor-come-reptilian nemesis.

There are many things to enjoy about this latest Spiderman film, including allowing Parker to be a teenager, complete with requisite teen angst, school issues and romance, and there are also some interesting and amusing explorations of the hero's controversial new mechanical web-shooters, making Peter Parker 2.0 a more interesting superhero than Maguire's slightly one-dimensional responsibility-burdened Tarzan-with-webbing. The neat references to the comic-book lore are interesting and deft, without being hidden away so only the true comic book nerds notice them. However, with a run time of over 2 hours, the time taken for the iconic costume to make its first appearance does seem to drag at times, while the lack of the Jonah Jameson-type character feels like a hole in the story.

Interestingly, given the somewhat lightened tone of this new Spiderman film, the music has changed from a largely bombastic and anthemic rock soundtrack to a more cerebral classical-led score, with only Coldplay the solitary nod to pop music. Yet somehow this counterbalances the comedic touches that threaten occasionally to drag the first half of the film down into parody, resulting in a well-rounded film. Overall, while it is unlikely this film will win any original screenplay awards, particularly given the mere decade that has passed since the original, The Amazing Spiderman is an enjoyable entry into Marvel's comic book film adaptation canon, dealing deftly with the familiar themes without beating the audience over the head with them like Thor's sledgehammer.
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Comedic but Christian!
15 March 2012
After experimenting with more serious roles and flirting with critical acclaim in films such as 'The Truman Show' and 'Man On The Moon', Jim Carrey made a (relatively) toned-down return to comedy with this 2003 smash, showing flashes of the comic brilliance that made 'The Mask' and 'Ace Ventura' such massive hits. Bruce Almighty is at once a simple but also potentially tricky premise; a downtrodden journalist (Carrey) complains one too many times about God's role in his life, and is thus imbued with all the powers of the Creator – along with all the hitherto unconsidered responsibility that goes with it. What follows is a film along the well-trodden typical rom-com path; jokes, puns and sight gags for the first half, before giving way to more serious stuff. As a result, partly due to the weighty subject matter, Bruce Almighty gets somewhat bogged down at the halfway point by questions of morality and philosophy as well as the usual relationship issues, which causes the film to drag and sit heavy before returning to the path to the ending.

So, what would it be like to be God? Serious question! Fortunately, thanks to Carrey's presence, there are some genuine laugh-out-loud moments (in between typical gags of sledgehammer subtlety), as the lead is given the opportunity to wisecrack, gurn and impress as only Jim Carrey can, while still pulling off the hangdog everyman he perfected as Stanley Ipkiss. There is enough zing in Carrey's performance to remind viewers of his similarity to a young Robin Williams – fortunately minus the Chewbacca-esque body hair! Meanwhile, even in comedy, Morgan Freeman still exudes the same air of confidence, trustworthiness and gravitas that typifies all his roles, thus adding credibility to possibly the most impossible role of all: God. Yet, after his convincing turn as the President of the USA (Deep Impact) several years previously, it seemed like a logical career progression. And would you really want anyone else as the Alpha and Omega? As it turns out, Freeman is given little do but play straight man to Carrey's funny man, yet he still manages to steal the film from right under the lead's nose, all the while occasionally espousing pseudo-moral message. Plus, he wears a sharp suit so slick he makes Humphrey Bogart's Rick look downright shabby! As always, Jennifer Aniston isn't taxed in her role, playing her usual variation on 'Rachel from Friends' - sweet, lovable and attractive but with little more depth than a kiddies' paddling pool! But then, why would they? It's Carrey's show.

However, where the film seriously starts to falter is when the 'com' portion of the film takes a back seat to allow the 'rom' portion to take the wheel. In a typical rom-com this would be predictable but acceptably sappy, but with the added questions of personal responsibility and morality – something not new to Carrey films (Liar Liar). Add that to the film's skirting around the edges of religious questions such as the existence and power of God, and no wonder the film is used in R.E. lessons up and down the country! But, if you can forgive the occasional holier-than-thou message which sometimes veers into outright preaching, what you have is a classic Carrey comedy that can be easily enjoyed.

Just try to see it as a film, not a sermon!
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2012 (I) (2009)
15 January 2011
Overblown, over-dramatic, ridiculous, and absolutely ludicrous – this is probably the best way to describe Roland Emmerich's latest offering. It is a sentiment that even NASA agrees with, as 2012 was named as the most absurd science fiction film of all time. Comedian Dara O'Briain has taken the opportunity to poke fun at the lunacy of the plot and science behind it. North Korea even banned the film for ridiculing such an important year for the country. Yet if you just accept the madness, then 2012 is a tremendously fun and entertaining film.

The 'plot' stems from some scientific idiocy which isn't worth explaining, and leads to the planet pretty much blowing itself up, with multiple volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis devastating the world. What follows is the typical mass panic, and everyday people stepping to the fore. John Cusack stars as Jackson Curtis, a novelist turned limo driver who races against the planet exploding all around him in order to save his family and get them to safety in China. At the same time, the governments pontificate about what to do and try to look heroic and selfless while doing it. Yet Cusack is not outdone by his costars, including Danny Glover as the heroic President, Chiwetel Ejiofor as the scientist trying to warn the government, Amanda Peet as the hero's ex-wife, and the ever-watchable Oliver Platt as the slime-ball chief of staff trying toseize the opportunity. All the characters you would expect. Nothing complicated about it.

But for Roland Emmerich, it is not the plot that he likes to complicate, but the special effects. For it is this that really makes 2012 such a viewable and entertaining film. Emmerich has always liked his set-piece detonations of landmarks (White House and Statue of Liberty in Independence Day, the Hollywood sign in Day After Tomorrow) but he really raises the bar this time, with some quite mind-blowing special effects scenes that make his previous efforts look like small-budget indies! Volcanoes erupting and causing entire continents to shift and fall into the sea is ambitious, even for Emmerich, but the scenes are exhilarating and spectacular; genuine 'wow' moments that are what the cinema was made for in the first place. Obviously at the same time you will be screaming 'as if!' at the screen, or rolling your eyes like marbles as various forces of nature propel vehicles, people and landmasses across the screen, but that all adds to the fun. It is simply wonderfully stupid!

However, while the dialogue is corny and clunky, the characters are stereotypical and one-dimensional, with little interesting about them, and the plot, for all the wonderful explosions, is predictable and by the numbers, it is surprisingly edge-of-the-seat. Much fun could be made about the frequent 'just in the nick of time' nature of escapes, and lava moving at a very convenient (and strangely variable) pace, but then realism isn't exactly the film's strong suit! If you enjoy typical average disaster films then 2012 is certainly worth seeing, as it is a disaster film that is above average, particularly visually. The film has no pretensions about what it is, so audiences should certainly not be disappointed. The lack of depth to the characters make it difficult to fully engage and invest emotionally in the film, but in terms of visual thrills, 2012 is brilliant, adrenaline-pumping fun.
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Absolutely magnificent!
13 January 2011
Les Miserables is, quite simply, the finest musical ever made, and this special anniversary performance encapsulates exactly why.

It had been many years since I saw 'Les Mis' on stage in London, and other than listening to it on CD semi-regularly, I hadn't had much experience of the show until receiving the 25th anniversary concert on Blu-Ray. Prior to then, 'Phantom' was by a mile my favourite musical, with no others close. Les Miserables blows them all out of the water.

The story is simple enough. A paroled man tries to rebuild his life with adopted daughter Cosette, against the backdrop of student rebellions in France. Meanwhile Marius, one of the students, and Cosette fall in love. Yet the plot is little more than something to drape the music around, and for that it serves its purpose admirably, giving depth, context and emotion to the magnificent music. Much has been written about the plot's simplicity, which needs little more than a couple of captions and video clips to drive it on, and the similarly simple staging also needs little analysis. Both serve to focus all attention on the music, adding to the raw power of the show.

The music ranges from the comedic (Master of the House) to the tragic (On My Own) to the operatic (Bring Him Home) and the simply spine-tingling (One Day More). No other musical has the power to raise hairs and bring goosebumps throughout, and at the same time bring entire audiences to tears – look out during the standing ovation (one of many) towards the end for a lady with mascara streaming down her face from tears, demonstrating the emotional power of the music. In any other musical, ask fans to name their favourite song, and they will usually all pick from the same few. But with Les Miserables, fans would be hard-pressed to limit their choices to a top 10, with 'I Dreamed a Dream', 'Stars', 'Do You Hear The People Sing', 'One Day More', 'On My Own', 'Bring Him Home' and 'Empty Chairs' not even half the regular list of favourites! The casting is near-perfect. Having seen much of the original cast in the 10th anniversary production way back in my school days, and all but worn out the CD of the original cast recording, I never thought anybody could surpass Colm Wilkinson's definitive performance as the hero Valjean. Yet Alfie Boe does that superbly. His vocal range and emotion invested into the music equals that of his legendary predecessor, but he is also able to bring a power and resonance that gives operatic scale and strength to his performance. His dramatic renditions of solos such as 'What Have I Done?' and 'Who Am I?' are spine-chilling, thanks to the strength with which he is able to hit and hold the big notes, while his 'Bring Him Home' is quite simply awesome. Yet he is not alone. Norm Lewis's Javert is virtually his equal in emotional range, and Ramin Karimloo as Enjolras and Katie Hall as Cosette are also excellent. Matt Lucas, in a slightly leftfield casting choice, is surprisingly entertaining as the roguish Thernadier. While never claiming to be a first-rate singer, Lucas makes up for this by enjoying what obviously is a long leash given to him to put his own spin on the character, really hamming up the comical villainy and providing some genuine hilarity amongst all the weepies. Special mention must be made of the performance of Samantha Barks as the feisty Eponine. While Frances Ruffelle was excellent as the original, Samantha Barks sets a new benchmark, bringing a genuine heart-wrenching pitiable quality, leading audiences to virtually want to beat Marius over the head for not seeing her true feelings, and her haunting solo in one of the show's signature songs – On My Own – becomes a real tear-jerker.

Which brings us to Marius. The casting of Nick Jonas, of Jonas Brothers fame, is little more than a casting publicity stunt, and one which almost backfires catastrophically. Quite simply, Jonas is leagues out of his depth, and his voice has not the power nor range to do justice to the role, and he comes across as a typical boy band singer, and a barely adequate one at that. His voice seems small and tinny next to the emotion of Barks or the raw power of Boe. Even his facial expressions come straight from Backstreet Boys 101! He is clearly there as a blatant stunt to draw in younger fans who would buy this just on seeing his name in the cast, a move which comes across as cynical and could cost the performance a star on its own. To be fair to Jonas however, by the time Marius's signature number of 'Empty Chairs at Empty Tables' arrives, he seems to have grown into the part somewhat and sings it reasonably well. Yet when Michael Ball comes onstage for the encore with the rest of the original cast to belt out 'One Day More', you cannot help but feel 'now that is how it should be done!' But even Jonas' potentially disastrous performance cannot prevent this spectacular production of the world's longest running musical from achieving full marks. The music is out of this world, the singing is almost universally phenomenal and the setting of the O2 is suitably grand. It is impossible to fully articulate the raw power of the emotions stirred by the spectacular songs of Les Miserables, but I defy anybody not to be moved to near tears, left breathless and feel a chill throughout the show, and if you are not moved, then you are either lying or dead inside, particularly given the extra treat of seeing the original cast reunite for 'One Day More' and the four Valjeans singing 'Bring Him Home' – a wonderful bonus.

Many musicals encompass a range of emotions, but none run the whole gamut with quite the same power as Les Miserables. Awe-inspiring. Perfect.
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Robin Hood (2010)
A good historical action film, but no historical 'epic'
8 January 2011
There have been countless adaptations of the legend of Robin Hood over the years, and because the story is simply that – a legend – the facts of the time of the outlaw are vague at best. As a result, film-makers have been able to cherry-pick the bits of the story they liked and dispense those that they didn't, with little fear of the backlash from historical purists. For Ridley Scott's turn with the Robin Hood tale, he has made Robin an identity thief with a sense of honour, Marion a feisty widow, Richard Lionheart a somewhat bloodthirsty warrior with little care for his country (more than a smattering of accuracy there) and John a vain and foolish but more sympathetic and brave new monarch, while the Sheriff of Nottingham is relegated to a sleazy minor local enforcer and the majority of the Merry Men more resemble the Lost Boys. As a result of this, deviations from the accepted and well-known 'facts' of the story are both refreshing and often jarring.

Scott has created an origin story that all but had 'part I' emblazoned on the posters, with well-formed characters that are slightly less caricatured than 'Prince of Thieves' from twenty years prior. His original premise envisioned a role reversal between the Sheriff and Hood, portraying the typical villain in a much more sympathetic light, which could have been fascinating. After extensive re-writing and actors' strikes, the resulting film is much more traditional. An interesting origin story, but it could have been so much more. This film tells of how Robin returned from fighting of the Holy Land and gained the identity first of Robert of Loxley and then of the famous outlaw. He quickly establishes a reputation as a hero who must fight to save his country and its people. Meanwhile John's closest friend Godfrey (Mark Strong) has secretly allied himself with the French and is covertly working to stir up trouble in England to aid an invasion from across the channel. The story is relatively simple, but easy to follow and effective for developing the character of Robin Hood.

Russell Crowe's portrayal of the eponymous hero is everything audiences have come to expect from the former Maximus but with the added 'bonus' of an accent which is virtually a veritable grand tour of the British Isles – entertaining but inconsistent and thus difficult to take seriously, calling to mind as it does such efforts as Mel Gibson's Braveheart and even the now-legendary Dick van Dyke's Bert the Chimney Sweep. Even Kevin Costner had the sense to not even attempt and English accent! Meanwhile, Cate Blanchett as Lady Marion gives a typical strong performance that gained her such acclaim in 'Elizabeth' but somehow seems too old and worldly for the role. Mark Strong plays the villain of the piece by the numbers, and is acceptable but nothing more; a hissable villain who stays only a step or two above pantomime through keeping the typical bad guy theatrics to a minimum.

The action scenes are everything we have come to expect from Ridley Scott; exciting, fast-paced and numerous, full of quick editing and some panoramic sweeps. However, in the depiction of the developing relationship between Crowe's Robin and Blanchett's Marion he is less sure-footed, and the chemistry between the pair is somewhat lacking and does not ring true. The most intriguing performances come from Oscar Isaac as an understated and more ambiguous King John, and Eileen Atkins as the underused Eleanor of Acquitaine. Meanwhile Robin's sidekicks are simply not given anything to do other than provide some comedy relief in the manner of the three stooges – hardly establishing them as a fearsome band of merry men - although the merry part is certainly emphasises through numerous singing, dancing and drinking scenes! Overall a satisfying film that nicely establishes how Robin Hood came into being, but the constant feeling of 'franchise starter' that might as well come in flashing neon subtitles, and the knowledge of what the film could have been leaves something of an empty, almost cheated feeling. Yet with Russell Crowe's presence, Robin Hood remains an enjoyable action film – but nothing more.
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Quite simply, terrific fun!
8 January 2011
Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl When the first Pirates of the Caribbean film came out in 2003, expectations were low. Recent swashbuckling fare in the cinemas had been disappointing to say the least (Cutthroat Island anyone?) and this new Disney adventure was based on a theme park ride! Early production news was generally greeted with trepidation, rather than anticipation - which made Pirates of the Caribbean such a wonderful surprise. 2 hours of rollicking adventure that harks back to the glory days of Errol Flynn and the like, and more recently films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark. Such was the impact of Pirates of the Caribbean that it not only spawned a trilogy (with a fourth in the works) but completely refreshed and re-launched the family adventure, leading to enjoyable imitations such as National Treasure – and even providing the impetus for Spielberg to finally get round to making the fourth Indiana Jones movie. Even Johnny Depp can be grateful for this juggernaut of a franchise; his outstanding show-stealing performance reinvigorated his career and thrust him into the mainstream of Hollywood, as well as landing him a thoroughly deserved Oscar nomination.

The plot (such as it is), opens with a suitably creepy nautical fog scene – which proves somewhat deliberately disingenuous for what is to come. After a misleading tone is set, a plot develops which revolves around a band of bloodthirsty pirates searching for some treasure or other in order to free themselves from a curse, with our swashbuckling heroes in valiant pursuit, trying to save the captured damsel in distress. So far, so predictable. But what makes Pirates work is that it knows how corny it is, and rather than trying to disguise it, director Verbinski and producer Bruckheimer (who has his explosive and exaggerated fingerprints all over this yarn), turn the corny all the way up to 11. What follows is a true piece of enjoyable escapist cinema. It may not be highbrow, but it sure is entertaining, and Johnny Depp is truly a revelation as Captain Jack Sparrow. For all his previously eccentric parts in Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands and the like, this is the role which will forever define him – and Depp is fine with that! The treasure is little more than a macguffin, and it is the characters – particularly Depp's Sparrow – not the plot, which provide the basis of what is a very entertaining film.

Yet while Depp does steal the show, it is not solely his film. Orlando Bloom does (barely) manage to expand his emotional range from that seen in Lord of the Rings, and Keira Knightley manages to display for the first time the contradictory qualities of feisty modern heroine and elegant damsel in distress that gave her success in Pride and Prejudice and The Duchess. Geoffrey Rush however, is the equal to Depp in scene-stealing stakes, and provides a fascinating villain to the piece.

All the ingredients for a fully enjoyable epic adventure are here. Exotic locations? Check. Stellar (largely British) supporting cast? Check. Swordfights and chase scenes? Check. A scene-stealing heroic lead who dishes out one-liners galore? Check. Finally, an enjoyably hokum plot with some macguffin or other at its centre? Double check. All of these elements combine wonderfully to make Pirates of the Caribbean greater than the sum of its not-inconsiderable parts.
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Wall Street (1987)
A star turn from Michael Douglas
15 April 2009
A fascinating flashpoint look at life in the stock market in the 1980s, complete with pinstripe shirts, braces and very dodgy dealings. Oliver Stone, he of the conspiracy-theorising and government-baiting, paranoia, again takes a look at what lies below a glossy surface – this time taking a searchlight and magnifying glass to the financial dealings of Wall Street – the centre of the world for capitalist trading; and again leaves us with a number of fascinating questions.

Charlie Sheen plays the wide-eyed salesman Bud Fox, working hard for his big break and hoping to meet his idol – the big-money dealing Gordon Gekko – only to find that his 'hero' is not too discerning when it comes to where his earnings come from . So begins his tutelage into the real workings of Wall Street, and his apprenticeship to the capitalist Gekko. As his confidence grows, so does his wealth, but at the expense of his integrity. As Fox becomes more and more dazzled and corrupted by the mind-boggling money being traded around, the remaining question is simply when will it go wrong, and how badly? A simple question but one you will desperately want to know the answer to. When his eyes are finally opened to the reality of Wall Street, is it too late? Has he sold his soul to the devil? For those unfamiliar with the workings of the stock market, trading scenes will seem to be somewhat in a foreign language, and the constant cliché-spouting and quoting of Sun Tzu does rapidly date the film. However, the ever deepening layers of corruption ensure a riveting film. The cynicism and corruption of capitalism, which seems to be the underlying message of the film, is never summed up better than in Gekko's signature to his shareholders – 'Greed is Good'.

Michael Douglas has a blast as the now-infamous Gordon Gekko in an Oscar-winning and scenery-chewing performance. He literally fills the screen whenever he is on so you cannot take your eyes off him. Think Alec Baldwin's performance in Glengarry Glen Ross filled out with even more charisma and BSing. Charlie Sheen meanwhile captures Bud Fox's descent perfectly – the innocence to confidence, becoming arrogance and finally the realisation. Martin Sheen playing his son's father somehow gives the film an added authenticity. Daryl Hannah however is not really given enough to do for an actress of her talents. But all this is made up for by Douglas' award-winning riveting performance - which is definitely worth an extra star on its own and raises the film to well above average.

A film with thrills more rooted in accumulation rather than action, a bit of a slow-burner but with all the moral dilemmas we have come to expect from an Oliver Stone film. The intricacies of the workings of the Stock Market isn't the most obvious choice of material, and this does cause the film to lag occasionally in pace - the stock exchange is a poor substitute for the courtroom for thrilling drama. Yet he mostly makes it work. While not quite on the level of the conspiracy-baiting JFK, it does share with that film the propensity to make you stop and think – something which is all Mr Stone asks for.
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Gripping and uncomfortable - thanks to Sutherland jnr
15 April 2009
Another day, another John Grisham adaptation, this time with quite the illustrious ensemble cast – Sandra Bullock, Samuel L Jackson, Kevin Spacey and Matthew McConaughey ably supported by Brenda Fricker, Charles S Dutton, Oliver Platt, Ashley Judd, Patrick McGoohan and Chris Cooper, as well as both Donald and Kiefer Sutherland. With Joel Schumacher sitting in the director's chair, a tale of racial tension in the deep south of the United States could prove more brash and inflammatory than anything which John Grisham might have intended. But Schumacher proves surprisingly adept at handling some sensitive material, producing a gripping and harrowing tale of racial hatred and injustice.

Samuel L Jackson plays avenging father Carl Lee Hailey, who shoots dead two white men who raped his ten-year-old daughter on the way to their trial, fearing that justice will only be done if he takes it into his own hands. Now McConaughey's Jake Brigance (Hailey's attorney) must find a way to defend him against ruthless prosecutor Rufus Buckley (Kevin Spacey – again excellent as an attorney after a superb performance as Clarence Darrow, but this time as a by any means necessary prosecutor rather than white knight defender). Meanwhile racial hatred is stirred up by the re-emergence of the Ku Klux Klan, led by Kiefer Sutherland's vicious portrayal of one of the murdered's brother. . As tension rises, viewing becomes more and more discomforting as some unfortunate truths are shown of everyday life in the deep south of the USA. What makes for an even more interesting story is the fact that there is some corruption and racial hatred on both sides of the colour divide. Faint shades of To Kill a Mockingbird are apparent from the outset, with many of the town expressing their opinion, and prejudices running riot, as well as the building up to the trial all the while the defending attorney being pressured and intimidated to withdraw – only with a lot more hostility and violence, on both sides. The guilt of the defendant becomes somewhat irrelevant as the violence increases.

However, Jake Brigance is no Atticus Finch, and Matthew McConaughey is certainly no Gregory Peck. He is rather dislikeable as the crusading lawyer trying to defend Jackson's avenging father. Jackson himself meanwhile gives an atypically very understated performance, eliciting neither too much sympathy or hatred – he is just an ordinary man who did what he did for his daughter. Spacey is as usual excellent, but the film is stolen by Kiefer Sutherland's tremendously sinister performance as the bigoted, grief-stricken, borderline-psychotic redneck who revives the Ku Klux Klan in the area in response to his brother's killing. He is a truly hateable avenger and in this film he truly steps out of his illustrious father's shadow.

As the action continually shifts from the courtroom to the town and backwater houses, the tension continues to build. Carl Lee Hailey did kill the two men who raped and tried to murder his daughter, of that there is no question. What the story asks is not what constitutes justifiable killing, but what could drive a man to such an action? Similar to films such as Mississippi's Burning and To Kill a Mockingbird, A Time To Kill's theme of racial tension and hatred proves that man has a long way to go before he is truly enlightened, but that while there are men who are willing to disregard and even fight against injustice, there is still reason for optimism and hope.

While the film does become quite harrowing and even uncomfortable to view in places, it is still a tale you cannot take your eyes off, and Joel Schumacher has done well to not go over-the-top as he is prone to do in many of his films, but rather lets the subject matter tell its own story. While not all the performances may be Oscar-worthy, the story more than makes up for this.
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Hairspray (2007)
Fun with crossover appeal - but missing some oomph
15 April 2009
Zac Efron is certainly making his name as a new musical matinée idol for the 21st century. Temporarily leaving the lucrative High School Musical franchise which made his name, he stars in the new big-screen adaptation of Hairspray. Efron is part of a stellar cast which puts on a slick song-and-dance show that certainly gets the toes tapping but has a brain and soul as well as a heart and feet as it tackles issues such as racial prejudice.

The premise is simple enough – in 1962 Baltimore, Tracey Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky in her first role) is a slightly overweight girl who is fanatic about dancing, specifically the Corny Collins show and its lead dancer Link (Zac Efron), after she catches a lucky break and manages to get onto the show, the typical shenanigans and machinations kick in as the usual bitchy blonde characters feel threatened in their position of top dog etc you know the rest of that. Meanwhile Tracey's mother Edna (John Travolta in a fat-suit – he's come a long way from Grease and Saturday Night Fever!) plays her daughter's agent as she tries to cement her place in the big time and win the heart of the matinée idol that is Link Larkin.

Hairspray is generally quite an enjoyable musical with some great song-and-dance routines and little of the awful clichés that dragged down High School Musical. A strong sense of light-hearted fun is present in the majority of the songs, particularly the toe-tapping 'Welcome to the 60s,' 'Without Love' and the ultra-catchy 'You Can't Stop the Beat,' while the more poignant 'I Know Where I've Been' highlights the fact that the film is not glossing over the growing racial tension present at the time of the film's setting. Further, seeing Christopher Walken dancing and dueting with the fat-suit-wearing John Travolta is certainly an image that will sear its way permanently into your retinas. What makes the scene even more memorable is that the actors are clearly having the time of their lives - rather than wondering what on earth they are doing there. While the vocals and choreography may not win many awards, there is little doubt that Hairspray is a fun film. This sense of fun transmits itself to the rest of the cast, as Michelle Pfieffer plays a truly pantomime-level hissable villain, while Queen Latifah tones down her usual brash persona to good and soulful effect.

However, underneath the singing and slick dancing is a serious and sharp observation of racism and segregation in 1960s America – note the dividing rope between the white and black students at the school dance, as well as the 'Negro Day' on the Corny Collins show; it does the film credit that it does not overlook or try to gloss over the racial tension that was prevalent at the time.

Yet for all its toe-tapping quality and political impetus, the film does feel as if something is missing, as if it does not have the pizazz of Chicago or the power of the Phantom of the Opera. While there are a number of standout songs, there are none with the raw passion of 'Music of the Night' or the snappiness of 'All That Jazz', the power of 'The Phantom of the Opera' or the aggression of 'Cell Block Tango'. This is possibly the film's only real failing - assuming of course that you find John Travolta dressed in a dress and fat-suit amusing.

But while the racial tension is not overlooked, it is not allowed to overshadow what is, at its heart, a fun and enjoyable musical. Hairspray is probably the musical with the biggest crossover appeal since Chicago (at least until Mamma Mia came along) made them fashionable once more. It is slick, sharp and sassy. It just perhaps needs more of a standout song or two.
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It's all been seen before
11 April 2009
The 1993 film with Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington still in the formation years of their careers – so this is certainly if nothing else a curiosity piece seeing how these megastar A-listers performed before they truly reached the top. John Grisham novels will generally make for a reasonably solid if unspectacular film, with just sufficient meat for serious actors to get their teeth into, and the Pelican Brief is no exception to this rule.

When two senior judges are murdered, twenty-four year old law student Darby Shaw (Roberts) looks into the case and her suspicions somehow make their way to the FBI – suspicions that prove potentially damaging to the US government. Now she and journalist Gray Grantham (Washington) must try to stay alive long enough to ensure what they have uncovered is told to the world.

Few do distress-turned-determination better than Julia Roberts, but after a slow start followed by a great deal of panicked running and hiding, interest wanes somewhat. Meanwhile Denzel Washington is given so little to do in the first hour to the point he is almost forgotten. Further, it takes so long for us to actually discover what was written in the eponymous brief and for the leads to meet and agree to take action, that the audience's desire to get to the bottom of the 'mystery' is definitely lessened. However, once the two do start working together in the latter half interest does pick up, but not enough to retrieve the film from its ponderous start. Roberts and Washington do the job required of them but seem to treat it as little more than a day at the office – there is very little of the energy we have come to expect from Roberts, or Washington in particular. The secondary roles are filled slightly better – John Lithgow in particular a standout newspaper editor, and watch out for a very young Cynthia Nixon (Miranda from Sex in the City) as Julia Roberts' student friend. However, Stanley Tucci as one of a number of shadowy government figures on the tail of the leads should have stuck to the shadows more. There is little of the slickness, the grit and pace characteristic of later John Grisham adaptations such as Runaway Jury.

Legal thrillers about corrupt government prepared to kill to save their own position have been done so often (and so often much better) that little feels fresh about this Grisham adaptation, to the extent that were it not for the presence of A-listers Roberts and Washington this film would have long been forgotten. As it is, the film does not have enough thrills to save it from the fate of the DVD bargain basement bin. If you wanted to see this, it would probably be cheaper to buy than rent this film – and it would make a nice coaster! OK for a throwaway (literally) Saturday night film, but not memorable in any way. It's all been seen and done before.
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Taken (I) (2008)
A gripping action thriller surprisingly heavy on the violence
11 April 2009
Taken is a taut action thriller starring the somewhat improbable Liam Neeson as the avenging hero.

Neeson is somewhat of an everyman actor, very believable in everyday hero roles that Tom Cruise and the like could never do. It is this versatility that is his great strength as an actor – see his roles as Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn in Star Wars and the legendary Irish hero Michael Collins in the film of the same name for further evidence of this. But as Brian Mills, the loving father and retired CIA operative, he brings a new intensity to the fore, and the film is all the more satisfying for it. Brian has seen how the world works and wants to protect his daughter from it. But after his daughter is kidnapped on a trip to Paris, Brian must dust off his skills that have lain dormant in order to rescue his daughter and punish those responsible.

After taking a little too much time to set events in motion (considering it is only a 90 minute film) the pace and power accelerates rapidly, and you find yourself slowly gripped by the single-minded intensity of ex-spy Ben. While you remain sure that the outcome is inevitable, the method and projected body count remain in question, and it is this that makes the film such an enthralling tale. Some good, if not particularly spectacular, set-pieces, keep the pace moving quickly, while the vast range of 'special skills' Ben displays throughout the film ensure we never lose sight of who it is we're dealing with. The film wears its emotions on its sleeve, giving the film a raw feel, which all adds to the gut-wrenching intensity. As the plot thickens and more layers become apparent – including corruption within the gendarmes – you are left asking yourself 'how far would you go to rescue someone you love? What lengths would you go to?' Ben's methods become morally ambiguous at best, if not outright questionable, but as we see more of the seedy underbelly of Paris and how far it extends, the slightly sour taste that has been growing from the we discover the truth behind his daughter's abduction becomes quite uncomfortable. The rather surprisingly high level of violence adds to this level of discomfort, yet the violence never seems to feel gratuitous.

Neeson is a man who can deliver quiet intensity like few others can, but the fury he displays never seems to rise much above a whisper – no matter how much training a spy may get, surely nothing could prepare someone for the kidnap of their daughter? A slight increase in volume of emotions would have benefited somewhat. Meanwhile, Maggie Grace as Ben's daughter has little to do other than look severely distressed and frightened, while the villains are largely nameless and faceless. The lack of a single clearly identifiable villain, while ensuring the focus remains solely on Ben's search for his daughter, dilutes the fury and vengeance factor somewhat. However, Taken remains a riveting narrative, unfettered by the convoluted machinations that frequently litter CIA-based films. By taking the spy out of the CIA, the story is free to focus on the action-based thrills rather than the political ones, and is all the better for it. In fact, with a sub-90 minute runtime the audience is left feeling slightly short-changed on plot, and an additional twenty minutes to develop Neeson's character further, maybe even displaying some bursts of uncontrolled rage at some point, would not have harmed the movie in any way.

Be that as it may, with TV series like Alias having made the spy genre somewhat stale, Taken shows there is no substitute for seeing this kind of story as a full-blown action thriller on the big screen. Genuinely gripping.
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An Apatow-shaped hole in the writing credits - and it shows!
11 April 2009
Another entry into the canon of work from Judd Apatow, but the 40-year-old Virgin or Knocked Up this is not.

The presence of Russell Brand merely on the poster would be enough to put most people off seeing this film were it not for the additional presence of the name of Apatow underneath, but it seems that even his magic has gotten waylaid here. The film's premise has mild potential as it sees Jason Segel's Peter Bretter getting dumped by his TV star girlfriend and jetting off to Hawaii to get over her, only to find she is staying at the same hotel with her new boyfriend (Brand). However, what follows is a by-the-numbers plot line that is straight out of the standard Hollywood Rom-com scriptbook. There is little of the originality that made The 40-year-old Virgin such a break-out hit.

Jason Segel is barely a poor man's Steve Carrell or even Seth Rogen, with little of the hangdog likability that either of those had in abundance – to the extent where you wonder what Kristin Bell's Sarah Marshall of the title (herself little more than an identikit blonde) ever saw in him in the first place. Russell Brand is his usual obnoxious self whilst Mila Kunis plays the standard model new girl in Peter's life, but she at least manages to breathe some charm into an otherwise two-dimensional role. Apatow merely produced this film, and the lack of his name in the writing credits has clearly harmed this comedy.

The humour is less painfully funny and more just painful for large parts, while any time that Brand is on the screen is outright nauseating. The story plods along going in no direction in particular, seeming content to just meander and enjoy the beautiful scenery of Hawaii, which the entire film feels like an extended advert for the holiday island. There are one or two mildly amusing scenes, generally involving Kunis, but do not expect this to live up to Knocked Up or Superbad; its pales in comparison. Perhaps Apatow has become a victim of his own success, as expectations are very high now, and this certainly did not live up to them. Had expectations not been so high, then possibly the beautiful backdrop of Hawaii and Kunis's charm might have made this film somewhat watchable.
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Inside Man (2006)
A twisty tense heist thriller that will leave you scratching your head
29 July 2008
Inside Man is a clever film that fits the bill perfectly for a Saturday evening's entertainment – a complex thriller that, while never too complicated, leaves you on numerous occasions thinking you have a handle on what is happening, only for the film to surprise you again. A classy heist thriller with modern twists, and a stellar leading cast, it keeps you guessing right the way through, which makes it ideal evening viewing, and at almost exactly two hours is probably just the right length. There seems to be hidden depths to all the characters in a multi-layered plot, where as questions are answered, even more are asked. Much discussion will ensue as the credits roll.

Clive Owen plays Dalton Russell, a master criminal who has planned what he believes to be the perfect bank robbery, whilst Denzel Washington is the detective who must resolve the situation, and Jodie Foster is the big shot hard nosed negotiator working for the benefit of 'outside interests'. Supporting this A-list leading group includes Chiwetel Ejiofor (who seemed to be in nearly every film released that year), Willem Dafoe and Christopher Plummer.

The film uses the interesting format of interspersing the main film with brief scenes of witness/suspect interviews in the aftermath, all the while keeping the identities of the robbers concealed (with the exception of Owen, who announces his intentions at the start) so the interviewees could be anyone. What makes the scene more interesting is the complete and very distinct lack of lawyers for the interviewees. This proves to be a rather effective and innovative technique, as are the interesting mix of sympathies. The detectives dealing with the hostage situation and the interviews in the aftermath are not necessarily as warm and heroic as you might expect, in fact almost intimidating, while Foster's power broker and Owen's lead bank-robber are multi-layered, making for much more interesting characters, especially as they are used comparatively sparingly, while Washington's detective fills a large portion of the screen time – fortunately as a top quality actor he is equal to the task, although he does come across as slightly callous and unsympathetic. Denzel's unusual and cold characterisation makes the viewing uncomfortable for the viewer, and certainly alters the viewers sympathies. Meanwhile, Foster is particularly excellent as the ice-cold bitch negotiating on behalf of a third party, while Owen has some strangely effective cold charisma as the lead bank robber. Plummer and Dafoe are given very little to do however, while Ejiofor seems little more than a sycophantic sidekick for Washington, and he contributes nothing – unusual given his strong performances in other films round the same time such as Serenity and Four Brothers.

With the emphasis on slowly-rising tension and very little action as the mast plan of the criminals becomes clear, Inside Man is a gripping tale of how to rob a bank – almost playing as an instruction manual for would-be armed robbers. In addition, what sets the film apart is that far from there being an obvious outcome as is the case with similar films, there seems to be a real feeling that someway, somehow, the robbers might actually get away with it and win. YOu never know what is going to happen. This makes for an incredibly refreshing film. Movie buffs will also love being able to play spot the movie reference – Sudden Impact, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon are all clearly referenced, almost as if the film is an homage to the great crime and heist movies of the past. Inside Man is also one of few 15-rated films that make use of the c-word.

Overall a gripping heist thriller that will still have you scratching your head as the end credits roll, wondering not only how it happened, but what actually happened as well. A film that definitely warrants repeat viewings - make space on your DVD shelf, as you will want to watch it again.
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EuroTrip (2004)
The guiltiest of guilty pleasure films
28 July 2008
It's rude, it's crass, its corny, its horny and it's god-damn awful. It has gratuitous nudity and swearing, and manages to use (and offend) nearly every European stereotype there is – no mean feat in a sub 90-minute film. Yet somehow I couldn't help but enjoy it. People out of their teens are supposed to like films such as the Godfather or 12 Angry Men (both of which I did enjoy and rated 10 I should point out) but there is something secretly appealing about this crass gross-out comedy. Adam Herz and Paul Weitz (the creators of the American Pie franchise which kick-started this teen gross-out comedy trend) have a lot to answer for.

The plot (for lack of a better word) centres around Scott (Scott Mechlowitz), Cooper (Jacob Pitts), and twins Jamie (Travis Wester) and Jenny (Trachtenberg) setting off to Berlin to meet up with Scott's German pen-pal, and along the way taking in as much of Europe as possible, including London, Paris, Amsterdam, Rome and, for some reason, Bratislava. Cue all the stereotype-based jokes you can think of, and then some. Throw in some of the most ridiculous 'twists' you can imagine (ridiculously contrived doesn't even begin to cover it – but that's allowable in a film like this) and you have the real potential for an absolute turkey of a film – and with serious objectivity it would be. But someway, somehow, the film is entertaining, and as long as you are prepared to like this kind of juvenile humour, you will find yourself snickering at the ridiculous stereotypes. Watch out particularly for Vinnie Jones as a foul-mouthed Manchester United soccer hooligan in London (Geography obviously not the strong point of the writers). Also there is a cracking cameo from Matt Damon too singing an irritatingly catchy rock song. Everyone has guilty pleasure films – films they don't want to admit to secretly enjoying; this could certainly be one of those.

The characterization is very by-the-numbers, there are very little surprises, with the lead actors resembling Jason Biggs, Seann William Scott et al in both mannerisms and appearance, although Michelle Trachtenberg's performance proves rather refreshing as the only girl in the lead group of teens.

So if you don't find excessive swearing, gratuitous nudity and general American Pie-style teen comedy entertaining, then rather than watching and then inevitably slating this movie, just don't bother with it. If you are easily offended, then this is not the movie for you. On the other hand, if you enjoyed American Pie, Road Trip and things of that nature, then give this a go, you may be pleasantly surprised. You just may not want to tell anyone.
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Industry standard thriller only raised by Roberts' presence
28 July 2008
One of many standard thrillers that were scattered through the late 80s and early 90s, many of which would star Julia Roberts, and which showed her to be more than just the pretty romantic lead. Here she plays a much stronger character, a woman fleeing her abusive husband to start a new life, strong, independent but still skittish, worried that she might be found.

A tale of beautiful but terrified housewife Laura(Roberts) who resorts to desperate lengths to escape the constant fear of her violent and controlling husband martin (Patrick Bergin) in which she lives – faking her own death to be able to begin a new life far away. However, finding little peace she is still haunted by her previous life, a life which inevitably catches up with her when her husband discovers she is still alive and attempts to track her down.

Roberts can do the strong independent woman role in her sleep and make it appear effortless - a fact proved later with her Oscar win for Erin Brockovich - and in Sleeping with the Enemy she shows the early talent which would eventually lead her to that Oscar win. Meanwhile Bergin is suitably menacing in a rent-a-villain kind of way, all grimacing and intense staring. He does however have a rather interesting tic – a form of OCD- towels all neatly lined up and so on – which could have served as a rather effective tension builder had it been given further development.

However the film itself, while entertaining and diverting enough in its' own right, there is still something very standard and formulaic about the plot. For far too much of the film's (admittedly short) 94-minute runtime we seem to be waiting for the film to get going, and the climax arrives far too late and is too short, wasting the tension which has been built up. In addition, Kevin Anderson as Ben, the white knight who should rescue Laura from her fear, just does not seem to gel with the part – coming off as slightly creepy himself rather than a hero, particularly in the early half of the film.

Overall Sleeping With The Enemy remains a standard typical early 90s thriller of which there were so many, no better or worse than any of the others. A curio for fans of Julia Roberts wishing to see her earlier career development in an effective performance, but the average plot makes the film a throwaway thriller which could serve for a Saturday evening's entertainment with a bottle of wine, but little more. Reasonable, serviceable but forgettable.
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Amazingly, lives up to the hype and more
26 July 2008
For the second entry into the (very) successfully rebooted Batman franchise to live up to expectations was never going to be easy. Batman Begins had met with critical acclaim and set the tills ringing at the box office, so people were already expecting great things of the follow-up, and with the death of Heath Ledger shortly after the completion of filming, it ensured that all of the world's attention was going to be on this film. So expectations of a great film were high.

To a large extent, The Dark Knight not only meets, but exceeds those high expectations. With Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman all returning, much of what was good about the first film remains, and the addition of Aaron Eckhart and Maggie Gyllenhaal have proved to be successful moves. With the performance of Heath Ledger however, objectivity was always going to be difficult, with talk of a posthumous Oscar circling the film's promotion almost immediately after his death.

It seems to be said of any sequel, particularly in a comic book franchise, that the second installment must be 'darker'. Sometimes this is indeed the case, sometimes the label appears to be applied as a knee-jerk reaction. The Dark Knight however is the first sequel in a long time to genuinely deserve this adjective (an impressive feat given that the first film was hardly brightly coloured!), all the way to the ending, to the extent that the film has met with criticism for its family-friendly 12A rating in the UK – some of the 'darker' scenes and plot elements are particularly intense and could be considered certainly unsuitable for children under 12. Yet The Dark Knight is still possibly the best film of the year so far.

As for the plot itself, The Dark Knight revolves around Batman's desire to step down and allow new District Attorney Harvey Dent (Eckhart) to fight the criminals out in the open. However, the rise of the Joker (Ledger) forces Bruce Wayne to return to his alter-ego, and go even 'darker' in order to bring him down. For a runtime over two and a half hours, the plot never gets too convoluted but is involving enough so that the long runtime is not felt too much (although shaving a quarter-hour off wouldn't have hurt). However, although The Dark Knight is a superb ensemble piece (as was Batman Begins) with some terrific action set-pieces (including car chases and explosions) the film's star is by far and away Heath Ledger, in what has proved to be a tremendously fitting swansong to a promising career cut way too short. Even allowing for all the inevitable hyperbole following his death, Ledger's performance is absolutely superb. He truly makes the character his own, and resists what must be a great temptation to overact and try and echo the performance of Jack Nicholson, yet still manages to capture the maniacal quality that is the Joker. Which makes it all the more tragic that this career-defining performance should be seen after his death.

But in all of the furore over Ledger's death, it would be easy to overlook the performance of the Caped Crusader himself (and bonus points for Christopher Nolan for managing to crowbar in that nickname into the film without making it seem too camp). But Christian Bale as the eponymous hero matches Leger's joker for intensity and the always-required darkness. It is his performance that makes the Joker such a perfect match for Batman, and probably the greatest comic-book villain ever. And in Aaron Eckhart a new star has been discovered, as his role as Dent the DA and his descent to Two-Face. Meanwhile Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine are all as reliable as ever.

Best of all, the ending leaves open the possibility of a completion to the trilogy – and although so-called 'threequels' are almost universally a disappointment, the unparalleled success of this reboot to one of the greatest comic-book franchises of all time means that it would be a completion eagerly anticipated. Memories of the ridiculous camp of Adam West, and the catastrophe of Joel Schumacher are now well and truly banished.

Exciting, adrenaline-fuelled, compelling, and, yes, darker. The Dark Knight is a fantastic film, and in a summer over-filled with comic-book adaptations, needs something special to stand out. And in Heath Ledger's tremendous performance it has it. Maybe the posthumous Oscar would be justified after all.
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Fever Pitch (2005)
A pleasant mix of sport and rom-com; enjoyable but forgettable
25 July 2008
An Americanised remake of the British novel Fever Pitch (which was also a more standard film adaptation in Britain), translating the charming story of an English football fan into a slightly more brash tale of an American baseball obsessive, directed by the Farrelly Brothers – which possibly tells you all you need to know right there. Having said that, The Perfect Catch doesn't even approach the gross-out value of previous Farrelly fare.

Jimmy Fallon is Ben, a schoolteacher who meets Lindsey (Drew Barrymore), a successful businesswoman and they hit it off. Unfortunately Lindsey often has to play second fiddle to Ben's other passion – baseball, specifically the Boston Red Sox. A fusion of sports movie and standard rom-com, the script pretty much writes itself, but then people don't go to these kind of movies to be surprised. The plot is mildly diverting, with one or two laugh-out-loud moments but the gags are largely corny. What is enjoyable however is seeing the range of characters that are the regulars at the Red Sox games, and there is something charming about seeing this 'second family' interact with one another and with Ben, to the extent where this is the most enjoyable part of the film.

Jimmy Fallon as a poor man's Mike Myers is certainly no substitute for Colin Firth. Where Firth was slightly charming in a geeky way, Fallon comes across somewhat more obsessive and charmless, even obnoxious. While many sports enthusiasts will recognise elements of his fandom, it gets to the extent where it's hard to see what Lindsey sees in him, removing the essential sympathy from the character until it's too late. Drew Barrymore however is as charming as always – she seems to have really re-invented herself as the queen of the rom-coms; 50 First Dates, Music & Lyrics and Our House just some of the nondescript but inoffensively charming and enjoyable movies she has done recently, and the Perfect Catch is just another addition to the canon. Unfortunately it now seems hard to see her breaking out of this 'rut' into more serious films again.

Having said all that, The Perfect Catch does provide just over 90 minutes of mindless diversion which requires little thinking, so could fit the bill for a Saturday night with a pizza and bottle of wine, and the sporting element to the story may make the film more bearable for the men forced to sit through yet another rom-com. The film is enjoyable but it will be slipping away even as the credits roll – there is little memorable here. A mildly entertaining diversion - just don't expect to be surprised, because you certainly won't be.
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