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Incendiary (2008)
Self-destructs (spoilers throughout)
19 October 2008
Warning: Spoilers
From the director of Bridget Jones' Diary comes a film about terrorism. If you think that sounds like a recipe for cinematic gold then you must be demented.

As you'd expect from someone who made such a wretched piece of fluff, the emotions here are laid on rather thick. This isn't a film that knows a whole lot about subtlety. They might as well have just issued a box of hankies at the door.

The film begins with an exceedingly cute child having fun with his mummy. He's so damn cute and so damn lovable that you know he's not going to make it through the film alive. And then when you realise that the film is called Incendiary, you know he's going to get blown into a million little pieces.

Now having your son die in a terrorist attack is bad enough, but the film decides to make it several degrees worse. First of all, the mother in this film is no longer that enamoured with her husband. Therefore their relationship is rather loveless. However, not to fear, a sleazy journalist played by Ewan McGregor pops up. And no sooner have they exchanged a few words than they're exchanging bodily fluids on the young mother's sofa. Crikey. And as they're humping and pumping, they have a football game on the television. And at this game are the woman's husband and young son. And would you believe it, as they're doing the dirty, the stadium goes ka-boom and it's goodbye husband and son.

After this you'd kind of think that the woman would suffer some pretty serious psychosexual problems. But this doesn't stop the woman from having sex with the head of the anti-terrorist unit (the woman's husband was in bomb disposal, so this guy was a work colleague). And this guy seems really nice. He just wants to look after her. Nevermind that he's dull as ditchwater and that he loves caravans. He's just a good, honest guy. Well, or so you'd think. I guess the woman should have noted the fact that the man has a beard, and as we all know, men with beards always have something to hide. Why else would they cover themselves in facial shrubbery? You see, the man knew that the terrorist attack was going to happen and did nothing to stop it. Oh, that's pretty bad, isn't it? You were cheating on your husband as he went up in flames and now you've slept with the man who could have stopped it from happening. Maybe those psychosexual problems will finally kick in.

If this all sounds far-fetched, it's because it is. But the film isn't finished with the nonsense. The woman strikes up a friendship with the young son of one of the bombers. Okay, this has potential for bonding and mutual healing. But no, there's a sequence where the two of them are at Waterloo train station. The kid is still unaware that his daddy was one of the bombers – he thinks he's just gone away – and as he's waiting for the woman to buy tickets, he sees newspapers with his dad's face plastered all over them. Needless to say he's a bit upset and begins behaving a little erratically. He then runs away. The police see this and because he's Asian and has a backpack, they take chase. The woman chases as well, and they all end up on an empty train platform. Every party shouts a lot, and as the boy reaches into his jacket, the police prepare to shoot. But as a marksman pulls the trigger, the woman steps into his sights and gets shot in the head by mistake. Holy Jean Charles de Menezes, Batman, the police screwed up again!

But don't fear. The woman only gets grazed by a bullet so everything is hunky-dory.

Amongst all this ridiculous melodrama there are a few good scenes. The best one is when the mother seriously begins to lose the plot and thinks that her son has come back. She spends all her time in the flat playing with him. She then leaves to get some food and the spell is broken when she actually has some real human interaction. When she rushes back her son is no longer there and she's devastated.

However, this scene leads directly to another one of the film's maudlin flights of fancy. In response to the tragedy, a barrage balloon for every victim hangs in the sky with a picture of the victim on it. This to me sounds like an awful idea. Could you imagine that? You're just trying to get over the ordeal and you look out of the window and see your little Billy grinning from the sky. Yeah, nice one.

And so the woman realises that her son is really dead and decides to visit his barrage balloon. And to do so she has to stand on a tall roof and teeter on the edge. Will she kill herself or not? Now the barrage balloons I hated, but we now have another one of the film's few decent sequences. We see the boy and the father talking about the Great Fire of London. The boy asks what they did back then, and the father says that everyone had a cup of tea. We then have a voice-over where the woman says that many people have tried to destroy this city but no one has succeeded. Every time someone tries to knock it down, we rebuild. And that's what she's got to do with her life. She's got to rebuild it. The film didn't deserve to generate any emotion, but a love of my home city meant that for once I actually felt something in this preposterous movie.
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Rocky II (1979)
The rematch (spoilers)
8 August 2008
Warning: Spoilers
If there's one thing America loves, it's a sequel. It's more American than apple pie and anal sex. And so therefore, despite Apollo Creed's statement to Rocky in the first film that there wouldn't be a rematch, and contrary to Rocky's assertion that he didn't want one, you knew it had to happen.

Although to be fair, Rocky does do his best to avoid getting back in the ring. He tries to capitalise on his fame and make some money through advertising. Cue some amusing scenes where the mumbling, illiterate Rocky tries and fails to read writing from dummy cards as he attempts to sell crappy 70s cologne.

After this failure to crack the entertainment world, Rocky decides he can make it as an office worker...even though he has no qualifications, no experience and no brains. He just wants a job where he can sit down and no longer be pounded repeatedly in the face. It's not much to ask. But unfortunately Rocky gets turned down by every employer, who are no doubt not only horrified by Rocky's lack of credentials but by his hideous light blue suit as well.

But the early scenes where Rocky thinks he'll be living a life of plenty are very funny. We see Rocky spending money on horrible gold watches, a hideous jacket with a tiger on the back, a dog collar that he puts around his wrist and a car that he can't drive. And he then buys a house, mumbling like an idiot all the way through the showing. 'I like this mailbox. These numbers almost add up to nine. I like that. That's a good omen.' Ah, Rocky. Dumber than a bag of hammers.

But the gender issues exhibited in the film are another source of laughs. Adrian is appalled at the idea of Rocky getting back in the ring, so Rocky comes out with this nugget: 'I never asked you to stop being a woman, so please don't ask me to stop being a man.' Me man. Me club. Me beat. You woman. You wash dishes.

But what's up with these damn women? This Adrian bird tries to domesticate Rocky. She tries to protect him and she encourages him to get a decent job. But Rocky fails and makes a fool of himself. Damn Adrian has castrated him! Not long ago Rocky was standing toe to toe with the champion of the world. The next thing you know he's collecting spit buckets. And worse than that, he's meant to be happy about it. But eventually Rocky breaks. He realises that he was meant to fight. That's what he does best.

But what about Apollo's motivation for getting back in the ring? Well, his problems are different. People berate him for his performance against Rocky. And one person sends him the following letter: 'You call yourself the champ? You're a fake. The fight was a fake. Go kill yourself.' I don't know about you, but I personally think that's the best letter in the history of the world.

One of the funniest scenes in the film is right at the beginning. Apollo berates Rocky from a wheelchair at the hospital. Okay, it doesn't sound so great on paper. But when you consider the fact that every other word from Apollo's lips is 'chump', it suddenly achieves greatness.

But even at this early point in the film, Mickey knows the score. He knows Rocky needs to fight. But the road to Rocky's epiphany is mighty long. We even have to suffer through a pregnancy scare which saps Rocky's motivation. Rather than train he sits with his wife and reads poetry. And schmuck that I am, I found Rocky's writing rather sweet. Goddammit, the first film is a fairy tale and this one is a soap opera.

But eventually the inconsiderate Adrian wakes from her coma and tells Rocky to win. It's an incredibly hokey moment, but that's what Rocky is all about. Therefore, if you're anything like me, you end up grinning like a loon and almost start clapping in your seat.

Apparently, in order to beat Apollo, Rocky needs to get speed. But not just regular speed. He needs demon speed. That's the speed he needs. Greasy fast speed. And in order to do this he needs to chase a chicken (?!?). Cue Mickey berating him when he can't catch it and yelps of joy when he finally does. It's here that you can see reality floating away into the distance. But it's bliss.

The fight here is even further removed from reality than the first film. The boxers pummel each other constantly and there's no sign of them guarding or trying to defend themselves. But on the plus side, Apollo calls Rocky 'chump' after knocking him to the mat, so it's all good.

The silliest part of the fight is when Rocky and Apollo stand toe to toe in the final round and just tiredly begin punching each other in the face. One after the other they tiredly throw and land head shots, and yet they still take it. But then Rocky begins hitting Creed in the gut, so hard by the way, that he's almost lifted from his feet, and then finally the Italian Stallion floors the champion. However, Rocky goes down too. From here it's a race for both characters to get to their feet. It's something that I've never seen in boxing, and to be honest it stretches the final shred of credibility that the film has, but nevertheless it's a great moment when Rocky stands up and wins. It just goes to show that when you ignore the advice of your wife, you can achieve great things.
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United 93 (2006)
A masterpiece
30 July 2008
The final scenes in United 93 have to be some of the most harrowing in cinema. What you witness is a frantic desire to live conflict with an insane desire to die. People become animals – rational thought gives way to instinct and barbarism, resulting in tragedy.

One of the most despairing images in this magnificent film has to be that of the passengers desperately pushing and driving one of their number towards the cockpit. The guy they're manoeuvring is a pilot of single engine planes and represents their one small hope of making it out of this alive. Knowing full well what happened to the passengers of United 93, the desperation is gut wrenching. You know they're not going to make it and that these are the death throes of those on board.

The agony of the final moments is amplified by the way that the pilot briefly manages to get his hands on the controls. Whether this happened in real life, no one knows, but it perfectly illustrates the conflict that occurred and the conflict that is happening now. Both sides desperately want to be in the driving seat but all the time things are spiralling out of control. In the end, everyone loses and nothing is gained.

Something else I like about the final moments is the disturbing catharsis when the passengers overwhelm the hijackers. This is probably the last time in the 'war on terror' where things will be black and white. The hijackers are wrong and deserve the brutal response of their captives. After this, though, everything becomes hazy and muddy. The tragedy gets twisted and it becomes the fuel for political greed.

But in that moment where the first hijacker gets overwhelmed and killed, there's a feeling of joy and exaltation that is primal. You're put in the position of the passengers and you feel the excitement they must have felt – maybe we can get out of this; maybe we can regain control. But it's a mass delusion. There's no turning back now. Things will never be the same.

But what's also great about the film is that there's no flag waving. This film isn't a call to arms. It isn't a rallying cry. Instead it's a grimly realistic depiction of the chaos that ensues when barbarism overwhelms normality. When something this audacious and unexpected occurs, all the controls that keep the world in check go flying out the window.

Some of the loons out there who want to believe in ridiculous conspiracy theories will point out that the response to the tragedy was too patchy and that communication couldn't be that bad. They've obviously never had a job. Sometimes it's hard enough to communicate clearly with someone downstairs in the same office as you, let alone in an office hundreds of miles away. Plus communication between governmental departments and agencies is notoriously poor. Therefore I can well believe that the response would be so impotent.

But the tale that unfolds in air traffic control centres and at NORAD is just as engrossing as the one in the plane. Like the passengers in United 93, they're wrestling with the enormity of the situation. No one can quite believe that this is happening and the sheer scale of the attack is beyond their comprehension. As a consequence people continually try and come to more realistic conclusions.

A clear, fast response also isn't helped by inaccurate information. When a plane hits the first tower, it's said that a small civil aircraft hit it. And then NORAD are told that American Airlines 11 is heading for Washington when it's actually hit the World Trade Centre. Yes technology is better these days, but we still don't live in a world where we have accurate information available at our fingertips the very second it happens. And it's galling to know that even the government has to get its updates from CNN.

A chilling moment that occurs in the film is when air traffic control are trying to communicate with American Airlines 11. The plane is over New York and they're desperately trying to talk to the pilot. But then the plane disappears off the screen. But even though we know it's hit the tower you can still understand the confusion. Even though the flight has disappeared, who can imagine such a thing?

Things only start to become clear when the second plane nears Manhattan. And then it's too late. People watching the smoking tower see the second plane crash into the other building. The attack is almost over before people can understand what's going on.

And the only reason that the fourth plane didn't hit the Capitol Building is because United 93 was delayed. Sure some imbeciles can question why the passengers of that flight didn't take the plane sooner, but they didn't know what was going on. When you don't know what's going on, you're powerless. But once they hear about the other flights, they decide to act. And the one bright spot in that miserable day is that these passengers fought back and prevented further loss of life.

But I really can't overstress how great this film is. There are no attempts to demonise. There are no attempts to play for false emotion. You're just dropped in this hellish situation and expected to deal with it. It just feels real.

And very often it feels painfully real. The build-up constantly had me on edge. The tension is palpable. And then there's the heartbreak of people phoning home and the desperation of the attack on the cockpit. Paul Greengrass has fashioned a masterpiece here. He's made a film that is visceral and heartbreaking and that makes no concessions to the audience. It's one of the greatest films of the last few years.
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Better than Begins (spoilers throughout)
29 July 2008
Warning: Spoilers
The Dark Knight is an improvement on Batman Begins, but it's not the giant leap that people would have you believe. It has too many flaws. The final sequence, for example, is a gigantic mess. Every attempt is made to ensure that it's exciting, but the editing is all over the place and sometimes its not even clear what's going on.

Then there's Two-Face. What a dull creation he is. Basically his girlfriend gets killed and he goes a bit nuts and then he goes on a killing spree. Sounds kind of interesting, doesn't it? It's not. The stuff with Harvey Dent previous to this is enjoyable, but Two-Face himself sucks a lot of the life out of the film. And that's probably because it's over too quickly. All Two-Face gets to do is whine, toss his little coin and then fall out of a building. It's over in a flash and you're left wondering why create this villain at all if you're going to do so little with him.

And the make-up and CGI for his disfigured face is awful. The film goes to such lengths to create a realistic environment for these fantastical characters that the cartoony effects stick out like a sore thumb. I can remember reading somewhere that Nolan thought that a realistically scarred face would look too horrific, but he could have at least gone for something that didn't look like it was on an anatomy page in Encarta.

And I was also distracted by Batman's cowl. It has a very weird shape, like Bale's head is the teat on the end of a condom, albeit it a black condom with bat ears. It's nowhere near as good as Keaton's costume in Batman Returns.

But what did I like about the film? Well, pretty much everything else. It's mind-numbingly predictable to point to Heath Ledger's performance as the highlight, but it's most certainly true. His Joker makes Nicholson's look like a slightly eccentric, rather cuddly uncle. Ledger blows him out of the water.

The best thing about Ledger's Joker is that there's no reasoning with him. He just wants to play his games and have a laugh. However, he has a very strange sense of fun. Fun for him is playing with the Batman and turning Gotham's citizens into criminals. He's a guy that gets nothing out of money or sex. Therefore it's impossible to squeeze him.

The only problem with this is that it weakens Batman's character. You go through a whole film to establish how strong he is and suddenly you cut his testes off. In this film he's remarkably impotent. And it also must be pointed out that the Joker is smart to a ridiculous degree. His plans are incredibly complicated and they all go off like clockwork.

But that being said, the character is still enormous fun. One of my favourite Joker moments has to be the pencil trick. Yep, that pencil really did disappear. And what about poor Brian the fake Batman? Not only does he get to star in his own video, but he also gets to smash into the Mayor's window. Nice.

But it's also the small moments that make Ledger's performance great. I like it when he arrives at Bruce Wayne's party, looking for Harvey Dent. He begins interrogating the guests and grabs a bald guy by the head, asking him if he's seen the DA. The guy doesn't respond and the Joker widens his eyes and goes, 'No.' It's a great bit of acting. And I also loved it when he applauds Gordon's promotion.

The rest of the cast don't get to have anywhere near as much fun, but they all do a good job. Bale is solid as always, as is Caine, Freeman and Oldman, and Maggie Gyllenhaal is a massive improvement over Katie Holmes. But better than all of these is Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent. He's cocky but believably decent as the incorruptible DA, and like Bruce Wayne you're seduced by him. But while you feel that the film is building up to something special with his tragedy as Two-Face, it never happens. Suddenly the script lets Eckhart down and his fall provides zero emotion. There's just not enough time invested in it. It could have been a whole film in itself.

Fortunately, though, there are many wonderful distractions to ensure that you don't dwell too hard on this disappointment. The action, for instance, is superb. And once again Nolan excels with a wonderful car chase.

However, my favourite bit in the whole film is a very small moment. Right after the Joker escapes from police custody we briefly see him hanging his body out of a squad car. There's no sound and the music is no more than a hum, but it's incredibly cinematic and says more about the character than almost anything else could. This is what makes the Joker's life worth living; running rings around other people and playing games with them.

And Nolan must also be commended for some of the film's subtext. The Joker's videos kind of resemble the sorts of things Al Qaeda would make and the whole film asks how far would you go to try and re-establish control. Do you destroy everything you believe in just so that things can be the way they used to be? Of course this is the crisis that America faces where civil liberties are eroded in order to try and make the country 'safer'. The Dark Knight just takes it to an extreme.

So while Nolan must be commended for the ambition of the project and for most of the film's execution, it's by no means the instant masterpiece it's been touted as. Yes it's the best Batman film that's been made, but it's not even close to being the best film of all time.
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Rocky (1976)
The first one (spoilers)
29 July 2008
Warning: Spoilers
When you've spent so long watching the ridiculous (but glorious) excesses of Rocky III and Rocky IV, you kind of forget how down to earth the original film is. To be sure it can't exactly be called gritty, as it's something of a grown-up fairytale, but at least it has its feet somewhere near the real world.

The film starts with Rocky fighting in some fleapit. He doesn't really seem to care. He's not trying. But then near the end, his opponent, the fabulously named Spider Rico, headbutts him. This gives him the eye of the tiger and he knocks the guy out. When he's motivated, Rocky has it in him to achieve great things.

But how do you summon that will when your life is so pitiful? Rocky lives in a nasty apartment ('It stinks!'), works as a small-time heavy for a local crook, trains at a run down gym, walks the cold, miserable streets of Philadelphia and awkwardly tries to woo the shy Adrian at the local pet store. It's not much of an existence.

One of the best scenes is when Mickey comes crawling to Rocky at the Italian Stallion's apartment asking to train him. Previously Mickey has considered Rocky nothing more than a bum and has even thrown all his stuff out of his locker. But with the World Heavyweight Champion Apollo Creed picking Rocky as his next opponent in a gimmick New Year's bout, Mickey tries to get a piece of the action. He spends lots of time selling himself, telling Rocky about his experiences years ago as a boxer. He even shows Rocky pictures. But all the time Rocky can't even look at him, and when Mickey is showing him his photo, he plays darts. It's quite a cruel scene, although you can understand Rocky's anger. Like he says, he needed Mick's help ten years ago.

But the scene gets even crueller. As Mickey is talking, Rocky goes to the toilet. Mickey speaks to the door and mentions that he's 76-years-old. We realise that this is his last chance at a title fight. But with Rocky still in the toilet, Mickey goes to leave the apartment. But as he's doing so, apparently thinking he's already gone, Rocky emerges from the loo. However, seeing that Mickey is still there, he turns around and walks back in. It's a real punch in the balls and we finally see how vulnerable Mickey is. And then when Mickey is walking down the stairs Rocky rants and raves about how his apartment stinks. It's actually an excellent piece of acting from Stallone and it's the one time that Rocky acts like a heel – even when he's trying to collect money as a heavy he's still pretty nice. But Rocky can't be mean for long and chases after Mick to presumably say sorry and ask him to be in his corner – filmed in a long shot, there's an excellent detail when Rocky finally catches up to the trainer; before Rocky embraces him, Mickey backs away like he's frightened. Despite how loud he is, he's still only a frail old man.

Another fabulous scene is the one at the ice rink. Yes it's goofy, but that's part of Rocky's charm. He's a lovable innocent, always talking and always dispensing incoherent advice. He even says that he and Adrian make a fine couple, what with him being dumb and her being shy – as Rocky puts it, they fill gaps; they make up for each other's shortcomings. And their scenes are always sweet and well performed.

There's only one scene where things turn a bit queasy and that's the scene where Rocky takes Adrian back to his place. Rocky shows off his muscles by stripping down to a wifebeater vest and Adrian mentions that she's never been alone in a man's apartment before. You kind of feel scared for the poor girl, what with this horny beefcake relentlessly coming onto her. The lovable Rocky suddenly seems a pit pushy and predatory. But eventually everything works out. However, in a later scene, the tables are turned. Rocky's training for his title fight and Adrian wants some sweet loving. She keeps on pestering the guy, determined to ruin his chances of performing well in his fight. I mean, as Mickey says, 'Women weaken legs.' Therefore Rocky has to briefly push her away – she can make up for her barren years after the fight.

The fight itself is what you'd expect from a Rocky film: enjoyable but silly. Sure it doesn't descend into the cartoon brutality of the later films, but you still have men pounding each other mercilessly for 15 rounds (boxers were real men in the 70s – none of this 12 rounds nonsense). But even though it can't compare to the fights in Raging Bull or subsequent boxing films, the ending is hard to beat. Rocky manages to stand toe to toe with the champion and not humiliate himself, and by refusing to stay down when he gets knocked to the floor in the 14th round, he finally proves his self-worth. Yeah he doesn't win the fight but he regains his self-respect, which is a major victory in itself.

And the ending with Rocky and Adrian embracing, and with the image paused at the greatest moment of Rocky's life, sweeps you off your feet and puts a massive smile on your face. Yes the Rocky films would subsequently go off into la-la land and any notion of reality would be smashed in the face, but at that moment the love of a good woman and the restoration of a man's spirit is a bigger victory than winning a boxing title. Of course Rocky didn't deserve to triumph over Taxi Driver at the Oscars, but I don't begrudge him his victory too much. Rocky is an underdog tale that wins you over with hard work and good old-fashioned working class charm.
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Modest gangster film (spoilers)
18 July 2008
Warning: Spoilers
On the brink of death an aged gangster bemoans the state of America. He sees that corporations are taking over and that the little man is being cut out. 'Where's the pride of ownership?' he wails. Damn soulless, faceless McDonald's are everywhere.

This might seem like quite an honourable concern. It sounds like the old man is grieving over the homogenisation of the modern world. But in reality the old man is only upset because it's nearly impossible to shake down large corporations. Shop owners are meant to be vulnerable and powerless. They're meant to pay him a cut of their earnings. But multinationals are far more powerful than the old man will ever be. It's impossible for him to get a piece of the action.

When the old man dies, Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) decides to take over his operations. But while the old man had reached the limit of his ingenuity and had become a relic, Frank sees where the business has to go. He has to become like the large corporations. He can't just sell random junk. That would earn him peanuts. Instead he decides to create a brand.

The heroin that Frank sells is called Blue Magic. It's purer than anything that's on the streets and it's cheaper too. And Frank can do this because he cuts out the middleman. He's both supplier and distributor. He's taken a leaf out of the corporation's book.

Another way that Frank is like the corporations is that he's highly protective of his brand. One drug dealer takes Blue Magic and cuts it up in order to try and make more money. But this reflects badly on the brand. It's no longer Blue Magic. Frank even says that his customers have a guarantee of quality when they buy his product. It's like he's talking about coffee rather than heroin.

What's notable is that like a good businessman, Frank does his best to stay as anonymous as possible. Occasionally he has to lay down the law and make a scene to get everyone in line, but otherwise he doesn't want to draw undue attention to himself. He just wants to blend in. However, he does have a moment of weakness. His wife buys him an expensive fur coat and hat. In a second he goes from anonymous-looking businessman to black gangster. And wearing this outlandish outfit to a boxing match, and getting the best seats in the house, he alerts himself to the cops – previously he flew under the radar. Suddenly he has the attention of both Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) and some bent cops led by Detective Trupo (Josh Brolin). And then on his wedding day, Trupo tries to shake down Frank for money. Frank's indulgence has cost him. It's exposed him and made him vulnerable. Therefore he burns the hat and coat while his bride sobs.

All of these details and all of these parallels between gangsters and corporations make American Gangster an interesting film, but it never really takes flight. In fact, visually it's surprisingly bland for a Ridley Scott film. He captures the grime and squalor of 70s Harlem well enough, but with his usual widescreen frame jettisoned, it feels more like television. The film is solid but unspectacular.

Of course, that's probably intentional. The film doesn't want to showboat. It wants to be a more gritty, realistic depiction of the drug trade. It doesn't want to have the glamour of The Godfather or Goodfellas. But this is still cinema and there's nothing that's really going to take your breath away.

Instead the film's pleasures are smaller. There's a nice scene where the wealthy Lucas family are sitting down to a sumptuous Thanksgiving meal and thanking god for all they have while junkies shoot up – we even see a child crying over a parent who has overdosed. This is the product that Frank pedals: misery. He makes himself fat over other people's weakness and stupidity.

But although this criticism is well made, you do occasionally feel that the film makes the mistake of liking Frank Lucas a little too much. Even though Scorsese's gangster films are more cinematic and therefore more seductive, Scorsese always stays objective – he knows these people are scum; therefore he just turns on the camera and lets them hang themselves. Scott, though, seems a little seduced. At the end, as Lucas cooperates with Richie, we see him laughing and smiling. Is the film trying to show us that deep down he's a decent guy? And there's also a heavy focus on police corruption in the film. Don't get me wrong. Corrupt police are just as bad as criminals such as Lucas. But you kind of get the feeling that the film is saying they're worse. Fact is, they're the same. The film shows that they all feed off one another. But although we get that one moment where we see junkies shooting up during Thanksgiving, the film soft pedals the misery Frank brought to the streets. He was a scumbag and instead he's made to look like a ruthless businessman who really had a decent heart underneath it all.

Another weakness is the familiarity of Richie's story – the cop who catches Lucas. His character has all the familiar beats – a failed marriage, a desire to be the one straight cop in the bad town, and the struggle to crack the ring. None of his scenes are bad, but you're constantly reminded of better movies such as The French Connection. And that's the problem with the whole film. As you watch it you're constantly reminded of better movies. The Godfather, Goodfellas and The French Connection all pop in your head and you realise that American Gangster can't hold a candle to any of them.
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Match Point (2005)
London Woody (spoilers throughout)
27 June 2008
Warning: Spoilers
When it came out, Match Point was touted as a return to form for Woody Allen. It was meant to be one of his best films. Instead it's something of a disappointment, mostly because the two main stars perform so badly. Time after time amateurish acting spoils a possibly good scene. Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Scarlett Johansson are completely out of their depth.

The worst scenes occur towards the end when the fiendish Meyers concocts a plan to kill his lover. They spend ages talking and arguing, and over and over again Scarlett, who's pregnant, tries to get Myers to leave his wife. But all Scarlett does is walk around, drinking and popping pills as she shrilly berates her beau, and Myers just tugs his hair and shouts. It's like a school play – the quality of acting is that poor.

But you have to wonder what Meyers sees in the woman. Yes she's physically attractive, but her character is spoiled, selfish and whiny. Therefore I celebrated her murder at the hands of Meyers like he'd won Wimbledon. She really did deserve to be put out of her misery, screeching like a harridan at every moment and falling for Meyers' lies.

I was just annoyed that Meyers didn't kill his wife as well, as she was just as bad, if not worse, than Scarlett. Played by Emily Mortimer she's a silly little rich girl who gets besotted by the handsome ex-tennis pro and is then arranging his life for him within a few minutes. She introduces him to her rich father, gets him a good job and tells him she wants a child. Meyers' life is being taken away from him. It's no longer his own.

But although at first Mortimer seems nice, she turns out to be just as manipulative as Scarlett and Meyers. There's one scene where she's talking with her friends about the holiday they're all going on, and then she mentions that she once gave Meyers an ancient Greek fertility charm and put it under his pillow for two months but that she still isn't pregnant. It's a subtle humiliation, one with a smile. And earlier Mortimer makes fun of Meyers when he orders modestly at a restaurant and then jokingly refers to his poor upbringing. She's not meant to be making fun, but she is. And then even earlier she condescendingly says that her father is proud of the way he dragged himself up against the odds, meaning that they're indirectly calling him gutter-trash. Therefore you can't blame Meyers for seeking solace in someone else's arms.

But unfortunately Meyers' misery is everlasting. He kills Scarlett and gets away with the crime, but as if this emotional torment isn't enough, he finally has a child with his wife and there's talk of having another. He's buried himself even deeper in his own private hell. An escape is even less likely, tied as he is to the money and comfort of his torpid lifestyle.

And of course its ironic that this good luck of getting away with the crime means that Meyers has plunged himself even deeper into his misery. Consequently you know that the opening and ending adage that its better to be lucky than good is complete baloney. Being lucky has done nothing for this person. It's just made his existence even more painful and depressing.

With all these themes running through the film and with all this meat to chew on, you'd think the film would be a pleasurable experience. But like I mentioned at the beginning, the poor acting spoils things. Apart from Meyers and Johansson, who are consistently disappointing, there are also the two cops at the end. They never convince. Although some of the blame should also be apportioned to the writing. The dialogue between the detectives is consistently hokey and there's even a moment where one of them sits up in his bed and proclaims to himself that he knows who did it. The corniness of it is overwhelming. I can't believe anyone in real life does that.

Allen is much better at writing the idle banter of the rich. The characters here have nothing to contribute to the world. They're all selfish. They're all scum. And in a lot of scenes there's an upper class desperation that rings true. But because the acting from the two leads is so bad it's hard to get swept away by the film. I certainly don't need to like characters in order to enjoy a movie, but they need to be able to convince me that they exist in some alternate reality. Here, though, I was consistently pulled out of the film.

An example of this is during the murder sequence. Meyers is skulking away in a stairwell and he hears a couple approaching. Fearing exposure, he hides in a corner. But watch his face. He suddenly pulls an incredibly camp expression. In that moment he looks like Kenneth Williams.

And then you have the first encounter between Scarlett and Meyers. Scarlett's attempt at being sexy is to just pout and stare. There's little else going on behind the eyes. She fails to inhabit the skin of a character. Instead she just seems to be going through the motions.

But even though Allen is crippled by his actors, he still manages to make the film reasonably enjoyable. It's nowhere near his best but it's certainly not among his worst. And there's also the novelty value of Allen filming in London. He has a bit of a tourist's eye and the characters live lifestyles that often seem beyond them – even if you do have loads of money, how much would it cost to have an apartment overlooking Parliament? – but it's good to see Allen try and stretch himself. He doesn't quite succeed, but with Meyers and Johansson cast in the central roles, I guess luck wasn't quite with him.
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Overnight (2003)
A Hollywood story with a happy ending
17 June 2008
Troy Duffy is an idiot. Just watch Overnight. In it he bullies film executives, record producers, band members and friends. But even worse than this, he thinks he's some sort of genius. He thinks he's a great musician and filmmaker.

Validating Duffy's delusion is the fact that Miramax buys his script for The Boondock Saints. Thinking he's the next Tarantino, they give him $300,000 for the script, they hand him the reigns to direct the movie (with a $15m budget), they allow him to produce the soundtrack with his band, he gets to approve casting and is allowed final cut, and the final part of the deal is that Miramax will buy his bar (prior to getting into film, he's a bartender and bouncer). It's a great deal. It's an amazing deal. It's a deal that's out of this world. Only a moron could screw it up.

Well, Troy Duffy is that moron. Given this great deal, he proceeds to abuse and alienate everyone around him. So much so that a film that initially starts out as a loving document to his talents ends up being a character assassination.

One of the first things we hear from Duffy's lips is that friendship is the most important thing in the world to him. Therefore one could assume that, despite the rough edges, he's an honourable guy. Nothing could be further from the truth. In one ball-shriving scene he refuses to pay his friends who had operated for a long time as the managers of his band. He says they don't deserve any money. His friends then point out all the time they spent managing the band – all the effort they put into it. Duffy then changes his mind and says that they do deserve the money. But at the same time he says he's still not going to give it to them. This he says to people who are in financial problems because of him. People who have broken their back for him.

But this actually isn't the first record deal that the band receives. Earlier on Maverick Records sign them up sight unseen. But just when you're slapping your head at the stupidity of Madonna's label, Duffy messes up and annoys them. He then rants and raves and says the label is scared. He says they're scared of how good the brood are. What the hell? If Duffy is right then he's saying that the label are scared of making lots of money? Yeah, makes perfect sense.

But eventually the band get signed to Atlantic Records, which leads to the argument over money with the former band managers (who, incidentally, are the makers of this documentary). The moment when the band is signing their contract and receiving their money in cash is pathetic. They're like dogs begging for scraps.

But thankfully the album has a happy ending. They only sell 690 copies…after being in stores for six months.

And yet earlier in the film, when they're recording, Duffy wonders why his fellow band members haven't been coming up to him and shaking his hand for securing the deal. He even says that the album isn't a group effort. He says it's all down to him – without him, there's nothing. So surely that means that the album's failure is his and his alone? Maybe his fellow band members should line up and take turns punching him in the face.

But Duffy's film fares just as well as his album. It's dumped in five theatres for one week and makes $25,000. It's pathetic even for him.

However, I'm sure Duffy would have lots of explanations for this. You see, after getting a great deal with Miramax, he proceeds to alienate them to such an extent with his bitching and moaning that they pull out. Therefore the film is financed independently. Of course this doesn't concern Duffy, who says that when the film is made and Miramax want back in, they can pay their way back in. But when it comes to selling the film, nobody wants a part of it. Most of the time I'd be appalled that a filmmaker could be blacklisted and that the industry would conspire against him, but here it makes me happy. Duffy is man who was given a great chance to prove himself. All he had to do was shut his mouth and get on with things. Instead he acted like a child and tried to throw his weight around. Hell, at one point, before he's even shot a foot of film or recorded one note of his album, he says that he's gone straight from a bartender and surpassed everyone – he's already right at the top. Only an idiot could think that way – don't you have to have produced something first to be at the top? Therefore the film's awful distribution deal had me grinning like a loon.

I'm also kind of amused by the way the makers of the documentary try and screw Duffy over. In one scene we see Duffy bemoan his ability to find a decent girl – he just wants to find a nice girl he can settle down with. We then cut to some sleazy footage of a drunk Duffy getting girls to show him their breasts. The film never tries to be objective and is all the more entertaining for it.

Unfortunately, though, there is a black cloud that hangs over me. The Boondock Saints became a cult hit. There are many people who love it. But just when I feel low I remember that Duffy isn't a profit participant in the cable and DVD sales – he just got a lump sum of money. Therefore Duffy doesn't make a cent out of the film's success in the home market. How brilliant is that?
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The Omega Man (1971)
Dated but reasonable fun (spoilers)
16 June 2008
I Am Legend suffered because the vampires from the novel were turned into badly rendered CGI zombie-type things. The Omega Man, on the other hand, suffers because the vampires are turned into albino Luddites. Yeah, that's right. Albino Luddites.

Maybe the image of white-faced, sunglass wearing monks sounds scary on paper, but on film it's somewhat humorous. Oh no, please spare me from the pasty-faced hoodies. Oh how they terrify me. But it also doesn't help that these so-called psychopaths (Heston's words) act like the Keystone Cops.

The Family, as they're called, first appear after Robert Neville (Heston) struggles to get home before nightfall. There he is parking his car when a hooded individual throws a lighted torch at him and drops down into his car. But no sooner do these clowns manage to mount a dirty sneak attack than they're being riddled with machine gun fire. They're incompetent.

The best example of The Family's incompetence is during the sequence when they try to burn Neville at Dodger Stadium. Somehow he gets free and escapes via motorbike. Cue The Family trying to stop him and then being blinded by flares and smoke bombs. It burns! It burns! But the scene where Heston is going to be burnt at the stake is a good example of the heavy-handed Christian imagery that permeates the film. You see, germ warfare wipes out mankind during a conflict between China and Russia. All that's left are Heston (the last man on Earth), the albino Luddites who are infected and dying, and infected humans who appear normal but will eventually become albino Luddites. So therefore The Family takes it upon itself to burn Neville for mankind's sins. He'll sacrifice himself for a purer world, one free of the evils of technology. But would you believe it, even though he's tied to a cross like Jesus, he gets free.

Then there's the film's final image. At the end, the head of The Family spears Neville and he slowly dies in a fountain, soaking in his own blood. And he dies while in the crucifixion pose. Neville is the world's saviour. With the vaccination he makes, he promises to resurrect mankind, thus making him a divine figure.

In one scene an infected but still normally functioning girl even asks Neville whether he's god. He laughs it off. But to all intents and purposes, he is. He's the one who has the power over life and death. He chooses who lives and who doesn't. He's both saviour and destroyer, much like the Christian god of the Old Testament.

But although it's nice that all of this stuff is included in the film, it doesn't rescue it from mediocrity. Sure it has some good ideas, but a lot of the film is uninspired or just poorly made.

The opening sequence, for instance, which sees Neville driving around a deserted city is rendered laughable by the ridiculously cheery music. Here we have the end of the world and it's...jazzy. There's no threat. There's no feeling of despair or doom. It just indicates that this is going to be a jaunty, run of the mill 70s B-movie adventure. The score dates the film horribly.

And then in the opening there's a moment when Neville gets himself a new car. He goes into a dealership, and after removing the calendar that taunts him with the promise of female flesh, we see the rotting skeleton of someone who worked in this place. It should be a jarring moment. It should be scary. But the film merrily goes on about its way, reassuring us that this is just going to be a bit of fluff.

The only real moment of terror in the film is the existential terror Neville feels when he suddenly hears every payphone ringing as he wanders the lonely streets. This is the sort of thing I wish the film would focus on – Neville is losing his mind and he's hearing things that aren't there. But although there are a few nice little details in the film, the feeling of desperation and isolation is immediately lost when The Family turn up so quickly. Plus they're far too human. Yeah they're a bit mad, talking like religious zealots, but you see worse on the Tube.

Also detracting from the feeling of dread are the infected people who haven't gone mad yet. They pretty quickly relieve Neville of his loneliness. And the scene where Neville first encounters another normal person is unintentionally amusing. Neville walks around a clothes shop full of mannequins and then begins to hear something. When he turns around a new mannequin has arrived – there's a black girl with a large afro pretending to be still. I guess if it were done right it could be quite creepy, but instead with the girl not being very good at keeping still it looks like the end of every Police Squad episode.

Another disappointing element is Neville's relationship with The Family. When he kills three of them he talks of an 'end game' and of them losing three pawns. Therefore you get the feeling that the whole thing is a game to Neville – The Family might be trying to kill him, but he needs them in order to remain functional; even though they attack his house every night and even though he has a huge machine gun on the roof, to kill the whole Family would finally render his life pointless and aimless. But although all of this is there, it soon gives way to goofy action scenes and a tedious love story – no sooner have Chuck and the black girl escaped a deadly Luddite attack than they're rolling on the floor with Heston joking that he might have forgotten how to make love. Interesting plot elements continually and repeatedly make way for the familiar action/adventure beats.
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First and still the best (spoilers)
2 June 2008
Raiders of the Lost Ark is an action masterpiece. There's not one bit of fat on its bones. There's not one wasted moment. It flows exactly like an adventure movie should – it continually moves forward, breathlessly driving you towards the conclusion; it's incredible fun.

The reason why the film works so well is because the script is so tight. The exposition is clear and well delivered, meaning that you know precisely what's at stake, small character details are set up early on and paid off later and the dialogue is incredibly pithy. It's a masterclass in film writing.

However, this would mean nothing if all the other elements didn't come together. Thankfully they do. Spielberg's direction is superb, Harrison Ford is perfect as the hero, Karen Allen is wonderful as the heroine and the music is out of this world. Plus the action is kick ass.

My favourite action scene is the fight with Pat Roach by the plane. Quite unusually for a film hero, Indy doesn't mind fighting dirty. He kicks Roach in the balls, he throws sand in his face and he even bites him. Indy doesn't have to win a fight fairly. And it's also unusual for a film hero to be so vulnerable. We rarely see anyone get a scratch or put in any real jeopardy. But here Indy gets his arse handed to him. The only reason he survives is because he's so wily – after getting beaten and bruised for a while he leads Roach into getting chopped up by the plane's rotor blades.

My second favourite action sequence is when Indy chases after the Ark and recovers it by hijacking a Nazi truck. After the CGI mess of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, it's great to see old-fashioned stunts. It's a much better way of letting you get absorbed by the action – even though you know it's a film, you know someone actually had to do this, making everything much more impressive to watch. The best stunt is when Indy is thrown through the front window and has to pull himself along the bottom of the truck. He manages to do this and then hooks his whip under the bottom so that he's dragged along the ground. He then manages to get back on the truck and back in the cabin. It's a joy to behold and allows you to immerse yourself in the action.

Another great thing about the sequence is that once again we're shown Indy's vulnerability. As he's driving he gets shot in the arm. And then later a guy punches him in his injured arm and throws him out of the truck. Therefore when Indy comes back and beats the crap out of this guy, it's doubly satisfying, because not only is the guy a damn Nazi, but he also had the audacity to try and injure our hero. And the blood and guts reminds me of how gritty the film is. Not only do we have Indy getting shot in the arm and then having the wound beaten, but earlier on a guy gets shot in the face – lots of blood pours down from the hole in his skull. Oh, and he's also on fire. Excellent.

But as well as this there's also stuff that is just plain over the top. The melting faces for instance and Belloq's head exploding. This scared the hell out of me as a kid and I'm still amazed that stuff like this was included in a 'kids' film.

However, the scene that terrified me the most as a kid was the scene where Marion gets mugged by skeletons and we then see a large snake oozing from a skull's mouth. I was so traumatised I refused to watch the film for years. But now the vague horror element is another reason I adore the movie. It sets it apart from almost every action/adventure film that came before it and nothing else has managed to better it, even subsequent Indiana Jones films.

But watching the film now it's quite unusual to note that Indy doesn't kill any of the three main villains. They're all killed by the Ark. Indy instead just closes his eyes and lets 'god' do the rest. It's a strange ending but one that works perfectly. Indy isn't a killing machine. He's someone trying to do the right thing. And at the end he's rewarded by, well, not having his face melted off.

Another reason why Raiders stands out is because of its heroine. She's one of the best in modern cinema – a tough woman who constantly shows her toughness without having to resort to ridiculous feats of physicality. We don't see her pummel men who are twice her size, but we do see her out smart them and drink them under the table. As well as this she has great chemistry with Indy. For instance, there's the marvellous scene where she tries to look after our injured hero and he cries like a girl every time she touches him. He then points out a few places where it doesn't hurt, which she kisses. It's a lovely scene. And I also like the bit of slapstick humour earlier where Indy gets a mirror smashed in his face when Marion turns it over.

This leads me to another reason why Raiders is brilliant. It's very funny. You have a monkey giving a Nazi salute, Indy nonchalantly shooting a swordsman, Sallah's cowardly reactions at the Well of Souls and the Gestapo man plunging his hand in the snow after he gets it burnt while trying to grab an extremely hot bronze medallion. The humour is great.

And on top of all of this cinematic goodness – the humour, the action, the adventure – you have one of the best opening sequences in film. It's a bravura piece of film-making – everything clicks perfectly.
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The corruption of the American dream (spoilers)
30 May 2008
Warning: Spoilers
If you had to list America's two main obsessions you'd probably whittle it down to money and religion. Both seem to consume the American soul – the pursuit of monetary gain and the need for spiritual enlightenment. But if there were to be a battle between the two for America's heart, which would win? The battle between Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) could be viewed as America's internal struggle between commerce and religion. Sure in modern America both co-exist, but despite that there's still a conflict. In the darkest corners rampant greed and fundamentalism still want to take hold.

Of course Daniel represents the commercial side of America – the one that wants to possess its body, who wants to own everything. Eli on the other hand represents the form of evangelism that wants to possess everyone's minds, who wants people to look upon him as god on Earth. Needless to say, with these two conflicting personalities sharing the same space there's going to be fireworks.

A wonderful scene early on in the film is when Eli turns up at Daniel's office and tells him that he's going to bless the well. He doesn't even ask, he merely dictates everything he's going to say and do, most of it incredibly self-important. Daniel sits there and politely agrees, but when it comes to the blessing, he completely ignores Eli and does it himself. It's a monumental slap in the face, but one which is done with a velvet glove – only Daniel and Eli are aware of what was supposed to happen; as far as everyone else in concerned, the ceremony went off without a hitch.

But then to illustrate the way that the conflict ebbs and flows, later on Daniel has to come crawling to Eli so that he can say a few words at a funeral – one of his men, who attended Eli's church, dies while working. You can see the sheer contempt Daniel has for Eli as the preacher rants and raves, and when they talk Daniel makes it clear that the church needs him. Without Plainview and his men, the well won't produce and 'blow gold all over the place'. In other words, the church better know what side their bread is buttered on.

However, even though at one point Daniel slaps Eli around and drags him through oilfields for being a fraud who can't cure his son's deafness, Eli Sunday still won't be put in his place. He seizes on the opportunity to make Daniel bow before him – Daniel needs to use some land and the owner of the land make it a condition that Daniel be blessed by the church. Eli returns Daniel's violence by slapping him and casting evil spirits out of him. But worse than that he gets Daniel to scream that he abandoned his child. This is the one thing that really annoys him. But it's notable that even though Daniel has had to humiliate himself, once the ordeal is done he can't help but smile. He has the land and he can now finish making a pipeline that will ensure his wealth. He cares more about money than he does his child – it's a grimly comic moment.

The final scene between Daniel and Eli sees a kind of role reversal. The money from his church squandered, Eli comes to Daniel begging for help. Daniel agrees to help him, but only if Sunday stands up and declares himself to be a false prophet and that god is a superstition. He makes Eli say it over and over again and louder and louder, until he finally admits that he can't help Eli, that the land Eli wants Daniel to buy has already been drained dry. We then have the infamous milkshake scene and Daniel clubs Eli to death with a bowling pin. It's quite a comic scene, and one that threatens to become ridiculous – Dano overacts, Day-Lewis shouts 'drainage' at the top of his lungs and Plainview dances and waves his straw around – but it ends up being a suitably silly ending to a rather silly conflict. The pull of soulless greed and soulless fundamentalism should strike anyone as childish – both are concerned with an overwhelming simplicity of thought. Therefore it's quite apt that these people should meet their end while chasing each other around a bowling alley.

But despite this, if there's a winner in this conflict, it's Daniel. Therefore the film kind of suggests that as far as America goes, commerce will triumph over religion. And it makes sense, as religion is often dependant on the generosity of businessmen. Religion needs commerce more than commerce needs religion.

The most telling moment in the film is when the well is on fire. Daniel celebrates because there is an ocean of oil under his feet. But when someone asks whether his son is okay – he gets knocked on his head by the gusher – he casually says he's not. Nothing is going to get in the way of Plainview making a fortune. This is all that he cares about. This is all he's focused on. Everything else is window dressing. His son, his clothes and his plain words present an acceptable image for the outside world; one that masks the soul-destroying greed. And it's an image that America still presents to the outside world. As a country it says that it cares, but like Plainview it ends up taking more than it gives back. Therefore the initially jarring music at the beginning is entirely appropriate. This is almost a horror film. A marvellous ode to avarice and the corruption of the American dream.
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Poltergeist (1982)
This film is ass (spoilers)
30 May 2008
Warning: Spoilers
In times past, religion was considered the opiate of the masses. Now, though, television seems to have taken its place. All throughout the land grown men fall asleep to its warm, comforting glow and children everywhere suckle on its electronic teat. The idiot box has taken over our lives.

Poltergeist begins with the 'Star-Spangled Banner' ringing comfortingly from a suburban television set as a middle-class father respires gently in the living room. Yes, it's the TV that is the centre of this family, not the man snoring in an armchair.

At first the Freeling family is kind of amused by the fact that their daughter talks to the television set and that weird forces are present that move furniture. But just when the family thinks the phenomena is harmless, a tree attacks their son and a closet eats their daughter.

It must be said that the special effects for the tree attack are simply atrocious. Yes you have to bear in mind the fact that the film was produced in the early 80s, but still, there's very little horror to be had when you can clearly see that the tree is made out of rubber – it wobbles like mad. And it also doesn't help that the dialogue is atrocious. A young child is being sucked up by a tree and it's going to eat him and the child screams, 'It's taking me in!' I don't know about you, but if I were about to be devoured by a woody plant I'd be screaming in a series of grunts. I wouldn't be very precisely describing what was happening like it was a minor annoyance.

Another abysmal piece of effects work occurs when a group of paranormal investigators are trying to help the Freeling family. One guy wanders the house at night and sees a piece of meat crawl along the kitchen work surface. It then opens up and maggots crawl out. Disgusted, he goes to the toilet and then sees his face becoming distorted like the meat. He then rips his face off, flesh coming apart in handfuls. Really this should be a scary scene, but it just looks ridiculous. The face-melting scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark is infinitely more effective.

But the film really does fail quite spectacularly in trying to be scary. There's one bit where through a bit of nonsense the mother has to go into another dimension to rescue her child who is trapped between worlds. In order to do this she has to go into the closet while attached to a bit of rope that her husband holds. So the husband holds onto the rope as she disappears and then from within the closest comes a massive skull. It's meant to be a frightening physical manifestation of the evil force that is holding this family hostage, but instead it just looks like a gnarly skull a marijuana-sozzled Ozzy Osbourne fan would worship. Confronted by this fearsome sight you could imagine this fan getting on his knees, venerating it with the devil horns finger salute and rhythmically banging his greasy, lice-infested head.

Then there's the infamous clown scene. Now I know a lot of people have an irrational clown fear. Somehow they fail to appreciate the belly laughs that strange men with white painted faces, freakishly bright hair and silly clothes generate. They don't see the warmth, the love and the benevolence that resides within. But still, the clown doll in this film is insane. It leers at the children like an inanimate psychopath. Quite why any parent would buy it, I don't know. But despite all of this the scene is just silly. The toy strangles the child and drags him under the bed and then the child beats it up. Maybe if you're ten or you've never embraced clown love, it's a crapathon, but otherwise it's just kind of amusing. But poor kid, eh? First a tree tries to kill him and then a toy clown wants him dead. Have a nice life, pal. Don't spend too much on therapy.

But even though we're meant to feel sorry for this family, I can't help but wonder whether they had their tree/skull/clown apocalypse coming. We see the mother smoking pot while the father avidly reads a book about Ronald Reagan. Yes, you took your hippie ethos and got into bed with a monkey-loving, gay-hating, astrology-fixated nincompoop. Congratulations, you're middle-class, conformist scum.

And there's also a scene where the youngest child is watching the static on TV. The mother comes along and says it's bad for her eyes and switches over to a war film. Yes, violence is much better for a child's eyes.

But the criticism of Reagan's America goes further. The father sells houses for a corporate scumbag who moves graveyards to make way for housing. But to make it even worse, we find out that the family's house is itself on the site of an old graveyard. The only problem is that only the headstones were moved – the skeletons were left in place, hence the bad vibes.

The end of the film sees the family booking into a Holiday Inn and then moving the television out of the room. The lesson to be learned? Corporate greed is bad and you shouldn't let television bring up your children.

But although it's nice that a horror film has a message, it's a shame that the film is so poor. The film is devoid of scares and most of it makes little sense. Plus it features a wise midget with a strong Southern accent who supposedly gets rid of all the bad vibes only for the clown doll to go mental when she's gone. I hope the Freelings sued her tits off, the useless, ghost-obsessed, midget charlatan. 'This house is clean' my ass.
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The new worst Indiana Jones film (spoilers)
30 May 2008
Warning: Spoilers
I used to think that The Temple of Doom was the weak link in the Indiana Jones series – it just couldn't hold a candle to Raiders and Last Crusade. But despite this, I still enjoyed Temple of Doom a lot. But now an Indy film has come along that steals Temple of Doom's crown as the worst in the series. But this time the film is terrible.

My hopes for The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull were never set exceptionally high. But despite that, I was still eager to see the latest instalment. Now, though, I wish no one involved had bothered. This is the story that everyone had been waiting so long for? This is the great script that finally got the next Indy film made? It's awful. It's bland, by the numbers nonsense. It has no heart, no wit and the plot makes absolutely no sense. Half the time I had no idea what was going on, which is an absolute travesty, as Indiana Jones films should be simplicity to watch – the exposition was always expertly handled in previous films.

But no, in this film it's never really clear what's happening. Okay, there's a crystal skull, some tombs and a lost city? And some Soviet woman wants knowledge or something? Alright. But the dots are never clearly joined up, the motivations make little sense and you never really get the feeling that anything is at stake.

Maybe this would be okay if you could immerse yourself in the action, or if the script was funny or if you cared about the secondary characters, but the people in this film feel like a bunch of waxworks and the action is a CGI blur.

Before the film came out, Spielberg and Lucas said they'd rely on old-fashioned movie techniques for the action. They lied. They lied big. The action here rarely feels authentic. Instead it has the dull, hazy sheen of pixels. One of the worst offenders is the sword fight between LaBeouf and Blanchett. Its computer game stuff – the characters jousting on the back of a couple of military vehicles as a CGI jungle whizzes past. It's further proof that just because you can do something, doesn't mean you should.

Part of the joy of the previous films is that the filmmakers knew exactly where to draw the line. A five-minute dust-up by a plane that's going to explode because it's leaking fuel? Great. A fight on the back of a tank? Excellent. And even when the films went completely over the top – jumping from a plane on a dinghy – it at least looked real; physical effects and physical stunts were used. But the chase in the jungle just looks fake, as does the lost city and everything in the appalling final sequence.

But it's worth noting that the sequences that work best are the ones that try and make things as real as possible. For instance, there's an excellent motorcycle chase – it has a couple of great stunts. The opening piece of action also has a couple of enjoyable moments. But contrast this with the stupid CGI ants and the ridiculous river escape – if it's not bad enough that a tree catches a vehicle that flies off the edge of a cliff, you have to swallow the fact that a group of people survive three massive waterfall drops; this film takes the worst excesses of the previous films and builds upon them to a ridiculous extreme.

But the film gets stupider than this. In one scene Shia LaBeouf swings through trees with monkeys. And earlier Indy escapes an atomic explosion by hiding himself in a lead-lined fridge. You keep on asking yourself what's going on. Have Spielberg and Lucas forgotten what makes an Indiana Jones film? Another big disappointment in this film was Karen Allen. She was wonderful in Raiders, but here she isn't given a chance to shine. Sure she gets a couple of amusing moments, but that's it.

The same can be said for the relationship between Mutt (LaBeouff) and Indy. We find out that they're father and son. But aside from a couple of amusing quips about school there's nothing there.

However, one of the funniest scenes in the film revolves around this strange family. There's a scene where Indy and Marion (Allen) get stuck in quick sand. Mutt pulls out his mother and then tosses what looks like a rope to Indy. Only it's a snake. It's one of the few scenes in the film that is laugh out loud funny.

Back to the disappointments, though.

Cate Blanchett is wasted in this film. She's meant to be the main villain and yet she does very little that is despicable. This means that you're indifferent to her. Ray Winstone is also given very little to play with. His character keeps changing sides, meaning that his presence comes over as something of an annoyance. But worst of all, John Hurt is made to just roll his eyes and shamble along. You wonder why an actor of his stature is playing such a miserable part.

But the worst thing about the film is the nonsensical ending. Okay, a crystal skull is plonked on the head of some alien skeleton (sorry, 'inter-dimensional being' - just have the guts to call it an alien, Lucas and Spielberg) and then it comes to life and melts Cate Blanchett, and then we see a flying saucer spinning. It's atrocious. Again, the joy of the previous films is that the supernatural element is delicately handled. Here it just slaps you around the head with a beefy fist. Plus all the previous films had a religious, philosophical bend to them. This is just standard, sci-fi BS, stuff that feels completely out of place in the world of Indiana Jones.
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Weakest of the lot so far, but still good (spoilers)
13 May 2008
Warning: Spoilers
You've got to wonder whether Temple of Doom is a reference to Kate Capshaw, as her character in this film is abominable – she plays a screaming, squealing, pouting tart, a woman who would have most men running for the hills and devoting themselves to a lifetime of man love. But Indiana Jones isn't a mere mortal. He puts up with this silly bint and then later embraces her. I just hope the sex was worth it.

Of course, according to Willie Scott (the character Capshaw plays), she's most certainly worth it. In one scene, where Indy and Willie are deciding who's going to swallow their pride and make the first move for a night of sweet, sweet love, she says to herself that she could have been his greatest adventure. Yeah, the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail kind of pale in comparison to getting between the sheets of some bimbo.

But as annoying as she is in this film, maybe Kate Capshaw's character serves some purpose. Without her the film would be pretty grim, as Temple of Doom is unrelentingly dark.

The image I always think of when I think of Temple of Doom is of the man having his heart ripped out. Okay, this is a kid's film and a man is having his heart ripped out and he's being sacrificed and then we see the main bad guy laughing as the man's heart beats in his hand and catches fire. This is the stuff of nightmares.

Other crazy stuff in this film includes children being whipped by burly psychos, blood being poured down the neck of Indiana Jones via a scary looking skull with a nasty tongue lolling out of it and crocodiles tearing people to shreds. No wonder it prompted the MPAA to create the PG-13 rating.

But the darkness isn't a drawback. In fact, the darkness is what saves it. Otherwise it's just kind of silly. And yes, it's meant to be lightweight genre film, but it doesn't have the excitement of Raiders of the Lost Ark or the heart of Last Crusade. So therefore the horror elements are what keep me going back to the film.

That being said, even though the action isn't anywhere near as good as the action in Raiders, I do love a couple of the sequences. The scene with the spikes coming from the ceiling is fantastic – it's full of tension, yet it's also incredibly funny. In particular I like Indy's berating of Willie for not being able to help him properly. In order to save them she has to pull a lever, but because it's full of bugs she's understandably reluctant to do it. So as she dithers we first see Indy shaking his fist at her through a small hole, and then Harrison Ford mugs like crazy for the camera as he says, 'We are going to die.' It's a line delivery that has made me laugh since I was ten.

Another very enjoyable sequence is the opening teaser. We see Indy bargaining with some hoods as he tries to sell a valuable antique to them. He eventually makes a sale and then celebrates by having a drink. We then find out that the drink is poisoned and that the vial one of the hoods is holding contains the antidote. First off, I love the silliness of the revolving table. Secondly, it cracks me up that Indy has a sidekick who gets killed in ten seconds. But most of all I love the fact that the villains carry an antidote with them. Surely if you're going to poison someone, you want to keep any antidote about a million miles away. You don't want to give them a chance to live. But no, like fools they bring it along and wave it in Indy's face. Oh, and another thing. I love the fact that one of the hoods gets killed when Indiana Jones spears him with a flaming kebab skewer. Shish kebab anyone?

And this leads to the magnificently silly sequence on the plane where the pilots jump out and leave our heroes alone without any parachutes – I love the way that the pilot, as he's making his way out of the plane as the heroes sleep, cackles to himself and the way that the co-pilot dithers. And then you have the way that Indy and co jump out of an aeroplane on an inflatable dingy, and the way that it doesn't turn over in midair. It's ridiculous and over the top, but it's done with such gusto that you can't help but fall for it (pun not intended).

The other action sequences are fun, but they're not quite as good. I mean, during the minecart sequence I'm always thinking to myself, 'why would you build a roller-coaster?' when you're trying to find some scared stones. For some reason, in that sequence, I can't suspend my disbelief. And the bridge sequence is pretty good, too, even though it's far from being the best set-piece. In particular I like the way that Mola Ram sacrifices his own men in a bid to escape – when he's climbing the broken bridge he ruthlessly rips his men free and feeds them to the crocodiles. What a guy.

But on the other hand there are things that annoy. The little Maharaja is prissy beyond belief. My ears bleed every time I hear him say, 'This will never happen again in my kingdom.' And the bug dinner is on the wrong side of stupid.

But one tiny thing still pleases me all these years on. Listen to one of the villager's voices – the underling of the head villager. The man who says, 'They took the stones from here.' It sounds like he's been inhaling helium. Having watched the film loads of times on TV and video, it still fascinates me.
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Ratatouille (2007)
Charming but not great (spoilers)
13 May 2008
Warning: Spoilers
As well made and as well written as Ratatouille is, there's also something rather uninspiring about it. It doesn't have the emotional heft of Monsters Inc. or Finding Nemo, it isn't as funny as Toy Story and it isn't as exciting as The Incredibles. Instead it's a tasteful film that evaporates from one's memory as quickly as a mediocre meal. There isn't much in this film to sink your teeth into.

Perhaps the most disappointing thing about Ratatouille is its lack of laughs. After all, this is a comedy first and foremost. Therefore it's not a great sign when you only laugh out loud once.

The scene that got this response involved the scummy Chef Skinner. He begins to see rats and he's growing increasingly paranoid about his ability to control the restaurant. So he speaks to a confidant about his fears and starts clicking his fingers, going, 'Ooh, it's here', pretending to see the rodent everywhere. It's marvellously silly, something that's actually a rare commodity in a highly controlled film.

The problem that this high level of control has is that you can see almost everything coming. At the beginning you know that Remy the rat is going to be separated from his family and that he'll have to discover himself. You also know that he'll face challenges and strike up an alliance with a fellow outcast. And you know that near the end something bad will happen so that he has a challenge to overcome in the final act. You also know, because the guys at Pixar are smart, that Remy will succeed in the end but that his victory will be on a personal rather than grandiose scale. Consequently you see all the beats coming – there's nothing here that's going to take you by surprise.

That isn't necessarily a problem. Predictability needn't diminish a film's power to entertain. But the stuff that connects the beats is hardly top-drawer material. It's very run of the mill.

Which is a shame when a film is as technically accomplished as Ratatouille is. The animation is beautiful and the Paris that is presented here is gorgeous – there are some absolutely stunning panoramic shots and the scene between Remy and Linguini by the Seine drips with atmosphere. I also adored Remy's expressions – the rat can't actually talk with humans, instead he has to nod or shrug his shoulders, and it was always clear what he was trying to say.

Another superb piece of animation is when a sleeping Linguini is cooking. You see, this kid can't cook to save his life, and Remy the rat who can cook very well isn't allowed in the restaurant because, well, he's a rat, so they develop a technique where Remy sits on Linguini's head (under his hat) and by pulling on his hair he's somehow able to coordinate the boy. Well, there's a scene where Remy is doing this while Linguini is asleep. But the kid has sunglasses on, so one of his work colleagues doesn't realise that she's talking to someone who's asleep – the gormless expressions and twitchy body movements are a joy to watch.

But this puppeteering does make you wonder once or twice. There's a romantic sup-plot between Linguini and the film's only female cook. But the kid only kisses the girl because Remy is pulling his hair and controlling his body. Would Linguini know how to kiss otherwise? And there's a scene where Linguini and his girlfriend ride off on her motorbike. Somehow, in the heat of it all, Remy loses his grip on his pal and the couple ride off alone. Is the kid able to perform without his master rat puppeteer? Well, that's probably a yes, as the couple remain together until the end of the film.

One thing that's immediately clear when watching Ratatouille is how good Pixar are at action. All the action scenes are flawless. My favourite is the scene where an old lady spots Remy in her house and begins trying to shoot him. She shoots her house up so much that the ceiling comes crashing down. But then we see that hundreds of rats have fallen down and they're staring at her. It's beautifully timed. And the action that follows where the old lady shoots at the rats from a bridge as they try and make a river escape is impeccable as well.

And then there's the scooter chase, where the evil chef Skinner chases our hero. It's fabulous. But at the same time you kind of get the feeling that it's a little tacked on. The film knows it hasn't had an action scene in a while, so it throws one in just in case anyone has nodded off.

But it's the attempts to keep everyone entertained with action and conflict and all the plot points tied up that make Ratatouille more ordinary than it should be. The need to have a story with twists and turns detracts from the sweetness of the film. Because the film is all about doing your best – it's about pursuing your dream and not giving up. But although the end of the film is lovely, I kind of felt that I didn't deserve to feel as warm and fuzzy as I did – I didn't think the film had earned this response; the end is great, but the rest is so-so.

But speaking of the ending, I do like the way that Remy succeeds on his own terms. It would be too silly for him to become a famous Parisian chef, admired and respected by all. But the fact that he eventually has his own place and does his own thing is a good lesson for all – celebrity or fame should never be anyone's goal; instead you should pursue pleasure and contentment. That's the road to self-fulfilment and happiness.
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Control (2007)
A little too controlled
7 April 2008
There's no doubt that a dead singer will do wonders for a band's reputation. Just take Joy Division. Yes, they produced some excellent music, but quite a bit of it was incredibly mediocre. But because their lead singer killed himself they've obtained a glamour and an allure that they never would have possessed had they continued to make music under that banner.

And part of the reason why Joy Division are so well regarded is because people can claim Ian Curtis as an example of the tortured artist. He's a man who suffered so much in life that death was the only answer. But that would be an incredibly shallow way of looking at things. Curtis was certainly a talented artist, but he wasn't peerless. And for all of people's romantic notions about Curtis, his suicide could have a rather simple explanation – maybe he had a negative reaction to the medication he took for his epilepsy.

And I think that would make his story more tragic. To have someone's life and career wasted because of something as banal as a chronic condition or a combination of pills is a lot sadder than someone taking their life because they were selfish and self-absorbed. Because that's what Curtis is. He's a man who marries his childhood sweetheart, who fronts a successful band and who later has an affair with an attractive Belgian artist. If he wanted to grab it, he could have everything. But instead he wallows in self-pity. He feels like his band is getting too big. He loves his wife but she stifles him. And he loves his girlfriend but she's too adoring. Therefore it's kind of hard to feel sorry for this man. But despite his cruelty, there's still a part of you that feels for him. Life is never as simple as 'you should be happy with what you've got' and people's feelings are often beyond their control. And with Curtis this is made worse when he has to suffer from seizures and the side-effects of his medication. He's a bastard, but deep down you feel there's a decent guy struggling to get out.

The end of the film suggests that it was Curtis' epilepsy that pushed him over the edge. We see him have a seizure and then he wakes up and kills himself, apparently unable to deal with his condition. But of course we'll never know what exactly happened that day. And we also never really know what Curtis is thinking. But this isn't a fault of the film. It's mainly to do with the man. For all his songs and all his writing, you get the feeling that nobody is ever really able to penetrate the surface.

But although you can't fault the film for not providing more answers, it can certainly be faulted for being too timid. The film doesn't tell us that Curtis briefly flirted with fascism, that he took his first overdose at 15, that he dictated to his wife what she could and couldn't wear and that he threw wine over her when she danced with another man at their engagement party. It's a watered down version of Ian Curtis.

The film can also be faulted for never really capturing the excitement of the band's performances. The film is beautifully shot, but the musical sequences never really take flight. And this can't be attributed to the actors, who do a great job. Instead it's a fault of the direction. It's too static.

But while the filming style doesn't benefit the musical sequences, it works for the rest of the film. It makes you feel like you're looking at images in a magazine. You're part of this world and part of this story, but you're removed from it too. It's real but it's unreal as well. After all, Macclesfield only looks this beautiful on film. And that's the way we want it. We don't really want reality to conflict with the images in our head – we want some part of the myth to remain; that our heroes come from a different world, a world we can see but that we can't really touch.

My favourite image in the film is the one at the end. We see smoke rising out of a chimney in a graveyard – Curtis is being cremated. He's being liberated from the life he felt he couldn't deal with. And although it maybe romanticises his death too much, it finally provides a level of emotion that was lacking elsewhere in the film. The man who existed in real life wasn't a particularly nice person, a man who sometimes treated his wife abysmally, but he was also a man occasionally capable of scaling heights of creativity. And it's that talent that you end up mourning more than the man.

However, although the subject matter would suggest that the film makes for grim viewing, it's also quite funny in places. In particular I like the scene where the Crispy Ambulance frontman has to replace Curtis and face the wrath of the crowd. And that reminds me of how much I like the band's manager, Rob Gretton. When he introduces himself to the band he plays it big. But then in the next scene we see him in his underwear, answering a payphone by saying, 'Rob's Records'. It's a nice way of showing how ramshackle the whole scene was. And of course you have Tony Wilson signing his contract with Joy Division in blood. But although all of this is great, it did remind me of how much better 24 Hour Party People is. Yes they're different stories, but Winterbottom's film, even in the brief amount of time Curtis gets in that movie, manages to scale higher levels of emotion and invention. I just think Control, as good as it is, is a little too conservative, something Curtis wasn't...even if he briefly was a Tory voter.
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Get Carter (2000)
A toothless remake (spoilers)
7 April 2008
Warning: Spoilers
I'm not one of these people that claim their childhood has been raped when a favourite film has been remade by the greedy Hollywood cash machine. I don't cry myself to sleep at the thought of Marky Mark battling apes or Vince Vaughn dressing up as a lady. But the remake of Get Carter is just bizarre. It's like everyone involved has agreed that the original is a fantastic film and then they've decided to ignore or change everything that made it great.

However, the film makes numerous attempts to ingratiate itself to fans of the original. The film opens with the wonderful Roy Budd theme tune. But then it all goes wrong. This stylish music suddenly becomes a techno abomination, a supposed sign of modernity that can only have most right-thinking individuals reaching for the nearest sharpened pencil in which to stab their eardrums with.

And then there's the title sequence. In a nod to the original we see Jack Carter on a train travelling to his hometown to find out who killed his brother. But although in the original it made sense that Jack would be taking a train ride, here I can't help but wonder why Carter just didn't take a plane. Surely someone who has mob connections and a high income would rather fly to Seattle from Las Vegas. But no, the film wants to pay homage to the original, even though all the time it's urinating on its head.

One of the most shocking things about this Get Carter is how toothless it is. The original is a gritty, relentlessly violent tale of retribution. This on the other hand is a limp revenge tale full of self-growth. I really wanted to vomit during the scene where Carter and his niece talk things over and help one another grow as human beings. Yes, mobsters make great self-help gurus and grief counsellors. What's that, you father's dead and you starred in a sleazy bit of porno? Don't worry, Uncie Carter the murderer will make everything better. There, there child.

But one of the most unforgivable things is the casting of Alan Cumming. Sure I can never truly hate him as he was Boris in GoldeEye, but every single performance since then has been awful. He's just incapable of being anything other than a cartoon. And while that might be appropriate for X-Men or a Bond movie, it certainly doesn't fit with a supposedly gritty crime thriller. I mean, there's a scene at the end when Carter is going to kill him where he's wearing a bucket hat – one of the film's main villains looks like Reni out of The Stone Roses. And during the scene at the end he cries like a girl, his voice becoming so high-pitched that he must have had several clipboard clips attached to his testicles. Just shoot him, I begged Stallone. But no, Carter makes this simpering fool get on his knees and then unloads a magazine beyond his head before telling the moron that he's going to give him a second chance. Screw that. Splatter his brains all over the ground.

Compare this compassion to the original where Carter kills everyone who gets in his way. All of the people who were complicit in his brother's death are ruthlessly despatched. Plus there's the possibility that his brother's daughter is in fact Carter's daughter, as he was sleeping with his brother's wife. So there are quite a few different levels to the story and there's quite a bit of ambiguity. But here everything is very simple. Doreen is definitely Carter's niece and Carter doesn't have a sexual relationship with his brother's wife. Carter deep down is just a decent guy trying to right a wrong. Yawn.

And because the film is far more simplistic, many of the important scenes fall flat. For instance, there's the scene where Carter finds out that his niece was involved in a porno movie. You have jagged editing and then later you see Stallone driving his car as the camera moves upside down (his world has been turned upside down…get it?). But it has zero emotion. Compare this to the original where Carter stumbles upon a porno movie after shagging some broad. At first he enjoys it, but then when he sees that Doreen is involved, a girl who might be his daughter, his enjoyment turns to tears. You very briefly see a glimpse of humanity. But then he explodes in rage and you know everything is going to end badly.

But the remake doesn't end badly for the characters. Apparently revenge isn't a messy game. In fact, it makes everything okay. And then once it's done, everyone can get on with their lives. We even see Stallone drive off into the sunset. It's the complete antithesis of the Caine film.

Speaking of Caine, he turns up as the bad guy in this film. But I don't know whether his taking part in this movie is an endorsement or he's having a laugh. I'd like to think he's trying to show everyone how inferior this movie is, but in reality it was probably just an easy paycheque. But seeing Stallone and Caine together reminds you of how inferior Sly is. Caine's Carter was a tough everyman, a bloke who had a mentality of a cobra. Stallone's Carter, though, is a beefy wimp, an idiot in a shiny suit who speaks in catchphrases. A couple times he tells people he's taking things to the next level. But unfortunately for Sly his film never gets off the ground.
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Willard (2003)
No one wants a friend like Ben (spoilers)
30 March 2008
Warning: Spoilers
Ben is a rat. A smart rat, but a rat nonetheless. Socrates is also a rat; he's as smart as Ben but more lovable. Willard, though, is a pathetic loser. A friendless nobody who's under the thumb of his skeletal mother.

What's clear from the beginning of Willard is that the two rats who vie for the affection of their master are the two sides of his tortured personality. Socrates, white and beautiful, is his good side, the side that is tender and loving and sweet. Ben, though, dark and brooding and ugly, is his bad side, the side that is angry and vengeful and that hates the world. So the rat who outlasts the other is the one that will take possession of this greasy weirdo's soul.

One of the most eyebrow-raising moments in the film is when Willard tells Socrates that he hates everyone in the world except him and that they should go to bed. Go to bed? Yes, he says it tenderly. He says it seductively. He says it like they're going to, well, make love. Er. Um. Right.

However, a tender scene turns bad when the dastardly Ben, who has previously been told that he's not allowed to leave the cellar, crawls into the bed perhaps seeking a ménage a trois. He wants part of the action, the little perv. But Willard isn't having it. He wants no part of Ben. His heart belongs to Socrates.

But what could have screwed Willard up so badly that he has to sleep with rodents in order to feel some sort of contentment? Well, I guess a crazy mother would do that to you. Especially one that wants to rename you Clark because Willard is a cissy name and one that wants to check your poo when you tell her you're having bowel issues. How is a young man meant to get a girl when she's walking around? No wonder Willard chooses rats.

But there's also Willard's boss. The second you see him and find out that he's played by Lee Ermey you know he's going to be a colossal bastard. And he lives up to expectations. He shouts at Willard, he bullies him, he takes his wages and basically does anything he can to make his life a living hell. Yet another reason to seek refuge in the tickly caress of a rat's vivacious whiskers.

Another eyebrow-raising moment is when Willard is training his rat army. He keeps on repeating the phrase 'tear it'. And as he says it, he becomes more and more impassioned. It's like he's getting aroused. Maybe he's thinking about tearing more than just paper. But I do love some of the details in the rat training sequence. I mean, there's even a little rat obstacle course. How sweet. But it's also in this sequence that we first meet Ben. But he doesn't really take part in the training because a) he's a fat bastard and b) he's a bit above himself. In fact, he's a bit nasty is Ben. He's always lurking in the corner like a right creepy bastard. Plus he has a habit of always turning up no matter how hard you try and get rid of him. Trying to get rid of Ben is like trying to escape a fart in a crowded lift.

Then there's the fact that Ben's borderline psychotic. In one of the film's best scenes, a cat is given to Willard and its left alone in his creepy house with all of his rats. Under Ben's command, the rats pursue the feline. And then after finding higher ground, and apparently escaping the filthy pests, Ben attacks and the cat is knocked to the ground and consumed by Ben's underlings. Oh, and to make it even better, the scene is scored to the Jackson 5's song 'Ben' from the awesomely titled sequel to the original Willard, Ben. The juxtaposition of violence with a tender love song dedicated to vermin is exquisite.

But although all of this violence is committed by Ben in order to get Willard to love him, his feelings are never returned. Indeed, late in the film, Willard even shouts that he hates Ben and that he loves Socrates. And this is after Willard tries to abandon Ben. He gets the large rat to kill his boss and then says goodbye to him. He's trying to escape the darkness and reclaim the light. But it's too late. He's become what he loathes. He's become Ben.

And just compare Ben to Socrates. There's a scene where Willard is going through his deceased father's possessions (in a nice little nod to the original film, Willard's dead father has the image of Bruce Davison, the actor who originally played Willard). He takes a knife and is contemplating killing himself. But then Socrates stops him. Meanwhile Ben watches from above. He wouldn't stop Willard, the bastard.

But Crispin Glover is wonderfully cast in the film. He's the consummate weirdo and fits the part exceptionally well. And his commitment to the role is impressive. There's an amusing scene where he's at his mother's funeral and he shows her his only friend, the rat Socrates. The rat climbs over mum's face and then Glover begins bawling, a massive line of snot dangling from his nose. And then later on in the scene, when he finds out he's in debt and may lose his house, he just starts ranting and screaming. It's kind of reminiscent of his appearance on Letterman. And he also has a nice singing voice. 'Ben' isn't quite 'Clowny Clown Clown', but it provides an ironic counterpoint to Willard's mistaken assertion that his association with Ben is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. No, it's the beginning of your demise. Ben will be the end of you.
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Aliens (1986)
A perfect sequel (spoilers)
30 March 2008
Warning: Spoilers
Thank the cinematic gods for pluralisation. 'Oh, what's that? Alien only had one critter? Well, let's slap an 's' on the end of the title and have hundreds of the bastards. It'll be great.' And indeed it is.

Die-hard fans of Alien may bemoan the different approach that Cameron takes – lots of guns and the Aliens themselves reduced to bugs to be blown to pieces – but the film is true to Scott's original while taking it in a new direction. It's a perfect sequel. The fidelity to the original includes the creepy atmosphere and the slow build-up, but this film has more action and more of an emotional pull. Indeed, it's the relationship between Ripley and Newt that elevates it to something more than just an excellent action film.

The final act, which sees Ripley head off alone into the Alien nest in order to rescue what has become her surrogate daughter, has a whiff of absurdity to it. Skinny woman with a massive gun and flamethrower attached to her and she's going to kick butt? Yeah, right. But because Weaver and Cameron play it so straight, and because you've become so attached to the characters over the course of the film, it seems like the only thing that could happen. You totally believe in Ripley. This is something she just has to do.

And it helps that there are no attempts to indulge in empty grandstanding. This is just a simple case of a mother going into hell to rescue her daughter. And as everyone knows, there's nothing in the world you should fear more than a woman who's trying to get her child back. Mothers are tougher than any Alien Queen, a point illustrated by the fabulous moment when Ripley burns the Alien Queen's eggs.

However, the bond between Ripley and Newt was less explicit in the original cut. But in the Special Edition we get a great scene where we find out, because she spent so much time drifting through space in hypersleep after surviving the Nostromo, that Ripley's real child has died as an old woman. It's a great little scene and gives more depth to the relationship between Ripley and Newt. I'm kind of baffled as to why it was cut out.

However, other stuff in the Special Edition doesn't fare quite as well. The least successful inclusion is the scene on the colony where we see Newt's parents find the derelict alien ship from the first film. It's kind of pointless and it's not particularly well filmed or acted – I can easily see why it was cut out. And plus, part of the joy of Aliens was not knowing exactly what happened on the colony. It was creepier when we could try and imagine it ourselves.

I'm also not a huge fan of the sentry gun sequences. Most people tend to love them, thinking they add to the tension. But to me they only seem to highlight the budgetary restrictions. You seem to see the same bit of footage of an Alien exploding over and over again. Plus, for me, there was greater tension when you saw less of the Aliens. The longer you have to wait for the attack, the bigger the pay-off because you've been wound up that little bit more.

But although the big attack where the Aliens come crashing through the ceiling is magnificent, I prefer the first encounter; the one where the cocky Marines are slaughtered in the hive. What makes the scene so fantastic is the way Cameron uses the Marines' cameras, the ones they have strapped to them, to add to the confusion of the attack. It makes it even more visceral - we see a lot of the action take place on a series of monitors.

But this use of monitor footage also serves as a nod to Alien. When Dallas and his crew head off to the derelict ship this technique is used to build tension. But Aliens takes the concept that little bit further. And it's this unseen enemy, and the Marines' cockiness, that makes it feel like a Vietnam War film. The Marines start off with complete confidence and then are gradually broken down by an enemy that is less well equipped but that can adapt to its environment better.

However, going back to the way that Cameron builds upon the ideas that were started in Alien, I love the use of Bishop in the film. After Ash in the first film, we maybe expect another unhinged robot or at very least a company stooge. And at the beginning Ripley treats him like crap. But after hinting that he might be another android psycho, he turns out to be heroic. And it's a lovely moment when Ripley finally tells Bishop that he did well. In a film that is relentlessly violent, it's nice to have a moment that has such warmth.

Aside from building on the concepts started in the first film, another one of Cameron's strengths is creating memorable characters. No one gets lost in the mix. All the grunts stand out. My personal favourite is Hudson, the whinging scaredy cat who eventually grows a massive set of balls and kicks some serious Alien butt before being killed. Every line he utters is a work of genius. Then there's Vasquez. I don't know what it is about Cameron, but he always seems to be able to create believably tough female characters. Therefore it doesn't ring untrue when she kicks an Alien in the head and shoots it in the face. You believe this woman is capable of doing this.

But smaller characters stand out as well. Drake and the Sergeant are great in what limited time they have, and I love Gorman, the poindexter turned good. And then there's Burke, who proves that a greedy company man will always be worse than an acid-drooling monster.
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Rambo (2008)
Yay for gratuitous violence (spoilers)
30 March 2008
Warning: Spoilers
According to the wisdom of John Rambo, when you're pushed, killing is as easy as breathing. Now one may doubt that statement, as breathing is pretty easy, but in a glorious orgy of violence, Rambo proves his statement to be true. Killing is a piece of cake.

The volume of slayings in Rambo is well documented but nothing quite prepared me for it. Hundreds of people are shot, beheaded, roasted, stabbed and blown up. It's probably the most relentlessly violent film I've ever seen. Needless to say, I enjoyed it...a lot.

There was one point in the film where I just couldn't help but laugh. In the final massacre there's a bit where a bad guy gets shot in the head and his head explodes in a cloud of blood. I have no idea whether Stallone thinks he's making a political statement in this film, or a comment on the nature of evil in the modern world, but I find his fidelity to stomach-churning carnage quite charming. Honestly. He's not trying to win hearts and minds with words and BS. He's winning hearts and minds by vanquishing evildoers; by vaporising them.

However, there are people who think differently. People who think they can change the world with love and compassion. What fools. And no sooner have the Christian human rights missionaries in this film begun treating Burma's sick and begun telling them about Jesus than the Burmese army is shooting them.

The scene where the village is attacked is a perfect example of how excessive this film is. Men, women and children are shot and stabbed and blown up, and at one point a child is even tossed into a ball of flame. But just when you're staring wide-eyed at the screen as a thousand bullets whistle past your ears in beautiful surround sound, the symphony of violence is pulled out and mournful, ethereal music plays. Look at the pointless bloodshed. Look at the anguish of hundreds of people's heads being popped off their shoulders like fleshy balloons. Look at the waste. Isn't it tragic? Yes. Yes it is. (Wipes away tear)

Rambo in this film is a shadow of his former mulleted glory. No longer does the sight of his oily, sweat-drenched torso have straight men questioning their sexuality. Instead he's become old and weary. His headband is less flamboyant and muscle tone has given way to muscle mass. But perhaps realising this, Stallone throws in a brief flashback sequence (a la Rocky IV) to show Rambo as he used to be. What a man he was. How his biceps bulged and how his pecs heaved. Watching so much man is like remembering a cherished memory – the smile of a loved one now departed, the laugh of a child now grown, the glow associated with a favourite jazz mag now soiled beyond recognition. Ah memories...

But the flashback sequence perhaps has a more serious meaning. We see how Rambo has suffered over the years. How he's been defined by killing. But the flashback is also played against the background of a storm. Yeah, that's right. A storm is coming. A massive, slightly flabby, monosyllabic John Rambo-shaped storm.

The first example of Rambo's skills comes with some R-rated Robin Hoodism. A handful of soldiers are despatched with John's bow and arrow. But these people aren't killed with boring old shots to the chest. Oh, no. Instead arrows penetrate heads and shoot through faces. Sweet.

However, this is only the beginning. Rambo and a bunch of mercenaries have to enter a well-protected army camp in order to get to the missionaries. They eventually do this but they have the little problem of hundreds of soldiers. Fortunately, though, most of them are holding a little rape party, so they're occupied. But you've got to admire the rapist soldiers in this film. I mean, standard, ordinary rape is so passé. It's so brute. The characters here realise that the old in-out needs a bit of pizazz. A bit of glamour. So just as things are starting, a guy runs in with a red smoke flare. Yeah, that's the stuff. That's the kind of thing that makes a rape party go with a bang – lots of groovy red smoke.

But speaking of rape, how come the cute blonde missionary gets away unscathed? I mean, okay, we see hundreds of people shot and blown up. We see a crucified missionary have his fleshy leg stumps get eaten by ravenous pigs. We see Burmese soldiers make villagers run through mine-ridden swamps for a laugh. We see children get shot and tossed into flames. We see Burmese women raped. But somehow the sight of a cute white woman getting raped by dastardly brown folks is too much. We can't see that. That would be too disturbing.

But would rape really be that bad in the grand scheme of things when you have to watch a massacre from close range? Because that's what happens to the poor woman. She has to stand there and watch Rambo slaughter what seems like hundreds of soldiers as he fires on them from an armoured jeep. Heads pop, limbs fly and men are pulped. But you see, while the earlier violence was sickening, this violence is gnarly. And that's because the Burmese soldiers were heartless bastards and Rambo is a beautiful, vengeful angel of death. You see, violence is fine when you're right.

Even one of the missionaries learns this. At the beginning he's insistent that violence is never justified. But at the end he's smashing a guy to death with a rock. I mean, being holy is good and all that, but it's not going to stop you getting abused by non-English speaking brown folks, is it? Whereas a rock will. Righteous, hearty violence solves everything.
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Another successful Scorsese/Schrader collaboration (spoilers)
28 March 2008
Warning: Spoilers
It's not surprising that lots of people compare Bringing Out the Dead to Taxi Driver. Both are Martin Scorsese/Paul Schrader collaborations, both deal with the seedy underbelly of night-time New York and both deal with strung out individuals driving, er, vehicles. But comparisons are unfair. One, because any film is going to have a hard time living up to Taxi Driver, and two, despite their surface similarities they're very different movies.

Bringing Out the Dead centres around a paramedic named Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage). He can't sleep and he hasn't saved a person in months. And to make matters worse, he keeps on seeing the face of an eighteen-year-old girl who died in his arms. Needless to say, he isn't in the best state of mind.

The start of the film is a little unconvincing. Yes Scorsese's camera-work is electrifying but the voice-over and its delivery feels clumsy. It feels like something out of a B-movie or a bad novel. But then once the film settles down, it steadily improves.

The primary focus of the story is Frank's relationship with the daughter of a cardiac arrest patient he brought back from the dead. In her he perhaps sees a chance to redeem himself – to make amends for the mistake he made with the homeless girl he couldn't save. But although he wants to help her through this difficult time, he may have unwittingly made things worse. The man he saved was dead for too long, and so now he's in limbo. As a consequence, the man's alive but not completely aware, and so therefore his new existence revolves around a routine of minor heart attacks and shocks to bring him back to life. This has a negative effect on his daughter Mary (Patricia Arquette), a reformed drug addict who falls off the wagon as she tries to hold her family together. And so all this misery has been inflicted because of Frank's desire to save lives.

And in Frank you have a man who has been progressively worn down by his surroundings. We hear from him how great it is when you save lives, how the world seems to shine, but recently he's been unable to do any good. And so while Travis Bickle's problem was violent alienation, Frank's is impotent empathy. He wants to make life better, but when there's so much misery around him, he feels like he's swimming against the tide.

It has to be said that Scorsese's direction is often better than Cage's acting at capturing this weariness. Cage's performance certainly isn't poor, but it is uneven. In one dire bit of acting, after having woken from a drug-fuelled dream, he just shouts incoherently like some B-movie monster. And the facial tics and jerky movements feel overly familiar. But then in other scenes he can be excellent.

But like I said, Scorsese's directing is stronger than the star's acting. Through time-lapse photography he captures the fractured passage of time and the frenzied emotions of the characters. And through his use of lighting he captures a frightening vision of urban hell while shining a bright halo on the film's hero. After all, at one point, Frank likens saving someone's life to having god pass through you. And in a wonderful hallucinatory dream sequence we see Frank reach into the ground to bring the dead souls of the people who have died before him back to life. This is the kind of power he wishes he had. He wishes he could rescue those lost souls – to drag them back from purgatory or hell and give them and him a second chance at living a normal life. Because this job makes Frank suffer – his burden is almost religious. And at one point he literally begs to be fired. But in a great comic scene, his Captain won't have it. Because they're understaffed, his Captain refuses to terminate Frank's contract, even though that's exactly what Frank wants. So even though he's promised that he'll be fired in the future, Frank knows he has to keep carrying this burden on his shoulders.

And in the film we see Frank work with three different paramedics (played by John Goodman, Ving Rhames and Tom Sizemore respectively). Each one deals with his hellish situation in a different way. Goodman seeks solace in food, Rhames in god and Sizemore in violence. Frank is the only one who is tackling the awful situation head on and as a result he can barely take it. He even has to resort to booze and drugs to numb the pain.

And at the end Frank even takes the life of Arquette's father. Every time he sees the man he hears him speaking in his head, asking to be put out of his misery. At that moment he's borderline psychotic, but it's still a mercy killing. He's just tired of seeing people suffer – both the man and the man's daughter. So in a way we're kind of asked to see Frank as a modern saint, a man who carries the weight of the world on his shoulders so that others don't have to suffer as much as he does. He's the complete opposite of Travis Bickle, whose suffering was brought about by self-absorption.

And although the end of the film sounds a little pat, with Frank finding the love of a good woman and finally getting some much needed rest, it doesn't feel contrived. This is what Frank needs – he needs someone who can understand his burden and he needs someone he can share it with. Only then can he rest and return to some semblance of normality.
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A beautiful, unsentimental film (spoilers)
16 March 2008
Warning: Spoilers
There are many ways that you can be trapped. You could be trapped in a job you hate. You could be trapped in an unloving relationship. Or you could be literally trapped – you could be held hostage or you could be imprisoned. But perhaps more terrifying than all of these is to be trapped in your own body. To have your mental faculties left intact but to be unable to move or communicate properly.

This is what happens to Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor of Elle Magazine. At the age of 43 he suffers a massive stroke and is unable to move and unable to talk. The only way that he can express himself is by blinking one of his eyes.

The opening scenes are magnificent in the way that they capture the terror of the situation. Everything is shot from Jean-Dom's perspective. We see his blurred vision and we hear how distorted his hearing has become. But we also hear his thoughts. Inside this shell is a man – a man completely preserved. Therefore it's not unusual that Jean-Dom screams inside his head when the doctors talk to him and they don't hear the words he thinks he's saying.

One of the scariest scenes occurs early on. Jean-Dom's left eye is fine but his right eye is immobile. Therefore, seeing as he can't blink it, it needs to be closed up so that it doesn't get infected. From Jean-Dom's perspective we see his eye get sewn up. All the time he's screaming but the male nurse can only blather supposedly comforting words about his skiing holiday. Part of Jean-Dom's word is being narrowed even further. He's in danger of disappearing within himself.

The only salvation is that he can move his good eye. Because of this, he and his therapists are able to communicate – the therapist goes through the alphabet and Jean-Dom blinks when the person gets to the word. It's an excruciatingly slow way of communicating, kind of like extreme text messaging, but it allows Jean-Dom to finally express himself. And the first thing that he says, in response to his therapist asking him what he wants, is 'death'. This upsets his therapist terribly, who has worked long and hard with her patient, but it's an understandable emotion. Here's a man who was in complete control of his destiny. He'd managed to do very well for himself. But then it was taken away.

But maybe Jean-Dom had done something to upset the gods? Maybe he deserved this? Well, he wasn't a saint. He had a broken marriage and he had a stormy relationship with his girlfriend, but nothing he did warranted this. Therefore it was just bad luck, which is perhaps the least comforting thing in the world.

There's a good scene where Jean-Dom is taken to see a priest. A weaker man would seek salvation in god; he'd relinquish control of his destiny and put it in the hands of someone else. But Jean-Dom's paralysis only strengthens his non-belief. Here are all these people praying for him and it's done nothing. The only people who can improve his condition are himself and those around him.

And it's the devotion of those people around Jean-Dom that is the most moving. His therapists help him to make progress, a woman from a publisher's takes his dictation for the book he writes about his condition, and his wife gives him love and support. However, his girlfriend won't come and see him. In an excruciating scene the girlfriend briefly has to communicate with Jean-Dom through his wife. But then his wife leaves briefly so that the girlfriend can speak alone on the telephone. She says how she still loves him but that she can't see him in that condition. One can't help but wonder why Jean-Dom loves her above his wife when she gives him so much and his girlfriend gives him so little. His girlfriend's non-appearance seems to me like a betrayal. But then again, it's almost impossible to fathom people. Jean-Dom loves her and that's that.

Another powerful scene is the one when Jean-Dom's father calls. There are no trite expressions of affection. There's just a very genuine feeling of sadness that a grown man is unable to help his son. And it's kind of a relationship that has been flipped on its head. In an earlier scene we seen Jean-Dom shave his father – his dad is an invalid and can't leave his house. So now his father has to be the strong one again and is left reeling.

But in a strange way, Jean-Dom and his father are now in the same boat. Both are trapped. And it's kind of ironic that before his stroke, Jean-Dom wanted to write a modern interpretation of The Count of Monte Cristo. Now Jean-Dom and Edmond Dantes are truly alike. Both are prisoners. But unfortunately Jean-Dom never gets a chance to free himself. Ten days after his book is published, and after he's made progress, he dies of pneumonia. The end is moving because there are no false attempts to pull our heartstrings. We just feel the crushing unfairness and banality of a life being wasted for no reason whatsoever.

But another reason why the film works so well is because the film doesn't try and soften the character for us. Jean-Dom looks at the breasts of his attractive female therapists, his fantasies involve such wonderful delights as eating large banquets and making love to beautiful women, and despite everything he still ends up loving someone who is unworthy of him. He's forced to change the way that he communicates, but the man inside pretty much remains the same.
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Track 29 (1988)
Goes off the rails (spoilers throughout)
11 February 2008
Warning: Spoilers
Track 29 begins with the image of Gary Oldman appearing out of thin air - he appears by the side of the road with his thumb stretched out. Then after a while he screams, like a banshee, 'Mummmmmmeeeeeeeee!' Er, okay. We've got a weird one here.

One of the first hints that the film gives you about the nature of Oldman's character, aside from his entrance, is some dialogue on a television show. We hear, as Theresa Russell works out, that two or more things can apparently inhabit the same area at the same time, co-existing in parallel dimensions. O-kay. And then later, after Oldman has convinced Russell that he's her son, a son that she gave up at birth, we find out that other people can't even see him. Right, so she's mad and all of this is in her head. Fine.

But with this gimmick do we learn anything of interest about Russell's character? Do we feel the pain she felt at having to give up her child? No, not really. The film is nothing more than a silly freak show, a film where young men act like retarded children, where old men act like pathetic perverts and where southern belles toss their hair about like crazy. This film tells you next to nothing about the human condition.

One of the most amazing things about Track 29 is Oldman's performance. He plays Martin like a hyperactive manchild. He screams and he spazzes and he almost foams at the mouth. There's no restraint, no subtlety. He chews the scenery like crazy. But even though it's incredibly over the top, it is amusing. At one point he even takes Russell's diaphragm and puts it to his mouth and begins to talk through it, using it as a second mouth. These silly moments are the only pleasure that's to be found in this dire film.

And it's always amusing whenever Oldman begins screaming or talking like an over-sized child (which he does with great regularity). He berates his mother, comes on to her and at one point even blows a raspberry at a painting of Lloyd after drawing a moustache on it. But there's a scene in a restaurant where he begins pouting that is even funnier. He says, 'You never kissed it better.' 'Kissed what better?' his mother replies. There's a brief pause, and you know Martin is thinking about his penis, and he then says, 'My knee'. It would be queasy if it wasn't so ridiculous.

But Martin isn't the only ridiculous character. Christopher Lloyd plays Dr Henry Henry, Russell's husband. He's a man who spends all his spare time playing with toy trains and who likes to be spanked by one of his nurses. And to make it worse, the nurse is played by Sandra Bernhard. Even Satan himself couldn't have created a more hideous image than Bernhard spanking Lloyd's exposed buttocks with red rubber gloves as both of them mug the camera with orgasmic glee. It's the sort of sight that makes you want to pour disinfectant into your eyes to remove the stain.

However, Lloyd's character is a sidenote. Russell and Oldman are the focus. And what horrible event could have screwed Russell up to such an extent that she's making up people in her own head? Well, when she was a kid she was shagged in the bushes by a tattooed carnie, a carnie who looks exactly like her son. Okay, so that would mess you up pretty bad, but please, there must be a better actress than Russell to communicate the pain of the event. When she talks or thinks about it, all she can do is toss her hair, clench her fists and squeal through gritted teeth. There's no depth to her character at all.

But the film does try and provide some complexity by not providing a clear answer as to whether this was rape or just rough sex - she says no as the carnie rips her clothes off, but once he's on her she begins shouting yes and encouraging him. And the entire flashback occurs as her 'son' squeals with excitement as he asks her to tell more of the story. But the film never adequately explores Russell's emotions. She's screwed up and that's that.

And you can feel the film running out of ideas. At the end the film suddenly tries to turn into a thriller. Ooh, look at Martin destroy Henry's train set like Godzilla. Ooh, where did Martin go? Oh, there he is, he's jumped naked onto Henry and is stabbing him to death. Great. Oh, but seeing as Martin doesn't really exist, it never really happened...did it?

The end of the film sees Russell all spruced up and apparently ready to get own with a new life, one without Henry. But even though we continually hear him call her, the question still remains as to whether he's still alive - one of the final images is of blood spreading over the surface of the ceiling. Yes Martin didn't kill Henry, but prior to this death scene we see Russell walking up the stairs with a knife. Maybe she killed him and maybe the voice of Henry is in her head. But what does it matter? Either way the film says the same thing: isn't it terrible when you get nailed by a tattooed carnie as a kid and your child is taken away, and isn't it awful when your husband plays with toy trains and you aren't sexually compatible. Yes, terrible fates both of them, but both made terribly uninteresting by horrible acting and direction.
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Beowulf (2007)
Shrek with sex and violence (spoilers)
11 February 2008
Warning: Spoilers
I'm not quite sure what's up with Robert Zemeckis' animation fetish. First The Polar Express and now Beowulf (and in the future, A Christmas Carol). He seems to have got tired with any notion of reality, of the limitations that traditional film-making techniques put on him. After all, Beowulf could have been a live-action picture. With technology today, it wouldn't have been that difficult. But instead Zemeckis decided against pursuing that route.

This decision has both benefits and drawbacks. Yes the characters often move in a weird, jerky way and yes it's strange seeing animated versions of famous actors, but at the same time the fidelity to this technique gives you a certain purity of vision – there's no awkward mixture of effects and reality; you either buy into this visualisation of the story or you don't. And to be honest, the technique never took me out of the film.

Well, okay, there was one thing that took me out of the film. The hero is played by Ray Winstone. Okay, that shouldn't affect me in any way – he's a good actor. But the character here is ripped, whereas Ray is, well, fat. Everyone else looks like the actor who plays them, while Beowulf looks like Sean Bean. Weird.

But of course part of the point of filming the movie this way is to do things that you couldn't do in a normal film – impossible camera shots, have fantastical beasts interact more easily with humans and have the characters age more convincingly. And there are some beautiful moments. There's one bit near the start where the King's hall is celebrating and dancing and you slowly move out of the building and across the snowy fields. But then the camera keeps moving. It keeps moving through forests and mountains until it comes to a cave. We then see the monster Grendel scream in pain. It's a flashy shot but it's also a great way of explaining the character – the enjoyment of others, the pleasure this monster can never have, is what causes him pain.

And the monster is a pretty horrific creation. His screams are ear-splittingly loud and he cries like a child. But he also appears in the King's hall and rips men to pieces – one even gets tossed in the air and lands on a spear. But worse than this, in a later scene, where Beowulf confronts the monster, he eats a soldier. For a while he stands there munching on the guy, a sad look on his face. Quite how this film got released as a 12A/PG-13, I don't know.

But the confrontation between Beowulf and Grendel is probably the best scene in the film. It's horrific, exciting and the monster's ultimate destruction (by Beowulf ripping its arm off) is also quite sad. As well as being fearsome, Grendel is also incredibly pathetic. He's a sad little child who is under the thumb of his demonic mother. And as Beowulf shouts at him while having him trapped, he can only whimper.

However, as well as all this, the scene is also amusing. Why, you ask? Well, for some reason, Beowulf decides he has to fight the monster naked. The explanation is something silly, like because the monster has no weapon he's going to fight it without weapons as well. But when he disrobes, women squeal in excitement. And to hide his dangly bits from the children who will doubtlessly be seeing this film, objects are always obscuring his genitals. The best example of this is when he stands on a table and approaches a sword that is implanted in the wood. Yes, he has a large sword. Yes, he's one hell of a man.

But there's actually plenty of sex in the film. Not only do you have a gnarly buff warrior disrobing so that he can go toe-to-toe with a monster, but you have the soldiers flirting with a maid with large knockers and Grendel's mother who has golden breasts. Fighting and shagging are the film's forte. And it's weird that Angelina, without the tats and with some shape brought back to her increasingly emaciated face, looks better here than she does in reality. No wonder so many Kings have been brought to their doom – who wouldn't want to nail a demon with golden breasts and feet that are in the shape of high heels?

However, there's a high price to pay for nailing Grendel's mum. Her womb seems to be a bit messed up. One King gets a crying, ten-foot tall troll as a son and Beowulf gets a dragon. Yeah, that's a high price to pay for some sweet, sweet demon poontang.

The final action scene, where Beowulf fights the dragon, isn't as enjoyable as the scrap with Grendel, but it continues the theme of extreme violence. Not only does Beowulf hack off part of his own arm but he also reaches into the dragon's chest and rips its heart out. And we see this in close-up. Nice.

But although the violence is fun, I was more impressed with the atmosphere and the tension the film creates. Sure there are one too many cheap-shots ('we're going to show this film in 3-D, so let's just have things fly at the screen ad nausea; it'll be great!') and the sound is pumped up to 11, but the film is genuinely creepy in places, which pleased me a great deal. And I also like the theme that runs through the film of the importance of stories - how we need them to build heroes, heroes who make our normal lives more bearable. But with this you also have the poison of lies. Once we let them creep into our lives we'll always been enslaved to them. And with this in mind, I have to say that I enjoyed the open ending. Apparently the weakness of men is everlasting; poontang will ruin us all.
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Death of a F****** Salesman (spoilers)
2 February 2008
Warning: Spoilers
There's a scene in Glengarry Glen Ross where Shelly 'the Machine' Levine (Lemmon) says that a man is his job. And as far as some people go, he's right. Many men define themselves by the work they do, the money they earn and the car they drive. I mean, who cares about friends and family or higher aspirations? Or even simple things like happiness? That crap is for deadbeats. The real meaning of life is a high wage and to vanquish your enemies. Everything else is a pointless waste of time.

In the great scene where Baldwin gives his 'motivational speech', he mocks the notion of a man being a nice person or a good father. Yeah, is that going to pay for your nice suit or your expensive watch? No it's not. And he says that any man who can't close a deal should hit the bricks; they should leave. This is pure Darwinism. Do or die. Kill or be killed.

In this sort of environment personal lives are next to non-existent, but Shelly Levine does attempt to extend beyond these limits. Through a series of phone calls we hear that he has an ill daughter. But to be honest he always sounds like he's going through the motions. Shelly's heart is elsewhere. His heart belongs to the sale.

There's more than one instance when the sale is spoken about or shown to be close to a sexual act, but the best example is probably the scene where Shelly and Ricky Roma (Pacino) are discussing a deal Shelly's closed. He's been going through a lean phase, unable to sell anything, but suddenly he's on top of the word, spilling his guts to his pal. And he talks about it like he's been with a woman. 'They signed. It was great. It was so f****** great. It was like they wilted all at once.' And to make the story even more sexual, Levine had been waiting for 22 minutes for his 'clients' to sign the deal. 22 minutes that he had to spend in silence waiting for them to sign the contract. In a world of lies and deceit, this is the closest these men can get to intimacy – the signing of a piece of paper has a purity and a joy that even the act of love lacks.

But it's not just the orgasm of a scratched name that provides satisfaction, there's also the foreplay. Sometimes it goes horribly wrong like in the excruciating scene when Shelly turns up at someone's home and faces a brick wall, but sometimes it goes like clockwork. An example of this is when Ricky Roma is talking to James Lingk (Pryce). Roma isn't so much selling as seducing. He whispers soft words into Lingk's ear and charms the pants off him. Lingk is fooled into thinking that this is a genuine relationship, that there's sincerity here. And for once he feels like a man. He can step out of his wife's shadow and show that he has a pair of balls. But unfortunately, later, those balls are cut off and he comes back begging for his money. But he only does it because his wife has told him to get his cheque back. And at the end he goes to the remarkable length of apologising to Ricky. This is how deep the seduction has gone. The broken sale is a betrayal of sacred the link between men.

But even the sacred bond between men is shown to be completely phoney. After all, what's the next best thing to making lots of money? To see your colleagues or your friends fail miserably. And what's more infuriating than someone else's success? Answer: nothing.

Some of the best exchanges in the film occur between Levine and Williamson (Spacey). They should be pulling for the same team, but they hate each other's guts. Williamson is a 'secretary' and Levine is a washed up has-been with a big mouth. So at the beginning, when he can't make a sale, Levine is servile and pleading – he even tries to buy leads from Williamson. But once Levine closes a deal, the real Shelly comes out. He taunts Williamson and asks him what he is. He even demands the new Glengarry leads. But then once Levine becomes comfortable, Williamson tells him the bad news that his deal won't go through, that the people he sold to are insane. It's an incredibly cruel scene, with some scathing dialogue. 'Why?' asks Levine, wanting to know why he wasn't told earlier (Williamson was aware all along that a deal wouldn't stick). 'Because I don't like you,' replies Williamson. 'My daughter?' 'F*** you.' In this world there are few things better than screwing someone over, to drag them down and pull yourself up.

However, there is one seemingly sincere relationship – the one between Roma and Levine. They seem to get along quite amiably. But then again, you get the feeling that these men are two sides of the same coin. You get the feeling that Roma is a reflection of Levine in his youth. How long before things goes south for Roma? How long before his confidence is ruined and he's reduced to begging for scraps?

And the ending wonderfully illustrates how lonely this type of existence is. Levine, unknown to Roma, is going to be arrested for robbing the office – Levine pathetically tries to talk to Roma one last time before being hauled into to speak to a police officer, but Roma is busy on the phone. So Levine's departure goes unnoticed. And worse than that, Ricky goes off to lunch alone and Levine's colleagues continue to try and sell. Yes, the world will manage to revolve with Levine behind bars. He, like us, is easily replaced. Therefore if work is what defines us, we have nothing when it's taken away.
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