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Inception (2010)
7/10
Strikingly original masterpiece? No, but it is intriguing.
29 August 2010
Now I will start by saying that for all the many flaws and silly plot holes, which seem more glaring the more you think about them after viewing the film, I did enjoy the ride. It didn't really stick closely to it's own rules and some of the characters got lost in the shuffle - well, most of them, I suppose - but at least Nolan was trying to create something more than the same old flicks Hollywood churns out like the hot-buttered popcorn you can buy at every cinema. It's not terribly original and nor should anyone buy into the hype that it is, but that doesn't mean it is without merit.

To dispel the myth that this is original, I have to say it draws fairly obvious comparisons to the following works, which isn't to say it lacks originality, more that it treads the same sort of path with a different flavour.

* The Matrix (1999) - Anyone who doesn't see this must be blind; they seem to come from the same seam. It's one of the few similar films that can stand up next to it though. * Dark City (1998) - The buildings, the gravity. I can't say more than that. * Blade Runner (1982) - Chris loves this film. It's more in visual styles than story but it's there. And when I think of the title I can't help but think of the term "incept date". * Star Trek TNG - For the holodeck reference/style mostly. * Heat (1995) - The action scenes, despite the fantasy settings, seem remarkably tight and often quite realistic. * Synecdoche, New York (2008) - The more I think about it, the more similar it seems to this film, and the more this film seems similar to Dark City. Which is why I like them, I guess. * Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004) - Love is a big theme and how the mind deals with it an even bigger one. It would spoil Leo's story arc to say more. * eXistenZ (1999) - Can't believe I nearly missed this one. In that film it is virtual reality, as with The Matrix, but there are still a lot of parallels. * Ocean's Eleven (2001) - The whole thing about it being a concerted team effort to pull of such an ambitious caper.

There are a lot of tiers at work here, and it's probably going to be the case that it's good first time around, and perhaps more intelligible after another viewing or three. Of course, the folks who fund Nolan films are aware of this and are hoping to double their revenue streams, actually adding this observation to some of the marketing bumph in the hope of getting people to go and see it twice a la Fight Club which makes me more than a little cynical, but I can wait for the home release anyway and would recommend everyone else do the same. This looks like a fun one to learn, certainly something worth studying if you happen to have more than a passing interest in film-making and convoluted slight-of-hand storytelling, and you really need to be able to pause, rewind and freeze-frame advance certain sections in order to do that.

It mines the seam of "what is reality, really?" a favourite topic of Andrew Niccols and Charlie Kaufman, too. Those are among my favourite types of works because they beg endless discussion and if handled correctly can be a great source of inspiration. As I have a soft spot for those kinds of plots I suppose I'm naturally more willing to grant a bit more leeway, because credit where it is due I did find myself mulling over my perceptions of reality and re-evaluating the value of lucid dreams. Most films leave no discernible traces in the minds of anyone which makes this at least above average.

The special effects aren't overused and/or intrusive, merely adding to the story I feel. And the mixture of CGI with real photographed elements is deftly handled. There is the odd moment of "oh, too much" or "not layer blended so well there" but trust me, it's far superior to a lot of the junk that gets through and at times I actually think they were deliberately making it a little weird and obvious to show it's still not a real world.

To tie this review up: as one of the seemingly few people who thought The Dark Knight was a hopeless mess with very little to enjoy outside of a fiery Heath Ledger performance it's a welcome return to the twisting story lines that are usually a Nolan trademark. Despite the length there is enough going on that it doesn't feel like a moment of filler is present. Also, I would like to briefly point out that this is the first film DiCaprio has starred in where I actually enjoyed his performance completely.

This film is not his best but nor is it his worst. It is well worth a watch, no doubt about that, but it shouldn't be heralded as a masterpiece and as of the time of writing this review is far, far too high in the IMDb Top 250. I'll grant that it is better than most of the cookie-cutter remake product that Hollywood is very fond of dishing up as of the past decade or so, therefore it looks better by comparison, but it isn't quite coherent enough to be brilliant. Hopefully it will inspire other writer/director auteurs to come up with similar, perhaps more lucid works. As it is, Memento (2000) and The Prestige (2006) are still the high watermarks against which few others can measure up, even the man himself. But it's still one hell of a ride.
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Breaking Bad (2008–2013)
9/10
Gripping, compelling drama/thriller with a dash of black comedy.
16 January 2010
Now let's get one thing straight; this is a television program NOT for the faint at heart. If you like your viewing saccharine, with easy answers and everything wrapped up and snapped back to the beginning by the end of the episode, Breaking Bad is not for you. The premise alone should be enough to tell you that; a cancer-stricken father who is a chemistry teacher turns to illegal drug manufacture with a not-too-bright ex-student and struggles with his own mortality and morality along the way, doing his best to hide the new career choice from his pregnant wife, son with cerebal palsy, medic sister-in-law and law enforcer brother. Yes, this isn't light-weight material by any means.

I'm not a fan of these shows that rely on "inflated sense of tension" to pump up the viewer's adrenaline levels while covering for poor scripting; stuff like 24, Lost and Prison Break started out well-enough but quickly descended into this cheap shock tactic approach to keep the audience hooked. Once I saw through this I stopped watching them completely and have been seeking out quality American shows that are well-produced and equally well-written, and I am happy to say that Breaking Bad is one of these.

Bryan Cranston is perfectly cast as Walt, the man who has to make tough choices to provide for his family. He so perfectly becomes the character that it was not until later I realised he was previously cast as Hal in Malcolm In The Middle. His emotional range is staggering; with a few well-timed gestures or vocalisations he can convey several feelings at once, and when Walt is in pain it is completely believable. Walt is a man of few words, but chooses these words very carefully, so when he speaks everyone on-screen and in the audience are listening.

Cranston isn't just carrying passengers though; he's ably supported by Anna Gunn as his wife Skylar, who brings just the right amount of care and concern for her husband and baby as needed and RJ Mitte plays the son who has CP and gives a very accurate, non-condescending portrayal of the condition so different from the ham-handed "sympathy ploy" approach so overused by shows from the States. Dean Norris plays Walt's brother Hank, the all-American police officer who doesn't take any guff and flushes out drug dealers for a living, with his quirky kleptomaniac wife Marie (the lightest character in this show, amusingly) who is handled with panache by Betsy Brandt. Rounding out the main cast is Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman, every inch the nervy, paranoid and streetwise "cook" who becomes Walt's new partner and guide to the world of drug trafficking.

There's much to recommend. Tight, well-plotted scripts that make the unbelievable tangible and don't waste a line while doing so. Superb, inventive direction and settings that perfectly fit the mood of the show, an interesting mixture of steadicam, handicam, point-of-view and camcorder shots that appear to be captured by the cast themselves. Excellent choice of soundtrack; almost every episode ends with a classic song and the musical cues throughout really add to the atmosphere without becoming overpowering; witness the searing, high-pitched noises when we see through Walt's eyes as he is in pain or being given bad news for an example.

What is most remarkable is that the show never gives easy answers, never biases us towards the characters (we are given both sides of the debate and left to make our own choices, which respects the viewers intelligence) and always does things that you will not expect. There is not a single cliché to be found here, no way of knowing exactly how each person will react to the situations they are thrust into. These are complex, multi-faceted individuals with free will and their own motivations, who exist not as mere tools to advance the plot. The plot itself is always coherent and leaves very few loose ends. If you see an event or object framed, however subtlety, you can bet it will come back later on. Maybe not in the same episode, but as part of the story arc. And last but not least is the incredibly pitch black humour that crops up every now and then, so dark it almost feels uncomfortable to laugh.

If you liked the first season of Dexter but don't like the direction it has now, Breaking Bad is for you. Not since I saw Firefly (a very different kind of show) have I enjoyed a television program this much. If they can carry this program on for two or three more seasons and then end it without dragging past the logical closure point - and with Walt the way he is, this is crucial - it will be one of the greatest drama series of all time.

If you haven't tried it, start from the pilot episode, keep an open mind, and you just might find your new favourite show. I know I did.
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7/10
Of course they're hurt: look at all the BLOOD!
3 December 2009
I've only recently been made aware of the unusual, blunt but brilliant comic stylings of George Carlin, a man whose expletive-laden no-holds-barred observations on a sad sack society still feel ahead of their time in a world full of wannabe "edgy" comics, mostly because he packs in so much wit and veracity in a short space of time.

I saw his 2005 work "Life is Worth Losing" before this, and while that was a superior (and longer) show "Complaints and Grievances" has plenty to recommend it as long as you realise that a lot of the humour is very tongue-in-cheek, perhaps more so than any other comedian you've ever seen. You can't believe that George really does go around running down people in his car - he's saying it for the shock value and to set up a line of related jokes that are sending up the habits and true intentions of a lot of drivers, things we want to do but social etiquette prevents.

George moves swiftly from joke to joke, story to story, so for the couple of lines that might not amuse there are another half a dozen right around the corner. He covers a wide range of topics and regularly changes his pacing and delivery, which for quick-witted viewers is just fine but it might confound a lot of people who prefer simpler humour and more obvious punchlines. But for me, this is part of his appeal - a unique approach that makes him a cult legend.

Certainly this show will not appeal to everyone - the Ten Commandments ending skit alone is sure to boil the blood of a few staunch Christians, although it makes some valid (and hilarious) points about religion as a system of mind-control. For the people it does appeal to though, they will love it and would be well advised to pick up his other, somewhat better, works.
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Spaced (1999–2001)
9/10
Short, sweet & hilarious!
18 October 2009
Ah, British brevity. The ability to create and develop complex, relatable characters and put them into entertaining albeit unusual situations, then have everything summed up, done and dusted within a few short seasons. This is a popular method used on shows like The Office (UK), Extras, Fawlty Towers, Life on Mars and many more.

Once again, it works well; condensing all a writers best ideas and jokes into just a smattering of episodes makes for a remarkably consistent show and allows the plot to move at a decent pace, never stalling for time to introduce various inane subplots or numerous pointless side-characters.

Each and every one of the leads - not just Daisy and Tim - has personality traits and habits you will remember. They all have moments where they're heroes, and all have moments when they are losers. At every step of the way, brilliant and surprisingly original comedy and some deft parodies or homages to pop culture. Every actor plays their character as needed, never hamming it up - they become the role, which is after all the point of good performances.

Edgar Wright may have been tough on the cast but it was worth it - his multitude of takes are seamlessly edited together to maximise the comedy potential of each scene. For example, I'll never tire of Tim's nightmare involving his bear suit and ex-girlfriend from the second episode of the first season, or both of the times when Tyres appears and starts hearing rave music from the noises of everyday appliances. That's just a few of the "laugh out loud 'til your sides ache" moments, before even mentioning the deranged brilliance of Brian, who is not a million miles away from some of the more extreme artists I've met.

This show is like the alternate music genres, alternative comedy if you will - it's undeniably inspired and hugely enjoyable - but it does not appeal to the widest range of people (i.e. the lowest common denominator) because of its off-kilter nature. To me that just makes it more charming: I tire of seeing the same formula repeated ad-nauseum with the same clichés so this show, like a handful of my other favourites, is something I watch sparingly to preserve the magic and freshness.

This was the launching pad for Simon Pegg's cinematic outings, including the excellent "Shaun of the Dead (2004)" which has its roots here. It still remains his finest work, the moment when he moved from the shadow of fellow British comedians Coogan and Morris to become his own man with his own imitable style, one which is in such demand these days. It's overrated and forgotten rival of the time, The Royle Family, pales in comparison.
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4/10
D-: Awkward rewrite of a TOS episode.
12 October 2009
After a reasonably promising start our new Enterprise crew are thrust ever backwards into a clumsy rehashing of an old TOS episode that I wasn't too much of a fan of the first time around.

This episode easily takes the cake for "weakest episode of TNG", and if it weren't for the equally poor Voyager effort "Threshold" might well be considered the worst story ever written for the franchise. It shows us some of the problems the early seasons had: Picard changing from sympathetic and controlled to barking orders at people, Riker still too much of a Kirk clone for his own good and Wesley being the cocky kid genius that is about as welcome as Scrappy was to Scooby-Doo.

If you've seen the original episode "The Naked Time", you'll know what to expect. Crew finds virus, virus makes people giddy with joy and hijinx like they're drunk, virus spreads rapidly and is immune to old remedies. Embarrassing situations ensue.

Cringeworthy humour can work given the right script and actors (see The Office UK and Peep Show) but for all the strengths of the team, it falls flat here, with a lot of things unintentionally hilarious and some others painful to watch.

I think the scene with Data and Tasha sums it up; "it never happened".
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Star Trek (2009)
6/10
A mixed bag; better than the weaker Trek movies but not one of the best.
11 October 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Now, by no means is the 2009 iteration/reboot/alternate history of Star Trek a complete middle finger to Trek fans, as a lot of people reviewing this film seem to think. As an attentive but not obsessive fan I can say it has at least a little respect for the canon, although the philosophical questions/seeking out new life parts of the franchise are skipped in favour of flashy lens-flared action scenes. This will annoy the hardcore Trekkies, but to be honest these are things usually better handled in the episodes anyway. People go to the movies to be dazzled; with television they merely expect to be entertained.

The script/story isn't bad. There were a few loose threads that never really got tied, such as the time-dilation effect of Spock appearing 25 years after Nero even using the same wormhole, why young Kirk trashed a car, what the purpose of the Starfleet base on the ice world was other than a plot device to find Scotty, and - most jarring of all - what happened to the black hole created really near to Earth? But as the focus of the tale is making it an emotionally-charged epic and not worrying about realism, some of these can't be considered faults, merely realisation of the intentions of it's creators.

The applications of Trek staple "psuedo-science" were skipped in favour of a better plot, which worked sometimes but not always; obviously no-one working on this picture understands what a black hole actually is, let alone the impossibility that a dab of a mysterious liquid (creatively named red matter, nice job there) could create one on-the-fly. They certainly can't cause time-travel; that's usually attributed to a wormhole, I'm surprised no-one noticed such a glaring error. These were obviously skipped to keep the picture moving swiftly, to keep things fun and entertaining, and since the film never really drags it can be considered a modest success in this respect.

The cast has a couple of standouts: Chris Pine's Kirk carries the cocksure charm of the original, without resorting to copying Shatner's mannerisms and inflections, which I really appreciated and Spock, as played by Quinto, is given a lot more depth by a great performance. Both play conflicted men well and have probably set themselves up for their entire careers with this film. Bruce Greenwood makes the most of his Pike storyline, though I do wish he'd been given better dialogue to work with as he strikes me as the most believable Starfleet officer in this particular version. Nimoy's return as Spock Prime is enjoyable; though he does get a clunky, expositional monologue his prowess as an actor saves at least some of it; I think he sees the potential in this new approach to Trek.

Bones, Uhura, Scotty (and his Ewok-style mascot), Sulu and Chekov are misguided attempts to retain the campy humour and feel of the original series distilled into one-dimensional characters. I found all attempts at humour fell completely flat, with none of the actors able to master decent comic timing. Karl Urban is especially guilty; he tries too hard to copy DeForest Kelley instead of bringing his own personality to the show. This would still be a fun movie without the cheap jokes; the screen time could have been used for character development instead.

The CGI effects are uniformly excellent: all of the space battle shots and the exterior ship designs look great, from the fearsome appearance of the Romulan mining vessel to the sleek, guns-akimbo fighter-jet portrayal of the Enterprise. This made the space battles much more epic than your average Trek flick. The sets are good - I especially liked the bridge of the USS Kelvin, and the design of the Romulan vessel was superb internally - but some, like the brightly-lit sterile Enterprise bridge and the engineering section, which looked like a sewage treatment plant, do not fit a genre whose best moments are usually found in dark mood lighting.

There is no doubt that this picture is far, far better than the two weak TNG outings it followed - Insurrection and Nemesis - but it can't live up to the three best Star Trek films (The Wrath of Khan, The Voyage Home and First Contact). It is, in some respects, another in a long line of action films that distracts from inconsistent pacing/scripting with impressive whizz-bang graphics and good-looking actors. It has the fun, feel-good appeal of an 80s film, but it also has some of the same superficiality, glossing over things that could have easily given the picture more depth and resonance. Something of a missed opportunity.
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In Bruges (2008)
8/10
The saving grace of the year it was released.
17 March 2009
Personally, I found 2008 to be a very underwhelming year for film-making. Three of my favourite directors came up short (Chris Nolan with The Dark Knight, the Coens with Burn After Reading and Guy Ritchie with RockNRolla) and a lot of the currently popular 'superhero' pictures just weren't cutting it. Every new movie I saw seemed to be lacking in witty scripting, and most had disappointing endings.

Fortunately, somebody recommended I watch In Bruges. And what a bloody good decision that turned out to be.

This film has attracted a lot of flak. It seems to polarise critics. People who look on the surface just see a couple of hit-man types who swear all the time and are throughly unpleasant individuals, not at all likable. These critics perhaps missed two of the most important aspects of the picture: it's a dark, black comedy in the vein of American Psycho, and it is incredibly subtle in places. So subtle that it really needs a couple of viewings to appreciate the minimalistic approach of the scriptwriting and direction.

What I like most about the experience - and it really is an experience - is the deliberately grey morality demonstrated by everyone in the film. How nice people can be rude and indecent, and how those supposed to be evil can actually be incredibly tender and caring even if they might be confused about expressing it. Colin Farrell finally comes into his own here, demonstrating an incredible emotional range. He goes from childlike impatience to arrogant and presumptuous to heartbroken and desolate. It would be a tough job for any lead, but I was with him all the way. Veteran actor Brendan Gleeson has some formidable chops to add as well, with the camaraderie and gradual friendship/mentorship he gives to Ray being one of the focal points and a definite highlight. Everyone in this makes their screen time count, whether it's minutes or mere seconds.

It's an odd story, not completely original but certainly off-kilter. The swearing is necessary, as it is in Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs. That Martin McDonagh both writes and directs allows him to flesh out his script with more emotion, because as mentioned it's quite minimal and all the better for it. It relies on strong delivery and use of body language and facial expression. I honestly think you have to see it three or four times to truly appreciate the effect.

Bruges is captured beautifully on film. Without drawing too much attention to the backdrop, it is clear that the location is an intriguing juxtaposition to the moral dilemmas faced by our two protagonists. It speaks volumes about the young gun, Ray, that he finds nothing comforting or calming in the serenity of his hiding place. Ken, the wise and weary companion, finds peace of mind and a moral clarity it is obvious he had ignored for years.

If you can get your head around the violence (it's used sparingly but is, I felt, genuinely shocking and horrific) and the strong, blunt language, you might find not just the best picture of 2008 by some distance, but also the sort of drama you want to revisit time and again.

If you haven't yet, go and watch In Bruges. It's fine work to be sure, to be sure.
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Waitress (2007)
7/10
An offbeat romantic comedy... just how I like 'em.
26 February 2009
I must confess, I'm a huge fan of the cancelled and much missed television series Firefly and it's excellent silver screen adaptation Serenity; Nathan Fillion's work in particular. I consider him an underrated actor and checked out this picture just to see more of his range. What I was not expecting was a charming little picture alive with intriguing fantasy touches, eager to tell a good story but not eager to fill the audience with sap and morality tales, which is always refreshing.

Keri Russell is a good-looking lady and she embodies her character well. I see hints of a young Debbie Harry in her features and the potential to carve out a good career - in fact if you check her resume you'll find she is keeping busy. Andy Griffith is a revelation as the crusty proprietor of the pie shop where she works as a waitress, dispensing wisdom and cynicism between tersely ordering his daily meals. Nathan Fillion does well as the somewhat awkward yet charming doctor who sweeps Jenna off of her feet - good to see him on the big screen again.

The film is shot simply, yet effectively. There are some good cutaways where Jenna defines her life as a series of pies she imagines in her mind, and the two "spontaneous kiss" scenes between her and Pomatter are among the most touching and subtly comedic embraces I've seen in this style of picture. Shelley captures several moments of emotion well and shows all that could have been had fate not intervened to stop her making more movies - her script and directing are consistent and enjoyable throughout.

The only thing that lets the picture down is the abrupt way it concludes, tying up loose threads so fast that the stitches run and make it look messy. It deflates the impact of the picture and loses a whole star, especially the way Old Joe and Pomatter are dismissed without any dwelling on the moment. Little thought is given to many of the other periphery characters too. The movie could have stood an extra ten or fifteen minutes to present us with a fully absorbed finale.

Still, some faults aside, this is yet another positive example of the creativity you sometimes encounter when delving into lower-budget independently financed films, made without executive meddling from the all-encompassing (and usually formulaic) Hollywood machine. It is vaguely reminiscent of "Mystic Pizza (1988)" in setting and execution yet manages to be a much more consistent piece of work, ending aside.

Anyone looking for quirky romantic comedy in the vein of "Sliding Doors (1998)", "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)" or "Stranger Than Fiction (2006)" would do well to pick up a copy of this. Just be sure that you have a supply of delicious pies handy for consumption afterwards.
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Firefly (2002–2003)
10/10
Far too good to last.
18 February 2009
I feel saddened whenever I finish watching an episode.

It was with a hint of regret that I noticed the DVD read "Firefly - The Complete Series". It should have read "Firefly - The Complete First Season" and it should have been the first of many worth adding to your collection.

This had the potential to be one of the best science-fiction themed shows ever created, maybe even one of the best television shows. The potential was certainly there: Joss had plot arcs and character development lined up for at least four seasons. Although we got to see some of that in the Big Damn Movie, so much was crammed in that a lot of the sublime subtleties that make Firefly such a wonderful, inspirational show got buried under the (admittedly enjoyable) action sequences.

We'll never get to see the dark past that forced Book to become a religious man. The tale of how Wash and Zoe hooked up after their initial friction in my personal favourite episode, the astonishing Out Of Gas. More about Mal's twisted past and further skeletons falling out of the closet. How far the seemingly unrequited love duels between Simon/Kaylee and Mal/Inara (played by the achingly beautiful Morena Baccarin) could have gone.

Rarely am I so impressed with a show that I can watch more than a few episodes a week. But with this, I managed to watch the entire series and movie in a one day marathon, changing my plans because I couldn't tear myself away.

The universe of the show is so gritty... you can almost breathe it in thanks to the excellent choice of locations. Many lame sci-fi and/or Western clichés are put out to pasture, or shot completely. Watching this show killed much of my interest for Star Trek; in fact outside of First Contact and Wrath Of Khan I don't think I'll bother anymore.

What I take away most of all - and what really sells me on the show before even mentioning the incredible wit of the script - is the complete devotion every actor puts in, especially the main cast. There is genuine kinship and trust. They obviously love working with each other and for each other. And this brings out fine performances time after time, making episodes range from excellent to staggering.

It inspired the kind of fanatical devotion I've only seen from Lost and Heroes, but neither of those shows hold a candle to Firefly. While other shows get muddied down and lose their way, the first and only season of this is focused and fulfilling. It teaches us that the best choices aren't always the morally upstanding ones, and that bending the rules for the greater good is often the way to go.

To quote Blade Runner, the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long - and Firefly burned so very, very brightly.
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3/10
Good lord, this is awful!
14 February 2009
When reviewing something - anything - I'll usually go into a lengthy dissection of what worked well, which actor stole the show and what could be improved upon. Praise where it is due and criticism where it is needed, to advise a potential viewer what they're getting into should they put money down for some tickets or the DVD/Blu-ray release. I'm fully aware that I'm one amongst hundreds of thousands so my opinion doesn't count for much, but I try and be as even-handed as possible.

In this case though, I really CAN'T be fair to the picture. I can't find much nice to say about it at all, apart from the fact that there are few major technical errors in terms of sets and direction - although neither are much to write home about. It staggers me that mediocre remakes like this are churned out year after year, while struggling, inventive independent directors have trouble bringing their more interesting pictures to a wider audience. No - worse than that - it DISGUSTS me.

This second instalment of the Steve Martin-helmed recreations (or should that read molestations?) of the enjoyable Peter Sellers sleuth romps is worse than the first. I actually wish I could wipe the memory of it from my mind because some of the gags are so hackneyed and unfunny it made me squirm in my seat with embarrassment, watching the formerly likable lead caught up in lame slapstick gags that would make silent film master Chaplin squirm in HIS seat, should he be alive and also unfortunate enough to see this.

There are simply too many flaws to list. The story seems to be missing in action and the acting sits at two extremes - phoned in or hammy to the point of being so bad it's horrible. At points I often mused that not only was this portrayal of Clouseau too dumb to be a detective, he'd actually be too dumb to survive in anything resembling a real world. He would have been struck down by a bus years ago and buried, which I couldn't help but wish had happened to Steve Martin if it weren't for the fact I loved his performance in Planes, Trains and Automobiles so much. The directors might have had better luck making a Who Framed Roger Rabbit style animation/live action mix where Clouseau chases down the cartoon Pink Panther and gets struck about the head with a pan. And when I can dream up better ideas than a team of writers, actors etc then I know it's a bad picture. Epic fail? No doubt about it.

No, it certainly isn't the worst film ever made - I've seen worse that I haven't got around to reviewing because I don't like wasting angry words on things I rate as 1/10 - but I urge ANYONE, regardless of race, gender or age not to add to the box office gross of this film by going to see it. Even if you get free tickets, decline. Stay at home and buy or rent the original couple of Panther pictures with Sellers or watch the sixties cartoon cat in action, because those are leaps and bounds above this sorry excuse for entertainment.

Excuse me while I go and start work on that Steve Martin voodoo doll...
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Superbad (2007)
8/10
A superior teen comedy.
4 January 2009
I thought I'd grown out of these kinds of films the moment I turned twenty. Juvenile jokes and binge-drinking plot lines surely get old after a while - something to be enjoyed thoroughly at the time and discarded in favour of more "mature" pictures later on. I know I certainly feel this way about American Pie, and I only saw the first two of those.

Every so often though something like this turns up and puts a fresh spin on what is a faded and often cliché-laden tale. Something which comes close to being more than just another teen comedy which plays out with complete predictability and forces the more experienced movie-goer to grind their teeth at the same old archetypes being played out by actors who really can't. Superbad is one of those.

The plot is convoluted so much that it becomes part of the humour to see where it'll detour to next. This isn't a bad thing - for those who usually find this genre to be stale, it keeps you on your toes. Luckily this doesn't mean the story becomes so wacky it doesn't have a heart because it does, and there are actually some subtle lessons about not making mistakes that'll stay with you your whole life here, especially towards the end. It's a good balance and with any luck will prompt more than a few "I've been there" moments from viewers.

For those who seemed to think that the movie was expletive-laden - and worse, full of profanity to cover up poor writing and acting - think again. Yes there is a little, but so what? I've never met anyone of the age portrayed in the picture who doesn't cuss a little, and here the characters are witty and amusing when they're supposed to be. I can't often say that about members of the target audience.

Of course, having a likable story and witty jokes is one thing. Having a decent set of actors is quite another. Fortunately, the trio of Hill, Cera and Mintz-Plasse, a cast of relative unknowns, prove they can handle their own and bring spontaneity to their roles. I would wager that some of the more hilarious moments were partially ad-libbed, that the leads took an idea and just ran with it to see what happened, with the best takes ending up as part of the end product. Their interpretations of goofiness and the attempts to be more than just outsiders feel surprisingly realistic, and since they're not Hollywood gorgeous it makes for compelling viewing. Our three would-be heroes are backed up with panache with similarly memorable performances by Seth Rogen as one of two wayward police officers and Kevin Corrigan as the aggressive party host who doesn't suffer ANYONE gladly.

The overall impression I walked away with is that life often leads you down some unexpected alleyways when you're just searching for a good time, but if you keep an open mind and trust your moral instincts you'll turn out fine. The fact this is backed up with a really well-chosen multiple genres soundtrack, some excellent non-sequitur twists and a couple of the most hilarious slapstick moments in years (Fogel getting decked is just one) means I've already seen this twice and plan to see it again at some point.

A consistently humorous teen comedy with a heart of gold? Yeah, I thought they stopped making those too.
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7/10
Not trying to be an epic: just a fun, simple B-movie.
24 December 2008
As much as I like big epic pictures - I'll spare you the namedropping - it's great to kick back with a few beers and a simple action flick sometimes. Films where the plot takes a backseat to the set-pieces. Films where the dialogue isn't so cleverly written that it ties itself in endless knots of purple prose. There are HUNDREDS of films that fit the bill... but in my opinion Gone In Sixty Seconds is one of the better ones.

It's an update of the movie that shares its name. It also shares that picture's ethos, but not quite it's execution. Whatever was great about the original has been streamlined. Whatever was streamlined was also amped up thanks to a bigger budget. Often these kinds of endeavours are recipes for complete disaster - see the pug-ugly remake of The Italian Job for one that blew it - but here, thanks to a cast of mostly excellent actors, Sixty succeeds.

The plot and much of the dialogue isn't much to write IMDb about. Often you'll have scenes where the same line of dialogue goes back and forth between the actors, each of whom will voice it with different inflections. A lot of people found this annoying; I find it raises a smile. Each actor gets a chance to show off his or her definition of style here, with Cage, Jolie and Duvall leading the pack of course (and it should be noted that it's also amusing to see Mrs Pitt not given first billing here). The chemistry between good ol' Saint Nick the stalwart (see date of review) and Angelina leads to a couple of nice moments.

The villain is not even a little scary - I've seen Chris Eccleston play tough-guy roles before so I know he can handle them, but I think he was deliberately directed to make his role inconsequential as not to distract from the action. We know the heroes are going to succeed, somehow; we're just sitting in the car with them, enjoying the ride. I think a lot of these scenes were played with tongue so far in-cheek that it went over the heads of a lot of people giving this a poor rating. In fact, I wouldn't have minded some fourth-wall breaking winks at the camera: it's just that kind of movie.

All this style and not so much substance - something that often exhausts my patience if not executed *just* so - would be worthless if the action wasn't there. And for the most part, it is. Wonderfully so. I've noticed that it seems to be a common trend to be using fast-cut extreme close-up shots to direct action these days. I personally find this kind of thing exhausting. I prefer movies like this where the stunts are impressive enough to not need artificial tension ramping by raping tight shots all the time. I've been told that Cage actually did as many of the car stunts as he could get away with without losing his insurance (in real life I mean - his character clearly doesn't care) and it shows. The man can really move a vehicle and this is put to good use in the slow-burning climatic finale where he drives a Mustang into the ground in the most outlandish - and FUN - way possible.

So yes, this movie isn't an "epic, life-affirming post-9/11 picture with obligatory social commentary" effort. The pacing is uneven, some of the scenes could have been cut and not all the actors tow the line. But car movies rarely come better than this. So if you hate cars... why are you even reading these comments?!

I'd take it over the numerous iterations of "The Flaccid And The Tedious" (guess the franchise) any day. 7/10
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9/10
Great writing, masterful performances. This is sci-fi - no, television - at it's very best.
12 December 2008
There is no denying that Star Trek: The Next Generation is a groundbreaking show. After a shaky start, slumbering in the shadows of it's predecessor, Riker "grew the beard" and around the same time, early in season two, the real potential began to show. It became obvious that Gene Roddenberry had picked a cast more than able to perform the skilled illusion - making a set of sound-stages, scripts and special effects a plausible glimpse into a potential future, one where some of humanities problems have been solved but some linger and are perhaps worse for it.

But I digress. This is not a review of the show at large. It is intended merely to point out that it could have been a catastrophe, when in fact this show singlehandedly resurrected the entire franchise by taking the fandom of the original series and challenging them. And this is demonstrated to incredible effect with the epic two-part adventure.

It may at first seem implausible that an ageing captain, a doctor with no combat experience and a chief security officer would be sent on a dangerous espionage mission, but thanks to the script good, justifiable reasons are provided and they set the stage. The Federation is finally revealed to be strained; stretching to meet bigger and more avaricious foes. The Enterprise crew is forced to work harder, faster and better to meet the challenge when Picard is replaced. Riker becomes an intermediary, an emissary for the misgivings of the crew. His stunning ambition and Kirk-esquire attitude send sparks flying when Jellico (played stunningly by Ronny Cox) steamrollers over the comfortable routine.

After an immaculate setup, the second part delivers on the promise. Sweeping narrative is something Star Trek excels at, and it is no wonder that that last three seasons of TNG contain more two-part episodes than the four that precede it. The two main plots have been intertwined well - both the away mission to discover a Cardassian base and the shake-up of the Enterprise mirror each other in intention, but work so well because of such contrasting execution - notice the extensive use of dark and light between the plots. Both share a common factor - they are guessing games.

In the second part, they become cat-and-mouse games. Jellico must negotiate a workable agreement with the Cardassians, Picard must endure torture of the most degrading sort - not just physical pain, but mental manipulation too. In both cases, the tormentor and the tormented change during the course of the episode, masterfully. When one appears to be holding all the cards, external factors are altered and force a radical rethinking of survival tactics. Both Captains are forced to look inward, to reconsider what they think is right and to admit at least a little defeat to achieve an advantageous goal (Jellico must barter with Riker, Picard must hold on to his hope while wearing down Gul Madred).

I could single out and extrapolate on so many great nuances of performance in many of the cast, but I would no doubt run out of words to do so. As someone who has a huge amount of respect for Patrick Stewart - not just an actor, but the highest class of the art, a true thespian - I will concentrate on that.

Patrick Stewart has often been responsible for the best moments of any work he happens to be in. Even the more mediocre works can be raised by one of his grandstanding, completely compelling speeches. He had always been a strong lead character and Star Trek gave him the exposure he needed to really capitalise on his skills. Here he is given a sparring partner so evenly matched the tension of his scenes - with David Warner as Gul Madred - are a sight to behold. The facial expressions, the subtle vocal inflections and the haunted look one man demonstrates when the other manages a riposte he could not have anticipated - this raises the medium of the television show to the heights of classical theatre.

Both run the gamete of emotions - anger, passion, love, hatred, despair and many more - and it makes for compelling viewing. The tension between the scenes with Jonathan Frakes and Ronny Cox comes very close to matching these heights too: with both plots seamlessly edited together and topped off with an exceptional musical score, the end result is mesmerising.

I remember seeing these episodes as a child and being completely captivated by the moral questions raised, wondering what I might make of the work the next time I saw it. This has been one of the rare cases where age and experience have barely dented my reactions and enjoyment, still forcing me to turn inwards after viewing and consider what my own passions and commitments might be worth in the grand scheme of things. If that isn't what great works of art are supposed to do, then I suppose I'll never know. Bravo. Hats off to everyone involved.
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7/10
"You may wonder: how can wood get so hard?"
6 November 2008
"Beavis and Butthead Do America" is filled with vulgar humour, sadistic or otherwise bizarre characters and a convoluted plot insane enough to make no sense. These are some of the movie's finer qualities. If you didn't like the main duo to begin with then this will do nothing to convince you otherwise. But why should it?

Mike Judge has managed to fill out the 75 or so minutes well without making it drag, and he's done it with style. Since he cannot change the simplistic, constantly sniggering leads he has done the most logical thing he could by surrounding them with a plethora of multi-faceted characters tied together with a conspiracy plot that takes them into other locations where their simple-but-effective double-entendre humour can flourish. Previous characters make a return and are given some development where relevant to the plot.

It all starts inauspiciously enough - the hard rock obsessed teenagers awake one day, still on their couch, to find their beloved television is missing. Not smart enough to put the pieces of the puzzle together to catch the thieves in the act, they try and steal one from their school. Wandering around town ever more desperate, they somehow manage to usurp the television thieves, but not in the way you might expect. This lands them right in the thick of it, and the unassuming pair make their way through. Hilarity ensues on a regular basis.

In my opinion as a would-be critic, we need more films like these. Certainly there are plenty of gross-out movies, some of them also animated (as a side note the animation here is a nice balance between the original show and something more polished) but there are few that can take simple toilet humour and dress it up so well, making it more than just a guilty pleasure to enjoy after a few beers and/or a joint. This is right up there with the finer moments of South Park for such an achievement, and can easily be considered Beavis and Butt-Head's crowning moment of funny and/or awesome.

Overall this is a fun, feelgood comedy which doesn't require all your brainpower to enjoy to the fullest, though an extra watch or two might throw up a few sight gags or subplot references that you missed the first time around for whatever reason(!) The plot seems somehow relevant too, considering that it also deals with an issue that has been a headline grabber in post-9/11 society. But not without a couple of sniggers along the way, of course.

7 stars out of 10: very, very good.
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The Boondocks (2005–2014)
8/10
Culturally significant show with promise. Pray for a third season.
5 September 2008
One white man's review.

I was originally put off watching 'The Boondocks' when it was denounced as racist and condescending by a couple of mutual friends who were greater TV addicts than I was at the time. You know the kind: always wanting to be in on the next great thing before everyone else so they can have the smug pleasure of recommending it to you. Upon closer inspection, however, not only is their assessment incorrect, they missed out a whole lot of good points the show has.

No, the show is not racist at all. Creator and writer Aaron McGruder treats all races with an even hand, showing up their flaws while contrasting their humanities and take on life. He shows us there are white men who hate black men, there are black men that love white men, there are white men that love black culture so much they assimilate it, there are black men who fit gangland stereotypes (Riley) and there are black men trying to find a balance between the cultures (Huey, the voice of the creator). The word 'nigga' turns up a lot in the show but that doesn't mean there's an insult or slur implied - it's just conversational, like calling someone mate or blood or bro - although it is exactly the kind of weapon that overly-conservative types have used without having taken the time to watch properly. Shame on them.

What's good about the show? Quite a lot, actually. Production values are very, very high. Animation, while not overly technical, uses vibrant colours, scenic settings and is very smooth, having a likable Manga inflection for the two kid hero leads and the action sequences. Voice talent is in abundance. A couple of voice actors from my favourite show, Futurama, appear here - John DiMaggio and Billy West - as well as the legendary Samuel L, who I personally never tire of. All the performances are excellent and add depth to even the most basic of lines.

The plots don't quite match the glossy production but they are within striking distance, and often leave the viewer dumbstruck. Very powerful stuff, all told. And did I mention the music? Not only does 'The Boondocks' have one of the best theme songs I've heard (Asheru's line "I am the stone that the builder refused / I am the visual, the inspiration that makes ladies sing the blues" is one hell of a way to open a television program), McGruder tends to pepper the episodes with choice bits of hip-hop and incidental score which seamlessly mix in. I'd recommend picking up 'Hip-Hop Docktrine' parts I and II if you like what you hear.

What's bad about the show? Mostly, that it does what a lot of great art should do - pushes boundaries and forces viewers to reconsider their core values. Through the ages this kind of behaviour makes people uncomfortable. I think that's a good thing so why would I list it as a bad thing? Simply put, shows of this type tend to ruffle so many feathers that funding dries up way before the show peaks. I see 'The Boondocks' as getting ever-closer to combining all the intentions and styles into a cohesive unit, but with Cartoon Network failing to broadcast the last two episodes of the second season it doesn't look so good. It may not get picked up for another season and to lose it now would be a damn shame. I feel although the show is damn good, it has started hinting it could be so much more. The potential is there.

If you want something that entertains and challenges in equal measure and don't mind seeing every race under the sun satirised for comic relief, you might just love this. All thirty episodes are worthy of any viewer who has an open mind willing for more than the trite, non-challenging tripe we're wading through right now. As something of a liberal, that works for me.
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7/10
C+: Good, but not great.
29 July 2008
'Encounter At Farpoint' is the double-length pilot episode of The Next Generation and introduces us to the characters, the ship and... the writers, who at this point were the weakest link.

The two main plots are engaging enough. Going on commentary from Roddenberry, the Q entity was written in later at Paramount's behest but, to me, is the most amusing part of this outing. Q almost represents the studio's viewpoint - in the show, the whole human race is on trial, in reality, the entire TNG concept was on trial. His presence is a definite highlight and he would go on to be one of the most memorable characters of any Star Trek incarnation. Q's presence interweaves comfortably with 'the trial' itself which is the unravelling an enigma: how did an obviously technologically deficient race build a frontier outpost of high-technology to service the Federation, and can the mystery be solved without resorting to violent methods thereby proving Q correct in his definition of the human race as barbaric and child-like?

From a technical standpoint this episode is respectable. For particular commendation I would single out Industrial Light and Magic's excellent special effects work. The models of the Enterprise-D and the alien spacecraft(s) set a high watermark which remains, for me, an engrossing aspect of the show to this day. We now take complex and expensive shots like these for granted in television shows, but until TNG it wasn't all that common.

As for the performances, the cast are still tentative within their new roles, finding their comfort zones and strengths. Some of the dialogue allows them chances to connect with their characters and therefore with the audience, other sections would be better delivered tongue-in-cheek rather than with deadly earnestness, or omitted entirely. My own assumption is that at this point Roddenberry was working towards the strengths of the old cast, whom he was familiar with, expecting them to be partial clones of Kirk and crew instead of relying on his new actors to take Star Trek in interesting new directions. When he stepped down as Executive Producer and handed more responsibility to Braga (who, sadly, would go on to lose his deft touch while in control of Voyager) many of the problems were ironed out.

'Encounter At Farpoint: Parts I and II' represent some of the best moments of the first season but not necessarily the entire Next Generation run or the four films that would follow. It is abundantly obvious that the premise has great promise, but it would not be until late into the second season that consistency would improve and truly great stories would be added to the Star Trek canon.
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Star Trek: The Next Generation: Skin of Evil (1988)
Season 1, Episode 22
5/10
A real howler., typical of the first season.
29 July 2008
Warning: Spoilers
Star Trek TNG is often cited as re-igniting the franchise, taking it onto new plains without losing the core values that Roddenberry worked to create in The Original Series. While in later seasons the writing would improve and finally match the strong abilities of the main cast, the first season is routinely derided for being weak; a mere rehash of old ideas and extraneous plots introduced to waste time. This episode is somewhere between those points, with the added embarrassment of a needless death.

The premise of the show is standard Trek fare; a shuttlecraft carrying Ensign Ricky Redshirt and a main cast member - in this case the voluptuous Deanna Troi - crash lands on a planet and requires rescue. The attempt is then impeded by an indigenous lifeform. Rather than an interesting villain of some description, the main cast spend most of their time on a poorly designed 'Planet Hell' set talking to a poorly-animated tar pit with an ugly duckling complex.

Even this terrible concept could have been enlivened by some cracking dialogue, but no, the writers were more than happy to stick to hapless cliché and stilted exposition here. Plot holes are obvious - how did Troi survive for the amount of time depicted in the episode stranded on a shuttle with no replicator, for example? The few redeeming moments of the whole sorry proceeding are within the Yar's eulogy scene, where Denise Crosby speaks for Yar and describes her love and respect for the remaining cast and Brent Spiner has the opportunity to develop Data's character. It is partly this closeness between the cast that led to the 'classic' episodes later on in the show's run.
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Futurama: Space Pilot 3000 (1999)
Season 1, Episode 1
9/10
It's hard to believe this was the pilot.
2 July 2008
Yes, this is the one that kick-started the Futurama franchise. Looking back, now the show is halfway through it's fifth season, it is amazing how well it has aged. The characters are on-model, the voice acting is nearly spot on (the Professor's would later change) and most of all, the trademark Groening animation style and spoof-heavy humour are all in check.

Pilot episodes lay out the premise that forms the backbone of the show. Sometimes they suffer from a weak plot, trying too hard to throw the main characters together without giving you a feel for the world the show is set in. In "Space Pilot 3000" quite the opposite is true; great writing helps things flow naturally, setting up character quirks and catchphrases that become staple running gags of later episodes. In fact, Bender's first line is now his oft-used insult.

This outing is several notches above standard pilot fare, and stacks up to any other 'classic' episode of Futurama thus far. For those thinking about delving into the franchise, this tells you all you need to know. Great work!
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Frasier: The Matchmaker (1994)
Season 2, Episode 3
10/10
Excellent episode for so many reasons.
2 July 2008
Frasier's second season is my personal favourite of the show's impressive body of work, with this particular gem perhaps my all-time favourite episode. It is incisive and witty, handling homosexuality and dating with tact and taste, never becoming crass or re-enforcing stereotypes.

The punchlines range from highly amusing to downright hysterical, with some being so good I actually have to pause the episode because I'm laughing so hard I cannot hear the next lines. Kelsey Grammar plays his role with complete candour and is complimented with incredible style by Eric Lutes, on fine form as Frasier's new boss at the station.

This is situation comedy at it's finest; rarely do I see anything that matches it, never do I see it bettered. In one episode Frasier (the show) does a better job of dealing with sexual preference than the entire run of Will & Grace. Joe Keenan wrote many episodes for Frasier, all very good, but he really excels himself here. Outstanding work, and one of the few times I've awarded a perfect score. It is thoroughly deserved.
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8/10
Excellent work all round, plus Will Ferrell's strongest performance to date.
22 June 2008
Stranger Than Fiction a premise that only occasionally crops up in film-making; what if the boundaries between what we perceive as real and our imaginations became inextricably linked? As this is such a hard question to base an entire narrative around, it is a pleasant surprise to see that the film succeeds admirably, mostly due to excellent characterisation and a lean script that doesn't waste a word.

Harold Crick (Ferrell) is an IRS agent who, for most of his adult life, has just been going through the motions without any feelings or attachments to anyone. He comes across as unresponsive and cold; a man so obsessed with numbers that he counts his footsteps and how many strokes he uses while brushing his teeth, and doesn't really come alive until he starts hearing a voice in his head. Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllanhaal) is a free-thinking, fiery local baker who resents paying income tax whom Harold must audit. Jules Hilbert is a literary professor whom Harold asks for advice when he begins to hear a voice in his mind, dictating parts of his life. Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) is a frail but acclaimed author with a severe case of writers block, and only through her narrative does the film take shape and intertwine the characters in a way that skillfully explores the concept of 'breaking the fourth wall'.

To say too much about the plot would ruin some of the comedic value and suspense. It is something of a black comedy which is played as dryly as possible for maximum effect. What I can discuss is the performances of the lead characters, which are uniformly excellent. Dustin Hoffman shows how much skill a veteran actor can inject into every nuance seemingly without effort and provides many of the films best lines and physical comedy. Emma Thompson, with assistance from Queen Latifah as her assistant, is convincing as an author trying to wring one last great novel from herself by any means possible.

Of particular note is Will Ferrell, who shows us a skill for drama and monologuing that I would never have expected given his previous 'Frat Pack' output. Instead of using hammy techniques and going for the easy and obvious, his understated subtlety works well as Harold grows into his own life and takes control in a way that had once eluded him. It is a completely straight performance played without irony and works all the better for it.

As mentioned, the script is completely airtight. I can find no flaws, small or large. It is not necessarily the most quotable piece of work found in a film but it doesn't need to be. The pacing backs up the strong writing: never going too fast and cramming in ideas but never going too slowly to drag and bore the viewer. This makes it appealing as it avoids the currently popular choice where 'fast cuts' are used to artificially inflate the sense of tension.

Other points to note. The incidental music is fantastic; whether it is a score or a piece of pop music, the motifs used give the various moments of the film a pleasing cohesion. The titles and subtle use of graphical overlays (mostly in the first act as Harold Crick's methodical life is explained) are very noteworthy, too. Again, small details that add crowning touches to an already impressive motion picture.

Stranger Than Fiction is an excellent piece of film-making, proving yet again that big budget special effects and melodramatic performances are not what makes a movie so enjoyable, especially upon repeat viewings. What does matter is characterisation, something that is in abundance here. All the characters have little quirks and tics that make them more tangible and all seem to change and be enriched by the depicted events at the conclusion, finding hidden strengths they weren't aware of and answering all the major questions posed.

It is nice to know that pictures like this are still being made, in between the botched remakes of old classics and excessive cartoon-to-celluloid superhero adaptations. A beautiful piece of work.
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Frasier (1993–2004)
9/10
The sitcom comes of age.
5 June 2008
Frasier is a near-perfectly executed show. It may not be the most popular because it often speaks of a world so venerated and coveted that few members of society can truly relate to the high-brow snobbery of the protagonist and his brother. But the beauty of show is it's approachability... whenever something too elite or prosaic is uttered, you can guarantee that the boys father, Martin Crane (played with precision by John Mahoney) will be there to bring the show back with a blue-collar perspective that deflates the esoteric references with gentle, real-world humour. He is perhaps the most believable ex-cop on screen.

Why does the show work? The same reason most good shows work... relatability. Everyone knows a Daphne, a Martin, a Ros or even a Frasier. Although not many of the target audience have worked in show-business or psychiatry, we are at least familiar with the precepts and common themes. What separates Frasier from other, equally great shows is at first twofold; bringing characters beyond reliable stereotypes into unique individuals, and doing everything with high intellectualism without becoming pretentious. With repeated viewings the writing and direction allow us to see shades of ourselves in the characters. I personally enjoy an ice-cold lager, salted snack treats and a big football game on the box as much as Martin Crane, but yet I also enjoy indulging in thought-provoking works of art in the form of great literature and painting, as the Crane sons often do. (Though I do stop short at the opera.) And of course, it shows that under our facades we're not so very different. I feel many shows eschew this last point in favour of bland entertainment. Frasier doesn't.

To cut to the point as Martin Crane so often does: it won't make friends of everyone but those that like the mixture will probably count it among the best television shows ever made. The fracturous human psyche and it's perception of reality, satirised for entertainment, is a concept as old as Greek mythology and just as well-executed when the show peaks. I believe many episodes of Frasier will age just as well as one of the coveted vintage wines the Crane boys are so fond of. Here's hoping. 8/10
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Insomnia (2002)
4/10
Not the best effort of anyone involved, by some distance.
3 May 2008
I refer mostly to esteemed director Christopher Nolan, actors Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Hilary Swank as the most notable here. To be honest I wasn't impressed with any singular aspect in terms of scripting, cinematography, directing, pacing, setting or anything intrinsic to great film-making. Even taken together, I did not find this picture particularly engrossing.

Al Pacino's performance is best described as workmanlike. There is none of the showmanship or nuance displayed in Scent Of A Woman, Devil's Advocate, Heat or The Godfather. Bereft of a good script or a chance for one of his trademark speeches, Pacino relies on hangdog expressions as much as Julia Roberts relies on doe-eyed expressions in Notting Hill. From an actor of such obvious ability, this is disappointing. Robin Williams fares no better as the villain. He employs subtlety in a similar manner to his role in One Hour Photo but the effect falls flat here as his character fails to have any depth. There is no reason to hate him, there is no reason to understand him, sympathise with him or be terrified by him. Hilary Swank tries her best with the material but comes up as short as the rest. Martin Donovan is utterly forgettable, even considering the use of flashback scenes and mild hallucinations.

The most disappointing aspect has to be the direction. Having seen such fine, genre-defining work from Nolan, it's very sad to see him flounder with this. I didn't necessarily expect clever trickery, complex editing or any of his other hallmarks, but with greater attention to the style and mood of the genre (in this case detective thriller with some film noir undertones) he could have made this much more engrossing. Instead we're lumbered with slow push-in shots, standard alternation between close-up and distance shots for action scenes and pedestrian back/forth shots for one-on-one dialogue. The entire direction fails to create a sense of mood or tension. Even the relative beauty of Alaska is not exploited, or even used except in one short scene where Pacino loses control of his vehicle.

There is no sense of progression here. A complete absence of short shocks or built-up set-pieces further desecrates the picture - well, more accurately they are THERE but they're completely ineffectual and usually feel forced. You feel them coming because you've seen them done better in countless other pictures. Al Pacino does not seem any more of an insomniac at the end than he does at the beginning - it's not the make-up, it's the lack of performance. Robin Williams comes in too late and as mentioned, adds no drama or tension.

The whole thing plods along without ever taking off. I was waiting for a defining moment, a spark, some kind of twist that would offset some of the obvious weaknesses but it never came. There was never a moment or a line that explained the predicament and gave the film the deeper portent it was aiming for. The plot unravels in ones mind only moments after the credits roll with notable holes and lack of substance.

Perhaps I've been spoilt by such great film-making I've become jaded, but considering past performances by the creators I wasn't expecting to be left in such a malady. I am reminded of the recently released 88 Minutes which I happened to see before this picture. Sadly, although that picture is also far from top quality, I happened to find it somewhat more effective.
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Seven Samurai (1954)
8/10
One of the best action films of all time
11 March 2008
It took me a very long time to get around to watching Seven Samurai in full. I had the DVD for nearly a year before I tried tackling the whole thing head-on. It really is hard to get away from the conditioning of Dolby Surround sound, full colour non-subtitled 90 minute pictures we're so used to now. But when I did, I was glad of it.

Lets forget the fact that this picture, much like Citizen Kane before it, set the standards which would come to be developed upon and eventually rendered to the point of cliché in every movie of the genre that would follow. Lets forget it may not have the conventional bells and whistles of most pictures these days.

What it does have is stylish direction, breathtaking acting and identifiable characterisation in spades. Indeed, after the first hour, the body language said so much I needed only glance at the subtitles to follow the plot. My personal favourite actor is the first of the seven to be recruited, the restrained and noble elder who goes on to mold his ragtag bunch into a streamlined fighting force. The scene where he arranges for each samurai a reaction test before even SPEAKING to them, is a highlight of the first hour of the film.

The pace doesn't feel sluggish or rushed. There are no moments of exposition that feel over-elaborate or forced; everything is revealed in good time. Like all great directors Kurosawa knows how to make you live and breathe the atmosphere of the characters. Rather than making the samurai and the townspeople they defend seem all-holy forces of good he introduces conflict, making them imperfect yet with pure motives that may transcend any shortcomings.

Overall, this is one picture that you could spend as long describing as you could watching. Some may argue it has dated badly. Although not every scene has the same impact as it did upon release, every single one counts and contributes to what, 53 years later, still stands as one of the greatest achievements of 20th century cinema. I just hope we don't have to wait until 2053 to see something that matches it in majesty and scope.

8/10
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9/10
An underrated film that may be rendered 'classic' by the passage of time.
8 February 2008
It has taken me several years and many viewings of this film to finally be able to give it the review that I think it deserves, from my point of view. And the very fact this has been a laboured decision has probably been a good thing. Very few of my favourite films have been ones that I can sit down and review right away. They're usually so profound I have to experience them at different points in my life and at every turn, be amazed and vindicated by them.

Good Will Hunting is no different.

I want to start with my favourite aspect of the picture: the script. The script is by my definition completely sublime. It moves seamlessly from group dialogue, to one-on-one revelatory back and forth dialogue, to some of the all time best monologues I've ever heard. The monologue, so long associated with the diatribe of a supervillian in action films, is given new meaning here. The script manages to touch upon the many facets of human existence and reaction without sounding contrived or clichéd. If Damon and Affleck never write another script, never mind. This is one that defies all expectation. There is strong, believable character development throughout. At the moment I empathise with Will; young, ambitious, cocky and uncertain. I expect as I grow older, I will tend to empathise more with Shaun; experienced, intellectual and with an enduring 'down but not out' attitude.

This magnificent script is backed up by career defining performances. Matt Damon does a great job of the intelligent yet lost genius Will Hunting. We see that behind a defensive facade there is a fragile, talented individual making tentative steps into a potentially difficult adulthood. Ben Affleck is so good here as Will's best friend that I find it hard to believe he hasn't done anything as poignant since. As a blue-collar man with a simple philosophy (and one of the best monologues in the film, no less) he really defines and exceeds his archetype. Minnie Driver also performs wonderfully in an underrated role as Skylar - as with Affleck she is on such form that I can't believe she has not yet matched this performance. The real star turn here is of course Robin Williams, on startling form as a grieving psychologist. It's hard to describe how pivotal his role without giving away plot points. It suffices to say, it's an excellent study into character dimension.

With the script and performances discussed, it must also be said that the cinematography matches the intent of both perfectly. There is a nice mix of both shallow and deep focus shots, interesting and not overstated use of colour when contrasting both in and outdoor scenes and many other pleasing touches a more astute eye than mine will be able to identify. The film is also underpinned by a moving never obtrusive soundtrack; I was delighted to hear Elliott Smith featuring no less than three times.

To summarise without drifting into unending hyperbole, yes this film require some suspension of disbelief. If you are particularly gifted in the field that Will is purported to be a genius in, you may have a hard time. Even I identified some of the problems he faces as simplistic. I believe this course of action is taken to prevent alienation of the audience - a complex discussion of the intricacies of advanced mathematics would stiffen the pace and be besides the point. The film is about the journey of the protagonist; how a precarious genius might perceive the world around him or her in such a different way as to make social interaction difficult. It paints such a great picture that I feel that here is an underrated film that should be rendered 'classic' by the passage of time.

Here's hoping! 9/10
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4/10
Not the great return to form we'd hoped for.
19 December 2007
The problem is, with a show like the Simpsons, every story both tangible and off-the-wall has been explored in the standard series to often powerful effect. Now in order to stretch it out for a movie they've had to come up with some convoluted and confused plot and even then the main feature has trouble keeping it together for 75 minutes.

I tried, but I could not suspend my disbelief for the plot lines, any of them. We all know Homer is stupid; it's one of the staple points of humour in the show. But in the great episodes (seasons 1-10) he wasn't a complete moron barely able to string a few words together as he is here. Who could believe in Bart and Ned Flanders as best of friends? With all the character development we've seen in the past we know that would never be possible! How about 'Spiderpig' and Colin, two completely superfluous and unnecessary characters if ever we saw them. Lisa Simpson, the former intellectual genius reduced here to pining for Colin and whining about everything. No, the only humour I found was incidental to certain situations and even then there weren't the kind of belly laughs the show was capable of producing at its peak.

The bigger budget has translated into a plethora of CGI-based tweaking that seems to be used as eye candy, distracting less observant viewers from the lack of plot. You've also got characters doing and saying things you know they normally wouldn't just to serve the plot. We've seen these sorts of tricks in other Hollywood motion pictures; I'm sad to say it has filtered through to the silver screen debut of one of the all-time classic animated shows.

I bought both The Simpsons Movie and Futurama: Bender's Big Score on the same day. While the Futurama feature not only managed a longer screen time and a shorter credits list at the end, it also managed more laughs and more emotional connection with the characters. It was so good I watched it twice, whereas with this film I had trouble getting through it once and I'm pretty sure I never want to see it again. I'm glad I didn't buy it as a Christmas present.

In closing I think that The Simpsons Movie is not terrible. But neither is it the great effort it could have been, and I rate it below the Futurama, Family Guy and South Park movies. A shame. 4/10
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