Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Best Movies Of The Nineties : Pulp Fiction

Quentin Tarantino's sophmore 1994 outing has become an iconic, much quoted reference point of an ironic, self-aware decade. Much like Nirvana did in the world of music, it's indie excellence spawned a host of inferior imitators for many years after (Lucky Number Slevin, anyone?), and proved that a great movie could be made outside of major studio patronage.

While the former video store geek turned film maker rejuvenated the film career of John Travolta (a middle aged white man rarely looked so cool) and, to a lesser extent, Bruce Willis, Pulp Fiction also made household names of Uma Thurman and Samuel L. Jackson with their excellent performances, allowing us to forgive a brief execrable turn from the writer-director himself. Oh, and Christopher Walken delivers a hilarious cameo as a former Vietnam vet who goes to far beyond the call of duty to deliver a very special watch.

Key to Tarantino's unique directorial voice was his purposeful use of non-linear narrative, sparkling, witty dialogue and obsessional attention to detail, particularly with reference to the canon of both great movies like the work of Hitchcock, and the pulp, genre movies that formed his filmic education and give the movie its' title. While we are introduced to a world of small-time hired thugs, drug dealers, thieves and other stock low-life, they behave in unexpected ways, from verbosely discussing the meaning of a foot massage, to quoting the bible when executing a foe.

And whether it's Jackson chomping on a Big Cahuna Burger, or Travolta ordering a pack of Red Apple cigs in a bar (both fictional brands appear in other movies by the director), there is evidence throughout of a revelling in attention to detail in every aspect of Pulp Fiction that shows it to be a labour of love by Tarantino, and since the film routinely charts highly in best movie of all time lists, it seems to prove that the geek shall indeed inherit the earth.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Best Movies Of The Nineties: 'Fight Club' Review (1999)

The final year of the nineties spawned several movies which consciously or otherwise, attempted to capture the zeitgeist, and Fight Club, alongside The Matrix, is perhaps the most pre-eminent in this respect. David Fincher's study of masculinity and alienation from consumer culture set new boundaries for aesthetics and effects in cinema, bringing the visual stylistics familiar to MTV audiences to a bear on the major spiritual and philosophical questions of the day. "We have no Great War, no Great Depression," insists Brad Pitt's infamous, violent but verbose character Tyler Durden. "Our great war is a spiritual war, our great depression is our lives” in a clarion call that spoke authentically to a generation who would go on to question the impact of modern capitalism on the environment and the developing world in the decade followed.

Described by the director and cast as a black satire, the action begins with Edward Norton as a
bored, insomniac insurance loss-adjuster, who gets bonuses the less his companies pays out to the injured, going about his job, as he begins to question his meaningless existence. A chance meeting with soap salesman Tyler Durden (Pitt) leads to a close friendship which shakes him out of his alienation, while Helena Bonham Carters' crazed goth chick strikes up a relationship with his newfound friend, leading to a confounding love triangle that isn't what it seems.

The release of the film was distracted by concern and controversy over copycat “Fight Clubs” being started across the US, in much a similar fashion to the media debacle that accompanied the release of Stanley Kubricks' A Clockwork Orange two decades earlier. An underwhelming box office performance and mixed reviews on the film's release were however later reappraised in light of the film's second life on DVD as the story found a cult audience, going onto become of the most loved films in recent years. Some of the most quotable lines in movie history helped, as did a highly unique visual style developed by Fincher, which went on to influence countless directors in its' aftermath. Oh, and you'll never look at a bar of soap the same way again.....

Friday, 31 October 2008

Indiana Jones and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Review

Harrison Ford returned to the big screen this summer as the daring adventurer/ part time archaeologist to much anticipation, after, wait for it, a 19 year hiatus since the last installment of the franchise, back in 1989. I was still in school. Happy days. A generation of movie goers have grown up without the joys of seeing the old-fashioned hero escaping at the last minute, beating unreasonable odds, and confronting other-wordly terrors. It's time they got an education, and Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford and George Lucas have not disappointed.

I have a confession to make at this point. Truth be told, I grew up on Indiana Jones. I probably watched Raiders of The Lost Ark over 50 times when I was between 9 and 13. The Temple of Doom was a poor follow-up which didn't grab me as much, but the third instalment with its' Nazis and saving the world plot had me gripped again. To have been deprived of the series for the last 2 decades has left me feeling cheated, but I was certainly not disappointed on seeing Ford return in the eponymous role of my boyhood dreams.

So, I'm probably a little biased when I say that I loved this new episode. For fans, it has all the familiar aspects that one would expect, but with some fun twists and subtle differences. There is the Crystal Skull – a mythic object with untold powers. However, although it is linked to an ancient civilisation in the form of the Myans, this time it's ultimate source is from outer space, a theme in keeping with the fifties, that forms the background for this new story. As such, the bad guys this time are Russians, rather than the Nazis that made such compelling baddies in earlier episodes. Taking place in a decade upon which the spectre of nuclear holocaust loomed large over America, the film also touches on this tricky subject and makes it clear that the great world war has now been replaced by a cold war.

With Ford back in the title role at the age of 64, it's fascinating to watch how he carries it off, drawing attention to and having fun with the comic possibilities of his ageing frame, rather than glossing over it. Shia Leboef also holds his own as Jones' heir apparent, styled in the image of Marlon Brando in The Wild One, simultaneously signalling to the viewer that it is a decade since WWII, and the world is moving on. The tension between the two characters provides a great deal of the films' conflict, as the older figure struggles to accept the young upstart, and vice versa. Lucas always said that Jones was a partly a tribute to the matinee shows of the 30s, and part James Bond. Given the ongoing nature of the latter, it seems only fitting that the film clearly leaves open the door for the younger actor to take on the mantle of the great adventurer over from Ford in future films.

The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is also fascinating for kids who grew up on in the eighties on a diet of Spielberg and Lucas movies for the way in which it ties together major themes from their movies. By bringing together their fascination for sci-fi seen in movies like Star Wars and Close Encounters with the fascination with ancient cultures depicted in earlier Indiana movies, this film provides an interesting commentary on their previous work, uniting it in an unexpected and interesting way.

In the end, while Lucas worked hard on the three Star Wars prequels in the past decade, I felt that they were largely poor and diminished the franchise. In the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull on the other hand, Lucas, Spielberg and Ford have made us wait two decades for a film which, while not perfect, is the belated ending that fans deserved. Although I wonder how the old-fashioned cinematic values and narrative will be percieved by a younger audience, as a fan myself, I loved every minute of it.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Life On Mars....US?

So, last Thursday US Network ABC broadcast the American version of the British made international hit series, Life On Mars. As a fan of the time travel story / police procedural, I thought I'd sneek a peek at their version, especially given that no less than Harvey Keitel is in the much loved Philip Glenister role of no nonsense 70s cop.

On the whole, the first episode was largely faithful to the original to a great degree, sharing pretty much the same plot, similar dialogue (minus some of the more extreme stuff that, while ok for hardened UK audiences, probably doesn't cut it with sensitive US advertisers and their sensibilities), and even a lot of visual similarities. Some of the same camera shots at key moments, Sam Tyler's natty leather jacket, and the office of the police station were identical. Makers must have been keen to capture and distill the magic that made the original so loved by audiences across the world.

Sam Tyler is played by Irishman Jason O'Mara in this version, who does a creditable performance as the confused policeman who is run over in a car accident in 2008, and mysteriously wakes up in 1973. The local references of 70s Manchester were transferred to flower power Noo Yawk faithfully, with a background of Vietnam, beautiful people and a funk-soul soundtrack. The pace kept up as the first episode set up Tyler's predicament for the audience.

I understand that in the second episode the story will depart from the original, which seemed to clearly suggest that Tyler was in fact in a coma in a hospital bed in the present day. The remake will be far more ambigious in the variety of possibility of explanations for the detective's apparent predicament, with him writing down 13 different reasons on a blackboard, and each of these being explored over the rest of this first series.

With Life On Mars being a ratings success on its first outing last week, the series is likely to make its way to our shores soon enough. For those who can't wait, here's a taster.....


Thursday, 9 October 2008

The Dark Side Of Fame : Mickey Rourke

Earlier this week, while experiencing some rather frustrating technical problems (my computer was totally stuffed), I was privaledged to see an episode of the BBC's The Dark Side Of Fame With Piers Morgan. I'm no fan of the former Daily Mirror editor, as he and his tabloid brethren are responsible for the misery, and descent into self-destruction of many a talented actor or musician, and for me he represents the ugly, envious gossipy side of English culture.

But at any rate, this Monday's episode featured the great lost eighties icon and heart-throb Mickey Rourke. The weather-beaten star looked sincerely fragile and broken as he talked about a difficult childhood and a descent into self destruction that saw him go from being the brightest potential star in Hollywood into a washed up boxer who had burned all bridges professionally and personally, and was left with virtually no one.

Now on the mend with a recent appearance in 2005's Sin City, he looks like he could produce a prodigal son performance to match his making peace with Hollywood in forthcoming movie The Wrestler, which will be out in December. Anyway, enjoy.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Start Here : An Essential Taster of...Blaxploitation Horror

Blacula (1972)

To most people, Blaxploitation conjures up images of big black dudes with afros, in loud, natty clothes, and a cast of pimps, drug dealers and ladies of the night, all set to a funk/soul soundtrack, set in the ghetto. The US movie genre which began in the early 70s was born out of a new self confidence from the emancipation of a minority, and was kitsch, and definitely loud, black and proud, with notable movies like Shaft, and Sweet Sweetback's Badass Song leaving an indelible mark on popular culture.

A lesser known strand in this genre was the reinvention of existing horror narratives, which began with the release of 1972's Blacula, a commercial success which has since gained status as a kitsch underground classic of the decade that taste forgot.

The story begins with an African prince, Mamuwalde, who calls upon the help of Count Dracula in countering the slave trade. It emerges that Dracula is in fact a racist, and so the evil Count turns the prince into a vampire, christening him with Blacula, and imprisons him in a coffin. Years later, the box is then transported to 70s LA where it has been bought by two gay interior decorators, where it is opened and all hell (literally) breaks loose, and the body count begins piling up.

The film was so successful that it spawn a sequel, and effectively, the whole genre. As the story shows, Blaxploitation's contribution to the history of horror movies is an interesting take which highlights a decade when racial tensions were still rife, where the bogeymen are misunderstood black men, who are typically victims of white society. More importantly, they're a bit silly, and lots of fun.

Next Stop: Dr Black, Mr Hyde (1976) , Blackenstein (1973), Bones (2001).

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Pan's Labyrinth : Is It actually any good? Really?

Controversial. Sacrilege, you might say. The Spanish language film directed by acclaimed Guillerme Del Toro in 2006, and released to widespread critical praise won countless awards, including 3 Oscars, and rose to the top of many "Best Of" lists for films that year.

Now the thing with praise is that it can sometimes disguise the reality. A Chinese whisper effect takes place as journalists communicate to one another that x film is the coolest thing ever, and they fall over themselves to heap superlatives upon it. The problem with this? Ever heard of the Emperor's New Clothes? There are films which you're told you will like, that you must like because everyone else does are often a disappointment. The best films often one where one has the least expectations or foreknowledge, discovered by accident while flicking channels, or taking a punt on a movie we've never heard of at the cinema. Perhaps it's something to do with consciously trying too hard, engaging the mind instead of letting the experience of a film hit you.

So, it was with trepidation that I sat down to finally watch Pan's Labyrinth on Sunday night. Suffice to say I was not disappointed. The story in set in Spain in 1944, as the battle to rid the country of rebels against the fascist rule of Franciso Franco is taking place, in this post-civil war period. Ofelia, a young girl of 11 who is in love with fantasy tales and literature, accompanies her pregnant mother to her step father, a ruthless captain working to wipe out the resistance to Franco's regime.

As they join Ofelia's new step father in the mountain ranges of North West Spain, the young girl discovers a Labyrinth, stealing away at night to follow a cricket which turns into a fairy, to find a mythical Faun creature in an underground lair who tells her that she is in fact Princess Moanna, giving her 3 tasks to complete before she is allowed to return to the underworld.

This magical world of mythic creatures and quests is counterpoised, as it unfolds against the harsh backdrop of a world in which the battle between the fascists and the rebels continues, as Ofelia also discovers a housemaid, Mercedes, and the resident doctor in the barracks are also assisting the rebels who hide in the hills, with brutal consequences.

The tale is in a sense like a modern day Peter Pan, with the young girl choosing to renounce the evils of the adult world for a fantasy which may, or may not actually exist. The ambiguity of the fantasy reminded me of the programme Life On Mars, and to a lesser extent, films like Fight Club and A Beautiful Mind, in the sense that the spectacle we are witnessing may or may not be real, but we are participating in a version of reality through the eyes of someone who is either crazy, or has visionary insight into another, fantastical reality, and is confronted with a choice.

It was a visceral experience, moving and highly emotional. You'll see in my earlier reviews from this summer, that I found Hellboy II to be over-rated, due to the presence of Del Toro as director. Visually stunning but lacking in a strong, engaging narrative. After seeing this earlier film I can now appreciate where the critical praise has come from. So, do believe the hype, after all.

Hack Rating 4/5

Monday, 29 September 2008

Paul Newman : RIP

Legendary screen actor Paul Newman passed away this weekend aged 83 at his home in Connecticut, after a long battle with cancer. Tributes have poured in from all corners of the film world to celebrate the contribution of an actor who worked across six decades of cinema.

Newman, who was a gunner in World War II, was instantly recognisable for his piercing blue eyes and, like contemporaries such as Marlon Brando and Steve McQueen he had a rebellious, outsider persona, with key performances in movies such as Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, The Hustler, and Hud.

He studied at the famous Actors Studio in New York, soon after appearing in religious drama The Silver Chalice. He was so embarrassed by his performance that the often self-deprecating actor took out an advert in Variety magazine to apologise for his performance.

Nominated for 10 Oscars, including one for directing his wife in Rachel Rachel. His 50 year marriage to his wife was a Hollywood rarity, and succeeded partly because he remained the outsider from world of movie celebrity, mirroring the unconforming nature of his performances. He eventually got his break playing boxer Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956).

A famous humanitarian, he was such a supporter of liberal causes that he made it onto President Nixon's enemies list, claiming it was the single biggest honour he had received. Newman set up a food retail company, donating all profits to charity, which currently total approximately $250 million, as well as making considerable donations to various charities with with he was involved, including a $10 million donation to charity of which he was a member.

Newman worked on 60 movies, alongside such luminaries as Alfred Hitchcock, Lauren Bacall, Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Elizabeth Taylor and Robert Redford, finally winning his Oscar in 1986 for The Color Of Money.

late in his career he continued to gain distinction for his performance in 2002's Road To Perdition. Of his contribution, director Sam Mendes said, "“To say he was an extraordinary man would be an understatement.

“For me personally, working with him was the highlight of my professional life. He saw himself as a working actor, not a movie star, and insisted that everyone else did the same. There was no ego, no entourage, no hangers on. Only Paul, his script and his incredible spirit. One can say this about very few people, but he was a truly great man.”

Monday, 22 September 2008

Taking The Proverbial: Top Five Spoof Movies

With the release of Ben Stiller's cod-epic war extravaganza Tropic Thunder hitting the big screen last Friday, I decided it was time to look at a handful of classic spoof movies that subvert and play with existing movie conventions.....

1. Spaceballs (1987): Mel Brooks' take on the Star Wars triology, Star Trek and other futuristic nonsense, given the po-faced original (Harrison Ford once said to George Lucas, "you can type this shit, but you can't read it"), was like shooting fish in a barrel, with characters including Dark Helmet (played by Rick Moranis), Yogurt (re: Yoda, d'uh), and Pizza the Hut, and a story involving a galaxy far, far away. An animated TV sequel hit US networks just last weekend. Top Quality Quote: Dark Helmet, aiming magic "Shwartz" ring at Lone Starr's privates, "Say goodbye to your two best friends, and I don't mean your pals in the Winnebago".

2. Airplane! (1980): The 70s was the decade of the disaster movie, beginning with Airport (1970), and ending with this definitive spoof flick, making a name for Leslie Neilsen in the process. A fairly simple plot which involves a veteran pilot conquering his fears to land a commercial flight when it is stricken by a case of food poisoning, it provides some of the funniest laughs ever in a movie, and some immortal dialogue. Airplane also made it into AFI's Top 100 funniest films ever, at No 10. Top Quality Quote: "Surely you can't be serious" "I am serious, and don't call me Shirley".

3. This Is Spinal Tap (1984): My personal favourite from this, or any list of comedy films, this early eighties mock documentary about a fictional British band on a promotional tour in the US for their album "Smell The Glove". Famously unfunny to rock musicians of actual bands, including Steve Tyler and Eddie Van Halen, who found the humour too close to home, most of the laughs are improvised by the 3 Americans Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer, with perfect accents, setting the standard for future generations of character comedians and fans of the documentary format, including Ricky Gervais and Sacha Baron Cohen. Top Quality Quote: "It's such a fine line between stupid and clever".

4. Austin Powers Trilogy (1997-2002): The International Man of Mystery, and all-round ladies man, Mike Myers' comic creation obviously owed a debt to James Bond movies, and the spy genre, which provide fertile ground for hilarity. Shag-adelic Powers is a 60s spy who escapes from his own decade and the clutches of nemesis Dr Evil, with the help of cryogenic freezing. He then thaws out in the late 1990s, finding social mores have changed (sadly free love isn't the order of the day anymore), while his battle with the arch enemy re-initiates. Oh, and watch out for characters with names like Fat Bastard, Felicity Shagwell, and Alotta Fagina. Top Quality Quote: Dr. Evil: "Begin the unnecessarily slow-moving dipping mechanism".

5. Blazing Saddles (1974): Another Mel Brooks classic, this satire of Western movies sends up every convention of the genre. The story involves a corrupt politician who appoints a black man as the new sherriff of a small town in the Old American West where everyone has the surname Johnson, is not for the politically correct, containing the use of the word "nigger" 17 times - it was partly written by none other than Richard Pryor, by way of explanation. The black comedian's sparring partner Gene Wilder plays the Waco Kid in the flick, while screen cowboy John Wayne refused a cameo in the movie, fearing it was "too dirty" for his wholesome image. Top Quality Quote: "You've got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know…morons".

Friday, 19 September 2008

Top Five Political Movies

With the forthcoming release of W., the biopic of outgoing American president, dubya, and Frost/Nixon, which depicts the famous, highly controversial interviews conducted with the disgraced former US leader, it looks like Hollywood is going all political and gearing itself up for the forthcoming elections.

Having a penchant for going a bit Ben Elton myself, I thought I'd get in a bit of politics, and give you a rundown of my Top 5 Political movies, in no particular order......

1. All The Presidents Men (1976): The definitive movie about US politics, and the perfect companion piece to Frost/Nixon. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman shine in the real-life story of 2 investigative reporters working on the Washington Post, who uncover a scandal involving President Nixon's re-election campaign, or Watergate, as it became known. The work of the journalists ultimately contributed to the impeachment of the President, and the film won several academy awards. Top Trivia: The makers initially tried to film the movie in the actual Washington Post newsroom, but it proved impossible, as the real-life employees tried to "act", some even disappearing off to the gents to apply make-up!

2. Scandal (1989): Telling the story of John Profumo (played by the least likely ladies man, Ian McKellen), the British Cabinet Minister who in 1963 had an affair with showgirl Christine Keeler (played by the rather lovely Joanne Whalley), who was also romantically involved with a known Russian spy. The Minister then lied about the relationship on being questioned in Parliament, and the affair ultimately contributed to the collapse of Harold MacMillan's Conservative government. Top Trivia: There were complaints that some extras can be seen having unsimulated sex during an orgy scene, which turned out to be the result of an unfocussed candlestick. The film was however still re-edited to obtain an R certificate in the US.

3. Dave (1993): Not the Freeview channel for endless Top Gear repeats, but an early nineties comedy starring Kevin Klein as a lookalike of the corrupt incumbent president, and who steps in at the behest of a manipulative Whitehouse insider when the real leader suffers a stroke. The "what if" scenario paves the way for comedy moments, and well-intentioned liberal stuff about how a regular citizen untainted by the Washington machine can do the right thing. Top Trivia: Several fictionalised broadcasts from actual US TV shows were recorded for the film, including Tonight Show starring Jay Leno, and Larry King Live, where Oliver Stone sends up himself by suggesting a conspiracy theory which, it turns out, reflects the unlikely events of the movie.

4. JFK (1991): Talking of conspiracies, movies and Oliver Stone, another early nineties gem detailing the events surround the death of 35th US President (and Marilyn Monroe conquest) John Franklin Kennedy. Kevin Costner plays a District Attorney helping the government investigation, uncovers the inevitable covering up of a conspiracy which allegedly goes to the highest echeons of power. Top Trivia: The film caused such a public outcry upon it's release, that it lead to the opening of the "Assassination Records Review Board", a government body which worked for 6 years collating documents and conducting interviews relating to the death of the much-loved President in order to ensure there was no cover-up.

5 The Manchurian Candidate (1962) A Cold War political thriller starring Frank Sinatra, and a young Angela Lansbury, the idea of the story is that the son of a prominent right-wing politician has been brainwashed in order to instigate an International Communist Conspiracy, using false memories. Far superior to the 2004 remake, the film has a rare 100% rating on film site Rotten Tomatoes. Top Trivia: Hollywood rumours suggest that Sinatra had the film withdrawn from circulation following the JFK assassination.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Preview: London Film Festival 15th - 30th October

The 52nd London Film Festival kicks off this year will showcase new work by film makers including Steven Soderbergh, Michael Winterbottom, Haile Gerima, Arnaud Desplechin, Takeshi Kitano and Shyam Benegal.

Event will also include "Screen Talks" sessions with Danny Boyle, Michael Sheen and Robert Carlyle, and celebrities in attendance will include Benicio Del Toro, Gwyneth Paltrow, Omar Sharif, Liam Neeson, Penelope Cruz, Nanni Moretti and Rachel Weisz.

5 Movies to Look Out For at LFF

1. Che (Part 1 & Part 2) - Fascinating biopic of revolutionary hero Che Guevara by Steven Sodebergh, tracing his rise from obscurity to military leader. Worth it to see the ever-excellent Benicio Del Toro in the lead role (Parts 1 & 2 on 25 Oct, Part 1 on 27 Oct, Part 2 on 29 Oct).

2. Hunger - Disturbing and compelling depiction of the 1981 IRA Hungerstrike, a debut movie by Turner-Winning artist Steve McQueen, uncovering an important piece of recent British history (19 & 20 Oct).

3. Quantum Of Solace Daniel Craig returns in his second outing as the legendary secret agent. The first public screening of the movie, which premieres 2 days later (29 Oct).

4. Slumdog Millionaire - Trainspotting and 28 Days Later director Danny Boyle's touching story of the hard life young man from the ghettos of Mumbai who aces his way through India's Who Wants to Be a millionnaire . The film won the Cadillac People's Choice Award earlier this month at the Toronto International Film Festival(30 Oct).

5. W. - Oliver Stone's take on George W Bush and his story as he rises from alcoholic bum to leader of free world, with crumpet from Thandie Newton as Condonleeza Rice (23 Oct & 24 Oct).

In additional to a total of 189 feature films including these, and lots of interviews, events, and debates, the National Film and Television School will also hold screenwriting classes with Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovitch, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind) prior to showing his new film Synecdoche, New York which will be premiered for UK audiences after being first shown earlier this year at Cannes. Writer Peter Morgan (The Queen, The Last King Of Scotland) will also discuss the fine art of screenwriting prior to the prior to premiere of the hotly anticipated Frost/Nixon.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Top 5 Improvised Movie Moments

Improvisation is not just the realm of pretentious posh drama student types, it’s also a tool used by actors and directors today in the creation of some of the silver screen’s finest moments. Here’s a rundown of some particularly good examples of the craft in use….

1) Empire Strikes Back (1979) – farewell scene between Han Solo & Princess Leia: The space smuggler turned intergalactic hero is about to be frozen alive in carbonite after being betrayed by his old pal Lando Calrissian, and sold out to helmet-headed bounty hunter Boba Fett. Han Solo’s last words to the love of his life, the feisty Princess (played by Carrie Fisher), when her final words are “I love you”? He responds with “I know”. Ford changed the reply to be in keeping with the macho rogue’s cocky, confident persona, and the result is one of the most memorable moments in movie history.

2) Reservoir Dogs (1992) – the ear cutting scene: The film which brought the worlds’ attention to uber movie-geek Quentin Tarantino is most well-remembered for the moment where Michael Madsen’s character, Mr Blonde tortures an undercover cover detective while dancing round the room to “Stuck In The Middle With You” by Stealers’ Wheel ; The rather cheerful tune forms a freaky counterpoint to the psycho action on screen. 4 takes that were improvised of Madsen chopping the fella’s ear off. In the one that made the final cut, the actor managed to up the ante by committing the heineous act (at which point the camera pans away) but then went one step further proceeding to speak into the unattached appendage once he had it in his hands! For an interview where Madsen talks about his work on the scene, check out:

3) Borat : Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006) – the whole damn thing: Almost all of Sasha Baron Cohen’s breakthrough international hit is improvised, though the makers clearly set up situations designed to make the best of the charms of the fictional Kazakh television personality. Best bits? Borat explaining to three eminent feminist academics that a leading government scientist had proof that women were clearly inferior to men as they had “brain the size of squirrel”. In another gem he upset the genteel attendees of a polite private dinner in America’s Deep South by telling one aging lady she had an “erotic physique”, and announcing after returning from the restroom that he had enjoyed a “good shit”. With so many good memorable moments, the film is a masterful work of improvisational comedy.

4) Blade Runner (1982) – Replicant death scene: (NB For those who don’t want a movie spoiler, look away now). The final scenes of this landmark science fiction movie culminate in the death of Rutger Hauer’s character, leader of a group of rebel “replicant” androids responsible for escaping and killing countless humans. Hauer’s character shares his final moments with Harrison Ford’s Deckard, a police officer assigned to track him down and “retire” him, with the android declaring to his human counterpart of all the amazing things he has seen in his life, and that “all these moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain”. Hauer has since described his work on the movie as the best he had ever committed to film.

5) Apocalypse Now (1979) – Brando’s Colonel Kurtz : Francis Ford Coppola’s epic, insane war flick follows Martin Sheen’s rather green footsoldier Benjamin Willard making his way up a river with orders to “terminate with extreme prejudice” Brando’s AWOL military leader Kurtz. It ends with his finally meeting the great man. Brando, was by the early 70s a fading, errant star, much known for misbehaving and squandering his prodigious talent, and turned up on set 220 pounds overweight and not having read the source material, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness despite having being told to turn up slim and fully briefed on it. As a result, he had to improvise most of his appearance, except for the payoff line “The horror, the horror” – Coppola asked Brando to stay back a further hour after his initial 1 weeks' work, so he could do a closeup of this. The maverick actor agreed, charging an additional $75,000 for his trouble.

Monday, 25 August 2008

Hellboy II : The Golden Army (12A)

Tucked in amongst this summers blockbusters is the new film by much lauded director Guillermo Del Toro. The man responsible for the award-winning visual feast of Pan’s Labyrinth has this time contrived a similarly stunning piece of artful cinema, cleverly disguised as a mainstream box-office winner for mass audiences in this follow-up to his 2004 introduction to this franchise.

Ron Perlman reprises his role as the lead character, a comic-book creation who is a demon originally brought to earth by Nazi Occultists, and who now works for the US government as undercover agent for the top-secret Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defence. Big, dumb and brutish as he is, the macho man-mountain isn’t the sharpest tool in the box, and suffers from being insecure and short-tempered, but what he lacks in brains he makes up for in heart.

The film sees the big man in the early stages of his relationship with Selma Blair’s character Liz Sherman, a woman who has the gift of being able to turn into fire at will. Jokes about being too hot to handle aren’t too far wide of the mark, as the action sees the new couple partaking of the petty arguments that accompany moving in together, and adjusting to one another’s differences and flaws.

This domestic stuff is mostly handled with a light touch, and unfolds whilst the world once more needs saving from the forces of evil. This comes in the shape of no less than Luke Goss, who almost exactly reprises his character in Blade II, as a long-haired pale goth-like Prince Nuada. He seeks to reunite the pieces of magical crown which gives the holder the power to control the mythic clockwork ‘Golden Army’, and allow his Elven creed to rule over the human race.

All this mythic stuff gives Del Toro licence to play to his strengths and create a rich visual world of characters combining the weird and wonderful likes of creatures in the Lord of The Rings trilogy and the Star Wars movies. Aesthetically, a lot of it utilises puppetry and prosthetics over CGI, which does play a part in augmenting rather than dominating the screen.The effect is magical, and stunning.

Perlman is excellent as the misunderstood, overly sensitive giant, rejected by an unsympathetic human race yet willing to fight for it’s survival, while having more in common with the otherworldly creatures he is sent out to destroy. The rather sexy Selma Blair (previously seen snoggging Neve Campbell in Cruel Intentions) is there for more than decoration also, as a strong female in a mans’ world.

Overall, then it’s a beautifully baroque creation of elves, trolls and demons battling it out, but somewhat let down by a lack of urgency and pace, but still worth it for sheer escapism, beauty and fun.

Hack Rating: 2/5

Sunday, 27 July 2008


So, been a while since I've touched this baby, as I have been predisposed surviving and making my way in the cut and thrust world of my corporate day job.

Anyway, I figured it was long overdue since I checked out a highly rated movie from last summer, Judd Apatow's Superbad. It involves the antics of 3 slightly dorky teenage boys as they attempt to get laid in their final days of high school before going off to college, with all the uncomfortable fumbling, gaffes and stupidity that that implies.

It lacks the raw hilarity of say, American Pie, which is more overtly commercial and formulaic in it's take on the ubiquitous American teenage experience, going more for character driven storyline. It also captures the idea that most of growing up is about goofing around with your mates not getting laid and wondering what it will be like and recogising that those friendships have value and meaning, perhaps more than the flings that happen along the route to adulthood.

Writers Seth Rogen (the male lead in last years' Knocked Up, and a drunken, wayward cop in this movie) and Evan Goldberg also heavily lay out the homoerotic subtext of the friendship between lead characters Evan and Seth heavily from the offset. "Have you ever stared into his eyes?" he says of one ex-boyfriend of the girl he has a crush on. "It was like the first time I heard the Beatles".

Though it successfully captures the confusing burst of feelings that accompany growing up, Superbad is definitely a film about the boys (finally) getting the girls. As well as getting some action, Evan, Seth and Fogle (aka McLovin, as his fake ID states) find themselves also getting into hi-jinks involving illegally buying liquor, being chased by the Police, and gatecrashing a party and nearly being beaten up by the host. It's a great ride with lots of fun, and the best movie of it's kind for many years, though it did leave me feeling slightly unsatisfied, like the hi-jinks weren't quite high enough, and the jokes didn't quite make one laugh out loud. For a slightly superior take on growing up, check out Richard Linklaters' Dazed And Confused. As for Superbad, it's still an entertaining, funny 2 hours of anyone's time.

Hack Rating 3/5

Sunday, 15 June 2008

In Bruges

This weekend, I had the chance to check out this black comedy starring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as two hitmen hiding out in Bruges after a job, with a Ralph Fiennes doing a creditable cockney geeza gangland boss, back in England calling the shots.

The stunning backdrops of European capital provide a counterpoint to macabre comedy, as Colin plays a young upstart, frustrated at being trapped, far away from home, as the odd couple have to play pretend as tourists, for cover, while waiting for instructions from the big boss man. It's a surreal trip in some ways, with fat Americans, a dwarf in school uniform, copious amounts of cocaine, and hookers down from Amsterdam all form part of the journey in a bitterly comic examination of the value of human life. It's not for the easily offended.

Farrell's acting is wayward at times, Fiennes does a respectable turn as something other than posh English gent, but Gleesons' avuncular character holds the piece together. In some ways a bit of a British gangster movie uprooted and plonked in a derided European city, the film feels like a stage play at times, and it comes as no surprise that it is the first feature for Anglo-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh.

It feels somewhat overwrought because of this, with self-conscious references to other movies such as Don't Look Now, and perhaps a few too many twists and turns, as a friend of mine suggested. In this sense it does feel like the film maker is a little too trying too hard, but he doesn't need to. Overall, a funny, well observed, thought-provoking 2 hours of viewing....

Hack Rating 3.5/5

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Top Five Slacker Flicks

Okay....So I've just had the pleasure of checking out Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay. It's a surreal caper based upon a rather ropey premise which involves a plane full of rather jittery US citizens mistaking the word "bong" for "bomb". Much hilarity ensues.

I'd give it a Hack Rating of 3/5. But more importantly, here are my top 5 movies recommendations of the grand tradition of US movies featuring slackers and stoners.....

1. Easy Rider (1969). Original Stoner road trip movie starring Peter Fonda, and Dennis Hopper going "looking for America" on Harleys in the Groovy late 60s, and getting trolleyed.
2. Dazed And Confused (1993). Cult coming of age flick directed by Richard Linklater, set on the last day of school in 1976. Not too much getting stoned, but lots of slacking.
3. Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. (1998) Johnny Depp as infamous Rolling Stone journalist Hunter S Thompson with lots of insights into 70s counterculture, and lots of mescaline.
4. Dude, Where's My Car? (2000) Ashton Kutcher and Seann William Scott as two stoners who wake up to find their car is missing, and spend the whole movie finding it.
5. Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982). Written by Cameron Crowe, classic 80s school movie featuring an ensemble cast which included a host of young actors and actresses who went onto become household names, including Sean Penn, Nic Cage, and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Happy slacking....

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Gone Baby Gone

After the past several years pursuing a truly egregious career as a naff male lead in a series of critically panned turkeys such as 2003's Gigli and Surviving Christmas, people had begun to forget the promise Ben Affleck showed early in his career. Back in 1997, he co-wrote and starred alongside childhood friend Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting, for which the duo won an Oscar for Best Screenplay. Where did it all go wrong?

Well, after being somewhat eclipsed by his old Boston buddy and writing partner in recent years, Affleck has undergone a career revival in the past couple of years with the well received George Reeves biopic Hollywoodland, and now this, his co-written directorial debut Gone Baby Gone. The film was out in October 2007 in the Us, but delayed for release here in the UK for several months due to it's somewhat superficial similarities to the case of missing child Madeline McCann which has dominated tabloid headlines here in the past year.

So is it any good, despite sharing the same name as a Gnarls Barclay tune? Well, surprisingly, it's excellent. A brilliant performance by brother Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan, a couple who work as private investigators, and are enlisted by a distressed family to intervene in the search for an abuducted 4 year old girl, who has gone missing in their local neighbourhood in Boston. They uncover a complex and murky plot involving drugs, money, and police corruption where no one is as they seem and not even the family involved can be trusted.

Casey's streetwise Patrick Kenzie is both canny and cool as he confronts drug dealers, neglectful family and ultimately, a corrupt police force in his search for the truth, and a great deal is lost and learned in the search for missing girl Amanda. It's compelling viewing, with a slightly unsatisfying ending, but infinitely much more thought-provoking and worthy than some of the atrocious Hollywood fodder Ben Affleck (case in point: Pearl Harbor) has been involved in during his career. Very enjoyable, intelligent, but ultimately bleak.

Hack Rating 4/5

Friday, 6 June 2008

Last King of Scotland

Hi chaps and ladies.....

Okay, so just watched Last King Of Scotland, featuring an Oscar-Winning performance for leading man Forest Whitaker - a bit of a chameleon, having appeared in movies such as The Crying Game, Platoon, and as jazz legend Charlie Parker in Clint Eastwood's Bird. A Black Kevin Spacey, maybe?

Anyway, it's based on the 1998 Giles Foden book, loosely based on actual historical events surround the life of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, the British Army trained, capricious mass murderer who famously ejected all the Asian population from the country in the 70s, as well as killing 300,000 people. It concerns the odd couple relationship between the big man and Scottish Doctor Nicholas Garrigan (played by James McEvoy), who is also based on an actual person, Bob Astles, the President's physician, friend, eventual confident, and right-hand man.

Forest Whitaker's performance is as magnificent as has already been documented. By turns charming and friendly, he gradually reveals his murderous, capricious nature to Garrigan over the course of the movie, as McEvoy's character, a Brit abroad escaping from his oppressive father and prospectively boring life as just another GP, evolves from being a naive lad off on his jollies into someone who eventually becomes complicit in the murderous regime of his dictator friend, before the terrifying reality of his entrapment in the nightmare situation is gradually revealed to him.

With a plummy, posh English Gillian Anderson making a brief appearance as a missionary doctor making an appearance, the usual criticism of such movies depicting Africa come into play. Africans are depicted an unsophisticated, barbaric heathens, and the movie is very much presented through the White eyes of McEvoy, who does however distance himself from the overtly colonial attitudes of the English ambassadors who represent the British government's interests in the chaos of Uganda. The movie does make some concession to blurring the boundaries between civilised and uncivilised in the somewhat unsypathetic portrayal of Gerrigan, who is too busy having a fun adventure abroad to realise the seriousness of the situation faced by the native people (including one of the President's wives, whom he impregnates) of Uganda for much of the movie.

It's a good watch overall, worth the time for Whitakers' performance alone, which embodies a compelling mixture of charisma, capriciousness, charm and evil, though the lack of a largely sympathetic central character in McEvoy to balance proceedings means the film lacks a heart which stops one from truly loving it.

Hack Rating: 3/5

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Top Ten Movies

Ok, Hi people. This is a relatively young blog, so I guess it's a good starting point to get an idea of the sort of movies I love....well, I've got a wide taste. I tend towards character-driven, dramatic movies with intelligent plots, but I'm not averse to the odd action adventure movie, and even the odd chick flick. Here's a current top Ten of recent movies, with the emphasis on stuff from the past few years......

1. The Departed. Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Martin Sheen,......the list goes on. An excellent cast with Martin Scorsese at the helm in a US remake of top Jap flick Infernal Affairs. Absolutely amazing.
2. Oceans Eleven. Classy remake of the ratpack flick, with standout performances from an ensemble cast with an ice-cool George Clooney at the helm, and brilliant direction from Steven Soderbergh. Awesome.
3. The Matrix. Original free your mind movie which upped the ante for all action films for the following decade since it was released in 1998. A brilliant combination of thought-provoking and thrills. Let down by two lesser sequels, but still a great stand-alone picture.
4. Casino Royale. Adrenaline-charged reboot of the flagging Bond franchise with a more brutal, ruthless, and much less camp lead in Daniel Craig. Less Pussy Galore, more thrills galore.
5. Knocked Up. Intelligent, inciteful and hilarious twist on the boy-meets-girl chick flick where boy gets girl pregnant and they fall in love. Lots of fun.
6. Training Day. Standout performance from Denzel Washington as a ruthless, corrupt undercover Narcotics cop on the LAPD, with the callow Ethan Hawke coming of age in a single day. Gripping.
7. Pirates Of The Carribean. Worth the price of admission for Johnny Depp's Keef-sendup Captain Jack. Family fun for grown-ups.
8. Ratatoille. Another Pixar gem which is almost perfect in execution and storytelling. Touching, funny, and guaranteed to bring out the big kid in everyone.
9. Walk The Line. Joaquin Phoenix as the great Man In Black Johnny Cash in a moving love story, covering his early days struggling with drink, drugs, love and fame, and a lovely but feisty Reece Witherspoon testing him and saving him all the way.
10. Michael Clayton. Slow moving action thriller with excellent performances in a brutal, moving legal drama about US corporate corruption and the impact on human life.

There's a list, off the top of my head. If you want a recommendation, try one of that lot, not a turkey among em.

The Godfather Trilogy

To celebrate the release of a DVD box Set of the Godfather Trilogy, I decided to watch all 3 Godfather films in a marathon weekend session - nearly 9 hours of view pleasure.

I have to be honest and say I've never actually properly watched these classics of the genre, despite being an avid fan of the US Gangster genre - The Departed is probably my favourite movie of recent years. But The Godfather....well that's the original. The Don, you might say. Francis Ford Coppola's 1972 screenplay of the Mario Puzo novel about an Italian American mob boss surviving, plotting and manoeuvring in the murky world of the post-war US criminal fraternity is voted the No#2 Best Movie of All Time in the American Film Institutes' list of 100 Best Movies, and often cited as the Best . It also won Academy Awards for Best Screenplay, Best Actor for Marlon Brando's portrayal of the title character of Vito Corleone, and Best Adapted Screenplay. The follow up, featuring Robert De Niro as a young Vito, was released 2 years later to similarly rave reviews and awards, with a final instalment in 1990 following upstart Andy Garcia as heir apparent to Pacino's reluctant patriarch, receiving the weakest praise of the trilogy.

Much acclaim then for the series. Having said all that, my enduring memories of the films, trying to watch them late at night as an 11 year old kid, is a series of dull scenes of old men sitting in darkened rooms mumbling a lot, and stuffing a lot of food into their mouths. I didn't get it, but given my love for this strand of the US crime genre, which has gone from strength to strength in recent years with movies such as American Gangster, The Departed and Gangs of New York, I thought it an apt time to go back to the source.

Beginning with the first movie then. I guess what I failed to get a kid was the subtlety. The acting of all the players, but Brando and Pacino in particular, is superb. The action follows the battle for control of New York's criminal underworld, gambling, prostitution, and, in the late 40s, the burgeoning new business opportunity of selling drugs. The Corleones are one of the "five families" that share the goods but soon into the story Vito finds himself the target of an almost-successful assassination attempt by the rival Tattalia family. With his father hospitalised, shorted-tempered heir Sonny, played by James Caan, takes control of matters, leading to more trouble, and college-educated Michael (Pacino), despite being chided by his brother, shows his steel when he is compelled to become reluctantly involved, to save the family business.

As a study of old-school masculinity, family values, and dare I say it, the American entrepreneurial spirit, the film is peerless, Shakespearian in its' insight. Brando's portrayal of the fading but wizened patriarch is convincing in making us see how everyone on screen treats him with a mixture of fear, admiration and respect. Pacino, who was then an unknown, is also perfect as the reluctant but ultimately conformist son who shares his father’s astuteness, understanding of power, and capacity for ruthlessness.

So, overall it is as good as they say it is. The pace is leisurely by today's standards, the cinematography is such that it could have been shot yesterday, but the story is timeless.

Part II

So, on we go to Part II. This picks up 2 concurrent storylines: the origins of the young Vito Andolini (played by Robert De Niro) whose mother and brother is killed, and flees to the US at the turn of the century, just a 9 year old boy, where he is accidentally given the surname Corleone, the town of his birth. While we follow his growth into a man and gradually into the Don, we also pick up where the story leaves Michael, now the established, flourishing Don of the Corleone family, now in the late 50s, facing new challenges from his enemies and the authorities, and always plotting to stay one step ahead.

Like the original, the film climaxes in a bloodbath of Elizabethan proportions. As in life, often one is not sure who is friend or foe, but ultimately the most Machiavellian and ruthless character triumphs.

Part III

Critically and financially the weakest of the 3 movies, this film takes place in the late 70s, and was shot in 1990 by Coppola, who was forced to make the movie due to letting the studio down with the commercial failure of his previous movies. Not the best of reasons. The film essentially ties up the narrative strands of the previous movies, which appear to reward Pacino's ruthless character with untold riches and power. In the final movie, we see his regret, his suffering and the underlying religious themes (Italians are Catholic, after all!) of redemption and damnation.

Michael has become a respectable figure in American business and public life, donating generously to charity and ostensibly investing only in legitimate business. Inevitably, ageing and reluctant as he is, he attempts to finally close the door on his criminal activities and make peace with the past, but is dragged back into the criminal underworld via a feud with the young upstarts who see him as a fading patriarch, while Andy Garcia's virile young Turk steps in, as the illegitimate son of deceased Sonny, who seems inherited the raw masculine, ruthless streak that has both saved and condemned the family.

The trilogy shows us that human nature and families, it seems, mean that we make the same mistakes through history. And although it is tainted somewhat by a weaker final instalment, particularly with the miscasting of Francis Ford Coppola's daughter Sofia, it's certainly worth a weekend of anyone's viewing, and a timeless classic to boot. Just make sure you're old enough and patient enough to sit through it.....