Johnny Depp seems to go through spurts of rampant popularity. After bursting onto the scene in the early 1990s following his remarkable performance in Tim Burton’s glorious fairy tale Edward Scissorhands he was lauded as the next big thing, but then embarked on a rather eclectic series of film choices. Never opting for the obvious big budget, typically Hollywood roles, as he more than had the looks – and offers – to do, Depp has maintained his desire for the quirky, the small-scale and the unusual throughout his career.
Since his turn as the Rolling Stone pirate Captain Jack Sparrow in the hugely popular (and great) Pirates of the Carribean a couple of years back, and as Peter Pan scribe JM Barrie in last year’s Finding Neverland, however, he has found himself once again with a public – and critics – clamouring for more – and even a couple of Oscar nominations under his belt.
Yet still he refuses to choose roles that guarantee success, only those that interest him. And so we find him, under another flowing wig and with a hideous prosthetic nose that renders him nearly as unrecognisable as he was playing Edward Scissorhands, as the 17th century poet and utter cad the Earl of Rochester in a rollicking period piece packed with debauchery, lechery, drunkenness, wit and disease that attracted controversy even while it was filming thanks to rumours of wild scenes of orgies and nudity. It sounds like it must have been immense fun to film – and as Depp seems to pick his roles for either fun or challenge, you can see the appeal straight away.
Yet this is not a mere bit of fun for a successful star who has enough money to do what he wants. Based on the play of the same name by award-winning British playwright Stephen Jeffreys, this is a far more complex beast than the early reports would have one believe. Depp’s Rochester is a complex antihero, a classic study of self-destruction, and a part that would challenge any actor to pull off. Depp is more than up to the task, having dabbled with self-destruction himself many times in the past, as his frequent tabloid appearances throughout the 1990s are a testimony to.
The prototype rock star-like behaviour of Rochester was a scandal at the time, and still has the power to shock even now, yet his tale is a tragic one, reminiscent of any number of lost geniuses whose talent was only appreciated after their deaths, a combination, if you will, of Vincent Van Gough and Kurt Cobain.
Aided by a strong and eclectic supporting cast ranging from John Malkovich, on top form as King Charles II, to Brits Samantha Morton and, bizarrely, comedian Johnny Vegas in a vast ginger wig, were it not for Depp’s assured central performance this film could have easily ended in failure. As it is, this is yet another piece of evidence to add to the file suggesting that not only is Depp one of the most interesting and surprising actors working today, he is also one of the most enjoyable to watch.
The Brothers Grimm
Former Monty Python animator Terry Gilliam’s first film in seven years couldn’t help but be much anticipated. Especially since the well-documented failure of his Don Quixote project, so painfully revealed in the superb documentary Lost in La Mancha, which brought back industry memories of his big-budget, underrated flop The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, the idea that Gilliam could ever get a project funded – let alone finished – ever again was but a vague hope for his many fans.
The idea of a fantasy biopic of German fairytale maestros the Brothers Grimm, played in deliciously over-the-top style by Matt Damon and Heath Ledger, where their stories are based on a reality which they reluctantly have to confront, sounds like perfect Gilliam material from the get-go. His ongoing obsession with the blurring of fantasy and reality is one that has cropped up throughout his feature film making career, from Time Bandits through the truly outstanding masterpiece that is Brazil, the sprawling visual feast of Munchausen and the more character-focussed The Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys. The only idea that could have been any more perfect for Gilliam is an adaptation of the original tale of confused reality, Don Quixote itself. But that was not to be…
In the States, the film was greeted with a bizarrely mixed reaction. Some loved it, some found it very disappointing, others didn’t seem to understand it at all. All these responses are fair. It’s an utterly confusing film – especially considering how long it’s been since Gilliam’s last outing, it’s easy to forget just how damn odd, and how improvised in feel his stuff can be.
This is utterly unlike the work of pretty much any Hollywood director. The closest to his style is probably Tim Burton – but Burton has always had a far glossier feel than the often rough and ready approach of a Gilliam movie. The fact that it has been such a long time since his last outing as a director makes it even worse, as many have forgotten just what his movies used to be like – and many teenagers, who used to be among his core audience, are now too young to have even heard of him.
To compound the problem, this is old-style Gilliam – the Gilliam of twisted live-action cartoons like Baron Munchausen and Time Bandits, not the more grown-up Gilliam of The Fisher King, Twelve Monkeys or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
It has been seventeen years since he last completed a movie of this type, and in the meantime he has been consistently lauded by critics as some kind of genius. Which he is, but not in the way many imagine. His genius was always in the concepts – not necessarily in their execution.
Gilliam’s early work was always great fun, but generally had some parts that didn’t quite manage to work – yet they were always still well worth watching, and had a tendency to grow with each subsequent viewing as more and more subtle ideas that he’d worked into the background came to the fore. The same is true here. It may not immediately leap out as a classic, it may not leave you thinking it was great after one viewing, but the experience – as with any Gilliam film – is more than worth it, and you might just find that it starts to grow on you.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Val Kilmer’s name on a film poster is, these days, enough to drive anyone away. He’s been associated with more high-profile duds than pretty much any actor currently working, be it the awful The Saint to the sprawling Alexander, has built up a reputation for being an arrogant and unpleasant person to work with, and by most accounts he hasn’t managed to put in a genuinely good performance since 1993’s Tombstone, where he was truly superb as the slowly dying gunslinger Doc Holliday.
Robert Downey Jr has likewise not had much luck in recent years. Though he won wild praise for his turn in the title role of Richard Attenborough’s ambitious biopic Chaplin back in 1992, for the last decade or so he’s been more prominent in the tabloids for drug offences and imprisonment than for anything he’s managed to achieve in front of the camera, and is probably best known these days for being in an Elton John video and playing yet another in a long string of Ally McBeal’s boyfriends.
Putting these two together as the headline leads in a movie is, therefore, either utterly insane or a very bold move, depending on how much faith you have in their abilities to shake off their respective reputations and actually start to bother acting again.
Written and directed by the screenwriter behing the insanely successful and continually endearing Lethal Weapon series, the news that this is another take on the “mismatched men have to overcome their differences to solve a crime” idea that lies at the heart of that franchise might also suggest a certain lack of originality. The fear might be that this is merely a rejected script for Lethal Weapon 5 that Mel Gibson didn’t want anything to do with now that he’s not only richer than God but in the big man’s good books for The Passion of the Christ to boot.
Somehow, though, this combination of talent with chequered pasts has merged to bring out the best in all concerned. Though there may be little logic to the plot, centred around Downey Jr’s petty thief trying to make it as an actor in Hollywood under gay detective Kilmer’s tutelage amidst an LA underworld that becomes increasingly strewn with bodies, the two leads are both back at the top of their game.
This kind of movie, undoubtedly a buddy cop film in the fine 1980s tradition of Lethal Weapon, 48 Hours and Beverley Hills Cop but with a noughties twist, succeeds purely on the charisma and on-screen relationship of the lead actors. With Downey Jr and Kilmer on top of their game, as they are here after a long famine of good roles, even with the most ridiculous premise the movie would work. They both, when on form, can exude such an easy presence and charm that either alone could buoy up an otherwise poor movie. Neither have done so for such a long time, the sight of both working expertly together is a real joy.
This is by no means an excellent movie – it’s a bit too silly to become that. It is, however, great fun, solidly entertaining, and a long-overdue return to form for two of Hollywood’s finest bad boy actors. More than worth the price of admission.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
If the title doesn’t ring any bells, if you don’t know which number in the series this is, there’s little hope that this film will hold any interest – although if you’ve managed to avoid the Harry Potter phenomenon this long, either you have no interest in anything that’s going on around you, or you’ve been locked up in some far off distant land for the last few years.
Yes, it’s that time of year again, so the latest film version of JK Rowling’s still insanely popular children’s novels about the young wizard at boarding school is ready for release. With the once young and innocent cast looking ever more grown-up, the Hollywood types behind this celluloid version of the franchise must be getting worried.
This is, after all, only the fourth in the series, and though there are a couple more books – and so a couple more films – left so far, Rowling seems to have slowed down the speed of her writing now that she is officially richer than the Queen, and pretty soon the films will have caught up. Not only that, but pretty soon leads Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint will be far, far too old to continue playing schoolchildren.
This particular tale is set in Harry’s fourth year at Hogwart’s wizard school – he should technically be fourteen. Not only is actor Daniel Radcliffe already sixteen, but he looks rather older. Does this matter? Well, it means that the films are becoming ever more unlike the books. The tall, muscular Radcliffe is hardly much like the rather small and weedy Harry that Rowling seems to envisage any more. And if Rowling has yet to change the way she writes the character, those hoards of children and adults who have already read all the novels are increasingly going to come to see the screen Harry as little like the one from the page.
Yet though they may be diverging from the books, the film version of Harry Potter is at the same time going from strength to strength. Much as the first two books in the series weren’t really that great – at least in comparison to the more assured sequels, the first two films were, if we’re honest, really rather shoddy. They showed very little imagination, the special effects were dire, the child actors weren’t up to much, and the only thing that they really had going for them was being excessively faithful to the originals.
With last year’s outing, and change of director from hack Christopher Columbus to proper, talented director Alfonso Cuarón, the film franchise shifted into something more grown up, just as did its (formerly) child leads. This time the director has shifted again, but they have once again opted for a proper, experienced man behind the camera rather than a talentless figurehead – and considering this is effectively an ensemble cast picture with a bunch of very well known British actors, they have opted for one of the best possible choices – Mike Newell, probably best known for Four Weddings and a Funeral.
As such, with Newell at the helm, although this may not be as visually assured and interesting as last year’s outing, the confidence of the director in handling his vast cast, featuring as it does some of the biggest names in British screen acting, ensures that this is a worthy addition to the franchise. Even if Harry really is looking a tad big these days, he has yet to grow out of the public’s love.
It’s not often that you get a western these days. It’s even less often that you get a Australian western. Rarer still is the attraction of an Australian western written by cult Aussie singer Nick Cave, erstwhile lead crooner in The Birthday Party and now best known as the deep-voiced head of slightly weird music troupe The Bad Seeds.
Set as it is in 1880s Australia, as that vast island was just beginning to grow some kind of civilisation out of its penal colony status, this is a perfect yet original setting for an old-school western, the lawlessness of the Outback an ideal substitute for the Wild West of so many countless predecessors.
Chuck into the mix a cast featuring Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, Emily Watson and John Hurt, at the very least you’re going to end up with an interesting curiosity that would be well worth a look for novelty value alone. As it is, the final result is a very welcome surprise indeed.
Ignoring the foul-mouthed TV antics of Deadwood, yet to make it onto terrestrial in the UK, the western has been much maligned over the last couple of decades. With the advent of Star Wars and special effects, old-style gunslingers out on the open plain seem to have lost their appeal, even as many of the themes spiralled out into the expanses of the universe. The recent Joss Weedon flick Serendipity was, after all, a western in everything but setting – and even in setting in a few scenes, as the rag-tag crew got into scrapes on a desert world. But in terms of proper westerns, with the rare exception of the likes of Clint Eastwood’s superb Unforgiven, released thirteen years ago now, there have been but few since the heyday of the likes of John Ford and Sergio Leone.
This is very much a western of the Leone school – bleak, philosophical, and beautifully shot. Much as with Leone’s best work, the central theme is of one man and his conscience, as captured gunslinger Guy Pearce is forced to decide which of his fellow outlaw brothers he should betray in the wake of a brutal killing and his subsequent capture by Winstone’s gruff yet sensitive Sheriff figure, Captain Stanley.
The stark, twisted harshness of the Austalian bush is a superb setting for such a tale, recalling at once both the sandy wastes of Leone’s spaghetti westerns and the surging majesty of Ford’s favourite locations around the iconic Monument Valley. The landscape here is as much of a character as any of the actors, and it does its job superbly.
The end result is every bit as surprising and satisfying as A Fistful of Dollars must have been when it first shook the western genre to its very roots and made a superstar of Clint Eastwood. Guy Pearce returns to his top form of La Confidential and Memento, while Ray Winstone puts in one of the best performances of his career around Cave’s surprising and deep script. Chuck in close yet epic feel of a Once Upon a Time in the West, and this makes a very good proposition indeed. A welcome return of a favourite genre, pulled off with aplomb.
The Constant Gardener
Following the near Oscar success of last year’s Hotel Rwanda, Hollywood returns again to the plight of modern Africa – this time Kenya, where British diplomat Ralph Fiennes finds his outspoken, politically-active wife, played by Rachel Weisz, murdered while travelling through the lawless outer reaches of the country. Based as it is on a novel by thriller novelist legend John Le Carré, a conspiracy lurks beneath the killing, made to look like the work of bandits.
And so lie the premise behind what appears to be one of those films that seems designed to win wild praise and multiple awards. An epic mystery centred around a strong central performance from an actor lauded by all and sundry as one of the finest working today. A tragic, complex, old-fashioned tale of love and grief spanning several continents with sweeping vistas and stunning cinematography, luscious music, and with a backdrop of timely topicality. The sort of film, we are constantly told, they simply don’t make any more.
Added to the strong base that is two fine leads, top-notch source material and a broad yet compelling backdrop of highly topical political intrigue lies a well-paced yet sensitive script from Jeffrey Caine, the man behind Peirce Brosnan’s fine first Bond outing Goldeneye. But a story so sprawling could have been lost in the hands of a less capable director. Thankfully, therefore, the man behind the camera is Fernando Meirelles, Oscar-nominated Brazilian director of the superb City of God, amply aided by the lush visuals flair of his cinematographer from that movie, César Charlone. As with that earlier movie, Meirelles and Charlone have managed to produce something that always looks harshly beautiful, no matter how grotty or run down – or even how naturally wonderful – the subject at which they point their camera.
From the wilds of Africa, Feinnes’ mild-mannered, gardening-obsessed diplomat finds himself trekking across three continents in search of the truth behind his wife’s death, providing all kinds of excuses for yet more wonderful camerawork and ever more layers of intrigue, as he exploits his diplomatic status to unearth a conspiracy – as the genre would dictate – far wider than a mere covered-up murder.
But adhering to genre does not have to detract from a movie – The Godfather, after all, pays minute attention to the rules of the gangster genre of which it is the masterpiece, just as The Maltese Falcon adheres to the peculiarities of detective movies without ever suffering. With another performance from Feinnes so natural it almost seems like he’s not acting, a deeply involving story, well-paced script, expert direction and wonderful cinematography, The Constant Gardener will certainly vie for a position near the top of any chart of the best conspiracy thrillers of recent years. If you like spy movies, murder mysteries, or even just involving, intelligent filmmaking of any genre, this is one not to be missed. Come March, the Academy will be calling.
In Her Shoes
The “chick flick” is much derided as one of the most formulaic and unoriginal of genres. Effectively a derivation of the male version, the “buddy cop” movie (which, like the Lethal Weapon series, normally have at least some cross-gender appeal), often spliced with that other much-hated genre the romantic comedy. Chick flicks always tend to revolve around two or more women who shouldn’t really be friends, who have some kind of – usually relatively minor – obstacle to overcome, and who eventually end up bonding over one or more men, be it through love or hatred. Even on the rare occasions that a chick flick gets wider critical praise, as with Ridley Scott’s 1980s classic Thelma and Louise, it is rare that anyone male can bring themselves to see what all the fuss is about.
This could be the exception that proves the rule. Directed as it is by Curtis Hanson, the man responsible for one of the best films of the last decade, La Confidential, you’d expect something fairly special. His last two movies, 8 Mile and Wonderboys were both surprising and original in their own way just as LA Confidential was, and once again he has managed to do something different with a subject matter that could, in lesser hands, come off as little more than jaded and derivative.
Centered around two excellent performances by the often underrated Cameron Diaz and the often forgotten Toni Collette, best known for Muriel’s Wedding but one of the best young female character actors in the business, while following the chick flick formula much as LA Confidential followed the Film Noir manner, Hanson and his leads have managed to transcend the restrictions of the genre to produce a chick flick that, amazingly, will also manage to appeal to the boyfriends who will inevitably get dragged reluctantly along.
Diaz is the glamorous sister, Collette the plain one – putting on a lot of weight again for the part as she did for Muriel’s Wedding, and then losing it during the shoot to reflect her character’s evolution. After a breach of sisterly trust, Diaz finds it expedient to get away from it all, tracking down a long-lost grandmother played, in a now rare screen outing by the near-legendary Shirley MacLaine, on form again after her disappointing outing in the recent Bewitched movie. As the sisters embark on their separate lives, this could so very easily have turned into a bog-standard film about family responsibility and the nature of friendship.
Somehow, however, almost all of these kinds of genre pitfalls have been skilfully avoided – something that the trailer has little chance of convincing anyone of, coming across as it does as merely the usual opposites clashing nonsense that we’ve all seen countless times before. Thanks to some skilful direction by Hanson, some perfectly on-the-ball acting by Diaz and Collette, an attentive supporting cast and a great script by the woman behind Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich based on the novel by the woman behind the story of that other great almost chick-flick, this is much more than any trailer could lead you to believe. An engaging, entertaining and intelligent movie about life and love that will leave you more than satisfied.
Everything is Illuminated
Adapted from the critically-acclaimed faux-autobiographical novel of the same name by Jonathan Safran Foer, this could well be the film that allows Elijah Wood to shake off the Frodo associations which, following the insane success of The Lord of the Rings movies, threatened to haunt him for the rest of his career. Following outings in both Sin City and Green Street in which he was evidently determined to play against type, Wood here shows that he can indeed do more than merely gaze in wide-eyed terror at computer-generated beasties with a performance that is at once sensitive and quirky.
The novel on which the film is based is so sprawlingly complex that almost everyone who has read it will tell you that it is utterly unfilmable. Then again, fans of The Lord of the Rings and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas said much the same, yet Peter Jackson and Terry Gilliam respectively managed to come out with superb, if not entirely faithful, adaptations which mostly satisfied existing as well as won over countless new fans to those cult books. Liev Schreiber, best known as a solid character actor whose face you would recognise but never be able to put a face to, in his directorial debut and working from his own screenplay, has done a masterly job of translating the intricacies of the eclectic prose of the novel into a truly unusual cinematic experience.
Where the novel was a bizarre mix of folk tales, bizarre English and absurdity, Schreiber has managed to whittle away the utterly unfilmable and end up with the odd road movie that lay at the core, as Wood’s almost obsessive-compulsive Froer sets out on a journey to find the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis, deep in the heart of Slavic eastern Europe. It is a part of the world rarely ventured into by Hollywood except as the venue for dodgy deals between Cold War spies. But here Schreiber exposes the heart, the cultural richness and the humour of the place, thanks largely to the filter that is Elijah Wood’s really very odd, yet pretty much perfect central performance, and aided by a range of excellent supporting actors, most notably the relative newcomer Eugene Hutz as the slacker travelling companion.
This should really be no surprise – for Schreiber, like Foer, is a descendant of Ukranian immigrants and first met the author before the novel had even been finished. The agreement for Schriber to turn what was then just a short story into a film has, therefore, had just as long a genesis, and is perhaps just as valid a take on the story, as Foer’s own novel. And it was largely on the initial short story which formed the core of the book that Schreiber based the movie.
Though the company is truly weird, and the journey aiming to go deep into the murkiest, most unpleasant depths of Europe’s past, thanks to some expert and sensate adaptation and some truly memorable performances, this is a journey you will not regret taking.
Wallace & Gromit - The Curse Of The Wererabbit
It’s hard to think of anyone who doesn’t like Wallace and Gromit – or even how anyone could fail to like them. There’s something about this bumblingly eccentric inventor’s bizarrely mundane adventures with his infinitely more intelligent, exasperated yet ever loyal dog which seems especially English. The ever-creative humour and pitch-perfect timing of this animated duo’s escapades, as meticulously crafted by creator Nick Park and his team, simply brings the concept to perfection.
Although they first appeared in 1989’s BAFTA-winning and Oscar-nominated short A Grand Day Out, nipping off to the moon to stock up on cheese, since the wonderfully whimsical The Wrong Trousers back in 1993, with its mechanical legwear and evil penguin, they have effectively become a national institution. In the run-up to 1995’s broadcast of A Close Shave the BBC even made the pair the centrepiece of their Christmas TV schedules, the two of them popping up in between programmes to much delight, further heightening the expectation.
And so now, ten years after their last proper outing, Wallace and Gromit return in their longest adventure yet – longer, in fact, than all their previous films put together.
There’s normally some worry when an idea which started as a series of short films not topping half an hour is expanded to feature-length. Concepts which can be sustained for thirty minutes can often seem stretched when taken to ninety, especially when they are such simple ones as a crackpot inventor whose machines have a tendency to go haywire and who has a predilection for cheese unknowingly being saved from disaster by a mute mutt. Innumerable films taken from cartoons or TV series have struggled to shake off their origins in the shorter, episodic format of the small screen. Yet when it comes to Wallace and Gromit, somehow – perhaps thanks to the success of Park’s Chicken Run film from five years ago – you know that on this occasion they’re going to pull it off.
And pull it off they have. The remarkable Peter Sallis – now in his eighties and one of the few remaining stars of long-running sitcom Last of the Summer Wine, for which he is still best known as the nervous sidekick Cleggy – returns as the beautifully distinctive, slightly whining voice of Wallace, without which it’s hard to see how the series could carry on. After being the sole voice on the duo’s first outing, this time he’s backed up by those quintessentially upper-class English stars Ralph Feinnes and Helena Bonham Carter, as well as British comedy favourites Peter Kay of Phoenix Nights, John Thompson of The Fast Show, Liz Smith of The Royle Family and Nicholas Smith of Are You Being Served? It’s a veritable wealth of distinctive voices to add extra eccentric colour to the bizarre goings on as Wallace and Gromit have to use all their nous to defeat the terrifying apparition that is the wererabbit of the title – a hulking behemoth of a bunny causing chaos in the cabbage patches.
The Legend of Zorro
It has been seven years since The Mask of Zorro catapulted its stars, Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, from moderate fame to stardom. Seven years is normally a very long time to wait for a sequel – there are few exceptions to the rule that more than three years equals disappointing box office and normally equally disappointing films.
This swashbuckling Spanish-American Robin Hood, however, is one of those enduring icons of the screen. He’d survived decades without a proper film to his name until the 1998 revival yet managed to pull it off and, much as with the likes of King Arthur and Sherlock Holmes, there’s rarely any reason to believe that we’ve seen the last of him – he’s simply too good a character, too fun an idea. After all, what could be more typically classic Hollywood than a cross between a Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler and a John Wayne cowboy? And that, at its heart, is what Zorro is all about. Oh, and fighting for truth, justice and all that, obviously…
While The Mask of Zorro was by no means a classic of filmmaking genius it was, nonetheless, a great night out. After nearly a decade of “modern” and “gritty” blockbusters, it was a return to the old-school Hollywood – the glamour, the silliness, the fun. There hadn’t been a new Indiana Jones film in nine years, and the public were screaming out for a true, uncomplicated hero, preferably with a whip, to leap about the shop like a deranged baboon once again.
No one really knew it at the time, but this was the sort of thing we all secretly wanted from our movies – stereotypical heroism, a glamorous girl, horses galloping and swordfights. Zorro was the perfect combination of the two genres that made Hollywood, and here it was on our screens once more. We could forgive the fact that the film was fairly unoriginal, because the joy of sparkling sabres clinking against each other in a rapid dance was simply too fundamentally cinematic for us to care if the plot was up to much.
So now, with Zeta-Jones now Oscar-nominated and Banderas with a great line in self-parody via the Spy Kids franchise and Shrek 2, they team up once more to bring us more of the same. Is it a top-notch film? No – but neither was the original. Is it great fun? Certainly. It has all the elements anyone could want from either a Western or a swashbuckler, with chases, fights and stunts galore plus, in a fine tradition of sequels trying to bring in the kiddie market, an adorable child sidekick – this time the son of Zorro and his dear wife, caught up in intrigue seemingly designed solely to provide excuses for old-fashioned excitement.
In short, it’s pure Hollywood: glitz galore, utterly shallow, nearly completely mindless, and hugely enjoyable – as long as you don’t go in expecting a masterpiece, you’ll have a whale of a time. Just don’t analyse it too much, or you’ll realise that when they used to refer to the movies as shadows on the wall it was largely because they were all just as insubstantial.
Hey – superhero flicks have been popular the last few years, right? And kids love superheroes, right? And kids’ films can make bucketloads of money, can’t they? Hey – why don’t we do a superhero flick about kids with superpowers? At a school for superheroes and stuff! It’d be great!
What? What do you mean X-Men revolves around a school for superheroes? What do you mean the Harry Potter films are basically about a school for kids with incredible powers? What do you mean there was a film released only a couple of months ago, The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl, which was all about superhero kids? What do you mean The Incredibles had superhero kids? Are you saying this idea’s not original enough?
But who cares? If we do it well enough, the idea’s obviously got legs, hasn’t it? It must be a good one if there have been a load of films based around it already, and if they’ve all done relatively well, right? Well, except for that Shark Boy one, but that was just because it was a badly thought-out rehash of Spy Kids by the guy who came up with that franchise and had run out of ideas.
What? No, of course this hasn’t got any similarity to Spy Kids! Just because it’s about a boy whose parents are the best at their crime-fighting game and has to end up rescuing them from one of their enemies, like Spy Kids. And The Invisibles, for that matter… But shhh! You’re such a downer, man…
And anyway, a large chunk of this film is about this kid who’s just normal and stuff, right, but then he finds out he’s got these special abilities and has to come to terms with them, right? What? No, of course it’s not just like the first Spider-man film. Or just like that Smallville TV series about the young Superman. Or just like Batman Begins. It’s totally different! Sort of…
Anyway, we can get in some actors to appeal to kids’ parents – some hero figures from cult movies, like Bruce Campbell from the Evil Dead series! What? He’s already had cameos in both Spider-man films? So what? We’ll make him a teacher at this school for superheroes and he can use his trademark charm and comic timing to full effect. And we can get in Kurt Russell from The Thing, Escape from New York and Big Trouble in Little China! Those are all-time eighties classics, and it’s people who were growing up in the eighties who have got kids now – they’ll love it!
In other words, as if you hadn’t realised by now, this is hardly the most original idea to have come out of Hollywood in the last few years, and seems based largely on a careful analysis of market trends and previous successes. That doesn’t, however, make this a bad film. It doesn’t make it a great film either, but then it is largely designed for the kids, and as such it’s actually really rather fun. It’s got all the ingredients you’d expect from something that’s been scrupulously market researched – and so is good for a very entertaining night out, kids or no kids. Well worth a look.
Having turned a failed movie into a hit TV series, can Joss Whedon now turn a failed TV series into a hit movie? After the relative failure of his 1992 Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie, Whedon five years later somehow managed to gain funding for a TV series based on the same concept, and turned it first into a cult hit and then a multi-million dollar smash.
This time he’s hoping that his Buffy follow-up, the sci-fi Western series Firefly that was cancelled after less than one series in 2002 despite having gained a respectable cult following, can provide him with a much-needed career boost after three years of doing very little. Even before its release Serenity, a feature-length version of Firefly with much the same cast as the TV series, seems to have – for Whedon at least – done the trick: he’s already landed the job of directing the big budget film version of hot comic book property Wonder Woman, largely on the pre-release buzz for this sci-fi actioner.
The obvious question that follows is whether or not Whedon’s apparent return to Hollywood’s favour is down to the quality of his new product or merely the fanaticism of his fans.
Well, all the usual Whedon ingredients are here – humour, stylish action and fairly decent plotting. But as he’s more used to working within the less restrictive confines of television, where he’d normally have twenty hours rather than two to play out his story, the subtleties and character development are naturally not quite as satisfyingly complex as his fans may be used to. For those who have seen the TV series from which this film has arisen this won’t be a problem, hence the good buzz from the fans – but what of everyone else?
Well, it’s sci-fi for starters, which may put some off straight away - and in any case we’ve been inundated with such movies over the last few years. Especially after the last Star Wars prequel, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could top George Lucas in terms of massive space battles and incomprehensible action. It’s also sci-fi based around a small group of comrades in arms, stuck in a tiny vessel in the far reaches of space, battling – as the rules of the genre dictate – against a far superior, malevolent force, epitomised by a sole baddie. On the surface it could seem like a typically derivative rip-off of everything that’s gone before, and to an extent it is.
What lifts this at least some way above the usual paint-by-numbers fantasy flick is Whedon’s knack for amusing, snappy dialogue and character interaction. The cast, honed as they have been by months spent filming the failed TV series stuck in each others’ company day in day out, work superbly together, even if they may not exactly be of Academy Award standard. There’s something about it which seems almost home-made in its easy charm, despite the fancy special effects. While certainly not worthy of any major accolades, if you like the genre or have enjoyed Whedon’s work in the past, you could do far, far worse than this.
There have been well over twenty different film versions of this, one of Charles Dickens’ most famous tales. Even in the last few years there have been high-profile television versions produced on both sides of the Atlantic, the British with Robert Lindsay as the perennial favourite Fagin, the American with Richard Dreyfuss – and a then unknown Elijah (Frodo) Wood as the youthful master thief the Artful Dodger.
Yet despite all these many different takes on what is, at its heart, a fairly simple story of the desire to be loved and human nature, the best remain David Lean’s 1948 take, with Alec Guinness as a deliciously over the top Fagin, and Carol Reed’s much-loved 1968 musical version.
But the very simplicity of the tale of the little orphan boy’s attempts to make it in the world has been hugely overplayed in the innumerable adaptations of the last few decades. Dickens may have dreamed up larger than life, almost stereotypical characters on occasion, but he remains one of the masters of the storytelling craft, and his true genius lies as much in his beneath-the-surface complexity and, in particular, his social awareness as his ability to spin a yarn.
Much the same could be said of director Roman Polanski – it’s often easy to forget that this is the man responsible for the groundbreakingly complex and in many ways Dickensian Chinatown, so often is he remembered for the much-parodied horror classic Rosemary’s Baby, the equally gruesome murder of his wife by the Manson Family and the conviction for statutory rape that has forced him to flee America for the rest of his life.
In 2002, after two decades of comparative filmmaking mediocrity, Polanski proved he still had it in him with the multiple Oscar-winning The Pianist. While his take on Oliver Twist may be neither as deep nor as original as that intimate portrayal of the Holocaust, nor as likely to win awards, it nonetheless shows that Polanski’s long-overdue return to form was not a mere one-off.
There still remains the question of precisely what the point is of doing a more serious version of this incredibly well-known classic when David Lean’s 1948 film is so perfectly realised. Is Sir Ben Kingsley up to bettering Sir Alec Guinness as Fagin? Well, he’s certainly up to equalling him. Are child actors Barney Clark (as Oliver) and Harry Eden (The Artful Dodger) able to avoid the usual cringe-making awfulness of kiddies on screen? Pretty much.
There of course is no point in yet another remake of such a famous and loved story other than that it is famous and well-loved. And this is a wonderfully skilled new version of it to appeal to a whole new generation – after all, musicals aren’t for everyone, and Lean’s version is in black and white, which many still seem to find off-putting. Polanski has provided over a new, charming, faithful and beautifully-shot Oliver Twist which should keep us all entertained for years to come.
Films based on computer games really haven’t got a very good pedigree. After the first attempt, the truly abysmal Super Mario Brothers back in 1993 – where both Bob Hoskins and Dennis Hopper put in turn which are well up there among their worst – many thought that they may have learned their lessons. After all, most games, at least back in the early 1990s, had little in the way of plot or characterisation, and how could you possibly make a film without those?
But as computer game technology advanced and games became more involved and complex, Hollywood kept track of the success of this new rival to its crown as head of all entertainment. By the late 1990s, top computer games began to make nearly as much money as many movies (and now they often surpass them), and so the studio executives began to hunt around. Tomb Raider seemed a perfect choice – a sexy, posh Englishwoman with guns battling against strange beasts in a modern Indiana Jones style. But it was awful. Resident Evil seemed another sure-fire hit – another sexy female lead, but this time with all the benefit of decades-worth of zombie film lore to fall back on. Again, failure. Let’s not even go down the path of the shockingly awful Mortal Kombat or Streetfighter: The Movie, both of which were based on games with precisely no plot whatsoever – all they involved was beating people up.
Yet despite the failure of just about every film based on a computer game so far, they’re still determined to push ahead with the idea. On the basis of games from recent years, you could see how they could think it might work – as technology has improved the likes of the Grand Theft Auto series and others do have definite plots, and borrow liberally from Hollywood, so why shouldn’t Hollywood do the same? There have even recently been computer game versions of some Hollywood classics, notably Star Wars and even The Godfather and Scarface, and almost every blockbuster is now transferred to consoles, sometimes even before it has hit the cinemas.
Yet still they don’t appear to have learned their lesson in Hollywood. Rather than take a complex, narrative and character-driven game like the ongoing favourite The Legend of Zelda and turn that into a movie, they’ve once again decided to pick one of the least cinematic titles possible – the once groundbreaking Doom. This was a game with no plot, no real characters, just first-person blowing the living hell out of everything that moves with a variety of increasingly ridiculous weapons.
The trouble is, Doom itself was largely based on a film – the 1986 action-fest Aliens. The basic idea was exactly the same – kill as many nasty beasties as you can and get out alive. Aliens, of course, had rather more to it than that, and was a moderately successful satire on not only Vietnam war films, but also 1980s capitalism – even if many of its fans couldn’t have cared less about the political commentary. The Aliens formula was taken even further in 1997’s Starship Troopers – a satire so perfect that the majority of people who saw it didn’t even realise that it was satirical. So, once you’ve had films that good revolving around mindless killing of as many nasty beasties as possible, why bother with another?
Well, in short, because it’s fun. No one expected anything brilliant from this film – not least because it stars ex-wrestler The Rock – and if anyone did then they’re a fool. It was always going to be mindless nonsense. But mindless nonsense can be great fun. Is this? Well, to be honest it depends how drunk you are. A Saturday nighter, most likely.
If you had your pick of people to play a ruthless, heroin-addicted bounty hunter, it’d normally be a fairly safe bet that Keira Knightley would come somewhere near the very bottom of your list. All she ever seems to do in all the various films in which she’s appeared since shooting to fame in Bend it Like Beckham is play exactly the kind of posh-sounding public schoolgirl that she appears to be in real life.
In this particular glossy bounty hunter action flick, however, she is perfectly cast, as the real story on which it is based is just as unbelievable as the idea that Knightley could convincingly wield heavy machine guns and take on America’s most wanted.
Domino Harvey was the illegitimate professional model daughter of Oscar-nominated actor Laurence Harvey – famed for his turns in the likes of Room at the Top and the original version of The Manchurian Candidate – and step-daughter of the owner of the Hard Rock Café chain. She was a typically plumy, good-looking middle class girl to boot, exactly the type of girl you can find strutting around Chelsea any day of the week blathering about the latest fashions and saying “yah, daaarling” a lot. Yet she ended up in some of the most grimy and horrible places in the US, mixing with – and fighting with – the kind of people you’d normally not only cross the street to avoid, but probably hail a taxi to speed away from as fast as humanly possible. She died earlier this year, aged thirty-five, apparently unimpressed with what she had seen of this Hollywoodisation of her life.
From that little overview, it should be fairly obvious that this is perfect, near ideal Hollywood material from the get-go. Domino Harvey was the sort of person who, if she didn’t exist some movie executive would have had to have invented her. In fact, arguably they already did – although it was a computer games geek rather than a film man – with Lara Croft and Tomb Raider.
Nonetheless, even though this is the real thing, the real-life Harvey’s slow descent into drug-based self-destruction is hardly as much fun as the idea of a glamorous, gorgeous, incredibly posh English model charging around with big guns shooting people. So they’ve got in the man behind possibly the cheesiest Hollywood action film of all time, Tony “Top Gun” Scott (also known to pretty much everyone as “not as good as his big brother Ridley”), and he’s applied his trademark over-the-top glossy romanticism in thick, gloopy coatings.
As such, the big budget and big-name cast (running from Christopher Walken and Lucy Liu to Mickey Rourke and Mena Suvari, not to mention the incredibly well-preserved Jaqueline Bisset) couple with Scott Jr’s rather crude taste for flashy camera effects and try-hard editing to make this, really, little more than the kind of film you’d expect had Hollywood actually invented Harvey. Little here rings of truth, and her story has been tarted up for mass appeal. But it is, nonetheless, rather fun, and probably Knightley’s best role to date – after all, at least in this outing she does something other than simply sound posh and look concerned all the time.
Of late Bill Murray seems to be making a bit of a thing out of playing middle-aged men desperately searching for some kind of meaning in their lives. There was, of course, the almost depressingly bleak and lonely Lost in Translation, then the quirky The Life Aquatic and now this which, as in that last film, revolves around the discovery of a son he never knew existed and the resultant confusion about the state of his life.
If it weren’t for the fact that Murray is one of the most instantly lovable of all Hollywood stars – from his outings among the original line-up of Saturday Night Live and stoner turn in the classic Caddyshack through Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day right up to his resurgence of the last couple of years – it would be tempting to suggest he’s getting typecast. Yet, with the sole exception of last year’s disappointing Garfield movie (for which he was, in any case, perfectly cast), his choice of roles in at least his last ten movies have been impeccable – interesting, deep beneath a placid surface and wonderfully quirky to the last. When you’re doing something so well, why stop?
So here, after receiving an anonymous letter telling him an ex-girlfriend (of which there are many) had a son by him years ago, Murray sets out to track down his old flames and discover which of them is the mother of the child he never knew existed. His by now familiar hang-dog expression, the world-weary gaze and easy, droll humour are given at least as full a work-out as they were in Lost in Translation, yet despite being in places equally philosophical, this comes closer to the comedy for which Murray became famous than Sofia Coppola’s understated take on middle age. Which considering the director is odd indy hero Jim Jarmusch is rather weird, as he’s not a man generally known for too much humour.
Jarmusch is often at his best when dealing with lone men trying to work out a problem, such as with the superb Ghost Dog and Dead Man, and here the existential ponderings of his often emotionless lead again prove a fruitful cinematic vein for him to mine. In Ghost Dog it was Forest Whittaker, in Dead Man Johnny Depp – and now, having cropped up in Jarmusch’s last film Coffee and Cigarettes, Murray gets to try and act without really doing much as well. That American critics have already been suggesting Oscar nods should tell you all you need to know.
Jarmusch is usually not for everyone – even when making a film about a hit man his pacing was relatively slow and the action intermittent at best – and is often considered pretentiously arty by his critics, yet here he has finally managed, thanks to Murray’s superb central performance and his top-notch supporting cast, to create something almost mainstream. Yet mainstream with an edge unlike that which you’ll find in your standard Hollywood fare – a different, more wistful approach to filmmaking which could well prove to be a welcome break from the usual explosions, guns and action. Certainly well worth checking out.
There seems to be something about boxing that makes for adventurous, experimental, often award-winning films. Although Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky got increasingly jingoistic and silly in the sequels, the first movie won both Best Film and Best Director at the 1977 Oscars, with Stallone getting nominations not just for his acting, but also his screenplay. Likewise, Scorsese’s elegantly brutal Raging Bull pulled a Best Actor Oscar for Robert De Niro plus a slew of nominations at the 1981 awards, while only last year Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby picked up four Oscars out of seven nominations, including Best Director, Best Film, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor.
Starring Oscar-winners Russell Crowe and Renee Zellwegger, directed by Oscar-winner Ron Howard, and set in the dark years of the American Century during the Great Depression of the 1930s in which so many great movies have done so well, if ever a boxing film looked a dead cert for Academy Award success, this was it.
Based on the true story of boxing folk hero James “Cinderella Man” Braddock, much like Scorsese’s earlier pugilistic classic it is the despair and depression of the sport star’s declining years and desperate attempts to get one last shot at proving his worth in the ring that provide the compelling focus. As America found itself struggling through economic hardship, the washed-up former prize fighter ends up the personification of the common man’s refusal to give in to overwhelming odds, clawing his way back to take on the Heavyweight Champion of the World.
This is an incredibly emotionally manipulative movie – but then it is coming from the director of Apollo 13 and Coccoon, so that should really only be expected. Somehow, however, Howard manages to avoid the kind of toying with his audience’s emotions that leaves you filling irritated and violated. In part thanks to another truly impressive turn by Crowe, amply aided by Zellwegger and the superb Paul Giamatti, this remains engaging throughout in spite of the heart strings being viciously tugged at all the while.
While Crowe – and Zellwegger for that matter – may be at best irritating, at worst punchable in the real world, when they’re on the silver screen something special seems to kick in. Real-life brawler Crowe, normally a bit of a porker, lost 50lbs for the role while training hard with professional boxers, suffering broken ribs, cracked teeth and a dislocated shoulder which set filming back by two months, making this one of the most realistic-looking boxing movies going – largely because many of the hits Crowe takes on screen are full impact punches. The thuggish Australian always seems to excel in physical roles, and once again his softer side here comes to the fore to create yet another memorable turn, certainly worthy of a few award nominations.
In lesser hands, this could be tedious, predictable, emotions-by-numbers TV movie material – but these are by no means lesser hands. Howard’s innate eye for detail, intuitive ability to get the best out of his actors, great ear for emotional pitch and eye for a good shot, not to mention a spot-on supporting cast, means this more than looks like it should easily live up to its Oscar-winning potential.
The Longest Yard
At first glance it’s rather hard to see the point. A relatively faithful remake of the 1974 film of the same name, widely regarded as one of The Dirty Dozen director Robert Aldrich’s finest, even thirty years ago this was by no means an original concept. The idea of prisoners taking on guards in sporting competitions had already been fully explored in innumerable war movies, with Aldrich simply transposing the action to a US jail and making the sport in question the already fairly violent American Football. The finished product, with Burt Reynolds on top charismatic form in the lead, was an entertaining romp with some impressively painful-looking sequences on the pitch.
So why remake it? Well, the presence of two of Hollywood’s most bankable comedians, Adam Sandler and Chris Rock, may well answer that one. After the successes of other male comedian team-ups from the so-called “Frat Pack” of Owen Wilson, Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Will Ferrell and Vince Vaughn, it seems like a logical step for studios to try out more pairings in an attempted revival of the double act successes of the likes of Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Hope and Crosby or Lewis and Martin.
Sandler’s laid-back style paired with Rock’s trademark quick-fire banter should be a mismatch made in comedy heaven. Add to that the two actors’ large fanbases – Stiller’s alone being worth several tens of guaranteed millions at the boxoffice – and you can easily see where the studio bigwigs were coming from with this one. But sadly, guaranteed bankability doesn’t equal guaranteed quality.
As so often, the remake fails either to live up to the original or sufficiently to alter it for modern tastes. While there may be the rare Thomas Crown Affair where the remake actually manages to compete well with what has gone before, more often we end up with an Italian Job, where any happy memories of the first version are sullied, demeaned and destroyed by the ineptness of what comes after. While this is certainly not as dire as the Italian Job remake, it’s hardly a worthwhile repeat either. About the only thing it manages to improve on over the 1974 film is to tone down the racism a bit.
Stiller’s washed-up American football star, lumped in jail after getting drunk and smashing up his girlfriend’s car, fails to be either as charismatic as Reynolds’ original or – amazingly, considering in the original film the character was also a violent wife-beater – as likable. In fact, he’s a bit of a wimp. Which is hardly what you’d expect of a supposedly tough sports star trying to play of a bunch of convicts against a load of vicious prison guards. Rock, meanwhile, is the same as he ever is – wise-cracking, fast-talking, and increasingly high-pitched and irritating as the film wears on. Although his stand-up routines often work well, on film his persona is frequently too over the top to be bearable.
Despite a good supporting cast, including the always good James Cromwell and generally reliable William Fichtner, as well as – in a nice nod to the original – Reynolds himself, the whole fails quite to gel. The jokes are basic and unoriginal, while the sports scenes fail to be as brutally grunt-inducing as they really should be. If anything, it’s rather like a watered-down Dodgeball. While there are admittedly a few good laughs, this can honestly only really be recommended to the loyal fans of the two stars. Not a disaster, but hardly a worthwhile exercise either. If you want a prisoners versus guards sports flick, stick to Escape to Victory.
On A Clear Day
Once you hear the basic plot, it’s hard not to notice similarities with some of the British successes of recent years, from Billy Elliot and The Full Monty to Little Voice and Brassed Off. It’s also hard not to think that the audience for this particular kind of sweet and uplifting British comedy must surely soon have had enough. Not just yet, though.
Nominated for the Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, although this is yet another light-hearted movie about bizarre ways to avoid depression in the industrial north it’s done with an easy charm which swiftly dispels any real fears that this might be little more than another attempt to cash in on past Britflick successes.
So, forget the fact that the unemployed fifty-something Glaswegian shipbuilder who decides to swim the English Channel of this movie could easily be the unemployed thirty-something Sheffield steelworker who decides to start a strip troupe in The Full Monty and settle back for the kind of harmless, comforting, fairly predictable yet fun films we as a nation still manage to do so well.
As ever, this kind of movie revolves around the likeability of the characters and their various eccentricities. With Ken Loach favourite Peter Mullan in the lead, ably supported by perennial Britflicker Brenda Blethyn as his long-suffering, ever-loving wife, we’re already off to a good start. Chuck in Billy Boyd (the likeable Scottish hobbit from Lord of the Rings in one of his first performances since that ultra-successful series), and a range of quality character actors you are sure to recognise from various TV shows and movies over the years – playing a typically bizarre bunch of friends – and you’ve got the makings of a deliberately endearing film.
Working from a script by a first-timer and directed by a relative newcomer, despite this lack of behind the camera experience it’s a more than competent job that manages to avoid the ever-present danger with British movies of seeming like a TV special that’s somehow managed to wrangle a cinematic release. There have been altogether too many of those kinds of films in recent years, churned out to an underwhelming response seemingly just to meet government targets, and they’ve been successfully destroying the British movie industry by siphoning off money better spent on, well, better films. Let’s face it, it’s far preferable to have one Trainspotting or Four Weddings and a Funeral every two or three years than a Sex Lives of the Potato Men every six months. Luckily this is far closer in quality to the former two movies.
Still, despite the good supporting cast and sometimes surprisingly inventive direction, this is undeniably Mullan’s movie. It’s a truly engaging turn as the emotionally scarred Frank, feeling redundant in every possible way, embarks on his quest to find a purpose and sense of pride. What could have been a run of the mill, paint by numbers affair is raised up to something genuinely emotional and worthy of attention thanks to this wonderfully sweet central character, perfectly propping up the absurdity of his caricature mates and turning this into a welcome addition to this very British genre.
Howl's Moving Castle
After a few years on a steady diet of computer animated movies, as amusing as the likes of Shrek and Toy Story may have been, when Hayao Miyazaki’s whimsical, dream-like Spirited Away finally made it to the UK it seemed to prompt a mini revolution. For the first time since the dystopian sci-fi world of Akira hit our screens in the late 1980s, everyone seemed to be into Japanese animation.
As technologically inventive as a lot of the American computer animated films may have been, and as amusing as the scripts and characters, they lacked that real escapism of genuinely original imagination. Miyazaki’s hand-drawn Anime style, packed with weird and wonderful creatures and places, seemed a genuinely fresh revelation.
Of course, what many failed to realise was that Miyazaki had been making such films for decades, lauded by those in the know as the Walt Disney of Japan for his part in helping vastly to expand the reach of Japanese animation since the 1970s. And Howl’s Moving Castle is but his latest addition to an illustrious line of movies which really are best described as magical.
Yet at the same time, this is quite evidently an attempt to follow on from the international success of Spirited Away – not to mention the new-found access to English language voice talent through Miyazaki’s partnership with the Disney Corporation. So whereas the dubbed versions of his earlier films had typically awful, utterly inappropriate voices added unconvincingly to the characters, now the big-name likes of Christian Bale, Billy Crystal and Lauren Bacall have joined the English-language cast to make this the most convincingly dubbed Miyazaki film to date. (You should really still see it with the original Japanese soundtrack first, though…)
This tale of a young girl magically transformed into an old woman and her quest to regain her youth from within the vast, mechanical chicken-legged castle of the benevolent sorcerer Howl will be an ideal thematic sequel for fans of Spirited Away still unfamiliar with much of Miyazaki’s other work. It’s more of the same sort of idea, kept up to the usual exacting standards of Miyazaki’s work with superb animation as love blossoms amidst magic and a clash of good and evil.
For long-term fans of Miyazaki’s work, however, while undeniably beautiful to watch and with an engaging storyline (taken from the children’s novel by British author Diana Wynne Jones), the similarities to Spirited Away will be complemented by strong reminiscences of earlier works Kiki’s Delivery Service, Castle in the Sky and Princess Mononoke. This may be good or bad, depending on whether you are a fan of Miyazaki for his recurring themes and style or for his rampant originality – if the latter, you are likely to be slightly disappointed.
For everyone else, however, this remains a charming and delightful movie, just as was its immediate predecessor. If you enjoyed Spirited Away you should certainly check this out, and if you’ve never seen a Miyazaki film before, this is a near-perfect introduction, splicing as it does elements from so many of his previous movies into one absorbing, visually luscious whole. Without a doubt one of the best animated films of the year.
This is looking like a superb year for Tim Burton. After his long-overdue return to form with his new take on Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, released last month to rave reviews, we are now in for a real treat – a project he has been rumoured to have been working on for more than a decade, ever since the rampant success of his last animated outing, 1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.
When Burton’s eccentric visual style is allowed to run fully wild, as here, it can really be a joy to behold. His strangely elongated take on human beings, making them almost skeletal, adds an ethereal feel which is wonderfully complemented by the crooked twirls of the background sets. It’s a delightfully unique style in movie making, and ideally suited to the material.
Based on an old Jewish folk story, Johnny Depp voices Vincent – a homage to Burton’s hero Vincent Price as well as to the director’s very first professional film short of the same name – a young man with pre-wedding nerves. Trying to make light of his upcoming vows, he places his wedding ring on what he thinks is a stick poking up from the ground, only to discover to his horror that it is in fact the bony finger of a woman killed on her wedding day, who promptly rises from her shallow grave to claim her new husband.
Approaching the film in the same way as he did Nightmare – Burton providing concepts, sketches and a guiding hand while getting in a dedicated animator to handle the hugely time-consuming process of day-to-day direction – this is not the only similarity to that perennial Christmas/Halloween favourite. Not only is this also animated in stop-motion, a painstakingly manual task in this age of computer graphic short-cuts, Burton has also brought back Nightmare’s writer, Caroline Thompson, and his constant composing companion Danny Elfman again provides the delightfully atmospheric music.
In fact, this is very nearly a who’s who of Burton collaborators. We’ve already mentioned Johnny Depp, star of such Burton movies as Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Alongside him is Burton’s fiancée, the mother of his child and star of Planet of the Apes, Big Fish and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Helena Bonham Carter. Then there are other Burton regulars like Albert Finney from Big Fish, cult hero Christopher Lee from Sleepy Hollow and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Deep Roy from Planet of the Apes, Big Fish and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and even the veteran eighty-seven year old Michael Gough, best remembered for his turn as Butler Alfred in Burton’s two Batman films, who – as he did for Sleepy Hollow – has come out of retirement to lend his experience and talent to the production as a personal favour to Burton.
With a typically morbid yet strangely sweet central story, Burton has managed to create a superb follow-up to his 1993 animated classic. But rather than being a mere derivation of The Nightmare Before Christmas, as many feared, this manages to forge a style and atmosphere all its own. It’s a rare thing to see a film essentially about zombie necrophilia that’s aimed at the kids, but Burton has pulled it off with aplomb.
Pride and Prejudice
After Bridget Jones’ obsession for Colin Firth’s Mr Darcy, as he appeared in the 1995 BBC TV version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, it is perhaps only fitting – and predictable – that the company that brought Bridget to the big screen have now turned their attention to the inspiration. Yep, this is Working Title’s take on Austen – the people who brought us Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love, Actually.
But the widely praised BBC TV version was only a decade ago and still readily available, so you have to wonder – why? You’re surely unlikely to get a more appropriate Mr Darcy than Firth, and Jennifer Ehle’s Elizabeth Bennett was pretty much spot on. Surely no one’s going to be able to compete with the performances of those two actors as the story’s central characters?
Well, no. As pretty as Keira Knightley may well be, she’s rather too skinny for Elizabeth. Had anyone been that poker thin during the period the story is set they’d have been assumed to have been consumptive and locked up in an infirmary, not be allowed to gallivant around the grounds of sumptuous stately homes (here played by Chatsworth, the luscious estate of the Dukes of Devonshire). She also – still – hasn’t quite got the hang of this acting lark. Although at least, in her defence, her plumy public school accent is vaguely appropriate for the character for a change.
For the rugged Mr Darcy – one of the all-time romantic heroes, and the prime reason most of the largely female audience would probably want to attend – they’ve landed themselves Matthew MacFadyen, a man of whom hardly anyone will ever have heard. He may have turned in a decent, if fairly wooden turn in the lead of the BBC TV spy drama Spooks for a couple of series, but he’s hardly a big name. Then again, neither – really – was Colin Firth until his spin in the wet shirt and slightly grumpy manner, and he’s dined well off it since. Can MacFadyen pull it off? Well, he’s likeable. But is he sexy enough?
The rest of the cast, however, are certainly top notch, ranging from the always superb Dame Judi Dench to the likes of Donald Sutherland and Brenda Blethyn. And while a two hour movie is naturally not able to offer as much in the way of storyline or character development as a six hour TV series, this is probably as good a costume drama take on the classic novel as we’re likely to see for some time, following the Bollywood-style version Bride and Prejudice from last year and the modern day American take, which sank without trace, from 2003.
There’s still, however, the vague feeling that it’s all somewhat unnecessary. The lush costumes and scenery are all very pleasant to look at, but why bother when there’s already the BBC TV version or even the excellent 1940 film take with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier to fall back on? Why do another take on this already well-known early 19th century novel when there are so many more out there yet to see a screen adaptation? Still, it must be said that in yet another summer packed with superheroes and sci fi, this is a welcome, tranquil break from the usual Hollywood fare. If you like your costume dramas, it’s well worth a look.
Land of the Dead
If you don’t like horror films, don’t bother. If you don’t like zombies, don’t bother. If you don’t like films with lots of violence, don’t bother. For those who like all of the above, it’s time to put your happy faces on – the master has returned.
Yes, twenty years after the last film in the classic series, and nearly forty years since the first, cult hero George A Romero has returned to the zombie genre which he did so much to popularise with the low-budget 1968 megahit Night of the Living Dead, which by now surely ranks as one of the most influential horror films of all time, we’re getting a new Romero zombie movie. After the recent rather disappointing remake of that black and white classic in 1990 and the more recent remake of the 1978 sequel Dawn of the Dead, now we finally get to see how it’s really done.
So, after Night of the Living Dead introduced the idea of the dead rising to hunt down and eat the juicy innards of the living, Dawn of the Dead’s superb zombie siege in a shopping mall, and Day of the Dead’s vision of the desperate underground resistance of the last remaining humans in an America entirely overrun, now we see humanity trying to recover from the refuge of a chaotic walled city fortress.
It may all sound like it’s getting more sci-fi than straight horror, but never fear – this is still pure violent, gore-filled zombie joy, complete with Romero’s trademark twisted humour. Hell, there’s even a (very brief) cameo from Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, the writer/star and writer/director of Shaun of the Dead, last year’s Brit hit spoof of Romero’s movie trilogy.
Romero is obviously fully aware that his films can be as funny as they can be scary with their often incredibly slow, mindless, lumbering zombie stars. He’s also fully aware how much his films have been loving joked about in innumerable movies over the years. He evidently realised that, as beloved as the undead beasties he created may be amongst his fans, cinematic times have moved on and zombies have been parodied so much that an injection of something new is needed to keep up the scare factor.
So this time, the zombies seem to be evolving. Rather than a mere mindless mass, in some ways a metaphor for the mob mentality which had seemed endemic in parts of America in the decade in which the first film appeared, now the creatures are beginning to work more as a team. This new strain of the rotting hive shows signs of intelligence, just as the last remaining outpost of humanity is beginning to lose its cohesion.
Doubtless more metaphors and satires could be read into this latest addition to the series – the tendency of recent years for people who should be working together in the face of a common enemy to descend into bickering and infighting over the best ways to respond - and there is certainly more to this film than mere violence. But, at its heart, it remains grimy gorefest entertainment, pitched into the top league by Romero’s uncanny knack for a shock. This is horror as horror should be – gruesome, explicit and unrelenting. A top night out for fans of the genre, and guaranteed to be a welcome addition to the beer and curry-fuelled night in for years to come.
It really is about time director John Singleton got back on form. Since his debut with the superb, genre-defining 1991 gangsta flick Boyz n the Hood, he’s been involved with very little decent, first selling out to do Michael Jackson videos, more recently helming the pointless remake of blaxploitation classic Shaft and the even more pointless 2 Fast 2 Furious.
Sadly, however, this bears all the signs of being another dud. For starters, of the four leads, three are pop stars, the other a male model – and two of the pop stars are models on the side. To be fair, one of the leads is former New Kid on the Block Mark Wahlberg, who has turned in decent performances in the likes of Boogie Nights and Three Kings in the past – but he has failed to impress on screen for nigh on six years now. The others are Outkast’s André 3000, who has shown some promise but has yet to prove himself as an actor, R&B star Tyrese, and Garrett Hedlund, whose first acting gig was in the disappointing Troy as Patroclus – Achilles’ gay lover in the original classic story, but a relative nonentity in the film version thanks to American squeamishness over homosexuality.
These four – two black, two white – play deliberately unlikely brothers from a rough part of town, reunited after the unsolved murder of their adoptive mother in a bid to track down her killer. Naturally enough jocular racial tension – with a few undertones of real problems – and outsiders’ confusion ensue as they re-acquaint themselves with the grimy neighbourhood their mother called home. And then it all goes a bit silly.
This whole mixed race brothers thing could have had some interesting potential in more capable hands – and certainly with a more interesting script. Four guys coming to terms with their differences and similarities, a bonding between the races – a perfect example of the tension the US has been wrestling with since before the Civil War, what the likes of Martin Luther King preached about, which remains a major issue in certain parts of America to this day.
But no, a social character drama wouldn’t have had as much box office potential as a silly conspiracy thriller with lots of guns and fights, and so the central conceit of these guys being brothers, rather than merely a mismatched group of friends, is soon effectively dropped. The kinds of sibling rivalries that pop up are not only tedious, but would logically have been dealt with years ago if these people had actually been brought up together.
But shhh! What’s important here is not characterisation, it’s shouty Marky Mark and his non-actor friends charging around trying to look hard. The trouble is, although they all try their best, they simply aren’t remotely believable as tough guys – especially Wahlberg. Despite his famously toned torso from those Calvin Klein underwear ads, he’s only really any good at playing people who are a bit wimpy. The rugged, punch-happy version simply doesn’t work. And as he’s the only one of the leads with any real claim to being more than just a pop star or a model, if he’s not up to scratch, the entire movie’s going to fall down. Which it promptly does.
There has been a real glut of good martial arts films getting releases in the west over the last few years. After the appearance of Jackie Chan in Hollywood, with his own brand of slapstick violent comedy, we’ve had the grandiose beauty of the likes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers, and the likes of Steven “Kung Fu Hustle” Chow have also begun to make their mark. But another kung fu superstar who has been knocking around in the background for a while now is Jet Li, a lithe, fast and brutally graceful master of the flying kick and karate chop.
Working in films for a quarter of a century now, Li has been a megastar in his native China for well over a decade, second only to Jackie Chan in terms of box office success thanks to a series of fast-paced actioners from the late 1980s and his still youthful good looks. Making his first Hollywood appearance in the passable fourth film in the Lethal Weapon series, his other English language outings haven’t fared too well, even when as well-produced as 2001’s fun sci-fi thriller The One. Instead, for most western audiences it was his central starring role in Hero which attracted notice – a much richer and more symbolic outing than his standard spectacular fare.
With Unleashed Li is back to his roots of gritty close combat and near-unbelievable physicality, but with a very much western attitude. Written by Luc Besson, the basic storyline has a fair few similarities to some of that director’s earlier works, notably La Femme Nikita and Leon, both of which saw highly trained assassins trying to learn to cope in a life without killing.
This time Li is a dehumanised killing machine, brainwashed by Bob Hoskins’ brutal gangster to kill on command, caged like a dog the rest of the time. When a deal goes awry, the wounded Li escapes to be nursed back to health by Morgan Freeman’s kindly blind piano player, the only thing stopping the former assassin from going on a murderous rampage being the collar whose removal triggers his programming. When Hoskins re-emerges, unsurprisingly Li’s none too keen to go back to his former life.
It’s a good set up with a good cast, Bob Hoskins in particular being on top form as a larger-than-life version of his vicious gangster character from the classic British flick The Long Good Friday, while the action sequences, largely choreographed by Li himself, are as grittily beautiful and painful-looking as anyone might wish. Directed by Louis Leterrier, to date known only for his entertaining but mediocre actioner The Transporter, all the parts come together for a very satisfying whole.
Assuming, of course, that you like this sort of thing. This is very much of the old school of martial arts movie – the 1970s/80s style basic set-up leading to as much violence as possible, with a little bit of characterisation chucked in. If you’re expecting another Hero you are likely to be sorely disappointed. If, however, you fancy the kind of film Bruce Lee would probably be making if he were around today (well, and still agile enough, obviously), look no further.
The Dukes of Hazzard
Based on the cult action TV series that ran from 1979-1895, the same period and same genre as the cheesy likes of The A-Team, Airwolf, CHIPS and Streethawk, it seems rather odd that this is the first of that glut of near-classics to make it to the big screen. Smart money would always have been on The A-Team, but the movie version of that old favourite has been stuck in development hell for years – one is still pegged for release next year, but as of yet no cast or director has been finalised, which is hardly very promising.
It seems doubly odd when you consider that the whole concept revolves around two buddies driving around very fast in a retro orange car, fighting crime and corruption while cracking jokes and having fun. Sounds awfully similar to last year’s big screen version of Starsky and Hutch, doesn’t it? The fact that they’ve got in low rent versions of Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson, in the shape of Johnny Knoxville and Seann William Scott, only further underscores the point.
The added problem with the Duke brothers, not just as played by Knoxville and Scott but also in their original television incarnations, is their redneck, deep south nature – a drawling good ol’ boy Americana today epitomised by George W Bush, but made slightly uncomfortable by the Confederate flag prominently emblazoned on the roof of their car. Thanks to the vaguaries of history, this is a symbol – albeit somewhat unfairly – associated with America’s dark days of slavery and racial repression. It becomes slightly uncomfortable to cheer for people who sport such a symbol and name their car after a Confederate general in much the same way it would be to cheer for a couple of guys with swastikas on their T-shirts who call their car Goebbels.
Yet the Duke brothers were always wonderfully likeable and entertaining, aided by the buxom charms of their hotpant-wearing cousin Daisy, played here by pop princess Jessica Simpson, and the devious corruption of local bigwig Boss Hogg, here portrayed with a piece of genius casting by that other early 80s TV hero Burt Reynolds. The southern drawl and apparent stupidity was all part of their charm, along with the insane stunts and massive explosions.
As such, it should be perfect blockbuster material – blending the inanity of the likes of Dude, Where’s My Car? with high-speed thrills. The only problem is that neither Knoxville nor Scott have, to date, demonstrated that they’ve really got the ability to carry a film. Both are fairly likeable and relatively amusing, but it seems painfully apparent that the producers really wanted the Stiller/Wilson team, yet lost them to Starsky and Hutch. The lack of an experienced director only adds to the worries that this isn’t quite the glossy blockbuster that it perhaps should have been.
Nonetheless, it remains relatively solid, mindless entertainment. Not up there with the best of the summer’s releases, but worth a look at least – if only to lend support to the concept of reviving of other cult shows from the period, which may finally see us get that long-awaited A-Team flick.
This ultra-low-budget indy flick, made for just $7,000, is one of those rare breakthrough movies from a first-time writer/director/actor which genuinely deserves the rave reviews and lavish praise. Like Darren Aronofski’s Pi or Christopher Nolan’s Memento, this is a wonderfully complex and intelligent film with a fascinating and – all too rare these days – original premise. It came out of nowhere last year to win the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, yet thanks to its indy roots has taken a while to get distribution on this side of the pond. It’s well worth trying to catch.
Yet the praise has not been unanimous. Some critics have pointed to the lack of acting ability of the film’s mastermind, Shane Carruth, while others have attacked its sheer complexity. This is a little unfair, considering not only the glossy job he has managed to pull off with so few resources but also the fact that these same critics so often complain about the lack of intellectual stimulation in modern movies. This has intellect in spades.
The central premise – two friends accidentally invent a time machine and start working out ways to put it to their advantage – doesn’t sound anything special. There have been countless time travel movies, some more successful than others. The subject is an endlessly intriguing one, with so many potential paradoxes and pitfalls that rare is the movie that takes it on without a few trips along the way. Back to the Future may be great fun, and its sequels truly cunning in their interconnected backtracking, but in places the logic still fell down. Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys admirably managed to keep tabs on all the problems, but his Time Bandits – deliberately – was rather more nonsensical.
Does the interweaving plot here make sense? Do all the strands add up? It’s fairly tricky to tell after just one viewing, but Carruth has repeatedly insisted that, if you pay close enough attention, it does.
This is the major concern for some critics – Carruth has done such a good job of providing an intelligent, understated exploration of the ever-increasing pitfalls of time travel that it’s well-nigh impossible to keep tabs on all the various plot strands. With his background in mathematics and engineering it is entirely possible that Carruth has got all this worked out somewhere in a vast spider chart as the friendships splinter, the ability to travel back in time is misused, and the dangers of bumping into alternate versions of oneself become clear.
For an audience viewing for the first time, however, much of what is going on is – deliberately – baffling. You will need to see this film at least twice to work out what’s going on, and probably more if you really want to unravel the details and work out whether it genuinely makes sense. But despite the criticisms, despite the occasionally amateurish acting, the likelihood is you’ll want to.
Not a re-release of the controversial 1996 David Cronenberg movie about people turned on by car crashes, although a car crash does play a central part in this collection of inter-connected stories.
Written and directed by Paul Haggis, best known for his superb mid-1990s Canadian Mountie drama/comedy Due South but also Oscar-nominated for his script for Clint Eastwood’s gritty boxing drama Million Dollar Baby earlier this year, this is another of those ambitious multiple character, multiple storyline dramas in the mould of the master, Robert Altman. Setting it in LA also adds to the inevitable comparisons to one of the most recent of this type of film, Paul Thomas Anderson’s emotionally complex blend, Magnolia. Thankfully, Crash acquits itself admirably in such exalted company – not least because, unlike Magnolia, it manages to avoid being tediously self-righteous and overly long.
This is a wonderfully realised look at race relations in a city always bubbling with tension – black versus white versus Hispanic versus middle eastern, all deeply mistrustful of each other, all filled with unthinking hatred. There’s the black cop (Don Cheadle) and his Hispanic girlfriend (Jennifer Esposito), the white district attorney (Brendan Fraser) and his snobby wife (Sandra Bullock), the two black thugs who mug them (Ludacris and Laurence Tate), the rich black film director (Terrence Howard ) and his trophy wife (Thandie Newton) and the racist white cop who abuses his position (Matt Dillon). All are, in their own way, scared and unpleasant. All find their very separate worlds overlapping and colliding.
The whole thing could end up sounding excessively pretentious, but this danger is something of which Haggis seems fully aware. Unlike Anderson’s Magnolia, which was so obviously trying to be a truly great film that when it ended up being rather sub-par it was all the more galling, Crash never tries to do more than provide detailed character studies, sparkling dialogue and a blend of interconnected storylines with a simple message. In this it succeeds more than admirably, and more Oscar nominations must surely come Haggis’ way.
The actors, too, are all on top form, with Cheadle and Bullock especially notable, playing so heavily against type as they are. Cheadle, fresh from his raised profile thanks to the Oscar-nominations for Hotel Rwanda, was apparently the driving force behind this film, and his determination to make it work has shined through to be adopted by the rest of the cast with gusto.
Smooth, sleek and – despite the contrived story-telling technique – always utterly real, this is a disturbing yet near-masterly movie which shows that Hollywood can still, when it wants, provide ensemble pieces of intelligence and style. Come the Oscars, keep an eye out for this one.
Directed by the man responsible for Armageddon, Bad Boys, and Pearl Harbor, with Michael Bay in charge you know that you can expect a big, dumb, cheesy action movie with an overdose of popcorn-friendly stupidity and very little in the way of brains. Bay has, for many film buffs, become the embodiment of all that is bad in Hollywood filmmaking – glossy, superficial, entertainment by numbers. He is almost the anti-Speilberg, resolutely un-intellectual and constantly appealing to the lowest common denominator in his mass audiences. He has also, perhaps for these very reasons, been massively successful.
To Bay’s credit, his films are rarely truly terrible, with even Pearl Harbor having its redeeming features in spectacular action sequences and breathtaking special effects, but with perhaps the sole exception of The Rock, they have rarely been especially great either. They do, however, almost always achieve precisely what they set out to do – provide a couple of hours of mindless fun and action with a liberal dose of explosions, normally revolving around a fairly straightforward plot where some friends take on a powerful enemy with a bit of romantic interest chucked in for good measure.
This is, unsurprisingly, more of the same. Returning to the sci-fi genre in which he had so much success with Armageddon, Bay has turned his attention to the confusing morals of human cloning. It’s a subject which has been covered by the movies many times by the likes of the thoughtfully understated Gattica and even that classic look at identity crisis that is Blade Runner. But this time Bay’s taken it up a notch with the addition of rocket-powered motorbikes, massive explosions and breakneak chases.
Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johannson live in a futuristic utopian world, a closed community of tracksuit-wearing beautiful young things most immediately reminiscent of the 1970s sci-fi classic Logan’s Run, but glossily Americanised almost beyond belief. As ever, all is not quite as perfect and wonderful as it appears, and as McGregor’s character begins to delve into the background of their little community – and of the near mythical island to which winners of the “lottery” are sent their true position becomes clear – and escape becomes the only option. In fact, it’s rather surprising they didn’t just call this Logan’s Run and get it over and done with, as the basic plot is almost identical.
Thankfully, however, with the escape the film soon shifts both gear and direction, with Bay regular Steve Buscemi adding some much-needed quirkiness and humour – amidst an impressive cast that also features Sean Bean, Djimon Hounsou and Michael Clarke Duncan – as the action and effects kick into overdrive. If there’s one thing Bay does well, it’s spectacle. Remember the rocket-powered motorbikes? Yep – that’ll do it. Utterly stupid, yet superb popcorn entertainment.
The Adventures of Shark Boy & Lava Girl
Yet another outing from the workaholic Robert Rodriguez, just a few months after his sprawlingly intriguing overdose of stylised violence that was Sin City, this sees the maverick auteur return to the world of kids’ films in which he had so much success with his Spy Kids franchise.
Taking the same basic premise as his other childrens’ action movies, the concept for this outing seems both obvious and logical. Where Spy Kids saw the childhood fantasy of kids being mini James Bonds, this latest outing gives them pint-sized superheroes following almost exactly the same format. It’s an almost insanely simple and obvious step – so perhaps it should come as no surprise that the original idea came from Rodriguez’s young son, who gains a “Story by” credit for his pains.
Just to add to the childhood wish-fulfilment premise, here the plot hinges on a boy, Max (Cayden Boyd), with a wild imagination, ridiculed for his insistence that his kid superhero friends, the eponymous Shark Boy and Lava Girl, are real. It’s a bit of a re-tread of the ground covered by the 1980s franchise The Neverending Story, only with better special effects and no giant flying snake/dog hybrids. Once again the ordinary kid has to help the extraordinary by going off to a weird world and battling the forces of evil.
In other words, it’s all fairly standard stuff, with the promise of good special effects, the lure of the “from the director of Spy Kids” strapline, and the gimmick, used by Rodriguez for the third film of that earlier franchise, of 3-D. But although a lot of kids’ films are, by the very nature of their target audience, rather unchallenging and lacking in originality – the same plots can be rotated every ten years or so thanks to the rapid turnaround of the potential customers – it’s rare for them to be quite this uninspired.
It’s a good, simple premise, but somehow manages to fail dismally. Whether this is thanks to the reliance on the child actor leads, none of whom are up to the job, or the almost painful garishness of the rather unimaginative special effects it is hard to say. But it is, shall we say, little surprise that this movie was dreamed up by someone yet to hit double figures.
Considering the whole point of the film is the power of the imagination, as Max has to use his daydreaming skills to help his superhero buddies battle an array of stock CGI villains, the lack of imagination on display is even more galling. In a standard children’s film such blandness would be expected and forgivable, but not when the whole point is to be inspirational and mindblowing.
When Rodriguez last turned out two films in one year, with Spy Kids 3-D and Once Upon a Time in Mexico back in 2003, both obviously suffered as a result of the pressures he had put himself under. This time he seems to have put all his effort into making Sin City something genuinely special and left nothing in reserve for this outing. It may be time for Mr Rodriguez to take stock, and realise that there’s a reason why people no longer make films as if on a factory production line. Here, the vision which served him so well in Sin City is utterly lacking.
There have been four Herbie movies to date – if you include the 1997 TV movie remake – and a TV series, all derived from the 1968 Disney classic The Love Bug, in which a San Francisco racer car driver teamed up with an intelligent Volkswagen Beetle for a series of high-speed capers. For what is basically just a car, and a car designed in Nazi Germany no less, Herbie proved surprisingly lovable, and has become a children’s comedy classic.
This new outing thankfully, after the disappointing 1997 version, doesn’t try to remake the original. It is instead fairly firmly a sequel. Herbie has been sitting in a scrapyard for the last couple of decades, his powers untapped and unknown. Given to a teenage girl (Lindsay Lohan) as a college graduation present, the dormant love bug’s powers are soon awakened – with perhaps a few too many special effects for the tastes of fans of the original – before finding a rival in Matt Dillon’s evil champion racer.
In other words, bar the initial set-up where Herbie is re-activated and a few special effects, it’s taking the original formula and rolling with it. The only major difference – beyond having a young girl in the driving seat – is that rather than rally racing, this time it’s NASCAR. And a forty year old Beetle in that sort of race is even less believable than a car with a mind of its own – especially in this age of satellite-guided navigation systems and “intelligent” breaking.
But it’s not the originality that matters in this kind of film, but the stunts, the jokes and, considering the presence of Lindsay Lohan in the lead, the sweetness and tentative romance. On these fronts, it’s certainly a passable kids’ comedy – but of the old school, with few concessions to the poor adults dragged along. Parents will instead have to content themselves with wondering whatever happened to the once promising careers of Michael Keaton and Matt Dillon that they have to stoop to this kind of movie.
With a fairly bland script it’s nothing special, but hits all the marks competently enough for its purposes. A handy diversion for the kids, who should be more than happy to be introduced to the little car which has brought so much joy to so many. Not only that, but then you’ll have a good excuse to go out and buy the originals, watch them all again, and show the kids how this sort of movie was so much better in the good old days. At which point they’ll probably turn round and remind you of precisely how old you are. Which is never much fun.
The 1960s saw two sitcoms revolving around suburban couples where the wife had magical powers, the genie-based I Dream of Jeannie and witch-based Bewitched. Both had their moments, the former largely thanks to the presence of Larry “JR” Hagman as the long-suffering husband, the latter thanks to the wiggly-nosed charms of Elizabeth Montgomery.
Between them these two shows built up nearly 300 episodes – each and every one concerned with the need to prevent friends and relations of the central couple from finding out about the wife’s powers. That’s around 9,000 hours of comedy all hinging on one basic premise – is there anything left for a feature-length movie? Well, considering next year promises an I Dream of Jeannie flick as well, someone in Hollywood seems to think so.
Still, a straight update of the original sitcom premise seems to have been decided not to be quite interesting enough. Instead we get a slightly postmodern take on the thing – this is a film about updating the sitcom, with Will Ferrell as the star set to play the beleaguered husband and Nicole Kidman as the unknown cast to play his witchy wife. With this premise, the twist is predictable – Kidman’s character is a genuine witch. A witch pretending to be a regular human playing a witch pretending to be a regular human. It’s as much a magical version of the Julie Andrews classic Victor/Victoria, where the dancing Dame played a woman pretending to be a female impersonator, as it is a straight update of the sitcom from which the film takes its name.
It’s a moderately promising premise, if a tad odd to waste the rights to a remake on something that isn’t quite a remake, with a quality cast that includes Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine, teaming up again as they did in 1966’s sub-par caper movie Gambit, as Kidman’s supernaturally-powered parents.
Sadly, however, neither the plot nor the characters really seem to sparkle. Co-written and directed by Norah Ephron, the woman responsible for, among others, classic romantic comedies Sleepless in Seattle and When Harry Met Sally, the emphasis on the frankly implausible blossoming relationship between the egotistical Ferrell and sweetly innocent Kidman never quite manages to engage, while the comedy set-ups are all fairly predictable and repetitive.
The cast try their best with the lacklustre material, but they really haven’t got much to work with, and Ephron’s unimaginative, visually uninteresting direction really doesn’t offer any help. It’s perhaps ironic that, in a movie revolving around witchcraft and the kindling of love, there is absolutely none of that Hollywood magic which lifts mediocre films to the level of something special. Considering it took them thirty years to get this sitcom onto the big screen, you think they would have tried a little harder to create something worthy of the name.