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Reviews

Doctor Who: Revolution of the Daleks
(2021)
Episode 11, Season 12

Been done before - better
At this point the weight of Doctor Who's history is so overwhelming that furthering the story with anything approaching surprise or originality is a practically impossible task, and so it proves here with a storyline cobbled together from the many prior Dalek episodes with perhaps the greatest reference to "Remembrance Of The Daleks". With originality out the window, a show needs sparkling dialogue, solid acting, good direction and a story that breathes. There's very little of that here and I found it uninspired to the point of boredom. This is a great shame. I like Jodie Whittaker and she's clearly giving her all to what is by now an increasingly stereotyped character, but there's no way she can compensate for the dialogue. And she's the best of the bunch. Barrowman has lost the sparkle he had back in his early days, but at least he's an interesting character. The companions, maybe the weakest set ever, just go along for the ride. Overall, utterly uninvolving and that's not right at all.

McDonald & Dodds: The Fall of the House of Crockett
(2020)
Episode 1, Season 1

Lightweight entertainment
Having moved forward with other episodes in this show, I can look back on this uncertain beginning and say enjoy this but don't go any further. The plot is pretty ludicrous but actually put together with some aplomb here, something that cannot be said for subsequent episodes. It's a shame, really, there is potential that doesn't pan out, not least because the stereotypical portrayals that can just about be borne for a single episode become unsustainable over the series. I like the lead actors and it's clear they are working hard but you can only go so far with indifferent writing and direction. I would call this a missed opportunity.

McDonald & Dodds: A Wilderness of Mirrors
(2020)
Episode 2, Season 1

Disappointing
I really wanted this show to work based on the premise and the lovely setting of Bath and its surrounds. But if it is supposed to be a comedy, it's not very funny and if it's supposed to be a drama it's unconvincing. All the characters are stereotypes and it is obvious that the actors are struggling with trying to bring anything more to them, sometimes valiantly, sometimes simply throwing in the towel with some fruity overacting. The best aspect of the production is the photography and when you find yourself considering the visuals over the plot or the acting, that's not a reassuring sign that you are watching anything of any substance. Disappointing.

Silent Witness: Lost: Part 1
(2011)
Episode 3, Season 14

Powerful and successful story
More than many series, it seems, "Silent Witness" is dependent on the skill of the director and here Anthony Byrne (later to do "Peaky Blinders") knots together a powerful story and elevates the acting of all concerned to a level far above that seen in too many other contemporary and frankly unconvincing episodes. It helps that the plot returns to more sustainably believable territory but the continuing character development of the main players also takes a significant turn towards coherence and verity. Very fine episode, both this and its second part.

Bergerac: A Miracle Every Week
(1983)
Episode 7, Season 2

A product of its time
Watching this episode almost 40 years from its initial broadcast really does feel like stepping back in time. The central character, played I suspect with inwardly rolling eyes by a young Art Malik, is one of those Indian cliché characters pretty typical of British TV of the period. As indeed are the villains, dodgy dealing accountants and managers. Nonetheless, allowing for this, it's another fairly enjoyable Bergerac, best treated as something of black comedy rather than a serious police drama.

Grace: Looking Good Dead
(2021)
Episode 2, Season 1

Didn't work for me
I wanted this episode to be a lot better than it was, and on the face of it it should have been. Good actors, John Simm is always a pleasure, and the supporting cast do well too, but the plot with its snuff videos, dismembered corpses and a mysterious computer mastermind seen in profile in front of a bank of eerily lit screens came across as uninspired and derivative. The dialogue too - way too many policemen saying 'I'm fine' when whacked in the head or outright shot as if what would be considered major injuries were just paper cuts. An ordinary bathtub full of industrial strength sulphuric acid? At least in 'Breaking Bad', the scriptwriters had the sense to realize such a thing would likely dissolve its way through the floor. Not too mention the fumes would fill a house and be completely obvious on opening the front door. It was touches like this that broke the suspense and prevented the story from gelling. Hopefully the series if it continues will pick up again. The cinematography is excellent with lots of well crafted scenes in Brighton and the surrounding area.

Inside No. 9: And the Winner Is...
(2018)
Episode 5, Season 4

Nicely scripted and acted - but hard to watch at this time (June 2021)
A story about actors, their vanities and insecurities. Their insensitive opinions and behaviour - all of this rings true, these days too true with the current revelations about Noel Clarke (playing a boorish director) adding a very discomforting level of interpretation that was (unless Pemberton and Shearsmith were truly creepily prescient) not intended at the time. Relatively gentle twist at the end compared to the discomfort portrayed. Good show with newly added layers of meaning.

A Zed & Two Noughts
(1985)

Greenaway in experimental mode
Something of a synthesis between the archly contrived "Draughtsman's Contract" and its more experimental predecessor, "The Falls", this, like all of Greenaway's films, requires close attention and repeated views. A meditation on similarity and difference, growth and decay, it follows "The Falls" with its litany of visual and linguistic repetitions. Anyone looking for a conventional plot, even one as convoluted as found in "The Draughtsman's Contract", is going to be disappointed. Not that there isn't a storyline - there is and it's important - but to really enjoy the film you need to be open to its symbolism. It's really a moving painting more than a film. Awareness of Greenaway's early experimental works helps a great deal in comprehending the concerns of this film. But if you're open to it, it's both thought-provoking and very amusing.

Jabberwocky
(1977)

Delightfully Quirky
A lot of people come to this film expecting "Monty Python and The Holy Grail 2", and leave perplexed and disappointed. Understandably so. Come to this from "Brazil", however, and it makes a lot more sense.

For much of the same preoccupations that underlie "Brazil" underpin this film too, even if it is by no means as bleak and disturbing. Dennis, our hero, is a socially inept individual easily swayed by the attractions of materialism, albeit Dark Ages materialism - best symbolized by a rotting tuber gifted without care by his unappreciative muse.

The society he blunders through is an incompetent bureaucracy, complete with venal merchants and a delightfully distracted king, played wonderfully by Max Wall. Despite the literally tumbledown state of his kingdom, King Bruno is more caught up in the romance of medieval adventuring than any practical measures to either renovate his decaying castle or, indeed, to fight the monster that provides the film's title.

The world Gilliam creates for us, dirty, dusty, impoverished for most, echoes that of "Holy Grail", but is altogether less lightly humorous and much darker in tone. The humor is black and often only really sinks in after repeated viewing. But it is there once the veneer is scrubbed away. Curiously veneer is very much a subject of the film, from the rotten vegetable treated as a precious gift to the character, played by Gilliam himself, who wanders around under the delusion that the ordinary rocks he has picked off the ground are diamonds. Shallowness and lack of perception permeate almost all the characters, so much so that when the monster is killed, essentially by accident, one almost feels a twinge of sympathy for the Jabberwock stopped forever in its quest to rid King Bruno's kingdom of its inhabitants. It, at least, knows what it really wants.

It's not a perfect film. The pacing slows in places. Some scenes could have been cut or trimmed. Nonetheless, it is memorable and thought-provoking and well worth viewing.

Prometheus
(2012)

A complete mess
I borrowed "Prometheus" and the original "Alien" from the local library and watched them back-to-back.

It's striking how much "Prometheus" borrows from the original film. The lingering opening shots of the spacecraft, the on-screen data specifications, the waking from hibernation, crew members moving through poorly lit corridors, a mercenary android who loses his head but continues a conversation, aliens who delight in killing, the sole survivor a strong-willed woman - these are just some of the similarities.

Sadly though, because I expected more, much more, "Prometheus" fails on every level compared to "Alien". The script is very badly written and poorly acted by the majority of the cast. Noomi Rapace is particularly unconvincing and Guy Pearce is completely wasted acting an old man. The only actors I warmed to were paradoxically playing cold characters, Michael Fassbinder's David8 and Charlize Theron's Meredith Vickers.

Obviously a lot of money was spent on sets and special effects, and it looks good. The explorer's spaceship looks far more technologically advanced despite being chronologically younger than the tatty old "Nostromo" with its cathode ray tube computer monitors and graphics- challenged screen displays, but as a believable space ship, the craft from "Alien" is so superior.

"Alien" worked well because Scott had learned a lot from Kubrick's "2001" about pacing and atmosphere. "Prometheus" again borrows from "2001" but without any sense of originality being put to good use, it simply makes "Prometheus" look derivative. A shared scene is an astronaut about to run out of air just making it into the airlock in time. This ended up as a completely ho-hum scene compared to Kubrick's similar take.

Thinking about "2001" merely adds to the dismay I feel about "Prometheus". Both films share very similar concepts - alien life acting as an evolutionary stimulant in the development of humanity and the attempt of a future generation to locate those aliens - but whereas "2001", despite its glacial pacing, enthralls me from beginning to end, "Prometheus" left me simply puzzled or uninvolved.

OK, so it's science fiction and I don't expect real science or even real philosophy but the shallowness evidenced throughout the film was breathtaking.

I did like the opening scene, some very Kubrickian aerial landscape shots, and the title music with its opening horn call, very Vaughan Williams (think 5th Symphony), is pleasing.

But overall, a complete mess.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
(2011)

Well-acted, stylish, nice cinematography, but...
I really wanted to like this film more than I did. The actors are among my favorites, the story has always gripped me. And, much of it I do like. It's moodily filmed, generating a strong and believable atmosphere of real-life espionage, and is, as I would expect from the cast, very well acted.

The problem - and it's huge - is that the film makes very little sense unless you are already familiar with the book (or one of the preceding TV or radio adaptations). Even then, it's somewhat frustrating, because, much more so than prior adaptations, the plot has been tweaked, characters omitted or changed, and the dialogue fairly brutally hacked in an attempted to streamline the dense and convoluted plot. It fails to do this convincingly, in the process making the narrative less believable. Its greatest failure is to dilute the tension of the hunt for the mole, largely because none of the suspects are developed on any level as a convincing character despite the best efforts of the cast with the few minutes allotted to them for dialogue. You can argue that this is a fault of the novel too, but le Carré supplies just enough meat for you to get a convincing sense of motive and action. This is missing from the film. It not missing from either the excellent Alec Guinness TV adaptation or the equally fine Simon Russell Beale radio adaptation. Both of those I would recommend over this film.

Ultimately, the book is too complex and too multi-layered to be shoehorned into a feature length movie. A gallant failure, this film.

The Swimmer
(1968)

Powerful and affecting study of delusion
I first saw this movie as a late night TV offering many years ago. I was powerfully affected by the performances and story then, and wondered if the film would hold up again, 20 years or so later.

So I found the DVD second-hand and gave a spin tonight.

Thankfully, the film had not lost any of its power. To be sure, certain cinematographic techniques and occasionally the score seemed dated and a little mawkish - but not necessarily in a bad way. The acting, particularly Lancaster's performance, was very good. This story, revolving around the stock soap opera upper-middle class stereotypes of so many forgettable TV shows, could easily have descended to the same level of banality, but, despite a wobble or two, manages to clear of that particular hurdle. It does so by concentrating on Lancaster, and his character Ned's sociopathic outlook that is progressively undermined as the film continues.

From the very beginning Ned shows mannerisms betraying self-delusion and incomprehension. Initially, these are little more than the defensive stances taken in any social gathering, but rapidly a sense of far deeper disturbance develops. Ned's conversation, when it refers to himself and his family, seems caught in time loop of a period that is far in the past. As he moves one from one social gathering to the next, the characters he meets flesh out the lost years, and they are clearly in stark contrast to Ned's upbeat story.

The closer he gets to his house, the more jarring and hostile the encounters become, and reality becomes more insistent. The final scene - partly lingering over a tennis court (reminding me of Antonioni's "Blow-Up", a movie that explores similar themes with greater artistry) - is obvious but still succeeds thanks to Lancaster's mesmerizing break-down.

Not a perfect film, but a perfectly memorable one and more worthwhile than most.

The School of Rock
(2003)

Pedestrian movie with a moment or two of pleasure
Having enjoyed Jack Black's performance as a rock music obsessive in Stephen Frears' "High Fidelity", I had relatively high hopes for this movie. Alas they were not met. Thinking about it, the blame can really be laid solely at director Richard Linklater's feet, because the cast struggle gamely to rise above a leaden parade of clichéd and stereotyped characters and settings, failing most of the time, alas. Only at the very climax - obviously enough, a 'Battle Of The Bands' talent contest -was there a sense of any excitement, and it was hard to judge whether that was because of the music or because of the audience of actors acting excitedly. As a fan of rock music, I certainly found much to argue with from a musical point of view - 'rock' here was clearly defined in terms of 1970s' arena rock. This may play to a large and wealthy demographic, and thus elicit maximal box-office receipts, but any film that claims 'School Of Rock' as its title and fails to mention either Elvis Presley or The Beatles (if it did, I missed it) is dishing out Rock History-Lite. Ironically, the cookie-cutter anonymous song that Black and his school band cobble together freely borrows the 'Oooh-la-la' chorus from The Beatles' "You Won't See Me" - and that made me cringe rather than smile. A few asides verbally and musically to the punk rock movement were made to bolster 'the stick it to The Man' philosophy that Black's character tried to get across, but it was all style (and not interesting style) and no substance here. All in all, a great disappointment.

Office Space
(1999)

Enjoyable satire
'Office Space' is a flawed but nonetheless thoroughly enjoyable satire of modern corporate office work. Nicely judged performances from all concerned gently ridicule every aspect of corporate behavior. The only problem is the plot, which never overcomes its unbelievable premise, and the movie gets dreadfully bogged down with some over-serious relationship and moral considerations in the last half hour. Shame really - a lighter and more zany touch would have done much better. Perhaps the most endearing performance comes from Stephen Root as the perpetually trodden-upon passive-aggressive Milton, and rather more emphasis on his character at the expense of some of the sillier plot machinations would have improved the film.

Where Eagles Dare
(1968)

Highly enjoyable (none-too-serious) war/spy adventure yarn
This film, a favorite of my boyhood, has been recently re-released on DVD with a good remaster that somewhat improves on the rather gray and washed out hues of the original movie. Watching it again, 30 years on, I was surprised how enjoyable it remains.

A wildly improbable spy yarn, with seemingly a radical twist every 20 minutes, it succeeds largely because it does not take itself too seriously. The acting is laconic - hovering on the edge between spoof and earnest drama and holding that position without wavering. Considering no more than a handful of heroes almost effortlessly defy several thousand supposedly elite German mountain soldiers, this is probably an appropriate approach to take! Lots of explosions and gunfire - so nice to see and hear 'real' black powder and blanks rather than the computer generated stuff of today - and the movie is very well paced considering there are some wordy patches as the convoluted plot is divulged. For me, one of the highlights is watching a Junkers Ju-52 flying over the spectacular Alpine scenery while Ron Goodwin's excellent score - one of his best - swells in the background.

Strongly recommended if you are looking for an exciting war adventure movie without an overly serious core.

The Shawshank Redemption
(1994)

Good but not great
Good acting from all concerned carries the rather simplistic and obvious storyline beyond the saccharine, but the villains are really predictable in their villany and the storyline, while initially moving and affecting, seems forced and unreal once you step back from Robbins and Freeman's performances.

In other words, a high impact movie that rapidly loses credibility with considered thought after viewing. Far more worthwhile, though, than many other similarly stretched dramas and by no means a failure. But by no means in the top rank of movie making.

Secretary
(2002)

Interesting concept lacking full realization
SPOILERS within!

This movie's main idea - the emotional unlocking of a severely disturbed young woman by the means of a dominant/submissive relationship is by no means implausible or particularly 'out-there'. The problem lies with the severely stereotyped characters within and a very obvious series of plot moves. From the very beginning Maggie Gyllenhaal's character lacks a convincing sense of someone who has really been mentally ill. It's difficult to put one's finger on it, but, having known young women who actually have cut themselves, the Lee Holloway character just does not convey that particular sense of dislocation from feelings. Without conveying a strong sense of the reality of mental illness with this performance, all else around her becomes significantly less convincing than it might be. To her credit, she does convey a woman exploring her sexuality more convincingly. Nonetheless, her parents, the abusive alcoholic father, the over-protective mother, her ex-high-school boyfriend - all these roles descend into stereotype. A fine piece of acting by James Spader as Grey manages to suspend disbelief in his character for a while, but then a particularly unconvincing ending to the movie undoes all of his work too. Clumsily obvious sexual imagery - orchids, long hallways, a worm laid out straight on a piece of paper and circled with red ovals to mimic a vulva - gets in the way rather than adds to any erotic sense. The penultimate scene, with Lee in a wedding dress sitting - on Grey's command - at his desk is simply farcical. Not a satisfying movie despite some undoubtedly erotic moments.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
(2001)

Thoroughly valid interpretation of the story
These comments concern the DVD extended version. The original, as others have noted, was a little too rushed and not quite fleshed out enough. Mild spoilers.

I really enjoyed this movie. I had no difficulty with the length - in fact, could've taken even more. The mood, scenery, acting and visualizations all came close to my own mental imagery derived from the book. I would have liking an even more faithful rendering of the story than was given; I really missed the episode of the barrow-wight. Nonetheless, the cuts and changes were made relatively seamlessly although some, such as the introduction of the Palantir at the Orthanc tower in the first scene with Saruman will undoubtedly require some finessing in later episodes of the Two Towers. But the main spirit and line of the story were preserved and this made the changes palatable.

So all was satisfying with the possible exception of the soundtrack - an intrusive lush orchestral score that unfortunately reminded me of really sub-par Ralph Vaughan Williams or Arnold Bax and could have been a whole lot better. Too many cliched tunes, harmonies and orchestral colorations - this was a movie that deserved a more innovative and progressive score to match the visual splendor.

Bella Martha
(2001)

Beautifully Acted Heartwarmer
"Mostly Martha" (the curious U.S. title) is one of the most captivating films I have seen. The tale of the emotional emancipation of an inhibited chef who's sole expressive outlet is the wonderful food she prepares, the story introduces tragedy, comedy and many feelings in between in a wholly convincing manner. Martina Gedeck portrays Martha's growth with a tour-de-force of outstanding acting, and the supporting roles are also uniformly excellently portrayed. The film draws you in within the first minute as Martha is seen describing a sumptious meal as she lies on her analyst's couch and never lets go until the final uplifting ending, cleverly rounded out with a series of short conclusive vignettes as the credits role out. An absolute must-see.

Charlie Bubbles
(1968)

Slow but endearing - akin to a Pinter play
Warning: Mild spoilers

"Charlie Bubbles" is a curiously appealing film where very little happens but all that does is more than enough for the lead character. Finney plays a wealthy successful writer whose implied literary observational skills have declined into a kind of passive voyeurism. Not just sexual, although Finney's jaded response to his student secretary Liza Minnelli's seduction creates about the most passionless encounter you will see on screen, but Finney's ennui extends to series of encounters with friends, employees, his son and his ex-wife. The 'bubble' motif extends throughout the movie, as Charlie's life plays out behind the window glass of his Rolls, in a private box at a soccer match or gazing dispassionately at the TV screens of his home security system. The movie creates a moving portrait of a man who 'has it all' and yet has nothing real anymore, and the performances by all the actors are uniformly excellent and completely convincing, revealing more layers of complexity than usual. The movie is as British as a song by The Jam, and a viewer having a good knowledge of the post-war decline of England, the North-South divide, and the perennial class struggle will get more out of it.

Y tu mamá también
(2001)

Bittersweet story of maturation
I was touched by this movie. The story is potentially melodramatic, yet was rendered in such a way as to be believably natural, with strikingly fine acting and direction by all the protaganists involved. Excellent cinematography too, with carefully arranged set pieces illustrating the cycle of life and death which is ultimately the core theme of this movie.

This film ranks amongst the best I have ever seen.

Velvet Goldmine
(1998)

Glam glory surreally revisited
A disjointed plot, and overly self-conscious references to other movies (A Hard Day's Night, Citizen Kane) nonetheless fail to dampen my enthusiasm for this film, perhaps the first to truly capture the ephemeral joys of Glam rock's glory days in England in the early 1970's. In truth, the music held up well today and the soundtrack contains gems from Eno, Roxy Music, T. Rex and others. But onto the film - a visually entrancing collage of very pretty people looking very pretty. Lots of homoerotic romance - but a gritty undercurrent keeps the movie grounded and a convincing cast overcome a slightly gauche script that trots out one-too-many quotes from New Musical Express stories of the time (a time I remember well from my own teenage fascination with David Bowie and Roxy Music). This movie holds you and you want to come back to it, and the return is only partly nostalgia for the days of Ziggy Stardust.

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