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If only it was as good as the trailer
Maleficent is a somewhat frustrating movie because it had huge potential, got a lot of things pleasingly right - but had enough annoying flaws to fall short of greatness.

Maleficent, we find, is the name of a fairy living in a utopian anarchy of fairy creatures, which borders a kingdom run by corrupt and dishonorable kings. One day, she meets an orphan boy who tried to steal a jewel. They become friends. His dreams are all about power and wealth. Hers are... actually, she does not seem to have any. Perhaps she dreams of true love, or something, but it's not exactly clear.

Needless to say, betrayals and vengeance are on the horizon, and then the tale turns.

Much can be applauded about the film. The first shots of Maleficent are great, the scenes re-enacted from Sleeping Beauty are awesome, and the actors do great work.

Unfortunately, there are also spanners in the works. The fairy land is too bustling, too sweet, too colourful, far too cartoonish to have any reality at all. Hundreds of CGI creatures and little subtlety - a movie about a fairy with capability for darkness deserved a faerie world that isn't dipped in sugar and populated exclusively by sidekicks and a few tree-people. I'm not saying it should get all Guillermo del Toro, but on the other hand, it really deserved better than latter-day George Lucas style. Also, Maleficent flying is best when we glimpse her zooming into, through or out of shot. Seeing her glide around the clouds may seem dramatic to the film-makers, but feels phony and looks naff. So: the visuals deserved a lot more style and class than the film delivered. Instead of going for a clear aesthetic, the movie throws far too much at the screen, and some of it is really corny and naff.

The bigger problem is in the story - and especially the resolution. The ending, quite frankly, sucks. The movie could have done with a longer segment of sinister & evil Maleficent, and it really needed to lose its very, very incoherent messages about people with power (Rulers are bad! Getting power is a betrayal! Grabbing power is bad! Only the bad get power! Oh, actually, never mind!). It's all the more frustrating as Maleficent largely succeeded at retelling Sleeping Beauty and at creating a credible anti-heroine. With a bulkier angry-Maleficent section, fewer big battles, and a less incoherent (& recycled) ending, the film could have been fantastic.

It's not a bad movie - quite entertaining, and briefly awesome. Unfortunately, it is marred by annoying flaws.


No story, not much of a script, bad acting and unbelievably pretentious
Watched about 50 minutes' worth of this, then gave up. Watching this feels like watching some students' short film projects, stuck together. Lots of footage, using lots of shiny postproduction effects, very little dialogue, lots of really, really stilted, mediocre, drama school type acting, and (for the most part) no sense of a plot at all. Oh, and lots of unimpressive fight scenes that seem entirely pointless and stretch the length of the film without making it any more exciting.

It's the sort of pretentious nonsense that the most pretentious student in the film production class might produce in their final year to impress their most pretentious tutor - only this is hours and hours and hours of it. (Well, an hour and 40 minutes, I think. As I said, I only go 50 minutes through before losing patience).

In short: entertainment value: zero.

But it's got a few neat visuals.

The Three Musketeers

Dazzling the eyes while grating away at your ears and slowly eating your soul
The Three Musketeers must be one of the most filmed stories of all time. It seems like major movie adaptations now happen every 5 years, and major TV adaptations at a similar pace.

So, the last big movie adaptation was all about wire-fu. Why has it been filmed again? The advent of 3D. Apparently, every new fad in Hollywood must immediately be followed by a 3 musketeers film "reimagining" the old story by applying the new fad. There is also a hint of steampunk about this - but the historical setting far predates the steam age, so instead we get a bit of nonsense about Leonardo Da Vinci and airships. (Leonardo, by the way, drew schemata for heavier than air flying craft, and tanks. Not, as far as I recall, lighter than air craft)

So, how does this movie fare? The plot is roughly the same as in the last few adaptations I've seen (I never read the book: I read Count of Monte Christo, found it a bit too heavy on the religiousness, and didn't muster the energy to read 3 Musketeers). Except, this time around, Buckingham is a villain. (Orlando Bloom, being as uncharismatic as ever)

The action is competent enough - lots of CG, Milla Jovovich gets to leap around in period dress instead of combat gear or scifi rubber, and the traps in this film are about as close to scifi Resident Evil / heist movie type traps as they could get away with. The fencing, meanwhile, plays second or third fiddle to the big CG action setpieces, so don't expect anything too old fashioned.

But the dialogue... well, it's stolen. My ears kept detecting line after line and after a while, I started realising that this film had the gall to pretty much steal half its dialogue from previous musketeer films and other sources. At some point, a character uses an Oscar Wilde line. I would not be surprised if it turned out that the script does not contain a single line of original writing. Even the jokes from previous movies are stolen (D'Artagnan's insistence that a character apologises to his horse, for example). When not grating your ears with stolen dialogue, the film allows far too much screen time to a third rate British comedian / sidekick (James Corden?) who is probably the most annoying thing in the entire film.

The other actors, meanwhile, manage to strut around on screen while failing to produce even the slightest hint at on-screen chemistry, instead delivering line after line in their blandest ever performances. Even Christoph Waltz doesn't try to steal the show, which says a lot. (Will he ever be cast as a non-psychopathic character? He was charismatic in Inglorious Basterds, but now, he's been flogging that horse for a while...). Meanwhile, this particular incarnation of Constanze is even more underwhelming than Mena Suvari's effort in the last Musketeer film I've seen - and that says a lot.

So, plagiarised dialogue, bland performances, visually pretty CG action that is mindbogglingly silly... On the whole, that all sounds rather bad. And (in a Top Gear-esque revelation), it is. It's also reasonably watchable if you can totally switch off your brain and focus all your attention on Athos, who is the only actor/character projecting even the slightest hint of charisma in this entire soulless endeavour. Paul Anderson should probably stick to futuristic stuff and zombie movies - for Resident Evil, the slick visuals can, in combination with a thumping soundtrack, be enough to make fairly soulless films enjoyable. (And, to be fair, zombie scifi video game adaptations are a genre where a certain degree of cold, by-the-numbers film making is perfectly acceptable and expected). But the Three Musketeers? No, that story has been done with so much more gusto and passion in the past, any new adaptation should really dazzle more than just the eyes...

PS: Milady? Seriously? Sounds more like a name for a dog than a name for a character. Then again, this film credits some character names as "Blonde" and "Cougar", so I suppose naming the female lead "Milady" is not out of line with that sort of approach to the female gender...

Tretí princ

Quite possibly the best fairy tale movie ever made.
Czech fairy tales are a staple of German TV. Despite low production values, unspectacular cinematography, and often poor / natural lighting, these movies are the highlights of childhood TV - or at least, they were, for me, and many of my generation.

They cannot compete with the likes of Disney in some arenas. But they're in a class of their own when it comes to atmosphere.

The most famous and popular of these fairy tale movies is Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella (a brilliant merger of Allerleihrauh and Cinderella). Its star, Libuse Safrankova, is a recurring face in Czech fairy tale movies - and one that seemed to ensure movie magic was about to take place. (I suppose she was many a German boy's first movie crush) Usually cast as princess or heroine, this is the only fairy tale where I've ever seen her play an ambiguous character.

Then again, it is also the only of the fairy tale movies where, having just watched it, I am not sure what I've actually seen. I have seen this movie once before, when I was very young. I remember feeling strangely elated, bedazzled and awed by the film, and liking it more even than Three Hazelnuts. Unfortunately, we'd neglected to record it on VCR, so it's been twenty years before I'd see it again.

Having just seen it, I am strangely elated, bedazzled and awed. With a deep sense of magic and fairy tale atmosphere and characters, this movie manages to tell me a story that resonates, but without repeating a story previously told. There are elements from many different tales, but I cannot identify any single one as the primary influence. (According to the credits, it is a story by K J Erben that was adapted - I am now wondering how I could get my hands on a translation of his work) A prince goes out to find a princess, and never returns. His parents slowly descend into morose unhappiness. Then, visiting gypsies perform, a prophecy is made, and the queen has twin sons, who grow seven times faster than normal children. They grow up - and discover the secrets of their unmentioned brother...

There is a lot of mystery in the plot. Like many written fairy tales, it springs surprises on you that you would not expect. Sometimes, the narrator gives a lot away, and sometimes nothing at all. Sometimes, you know which character is on screen, and sometimes, you wonder. The movie works its way along unexpected and winding paths towards a finale that is almost indecipherable, thanks to editing and direction. And yet, despite the mystery, despite the unexpected plot turns, despite sometimes intrusive narration, the movie is a gem. In a way, it's almost because of the asymmetries of the plot, the asymmetries of the resolutions and the unexpected ambiguities that the film is so magnificent.

Perhaps it is accidental, and perhaps others watch the film and find it alienating (or even amateurish) - but to me, the film seems as if it takes fairy tale magic and turns it into something truly artful. There are edges, there are distortions of tales we've previously seen and heard, there are questions unanswered by the movie, and it feels unlike any fairy tale I've ever seen on screen. Characters may not all be three dimensional, but they are ambiguous - and the ambiguity really enriches the movie.

It is magnificent. It is quite possibly the best fairy tale movie ever made.

The New World

Pretentious, boring, entirely pointless rehash of the Pocahontas story
The New World is a movie about the first settlers in North America, their interactions with natives, and the girl who became famous as Pocahontas.

It is a movie about all of these things - but is it a story? Dreamy, slow, and artistic, it often does not present a coherent story to the viewer. Lengthy sequences of dream like silent shots with a bit of music dominate much of the film. If you have seen Thin Red Line, this film will feel very familiar. Only where Thin Red Line used its device to alienate the audience from war, this film tries to alienate us from the process of colonisation. Or rather, it tries to depict the arrival of the British in North America as a giant rape of something pure, pristine, natural and virginal. Idealized descriptions of natives as utopian, idyllic people are completely out of touch with their depiction as tribe. For instance, we are told how deception, jealousy and ownership are alien concepts to these natural people, except of course they are fiercely territorial, spy on the British and aren't nearly as noble as John Smith perceives them.

The constant narration of characters' thoughts is irritating and out of synch with the plot. Yes, it is exactly like Thin Red Line in that regard, but to be honest, it barely worked in that film, and using the same device here results in overkill: One pseudo-poetic artsy pretentious film using this trick is more than enough.

Just as Thin Red Line heavily plugged the brief appearance of George Clooney in its trailers and promotional materials, The New World resorts to a very eye catching, dramatic, action-packed DVD cover here in Britain. It tries to sell itself as dramatic, beautiful action film, which is clearly misleading. This is not an action film. What little action there is, is not original, inventive or beautifully dramatic, but bland and boring and confusing.

In terms of its acting performances, Christian Bale, Colin Farrell and Christopher Plummer all do reasonably well, without ever needing to be outstanding. The entire film rests on the shoulders of Q'Orianka Kilcher. She does her job very well. That said, the film is incredibly obsessed with her, and especially obsessed with trying to depict her as a playful, lively child of nature at first (and depressed and abandoned broken child later on). The audience is clearly supposed to fall in love with her. If there had been less voice-over of her (and everyone else's) thoughts, it might just have succeeded. But sadly, the film ends up feeling like a very shallow, teenage romance - like Romeo and Juliet on a new continent.

The New World is really only for a small niche audience. If you like your films pretentious and wannabe poetic, slightly abstract and dreamy, without much empathy for the characters and with a very shallow obsession with a pretty teenage girl, you will probably like The New World. Otherwise, you might want to give it a miss.

Flushed Away

Rat out of water story
Snotty self important (but lonely) yuppie finds himself in a small community where family values reign and a feisty female is initially unimpressed. If that sounds familiar from Doc Hollywood, or more recently, Cars, then don't be surprised if everything about Flushed Away feels just as familiar. The story is identical, only replace Hicktown, USA with London sewers, and Big City, USA with Kensington.

Within the framework of that type of story, Flushed Away lazily delivers its gags, pop references, wacky sidekicks, insane but quirky villains, and the usual set of gags about body functions. It's run of the mill, computer animated and possibly computer written family entertainment. Heavy on morals, light on originality.

It's not terrible. It's just not very good, either.

Big Nothing

Enjoyable enough crime comedy
You know the type of comedy. A couple of (usually male) losers try to make it big with a small scam that rapidly slides out of control, and before you know it, dead bodies and seriously violent people have entered the mix. This is that type of comedy.

If you don't expect huge originality, however, the film is actually quite enjoyable. It delivers a few laughs and chuckles, plenty of unlikely plot twists, and manages to make some of the most boring and bland shots ever look slightly funky by playing them out split screen to Rammstein music.

The film has two problems. First, Simon Pegg is not entirely convincing as American. Maybe that's just because he comes with some preconceptions in a UK audience's mind. But more importantly, the final 10 minutes don't fit the film.

I'd recommend the film for a reasonably funny comedy, but only if there's nothing better on offer.

Stranger Than Fiction

Over-hyped, inconsistent and underwhelming
Stranger than Fiction seemed so promising from the trailer. Could this writer be the new Charlie Kaufmann? Well, sadly the film answers this with a resounding "Not yet." A gimmicky and quirky plot (tax inspector starts hearing narration and turns out to be the hero of a novel being written as he lives his life) is sadly not consistently carried all the way through the film. All the best bits are in the trailer, and to be honest, so is about 50% of the plot. A lot of the rest feels forced and unnatural. The casting is mostly superb, except for Will Ferrel, who seems out-thesped wherever he goes. Maggie Gyllenhaal is good as usual, but her character is sadly completely unconvincing. Where Charlie Kaufman populates his world with odd characters all of whom have a basic truth and credibility in them, Maggie Gyllenhaal here plays a character whose single purpose is to be the love interest. Her motivations are unconvincing, her development unbelievable, her entire character a slightly upmarket version of a Bond girl. Dustin Hoffman does his quirky I Heart Huckabees shtick, and Emma Thompson convinces as quirky writer (with an underutilised Queen Latifah as enforced assistant).

Sadly, the film just doesn't work very well. There are hints of greatness and originality, but that's all they are. Bits of good writing (sometimes even poetic writing) between minutes of average writing. Glimpses of great performances between hours of Will Ferrel. One cannot help feeling that, with a more experienced writer (read: Charlie Kaufmann) and a better actor in the protagonist's role (read: Jim Carey), this film could have been fantastic. Sadly, the "could have been" drawer is firmly where the film belongs, managing to remain average between the rare glimpses of genius, and all the more disappointing for it.

The Prestige

Predictable, bland and depressing: Nolan's first failure
The Prestige is nominally a story of two magicians whose competition and obsession crushes them.

The problem is that it never properly works. Told in stacked flashbacks (one reads the diary of the other and flashes back, but within that flashback there are further flashbacks), and with the heavy use of narration, the film seems unusually clumsy. It lacks everything other Nolan films had: Memento had at its core a very simple device which made a very interesting film (the long term memory loss). Following had a simple but effective premise. Insomnia, as film noir filmed entirely in daylight, had a similarly simple subversion at its centre. But The Prestige forgets the elegance if a simple, uniform device, and instead becomes a complicated, but ineffective movie.

For example, this is not merely the story of competitive drive among magicians. Fairly early on in the film, one causes the death of the other's wife - which sets off their ever escalating vendetta. Even that story would be more interesting if it weren't for the time-nonlinearity and stacked flashbacks. These gimmicks are supposed to add suspense to the film, but end up ruining it. Finally, the film uses plot twists and revelations throughout - perhaps in line with a film about stage deceivers - but, disappointingly, none of the twists are surprising. Too many hints are interspersed throughout the film, and Michael Caine's speech about the importance of the third act and the titular prestige more or less announces how the film will end.

The botched attempts at twists in the tale, the dislikeable characters, the somewhat bland look of the film, and the terrible seriousness with which the film approaches a subject that should really be driven by a sense of mischievous amusement results in a whole that is predictable, bland and depressing. By far the biggest disappointment of the year so far.

Basic Instinct 2

Too basic
Basic Instinct 2 feels like a remake of the first, minus the tension and entertainment. The story? Female novelist is involved in a fatal car crash, driving at many times the speed limit into a river while on drugs, and killing her lover for the day in the process. Said lover was supposedly a football star, but that fact is forgotten two minutes into the film and never mentioned again. The rest of the film deals with her cat and mouse relationship with a psychiatrist who evaluates her, and eventually is hired by herself for treatment.

The problem with Basic Instinct - apart from painfully lacking a charismatic male lead - is that it's too obvious. Whenever the two characters are in a room, the dialogue spoken has no spark, no originality, no surprise. It's an exercise of putting the most obvious possible lines of dialogue into the mouths of two cardboard characters. I had never seen the film before and mouthed the dialogue with surprising accuracy. That ruins any potential of chemistry developing between the leads.

Bland dialogue is only the start, as the film struggles badly to build up suspense. In the original, you were never quite sure about Sharon Stone's character. In this one, she's obviously a psychopath right from the start. We see the psychiatrist thrown into doubt this way and that, but the audience never for a moment thinks she is anything but a psychopathic murderess. And the psychiatrist's first evaluation of her means we never feel compassion for him when he falls into her web, as he really should have seen it coming.

All of this is only made worse by plot holes (if you kill someone by dangerous driving in the UK, you go to prison - whether it was premeditated murder or not) and a B-movie feel. The most pathetic moment arrives when the psychiatrist is given a phone number to contact a detective from San Francisco. There is some build up, and the audience half expects to hear Michael Douglas on the other line. Instead, we never hear the conversation at all. It feels like they scripted it, but could not get the original actors to sign on to do even a voice-over because they disliked the script so much.

Basic Instinct 2 should have been a direct to video B-movie sequel, based on the quality of the script and the cast and cinematography. That it ended up in cinemas must have been a misjudgement on behalf of the producers - it definitely isn't engaging enough to be anything more than a mediocre made for TV film.


Reign of the teenage boys
"Crank" is a high concept action movie aimed at boys for whom Bruckheimer movies aren't manic enough. The concept: A hit-man is inserted with a drug that slowly kills him, and the poison can only be slowed down by adrenalin. The hit-man: B-movie action star Jason Stratham. That's all you need to know, really.

This is the kind of movie which makes The Transporter and Taxi look like feminist fare, it's so drowned in female extras / decorations that can't be called characters because really, they're just figments of teenage male imaginations. Attempt to rape them in a public busy shopping street and within 20 seconds they'll shout "take me, take me", but other than that their dialogue is pretty much limited to "aaah!" and other noises of distress.

The action is nicely ludicrous, and the pace of the movie doesn't let up because the protagonist would die if it did. In the end, I wasn't sure who hired who to do what, and the intrigues of different mobsters were confusing enough to be safely ignored.

The movie has been compared to Running Scared - a comparison which is justified by the pacing, but not so much by the on screen drama. Running Scared took itself seriously (perhaps too much so), Crank doesn't. In fact, watching this film, you begin to realize how the scriptwriting process must have worked. Imagine two young dudes, high on some substance or other, planning an action film that's like a rap music video but with all the characters white instead of black. "Dude, how could we cool it up?" one asks. "Let's get him to self-defibrillate. Dude, juice him. Even have him say 'juice me'. That's so cool. Dude." The entire film is a series of setpieces designed around ways to make the hero appear more cool to young boys. By the time he's in the middle of a car chase / drive by shootout while receiving oral sex, if you are in the cinema and having a reasonably good time, you must be male and in touch with your inner teenager.


Dung fong sam hap

Surprisingly terrible
I bought Heroic Trio because it was recommended (rather highly) on the IMDb front page, and because it is not released on DVD in the UK so I couldn't rent it.

I was completely disappointed.

Supposedly, Heroic Trio has a story. It must be hidden very well, for the film made little sense to me. (Something along the lines of: Demon trains girls to become action heros, but fires two of them before they grow up. Then decides he wants a male baby to conquer the world for him and has 18 of them kidnapped from hospitals by his last remaining female disciple. There's also an invisibility cloak, some police officers and other nonsense in there, but on the whole the idea of "story" seems quite tertiary compared to "action") So, story: Rubbish, confused, and created by combining various stereotypes.

But action movies can entertain even without stories (see The Warrior King - one of the worst scripts ever, but also fantastic action). Heroic Trio, however, can't. It has dated badly: Seeing thick wires carry the heroes desperately calls for some digital retouching. In some scenes, you can even see a giant circular plate above them from which the wires are suspended, making them look like marionettes. So, wire-fu may have been pioneering, but is outdated and quite terrible. Fine. What about martial arts action? Mostly, it consists of people standing about 4 metres apart and making quick movements with their hands and feet. Somehow, the illusion that the actors were fighting was rather unconvincing - it looked more like a video game or a dance, certainly nothing where any kind of contact might ever have occurred.

Bad story... bad action... and, to top it off, ridiculous special effects. (By the time you see a very flimsy puppet and later a rubber backpack used for a monster, you realise, this film could be bettered by student productions).

Oh, and the "heroes" get away with kidnapping and accidentally killing babies, without a second thought. It's probably the only innovative thing about it, but it seems too much like an afterthought inserted for a five second moment of fake poignancy in the middle, rather than a well thought out plot element.

Basically, watch this film drunk, with friends, if you want to laugh at something terrible (ideally with sarcastic commentary). Don't watch it for a good story, good action, good FX or any quality apart from being so bad it's funny.

Heroic Trio - Attack of the Killertomatoes for martial arts films.


Don't watch the trailer
If you've ever seen the trailer for the film "The Recruit" with Colin Farrell and Al Pacino, you'll never have to see that film. Sadly, Renaissance has had similarly revelatory trailer makers.

The story of Renaissance is about a detective investigating the kidnapping of a young woman and medical researcher. The setting is a futuristic Paris, and science fiction elements feature throughout. The special thing about Renaissance, though, is its visual style, and not its story. Renaissance is 3D computer animation, like Final Fantasy, but highly stylised into black and white with ultra sharp contrasts. The result looks stunning (although the problems of 3D animation of human beings are still noticeable from time to tome: slightly robotic movements, slightly wooden facial acting, etc) As a highly stylised, beautiful film noir, Renaissance succeeds at stunning the audience, especially visually. The story and writing, though, are not quite at the same level of quality as the visuals. It's not a bad story (and presumably, if you haven't seen the trailer, it's a lot more exciting than it was for me). But it is a story that isn't highly original, and verges on the corny. A few lines of dialogue were painfully corny, making the writing sound like a beginner's first efforts.

I will definitely recommend Renaissance to friends. It's unlike anything I've seen before, visually, and I believe its originality alone makes it a worthwhile experience. It is also a watchable story, even if it isn't perfect.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

Can you squeeze more fun on screen? Methinks not.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest has me in two minds at the moment. On the one hand, it was funnier, more energetic, more dark and scary and even more fun to watch than the first. On the other hand, right now I would absolutely KILL to see the next film (and happily fork out ten times the movie ticket price), as the ending of this one leaves things rather unresolved.

The most amazing feat of the film is how it manages to tread over old jokes and still make them funny. Gods, human sacrifices, cannibals, slapstick, dialogue... Fortunately, we were spared translation jokes, but everything else you could possibly expect in a pirate movie was in it. There were also some fantastic jokes that felt fresh (especially during one big action sequence in the middle, the slapstick went into overdrive, and even Keira Knightley got laughs out of the audience) The acting, for the most part, was brilliant, too. Keira Knightley being the honourable exception, delivering her lines courtesy of a British accent rather than any acting effort.

I'll definitely buy the DVD and recommend the film to all my friends - but with the warning that it makes the wait for part 3 almost too unbearable... 9/10 - one point being deducted for the cliffhanger ending.

Everything Is Illuminated

Trying too hard
I had never heard of this movie before seeing the DVD in the rental store, but the strong imagery on the packaging suggested a cinematographically beautiful piece of eye candy, with melancholy themes, so I decided to give it a try.

Everything is Illuminated is basically a road movie, about a quiet, reserved American Jew trying to find out about his recently deceased grandfather's Ukrainian past. As he himself is pretty useless, he hires a Ukrainian family-run tour company, who specialise in tracking down Jewish ancestry of rich Americans.

The problem with the movie isn't in the story (though it is never quite clear who the main character is, the American or his guide, and the entire film relies heavily on a huge coincidence for its drama). The problem is that the movie is trying very, very hard to achieve certain effects, and the viewer can hear the machine creaking in the background. For me, it was the music that ruined the film, as about 80% of the film uses Ukrainian folk music as motor for the on-screen action. The comic effect of the music does not make the relatively bland footage on screen funny - it tells us that the film makers wanted it to be funny, but failed. The narration is the same, trying to be funny by using a broken English with a quaint style to it, but without actually ever having anything funny to say (a joke which wears thin 5 minutes into the film, and never really gets a good laugh anyway).

It's also a bit disappointing to have an entire movie centred around the theme of "Oh, those Ukrainians, aren't they quaint?" - Where's the point in a movie that tries to explore historic past and a foreign culture if all it can do is use the foreigners as (not particularly funny) comedic sidekicks to a particularly bland non-hero? The closest comparison to "Everything is Illuminated" that I can think of is "Sahara", of all movies. Both movies try to project an emotion onto the screen by playing loud, obtrusive music at every opportune or inopportune moment, both movies have a huge, discernible difference between what the film makers think it is, and how it works on an audience (Sahara thinks it's adventurous fun, and is just crap, and Illuminated thinks it's funny and dramatic, and is just bland), both films had tall aims and low achievements.

In the end, the film was a sore disappointment, not living up to the beauty of its packaging.

Lord of War

Lots of potential, little capitalization
Lord of War is a genre-mixing political semi-satirical drama. It features many lines of quotable dialogue, a story packed with bloodshed and morality, and sex and drugs. But after the credits role, it's not the quality that will stick in mind, it's the flaws.

First among those, there's not much of a story. The film follows an arms dealer from his first backdoor dealings to international war supplier. The first hour feels like exposition without plot, and so does much of the second. The movie is too undecided whether it wants to be a cat-and-mouse game, a serious drama, a political satire, or a love story / family epic, or even an action film. In the end, there's too little of every theme for any of them to grab the audience.

The hero is a psychopath (in terms of being completely incapable of feeling compassion or emotion, and being a terribly dispassionate, wily character). Which means Nicolas Cage is terribly miscast, as he-of-the-sad-eyes is entirely unconvincing for the role, and spends too much time trying to be sympathetic to the audience, while spouting unsympathetic lines and doing unsympathetic actions. It's almost as if his face is on a different script from his mouth and hands.

In the end, Lord of War is a movie that was too ambitious, and failed to work. The humour needed better delivery (no Nicolas Cage), the preachiness is too obvious, the narration is too corny, the drama is too uninvolving, the suspense is too watered down... It's like Syriana, only less well executed.

Æon Flux

Like Fifth Element, without the humour
When I originally heard of Aeon Flux, it sounded absolutely terrible. The posters looked even worse. However, after seeing a trailer somewhere, I loved the look and bright colours (being easily pleased) and decided to give the movie a chance.

Aeon Flux is the story of a female, barely clothed rebel sent in to assassinate the ruler of a dystopian isolated city, which contains the entire remainder of mankind. Let's just say the plot is entirely unoriginal, a derivative of many other Sci-Fi movies and stories.

Charlieze Theron gets to prance around with an insect-like walk (her first appearance strongly reminded me of a praying mantis), salamander-like crawls, and other, animal-inspired, ballet-like movements. The world of Aeon Flux is drawn in bright, almost psychedelic colours, and it feels as if we glimpse only the tiniest part of this strange place. A lake of tears acts as CCTV for the entire city, pills exchanged in French kisses are used for telepathy, little pellets of liquid metal have a will of their own... A good chunk of the film is dazzling to watch, without any explanation behind it. Strictly speaking, Aeon Flux is about 80% futuristic fantasy, with very little science fiction in it. In fact, it sometimes feels as if the strangely organic gadgets of the rebels do not fit in this world - as the authorities seem to have more conventional technology and weapons.

What Aeon Flux succeeds at the most is dazzling the audience. Visually, stylistically, and with its energy and futuristic fantasy (and constantly underdressed heroine). In that, it reminds me strongly of Fifth Element - another film where we feel as if we only get a glimpse of a futuristic, colourful world full of strangely dressed people, without the need to explain or expose every aspect of it. However, Aeon Flux is less satisfying than Luc Besson's classic - because it lacks a sense of humour and takes itself too seriously (which, given the plot, is a bad move).

All in all, I would recommend the film to people who enjoy Fifth Element, bright colours, a sense of visual alienation, and unoriginal science fiction dressed up in a bright, original and almost unique coating.

Running Scared

So gritty, it'll deslip snowy slush on your road
One of the production companies behind "Running Scared" is called True Grit Productions. That should give a clue to the tone of the movie, I suppose.

Running Scared starts out with a prologue. The main bulk of the movie is a flashback showing how the situation in the prologue came about and resolves. Right after the prologue (a guy trying to drive a boy with lots of blood on him to safety), the story launches itself into speed with gusto. With the first shootout come hints that this movie is not going to care about political correctness. The protagonist of the tale, Joey Gazelle, is a minor mobster, racist, and not very likable. His job is to get rid off a gun after a shootout that left some cops dead. Unfortunately, his son and a friend watch him hide the gun, and the friend steals it. Things quickly get out of control from there, and the rest of the movie is spent trying to track down the boy and the gun, then just the gun, then just the boy, as each have their sinister adventures.

The tone of the movie is dark, violent and intentionally disturbing. Grainy, desaturated picture makes the movie look like news footage. And the characters are a collection ranging from the bizarre (a drug addict with a hoarse voice) to the deeply sinister (a perverse couple). Unfortunately, most of the energy of the movie is spent drawing all these horrible characters, in order for the hero to appear less horrible to the audience. The result is that none of the characters really convince - they're all walking stereotypes, from the violent pimp, via the violent father, via the prostitute with a heart of gold, via the mobsters right down to Joey's son Nicky, who, on at least 85 occasions ignores orders of "stay right here".

That doesn't mean the movie isn't entertaining. In fact, it's a fairly enjoyable movie (in a dark and sinister way). The pace is kept up throughout, it delivers thrills beyond expectation, and enough payoff is delivered for the audience in the cinema to cheer occasionally. It's just a pity that the characters are too hollow, and that the entire story is strung together by far too many coincidences to convince. And unfortunately, even if suspension of disbelief succeeds for most of the film, the end rather shatters it. As gritty as the look of the movie is, the plot twists near the end are pure Hollywood.

I'd recommend it - for watching once, as popcorn fodder. I doubt it'll stand up to repeat viewings.


Three movies in one - fun!
Stander is a reality-inspired film about a South African police officer who, after a life changing assignment to a riot, decides to turn his back on the authorities and become a bank robber.

The movie starts out as a cop film, develops into serious, political drama (the riot scene is extremely realistic, well done and very disturbing), and then turns into a fun-filled crime spree movie. The fact that it is based on reality doesn't automatically guarantee success, and so I was surprised to find the character developments to be convincing all the way through.

It's an excellent film, and Thomas Jane acts surprisingly well. This isn't The Punisher or the Deep Blue Sea action-Thomas Jane. This is actually an acting performance, rather than an exercise in looking cool or bemused.

The film has everything needed for entertainment. Good drama, good action, good fun and good acting. I would highly recommend it - it deserves much more notice than it has received.


Unprecedented rubbish
When I saw the entire Spielberg-produced series, on 5 DVDs (plus one full of extras), on special offer on, I thought it would be a great opportunity to obtain many hours of entertainment for a price below renting out the discs individually. Well, I got discs - entertained, I wasn't.

"Taken" is the story of three families over three generations. One is a family of abduction victims. The second is a family interbreeding with aliens. The third is a family of secretive government agents trying to uncover the mysteries of the aliens while ruthlessly making sure their secrets are kept.

Of the ten films, only one got any emotion out of me at all, only one was creepy: "Acid Tests". It was the only film that showed some skill in building up and sustaining suspense, and even drama. All other films suffer from either showing you the things that are meant to be scary, or trying to be too sappy. In other words, they reveal too much to remain creepy, or they have too many whiny, crying characters to really evoke any empathy.

The most critical flaw of the entire thing is the narration. Having a little girl narrate may have seemed like a good idea originally, but in the end, it's neither alienating enough, nor do the pretentious, poorly written lines make her appear wise beyond her years. All it is is cringeworthy. And when the girl finally appears, most of her dialogue is poorly written ("I am just a little kid!" - few kids call themselves little!).

The first 6 episodes lack a connecting story-arc (except Acid Tests), and so you're never quite sure when it's supposed to end. Each episode has at least 3-4 different scenes that feel as if they should be the last one, some have even more endings. It's a sign of bad writing. And the final 4 episodes - well, they drag on forever, outstaying their welcome to an unprecedented extent. In fact, the final episode itself is quite redundant and could have been told in less than 10 minutes - instead, we get the full 80 minutes of sap without plot.

"Taken" is poorly written, badly directed, unprecedented rubbish. I would not recommend it to anyone, not even at the price I paid. Let's hope I get some of my money back on ebay.

Star Wars: Clone Wars

Don't buy the DVD
Apparently, this is a series of 3 or 5-minute shorts. Aaaaah. That might make some sense. I rented the DVD (Volume 1), which shocked me because it is sooo, soooo bad.

It's not presented as a series at all, but as a one-hour long continuous film. And as there's not much of a story, hardly any dialogue at all, and not many plot revelations, I felt entirely cheated. It only occurs to me now that I did not watch it as it was meant to be watched.

It's almost entirely action. Personally, I can't say I enjoyed any bit of it, because this sort of action works beautifully as CGI-fest, but is clunky as animation. And I like stories, so it wasn't my kind of thing at all.

Maybe as a selection of short action mini-films, it's OK. As 1 hour long film, it sucks big time. I cannot recommend the purchase of the DVD to anyone.

Kingdom of Heaven

Battle movie. Not much more
Kingdom of Heaven is the story of a blacksmith who becomes a knight and ultimately, defender of Jerusalem. It is also an epic movie with epic battles featuring epic history (of presumably zero accuracy). And it's kind of boring, too.

First of all, there's the clumsy start. Orlando Bloom's character gets a visit from his dad, he follows him towards the Holy Land, the "New World", he becomes a knight and then he's the nice hero. It's rather painful how quickly the start takes place: In one scene, Orlando Bloom has his first bit of fighting training against his dad, and he starts out somewhat clumsy. Thirty seconds later (during the same fight), he's skilled, and conveniently, another thirty seconds later a group of enemies arrives to be slaughtered and slaughter his newfound friends. I know that it's a Hollywood rule to squeeze as much of the setup as possible into the first 10 minutes, but given how the rest of the movie slacks and bores in many places, it was kind of ridiculous to rush the start so poorly here.

The entire film is shot in darkish and blueish tones. I suppose the director took the term "dark ages" quite literally. It makes the film visually depressing to watch. The music tries very hard to be as Gladiatory as possible (as do some of the visuals), and some of the characters seem almost identical. The princess here manages to echo the caesar's sister in Gladiator, there are two mentor characters that have much in common with Oliver Reed's character in Gladiator, and even the story-ark of "man who loses everything turns into hero who saves the world" is intact.

Sadly, the film is nevertheless more boring. Maybe I've suffered cinema-battle fatigue, but I kept sitting there during the battle scenes, thinking they look far too big, far too Lord-of-the-Ringy to be realistic. This isn't a fantasy film, and they seemed somehow out of place. As for the rest of the story, Orlando Bloom's character is an idiot. In the end, the biggest slaughter that happens is directly his fault. If this is a story of redemption, as it depicts itself, then there's a helluva lot of redemption to pay after the end credits roll.

And I couldn't help laughing at some of the Orwellian aspects of the film. In 1984, it's one aspect of Big Brother to demand of his subjects to believe that something can be simultaneously true and not true, that opposites can both be correct. Here, this is seen as a "wise" or "poetic" way of things, when in fact it's just pretentious. When someone asks "What is Jerusalem worth?" and gets the answer "Nothing. Everything." the audience is left gasping in awe at those wise words, or in my case, giggling at the pretentious ridiculousness of the writing. And it happens throughout the movie.

All in all, it's an OK way to pass the time, if you don't mind being bored somewhat, and if you like epic battle sequences and idiotic heros that are sure to do the most stupid noble things.


Painfully wannabe-good-mood
Sahara is one of those films that is probably more enjoyable for 12 year olds than for adults. It's meant to be a treasure-hunting adventure kind of romp, but it feels too artificial to be enjoyable.

The story is quite convoluted. A boat from the American Civil War is suspected of being somewhere in Africa. Treasure-hunters go after it, bringing along some World Health Organization doctors hitching a ride. They travel into a war-torn country suffering a strange plague, and try to simultaneously find their treasure and the source of the disease, while escaping from the evil army after them.

Basically, it's a giant pile of hogwash. If the film was sustained by humour and a genuine feeling of fun, that would be fine. Unfortunately, it's not very funny, and while it makes every effort to be fun, it fails on account of trying too hard. Every few minutes, popular rock music gets blasted out of the speakers at incredible value, almost as if the director is trying to yell at the audience "isn't this cool? isn't this fun?" The heroes are buffoons, storming into any venture without thought or preparation. They come across as people who seek out danger because they get a kick out of it. They smile about as much as Tom Cruise in M:I-2 and are equipped with the usual inbuilt sniper-shooting-accuracy and natural-bullet-avoidance of the corniest of Hollywood films. It's difficult to like those idiots.

Finally, there's William H Macy, as admiral. In the hands of other actors, that would have been a tough character. Macy just doesn't have the face for tough - as much as he fears being typecast as lovable loser, this movie won't help him. He's just a lovable loser admiral.

Yes, there is some fun to be had, but on the whole, Sahara is nothing special.


Surprisingly enjoyable and watchable
This movie must have been made by people who like old-fashioned adventure PC games (like the King's Quest series or Simon the Sorcerer). Well, without the sense of humour, of course.

The premise is simple. Two men wake up, chained by their feet to pipes in different corners of a disgusting bathroom. Between them is a dead body, and they soon discover that they are the stars in a very twisted game. The game isn't limited to their little arena, and soon a wider picture is drawn, showing that quite a few lives are in the balance here.

This is not really a serial killer film in the traditional sense. We aren't following an investigation trying to find the killer. We're seeing two people in a tightly controlled situation, and more than anything, we're following their quest. The "killer" is just the backdrop for the character interactions, he is the element that brings them together, but otherwise a fairly passive entity. Think of it as a mixture of Cube, Panic Room and a dose of Seven for good measure.

However, the film does have its fair share of plot holes. It's the kind of film which you can watch (maybe) once before realising that, on the whole, it does not make a lot of sense. And especially towards the end, the acting (and some of the dialogue) get a bit silly.

But that first time you watch it, you'll be entertained. A lot.


All stereotypes fulfilled - the average movie about conmen
Criminal is a movie about conmen. There are a number of stereotypes and clichés that any movie of this genre will follow, and Criminal does so religiously.

The story setup: A young trick thief is taken under the wing of an experienced, successful conman. Together, they stumble across an opportunity for a huge con, and the rest of the movie is about all the little obstacles that get in their way.

To be fair, the main attraction about this movie is the cast list. One would expect a movie starring John C Reilly and Maggie Gyllenhaal to be something special and brilliant, slightly indie and probably quirky enough for a British audience to embrace it much more than an American audience would. Unfortunately, the film is actually quite disappointing (if one has high expectations to begin with).

First of all, whenever a conversation is shown, and you just see one talking head, you get the impression that the other actor isn't even in the room. Maybe I'm wrong there, but somehow, subconsciously, it kept bothering me. As a result, all the acting chemistry goes out of the window - if I'm not convinced that both people are in the room, how could the emotional undercurrent of any conversation convince me? To give them credit, the actors did a brilliant job whenever they weren't in "talking heads" style conversations, with subtle and convincing performances. Especially in the second half of the film.

The second problem is the predictability of the movie. Maybe I've seen too many films by now, but I had a very clear suspicion of what the resolution would be from fairly early on, and it was fulfilled entirely, much to my disappointment.

And finally, there's the issue of John C Reilly as evil character. On the one hand, he's ideal for the role of a conman. They have to be charming and innocent-looking to be convincing in their work. On the other, there's that problem of audience expectation - at least in my case. I spent quite a while, looking for "Mr Cellophane" moments, after seeing him play too many nice roles. It took hours for me to accept him as evil character, and then just the briefest flicker of a moment to destroy all that and replenish sympathy.

On the whole, it is a fairly acceptable film. I expected more, but it did what it says on the tin.

PS: One item of background knowledge that might come in handy for non-American audiences: If someone has been convicted twice, and commits a third crime, they get an automatic life sentence in some states. It's called the "Three Strikes Law", I believe. So when characters put so much emphasis on the "twice" or two strikes, this is what they are implying: If they get caught, it's life imprisonment they're heading for.

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