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Inland Empire

Cocteau on acid?
First of all, I would like to say that without a doubt this is Lynch's worst film effort to date. Having received at best lukewarm reviews in most of the film publications I'd read, I went to see it with a slight sense of trepidation but an open mind - which I guess is the only way you can see a Lynch film, unless you're a die-hard fan. The trepidation was not only justified but actually shocked at this blurred and obfuscating mosaic of incoherence.

Ostensibly a follow-up to 2001's Mulholland Dr., this film evidently has a similar premise in mind as we meet Laura Dern's Nikki who lands the lead role in an exciting new film. However, this thematic construct ("plot" is NOT the right word) is not as pronounced as in Lynch's earlier effort as it is hidden among sequence after sequence of pointlessly minor-key music saturating long, long shots of lampshades with a ridiculous air of foreboding, and a whole bunch of confused and frankly pointless diversions.

What made Mulholland Dr. interesting was that it consisted of a first half that almost made sense, and a second half that then went about mystifying everything we'd seen up to that point, but because the essential players remained mostly consistent and their reactions and mentality changed inexplicably, it at least gave the viewer a sense that this tangled mystery could be solved. What's more, it had wonderful colour, style, and a beautifully satirical sense of Hollywood even as it subverted the very myth of Hollywood.

In Inland Empire, delightful eccentricity plummets into sheer infant-like dementia. The grainy texture and hand-held camera work which can stand up so well in the hands of Mexican filmmakers here lends the whole film an amateurish air, but that's mainly because the film itself is so badly constructed. The over-enthusiastic use of Dutch camera angles, unusual lighting effects and shrill screaming violins makes it look like something that a first-year Cocteau-wannabe film studies student might put together the night before an assignment is due - while on an acid trip. What I'm trying to say here is that what Lynch managed with subtlety, humour and precocious genius in Mulholland Dr. goes much further in this film, and extends far beyond the pretentious lunatic fringe.

I personally don't believe this film, like other confronting and obscure pieces, is love-it-or-hate-it. Your options are to hate it, or not get a single second of it but don't mind. It's interesting that it took 2000 years for the literary world to flush Aristotelian notions of plot construction down the toilet and Lynch has achieved the same thing some 100 years after the advent of film.

However, I don't mean to suggest that this is some post-modern masterpiece. It isn't. In fact I think many critics in writing about this film have been extremely generous, understating its sheer blind absurdity for one of two reasons - either they would like to forgive the director for wasting three hours of their life, or because they are so firmly convinced of Lynch's genius that behind this incomprehensible drivel must lie some prodigious meaning.

But I for one am firmly convinced that there isn't, and that Lynch's undeniable genius has here bypassed any semblance of reason, and the "touch of madness" which to some extent may constitute genius has ballooned into excess. Furthermore, I believe that if Lynch's name were not attached to this movie, it would not find a release in any market. What makes this ironic is that if Lynch were locked up in a mental asylum, he himself would never be released.

That's all this is: the unleashing of a twisted mind on an unsuspecting public.

Wong Gok ka moon

"A promising debut"
There is an inherent danger in looking retroactively at early films from established directors. As with Jarmusch's "Permanent Vacation", Bertolucci's "The Grim Reaper" or even Kubrick's "Killer's Kiss", it can be difficult - after garnering an admiration for a director - to look back at their less refined beginnings.

Such is the case with Wong Kar-Wai's As Tears Go By (Wong gok ka moon). During the film's early stages, it feels somewhat like an unhappy coupling between a flashy Hong Kong martial arts film and those really cheesy Chinese serials where the emperor's daughter accidentally falls pregnant to the chief eunuch warrior (or whatever, I've never watched one with subtitles). Having said that though, it doesn't quite reach the extremes of either: firstly because the action and violence, although the driving force of the film, are not in the least stylised but are in fact quite confronting; and secondly because the cheese of the soap opera elements is really only apparent through the use of dodgy 80's music. But this is simply dated, not inappropriate - after all, the same could be said about Blade Runner, although the montage about halfway through this film set to a Cantonese version of "Take my Breath Away" is just embarrassing.

As Tears go By also happens to get better as it progresses. Perhaps this is because the romance between Ah-Wah (Andy Lau) and Ah-Ngor (Maggie Cheung), which seems ready to overpower the film early on, becomes sidelined to the underground-crime half of the plot, which is certainly the most successful and believable half. Wong craftily creates a hard-boiled atmosphere and there is a lot of emotional resonance in the relationship between Wah and his young protégé, Fly (Jacky Cheung). Unfortunately, the same cannot really be said of the male-female relationship between the two stars. It manages to gain a small amount of credibility purely through the fact that we have seen the quiet girl-bad boy romance explored to greater depths in other films. Put this small amount of believability aside however, and it has a very tacked-on, Michael Bay kind of feel to it.

Although the film is easily criticised, one can nevertheless see Wong's style making its first appearance here, and I can certainly see the justification behind one reviewer's quote on the DVD case: "A promising debut". I would like to particularly single out his clever use of intimate but skewed, 'Dutch' camera angles to highlight the (forgive me for this expression) humanistic dehumanisation which would foreground his more recent and more famous films, "In the Mood for Love" and "2046". He also drives the film at an excellent pace, in spite of the fact that alternations between the subplots give it a slightly episodic, fragmented feel.

Ultimately, my major complaint is simply that while both the romance and the action have a great deal of potential, used together in this way they don't work. Personally I think Wong could either expand on the romance more or eradicate it entirely, and he would have a more complete film.

And while hoping not to contradict myself, I have to say that the above comments, which pervaded my thoughts for 90 minutes of this film, were quite rocked by the superb conclusion - framed within criminal violence but so much 'about' the romance - let me just say, whatever I may have thought about most of this film, it was definitely worth it for the ending. Overall, interesting mainly for being Wong's debut and definitely a taste of things to come.



The epitome of an "Overhyped" movie
I went to see this movie as part of my annual vow to see as many of the Oscar nominations as possible, and this, more than any previous hiccups, reminded me of just how misguided that vow can be.

Before I begin my rant about everything that's wrong with it, let's just say that I think the Oscar nomination committee scored an absolute bloody home run with this one. Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy are clear standouts here, the former in particular delivering an extremely gutsy performance, and I think she will win - not only because she's very good but also because Oscars so frequently seem to go to actresses who deliver one great performance but are destined never to do anything worthwhile again (That is, of course, an appalling generalisation but I can list quite a few examples from the past). Also, the music is great although I have a couple of misgivings which I will go into later.

But the Best Picture "snub" which is gathering so much publicity was an absolute triumph of seeing through the bull and it's been a long time since I've been so satisfied with such a decision. In essence, Dreamgirls is nothing except a cheap excuse to throw together a sequence of impressive musical numbers with a connecting storyline which is little more than a bunch of glib, trashy soap opera episodes.

But what makes Dreamgirls such a terrible cancer on the bowel of the musical genre is that, unlike other recent films like it (I'm comparing it particularly here with Chicago, Ray, and Walk the Line) it never seems to be going anywhere. Chicago, you've got a murder trial to look forward to; Ray and Walk the Line you've got the guilt of a childhood tragedy and a powerful addiction to overcome. Dreamgirls, by stark comparison, features a mess of characters, none of whom are dealt with in depth, and a similar mess of conflicts, while never making it clear exactly where the conflicts lie, who they're between or exactly why the audience is supposed to care whether they go one way or the other.

The film's biggest weakness is hence its narrative. By the end of the narrative, the conflicts and characters converge, but for the middle hour and a half I felt like it was stumbling blindly from one song to the next, never sure of what it's doing. The fact that it all makes sense and there is resolution at the end does not excuse the clumsy route it takes to get there. Basically, we have a beginning, and we have an ending, while the intervening two hours are just a blur out the window as we speed by (while listening to some great soul music through the car stereo, as it were).

Its other major weakness is that, as hard as it tries, the film can't justify its own mishmash style. Firstly, it thinks it is a story about a rise to stardom and the bumpy road along the way. Therefore, it mingles the action of the film with interspersed live performances of songs that have a particularly relevance to that particular chapter of the performer's life. However, given that the songs featured here don't actually exist outside the film, any poignancy seems a bit ambitious when you compare it with far more successful moments in Walk the Line: the performances of "Ring of Fire" and "Walk the Line" spring to mind. Secondly, Dreamgirls thinks it is a musical and therefore, episodic dialogue can be sung, rather than spoken. I can't speak for anybody else watching the film but the scenes where this happened seemed actually very silly to me. Firstly, given that for the majority of the film, the action is spoken while the songs are performances both within and without this fictional world, it frankly seems unnecessary, particularly given their attempt to use the technique I just mentioned of 'fitting' a song to the narrative. Secondly, unlike the great old musicals of the fifties and sixties, by the time one of these scenes appears, the film has become far too grounded in reality for any suspension of disbelief to occur. Thus it is left wanting one of the crucial elements that made the old musicals work, while the other crucial element - namely, spectacular choreography - is also absent, unless you consider six people walking in time to music around a stage spectacular. It essentially tries to blend the biographical style of Ray and Walk the Line with the twee style of - say - Singin' in the Rain. Ambitious though it is, it certainly doesn't work. It's either realism in musical form or its 'a musical', it shouldn't be both and I think this is a good example of how a film also "can't" be both.

Therefore, having outlined Dreamgirls' major shortcomings, I could almost forgive it, except for one final problem, and that is, it is BORING. At the risk of colouring the rest of my review, I am compelled to say that I haven't been so tempted to walk out on a movie since I was stupid enough to see Scooby-Doo back in 2002. As I've said, the songs are good but they're only good aurally: there's nothing to entertain the eye and certainly nothing to entertain the mind while they're happening. As I've said, this film is nothing more than an excuse to put these songs on the screen. Fortunately, Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson were able to find the opportunity to act herein and save it from being an atrocious waste of effort.

In summary, all I can say is, buy the soundtrack if you're that interested. The extra money is worth the tedium you'll save yourself.


Death to Smoochy

Not quite anything
I really wanted to like this film. From the moment I heard about it, there was a lot I liked about the idea. It was absurd, it was dark, and it was different. What I found, however, was that it tried too hard to be different, and in trying, it failed to become what it could have.

Essentially what we have is a comedy, dark at times, funny at times, but not quite one or the other. It's not a black comedy, because it's too ridiculous; the best black comedies are simply not funny, because they're too grotesquely real. Conversely, it's not quite a straight comedy because it just isn't witty enough; it relies too heavily on stereotypes and hyperbole for its humour. At times it seems to be a biting satire of children's television, but it fails in this respect too, because it doesn't have a firm enough grounding in reality. The best satire (call it "Swiftean", if you will) also shouldn't be funny, because it's too vivid a mirror for reality.

Death to Smoochy is too warped, you could say. It fails to really hit the highs of the peak it attempts to climb, because it takes it one step too far in every respect. Its humour relies on a farcical nature that is just too extreme to work every time. The character of Sheldon is overworked; likewise Rainbow Randolph. I mean, we've seen green-loving hippies before, it's nothing new, and so too have we seen Robin Williams in crazy ranting mode, and it's funnier when he's not such a clichéd 'psycho' character.

The film does, however, have its moments: For example, the zoom-out from the costumed Spinner's dead body to a chalk outline of a giant foam rhinoceros - that made me laugh for a twisted, absurdly poignant minute. That's the chord I feel the entire film was trying to hit, that - to clumsily continue the metaphor - 'diminished' chord. But moments like that that made me laugh - and I wouldn't want to deny that there were a few - were isolated. There wasn't a coherent enough flow to make these amusing moments string together into a funny, witty, truly memorable whole.

And I think it's basically just a lack of coherence that causes its downfall. IT doesn't even know what it's trying to do. Because the really tragic thing is, as I knew before I watched it, that there are so many good elements here. The cast is great, not just on paper but they all attack their roles with gusto (with the possibly notable exception of Jon Stewart, who I think is quite amusing in real life, but he's not a great actor). The concept behind the plot, if not necessarily the plot as it unfolds, is amusing and original. Danny De Vito directs with a stylistic hand, and he clearly enjoys what he's putting together here. All in all, it really could have been something more than it is.

But basically, funny though it is, it doesn't have enough to set it apart from other 'funny' films. It's different, certainly, but not in the way that Bringing Up Baby is different from, say, Cheaper by the Dozen (Not the greatest comparison I've ever devised, but I hope you get the general idea). In the end, I have to join that rather succinct mob who inadvertently inspired me to watch this film, and say "It's just weird".


Sappy, manipulative drivel
I usually try to be objective when I watch films, to appreciate their technical merit above all else, but in the case of Stepmom, I fail. It's exactly the sort of puffy, ridiculous Valium that Hollywood shamelessly pumps into growing generations of cynics to brainwash them into the belief that every person in the world is a cuddly, fluffy elf-like creature and conflict only exists because it's been too long since we all sat down for a singalong around the piano.

I know I sound like a terrible cynic for judging this film in this way (I am a terrible cynic, let's not deny it), but it's difficult to swallow this tripe. I come from a - dare I use that devilish phrase - broken home myself and in fact my old man is getting remarried very soon, but I still fail to see any resemblance between Chris Columbus' vision of family harmonics and the interpersonal dynamics that exist here on Earth. And by that I refer both to the grating, fire-and-brimstone conflict at the beginning of the film and the sugary hug fest into which it slowly descends as it progresses.

There is however, nothing inherently wrong with sugary, optimistic scenarios; if they are grounded, well-driven, well-plotted explorations of discovering the light at the end of the tunnel. It's hard for me to put my finger on a perfect example but the most obvious one would have to be the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which has nevertheless received a certain quantity of criticism from yours truly for drawing too distinct a line between "good" and "bad". In spite of that trilogy's shortcomings though, it's a good example of a golden-sunshine-lollipops conclusion that is plodded out solidly over a long arduous journey of storytelling.

Chris Columbus here dispenses with any nuance of hard work, or respect for his audience's intelligence, and dishes up a glib, emotionally manipulative treat for us to wolf down hungrily, starved for happy endings in our cinematic universe of chainsaw massacres and David Lynch.

There really isn't a saving grace to this film, as far as I can see: Its lack of realism obviously renders me incapable of truly appreciating whatever fine qualities it may have, but the dialogue is dull, performances are average and being such a suburban story, there really isn't much room for technical film-making brilliance. On top of this, every single time I think back on it I get "Ain't no Mountain High Enough" stuck interminably in my head, and that, more than anything else, is unforgivable.


The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

Absolutely fantastic - Best film of the year
These days, I think I've developed a more discriminating critical eye when it comes to movies and I'm usually not one for superlatives but I feel I have no choice when it comes to this absolute bloody delight from claymation master Nick Park.

I think going into this film I'd forgotten just how much I enjoyed the other Wallace & Gromit films (the short ones) and so I can't say I was looking forward to this feature-length effort with any great slavering anticipation, but after about twenty minutes I knew I was in for a wonderful treat.

Basically, stripped down to nuts and bolts, this film is not a masterpiece - in fact it's nothing more than a romp. But it is so clever, so beautifully paced, and funny? Oh me oh my - I honestly cannot remember a funnier film. Not since I watched "Bringing Up Baby" many years ago have I laughed out loud so often, it's just done to absolute perfection. The quaint, whimsical story is lots of fun, the humour is directed at young and old alike, there are so many little subtle jokes along the way. I mean, it's great, I can't really add much more.

All there really is to add is that this is a must-see, and I know it's being incredibly flippant, but when it comes round again to Oscars time, I'm boycotting the Academy if this doesn't scoop up a whole heap of trophies. Screw best feature-length animation, Were-Rabbit for Best Picture! Seriously, in a fairly lacklustre year in cinema, this is an absolute gem. I haven't felt this satisfied and respected as an audience member since Million Dollar Baby, THAT is why I declare this clearly to be the best film of the year.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Sadly, a disappointment
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a perfect example, for me at least, of a film that is, dare I use the word, 'overhyped'. And for once I'm not going to blame tinsel town and the media for doing this, but rather myself. I let myself look forward to this film so much; the book is one of my all-time favourites from childhood, the first film is also one of my favourite films of all time, and well, I couldn't imagine a better choice of person to direct a remake than Tim Burton.

And as so tragically often happens when you have expectations like this, they just weren't met. Admittedly I wasn't in a great mood going into the film since the morons at the box office neglected to tell me I'd be forced to sit down the front of the cinema due to a function involving a bunch of the rudest and worst-behaved kids (who incidentally can't have been much younger than me) taking up 80% of the seats and jabbering very loudly all the way through the film. But I digress, just needed to vent my spleen briefly.

Burton's take on the film is largely more faithful to the original text than Mel Stuart's film; there is no 'Slugworth' trying to steal everlasting gobstoppers, there IS a Mr. Bucket who screws caps onto toothpaste bottles for a living, and the Oompa-Loompa songs use Roald Dahl's original lyrics. However, the major focus for him is on the character of Willy Wonka, who is played with great gusto by Johnny Depp.

This focus is where Burton loses points for me. His intention seems to be to bring this eccentric genius out of enigma and give him a past; a life. And to do this he introduces a new character in Wonka's father, a strict, obsessively anal dentist who won't let the young Willy enjoy candy of any kind. What this is supposed to do is to explain the motivation behind Wonka's genius, his obsession with candy and, of course, his extremely bizarre behaviour.

In other words, the attempt is to make him less of a cardboard cutout. But while Burton does achieve this, it basically comes at the expense of practically every other character in the film. Part of the joy of the original book is that all the people in it are such delightfully over-the-top caricatures, Wonka included. And so by focussing such a large proportion of the film on only one of these caricatures, the other stereotypes - Gloop, Salt, Beauregard and Teevee - remain just that: stereotypes. Not only this but a substantial part of the story, where all these characters, is cut short to make room for all this extra plot line about Wonka's father, and frankly, the first half an hour feels extremely rushed. It's almost as though Tim Burton (or at least let's not leave out screenwriter John August) is saying to us "Yes yes yes, we all know what happens with the golden tickets, now let's hurry up and get to my stroke of genius about Wilbur Wonka the dentist". Grandpa Joe is also one of the characters who suffers for this, I feel. He doesn't come across quite as charmingly enthusiastic as I expected, largely because he doesn't have the screen time to do so.

Another criticism I had, and I daresay I may be regarded as a little unfair when I say this, but I really, REALLY don't care for Freddie Highmore's acting. He seems to have two modalities in which he can play - smiling cutely, or regurgitating lines as though he's reading them straight from the script. I found this with Finding Neverland and it's reinforced by him here. I mean, kudos to him and everything, he's only 13, but Charlie's presence was one element of the film I didn't mind being minimalised.

Having said these couple of criticisms, there is plenty to enjoy here of course. That was inevitable. Burton's visual flair is used to its maximum potential and you can tell that everybody involved would have had so much fun making this. It's also a good example of a remake simply because technologically it can go places the 1971 film wouldn't have dreamed of. Also, as I said, it does remain more faithful to the book and there are no teeth-gnashingly terrible "Poor Charlie" songs.

But of course the major winner here is Depp. As much as I would have liked more on the other characters, Wonka's character is just beautiful. He's basically just a camped-up weirdo but it's so much fun to watch. The grand opening of the factory doors was hilarious and was one of the highlights of an otherwise pretty ordinary year in cinema so far.

The most ironic thing is that when I first heard that Tim Burton was making a version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I loved absolutely everything about the idea, except for the fact that Depp was attached to play Wonka and I wasn't sure he could pull it off. But as it turned out, Depp's performance carries what could otherwise be pretty standard material.

In a nutshell, then? Disappointing, but certainly not bad. 7 out of 10.

Love and Death on Long Island

A somewhat disconcerting but curious film
Love and Death on Long Island is an interesting, moody film, but it's difficult to decide if I truly felt satisfied having viewed it.

What we are presented with is essentially a fish out of water story about Giles (John Hurt), an ultra-conservative English gent who begins slowly to reform his technophobic, insular lifestyle when he develops an interest in a young American film star (Jason Priestley). The nature of this interest is explored minimalistic ally, although there is obviously more to it than just a belief in the boy's acting talent or potential.

We are then treated to a myriad of culture shock as Giles enters the universe of youth and as we see this very quaint man with his very quaint, idyllic lifestyle interact with very common, happy-go-lucky people, his character becomes increasingly complex. This culminates in a rather impressionistic, elusive finale where his true interest in the film star, Ronnie, is finally explored and brought to light.

The film is at times wryly amusing and at other times cringingly awkward. For all its moments of social faux pas and clumsiness it reminds me a lot of Alexander Payne's films. The difference as I see it though is that Payne knows when to draw away from an embarrassing moment to make us empathise, but not altogether pity, the character. Here, the director Kwietniowski tends to hold our focus on such scenes which makes it notably less comfortable to watch.

Having said that, Kwietniowski does handle a number of the film's elements remarkably well. Firstly, his cast is used to their full potential. In particular, John Hurt's wonderfully expressive face is used to explore a plethora of human emotion throughout the film. Secondly, the interaction between the generations - old age, middle age and youth - is handled with a soft focus that is ever-present but very understated. Even if one feels a lack of rewards from the somewhat alienating story, at least we have the pleasure of hearing John Hurt say in a very charming British accent, "Hey dude, how's it hanging?" And basically, the plot is also downplayed to the point where the film is far more an exploration than an anecdote. Its pace is very deliberate and its threadbare cast of characters is rich and complex for all that they're worth. I would find it hard to truly love this film but it is still a very capable, interesting effort.

***1/2 / *****

Ladri di biciclette

Lord of the Rings fanatics should all watch this movie
Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against Lord of the Rings and I respect people's right to obsess over whatever they wish. Nonetheless, it does often irritate the cynic in me that we're teaching a generation of kids that there is a distinct borderline between 'good' and 'evil', between 'justice' and 'injustice', that there exists such a thing as a 'hero', when in reality there is actually nothing of the sort.

Ladri di Biciclette is a shining example of a film that demonstrates this fact. There is no distinction between the 'good guys' and the 'bad guys'. At times we support one character, or the others. But there is never a line drawn between one side or the other because in reality, the only people we see here are simply human - flawed, corruptible and in this case, all suffering the same tragic fate. Our central character Antonio is obviously the protagonist, and he is obviously portrayed in such a way that our sympathies lie with him, but he is far from being a hero. He is simply used as the representation of the tragic misfortune that can befall mankind. This misfortune, also, is not depicted in any black-and-white sense. Antonio and his family's plight is not the only, or even necessarily the most desperate, in this film. In fact, with the exception of the family in the restaurant scene, practically every single character, major or minor, is portrayed as suffering in some way at the hands of capitalism.

Therefore, as obviously tragic as Antonio's story is, the only real reason we side with him is because his particular tragedy is centrally focused. But, as has been discussed so often previously, he is an Everyman character. The bicycle in the film is simply used as an analogy for the loss, or lack of any essential element of life that leads to poverty and suffering. In very simple terms, the film's message is essentially that at some stage in life, we are all shouting "Give me back my bicycle!"

But I digress. This simplistic and amateurish film is far more real and far more true-to-life than practically anything that Hollywood has churned out in the past fifty years. For that reason, the realist in me believes that all those dreamers, people who believe in a happy ending or ideal status quo, could do with the sort of down-to-earth lesson that this film represents.

Yes, it's a distressing and bleak vision. But nevertheless, an utterly profound one.

I Heart Huckabees

A bizarre, surreal film. My (but obviously not everyone's) kind of film.
I Heart Huckabees. An odd little title to go with an odd little film. When deconstructed, there really isn't a great deal you can see at its heart. Plot? There is some, but it's not very clearly defined. Characters? There are some fascinating characters but by the end they have almost merged to form one and the same. Cinematic style and panache? Well, there's plenty of that. But as with all of the above elements, as well as the central theme of existentialism running through this film, it's basically nothing more than a mishmash of differing and, at times, juxtaposed themes, ideas, in short, everything.

Our central player is Albert (Jason Schwartzman) who hires a pair of 'existential detectives' (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin) to investigate a strange coincidence he encountered recently whereby he ran into the same African gentleman in three different places. The investigation, and his spiritual/emotional journey in the meantime lead him (and of course, the audience in turn) down many strange turns and many strange pathways, while all the while his everyday life is taking similar turns and takes.

It's the suspension of disparities between everyday life, and how we view that everyday life, that gives this film its major appeal. It's also the principle underlying existentialist philosophy as is my understanding, but we won't go there because we could never stop. Essentially the plot we are given is nothing out of the ordinary, and nothing too deep or complex. But superimposed over that is this attempt to find answers to the meaning of life, or whether there even is a meaning.

For this reason the film works brilliantly as a subtle satire, which is the reading I think I've chosen to give the film. There are countless plot points throughout the film that could be rehashed from basically any old garble to come out of Hollywood, only rewritten as though every character has a conscious or unconscious obsession with seeking out absolute truth in the world. This is, when it comes right down to it, very very funny. And my friend and I found ourselves laughing almost constantly through the film, possibly just at the sheer absurdity of a movie with an ideal such as this even being written. The fact, however, that it seems to be done in such a tongue-in-cheek kind of manner makes it not only extremely entertaining but utterly endearing as well.

On top of this, the satire itself somehow is also used to get across the existential message that the film purports to express. Basically the way in which the characters continually search for meaning and truth while living out uneventful, if not entirely typical lives raises the question about whether or not life actually does have meaning. Or rather, does the film have a meaning, or a purpose, or a message? At times it seems as though it's doing nothing but ridiculing the whole concept, and then there are times when I thought maybe there was a deeper meaning to the whole concept of ridiculing? Well let's get off that tack. The point is it's impossible to say for certain what the meaning, if there even is one, is.

And it's largely through the use of the detectives (who are portrayed brilliantly, incidentally, by both Hoffman and Tomlin) that this underlying message comes about. While a lot of the dialogue takes the form of philosophical debates between the characters, I also found a lot of the time that I'd be for a moment absorbed in the action, and then the camera would pan out to reveal the fact that the detectives had been peering/listening in on the whole conversation, and suddenly I was dragged out of that cosy reality and reminded suddenly that we were in the middle of an existential conundrum.

What am I trying to say with this meaningless drivel? In very simple terms, I loved this film. I loved everything about it. I loved the lightness of plot, the ambiguity of characters, I loved the mishmash of different directing and writing techniques. I just loved the way it used all the elements to create not just a film but a manifestation of one simple premise - what's the meaning of a coincidence? At one point, I wondered how much longer the film would go on for, but not because I was getting bored, rather because I wanted it to last for longer. It's a film like no other, and for that reason I can imagine certain circles hating its guts. But representing myself and my own particular faction, I love it. ****1/2 out of *****


An interesting, if slightly flat, look at communism
Before I start this comment, I might take a minute to state that I know very little about the country of Albania, nor about the communist politics that go on in that state. Living in a big city in a capitalist country, interpreting this film is somewhat difficult and can be called into question, at least as far as I'm concerned. So bear that in mind as I write.

The film "Slogans" is set in a remote Albanian village, in a communist state. It is viewed primarily through the eyes of Andre, a young teacher recently arrived in the town and hence under constant scrutiny from the citizens. The plot revolves largely around him and his fellow teachers as they lead their students in building huge slogans for the communist party in rocks on the side of a hill. If this plot intrigues you in a slightly whimsical kind of way, you'll know what my motivation was to watch it in the first place.

On the surface, the plot seems to be nothing more than a tale of alienation and politics revolving around the somewhat tedious occupation of building these slogans from rocks and painting the rocks to make them stand out. But deeper down there are more inner workings.

The way I see it, the film is simply a satirical piece on the failure and hollowness of communism as a governing rule. The slogans are symbolic of this; the whole job is done for the purposes of this supposedly wonderfully fulfilling pursuit, but in the end, all they are is just words. The fact that so much of the plot revolves around these words seems to suggest that, in a similar way, the communist system itself revolves around words and little more. The brave and inspirational words are supposed to incite the masses to enthusiasm, and yet, as the film illustrates, the words are so fragile that a simple flow of rain or the trotting of goats can unsettle them and they lose all meaning.

It's interesting to note the other ways in which the writers have stressed the importance of words (ie. propaganda) in the workings of the Party. It is done mainly through the use of single, isolated aspects of the story. Firstly, the fact that there is only one character who retains notoriety for being a detractor, an enemy, of the communist Party, and that character happens to be illiterate; in other words, he can't read the slogans and therefore can't rally around them like the masses do. Secondly, the fact that, despite relying largely on school and teaching for its story, there is only essentially one scene actually set in a classroom, and it too involves nothing but reciting communist propaganda, and when the boy in question makes an honest mistake, his words are misinterpreted and an entire investigation is set up as a result.

The pathos present in these, among other aspects of this film, is what gives it its comedy and hence its satire. That said, while the examination of communism is very interesting, the film itself fails a little to really engage me. The comedy is there, but it isn't funny. The drama is there, but it isn't moving. I just don't think the right atmosphere was created to actually captivate me; there is very little music used to set the mood, and the acting isn't quite good enough to compensate. Similarly, the subplot of the romance between Andre and Diana doesn't quite work for me; there just appears to be no development of this relationship and so when it is consummated there is very little chemistry between the two. It just comes off as incomplete.

The only real drama is the subtle message of the sadness and worthlessness of this life; Andre is used as contrast, the voice of wisdom as it were, between this essentially brainwashed community and the outside, more civilised world. But in the end, the schoolkids, like the adults, are simply forced to completely immerse themselves in a lifestyle that serves only the purposes of the party (with free will eliminated from the equation), and in more ways than one the film illustrates the fact that this is an endless cycle. And to an external viewer, that's quite sad to see.

In summary, the film, and script in particular, are very cleverly worked to examine the life and politics of this isolated village. It is in the execution of the story where it fails to impress, but as far as I can see, that matters very little since I love a film with intricate underlying themes. As a political foray, it's close to perfect. As a film, it isn't. In very simple terms, four stars out of five.

Un crime au paradis

Silly little film, but very funny
Un Crime au Paradis tells the story of a fairly dimwitted farmer Jojo, and his nasty and ruthless wife Lulu, who live in complete animosity together on a farm, very ironically named "le Paradis", or "Paradise". They spend their days essentially irritating the other as much as possible, and reciprocating for the misery they've injected into each other's lives. This all comes to a head when Jojo sees on TV a lawyer who is famous for getting crime-of-passion killers acquitted since, as he says "Anyone can kill out of passion or anger".

The process by which Jojo plans the murder of his wife with the un-knowing help of this lawyer in order to get away with it is where this film gets its humour. It really is genuinely funny watching the passionate and devious lawyer get all worked up getting the story of Lulu's murder straight with Jojo, without even realising that the murder hasn't yet been committed. André Dussollier and Jacques Villeret do marvellous work in these two roles, and they back up the over-the-top script with similarly comical performances.

The film is obviously lacking in realism, but the script and the actors never take themselves too seriously; the countless jokes about the unattractiveness of Lulu is testament to this. And while the film is entertaining for the most part, it lags a bit towards the end, suffering from its lack of ingenuity in the basic storyline. It's fairly well executed in order to provide humour, but it's really nothing more than simple French escapism, and the story and pace of the film are nothing to get overly excited about.

That said, I could well recommend this film. Despite the drab setting and similarly drab budget, I'd say this is a very accessible film to a fairly wide audience, and definitely worth a look for a quick laugh. ***1/2 / *****

Dancer in the Dark

An outstanding cast saves this otherwise difficult film
I can't say I'm much a fan of Von Trier's films, they really are all done in classic love-it-or-hate-it style, and I would have to count myself in the latter category. But whether you like him or not, it's definitely worth seeing and appreciating his films, and Dancer in the Dark is no exception. It was my first taste of this eccentric Danish director.

Von Trier's direction can best be described as innovative; it's provocative, to a large extent experimental and very very unique. In this film, his hand-held digital camera work, some would argue, is designed to give the whole film a naturalistic look; if the camera moves in the same way that a person would in the situations created, it makes us more involved, captivates us more. I disagree. All it seems to do is make one frequently conscious of what is going on, and for that reason it has, in fact, the opposite effect, makes everything seem artificial. And as such I have a lot of difficulty getting emotionally involved in this film.

Another point worth noting about Dancer in the Dark is that it is a very unconventional musical, as several times the emotions of the characters are illustrated by way of a song. This is because the lead character, played by Bjork, grew up and lived on musicals, because 'nothing terrible ever happens in them'. So therefore despite her disabling disease which rapidly destroys her eyesight, she remains positive by following the time-honoured advice of Julie Andrews et al. by singing to forget one's troubles. The film shows that this doesn't always work. It really does pile on the sorrow and darkness; It is absolutely stocked to the gills with injustice, depression, hopelessness. Obviously this is another reason why it's hard to truly like this film.

Although, despite this difficulty I have relating and enjoying this film, I have to admit it's very good. It really does challenge the viewer, and challenge the film-making world in general. It's obvious to me that Von Trier's major intention in this was to experiment with and bend the rules of genre. In this case, he takes the frankly quite sappy musical genre and laces it with darkness. One clear example is when Bjork is imprisoned for murder and she cheers herself up by singing "My Favourite Things" in a slightly minor key. It gives an almost Joycean quality to Von Trier's harsh appropriation. And the fact is that, given that film is a visual art, if the audience can see what you were trying to do, then you've succeeded. So regardless of whether I like this film or Von Trier himself, he has managed to create a real work of art here.

Finally, one thing you have to say for Lars is that he has an uncanny knack for assembling excellent casts, and doing brilliant things with them. The experimentation and challenging quality of this film would be enough to really rise hatred in me, if it weren't for the cast. Bjork absolutely shines in the lead role. It's the sort of leading performance that nobody could have played better. And not only that but she's almost upstaged by a similarly awesome performance by David Morse. One of the most under-appreciated actors around today, I personally think he gives the performance of his career in this film. He is, to put it simply, perfect in a slightly cruel, embittered but ultimately very sympathetic role. And meanwhile, there is also some further amazing support work from Catherine Deneuve, Peter Stormare and a bunch of Von Trier mainstays Jean-Marc Barr, Siobhan Fallon, Zeljko Ivanek and of course, Udo Kier in a brief but memorable cameo.

Essentially the film is difficult to get into, difficult to enjoy and so easy to detest, but overall an amazing achievement in the world of film-making, and the wonderful cast more than makes up for the otherwise quite alienating direction.

Love Actually

I'm grateful to Richard Curtis
I would consider myself a lifelong fan of Richard Curtis, from Not the Nine O'clock News and Blackadder to Four Weddings & a Funeral and, of course, without a doubt his greatest work IMO, the 1991 telefeature Bernard & the Genie. So naturally, his next feature is always eagerly anticipated by yours truly, especially when he finally makes the big step from writing to directing. All I can say is, I am extremely grateful for this film.

I'm grateful to him because he has produced another gem. A funny and touching, sentimental film that really puts one in the Christmas mood. The difference between this and his other films is that it contains numerous different stories (I haven't had time to count them all), rather than just the simple love story between two main protagonists with several supporting characters and subplots. They're all intertwined, very loosely it has to be said, but it doesn't really matter, since they're all sweet tales and I loved all of the characters in one way or another. Despite the limited time spent on each one, we get a fair insight into the characters and their lives.

The cast is wonderful, and Curtis does wonderful things with them. Neeson, Rickman, Thompson, Grant, and Firth all give very fine and sympathetic performances. Bill Nighy is hilarious as an ageing rock star out to grab publicity for his awful new song. And of course, a special personal mention must go to the short but sweet Martin Freeman/Joanna Page story, since for me it's wonderful to see Martin finally get the girl and be happy after seeing him strike out in love in two series of "The Office".

I'm also grateful to Richard Curtis simply because the film is predictable. Like so many other romantic comedies, it just wouldn't work if it weren't. If he tried to stretch the boundaries, cross borders and experiment; If, for example, every story didn't end on a high note with everyone falling in love and hugging and kissing, we'd feel ripped off, surely? It does what it's supposed and what it promises to do, and not only that, but it does that many times over, in the same film.

Plus I'm grateful that he didn't resort to hackneyed ideas; every story has its own journey, and although we know the direction it will eventually take, there is enough winding in the path along the way to keep us interested. There are also no cheap laughs; towards the end of the film there is a scene where a character looks through a glass pane at another character below. I was terrified that Curtis may ruin the film by inserting yet another cheap sendup of the church scene from "The Graduate" but he didn't. For that I'm grateful.

So basically, I'm grateful because he's given us yet another brilliant film. One to amuse and one to touch us. If you're a fan of 'warm' then this is definitely a film for you. It may be just like every other romantic comedy, but with one important factor; it's undoubtably one of the best.

The Two Mrs. Carrolls

Good, but could have been better
The Two Mrs. Carrolls is a fine example of a film that could have been better. There are a number of very good elements in this film, but they serve only to highlight the enormous potential that it had and unfortunately didn't quite live up to.

It begins as an odd little thriller, with Bogart's subdued, quiet nature made sinister by some frankly stifling atmospheric music. At first it almost seems as though the film follows a non-linear narrative; we find out later that this is not the case. What it is, however, is a complex and twisting little tale that gradually unravels itself until the climax.

One problem is that there is an enormous amount of subtlety employed in its unravelling. In fact I would say there is a little too much subtlety, to the point where the details that are supposed to be underplayed to maximise the mystery and suspense do not seem to be underplayed at all, but rather they appear to have simply been ommitted. It's the same as watching a very badly edited film, where all of a sudden we jump to the next sequence in the story, without any explanation of why, or what has gone on in between. The difference is that in this case, the intermittent gaps are in the story rather than the action.

The second little problem is with Bogart's character. He's the centre of this story, a mentally disturbed and jealous painter who, it would appear, murdered his first wife (the first Mrs. Carroll) in order to marry the second, played very well by the beautiful Barbara Stanwyck.

But we're not really given any insight into his character until very late in the film. At first he appears to be just like your stereotypical artist; insular, unpleasant, cynical. But we know, or at least assume, that he has actual psychotic tendencies underneath that eccentric, but nonetheless ordinary exterior. We don't really see them though until the final twenty minutes of the film, and Bogart doesn't really get a chance to act until that point either. What this makes for is a thrilling and genuinely frightening conclusion to the film, but a rather dull experience for the rest of the time.

That said, this film is worth seeing if only for that last twenty minutes. It's very interesting to see Bogart do insane, as it is to see Stanwyck do helpless damsel, after her stirling work as femme fatale in Wilder's Double Indemnity. And, as with so many good conclusions, it wouldn't actually work without the preceding 80 minutes.

So all in all it is a film worth seeing. While there are occasional flaws which stop it from being better, they are definitely, although not overwhelmingly, outstripped by the positive elements of this exciting film-noir. **** / *****

Rio Bravo

Simple. Entertaining. Fun.
Here I go again, reviewing a generic western in my generic, western-reviewing way.

Rio Bravo is another example of solid John Wayne western entertainment. It's basically good clean fun, with the badguys on one side wanting to spring one of their own from jail, and the Duke and a couple of sidekicks trying to stop them.

What makes this film stand out as memorable is essentially the characters. Dean Martin is great as the main deputy recovering from a drunken spell and finding his knack for firing a gun again. Ricky Nelson has a smaller role as a determined young kid, and Walter Brennan is simply wonderful as the crotchety old man. The Duke is naturally a powerful presence on screen.

These characters provide the entertainment, and there's plenty of action to help the film along the way as well. However, at two and a quarter hours, it is a little too long. There is a scene in the jail where Martin and Nelson show off their fine singing voices which is unnecessary to the plot. Similarly, the romance subplot between the Duke and Angie Dickenson doesn't exactly help the story along either. But then what kind of a western would this be without romance? A shorter one, sure, but also a lesser one. So basically it's as good as it can be, but with that quality also comes length. It seems to me as though that's the way it has to be.

It's a good romp, definitely worth seeing once and enjoyed. Don't expect a masterpiece and you'll leave with a smile on your face. **** / *****


The kind of film you love to walk out of
There is only one redeeming quality of this drab, boring, ridiculous film, and that is its time. If "Uncivilised" had been made thirty, or even just five or ten years later, it would be the sort of movie that causes people to hammer a huge railway spike through it so as never to poison anyone ever again. But because it is such an early, low-budget and (horror of horrors) Australian film, it deserves a chance.

*** SPOILERS ***

It tells the classical tale of a woman who travels to meet a wild white man who is chief of a tribe of Aborigines. In the spirit of the King Kong and Tarzan stories, she is to use her sexuality to win him over, and in the process, write an article about him for some capitalist city newspaper. No problems with the plot so far. Then we see the emergence of a strange Aboriginal witch doctor and a very stereotypical Afghan villain who actually turns out to be a missing British police officer working under cover. Bet you didn't see that one coming, eh? And couple that stupid plot twist with a bunch of embarrassingly out-of-place songs from Mara, the wild white man, and the worst possible over-the-top acting and you have one fair dud of a film.


The acting itself is like an uncomfortable transition from silent to mono, it's as though the overacting characteristic of silent films is copied here, only the actors haven't quite managed to pair that with actually speaking words yet. Besides that, I've never been much of a fan of Australian acting with the exception of a few rare gems we've produced, and this is just a very early rustic and tacky version of that already poor quality.

I studied this film for a university English course. God knows why. One important reason was the fact that this film was made by Australian director Charles Chauvel in order to try and crack into the big western film markets. I'm not quite sure what strategy he was trying to use but it evidently didn't work. In fact, the rumour is that even Chauvel himself was appalled at what a crummy film he'd made.

I'd love to recommend this film but it's very hard. Watch it only if you're interested in the history of world cinema or want a good laugh at the expense of others' dignity.

* out of *****

Die Hard

Possibly the greatest contrived film of all time
Die Hard - what a movie. What a legend. The ultimate pointless, shallow, and unnaturally contrived movie makes for one hell of a viewing experience.

It's non-stop action, non-stop cliches, non-stop formulaic plots and villainous men with German accents, you've got to love it. Bruce Willis is at highest form in a role which needs nothing but highly toned abs and occasional smart alec NYC one-liners. Alan Rickman is the really loveable part of this film. A real-life German terrorist couldn't do better playing this role.

You can probably tell I've just finished watching it, the adrenaline is still pumping through my veins, my wry smile still plastered across my face. John McTiernan sure packs a punch, I can tell you that. The best thing about this film is that it's just a movie. It doesn't try to be anything but a formulaic, by-the-numbers, big budget action hit and so it works spectacularly for what it's trying to achieve. Provided you don't expect a masterpiece of filmmaking, what you'll receive is a masterpiece nonetheless.

There's no need to analyse this film much further, it's a thrill ride, utterly shallow and hopelessly artificial. You've gotta love it. **** / *****


Frank Capra meets John Ford
Shenandoah is a wonderful, sentimental tale about a Virginia farmer who refuses to endorse either side in the American civil war, being deeply opposed to both war and slavery. That is, until his youngest son is taken prisoner by the Yankees for wearing a Confederate cap he came upon by chance by the creek.

From this point on, the film becomes somewhat an intermingling of different story-telling types. It obviously bears a lot of resemblance to John Ford's "The Searchers": the same type of epic journey against all the odds, the voyage of self-discovery. The major difference is that in this film we see three sides of the story: the story of James Stewart and five of his remaining children on their quest, the story of his captive son escaping from the Yankees, and a brief look at his other son and daughter-in-law back home at the farm. It mixes the stories well to great effect. The other difference between this and The Searchers is essentially the realism. What Ford had in drones in his film of nine years beforehand, director Andrew V McLagen lacks here. At some points it drops out of reality and looks like a Capra-realised fairytale within a western setting. It's the sort of thing that makes you smile if you're willing to; otherwise it will just make you cringe.

However, despite these occasional slips into a dreamworld of delirium, it does have deaths: don't think you're receiving a full-blown kiddie flick with this film, and there is a very moving sequence later in the film when Stewart talks to the grave of his late wife.

This was the second of McLagen's films I've discovered; it's easily the better of the two although both have led me to the conclusion that he is a maker of fine films. There's nothing monumental or spectacular about them but he creates very solid entertainment, and both have been ultimately very satisfying.

I decided to try not to say anything about Stewart since I'm incredibly biased on that score but here, I failed, he's brilliant as usual in another great role full of high morals and mental toughness. It seems as though he's almost playing a character composite of two previous roles of Ransom Stoddard and Jefferson Smith. There really are a lot of similarities. The supporting cast also backs him up to a fine degree.

Overall, Shenandoah is great for evening viewing and it's unlikely that it will not touch you in some way. The occasional lack of credibility loses it marks but otherwise worthy of **** / *****

An American Tail: Fievel Goes West

In some ways, better and worse than the original
For whatever reason, The American Tail films were two of the films I was brought up on. I still own both of them on video and still watch them from time to time. In most ways, this sequel is worse than the original. The brief story of Feivel being separated and lost from his family again is really underplayed in comparison to the first one, which revolved purely around this plot. In Feivel Goes West it's almost as though the family are a bit blasé about losing their only son. It's also hard to top the musical score of the first one. There is a repeat singing of "Somewhere Out There" that is rudely cut short but without the whole song, it doesn't have the same warming effect. The feature song of this film, "Dreams to Dream" is very beautiful, however it and the other songs of FGW can't match up to those of AAT.

Despite these flaws, there is quite a lot more to enjoy in this film. If you're a fan of westerns as I am, you will enjoy an animated take on the theme, particularly the very enjoyably cartoonist showdown at the end. Secondly, the voice cast of FGW is far superior to that of AAT. Not content with Dom DeLuise as the loveable cat Tiger, they add to that cast for the sequel the likes of John Cleese, Amy Irving, Jon Lovitz and none other than the great James Stewart himself playing the sheriff of a one-horse western town. They're all impeccably cast and pull off a wonderful job.

All this said and done, is the sequel better or worse? I have to say I think it's completely equal. Still the same level of childish fun and heartwarming moments, wonderful voice talents and great musical score. Definitely worth showing your kids. ***1/2 / *****

An American Tail

Warm family cartoon is definitely a winner
I was introduced to An American Tail after perpetually reading the 'book' of the second film, Feivel Goes West. I can't say which one I enjoyed more although at the time, I think I was seven, but this one I understood a lot better.

The sweet-hearted tale of a family of Russian mouse emigrants who travel to America, the 'land of opportunity' but on their way lose their son, really manages to perk up your day. It has all the classic elements of a family flick: great characters, wonderful score and songs, and of course a happy ending (You can't say you didn't expect that).

In some ways it's meant to be almost a satire, a parallel story of many Russian immigrant families who flee to America from the Cossacks: there is actually a scene in the beginning involving the ransacking of a Russian village by Cossacks, aided of course, as most history books conveniently omit, by their vicious slavering cats who destroy the mouse population. This satire is slightly lost once they reach America, but the simple plot of the mouse boy trying to find his family again works very well. It's quite frustrating at times as we see how close they all come to running into each other; a split second here and a well-timed door slamming there, and it could have been all over in thirty minutes of screen time. But where would be the movie in that?

Lastly, the voice cast does a great job. While I personally think the sequel had a better cast, An American Tail boasts some fine names as well - Dom DeLuise and Nehemiah Persoff who also did the sequel, Christopher Plummer, and Madeline Kahn all combine for a great effect. It's not necessary to see this to also see the sequel but it definitely deserves to be watched. Touching, light-hearted and with one of the most beautiful theme songs you will ever hear, it's a winner. ***1/2 / *****

Konets Sankt-Peterburga

Cinema in its finest form
This silent 1927 masterpiece is truly brilliant. To me it embodies everything that cinema is meant to be; it's visual art in motion, literature with pictures, history with emotion; all those and much more. It really is at the peak of film-making.

I say that, but that is not to say it is a perfect film. Just that the intention in creating this bleak and powerful look at poverty in early 20th-century Russia is absolutely spot-on: It wants to tell a tale, create an image, and to breathe life into history. The intention is not simply to entertain like so many awful films of the past ten years, which is a good thing, since "The End of St. Petersberg" is great without actually being entertaining.

There are some very powerful scenes and some frankly unforgettable visual sequences - the scenes of the first world war for example, or the beginning of the workers' strike. Take it from me, Pudovkin's direction is absolutely masterful and I think it's sad that seemingly so few people have discovered him. But with all that said, by today's standards this doesn't quite have the staying power of Chaplin or Keaton.

It's quite wonderful to behold, but it can really only captivate the interest of people who are interested in details of history, or who know little of the events leading up to the Russian revolution. Unfortunately for me I'm neither very interested nor entirely ignorant and so while I'm very glad to have witnessed this grand-scale piece of master craftsmanship it couldn't completely peak my interest.

That's unimportant though in the great scheme of things, and I don't mean to say that I don't thoroughly recommend it to anyone who enjoys film or art. ****1/2 / *****

The Dawn Rider

Not watchable by today's standards
The Dawn Rider is an early formulaic western and one of the earliest film appearances by John Wayne. I could finish this comment there and you would know everything there is to know about this film. The Duke plays John Mason, returning home only to see his father shot and killed by bandits. He frantically gives chase, shooting down three of the gang but ending up wounded himself. He is then taken care of by Alice Gordon who is later revealed to be the sister of old Dad Mason's killer. Huge suspense, you can mark my sarcastic words.

It's a very mediocre watch, no doubting that. The acting is second rate, even from the great man himself who was obviously still finding his feet. There are a number of corny fight scenes that look like John Ford collaborated with Mack Sennett, and absolutely no music to help create the mood which the performers fail to make.

The only plus side is that it isn't long enough to be boring. It's just a badly-made 53-minute slice of film history showcasing a young star in the making. And even though I could only recommend this to big John Wayne fans, recently I'd consider myself one and it didn't make me leap for joy.

The Lion in Winter

Hepburn merely the highlight of an ideal cast
"The Lion in Winter" is the sort of historical epic that just isn't made these days. It's simple dramatics, breathing life into a fascinating and tumultuous period of history. I'm not sure of the accuracy of the story, since this is one period I'm not particularly strong at, but the film works well and I am perfectly willing to believe it for the moment.

The title refers to King Henry II, nicknamed 'the lion', who is having a difficult time not only for the time of year in which it is set but also the stage of life he is at in having to decide which of his three sons will succeed him when he passes on.

The film is based on the play by James Goldman, who also wrote the adaptation, and for that reason it has an enormously theatrical feel to it. It's very little more than a play brought to life on the screen, with a proper setting, strong musical score and editing being the only major differences. This is something I would like, since I enjoy the theatre, but it definitely isn't for all film buffs.

However, the cast is absolutely perfect, especially Katharine Hepburn as the estranged wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. She deservedly won an Oscar for her brilliant portrayal of the woman scorned. Peter O'Toole is just as convincing as the King, Timothy Dalton puts in the best performance I have seen as King Philip of France, while Henry's sons are played with great conviction by John Castle, Nigel Terry, and none other than a very young-looking Tony Hopkins as the eldest and most powerful son Richard.

The cast work together beautifully to create an array of dastardly and essentially unlikeable characters in a chaotic time in all their lives. As each one plots and conspires, double-crosses each of their allies, to get a different son the inheritance, they weave a wonderfully intricate period tale of greed and power, of trust and betrayal.

The film is political as much as it is tragic. I have never read or seen the original play, but the script for the film is breath-taking. The speeches often bear close resemblance to Macchiavelli at times, and there are frequent overtones of the Bard himself and his own historical texts. It's a masterful piece of storytelling.

My only complaint is that it is about half an hour too long. There are a number of essentially unnecessary scenes and exchanges that could be deleted to make the film more accessible to a wider audience. It would no doubt reduce the overall effect of the film, but as it stands, it is quite a task to follow every nuance of the story.

To sum up, it's a film made mostly through acting. The cast is clearly ideal and they do wonderful things with great material. It is heavy-going and it requires much of your attention, but the rewards are definitely there if you want them.

**** / *****

L.A. Confidential

Stylish, intricate thriller is a winner in so many ways
I'd heard great things about L.A. Confidential without having heard anything about what it was. So naturally, going in, expectations were extremely high, as was the potential for disappointment. But was that potential ever groundless.

The film is essentially escapism, so I shouldn't have expected such great things from it, but it really is escapism of the very highest calibre. It's complex but not confusing, suspenseful, sexy and very, very entertaining. Spacey, Crowe and Pearce are all at the peak of their game as three Los Angeles police officers all playing by different rules - one a smart, college-educated law-follower, one a tough and brutal 'bad cop', and one a media whore who works as an insider for a magazine journalist.

It scores points on every level. From the fairly hammy comments on corruption in the system, to the tense and fast-paced action sequences, it entertains. It delivers what it promises and it leaves you feeling great.

I won't go on for much longer, but I can honestly say that this is not a film that will disappoint, as long as you don't expect a masterpiece. It's just a very solid, well-made and thoroughly enjoyable flick. ****1/2 / *****

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