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The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

Third-time, not quite as lucky...
I enjoyed "The Mummy", written and directed by Stephen Sommers, immensely. It was funny, witty, ludicrous and action-packed. The sequel, the appropriately titled "The Mummy Returns" was even more ludicrous and action-filled, although the wit had abated somewhat. But I still enjoyed it. And the third effort...? The ingredients are there - a mummy (of sorts) an ancient curse, ancient love, bad guys, good guys, exotic locations and general all-round silliness. But this film isn't nearly the accomplishment the first film was, nor does it have the sheer brazen showiness of the second. If anything, it's a rather rushed, haphazard mess of a film. The film whizzes along at break-neck speed, so busy trying to cram in spectacle it rushes through the script and allows a great deal in terms of plot and character to fall by the wayside.

Which is a pity, because the concept is a promising one. The film commences in Ancient China, detailing how the Dragon Emperor (Jet Li) conquered nearly all of Asia. He was a master sorcerer too, but realising that death will rob him of all his power, he sends his trusted General, Ming, to find a witch who is rumoured to know the secret to eternal life. Ming finds the witch, named Zi Juan (Michelle Yeoh) and it's clearly a case of love at first sight. Unfortunately, when the Emperor sees her, he decides he wants her for himself, ordering that no other man should ever touch her (sound familiar?) Ming and Zi Juan go to find the secret of eternal life, and succeed, but their love overcomes all other scruples. They return, and Zi Juan makes the Emperor immortal ... only for the Emperor to have Ming brutally killed for disobeying his orders about Zi Juan. She in return curses him and his army, and they turn into the Terracotta warriors, standing motionless for eternity.

A few thousand years later, in 1946, Alex O'Connell is grown-up, and unbeknownst to his parents is away from college and leading an excavation in China, hoping to find the Terracotta Army. Jonathan Carnahan (John Hannah) is actually running a successful nightclub in Shanghai (called Imhotep's, no less). Rick (Brendan Fraser, the only other actor from the original film) and Evie O'Connell (Maria Bello) have settled down in England, and are slowly dying of boredom whilst their son has all the adventures (and is apparently too busy ever to visit) But a request for help from the Foreign Office sees them heading off to China, and you know it's only a matter of time before the inevitable happens ...

I can't fault the acting, to be honest. Fraser does what he does best - fighting, wisecracking and kissing with aplomb. Maria Bello isn't nearly as wide-eyed and ditsy as Rachael Weiz was in the role, but she's likable enough and totally convincing in the action scenes. Michelle Yeoh is good as usual, Jet Li makes a convincing baddie, Luke Ford is far less annoying than the kid in "The Mummy Returns" and John Hannah is totally charming as usual - my only regret is we didn't see more of him. The main fault lies in a hurried pace and slightly weak script - the romantic sub-plot between Alex and a warrior named Lin feels tacked on and quite a few characters seem superfluous.

But happily, this film has all the madcap charm of its' forebears, and, weak script aside, is actually lots of fun. This isn't quite enough to redeem its flaws, but hey, I've seen worse. If you're ready to be entertained without being overstretched mentally, then take a chance.

Sesame Street

A class act all the way.
The premise of Sesame Street is simplicity itself: on a street in a big city, various grown-ups, children, monsters, animals and other strange creatures live together, work together, solve problems together and have fun together. The fact that it's still going strong after nearly 40 years must tell you something about its quality and the love audiences feel for it.

The Sesame Street I knew was the one of the late 80's/ early 90's - well before the meteoric popularity of Elmo and before Sesame Street got expanded around the corner, where the leads were of course Bert and Ernie, Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, Cookie Monster and Telly Monster, the Count ... all of them household names and I'm barely scratching the surface. And then there's the grown-ups, who always manage to teach and guide without ever being condescending or demeaning to their young audience.

My main point? It doesn't get better than this. Thank you for Sesame Street, Jim Henson and company, you've made the world a little bit better each day. Now, one more thing - who DOESN'T know the theme tune?

Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story

Surprisingly good comedy
The supreme pinnacle of the fitness industry is GloboGym, owned and operated by large-haired, small-brained fitness fascist White Goodman (Ben Stiller). Next door is the pitiful competition: Average Joe's, a run-down, homely gym run by amiable slacker Peter La Fleur (Vince Vaughn) who is always ready with a little advice and encouragement for his misfit gym members and who is quite prepared to let people pay their fees a little late.

Unfortunately, Peter's lack of business acumen means that his gym is in foreclosure, and unless he comes up with £50,000 dollars in one month his gym will be bought by White Goodman and bulldozed to make way for a new car park. Determined to save Joe's, Peter and his friends enter a dodgeball tournament where first prize just so happens to be £50,000 dollars, and find themselves an efficient (but completely nutty) coach in the shape of former dodgeball champion Patches O'Houlihan (Rip Torn). But White discovers their intentions and the fun really starts when he puts together his own team of champion dodge-ballers to thwart Joe's ...

I remember this movie being something of a sleeper hit, and can see why: there's something for everyone in terms of humour, from straightforward slapstick (usually with a wrench) to classic verbal sparring. Vaughn is the calm centre to the film, wisely playing it straight amongst his oddball team (Steve the Pirate is my particular favourite) Rip Torn is suitably OTT, but scenery-mastication honours must go to Stiller, easily delivering his funniest performance since Mystery Men. The plot is straightforward and you can see the end a mile off, but a number of fun cameos and a continual stream of jokes keep the laughs coming. Just plain fun.

Kate & Leopold

Time-travelling romance - pity it's one-sided ...
Romantic comedies are, by definition, very predictable affairs, so it's always good to come across one that tries to add something new or shake things up a bit. This one tries a love spanning one hundred years, thanks to time travel (hey, far weirder things have happened in movieland). Leopold, dashingly handsome 19th century Duke (Hugh Jackman) is (unwillingly) contemplating marriage. 21st century career woman Kate (Meg Ryan) is climbing the corporate ladder at an advertising company, whilst her love life is somewhat less successful. But time gets twisted when Kate's ex-boyfriend Stuart (Liev Schrieber) finds a portal into the 19th century - and after an ill-advised visit there, winds up bringing home an unexpected guest; Leopold, of course.

Hijinks ensue as the gentlemanly and courageous Leopold navigates his way through 21st century New York, befriending Kate's brother Charlie (Breckin Meyer) and beginning a romance with Kate. And of course all ends happily in the end. I'll start with the good stuff: Jackman is absolutely charming, playing it straight as the fish-miles-inland-never-mind-out-of-water and succeeding admirably. You can't help but love him and believe in him. Breckin Meyer does nicely in a supporting role. Schrieber is essentially a plot device to move the story forward, but gets a few comic and touching moments that a less talented actor might have let fall by the wayside.

And what about our other romantic lead? >Sigh< I've never been a fan of Meg Ryan, but I'll try and be fair as possible. But to be honest, I didn't warm at all to her character. I get that Kate is a driven career woman, but what a high price she pays for it. "You're like a man" her boss says approvingly (huh?) but she isn't - she simply comes across as a bitchy, bad-tempered and cold woman (guess I'm losing the fairness battle) and to be honest, doesn't stand a chance in the popularity battle with Jackman's Leopold. And then she tosses her career away for a happy ending with her Duke, marriage and setting up a 19th century home. I do wish a career woman would be allowed to keep her job AND her guy just for once, rather than heading off to become the "little woman".

Okay, rant over. It's great escapism, and worth seeing for Jackman alone, but I doubt it will linger long in the memory.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

It's an Indiana Jones film. Thank God for that ...
I can't recall the last time I saw Harrison Ford on the big screen. Well, actually I can - it was in "What Lies Beneath". Not a bad horror film as it goes, but surely far below the stratospheric heights he scaled in the late 70's/early 80's. But since then - eight years ago - I can't recall seeing him in anything. And that's mystifying when you recollect he was once one of the biggest movie stars (and possibly the coolest man on Earth) in Hollywood a while back. He ceased being a star and became a jobbing actor in various passable roles that didn't give us so much as a glimpse of the charming rogue who could take on armies single-handed.

Well, Ford fans rejoice: Harrison the star has returned. There's a long build-up to the first shot of his face, but it's worth it. There's a glint in his eye, a smirk on his face and the fedora is a perfect fit. His Indiana Jones is back, and he's as smart and adventurous as ever. The film wastes no time throwing our hero into the thick of the action, and he does it with aplomb. Forget the naysayers who say he's past it - Indy doesn't look 65, and he sure as hell doesn't move like he's 65. Am I gushing too much about this? It's just so fantastic to see one of the greatest cinematic heroes ever return and basically rule the world with a crack of his whip.

The film opens in full-blown action style, with Indy and old war friend "Mac" (Ray Winstone) being kidnapped by a bunch of Russian spies, including the devilish Colonel Spalko (Cate Blanchett) who apparently has psychic talents (which happily don't work on Indy). The Russians force Indy to locate a certain artifact for them in a military warehouse (not THAT artifact, although we do catch a glimpse of it) until Indy effects an amazing escape (just wait for a certain scene involving a fridge ...) However, when we leave the Russians behind, it becomes clear that despite the fact Indy still wears the fedora and still kicks bad-guy ass all over the place, things have drastically altered since we saw him ride off into the sunset in "Crusade". Henry Jones Sr and Marcus Brody have both shuffled off their mortal coils, and the traitorous actions of Mac means that both Indy's job and that of his dean and friend Charles Stanforth (a sadly underused Jim Broadbent) fall victim to the anti-communist witch hunters of the FBI. He's just about ready to pack it all in and head for Europe when he gets sidetracked by a motorcycle-riding, knife-wielding, smart-alec young man named Mutt Williams (Shia LeBeouf). Both Mutt's mother and his dear friend Professor Oxley have been kidnapped in Peru whilst searching for a mythical crystal skull, and the only clues Mutt has to go on are a letter and some strange symbols. So he's done what his mother advised him to and sought out Indy for help ...

And from that moment the action just refuses to stop. They're chased by baddies, shot at, engage in fistfights, sword-fights, car chases, drive off cliffs, go over waterfalls, get stuck in dry sand traps, get menaced by insects and there's even a fun Tarzan-inspired swing through the treetops. Towards the end you'll probably be drained and wishing there was a moment to pause and reflect on the adventure. Even the romantic sub-plot (featuring the best heroine the franchise has produced, Marion Ravenwood) hurtles along with wisecracks and arguments left, right and centre. But that's what this film is about - it's Ford and Spielberg doing what they do best, and doing it better than anyone else ever could.

Ford as aforementioned is fantastic. Blanchett is the best baddie the Bond franchise never had, Karen Allen as Marion is strong, clever, and immensely enjoyable and Winstone vacillates between good and sneaky very convincingly, although the script leaves him looking rather two-dimensional. Even LeBeouf's character comes out looking good: he's a very likable presence on screen, just as smart and capable as Indy, but wisely the filmmakers have made no attempt to turn him into the next Indiana Jones (although they flirt with the idea at the end of the film). Mutt follows Indy and backs him up, but no one could ever take Indy's place and so the film doesn't try to force him to. I think it's safe to assume that Mutt takes up the fedora and has adventures out in movieland, but if Spielberg has any affection at all for Indy, as I'm sure he does, we're not going to see them.

It's no "Raiders of the Lost Ark", which is perhaps the most perfect adventure film ever made (although there's a moment involving Indy's fear of snakes that comes pretty damn close to that standard in my humble opinion) but it's fun, thrilling, funny, imaginative - and it's an Indiana Jones film. Okay, I wish they'd found a different resolution at the end (inter-dimensional beings? No, not quite working for me - an old Peruvian god, akin to Temple of Doom would have been better) But it's an Indiana Jones film. Not a film that just so happens to feature a character called Indiana Jones who vaguely resembles the hero of the 80's, but one featuring THE Indiana Jones and an adventure worthy of him. Eat your imitation hearts out, "National Treasure" and "Sahara", Indy rules and forever will.

Diary of the Dead

"Woah, what the hell are you doing here?"
"Diary of the Dead", when stripped down to its basic concept, is your standard zombie movie. An eclectic group of people - film students in this case, shooting a very low budget horror film - realising that the dead are no rising for no apparent reason, band together and attempt to make their way across country to discover what has become of their friends and families, whilst trying to avoid getting eaten - with varying degrees of success. So far, so standard. What distinguishes Romero's latest effort is the manner in which it is shot and directed. In the manner of "Cloverfield", the film is shot on a number of different cameras, and is shown entirely from the viewpoint of the main characters - we see what they see, and know only what they know. We never find out the reason for the rising dead, and the few snippets of information we do garner come from an increasingly unreliable internet, inundated with hysterical videos of zombie attacks and government cover-ups. Besides which, the film students have more pressing concerns - like who is going to be the next victim.

It's an interesting concept, and thankfully the more professional camera work (edited by the cameraman's girlfriend, who also provides a running commentary) means that the motion-sickness of "Cloverfield" remains at bay. Romero also makes a stab at social commentary, critiquing the massive volume of information available on the net - how do we separate lies from truth? The horror film the students are shooting at the beginning of the movie, in which an unconvincing mummy pursues a corseted girl, even becomes reality by the end of the film in a blackly hilarious sequence in which Romero sends up every classic zombie film convention in the book.

Unfortunately however, the film simply isn't as effective as "Cloverfield" or even the likes of "Twenty-Eight Weeks Later". The film students just aren't strong enough characters to engage their audience, and sympathy for their plight doesn't materialise. The only standout character is Scott Wentworth's sophisticated, alcoholic Professor Maxwell: he may be a caricature, but he stands out by virtue of his difference. He's totally unsurprised by all the gory happenings and tags along with the students simply because he has nowhere else and no one else to go to (and he proves to be very handy with a bow and arrow ...) The students meanwhile, are reluctant stars of what becomes a documentary of their experiences. They don't want to be on camera, and they don't see why Jason, the cameraman, persists in filming. Nor does Jason - when asked why he's posted what he's shot on the internet, all he can do at first is exclaim at the number of hits his footage has received, before mumbling something about helping others discover the truth. The film is about mankind becoming isolated despite the barrage of information we live our lives in - lies are isolating us from the truth, seems to be the message of the film. Unfortunately the camera also has the effect of isolating us from the characters. They are on screen, but they have nothing to say, and spend most of their time criticising Jason for recording what goes on. It almost feels like the film despises its own (and the audience's) fascination with the visceral and the frightening, and can only show it to us after thoroughly rubbishing itself for existing.

This self-loathing, whilst it might be relevant in modern society, does not make for an absorbing film. It's actually fairly diverting compared to some of the terrible horror films that have lurched across cinema screens recently ("Blood and Chocolate" anyone?) and the actors do their best, but I don't think this film will be added to the ranks of the classics.

My Family and Other Animals

A boy, his dog, his family and Corfu. Result? Chaos!
The true story (or so it's claimed!) of prominent naturalist Gerald Durrell's stay on the Greek island of Corfu in the 1930's, together with his family, is informative, dramatic, interesting - and oh yes, downright hilarious at times. Gerry is the youngest member of his eccentric family, and at the time the story starts already a keen nature enthusiast. So it's a dream come true when his very English family emigrate to the beautiful Greek island, which is teeming with bird and animal life for him to investigate. But there's small chance of being his being left to pursue his vocation in peace - also present are his intelligent but highly temperamental brother Larry, the other writer of the family, his romantic if scatty sister Margo, practical Leslie, who is also a keen marksman and rifleman and only slightly less volatile than Larry, and his long-suffering and endlessly patient Mother, who attempts to keep her wilful and unruly offspring within the bounds of reason and sanity. She doesn't always manage this.

Also present are various friends, servants, tutors (oh, horror!) and the people of Corfu, not to mention Gerry's ever growing menagerie of animals and birds. Mix all this together and some truly crazy situations arise - but the Durrell family always manages to muddle through somehow, thanks mainly to Mother, their Greek friend Spiro (played wonderfully by Brian Blessed) and Gerry's mentor, Dr. Theodore Stephanides, a naturalist and philosopher with a weakness for terrible puns. So they all manage to get through Gerry's scorpion escaping at the breakfast table, Margo and Mother's disastrous date at the cinema, Larry setting his room on fire, Leslie finding snakes in the bath, Gerry's tortoise meeting an unfortunate end, Leslie's burglar alarm prompting a near riot, Larry's room being torn asunder by magpies, musical pigeons, hysterical dogs, and Spiro's determination to make sure Gerry gets educated.

Right from the start, it's apparent that Gerald's story is from another, less anxious and certainly less PC time. Gerry Durrell, the youngest member of his eccentric, thoroughly English family, goes walking, climbing trees, swimming and actually hangs out with a convicted murderer at one point, all with no more supervision than that afforded by his faithful dog Roger. But you just know nothing truly bad can happen on Corfu - drenched in sunshine, surrounded by sparkling blue sea, it seems another world altogether. Production on this film is superb - the cinematography is wonderful, the scripts are good, as is the acting. Particular mention must go to Brian Blessed as the fierce and booming but golden-hearted Spiro, and Anthony Calf as Larry, who must have been very uncomfortable to live with but is fantastically funny to watch. Make sure you pay a visit!

The Sooty Show

Perfect? Very nearly ...
I quite literally grew up with "The Sooty Show" - I started watching as a toddler and continued watching right up until my early teens. In an age when children's TV seems to have become all sanitised and scientific, it was great to remember the little yellow teddy bear and all the mischief, mayhem and magic!

It's a simple show, comprised of several hand puppets and the human host (Matthew Corbett, when I watched). Yellow teddy bear Sooty (who never actually speaks!), his adorable if dim-witted pal Sweep, a little grey dog who only ever squeaks, sensible panda Soo, and in later years Sooty's Little Cousin Scampi, together with their long suffering guardian Matthew, all live together. And trouble is never very far away - especially since Sooty has a magic wand and a mischievous streak!

The stories are simple, but everything in Sooty's world, from gardening to delivering the post to inventing, is an adventure. And usually a very funny one at that! Matthew tries to keep order amongst chaos, but usually doesn't manage it - in one episode I remember Sooty's magic going awry and Matthew turning into a lion, a monkey, a penguin and a monster all in quick succession. But everything always comes all right in the end with the magical refrain "Izzy wizzy, let's get busy!" Bang in the video, and get ready for a true children's classic!


Oscar nominee? Nope. Fun? Hell, yes!!
Okay, let's get things straight here: 1) this is a film based on a cartoon, which in turn was based on a range of toys. 2) It's being directed by Michael Bay. If a thoughtful, well-written movie with much character development, suspense, and understated but gripping action sequences are what you want, save your money and go and see "The Bourne Ultimatum".

Right, now that's out of the way, let's focus on Transformers - it's by no means an award winner (except possibly for the CGI - more on this later). It's not going to join the ranks of the classics. But it is quite simply the most genuinely FUN film to hit screens this summer. It's plain, simple, crazy enjoyment.

After the mild disappointments of Spider-man 3, Shrek 3, the near ship-wreck of Pirates of the Caribbean 3, and the much improved but still rather lacklustre Fantastic Four 2, things were looking a bit dire on the blockbuster front in this summer's cinema, with only Bruce Willis managing to come up triumphant in Die Hard 4.0. That was, until this film came out. I never thought a Michael Bay film would prove the best surprise of the season, but hey, I've been wrong before.

As I mentioned earlier, Transformers is quite simply the most fun I've had in a cinema this summer so far. The plot's non-existent (it's tied to the hero's explorer great-grandfather who found a giant robot in the Artic and got the co-ordinates to a special weapon printed on his ... oh, never mind. Goodie robots fight baddie robots, humans get in the way. Finis.) The script veers between quite sharp and bombastic clunkiness. The acting (particularly among the older actors) is supremely hammy for the most part, though there are some exceptions. Quite a few secondary characters simply fall by the wayside as the film progresses. And it's terribly hokey in places (the heroic solider Captain Lennox has a baby daughter he's dying to hold for the first time - ought to be sweet but in fact prompts much eye-rolling).

So why is it so much fun? First and foremost, Shia LeBeouf, in a stroke of casting genius. He really is like a young Tom Hanks on screen - smart, effortlessly likable, and filled with boundless energy. In his hands, the character of Sam Witwicky, which could easily have descended into corniness or geek-turned-macho stereotype, becomes the lynchpin of the film. Then there's Sam's character - our hero is a plucky nerd who has an aptitude for talking himself out of a tight spot. He's a not quite ordinary young man who gets thrust into the most outrageous of situations and somehow manages to deal with it.

Then there are the Transformers. Words very nearly fail me - they are spectacular. The CGI is faultless - they look 100% real. You believe in them completely. And it's with them that Bay comes into his own. His forte is action, and this film has it in spadefuls. The on screen battles and action are just fabulous. End of.

The film's third main asset is a rich vein of humour and a little knowingness (it even manages to get in a few sly digs about Dubya's government). Sam Witwicky is the main proponent of this (LeBeouf proving a natural at comic timing) but it runs throughout the film. My only criticism is that it is perhaps a bit overdone at times.

Mix these together and the film somehow works. I'm not terribly sure how - apart from in the case of Sam Witwicky character development is minimal, although there's a nice little aside about the heroine Mikaela's criminal record. Plus despite the obvious fact she's there to add sex appeal, she does get down and dirty (ahem) in the fight scenes, going on the run with Sam and aiding good robot Bumblebee in the final battle. The only other character to fair nearly as well is Captain Lennox, played with aplomb by Josh Duhamel, who is basically there to kick the crap out of the bad robots and to look super-sexy doing it. He succeeds admirably, but manages to add a little more depth as he does it.

But in the end the film comes back to Sam Witwicky and his precious first car, which happens to turn into an alien robot. This is what we're most interested in - not what's happening in the Pentagon, or cracking codes, or government secrets. If anything, the film needed more of Sam and Bumblebee. What there was of these two was great, with Bumblebee functioning as Sam's protector and taking big risks to do it, and Sam becoming friends with and remaining loyal to his robot/car/new best friend. This plot strand could have been so much more - it's every little and not-so-little boy's dream. And probably that of a fair few girls as well. That something ordinary turns out to be extraordinary. And I'm not just talking about the car here.

So Michael Bay, if you're reading this, congratulations, you somehow made a great film with room to spare. And for the sequel that is sure to be in the works, forget the government, forget the military, just give us the robots and their humans. They're not only fun, they might just tug a heartstring or two.

The Forsyte Saga

"You must promise me that if our marriage is not a success, you will set me free."
I recall watching this when it was first aired (on ITV, I think) and recently re-watched some of it when round at a friend's - and found it very thought-provoking. Read on ...

Whilst we can always rely on the good old BBC to produce a great costume drama whilst blindfolded and handcuffed, I've always thought ITV's efforts to be hit-and-miss affairs. So which is The Forsythe Saga? Predictably, both.

Visually, there's no problem - it's a gorgeous production, the script is nicely paced, and a generous amount of time is allocated to each of the main characters so we can watch the most interesting developments without getting bored or losing sight of the big picture. This is truly a family saga, spanning several generations and their friends and enemies, their acts and consequences. It's also a cracking story - I've never read the original novel, so can't vouch for it's accuracy, but the script is very well done.

But I'm afraid the largest stumbling-block comes in the form of casting. This, ostensibly, ought to be Irene Forsythe's story - pressured into a loveless marriage by a guardian who ought to be taking care of her, the victim of a cold, and often brutal man who violently rapes her, she dares to risk it all for a chance at true love with a young businessman. Tragedy and eventual bittersweet joy result. The majority of our sympathy ought to be with Irene.

But unfortunately it doesn't work out like this. Gina McKee looks beautiful, but whether through the script she was given or a decision to play Irene as a sad, reserved woman, she comes across as unfeeling, unresponsive, and totally indifferent to those around her. Indeed, it's hard to see why one man would become obsessed with her, let alone three or four. It was difficult to relate to her, with the only moments I genuinely felt bad for her being Soames's violent attack and when she is told of Bossiney's death. Ioan Gruffudd by the way, does his not inconsiderable best, but his character is really just a means to an end - a common-or-garden bold young man who loves the central female character and prompts her escape.

I spent the majority of the viewing time, meanwhile, cursing Damian Lewis - he is simply superb. He takes the vile Soames - a bully, a cruel, violent rapist, a jealous and possessive husband - and at times threatens to win sympathy totally from Irene. His repressed passions and darkness glimmer beneath his surface, and his spurned adoration of Irene prompts genuine pity. Damn you Lewis, we're not supposed to like Soames! But he is by far the most complex character of the series, and Lewis emerges as a star-in-waiting.

Every other actor and actress does themselves credit, but Rupert Graves deserves a mention as a an excellent contrast to the cruel Soames. But it's the above love triangle that drives the story. Make up your own mind where your sympathies lie, but definitely worth a viewing.

Casino Royale

A Bond who has fallen from the family tree ...
Right from the start, it is evident that the James Bond making his debut in 'Casino Royale' bears small, if any, resemblance to his predecessors. Gone are the gadgets, the gimmicks, the one-liners and general good-natured silliness. James Bond, shortly to receive the fateful designation of 007, as portrayed by Daniel Craig, is brutal (see the very violent pre-credits fight), ruthless, and regards killing as an everyday activity that does not impinge upon himself as a person. Whereas Brosnan's Bond had the glimmerings of a sense of honour ("I usually hate killing an unarmed man, cold-blooded murder is a filthy business" he utters in 'The World is Not Enough') and even sometimes of compassion, Daniel Craig as Bond is the man who would shoot you in the head without even pausing to look you in the eye.

Indeed, (almost) everything about this whole film is re-invented - okay, they've kept the stunning women, beautiful locations, brilliant action sequences (the standout being a chase across a building site that induces vertigo even when sitting safely in a cinema seat) and the scene-stealing performance from Judi Dench as M, but everything else is fresh and new. This is Bond re-invented from the ground up.

Which is probably a good thing. Although the Bond franchise slid a bit off track with Pierce Brosnan's last film, the general consensus is he was the best since Connery and would have been a tough act to follow had the original formula been stuck to. Daniel Craig on the other hand hasn't got so much of a shadow to step out from, and this can only work to his advantage when his most eloquent acting is done minus words - as aforementioned, Bond's usual quips are noticeable by their absence and only a little sparring with the more than equal-to-the-task Vesper Lynd hints at Bond's liking for double entendres.

So, on to the biggest question of them all - is Craig a Bond to beat them all or a trouble-oh seven? Call me a wimp if you will, but I'm going to reserve judgement. Craig is James Bond in this film through sheer force of will - he is Bond because everyone in the film just BELIEVES he is so much. You can almost feel the director and the camera willing him to become the 007 of Ian Fleming's imagination. Whether or not Craig can inhabit the role as Connery or Brosnan did and make it his own it still up for debate - but then this is only his first outing. He could be fantastic - emphasis on the COULD.

But whether or not he is Bond, Craig is a terrific action hero, leaping from cranes, shooting bad guys and generally wrecking havoc in the name of Queen and Country. Mads Mikkelson does himself proud as Le Chiffre, a baddie so bad he weeps blood. Eva Green is suitably luminous as Vesper Lynd, a woman who entrances even the stony-hearted 007, and the action is glorious enough to plug the holes in a flimsy plot. Oh, and did I mention Judi Dench rocks as M? If this is Bond reborn, it's good to see he's retained just a few things from his previous life.

El laberinto del fauno

A heart darker than Conrad's intermingled with beauty and hope ...
Wild, strange, brutal, beautiful and memorable. It is impossible to sum up the multi-faceted Pan's Labyrinth in a few sentences ... but I'll do my best.

Spain, 1944. The Civil War is over and Franco's army are occupied in hunting down and killing the rebels still in hiding in the countryside. Into this volatile situation come young Ofelia, and her frail, heavily-pregnant mother Carmen. Married to Captain Vidal of the Fascist Army, it is evident that Carmen hopes her marriage will provide security and stability for herself and her daughter. But Vidal is sadistic and unfeeling, concerned only about the son he is sure Carmen is carrying. Moreover, with the rebels getting ready to launch an attack on his outpost, Vidal is quickly losing whatever vestiges of humanity remain within him and is becoming more beast than man in his brutality, something Carmen refuses to see but which Ofelia is acutely aware of.

Cut off from the world, her only ally the housekeeper Mercedes (who is secretly passing information to the rebels) Ofelia gains a chance at escape when, in a ruined labyrinth behind her new abode, she encounters a Faun, who tells her she is a long-lost princess from an underground kingdom that knows neither sickness nor pain. To return to it, she must complete three seemingly simple tasks before the next full moon ... but as Mercedes tells her, she must be wary of the Faun and what he is asking her to do ...

None of this does justice to the sheer wonder of Del Toro's vision. It is often violent (shockingly so - a man is stabbed in the face with a bottle within the first half-hour, the results of one of Vidal's torture sessions are graphically displayed and Vidal himself suffers terrible injuries at the hands of Mercedes) dark, bloody, brutal and yet wildly imaginative. My absolute favourite moment is when Ofelia comes face to face with the Pale Man - a horrific being worthy of Goya and Bosch. Be warned, this inspires genuine fear! Nor does it sum up the many themes embodied within the work ... but suffice it to say, watch this, no matter how dark or scary. Your imagination will be the richer for it.

Flight of the Phoenix

Not bad ... problem is, there's not enough good in there either
On the surface, the premise was simple but had a fair amount of promise: after a plane crash in the Mongolian desert, the survivors under the leadership of the pilot, Frank Towns, and an eccentric aircraft designer named Elliot band together to build a new plane from the wreckage and fly to safety. Naturally, the potential for character development here is considerable: just imagine the friendships that will be forged, the fights that will break out and the tensions between the small band who know it is a case of do or die. Add the harsh and unpredictable setting and you have the makings of a very absorbing picture.

So why isn't it? >Sigh< Well, the film appears to suffer from what I term "Super Supporting Actor Syndrome" where the lead character is effortlessly upstaged by the supporting actors. Dennis Quaid's action credentials are impeccable, and he's no acting slouch but in this film as Frank, the leader of the survivors, he's so much a card-board cutout it isn't even funny. Flint eyed glare? Check. Inspirational speech when things are at their bleakest? Check. Macho restraint? Check. Square-jawed... you get the idea. Plus having witnessed Miranda Otto's dazzling turns in Lord of the Rings, I was left cursing a script that gave her virtually nothing to do as the token woman except stare adoringly at Frank for much of the film.

Okay, now I've got all that negative stuff off my chest, on to the film's redeeming factors: the supporting cast are far more interesting and acted with far more depth, though most characters remain underwritten (Hugh Laurie, currently conquering the small screen in "House" is criminally underused, though as good as ever). I thought the fiery Rodney and the rather creepy Elliot were the standouts, though they all do decently. Plus there are some genuinely jumpy moments: the lightning storm, oil explosion and a deadly encounter with some native tribesman being the notable ones. And Elliot grows ever more ruthless as the film progresses - the moment where he shoots a wounded tribesman in the head in cold blood is perhaps the most shocking moment in the film. Plus it seems he might have lied about being an aircraft designer ...

But I'm afraid that in the end a few good characters and a few good moments do not necessarily make a good film. Diverting enough to be worth a watch if you catch it on TV, but don't spend your hard-earned cash on it.

The Faculty

A guilty pleasure of a B-movie ...
Okay, it's obvious from the opening shot that this film isn't going to win any Academy Awards - the script is corny, the characters oh-so-stereotypical (particularly the students on whom the film focuses) and the dialogue veers between quite sharp and rather clunky, but this is still a fun, entertaining romp with some unexpected twists and plenty of excitement and even the odd dash of wit.

Life at Herrington High is tough for both the teaching faculty (under-funded and under-appreciated) and the students - unless of course you're a cheerleader or member of the football team. At the top of the pecking order come star quarterback Stan (Shawn Hatosy) and his girlfriend Delilah (Jordana Brewster), head cheerleader and school newspaper editor. At the bottom is bullied geek Casey (Elijah Wood, before he became Lord of the Rings) and somewhere round the edges come school drug dealer Zeke (Josh Hartnett) mean and moody Goth Stokely (Clea DuVall) and new girl Marybeth Louise Hutchinson (Laura Harris). Marybeth's arrival coincides with Casey's discovery of what might be a new species of animal out on the football pitch and the very odd behaviour of several teaching staff, and it isn't long before Casey and company begin suspecting alien involvement ...

The film takes a little while to get going, but once it does the thrills come thick and fast. Sadly the alien-possessed faculty get comparatively little screen time which would seem a waste of some true talent (including Salma Hayek and Famke Jassen) and only Robert Patrick gets a chance to ham it up as the sinister football coach (and does so in fine style). The characterisation amongst the teens is as aforementioned stereotypical, but everyone does their best - although Hartnett proves woefully inadequate as a bad boy and comes across more as someone pretending to be a bad boy. Elijah Wood is the only real standout, giving a glimpse of future star power, as he turns from shy victim to a guy who takes on an alien army single-handed over the course of the film (as well as pulling off some potentially terrible lines) - although I was left wistfully wondering what Clea DuVall might have done with a more fleshed-out role.

Long story short: a fun way to pass an evening without having to think too much. You could do much worse ...

Sleepy Hollow

80 % Wonderful ...
Released well before Johnny Depp's star exploded in the form of Captain Jack Sparrow, this is nonetheless a well-crafted, superbly entertaining piece of film. Set in a spooky, beautiful Gothic fairy-land, the plot follows 18th Century New York detective Ichabod Crane (a man whose beliefs are rooted firmly in science) attempting to solve a very supernatural mystery in the small village of Sleepy Hollow. Surrounded by local conspirators and aided by a fearless local girl, Katrina Van Tassel, and a plucky servant boy (known to all as young Masbeth) Ichabod sets himself against the town, its elders, and an utterly terrifying foe in the form of a headless (and very dead) horseman.

Depp's rising star is much in evidence as he portrays the bright, well-meaning, eccentric, scared witless but ultimately heroic Crane, with only slightly more restraint than he's brought to the likes of Willy Wonka or Edward Scissorhands. A variety of good actors and actress flesh out neatly sketched supporting characters, and there's a truly ace mystery to be solved within the film. The set pieces are stunning, the action fantastic (though very very gory) - so why the 80% rating? Plot and dialogue, sadly. The 18th century speech is often cardboard in its stiffness, and only Depp manages to liven it up. And as aforementioned, despite the excellently plotted mystery, the storyline is cluttered up with a complex (but totally unnecessary) back-story for Crane that rather detracts rather than adds to the essence of the film's major goings-on.

These criticisms aside however, this is a great film and a fine way to distract yourself on a dark evening ... leaving the light on, of course.


I first encountered this great series a short while back when babysitting, and can only regret that it wasn't around when I was at school! Sharper, wittier and more acerbic than standard Disney fare, it still packs a healthy dose of Disney morals and lessons into each episode without being overwhelmed by them, thank heavens.

The idea is simplicity itself: a group of tight-knit ten-year-old friends battle to overcome problems and enemies (often in the shape of an authority figure!) within the confines of school, the playground, the odd field trip and of course, the daily doses of Recess. The fun, however, lies in the outrageous situations that spring up, the even crazier solutions, and the delightfully extreme characters that populate the school.

At the centre of it all is the gang of six: the leader T.J (a sort of pre-teen Fonzie) who always has a plan (or six) and enough moral fibre for the whole playground, hot-tempered, feisty Spinelli, Gretchen, the smartest girl in school (and possibly the nation) gentle giant Mikey, ultra-cool sports fanatic Vince, and pint-sized, fearful Gus. Together they take on dilemmas ranging from bullying and what to do about it, to unfair teachers, playground fads and classroom snitches (not to mention the savage kindergärtners!) Characterisation as aforementioned is delightfully extreme - kudos to whoever came up with Gretchen and Spinelli in particular! Gus is a constant source of humour - Vince and Mikey are solid support, but T.J, who combines the wisdom of Huckleberry Finn and the coolness of the Fonz, along with a mischievous streak that would do Bart Simpson proud is a continual stroke of genius. 10/10!

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Like being ten years old again
Wonderful way to spend an evening! I had my doubts going into the cinema (the early trailers reminded me more of a Series of Unfortunate Events than Narnia) but any fears I had proved unfounded. Although not a flawless work, it is an extremely well-crafted, entertaining one. The film opens amidst the London Blitz of WWII, which results in the Pevensie children (Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy) being evacuated to the countryside for safety (there's a compelling moment at the London station as Peter gazes at a soldier who's only a couple of years older than he is) where of course, the whole story kicks into high gear.

The early scenes, though necessary, are a touch slow (apart from one literally explosive bombing raid at the start) and are used mainly to serve as our introduction to the children. However, once the wardrobe is discovered, the magic moments come thick and fast - particular favourites are Lucy's first visit and meeting with Mr. Tumnus the faun, the appearance of Father Christmas, the charming Beavers, the whole waterfall sequence, and of course Aslan (a triumph of CGI - I swear you'll be dying to stroke him) and the climactic battle at the end of the story.

There are some genuinely dark moments amidst all this, balanced out by some wonderful humour from the talking animals. The negative aspects are few and far between - the ending felt a bit rushed, and the characterisation of the children was a bit overdone; half-way through the film you'll probably feel like saying "yes, Peter doubts himself but is ultimately a hero, Susan's the bossy one, Edmund the sulky one, we get it already!" But these are minor gripes when the entire spectacle can produce the wide-eyed wonder you'd thought you'd left behind with childhood - particular acting kudos goes to a deliciously malicious Tilda Swinton as Jadis the White Witch, Liam Neeson as Aslan, and Georgie Henley who makes a wonderfully appealing, brave Lucy. A wonderful Christmas treat for kids and grown-ups who still tap the back of the wardrobe ... just in case.

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