screenman

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Jigsaw
(1962)

Dixon-by-the-Sea
It's Jack Warner, in yet another copper's outing. But Dixon has advanced to detective in his old age...

I had never seen nor even heard of this movie until I stumbled upon it for free on YouTube. Apart from a short and slightly incongruous beginning in which the victim is seen alive shortly before her murder, the rest of the movie hammers away relentlessly. There's no blood and gore, we are left to infer things from the characters' expressions. A retiring detective (Warner) is given the task of solving the crime, and so begins a detailed and entirely believable fly-on-the-wall police procedural. Brighton has a gloomy 'Brighton Rock' feel to it as clues unfold and dead-ends are encountered. It's an excellent view of the early 1960's, with proper coppers, nice old period cars and social mannerisms. The plot is tight and convoluted and involves locations as far afield as Greenwich. Apart from the early digression, this movie is a most absorbing watch despite its vintage and sometimes slightly vignetted appearance. Everyone gives a believable turn and technical issues are all up to snuff. Better than many much later offerings. Get on YouTube and have look...

Dunkirk
(2017)

So - Where's Dunkirk?
For grey-haired Brexiteers like me, weaned upon a diet of 1950's British stiff-upper-lipped-ness (BSULN), a modern movie re-kindling that - now long lost - spirit was surely a must-see. I hadn't been to the cinema in donkeys' years; put off not so much by modern movies (which are bad enough) but by audiences of ignorant huge-headed bag-crackling crisp-crunching gas-bags who came to ruin the whole experience. And with a comfy chair, big HD telly and unlimited Stella, it would take something special to prise me off the cushions and fork out over £13(!).

Well, if any word might do it; "Dunkirk" might. If ever a word conjures up notions of legendary BSULN - Dunkirk is that conjurer's word.

I have a DVD of the much cherished 1950's version featuring those grandees of wartime spunk, John Mills and Dickie Attenborough, not to mention a reassuring dollop of Bernard Lee. It's an excellent work from start to finish. Every aspect of the great debacle and culminating "miracle" is included and carefully edited into a coherent story, from home-grown civilian cynicism about the "phoney" war, the collapsing French defence, discussions at High-Command, desperate British regrouping, French refugees, mountains of abandoned logistics, slaughter on the beaches and final deliverance. It ain't no masterpiece, but it's a very coherent, sterling work of typically understated performances, representing people with sufficient depth that you can care about them and their fate; all re-created by character actors who actually experienced both the war and the times.

Cut to yesterday. This modern take on the great event is shallow in the extreme. Oh-sure; the combat scenes are visceral enough with sound levels fit to cause tinnitus, but coherent story telling? believable characters? An overview of the great historical event? Forget it! Considering the makers of this movie had almost unlimited funds and CGI, this should've resembled a Cecil B Demille epic. There were supposed to be over 350,000 allied soldiers trapped in Dunkirk! I swear I've seen more people in Tesco's at Christmas than are depicted here. The beaches seem practically empty. And those people to whom we are introduced appear two-dimensional, like cardboard cut-outs.

The "collapse" is depicted by about half a dozen British Tommies walking negligently through suburbs, evidently unaware of the war, only to be mown down. One survives and encounters the French rear-guard. That's it. Time for a crap on the dunes. They're deserted, so what the hell? After that, there's a series of small set-piece conflicts drawn progressively together by the choppiest editing I've ever witnessed. All the characters are two-dimensional and unexplained. There's no back-fill story at all. A quite disproportionate amount of time is spent aloft with the RAF. Three whole Spitfires are presented almost reverentially, as if they alone turned the military tide. They skirmish with bombers and fighters, shooting down all they encounter with one quick burst of gunfire. The last one, running out of fuel, gracefully lands on the beaches of Dunkirk, in mellow westering sunlight, as the strains of Nimrod from Elgar's Enigma Variations grind away at half speed. It's frankly mythologising of the most juvenile kind. I almost laughed. (And incidentally; that Spitfire was travelling northeast along the Belgian coast, so the sun would have to be setting in the opposite direction!)

If you're a millennial - the sort who wanders vacantly about the streets gaping into the screen of a mobile phone; someone with no more depth of character than those depicted here; raised upon revisionary history and brain-washed into being a bien pensant of the glorious European Union, this movie will seem as authentic as your friends on Facebook. But if you're of an earlier generation; you might want to watch the 1950's version at home, on the big telly, with the unlimited Stella. It's better in every way.

The Last Man on Planet Earth
(1999)

Males Not Included.
I found this to be a very engaging movie, premising a scenario in which men are practically driven into extinction by a genetically-engineered disease. Females have become sufficiently paranoid about men that their reintroduction is prohibited on the basis that they are the cause of all violence. Now, all children can be - and are - produced artificially, with a predetermined female gender. There is no domestic violence, no rape, no discrimination, no religion-induced misogyny. It's a daring concept and one likely to inflame a host of simmering sexual prejudices - more especially amongst males, I think (of which I am one).

Into this world, a female scientist has illegally created an artificial male, genetically engineered to be nice. His reception is mixed.

The movie touches upon the aforementioned prejudices about gender with a light hand, never becoming too seriously involved with 'issues' and just lets the story run its course. The bitterness of criticism in most of the commentaries is, I suspect, a measure of which those prejudices are inflamed. In that respect, it does its job, and deserves a wider audience.

All sensible people know that violence is not something inherently entailed in maleness - as Darwin made clear nearly 150years ago. Yet the delusion continues to be propagated; as recently as the mid-1990's two (male) naturalists co-wrote a book called "Demonic Males" which attempted to be scientific, but was simply an advocacy that was quite preposterous in its misuse and misinterpretation of evidence.

All technical issues are adequate; nothing stands out except the slightly audacious idea, which clearly arouses passions.

Great Guy
(1936)

Sturdy Little Tween-wars Drama.
Nothing dilutes Cagney's tough-guy persona, even this little B-movie lets him shine.

He's a civil-servant with punch (literally) working on the front line to enforce weights & measures rules when it seems just about every other retailer is ripping the public off. We see some interesting little dodges as regards to lead weights placed in chickens (they're already dead!) rigged scales, petrol pumps & so on. It was a crooked world in 1930's America - or so it would appear. Basically he's scrupulously honest, won't take bribes, goes after everybody big and small; a sort of Elliot Ness of fair trade. Needless to say; he rubs a lot of people up the wrong way. It's a short movie at just 66mins, so the plot is inevitably shallow and the corruption sanitised with some slap-stick humour.

Despite its age, it kept me watching. Being short, the plot moved at a quick pace. It's B/W, with all of the faults you might expect from an old un-restored print of this age, but it's clear enough in both sound & vision not to detract from enjoyment. My copy came as a 3-movie tough-guy offering on a single DVD, 4x3 format and PG rating.

Stalag 17
(1953)

A Decent Watch
William Holden won an Oscar as JJ Sefton, the amoral prison-camp spiv who hustles his fellow internees out of their food parcels and cigarettes in order to trade with the Germans for better privileges. His success at both makes him an unpopular character. So; when a traitor is suspected, he is number one on the list.

Of course; we all know that's far too obvious. Sefton may be a heal but he's no rat.

Wilder's work is one of a number of wartime comedies, but perhaps because of its vintage it hasn't aged quite so well. Some of the comedy comes too close to farce and seems at odds with the Germans' readiness to shoot escapees. Most of the gags are in the first half, after that it drifts towards a who-dunnit. Sefton sets out to discover the spy after he is beaten-up and his possessions indiscriminately plundered.

There's no great shakes. Almost all of the characters are stereotypic. Some of the conflicts appear contrived. I really enjoyed it when I first saw it as a kid half a century ago, now I'm less inclined. And I'm no longer a fan of ongoing narrative in a movie. It's okay for an intro, but after that the characters and plot should speak for themselves. The viewer shouldn't need additional prompts.

Still well worth a watch if you get the chance and haven't seen it before, but it's certainly no classic. Holden is very good, yet it's hard to believe that his performance was the best of the movies for 1953.

They Were Expendable
(1945)

Quite a Good Movie, Really.
Big John Wayne gets second-billing to Robert Montgomery in this early stage of his career. There's no particularly dominant theme other than that things are going pear-shaped.

It's life in the Pacific theatre during WW2. American forces are going about their jobs and facing the apparently unstoppable juggernaut of Imperial Japan after it more-or-less rolled-up the British like a cheap carpet. Now it's the Yanks turn. This is not a full in-yer-face set-piece war movie, but rather about the gradual disintegration of mounting reversals largely out of view, and how they impact upon people at a local level. It's very personal. Relationships feature as much as conflict. The vagaries of war are brought into sudden and sharp focus by local attacks and the immediacy of death. Retreat becomes fractious and confused. Not everyone is gonna get away.

Most of the action turns around a squad of American PT boats. And here the movie excels in its depiction of these splendid vessels powering through the seas. There's some really nice sequences and it's well worth a watch for PT boat fans. We get to see "I shall return" General McArthur doing a runner with surprising egg-suck frankness, considering how America never liked to advertise its military failures.

Acting is believable by all concerned. Editing & other technical issues are all of the standard that gave John Ford his reputation. It's a long movie at over 130mins, but seldom drags on account of its good mix of action and story. Filmed in B&W.

I'm surprised this work doesn't feature more highly in popularity lists. It's got a helluva lot going for it in an understated, almost British-like stiff-upper-lip way.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
(1958)

Par Excelllence
They don't make 'em like they used to. I know, I know; that's a hoary old cliché. But it's also true.

This is a movie about disaffected relationships and the deceits employed to sustain them. Newman is at his disaffected best and I think you can see where the inspiration for 'Cool Hand Luke' derived. Each opens with the antics of a drunken misfit who goes on to denounce every expectation levied upon him. Taylor is at the height of both her physical and acting prowess, securing her second Oscar as his wife Maggie. But Burl Ives almost upstages the pair with a demonstration of pompous vulnerability that is mesmerizing to see. Jack Carson is the weak, obedient and slightly less believable elder brother, whilst Madeleine Sherwood plays the in-law from hell.

For just over 100mins, these stricken characters hold the viewers' attention rigid as the deep-seated psychological and emotional issues that have brought there relationships to such a pass are gradually laid bare. Every second of conflict is a micro-drama in itself. Towards the end, I found all the reconciliating a reconciliation too far. I've never seen anything worked out quite so completely in real life. Yet it provides a comfortable conclusion and the cast still endue them with a sense of fidelity.

If anybody wonders why I no longer bother with most modern movies and their two-dimensional acting in 3D, propped-up by a shed-load of boring pyrotechnics and seen-them-all-before special effects. Here's as good a reason as any. Colours are still vibrant, sets on the money, no technical issue gave the game away.

I'll back one hour of this against ten hours of Hobbits, Dark Knights or whatever other fantastical tosh any time. Story is something that happens to people we can care about, and I cared about all these characters by the end.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail
(1975)

Not Half So Funny As Some Appear To Think
By the time of this movie's release, the Python team had already passed from being new and experimental, and into mainstream comedy. But in doing so, they re-defined humour for a whole generation.

Therefore, one might have expected this production to have been a little more polished than it is, even allowing for the spontaneous anarchy that was part of their style. However, this is not the case. At times it seems quite sloppy, and indeed rather boring.

I can recollect, in my youth, finding many things to laugh at when I first saw this production nearly 40 years ago. It had the great Python team going like stokers and lots of silly and surreal moments. Today, with my older, and perhaps drier, humour; things seem very different. I recently purchased (second-hand) the double-DVD special edition, and wanted desperately to rekindle that original spark, if only for 'old time's sake'. Sadly; it just wasn't there.

Occasional smirk-worthy moments could still be found - like the time when Arthur inadvertently 'oppresses' an opinionated surf, or the knight who never accepts defeat even when his limbs have been hacked off - but for the most part it seems pretty lame. Such is the resonance of 'Python' humour, even worldwide, that I found myself making-up excuses for its lack of appeal. For many, Monty Python has itself become the Holy Grail of comedy. Well, it isn't. And this work has more the amateurish appearance of a hastily cobbled together piece of footlights hokum. Something to engage the smug self-righteousness of drunken under-graduates.

Many things the Monty Python team created have indeed become standard-bearers of comedy greatness. But not everything was good. Objective and critical scrutiny must admit that some of their stuff could be pretty lousy. That's inevitable. The later, much more polished, 'Life Of Brian' was not only ground-breaking in its assault upon flatulent institutions, it's still downright funny, and remains an insightful analysis of human foibles.

'Brian' has stood the test of time, but 'The Holy Grail' is no more than what it represents itself to be - a failed search.

88 Minutes
(2007)

Starring Al Pacino. And That's All
I'll go with most other commentators here. This was one of those tiresome formulaic "crime thrillers" without any thrills. We've seen it all before; a flawed hero with past 'issues', a wily super-criminal pulling strings from his cell. Authorities turning against their man, he left to resolve things on his own, and a confidante who turns out to be in league with the villain. Finally; there's a tightrope ending with a clumsy denouement.

This movie is a no-brainer. It could've been made for TV: the muzak soundscore, cut-and-shut editing, fag-packet script; it's brought to life exclusively by Pacino's fascinating screen presence, and nothing else. Pacino has reached that 'certain age'. His hair has begun to grow darker rather than greyer. And like a lot of superannuated actors before him: Burt Lancaster, Chas Heston et al; he's too old for action but too young to quit. And so he finds work in an increasingly mediocre series of pot-boilers.

Al - it's time to think. You're too old for action but you're too good for this. It's time to get selective. And don't worry about going grey!

If you're an Al P. fan; this is worth a watch for that reason - and that reason only. Otherwise it's a slug.

Batman Begins
(2005)

Batman Bores
I caught this offering on a freeview channel. And at first I began to wonder if the listings had got screwed-up. Where was Batman? For a seemingly indefinite time, somebody - I suppose it was Bruce Wayne - was faffing about in what I think were the Himalayas. They were mountains anyway. There was a bald-headed monk with a self-satisfied gaze like a hang-over from Quai Chang Kane's adventures, and Wayne getting the crap kicked out of him frequently. Here, I gather, was supposed to be the 'why he became Batman' expose, but the whole boring and verbose pantomime went on for so long that this little grasshopper dozed-off before he could grasp the pebble.

I've awarded 3 ex-gratia stars for whatever I missed because so many people rave about this movie. But judged by the 20 minutes or so of what I did watch I'd offer no stars at all as it couldn't even sustain my attention enough to keep conscious.

I would suggest aspiring viewers fast-forward to about halfway through. Presumably it livens-up a bit.

Lawrence of Arabia
(1962)

Beyond Superlatives
If ever a movie earned the definition 'epic', then 'Lawrence Of Arabia' is it. In an age when sumptuous set-pieces can be effortlessly conjured-up by computer programmers, this truly authentic feast of cinematic vision still possesses the power to blow your mind. This is the real thing. The wide-sweeping vistas of desert wilderness are not special-effects; they are REAL. And they look real. Long views, sweeping pans and takes sustained over minutes are realised with a clarity, colour and vividness that absolutely melt your heart. That imagery is a more believable conduit to this complex man's evolving obsession with Arabia than the narrative itself.

Every scene is a breathtaking study in light and colour, character and dialogue. Every second is worth seeing and every word worth hearing. And its theme music is as iconic as the man himself.

The inimitable Peter O'Toole with his blonde hair, steely-blue eyes, haunting expressions and mood swings, commands your attention in every take. His Lawrence is a man swallowed up by a personal sense of destiny, striding between his cynical and prosaic taskmasters and a doomed belief in what might be achieved with superhuman effort. Omar Sharif never played a better role as foil to his capricious hero. Unusually, there are no leading ladies. And they're certainly not needed. A love interest would have cheapened the entire presentation. Here is a story about the romance of time and place. As that other great Arabian traveller and admirer of the ideal - Wilfred Thessiger - once remarked; "women spoil everything".

This is a long movie. Those with short attention-spans raised upon sausage-machine editing are doomed to find it dull, tedious, boring, slow and all of the other criticisms that fall from the lips of a generation accustomed to x-box action sequencing. But if you are blessed with a longer vintage, then Lean's masterpiece will swallow you up as surely as the desert itself.

Dawn of the Dead
(2004)

Yet More Zombies!
By now (2012) I've grown pretty weary of flesh-eating zombie types. They've become a whole genre to themselves. From the endless 'Resident Evil' to Big-Ears' 'I am Legend' on to the no less eternal 'Walking Dead' TV serial-thon. Why do they have to eat flesh all the time anyway? It's clear that they don't actually need it because they can go for weeks without so much as a nibble. Why can't they have a positive fixation like painting & decorating or flower arrangement?

Well, this 2004 remake takes Romero's original and gives the cadaverous ones an Olympian turn of speed. The result is much more dramatic. Chases are truly hectic and confrontations are more in keeping with werewolves or Aliens.

The movie takes a pretty dystopian view about the consequences of social breakdown. There's very little heroic stiff-upper-lip stuff and a lot more looking out for number one. Against such dire consequences, it's probably much nearer the mark. It's one thing to go to the guillotine for someone, but quite another to be eaten alive or changed into one of them yourself. Methinks Sidney Carton would take a raincheck here.

Most of the takes are pretty solidly put together. Looks like the directors hired a genuine shopping-mall for the weekend. There's lots of believable conflict between the survivors and plenty of extremely tense action sequences when zombies turn up, fast, furious and very ravenous. Editing is sharp and well observed. Lighting & sound do the business. There's no happy ending.

Character development is more detailed than the usual slash & gnash offerings. Most of the dumb things people do are plausible, even though I often found myself saying 'oh-no; you don't want to do that' or 'why don't you try this?' At least I was drawn into their dilemma. But having said as much; I wasn't particularly inclined to empathise with any of them either, which left the story with a shallow texture.

Altogether it's a decent watch. Certainly I would recommend a viewing. It's at the top end of the zombie market, for what that's worth.

Avatar
(2009)

Aliens Never Poop
Anyone else notice that? They can rip your head of, hatch out inside you, devour humanity alive, spray the ground with our blood, destroy our planet, serenade us on mountain-tops and even get drunk and phone-home - but they never take a dump. Not ever. America's diffidence to toiletary frankness is a comedy in itself. Hollywood's directors should watch more 'Carry On-' movies.

Here we have director King Cameron once more. And if 'Avatar' leaves you with deja-vu moments, that's because it resembles just about every other sci-fi movie there's ever been. And Cameron should know. His 'Aliens' was such a blatant rip-off of the 1950's bug-fest 'Them' as to justify the accusation of plagiarism. Originality is definitely not his strong suit.

There's trouble on another planet. Some ruthless corporation is mining its assets and the locals are getting a raw deal. An agent is sent to infiltrate them in disguise. If you've seen 'Total Recall'; you already know the plot.

Cue the special effects. There's big, CGI flying creatures that smack of 'Dumbo', but lack his grace. There's a psychotic military-type intent on blowing the other-worldly ones to hell, just like (Cameron's) 'Abyss'. There are propeller-driven hovering/flying machines straight from (Cameron's) 'Terminator 2'. There's big walking robots with men inside straight from ('Cameron's) 'Aliens'. Crikey - even Ripley - er..I mean Sigourney Weaver pops up! There's mass battles in the woodland like the Empire versus the Ewoks. And there's more than a hint of 'The Emerald Forest' in which corporate greed has precedent over environmental degradation.

But where's STORY? In other words: something happening to somebody I care about. Sadly; it's nowhere. Even the humans are as two-dimensional as the CGI creatures. This might have been filmed in 3-D, but the plot was as 2-D as ever.

A lot of thought went into special-effects. And 'if you like that, your're gonna love this' (that's from 'Aliens'). But no thought whatsoever went into zoological or botanical rationale. And Darwin didn't get a look-in. Where was the the bio-diversity? I think I spotted 6 different species in the whole forest.

The trouble with cinema is that in order to maximise bums on seats, movies need to appeal to kids as well as adults. The result is that they are often excessively violent for children, but too crass for adults. They're over-simplistic in their evaluation of life.

I didn't watch this in much-vaunted 3-D, so maybe I missed something (like a headache). But what I saw was a very elaborate montage of just about every other sci-fi movie there's ever been and then some. And the earlier ones were better because they were original, even if their effects were not so grandiose. And they weren't always dumbed-down to satisfy juvenile appetites.

If Cameron really wanted to be earth-shattering, all he had to do was break the ultimate Hollywood taboo and show us an alien taking a dump. I'd have applauded that even in black & white!

Taxi Driver
(1976)

Creeping Madness
A comparatively youthful Robert DeNiro plays lead in the role that might be said to have 'made' him.

He is Travis Bickle, a former Vietnam marine turned misfit. Unable to sleep, he resorts to nocturnal taxi-driving in New York. As a character in decline, he is almost a classic example and maybe even voice for all of those similar loners who gradually lapse into psychosis, only to impact upon public consciousness when they decide to correct what's wrong in the world instead of what's wrong in their heads.

Bickle has all of the symptoms. He lives in squalor, he's obsessed with physical fitness, he's a gun-freak, he can't make it with women, and all he sees is depravity. But he has a Walter Mitty complex, with preposterous fantasies about himself and some personal destiny for which fate is grooming him. A week never seems to pass when we don't read about just such a case in the papers, with all of the tragic consequences.

Much of the movie is inevitably filmed at night with harsh contrasts of darkness and artificial illumination. People and places are imperfectly seen. Sometimes just a flash of expression or a vignette of drama is all we glimpse and must infer the rest, even as Travis Bickle does. Scorsese has worked hard to present nocturnal New York as a sort of hell-on-earth, a breeding-ground for anger, resentment, disappointment and distempered fantasy. Though it's really no different from most major cities today.

Like so many people of his stamp, Bickle accumulates an arsenal of guns. At one point, whilst shopping, he interrupts a robbery and shoots - perhaps fatally - the young black culprit. We never know. He departs leaving the furious shop-keeper beating the prostrate robber's body with a baseball bat.

At last, in an attempt to 'be somebody' he attempts to rescue a young whore. In the course of it he takes his arsenal and enters the tenement brothel. Without ceremony he begins shooting. It's violent and bloody.

But Scorsese clumsily attempts to rescue the fat from the fire. Towards the end, we see a series of newspaper cuttings in which the media have depicted Bickle as some 'hero', engaged in a shoot-out with mobsters. Finally, we encounter him in his cab once more, seemingly balanced and peaceable. It's a highly implausible caricature. The media have often shown themselves to be very quick at pre-judging heroes and villains, but truth eventually comes out. The police could hardly have failed to determine from his handprints on the discarded (and unlicensed) firearms as well as the various holsters and knife-sheath on his person, that they were dealing with a vigilante. The young hooker may have spoken in his favour, but the evidence would've made it pretty clear that he went to the premises tooled-up for serious trouble. As the girl was still a minor, he could and should have just called the police.

It's still a very engaging analysis of an outsider on the skids even so.

Hell Boats
(1970)

Unmemorable
It's not a good sign to see a former manager of the 'Crossroads' motel running any British WW2 enterprise in Malta.

This movie began with a naval clash in the English Channel. British MTB's pitted against German E-boats. The latter both more heavily armed and armoured. Unfortunately, someone forgot to take the lens cap off or used the wrong aperture-setting, as practically nothing could be observed. Later, we encounter an American commander who has somehow got into the Royal Navy on account of having a British mum. So even here, we depend upon the Yanks. He's given a certain-death mission to do in Malta.

To the maker's credit, filming does actually take place in Malta. There's some nice location choices and the colours of the Med are beautifully captured. Sadly; that's about it. Most of the movie entails conflicts of a more human kind. There's a failing marriage and we squander a disproportionate amount of time over the agonising and recriminations. The plot's a bit silly - '633 Squadron' on water (only sillier). The script is formulaic, the acting wooden. As to the 'Hell-Boats'; blink and you'll miss 'em.

A great opportunity to show these versatile little warships powering through the waves and generally blazing a trail was completely missed. If we'd spent half as much time seeing them smashing through white-caps as we spent with the commander's philandering missus, it might've been worth an extra star or two. But even then, the daft plot, mediocre drama and soap-opera script would doom this to the unmemorable list.

Check out 'The Ship That Died Of Shame', John Wayne's 'They Were Expendable' or 'PT109'. This could've been just as good if not better, for no extra money but a bit more thought.

Open Water 2: Adrift
(2006)

Too Daft To Watch
I had the dubious good fortune to miss the beginning of this tripe on some freeview channel. I tuned-in to find a beautiful sloop-rigged yacht of about 60ft in length and worth at least a million dollars, with its entire crew in the water and no apparent means of getting back aboard. How such a preposterous scenario could develop was revealed by the fact that the entire cast of characters didn't appear to possess a single brain cell between them. Then what followed in the water was an equally implausible and contrived load of tosh, whereby one after the other they are winnowed down.

Movie-makers seem to be engaged in a kind of conspiracy against young people. Almost without exception anyone between the 18-28 age range is depicted as a selfish, egotistical, hedonistic, irrational sex-obsessed dimwit. How on earth do they gain university degrees and doctorates? STORY is about something happening to a person or persons who we have been moved to care about. So; characters have to appeal to us. They need to show some strength or virtue or other characteristic likely to make them endearing. If they're a load of tossers, you won't care a toss what happens to them - so there's no story. It's that simple.

I've given 2 stars for the smashing yacht. nothing else is worth the time of day.

Legends of the Fall
(1994)

The Dregs Of The Day
Anthony Hopkins does the repressed Englishman (and "American") so well that I find him a pleasure to watch. I have seen 'Remains of The Day' several times and find it absolutely riveting. Although set in the USA I was hoping for something similar from 'Legends'.

But, Oh-dear. I knew there was trouble from the outset. All those violins going full blast - this was going to be an emotional workout. But not in the understated minutely-observed Merchant Ivory style. Nope; this was Hollywood. Emotions must be in-yer-face.

And so it went. Towering chords of high-string excess, bursting over your eardrums like waves on a flat beach. Endless backdrops of rugged American wilderness - seemingly always filmed in a mellow sunlit evening, a solid all-American family of 3 strapping sons & their father, all pitted against the changing times and star-crossed destiny. And if that were not enough; an American-Indian voice-over, righteously moralising about life and family. After you with the peace-pipe.

But its early 20th century and the lads fancy a bit of adventure in it'll-all-be-over-by-Christmass's famous WW1 mudfest. You know what's coming; high-spirits turned to disillusionment. Adventure dissolved in slaughter. The recreation of WW1 conflict was the most unresearched piece of twaddle I've even seen. Its directors had evidently never explored the effects of mustard gas. The last episode of 'Blackadder Goes Forth' was streets ahead of this in accuracy, poignancy and hilarious too. After watching two Germans busily setting-up a machine gun to shoot just one bloke (a brother) trapped on barbed wire, instead of just popping him with a rifle, whilst another brother went dashing about the battlefield, ranting like a maniac, but apparently immune to gunfire - I gave it up.

The photography of the great American outdoors was splendid. But the rest? Frankly: garbage. Dunno how it ended, couldn't care less.

The Ruins
(2008)

Little Crop Of Horrors
Well - it's another teen horror movie, so leave your brain at home.

There's trouble with weeds. Ain't they a nuisance? They're just so-o-o persistent. Here, instead of checking into homicidal hostels, waxworks, or places inhabited by dream-demons and sundry psychopaths, our group of adolescent schmucks have wandered off into the jungle somewhere in central America. It's so dangerous being a teenager that I wonder any survive to keep our species up and running! And you just know this bunch are for the chop because there's pouting babes and macho guys. Hell; one of 'em's even wearing a baseball cap back to front, so you know his cards are marked from the start.

The titular 'Ruins' are a single Mayan pyramid affair that's got a lot of weeds growing on it. But the weeds are polite, because they've left a gap on the staircase for doomed schmucks to ascend. The ruins are also surrounded by an even bigger bunch of Latino rednecks who force our schmucks onto the monument and won't let them leave on pain of death. As they would. In doing so; the movie sets itself up as a blatant piece of racist crap. Basically; if you're a central-American redneck; you're only good for superstitious terror, irrational behaviour, and murder. And if you're a Yank abroad, you're victimised innocence. Yeah; right. It's the underlying psychology to the USA's foreign policy.

Up on top, there's been others. And it gradually becomes evident that the weeds have made a meal of them. So; you're either vegetable fodder or you get shot. And you can't afford to sleep or the plants will get you. Cue The Bodysnatchers. So now we spend some time going through all of the set-piece adolescent nonsense mixed with scenes of gratuitous horror and a whittling-down to one.

Questions like - Where do the weeds come from? Why do they only live on the ruin? Why don't the rednecks drain a few gallons of fuel from their trucks and burn them up? Why not pop into town and get a couple of gallons of Paraquat instead of murdering itinerant tourists? Well; these belong in the same bin as - Why did I bother watching this movie? In my case, the emphasis is on 'watching' because the script is so banal and predictable that I just muted the sound for the last third. That's the way with teen movies; they might as well be silent for all the script is worth.

It's said that the budget was just $8m, so I suppose in that regard it was at least value for money. But that's about the only thing that can be offered in its favour. I've heard it said also that adolescents actually think differently from the rest of the human race, and watching this movie is powerfully persuasive. Especially if they find it entertaining.

The moral of the story is: if you're going in the jungle keep a 'flit-gun' handy, and keep away from rednecks of any persuasion. Better still; if you're adolescent, don't be a pouting babe or a macho dude, always keep in the company of sensible grown-ups, and never, ever wear you baseball cap back to front. Avoid these vices and you may grow up to join the long-term unemployed. Blessings upon you.

Sleepy Hollow
(1999)

Engaging Black Comedy
Few other than Tim Burton could have realised such grand, brooding, black comedy as 'Sleepy Hollow'. It's filmed on a sumptuous scale and positively oozes Gothic terror.

This movie could be said to have 'made' Johnny Depp, who gives an excellent turn as the would-be Sherlock Holmes, a police detective dedicated to the logical evaluation of crime, only to be dispatched to the hamlet of Sleepy Hollow, where everything BUT logical crime prevails. There's a hint of 'Edward Scissorhands' in some of the style and characterisation, but Burton makes this movie unique in its own right. Filming is highly evocative. There's tremendous depth of focus in some takes, when the whole world seems to be minutely observed. At other times, night and mist are used to excellent effect. Under the phantom horseman's dire spell, the village is drained of colour, there's a damp, eerie sunless gloom even to the daylight. Architecture is imaginative, set-pieces highly detailed and well chosen. Close observation is rewarded, as indeed is repeat viewing; the makers having slipped all manner of sly details that may go unnoticed first time around.

I would have liked a slightly clearer development of the plot; there were moments when it seemed a bit haphazard. And the otherwise excellent theme and incidental music was occasionally too strident for my ears. But these are small enough whinges. The cast do a decent job with an adequate script. There are plenty of familiar faces, with Chris Walken as the phantom and Micheal Gambon as a conspirator.

This is how Hammer should have made their vampire, werewolf & Frankenstein movies, Though neither the imagination, creativity or budgets were available in those days.

Engaging, unique and well worth a watch, though lacking that essential WOW factor.

The Devil's Brigade
(1968)

Humdrum Stuff
This movie arrived in the year following 'The Dirty Dozen'. The latter focuses upon a small team of misfits, each one a recognised Hollywood actor representing a typical characteristic. Lee Marvin plays the officer-with-attitude who must lead them on a suicide mission. It's a laugh, but it's pretty formulaic.

The Devil's Brigade embarks upon a much more lavish production of what is basically the same idea. Many of the faces from 'The Dirty Dozen' reappear in this production, but there's a whole host of other blink-and-miss nobodies who are evidently inserted in the plot for the express purpose of dying dramatically.

It's a do-or-die mission, yawn. And as I say, it's on a more lavish scale. But it doesn't seem to have learnt anything from its earlier inspiration. 'Based on a True Story' is a common excuse for making a turkey, and there's a few feathers lying around here. It's hard to decide what actually distinguishes a good movie from a mediocre one. If the formula could be isolated, then they'd all be good. This one's distinctly mediocre. There's a decent cast starring William Holden. Sometimes, he can be really great - check him out in 'Sunset Boulevard' or 'The Bridge on the River Kwai' - but here he's pretty wooden and unsympathetic.

There's some great location choice, but camera-work is very unimaginative. The script certainly has nothing to recommend it. And the characters are all by-the-numbers. Plenty of pyrotechnics & slaughter, but the combat sequences are generally unexciting.

All in all, it's a flat, formulaic and largely unengaging movie. Can't recommend it myself, though it clearly has fans.

True Crime
(1999)

Weak & Formulaic
Directed & starring Clint Eastwood is usually a sign of decent entertainment, but not here. From start to finish, Eastwood takes us through a series of set-piece clichés that you'd think even he would have been bored with by now.

I'm so tired of the fallen-hero-propped-up-by-booze whilst being indulged by others on the basis of his past achievements that I think I could play the role myself. Eastwood doesn't miss a single crock in either the role or the plot.

It's a race against time to save some schmuck from execution. Our hero slowly begins to grasp that he may be innocent and the challenge to prove it begins to wean him from his vices. The ending is such contrived & silly nick-of-time nonsense as to be a complete anti-climax. There's no shocks, no surprises, no interesting script or conflicts, nor even imaginative use of camera.

If anything, this seems to be an advocacy against the use of capital punishment. The in-prison scenes in which the accused is permitted family visits from his tearful wife and doting little daughter are almost nauseously self-indulgent, and resemble the sort of mawkish schmaltz more typical of Spielberg. Eastwood is of course free in matters of conscience, but I reserve the right to decide for myself. If he means to use a 'thriller' as a morality vehicle, I for one reserve the right to both reject and resent his presumption. The fact that a death sentence brings tragedy to the murderer's family is a matter for the murderer, not the state. This individual may have been innocent, but the vast majority who are executed get what they deserve - in my opinion.

Even beside this gripe, it's very inferior work by any standard, never mind Eastwood's, more like a matinée made-for-TV piece.

Jeepers Creepers 2
(2003)

Dismal Pot-Boiler
It's taking a leap of faith to judge 'teen' horror movies by the same criteria that one would apply to adult fare. This genre were - and still are - aimed at an adolescent audience, more to solicit hugs and gropes at drive-ins or the back rows of cinemas than anything else. You're not supposed to follow the plot, but use the shocks as an excuse for greater intimacy.

Bearing this caveat in mind, I thought the first movie began quite plausibly. And despite a blatant blag from Big Stevie's 'Duel' - re: the ugly, honking truck coming up from behind - it began to develop pretty well until abruptly falling off the edge about halfway through. Sadly; this sequel takes a plunge scarcely before the credits have ceased to roll.

Beginning with a tiresomely drawn-out corn-field sequence, in which this bogeyman pretends to be a scarecrow before flying off with the farmer's boy, we move on to a whole school-bus full of teens, singing a team song as they drive along. There's even a sprinkling of suitably-pouting cheer-leaders thrown in for good measure. Adults are limited to a 'coach' and a driver. Both the latter are quickly dispatched to clear the way for a celebration of juvenile stupidity.

That's about it really. The core of the movie entails interaction between the brats & the bogey. Punctures bring the vehicle to a halt. Wouldn't yer just know it - the radio don't work. Neither do mobile phones. Amazing. So, there's no help. Right. The 'shocks' are so predictable that they could be prefaced by a scripted blank like those old silent movies. The team bicker & fight, the babes scream a lot. Being young & macho; issues of sexual-orientation appear more pertinent than death by disembowelment. One after another, they're taken. In the absence of prior knowledge or some convenient cranky old know-it-all, one of the babes has a cognitive dream that conveniently allows her to explain everything and fill in the plot narrative. Meantime this Wes Craven would-be glowers & postures and snatches in a way that hints of 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang's Child-Stealer. Dunno how it ends; I couldn't be arsed to see it through.

Adolescents will doubtless get up to all sorts of sexual improprieties during its screening, but more mature in pursuit of a cerebral scare-fest will need to look elsewhere.

Journey to the Center of the Earth
(2008)

And It Should Have Stayed There
A boring bloke and a couple of tiresome kids plummet harmlessly to the centre of the Earth, taking nothing with them but a third-rate script, hammy acting, inferior special-effects and a pocket-full of clichés. That's it.

The original 1950's version starring James Mason certainly had its faults. Not the least of them was Pat Boon's crooning. But with Mason and his iconic voice piling on more gravitas than Brendan Fraser could muster at gun-point, a truly bad baddie (he ate the pet duck raw!), a sly and witty script - especially the gender sparring between Mason and the heroine, and prehistoric animals that set the standard right up until 'Jurassic Park', there was much to admire.

This remake demonstrates yet again that lack of good story can never be redeemed by a surfeit of special-effects, especially when they're sub-Jurassic Park. Even when Uncle Stevie's T-Rex is wheeled-in to prop up the enfeebled thrills, you're simply left with a sense of de-ja-vu. Especially with the 'Indiana Jones' underground railway sequence.

It's the old grumble: STORY is something that happens to someone you've been moved to care about. I just couldn't give a hoot about these three chuckleheads. So story fell at the first fence and nothing the backroom boys could whistle-up on their computers could either remedy or redeem it.

Perhaps it should have been one of those surreal computer-games where Sonic or Mario encounter increasingly preposterous obstacles & hazards.

Little Shop of Horrors
(1986)

Disappointing adaptation
I first saw this work on stage in - I think - 1983 at the Comedy Theatre in London. It was a surprisingly neglected production and I had no trouble blagging an excellent seat. I thoroughly enjoyed it despite the economy of scale imposed by a stage. Don't recollect who was in it.

This movie dates from about 3 years later. It's cast includes the (then)cream of American screen comedy. You could go Ghostbusting and still have something to spare. Which means that production budgets must have been way beyond those of a minor London theatre. Yet the movie left me largely unimpressed. The progressively-engrossing monster plant was much more spectacular on stage. And as everything had to be confined within the remit of a few metres; there was no divergence or excess. As I recollect, the voracious vegetable ate everyone but the chorus-girls in the end.

TLSH started out as a theatrical piece, and maybe that's where it belonged. The limits imposed by set changes provided a level of spontaneity that was lost in the smoother but more divergent movie. Also, as stage is a live production, rough spots can be polished and subtle improvements made show-on-show, maintaining freshness & surprise. In this movie, the songs seemed flat and the lyrics less witty and sometimes slurred. The ending also allowed for the hero & heroine to survive, whereas in the play, the monster triumphed and its lethal progeny sold like hot cakes, culminating in a spectacular torrent of green lianas descending from the theatre roof! A great finale that had everyone in stitches.

If you didn't see the show, you missed a treat. I'd have given it 8-9 stars. This movie version is a poor substitute.

Great Expectations
(2011)

The BBC
Back in the 19th century, there was this bloke called Charles Dickens. He was the finest novelist of all time (in my opinion). I also saw some commentator on the telly around Christmas time referring to him as our greatest comedian. The great man is long gone but his wonderful books remain, chock full of drama, tragedy, comedy, and everything besides and between.

But that was then; this is now. Now, we have the BBC, who have reinvented all of Dickens' wonderful novels as the most dismal, gloomy, humourless, tragic scenarios imaginable.

Some 30 years ago, before this wasteful public utility became a hot-bed of academic left-wing revisionism, it could be relied upon to produce the most authentic interpretations of the Master that could be. You'd only find better by reading the novels themselves. I remember Arthur Lowe (of all people) giving a flawless interpretation of Mr Micawber.

I saw the trailers for this 3-parter and knew what was coming. And sure enough; it was exactly as advertised. Who are the BBC to think that they are so clever and high-and-mighty as to commit this outrage? I sat through the first episode, grimacing. That was quite enough. All the humour was gone. All the irony was gone. All of Dickens' clever and sly Victorian dialogue had been replaced by invented conversation that was flat, tedious and bore absolutely no trace of the original. Once again; it was 'Eastenders' tricked-up as a costume drama in which only the original plot elements had survived.

If you've never gloried in The Master's work, you won't know what you're missing. And I'm so sorry for you. The good news is, that those original BBC dramas still remain on DVD, discounted by Amazon. They're lower-budget productions, and inevitably more stagy, But they knock this revisionist crap straight down the can. There's also Lean's fine rendition from the 1940's.

Go for the novels first, and revel in Dickens' sly wit, hilarious characters, and amazing dialogue. And if you want more, then check-out those early BBC productions from a time when The Firm didn't regard its existence as a law unto itself.

Someone should hang for this.

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