Review: This Is Spinal Tap

Director: Rob Reiner
Year: 1984
Score: 9/10

1984-a-thonIt’s such a privilege to review this classic for Forgotten Films’ 1984-a-Thon, a celebration of the many wonderful films released in 1984 (which – as well as being a landmark year for cinema – also happens to be the year of my birth). Not only that, but I was lucky enough to revisit it in a cinema (thanks, Golden Age!), always the best way to experience a film you love, especially a comedy.

Mockumentary is one of my favourite genres. Done well, it allows for parody (ranging from acerbic to affectionate) and hilarious comedy, all within a framework that is inherently satirical. It invites viewers to come along for a potentially ridiculous ride while granting them the comforts of familiar documentary tropes (even as, in many cases, those very tropes are themselves being sent up). Best of all, it’s almost always playful, having fun with long-established cinematic and televisual forms and conventions. No other genre so consistently and faithfully winks at its audience.

Over the past few years mockumentary has become mainstream and is now a standard format for television sitcoms (The Office, Modern Family and Parks & Recreation being the best-known examples). Decades ago things were different. When This Is Spinal Tap was released, there had only been a handful of similar films before it, and nothing quite like it. With the glut of mockumentaries available to us now, it’s hard to fully appreciate how casually groundbreaking it really was, and what a surprise it would have been for its audiences.

Marty Di Bergi: Why don't you just make ten louder, and make ten be the top number, and make that a little louder? [one of the most brilliant long pauses in comedy history] Nigel Tufnel: These go to eleven.

Marty Di Bergi: Why don’t you just make ten louder, and make ten be the top number, and make that a little louder?
[one of the most brilliant long pauses in comedy history]
Nigel Tufnel: These go to eleven.

Taking the ostensible form of a documentary about a British rock band on the verge of collapse as it embarks on a doomed US tour, the film walks the line between plausible and ridiculous perfectly. It’s filmed with all the rough edges of an actual doco; combined with the heavy use of improvisation, this creates a sense of verisimilitude which greatly bolsters the humour and satire. The fact that the music is all real (albeit largely written for the film), and some songs are performed almost in full, plays directly into this.

On the subject of the music, I must admit I’ve been listening to it for years and can call myself a Spinal Tap fan. Gimme Some Money and (Listen to the) Flower People are perfect parodies and catchy tunes, while Hell Hole and Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight are hilarious rock anthems that genuinely rock. There are a few duds, such as Heavy Duty and Sex Farm, but to be fair, the band is supposed to be terrible, so that’s kind of fitting.

The performances are excellent, particularly given all the improvisation. Michael McKean and Christopher Guest may get higher billing, and they’re both very funny, but to me Harry Shearer is the unsung hero of the film. It’s also fun to see Billy Crystal, Fran Drescher, Bruno Kirby and a barely recognisable (being so young) Anjelica Huston. I didn’t even notice Dana Carvey.

For what it's worth, this is my personal favourite gag: Lt. Hookstratten: I would like to get the playing on about nineteen hundred hours if that's satisfactory. I make it now, it's about eighteen hundred and thirty hours. Derek Smalls: So that's, what, fifty hours? David St. Hubbins: A hundred and twenty hours?

For what it’s worth, this is my personal favourite gag:
Lt. Hookstratten: I would like to get the playing on about nineteen hundred hours if that’s satisfactory. I make it now, it’s about eighteen hundred and thirty hours.
Derek Smalls: So that’s, what, fifty hours?
David St. Hubbins: A hundred and twenty hours?

To be blunt, This Is Spinal Tap is basically a sketch comedy idea stretched out to feature length. While that’s usually a recipe for disaster, in this case there’s enough material (effectively amounting to discrete sketches that get strung together), and so many other factors that make it good (acting, improvised dialogue with endless gags, great music, etc.), that it’s the exception that proves the rule.

Lastly, some recommendations. If you like This Is Spinal Tap, check out the many Christopher Guest mockumentaries that followed it (especially A Mighty Wind, which I personally like even more; that might have more to do with my love of folk music than its actual relative quality, but it does also feature what amounts to a Spinal Tap reunion). I’d also recommend Woody Allen’s Zelig, Peter Jackson’s Forgotten Silver, and most of all, Tim Robbins’ Bob Roberts (another mockumentary with music and satire at its core).

Review: Neighbors [a.k.a. Bad Neighbours]

Director: Nicholas Stoller
Year: 2014
Score: 7/10

I admit I was impressed by the technological wizardry that enabled footage from Taxi Driver, Meet the Fockers and several other Robert De Niro films to be seamlessly incorporated into this scene.

I admit I was impressed by the technological wizardry that enabled footage from Taxi Driver, Meet the Fockers and several other Robert De Niro films to be seamlessly incorporated into this scene.

Good-natured mash-up of raunchy frat boy comedy (think Old School) and new parents comedy (think Up All Night, or what happens between Knocked Up and This Is 40). It’s reasonably funny – I laughed here and there – but it doesn’t rise to the level of my favourite comedies because it doesn’t have quite enough jokes or silliness or memorably ridiculous characters and situations.

As always, Seth Rogen is Seth Rogen. Rose Byrne is well cast and gives her best comedic performance since Two Hands. Zac Efron is fine too, though his character is a touch one-note at times.

Many of the supporting characters feel like missed opportunities. While the non-central frat boys aren’t actively unfunny, they could have been so much more. Same goes for Rogen and Byrne’s divorced friends; I like Ike Barinholtz (The Mindy Project, MADtv) but he’s not used all that well, and Carla Gallo is awful (though, to be fair, she had very little to work with). Why is Hannibal Buress’ cop character given nothing funny to do? And why does Jason Mantzoukas get so little screen time?

The relationship between Rogen and Byrne is handled nicely, even if the emotional moments between them don’t feel especially relevant to the main storyline (the battle with the frat). The only ways to fix this would have been focusing more on them as a couple and the difficulties of raising their baby next door to a frat house (the baby is pretty much forgotten after the first act), or making a different relationship (such as the strained quasi-friendship that develops between Rogen and Efron) the emotional core of the movie. Still, this feels like an odd complaint to make about a comedy; I suppose I’ve been spoiled by comedies with more ‘heart’, and now have somewhat unfair expectations. Thanks a lot, Community and Parks & Recreation!

I wish there were more jokes. I wish the frat party scenes had been just a little crazier – perhaps more in the vein of Project X. And I wish I wasn’t completely over Christopher Mintz-Plasse. But I shouldn’t be so critical; as far as comedies go these days, this one’s definitely at the better end of the scale. If I’m picking a Nicholas Stoller movie, I’d still go for Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but this is worth watching too.

Guest Review: Up

Director: Pete Docter
Year: 2009
Score: 9.9/10
Reviewer: Drew Pontikis

Meth – not even once.

Meth – not even once.

My two boys are now at an age where they remain enthralled throughout a film, which has given me an excuse to work my way through the Pixar back catalogue again. First name on the list, without a moment’s hesitation, was Up, as it’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen.

Following the death of his wife, elderly widower Carl decides to live their unfulfilled dream and move to Paradise Falls. Along the way we are treated to an odyssey of emotion, one which at various points has the potential to render you a blubbering wreck. This is the beauty of Up; it offers some of the most emotive performances ever committed to film, and all through the medium of animation.

The first few minutes of the film show the life of Carl and Ellie; from childhood, to joyful love-filled marriage, to the tragedy of not having children of their own, through to rising above this and living loving and happy lives. From there we feel the heart-wrenching sadness as Ellie passes away, and we see Carl become moulded into an angry and embittered old man.

The film thunders on with the irrepressible enthusiasm of Russell, who’s still filled with joy despite the tragedy of his home life. We see the parental warmth blossom within Carl as he tries to maintain his vision of getting his house to the falls. We see the single minded exuberance of Dug the dog, and in Charles Muntz the neuroticism of a life spent unrelentingly chasing a dream.

With one of the most touching endings of all of Pixar’s many many success stories, Up is a spectacular triumph. The depth of the characters is almost endless, and with bitter sadness entangled around the child-like dream unfurling in front of the viewer offers something quite profound.

My two year old son, however, was unconcerned by this. He wanted a balloon (a blue one), and then decided that he wanted a dog.

Drew Pontikis is an avid gamer and film fanatic. A fan of racing sims, first person shooters and horror films, Drew is notable for talking almost exclusively using Futurama quotes. Follow him on Twitter as @drew060609 or read his game reviews at http://obscenegaming.wordpress.com.

Review: Good Will Hunting

Director: Gus Van Sant
Year: 1997
Score: 7.5/10

Rest in peace.

Rest in peace.

I’m listening to Elliott Smith while I write this review. I rarely need an excuse to dive back into Smith, but this time I have two: his songs permeate Good Will Hunting so thickly that I’d be humming him anyway at this point, so I might as well listen instead; and I know of no better mourning music.

The person I’m mourning is, of course, the great Robin Williams. Much has been written about him over the past couple of weeks, and I’m not intending to add to that, except to say that he was a supremely talented man who brought me a lot of joy and will continue to do so as I revisit his work.

I hadn’t seen Good Will Hunting since its theatrical release seventeen years ago, back when I was young and naïve and entirely deserving of the condemnation Sean (Williams) serves Will (Matt Damon) in the park bench scene. Given that, and the fact that it was the film for which he won an Oscar, watching and reviewing it seemed like a fitting tribute.

This is a thoughtful and moving film, probably my favourite of the Gus Van Sant films I’ve seen (though ask me another day and I might choose Milk instead). It’s not short and it sags a little in the second half, especially in scenes without Williams or Minnie Driver. However, the ending is solid and there are some very nice emotional beats along the way.

Williams’ performance is excellent, showing restraint, warmth, pathos, depth and nuance. He truly is the heart of the film (and I was surprised, upon revisiting it, that he doesn’t appear until the 33 minute mark). As for his co-stars, Damon is fine in the lead role; Driver gives the best performance I’ve seen from her; Stellan Skarsgård is memorable if unsubtle; and Ben Affleck is a noticeably weak link.

In fact, Affleck’s character seems entirely superfluous. I recognise the narrative and thematic purpose of Will’s group of friends (or “retarded gorillas”, as they’re labelled at one point), but really, there’s no reason at all for their ringleader to be played by Affleck. He brings nothing to the role beyond a retrospective “hey look, it’s Ben Affleck!”, and the sense that he only got it because he co-wrote the script with Damon. At least his brother Casey is interesting to watch as another of the gorillas (though that may be more to do with my appreciation for Casey’s later work), especially knowing that he apparently improvised quite a few of his lines.

It’s hard not to be impressed by the script, which scored Damon and Affleck Oscars. As far as entries into Hollywood go, their’s was pretty remarkable, moreso when considering the heights they would both go on to reach.

Van Sant’s direction is relatively straightforward, letting the actors do their work and thankfully avoiding stylistic flourishes that might have distracted from or undercut the story. Even when the film loses steam, there’s enough momentum to carry through to the end. Somehow, despite the fake-sounding Boston accents and the familiar nature of many of the key moments and conflicts, it never quite tips over into cliché-ridden or saccharine tosh. Elements such as the liberal sprinkling of Smith tunes – which fit well with the mood of the piece and add an air of melancholy and maturity – are especially helpful in this regard.

Reading this review, my score of 7.5 might seem a touch low, given all the praise. It’s not a perfect film; in fact, I’d hesitate to even call it great. However, it’s iconic, has much to like, and serves as a wonderful showcase for Williams’ non-comedic acting chops. For those reasons, I can wholeheartedly recommend it, especially for fans of Williams or anyone who either hasn’t seen it or hasn’t seen it since its original release.

Review: Battle Royale

Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Year: 2000
Score: 7.5/10

Shamelessly excessive but wholly compelling precursor to The Hunger Games. It doesn’t necessarily all make sense, and giving the audience a coherent explanation for what’s going on hardly seems a priority for director Kinji Fukasaku, yet it’s hard not to enjoy the ultra-violence even when melodrama threatens to overwhelm.

Some of the characters are extremely cool. Some of the dialogue – such as when a dying girl tells a dying boy who she has a crush on that he “looks cool” – less so.

The music is strangely old-fashioned and derivative, as though blending together the scores of Western (as in non-Asian, not cowboys) matinee specials from decades long past. At times I thought I could hear the strains of John Williams’ Star Wars theme.

Apparently Quentin Tarantino has cited this as his favourite film, and its influence (on his work and others’) is plain to see. Look out for a yellow outfit that I assumed was one of the inspirations for Uma Thurman’s get-up in Kill Bill, though apparently the inspiration actually came from the Bruce Lee film Game of Death.

The plot gets silly at times, and in some ways I think The Hunger Games is actually an improvement (sacrilege, I know), but it’s definitely worth checking out. Just try to ignore the parts that don’t add up or tip from the good kind of over-the-top to the embarrassingly bad kind.

Guest Review: Dredd

Director: Pete Travis
Year: 2012
Score: 7.5/10
Reviewer: Drew Pontikis

Dammit I ALWAYS cry at the end of Titanic!

Dammit I ALWAYS cry at the end of Titanic!

I didn’t have particularly high hopes for Dredd. Tainted as the character was by the horrendous iteration that could best be described as Sylvester Stallone with a saucepan on his head, the only reason I actually watched it was because my wife fancied a film before she went to bed and we needed one of a specific length of time. With a sigh, I fired up the 95 minute long Dredd and sat back, preparing myself for what would no doubt be 45 minutes of being bored before falling asleep. As it turns out, Dredd turned out to be much better than I dared hope it would be.

In the violent near future, Judges dish out harsh and instant punishment to criminals on the street. The story follows Judge Dredd and a trainee as they find themselves trapped in a tower block, locked down by ruthless drug lord Ma-Ma. Rather than traditional coke or heroin, the drug of choice is called Slo-Mo; a futuristic reality altering psychedelic that slows down the user’s perception of time. This is cleverly utilised in a plot that builds to a crescendo as wave after wave are thrown at Dredd to try and stop him reaching the summit.

Karl Urban’s Dredd is very different to Stallone’s as there is little to no effort to try and create depth of character; he’s all about justice and PAIN. Cold and abrupt, Dredd is everything that he should be and his relentless progress through the tower block keeps you gripped and filled with suspense throughout.

Dredd feels like it could quite easily accommodate a sequel if the right plot was found; in the same way that The Raid and The Raid 2 build on each other I imagine the same could be applied here. It’s worth a gamble on if you fancy an action film, as it’s solid and it does what it says on the tin.

Drew Pontikis is an avid gamer and film fanatic. A fan of racing sims, first person shooters and horror films, Drew is notable for talking almost exclusively using Futurama quotes. Follow him on Twitter as @drew060609 or read his game reviews at http://obscenegaming.wordpress.com.

Guest Review: The Cabin in the Woods

Director: Drew Goddard
Year: 2012
Score: 7.5/10
Reviewer: Drew Pontikis

"Wow, my hair looks a lot more ginger than I thought it did. Probably due a cut as well."

“Wow, my hair looks a lot more ginger than I thought it did. Probably due a cut as well.”

This is a very intriguing film because the horror is underlying rather than in your face, and so you find yourself almost overlooking the action that’s going on in front of you. As it happens, that’s a testament to how well the film is shot.

As a group of five friends head out to a cabin in the woods (duh), they are watched by what appears to be a team of government officials in some large complex. Once there, they find themselves set upon by zombies and, in a bid to escape, stumble across the real story that they are playing out.

The Cabin in the Woods has a very clever premise and, as mentioned above, is extremely well executed. What may have been a ten-a-penny zombie horror film is wrapped around something much darker, showing the indifference of man towards suffering when it is perceived as necessary. It’s poignant as it’s actually believable; it doesn’t feel like were the governments of the world given a similar situation this would be too far from what might happen (of course I realise this is nonsense but you know what I mean).

At no point does The Cabin in the Woods feel like a horror film, as the horror is incidental to the story. It’s absorbing and it keeps hold of you as it turns from zombie slasher to over the top government conspiracy almost seamlessly, and offers an alternative to a genre that too often becomes lazy and repetitive.

The only comment I have on it though is the clips of Japan; having finished watching it and spent some time thinking about how the plot works, not only does it not make any sense it is completely at odds with the whole premise of the plot. Why roughly 14 seconds of film incidental to the story bothered me isn’t clear, but it did. Just thought I’d mention it.

Drew Pontikis is an avid gamer and film fanatic. A fan of racing sims, first person shooters and horror films, Drew is notable for talking almost exclusively using Futurama quotes. Follow him on Twitter as @drew060609 or read his game reviews at http://obscenegaming.wordpress.com.

Review: The Great Dictator

Director: Charlie Chaplin
Year: 1940
Score: 8.5/10

Why don't you stop reading this review, google 'great dictator speech', and strap yourself in for the speech from which this still was taken. Go on, do it!

Stop reading this review, scroll to the bottom, click ‘play’ on the embedded video, and strap yourself in for the speech from which this still was taken. Go on, do it!

Unique blend of satire, comedy and deeply felt drama, the latter of which comes mostly in the form of the beautiful speech at the very end of the film. Even in isolation, that speech – embedded at the end of this review – is one of the best things I’ve ever seen in a movie.

Some of the sillier humour in other scenes, left over from Chaplin’s silent film days, detracts from the rest, but not enough to ruin it. All the Germanish gibberish spouted by Adenoid Hynkel is hilarious, largely because of Chaplin’s excellent performance aping Hitler. Beyond the dictator himself, there’s plenty of delicious irony and satire elsewhere in the film, such as the scene in which a Tomainian storm trooper protects a group of Jews from being attacked by a mob of his fellow storm troopers, not because he wants to, but because he’s ‘just following orders’.

It really is quite remarkable that this was made when it was, with filming commencing a week after Germany invaded Poland and the film being released before the US had joined the war. Chaplin apparently later said that he wouldn’t have made the film had he known the extent of the Holocaust (which was really only just getting started at that point), but I think the timing actually gives it greater power. It’s by far the best of the two Charlie Chaplin films I’ve seen.

Review: Modern Times

Director: Charlie Chaplin
Year: 1936
Score: 5/10

A woman, clearly in fear, being chased by a strange man. Fear of rape = comedy gold..? Not so much.

A woman, clearly in fear, being chased by a strange man. Fear of rape = comedy gold..? Not so much.

Hugely disappointing not-quite-but-almost silent film from Charlie Chaplin, inexplicably one of his most acclaimed.

It really didn’t work for me; I appreciated the obvious commentary on the ills of the modern industrialised world, and the ending – though abrupt – was quite nice, but the actual comedy largely fell flat.

Maybe I’m just not a fan of simplistic physical comedy? That would explain why most of the bits I laugh at in Marx Brothers movies are clever wordplay rather than slapstick humour. Speaking of which, it’s somewhat amusing that Modern Times has 100% more duck-related comedy than Duck Soup does.

Guest Review: The Borderlands

Director: Elliot Goldner
Year: 2013
Score: 7.5/10
Reviewer: Drew Pontikis

"Dammit Mike, I warned you about listening to One Direction! I told you this would happen!"

“Dammit Mike, I warned you about listening to One Direction! I told you this would happen!”

Unlike many proper film people, I’m a fan of ‘found footage’ horror films. The criticism levelled at them is that the shaky handheld aspect of the footage negates the need to have any real cinematic craft, and in many cases this is true. Sometimes however, when they hit the sweet spot, they can throw out something a bit good. And that rather neatly brings me on to The Borderlands, one of the more intriguing found footage horror films that I’ve come across.

The film follows a team of Vatican investigators sent to debunk an apparent miracle that occurred in a small West Country church. All footage is courtesy of head cams and fixed point cameras that are positioned around the church in an attempt to capture/catch out the potential miracle. As they begin to experience paranormal activity occurring throughout the church they desperately search for a rational explanation, and there are some genuinely scary moments generated through a skilful use of the found footage medium.

What is particularly notable about The Borderlands is the ending. Where many films stoop to a lazy jump scare to get their kicks, this has a beautiful crescendo building up over the course of about half an hour that is one of the best I’ve seen in a horror film. You’re built up to a point where you think you’re going to jump, but then it just carries on building and building to the point where you find yourself ready to scream ‘I can’t take it just scare me now!’, and when it actually happens you’re genuinely shocked by the twist that they come up with.

The characters are realistic and easy to identify with, and aside from the horror elements the plot is actually quite deep and absorbing. If you are the kind of person who would normally dismiss a Paranormal Activity style found footage film as not for you, I would urge you to give this a whirl; it may just surprise you.

Drew Pontikis is an avid gamer and film fanatic. A fan of racing sims, first person shooters and horror films, Drew is notable for talking almost exclusively using Futurama quotes. Follow him on Twitter as @drew060609 or read his game reviews at http://obscenegaming.wordpress.com.

Review: Peeping Tom

Director: Michael Powell
Year: 1960
Score: 7.5/10

Fittingly, a film about voyeurism contains cinema's first cameltoe.

Fittingly, a film about voyeurism contains cinema’s first cameltoe.

Controversial British movie about a man who murders women and films their final moments. It bears some superficial similarities to the 1979 film Bloodline, but is far more successful. Though billed as a horror movie, it isn’t scary as such; it’s more creepy and psychologically disturbing. Its real strength lies in its ideas, its willingness to wallow in depravity (reminding me of David Fincher’s Se7en in that regard), and the utterly unpleasant lead performance from Carl Boehm. Some aspects are a touch simplistic (e.g. the Freudian stuff), but it all hangs together fairly well.

It’s easy to see why it would have caused such an uproar when first released, not only for its plot and subject matter, but for the matter-of-fact way in which the seediest parts of British society are depicted. The interpretation advanced by some critics that the whole film is a comment on horror filmmaking, and the voyeuristic position of the audiences of such films, is viable and intriguing. Recommended.

Review: Persepolis

Directors: Vincent Paronnaud & Marjane Satrapi
Year: 2007
Score: 7.5/10

Jichael Mackson, the Ping of Kop, singer of countless hits such as 'Jelly Bean', 'Wheel the Hurled' and 'Whack or Blight'.

Jichael Mackson, the Ping of Kop, singer of countless hits such as ‘Jelly Bean’, ‘Wheel the Hurled’ and ‘Whack or Blight’.

Fascinating autobiographical French animation about a young Iranian girl who grows up during the Iran-Iraq War.

Based on Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novels, it maintains the same art style and transforms it into a uniquely simple yet effective style of animation, perfect for conveying the protagonist’s perspective of the world, immersing the audience within that world, and giving the film its wry tone. Satrapi is an endearing character and her somewhat unusual life makes for an engaging narrative and an interesting window into the events of the time.

Considering the film’s subject matter and the wide acclaim it’s received, I found it didn’t pack quite enough of an emotional punch to be truly great, but nonetheless it’s an admirable and authentic piece of work that deserves to be seen.

Guest Review: Predator

Director: John McTiernan
Year: 1987
Score: 8.5/10
Reviewer: Drew Pontikis

"No seriously guys, who’s got the keys? I've been bursting since that last village and I am not in the mood to muck around!"

“No seriously guys, who’s got the keys? I’ve been bursting since that last village and I am not in the mood to muck around!”

Before the hate, let me put this score into context. Predator is an action film. Action films are not known for intense emotional dialogue, heartfelt sentiments or character evolution. They are known for blowing stuff up and beating people up. That’s it; nothing else is particularly relevant. In this regard Predator is the best action film, as it delivers all that you could possibly need from the genre.

I could waste your time and mine by explaining the plot, but you know the score; Arnold Schwarzenegger et al. are dropped into a jungle and picked off one by one by the ominous be-dreadlocked alien Predator, until a final showdown. It’s not Tolstoy, but who cares? For its time the CGI is quite advanced, and although some of the effects are starting to look a little tired the majority is achieved through live action; something that looks as good now as it did then. What Predator does surprisingly well is generate a sense of isolation, a feeling of being stranded and preyed upon that plenty of films since have tried and failed to do.

Containing iconic pearls of wisdom such as ‘Get to da choppah!’, ‘Cause some damn fool accused you of being the best’ and ‘What happened to you, Dillon? You used to be someone I could trust’, there are enough clichés to make Shakespeare spin in his grave and almost enough testosterone to fill a swimming pool (gross), but you can’t help but enjoy what’s going on.

Many will disagree on this, but to me this should be the go-to action film as far as anyone is concerned. Compare it to later contenders for example; Transformers or Predator? Independence Day or Predator? It’s no contest really. Sometimes I want to be moved by a film, sometimes I just want to be entertained. For that, there really is only one choice.

Drew Pontikis is an avid gamer and film fanatic. A fan of racing sims, first person shooters and horror films, Drew is notable for talking almost exclusively using Futurama quotes. Follow him on Twitter as @drew060609 or read his game reviews at http://obscenegaming.wordpress.com.

Review: On Golden Pond

Director: Mark Rydell
Year: 1981
Score: 7/10

Both Fonda and Hepburn died during filming, and their corpses were used in scenes that still needed to be shot. Pretty disrespectful, I thought.

Both Fonda and Hepburn died during filming, and their corpses were used in scenes that still needed to be shot. Pretty disrespectful, I thought.

Tender if saccharine drama about an elderly man, his troubled relationship with his daughter, and the time he spends fishing on Golden Pond (a lake) with her boyfriend’s teenage son.

Henry Fonda won an Oscar for his solid lead performance, and died soon thereafter. Katharine Hepburn also won one – her fourth Best Actress Oscar, a record unlikely to ever be equalled – for playing his wife, though reportedly it was widely regarded as a sentimental win rather than necessarily being deserved for this particular performance. In my view both are good enough to deserve their wins, though Hepburn is really in more of a supporting role than a lead one. The relationship between their characters is the film’s strongest and most moving facet.

On the other hand, the relationship between Fonda’s character and his daughter – played with mixed results by his real-life daughter Jane – doesn’t quite click, though from a narrative perspective it’s supposed to be the main event. Dabney Coleman is amusing in a supporting role. The stuff with the loons is a tad heavy-handed, contributing to the sense of over-sentimentality.

Still probably worth watching for the performances, the warm humour, and the bits that succeed on an emotional level, of which there are quite a few. After all, there really aren’t enough good movies about old age.

Review: Fitzcarraldo

Director: Werner Herzog
Year: 1982
Score: 6.5/10

It wouldn't surprise me to learn that Herzog moved the mountain rather than the ship.

It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Herzog moved the mountain rather than the ship.

Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski reunite for the second last time, returning to the sort of Peruvian locations they had traversed when making Aguirre: The Wrath of God a decade earlier, but not reaching the same creative heights this time around. The bulk of the movie is spent on Fitzcarraldo’s crazy quest to transport, with the help of the local native tribe, a steamship over a mountain from one river to another. Beyond any inherent artistic value, the main point of watching and enjoying this stems from the knowledge that Herzog actually did it himself as part of the (troubled) production of the film; we’re watching Fitzcarraldo do something incredible and quixotic, and in doing so we’re watching Herzog do something equally incredible and quixotic, only he’s doing so to make this film rather than to succeed as a rubber baron and use his riches to build an opera house. The parallels between Fitzcarraldo and Herzog – both undertaking this venture for the sake of art – are pretty hard to miss. I wonder how cognisant Herzog was of all this? In any event, though watching the crazy quest has its attractions, it doesn’t, in my opinion, amount to a fulfilling narrative (despite the lovely ending), and therein lies the film’s key problem. As for the performances: Kinski is fine as usual (despite failing to put in any effort to play Fitzcarraldo as an Irishman) and Claudia Cardinale does well as his love interest, though of course she disappears throughout the steamship-over-hill section so what’s the point?

Guest Review: The Woman in Black

Director: James Watkins
Year: 2012
Score: 5/10
Reviewer: Drew Pontikis

Note the pictures on the wall – they were stolen from the walls of Hogwarts to act as a comforter to Daniel Radcliffe in the hope that his acting would improve. Didn’t work, but worth a go.

Note the pictures on the wall – they were stolen from the walls of Hogwarts to act as a comforter to Daniel Radcliffe in the hope that his acting would improve. Didn’t work, but worth a go.

I’m a huge fan of The Woman in Black. I’ve been scared by the theatre production and chilled by the book, so I was over the moon to hear that it was coming to film. As I expectantly sat down with my popcorn and my bottle of cider, I was hoping to see the story taken to terrifying new levels. Unfortunately, the only frightening thing about this film is Daniel Radcliffe’s acting.

It follows the story of Arthur Kipps, a young lawyer mourning the death of his wife and caring for his son who takes up the job of sorting through the effects of the recently deceased Mrs Drablow at the dark and overbearing Eel Marsh House. Whilst there he finds himself pursued by the film’s namesake, and embarks on a journey to try and solve her mystery before she tears him and the village apart. The story, whilst not true to Susan Hill’s original, is still reasonably strong, and there are a couple of occasional strong horror moments which do capture the isolated terror for which the plot is renowned. Sadly however these moments are few and far between, instead opting for the lazy and disappointing jumpiness that horror films resort to when they run out of inspiration. It’s a shame as there’s nothing worse than building to a crescendo of uneasiness and dread, only to have it spoiled by the boogie man jumping out and shrieking at you in a jumpy but ultimately unsatisfying manner.

The real disappointment however is Daniel Radcliffe’s performance as Arthur Kipps. He turns in a display which could be described as wooden at best and distracting at worst. You know that thing where you’re watching a film and all of a sudden Christopher Walken comes on and you go “oh look! It’s Christopher Walken”? It’s a bit like that, but you’re thinking “Oh look! It’s Daniel Radcliffe and he’s really not doing a very good job is he?” It’s one of those distractingly bad performances usually reserved for Nicolas Cage.

I would wholeheartedly encourage you to take a trip to the theatre and see The Woman in Black; it’s bloody brilliant. The film sadly does not live up to expectations, and is as forgettable as it is disappointing.

Drew Pontikis is an avid gamer and film fanatic. A fan of racing sims, first person shooters and horror films, Drew is notable for talking almost exclusively using Futurama quotes. Follow him on Twitter as @drew060609 or read his game reviews at http://obscenegaming.wordpress.com.

Guest Review: Pompeii

Director: Paul W. S. Anderson
Year: 2014
Score: 6/10
Reviewer: Drew Pontikis

Rock paper scissors for the sword? Are you serious?!

Rock paper scissors for the sword? Are you serious?!

Woo historical accuracy! As a proud member of the Archaeological Pedantry Society, there are moments in this film which are absolutely laughable. I would be prepared to bet that, given enough time, I could go through the entire film and not find a single fact beyond the limerick-esque ‘there once was a town called Pompeii’.

To paraphrase Futurama’s Robot Devil, however: this movie is as lousy as it is brilliant.

The special effects are as grand and spectacular as you would imagine a volcanic eruption to be and the gladiator battles are so glorious that you understand why the Romans loved them so much. The plot itself is quite weird; the story follows this guy who gets captured by the Romans, but who happens to be an unbelievably good gladiator who can talk to horses. That second fact is strangely incidental to the plot, but is enough to make a rather pretty girl fall in love with him. Sadly Jack Bauer is there, accompanied by the worryingly named Proculus (allegedly played by Sasha Roiz but is quite obviously Bear Grylls), and he decides that he’s going to marry her instead. Then a volcano goes off. It’s hardly Hamlet, but as an action film it’s quite entertaining. Drenched in bravado and testosterone-fuelled fight scenes it’s easy to enjoy, even if it is found wanting for things like substance, subtlety, character development, plot, historical accuracy, originality and suspense. It does however have a volcano, which makes up for a lot of those shortcomings.

Is it as good as Gladiator? No. Not even close. Does it have the epic story of Ben-Hur? No. Even so, it’s hard not to like Pompeii; it’s a good old fashioned historical action thriller that delivers on what it promises: a volcano.

Drew Pontikis is an avid gamer and film fanatic. A fan of racing sims, first person shooters and horror films, Drew is notable for talking almost exclusively using Futurama quotes. Follow him on Twitter as @drew060609 or read his game reviews at http://obscenegaming.wordpress.com.

Review: The Message [a.k.a. Mohammad, Messenger of God]

Director: Moustapha Akkad
Year: 1976
Score: 5.5/10

If this movie is to be believed, most of Mohammad's enemies died because they used rubber swords.

If this movie is to be believed, most of Mohammad’s enemies died because they used rubber swords.

Strange combination of historical epic and religious propaganda. In a sense, the nearest comparison would be Ben-Hur; unfortunately, this is no Ben-Hur.

It tells the story of Mohammad and the birth of Islam but it’s hamstrung by its adherence to Islamic beliefs regarding depictions of Mohammad. An opening card informs the audience: “The makers of this film honour the Islamic tradition which holds that the impersonation of the Prophet offends against the spirituality of his message. Therefore, the person of Mohammad will not be shown”. Consequently we get an epic biopic missing its protagonist, instead resorting to ridiculous workarounds such as showing his camel’s head (he’s supposedly just off-screen!) and shooting some sequences from his point of view (placing his staff in frame as though it’s a weapon in a first-person shooter game!).

Other than that, the story is told in a fairly conservative, straightforward way, hammering home the view that Mohammad’s opponents were driven by greed and that his message was just totally awesome and should have been immediately taken up by everyone. There’s a lot of time spent on the efforts of the merchants and leaders of Mecca to suppress the growing movement, so much so that it’s almost two hours before we get a proper battle scene. When the battles start things do pick up a bit, but by then it’s a case of too little too late.

There are some fair performances and it held my interest all the way through (that’s three hours!); it just isn’t the kind of straight historical epic I wanted it to be. Perhaps part of the problem, and the source of the sense that it amounts to religious propaganda, is that (as explicitly stated in another opening card) its content was vetted by an Islamic university in Cairo and something called the “High Islamic Congress of the Shiat in Lebanon” (which, when googled, leads only to references to this film).

Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: Theatrical Edition

Director: Peter Jackson
Year: 2013
Score: 6/10

Toilet Dwarf™, the perfect accessory for any rustic restroom. Make your own King Under the Mountain!

Toilet Dwarf™, the perfect accessory for any rustic restroom. Make your own King Under the Mountain!

The Two Towers is my least favourite entry in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, suffering as it does from middle film syndrome (lacking both the joy/wonder of introducing us into the world and the catharsis of ending the story), so it makes sense for me to have similar feelings about The Desolation of Smaug. Of course, I won’t know for sure until the release of The Battle of the Five Armies later this year, but I’m guessing I’ll enjoy that more than this.

Many of my criticisms of An Unexpected Journey apply here too: over-length, unnecessary action sequences, padding the story out with extra bits that don’t add enough, and sticking too closely to the formula established in the previous trilogy. There are also some more specific criticisms to be made: the opening scene lacks ‘oomph’; the ending is weak, lacking even a semblance of finality, let alone resolution; the Kili-gets-injured-and-winds-up-in-a-love-triangle subplot is entirely superfluous and irritating, especially since the two other members of the triangle (Legolas and a female elf created for the movie and played by Kate from Lost) aren’t supposed to be in the movie at all; in the motion-captured-character-redeems-movie’s-final-act stakes, Smaug is no Gollum; the entire Lonely Mountain sequence is muddled; and Thranduil’s arseholishness, with no real redeeming features, quickly grates.

Having said all that, there are still some fairly enjoyable parts (the barrel sequence, for instance), and all the usual elements worthy of praise in a Peter Jackson Middle-Earth movie (action, visuals, music, casting, etc.) are still there too. As for acting, Orlando Bloom continues to think that squinting is the sole form of emoting available to him, Stephen Fry overdoes it a bit as the Master of Laketown, Sir Ian McKellen is solid as ever but seems to be overusing the move-bags-under-one’s-eyes-to-indicate-drama technique, and everyone else is fine.

Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: Extended Edition

Director: Peter Jackson
Year: 2012 (theatrical version) / 2013 (extended edition)
Score: 7/10

The real reason for the extended edition, of course, was so we finally get naked dwarves. The fans... go... wild.

The real reason for the extended edition, of course, was so we finally get naked dwarves. The fans… go… wild.

I’m a big fan of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and my initial viewing of the theatrical (non-extended) version of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, in 48fps 3D, left me quite impressed but a tad concerned. It was an immensely fun ride, with Jackson’s familiar brand of humour-infused action, constant winks at the fans, a largely excellent cast (both new and returning), and a brilliant adaptation of the novel’s crucial ‘Riddles in the Dark’ chapter in the final act. Mostly it was just great to be back in Jackson’s immersive world; it isn’t quite Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, but it’s equally impressive in its own ways.

I did, however, have reservations about the film’s length, the sense that many of the action sequences were shoe-horned in to pad it out as the first part of a trilogy (case in point: the entirely unnecessary rock-monster boxing match scene), the decision to split a fairly short children’s book into three lengthy films, and the often slavish beat-for-beat recreations of moments/sequences/arcs from the original trilogy. In a sense all of these concerns come down to the fact that this isn’t just a film adaptation of the novel; it’s very specifically JACKSON’S adaptation, in the style, vein and scope of his Lord of the Rings. That means we lose the childish frivolity and lightness I remember from the novel, and instead get a dose of Sauron-y seriousness and a bunch of extra bits, all designed to create parity with the original trilogy so this (together with the next two movies) will serve as a stylistically and narratively cohesive prequel trilogy.

I can't decide if the Great Goblin's chin testicles are as bad as or worse than Peter Griffin's.

I can’t decide if the Great Goblin’s chin testicles are as bad as or worse than Peter Griffin’s.

Watching the extended edition in preparation for the release of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, I had roughly the same response but if anything my concerns grew: this is, after all, an even longer version – 13 minutes of additional footage! – of a movie I already regarded as bloated. For some reason I disliked the Great Goblin character (portrayed by Barry Humphries) more this time round. On the other hand, I found the emotional climax (Bilbo finding his courage and being accepted by Thorin) considerably more affecting, though I don’t recall any changes to the scene in this version that would have made it so. I also noticed and enjoyed the dwarves’ theme music, within Howard Shore’s excellent-as-always score, more than I previously recall.

For anyone choosing between the theatrical and extended versions, the bottom line for me is this: when I watch the trilogy in the future, I’ll be putting aside my concerns about length and unnecessary action set-pieces and ill-advised movie-splitting, so I might as well take the completist route and watch the extended version; the extra bits aren’t by any means fatal to the overall length, and they tend to play OK in a home cinema environment. Or maybe I’m just a glutton for punishment.