Friday, 30 March 2012

Listorama! My Top 10 Simpsons Episodes (Part Two)

Having counted down from 10 to 6 in yesterday's blog, it's time to unveil my picks for the 5 greatest episodes of the Simpsons of all time...

5. Twenty Two Short Films About Springfield

A brilliant and unique episode which largely turns the spotlight away from the Simpson family, giving us the chance to spend a day in the life of Springfield's other residents. We see Apu leaving his post at the Kwik-E-Mart behind for five minutes of partying and merriment, Principal Skinner hosting an embarrassing dinner for Superintendent Chalmers, Cletus finding a free pair of boots for Brandine, and the Very Tall Man makes his first appearance, giving Nelson Muntz a taste of his own medicine. Best of all, though, are the hilarious segments which pastiche Pulp Fiction - Chief Wiggum, Lou and Eddie discussing the respective merits of Krustyburger and McDonalds being a particularly funny scene. All of that, and there's even time for a bit of tomfoolery with Professor Frink. This was the show at the peak of its powers, demonstrating how a living, breathing city had developed as a backdrop for its central characters.

Memorable Lines:

"Chairman of Medical Board: Dr. Nick, this malpractice committee has received a few complaints against you. Of the 160 gravest charges, the most troubling are performing major operations with a knife and fork from a seafood restaurant.  
Dr Nick Riviera: But I cleaned them with my napkin."

" Wiggum: Do they have Krusty partially gelatinated non-dairy gum-based beverages? 
Lou: Mm-hm. They call 'em, 'shakes.' 

Eddie: Huh, shakes. You don't know what you're gettin'."

4. Kamp Krusty

Getting to close to the business end, now, with this fantastic summer camp episode. Bart and Lisa have spent all year looking forward to the only camp which meets the high personal standards of Krusty the Clown. When they get there, however, they're greeted with the worst camp in the world, run by the despicable Mr Black - the nature hikes have become grim death marches,  and the arts and crafts centre is, in actuality, a Dickensian workhouse. It's only when Mr Black attempts to pass off an inebriated Barney Gumble as Krusty that Bart can stand no more, and leads a revolt against the revolting camp counsellors. It's just an outstanding episode from start (Bart's vivid dream of destroying the school) to finish (a montage of Krusty leading the kids to the happiest place on Earth - Tijuana).

Memorable lines:

"Homer:  Now Bart, we made this deal because I thought it would help you get good grades. And you didn't.  But why should you pay for my mistake?  
Bart: You mean I can go?
Homer: Yeah. I didn't want you hangin' around all summer anyway."

"Kent Brockman:  Ladies and Gentleman, I've been to Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq; and I can say without hyperbole that this is a million times worse than all of them put together."

3. Radio Bart

In which one of Bart's trade mark pranks backfires, and he finds himself trapped down a well. After various attempts to rescue the boy fail, the whole town (and Sting) takes part in a good old fashioned hole digging in a bid to get him out... This is the first of two episodes from the wonderful Season Three - probably my favourite season of the show. I've been rewatching that season recently, and almost every episode is fantastic, but this episode is particularly dear to my heart. It was my favourite when I was growing up, and I've seen it so many times I can practically recite every line. In fact, the jingle from the Wall-E-Weasel animatronic robots is playing in my head right now. Ready, Signor Beaverotti?

Memorable lines: 

"Fisherman: With this hook, and this hunk of chocolate, I'll land your boy - and I'll clean him for free!"

"Kent Brockman: This is Kent Brockman with a special bulletin. The Lincoln Squirrel has been assassinated. We'll stay with this story all night if we have to."

2. Separate Vocations

Another episode from Season Three, and it's another absolute peach. When Bart and Lisa take a career aptitude test, Bart discovers that his future could lie in the world of law enforcement. Meanwhile, Lisa is devastated to learn that she has inherited a genetic condition known as 'stubbiness' from her father, dashing her dreams of becoming a famous saxophonist. This state of affairs leads to a brief role reversal, with Bart Simpson on the side of law and order as a hall monitor, and Lisa experiencing the giddy thrill of futile rebellion. This episode provides that perfect combination of sweetness and cynicism that the Simpsons, at its best, could always be relied upon to provide. It's also a brilliant demonstration of the relationship between Bart and Lisa - though they may have their differences, deep down, they know they can count on one another. Bart sums it up best in the final lines of the episode: "You got the brains and the talent to go as far as you want. And when you do, I'll be right there to borrow money."

Memorable Lines:

"[Snake has crashed through his windshield following a police chase after an unsuccessful robbery of scratch cards from the Kwik-E-Mart.]

Chief Wiggum: Looks like you just bought yourself a lottery ticket. To jail! 
Eddie: He's unconscious, sir. 
Wiggum: Ah, they can still hear things."

"Principal Skinner:  I saw some awful things in 'Nam, but you really have to wonder at the mentality that would desecrate a helpless puma!"

1. Homer Goes To College

So, we reach the end of my list with my absolute favourite episode of all time. For me, this one is just, hands down, the funniest episode the Simpsons ever made. The plot is quite simple, really: after Homer causes yet another nuclear incident, Mr Burns orders him to get the appropriate academic training for his job. After his terrifying application photo scares off various potential colleges, Burns uses his chair at Springfield University to get Homer a place. Once on campus, Homer does battle with the (really quite reasonable) Dean, Bobby Peterson, assisted by his new college buddies - a trio of nose bleed prone, Star Trek obssessed nerds. Scripted by Conan O'Brien, it's hilarious throughout, and is absolutely crammed full of quotable lines. It finishes with a bang too - as with Kamp Krusty, there's a montage at the end, showing still images of Homer's wild and crazy college days to the soundtrack of Louie Louie by the Kingsmen. If anyone tries to tell you that this isn't a great episode of the Simpsons, you can bet that someone's sucked all the fun out of them - and unless TV has lied to me, it was a crusty, bitter old dean...

Memorable Lines:

"Dean Peterson: Hi there! Hello, I'm Dean Peterson, but you can call me Bobby. I just want you to know if you ever feel stressed out from studying or whatever, I'm always up for some hackey sack. Or, hey! If you just want to come by and jam, I used to be the bass player for the Pretenders.  
Homer: Boy, I can't wait to take some of the starch out of that stuffed shirt."

 "Dean Peterson: Hello... that sounds like a pig fainting!"

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Listorama! My Top 10 Simpsons Episodes (Part One)

I know this blog is supposed to be about movies, but as you may have guessed from my pseudonym and by the references to the show in my film reviews, I'm a bit of a Simpsons fan. Because of that, I thought I'd branch out away from the cinema into the world of television, with a list of my top 10 favourite Simpsons episodes.

I should point out that although I've seen most of the episodes in the first ten or so series many times, I kind of gave up on the show after the jockey elves fiasco (Saddlesore Galatica), so I've hardly seen any of the episodes from around season 15 onwards. Accordingly, this list is dominated by episodes from the classic era (which I would classify as running from Seasons 2 - 8).

Obviously, this is a personal list and the Simpsons is a show with something like 100 instalments that can rightly be regarded as absolute classics. Choosing an all time top 10 was very difficult - it's kind of like trying to choose a favourite child. As with my horror movies list, there were many fine examples which just missed the cut - including the likes of Homer at the Bat, Mr. Plow, Marge vs. the Monorail, Duffless, Last Exit to Springfield, Lisa's Rival, Bart sells his Soul, Summer of 4 ft. 2 and You Only Move Twice.

Anyway, without wanting to ramble on for too much longer, here's the list, in reverse order (thanks to for the quotes):

10. Three Men & a Comic Book

Some Simpsons fans have queried whether the second season belongs to the 'Classic Era' of the Simpsons, but for me, there can be no question about it. This is a fine example of that breakthrough season, in which Bart, Milhouse and Martin Prince pool their resources to purchase a rare and valuable issue of Radioactive Man - but an inability to share leads to disaster. The episode is notable for featuring the first appearance of Comic Book Guy and I particularly love the part where Bart is forced to undertake a series of painful chores for elderly neighbour.

Memorable lines:

"Bart: you know what I think? I think Casper is the ghost of Richie Rich.
 Lisa: Hey, they do look alike!
 Bart: Wonder how Richie died.
Lisa: Perhaps he realized how hollow the pursuit of money really is and took his own life."

9.  The Springfield Connection

Episodes in which Homer gets a new job have become a bit of a cliche on the show, particularly in recent years, but it's been far rarer for Marge to seek employment outside of the confines of the Simpson house. That's a shame really, since there have been a number of excellent episodes in which she does just that - including Marge Gets a Job, The Twisted World of Marge Simpson and The PTA Disbands. For me, though, this is the pick of the bunch - Marge joins the illustrious ranks of the Springfield PD, and fights the mockery of her incompetent colleagues to take down a counterfeit jeans racket, operating out of the Simpsons' carhole.

Memorable lines:

"Chief Wiggum: All right, you scrawny beanpoles: becoming a cop is not something that happens overnight. It takes one solid weekend of training to get that badge.  
Agitated Man: Forget about the badge! When do we get the freakin' guns?!  
Chief Wiggum: Hey, I told you, you don't get your gun until you tell me your name.
Agitated Man: I've had it up to here with your 'rules'!"

"Chief Wiggum:  Simpson, seeing how this is your first day, you're inexperienced and vulnerable - your beat is Junkyville and Bumtown."

8. King Size Homer

Homer Simpson has always been a tad on the stout side, but this is the episode in which he intentionally gains weight in order to qualify for hyper-obesity, and gets to live the sweet, sweet life of a lardo on workman's comp. However, he finds that being a king sized man brings new problems to solve - you may be freed from the confines of wearing trousers, but do you wear a cape, a poncho or a mumu? Is it worth the indignity of being thrown out of the cinema in return for a garbage bag full of popcorn? Is it safe to leave your workstation in the care of a plastic drinking bird toy? (The answers are mumu, no and no).

Memorable lines:

"Operator: The fingers you have used to dial are too fat. To obtain a special dialling wand, please mash the keypad with your palm now."

"Dr Nick Riviera: And remember, if you're not sure about something, rub it against a piece of paper. If the paper turns clear, it's your window to weight gain."

7. Selma's Choice

Patty and Selma started off life as one note characters - the grumpy sisters in law who make Homer's life as miserable as possible. However, as the Simpsons started filling in the details of its wonderful cast of supporting players, we got to know much more about the rather sad lives of the Bouvier sisters. Selma in particular is a tragic figure - as Marge puts it in Principal Charming: "It's Patty who chose a life of celibacy. Selma simply had celibacy thrust upon her." Anyway, for all that, the reason I love this episode so much is Selma's disastrous visit to Duff Gardens with Bart and Lisa, in which Lisa drinks some dirty water from one of the rides as a dare and has a memorable freak out, while Bart gets to wear Duff's patented Beer Goggles, and sees the world through the eyes of a drunk. We also get to encounter the seven Duffs ( Sleazy, Queasy, Surly, Edgy, Tipsy, Dizzy, and Remorseful) - with Surly being a particular favourite of mine ("Surly only looks out for one guy - Surly"). Having been subject to a day of chaos with the Simpson kids, Selma decides she might be happier after all with her pet iguana, Jub Jub.

Memorable lines:

"Announcer:  Come to Duff Gardens, where roaming gangs aren't a problem any more!"

"[ a Duff Gardens employee in a white coat hands Selma a large number of pills to give to Lisa]
Employee: Give her this, and this... and these
Selma: Thank you Doctor.
Employee: Oh, I'm not a doctor"

6. The Itchy, Scratchy & Poochie Show

This may be something of a bold claim to make about an episode of a TV show, but I'm pretty sure this one actually saved my life. Last year, I was in on holiday in Italy, confined to my hotel room after suffering from a truly horrendous stomach bug, with nothing on TV that I could understand but the BBC World News service. Fortunately, like a ray of light in a stormy sky, I happened to flick through the channels and discovered that the Itchy, Scratchy & Poochie Show was on - and in English, too! Seeing Homer's attempts to portray an unpopular cartoon dog with 'attitude' was just the tonic I needed to overcome my sickness. It's an episode which is both laugh out loud funny in its own right, and also an interesting insight into the showrunners' feelings about some of the show's more obsessive fans.

Memorable lines:

"Ned Flanders: Homer, I can honestly say that was the best episode of 'Impy & Chimpy' I've ever seen!"

"Homer: Let me ask you a question. Why would a man whose shirt says 'Genius at Work' spend all of his time watching a children's cartoon show?"

Well, there you go - that's part one of my top 10 Simpsons' episodes. The countdown to number one will be with you shortly...

Monday, 26 March 2012

That was the week that was (19 - 25 March)

I have to confess that I haven't been 100% focussed on watching films this week - instead, I've been getting back into the dangerous world of methamphetamine production with seasons 3 and 4 of Breaking Bad. It's a just a shame that it's so hard to watch it in the UK. Presumably due to some sort of rights issue, only the first two seasons are available in this country, so I had to source my DVDs from the German version of the Amazon website. Nevertheless, it's a truly brilliant show, probably the most compelling television series I've seen since I watched The Wire.

30 Minutes or Less (2011)

I think the last time I saw Jesse Eisenberg on the big screen, he was playing the mega rich founder of Facebook in The Social Network. His character in this comedy is rather less ambitious - he plays Nick, a young man who's just finished university, and is working as a pizza delivery boy to make ends meet. His rather depressing existence gets a whole lot worse when he is ambushed and knocked unconscious by two hapless, would-be criminals in monkey masks. When he comes around, he discovers that he has been fitted with a bomb vest - and that unless he robs a bank and obtains $100,000, the crooks intend to detonate it... I have to say that I was a little disappointed with this one - from watching the trailer, I expected it to be a laugh a minute, but instead, it's only sporadically amusing. The big problem here is the script, which is crude and foul-mouthed, rather like many recent Judd Apatow productions - but unlike those movies, it largely forgets to include any actual punchlines. Fortunately, the filmmakers did manage to put together a strong cast, and the likes of Aziz Ansari and Danny McBride help Jesse Eisenberg to make the most of the generally weak material that they're given to play with. Pretty forgettable, on the whole.

Rating: 5/10

Insidious (2010)

James Wan and Leigh Whannell,  the co-creators of the Saw franchise, return with another horror film - this time with a more supernatural bent. Our protagonists here are Josh and Renai Lambert and family, who have just moved into a big, old house in the suburbs of some unnamed American city. Of course, their new home turns out to be anything but welcoming, and after a few (rather dull) scenes in which things 'go bump in the night', the action really kicks into gear when their young son Dalton inexplicably falls into a coma. After the Lamberts have exhausted the help that medical science can provide to them, they decide to turn to a psychic medium for answers. She tells them that their son's spirit has come adrift from his body, and that to save him, Josh Lambert must use his own latent ability in astral projection. The next sequence, in which Josh Lambert travels through the spirit world to save his son, is genuinely frightening; he has to wade through dense mist, with ghoulish apparitions coming at him from all angles, and only the psychic's voice for guidance. It's by far the best part of a pretty uneven film, a movie which has some big shocks and jump scares but also quite a few monotonous stretches. The script is generally decent (though there are a few groan inducing lines), and Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne are solid enough in the lead roles. In general then, this is a decent effort from Whannell and Wan, and makes for grounds for cautious optimism for their career away from the Saw franchise.

Rating: 6/10

The Big Picture (L'homme qui voulait vivre sa vie) (2010)

My favourite film of a pretty mediocre week, this one stars Romain Duris as Paul Exben, a frustrated Parisian lawyer. Though materially successful, he's trapped in an unhappy marriage, and has suspicions that his wife may be having an affair. He is also struggling with the feeling that he has squandered the talent in photography that he displayed as a young man to work in a more humdrum (but lucrative) profession. This situation becomes far more serious when he accidentally kills his wife's lover after a heated argument. Realising that he could be facing a murder charge, he decides to fake his own death, and escapes to Croatia, using the dead man's identity. Whilst there, he is finally able to indulge his passion for photography, but his unexpected success in that medium leads to a mounting fear that he will be exposed as a fraud. For two thirds of this film, I was completely absorbed in the fate of Paul Exben, but I was rather confounded by the ending, which (without giving away any spoilers) seemed out of place with the events leading up to it.  Romain Duris puts in a fine performance in the lead role, creating a believable deterioration in his character's demeanour - from cocksure professional to paranoid runaway. He's ably assisted by the always brilliant Niels Arestup (who seems to be in almost every French film I've seen recently), playing the editor of the Croatian newspaper which buys Exben's pictures. The movie is also beautifully shot, particularly during the second half, when there are some wonderful shots of the Croatian coastline. With a different ending, I would have had no hesitation in awarding this film an '8' or a '9', but as it is, a '7' will have to suffice.

Rating: 7/10

The Hunger Games (2012)

I'm sure I've written quite a few times on this blog about the dangers of expecting too much of a film going in - but this is another example of a picture which has received a great deal of hype and some glowing reviews, but which ended up being 'just OK'. I suppose if I'd heard only bad things before going in, I might have been pleasantly surprised, but it ended up being a bit of a let down. Anyway, in case you've been living under a rock for the last few weeks, the background to the film is as follows: It's set in a dystopian future in which the present day United States and Mexico have been divided into twelve districts, ruled over by a the inhabitants of a huge city known as the Capital. While the residents of the Capital live in an opulent, multi-coloured garden of delights,  life for denizens of the outer districts is tough, with barely enough food to go around. By way of retribution for an attempted uprising some 74 years ago, each year the twelve districts must provide a boy and girl (aged between 12 and 18), who are to take part in a televised gladiatorial contest, with only one contestant coming out alive. Our heroine here is Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) , a resourceful and courageous 17 year old from District 12, who has volunteered to be a contestant in the Games to save the life of her younger sister. She is whisked away from her life in the provinces and taken to the Capital and prepared for participation in the Hunger Games...  Now, I don't want to completely slate this movie - it does have quite a bit going for it; Jennifer Lawrence is very good as Katniss Everdeen, the futuristic Capital looks suitably impressive and despite the film's nearly two and a half hour running time, director Gary Ross keeps things running at an impressive pace, so there's rarely a dull moment. However, from my point of view, there are a couple of quite major problems. Firstly, possibly because Ross is attempting to squeeze the contents of a fairly thick book into a feature length running time, we rarely get to spend much time with the other contestants in the Game. Therefore, regardless of whether those contestants are friend or foe to Katniss, their deaths rarely have much of an emotional impact on the viewer.  Secondly, because the film is aimed at children, and needed to obtain a 12A certificate, it's really very squeamish about violence. Despite the central premise of the movie involving a fight to the death between a number of young gladiators, the action sequences are directed in a frenetic, shaky manner which means that we it is very difficult to clearly see the battles between the participants, or their deadly aftermath. Seeing as how The Hunger Games has just broken all sorts of box office records, I don't suppose the filmmakers will care too much what I think, but from my point of view, it's too flawed to be considered a complete success.

Rating: 6/10

Monday, 19 March 2012

That was the week that was (12 - 18 March)

Reviews for seven films coming up this week (which I think may be a record number so far this year). Quite a mixed bag, too - we've got everything from an Oscar winning family drama to a lowbrow buddy cop comedy, and from a Turkish crime procedural to a South Korean Western. It's going to be good, clean fun for all the family...

Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

This is the movie that cleaned up at the 1980 Academy Awards, defeating all-comers to claim the Oscars for Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director and, most importantly, Best Picture. All That Jazz, Breaking Away, Norma Rae, Apocalypse Now: your boys took one HELL of a beating! Now, to be honest, of those four other films, I've only seen Apocalypse Now, and while I don't think this film is quite up to the standards of that wonderful Vietnam epic, Kramer vs. Kramer has a lot going for it. The plot sees go-getting advertising executive Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffmann) come home from another long, successful day at the office to discover that his neglected wife Joanna (Meryl Streep) is in the process of leaving him. As a result of this, Ted is forced to take on board the family duties that he'd been shirking for so long, and take responsibility for raising his six year old son. What could have made for a rather drippy, sentimental made-for-TV drama has been transformed into a truly excellent movie by the care which was taken in every aspect of the filmmaking process. The script is top notch - warm, humane and surprisingly funny, and there are no bad guys here, just flawed human beings trying the best that they can to live their lives. Both Hoffmann (in particular) and Streep are excellent in the central roles, and the film comes to a thrilling climax as husband and wife go through a custody battle for their son. Though some of the attitudes towards woman on display in this film may now seem a little dated, it's still a very good picture indeed.

Rating: 9/10

Maria Full of Grace (2004)

From the troubles of (comparatively) wealthy native New Yorkers to the life and death struggles of recent immigrants to the Big Apple - this is a look into the lives of Colombian drugs mules. Our protagonist here is Maria Alvarez, a 17 year old girl from a small town in Colombia. Having recently quit her depressing, dead end job in a flower factory, and on discovering that she is pregnant, Maria is tempted by what she thinks will be easy money as a mule on the Bogota - New York route. Sadly, she discovers that her new occupation is anything but easy. Not only does she have to swallow fifty or so pellets filled with cocaine (which could be lethal if any of those pellets were to leak), but she also has to deal with the unpleasant individuals she is working for, and contend with the suspicions of the US customs officials. This is a thought provoking and interesting film, which includes impressive attention to detail in its observations about life in Colombia and provides highly plausible reasons as to why somebody would risk their life in such a hazardous line of work. Catalina Sandino Moreno (who was Oscar nominated for her performance) is excellent in the lead role, establishing a sympathetic, vulnerable character who learns to fend for herself over the course of her journey. My only issue with this one would be with the ending, which felt a little rushed, and not entirely plausible. Otherwise, this is a very strong effort from first time director Joshua Marston.

Rating: 7/10

21 Jump Street (2012)

Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum team up for this mash up between two well-worn genres - the high school comedy and the buddy cop picture. Very loosely based on the '80s TV show which launched Johnny Depp's career, Hill and Tatum play a couple of recruits fresh from police academy, who are sent back to high school as part of an undercover operation to bring down a drugs ring. As always seems to be the case with partners in buddy cop movies, the pair are like chalk and cheese. Hill plays Schmidt, a nerdy and highly intelligent individual who has a tendency to freeze under pressure, while Tatum is Jenko, a dumb (but generally kind-hearted) jock who is able to ace the physical aspects of police work, but can't remember the words to the Miranda rights speech. I wasn't entirely sure that this one would come off, but to my surprise, the film was actually very funny, albeit in a highly puerile way. Jonah Hill plays another of his motor-mouthed, wise cracking characters, and if you liked him in Superbad and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, this is another performance which could be right up your alley. Even the normally wooden Channing Tatum, who I've never really rated previously, isn't too bad in this one.  The wheels start to come off somewhat in the overcooked ending, which eschews laughs in favour of an epic car chase and gun battle, but by that stage, the film had generated more than enough goodwill. This is a far better film than I expected and leads me to think that it might be worth mashing up some other tired genres in an effort to create something new and exciting. Perhaps a mixture of science fiction and weepy melodrama might work - I'm thinking along the lines of Steel Magnolias... In Space. Hollywood producers - I await your call.

Rating: 7/10

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011)

Following the surprisingly good 21 Jump Street on Friday, I took a second trip to the cinema the following day to catch another police themed picture, one which takes a rather more serious look at the thin blue line. Instead of madcap, foulmouthed antics in a Californian high school, here we have a solemn and ponderously paced procedural set in the remote Turkish province of Anatolia. The story takes place over the course of a single day, as a group of police officers, together with a doctor and a state prosecutor, take a murder suspect out on a hunt for a body he claims to have buried. At the risk of sounding like a philistine (though, like Ivan the tennis pro in The Squid and the Whale, that's probably what I am), I found this one to be just too slow for my tastes. Events progress at a glacial pace, as the characters move from one prospective site to another, exchanging small conversational nuggets as they go. I appreciate that some of the camerawork here is quite breath-taking, and that some of the shots were brilliantly composed by director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, but I could really have used a bit more excitement - my attention was really flagging by the end of the movie's lengthy running time. That doesn't mean that I'm going to give up on artier films altogether; there have been a number of slower paced, foreign films which I've really enjoyed over the last few years, including Four Months, Three Days and Two Days, The White Ribbon, The Consequences of Love, Au Revoir Les Enfants and Tony Manero. All the same, I can't see myself returning to this particular flick in a hurry.

Rating: 5/10

Black Death (2010)

Set against the backdrop of an Olde England ravaged by the first outbreak of the bubonic plague, we follow a small but fearsome cadre of soldiers who have been tasked with rooting out witches amongst their midst. The group's latest mission leads them into a rural backwater, in search of a village which seems to have been untouched by the disease. The rumour is that the villagers have fallen under the spell of a beautiful sorceress, renounced their Christianity and taken to necromancy in a bid to save themselves from the Black Death... The subject of religious faith is still a highly emotive and controversial issue in today's society, but whereas these days, we're more likely to see a war of words between atheists and believers, back in medieval times, matters seem to have been resolved by torturing your opponent into submission. Anyway, it all makes for an interesting horror move, featuring a strong and diverse cast of mostly British actors - particularly impressive are Sean Bean, Carice Van Houten, Eddie Redmayne and John Lynch. It is also rather reminiscent of The Wicker Man - with both movies containing a common theme of pitting the Christian beliefs of an outsider against the pagan ways of a remote group. This one was directed by Bristol's own Christopher Smith, for whom I've previously had mixed feelings - I thoroughly enjoyed his 'Shining on a boat' movie Triangle, but hated Severance (reviewed here: On balance, I have to say that it's the best of Smith's films to date, and it's well worth checking out.

Rating: 8/10

Inland Empire (2006)

David Lynch's most recent film takes us weirdly deep into his deeply weird subconscious. We're provided with a relatively conventional narrative at first; Laura Dern plays Nikki Grace, a successful Hollywood actress who has just discovered that she will be playing the lead in a new film entitled "On High in Blue Tomorrows". However, she is warned by a sinister neighbour that the production is doomed - the picture is a remake of a never completed Polish film in which both of the leads were murdered. One day, whilst looking around the studio backlots, Nikki wanders through a stage door and enters another world. From this point onwards, the narrative thread disappears almost altogether, and we are presented with a nightmarish kaleidoscope of strange and haunting sights. These include a family of well-dressed rabbits who appear to be starring in a bizarre sitcom, an interview between an abused woman and an almost mute government functionary in a dingy, green tinged bunker, a Greek chorus of Sunset Strip hookers who occasionally burst into song and dance routines, and scenes from a spooky Polish séance - all of which are watched on a television screen by a tearful woman in a low rent hotel room. To be honest, I had almost no idea what was going on most of the time, and I'm not sure that there is any rational explanation for the events which occur in the final two thirds of the film's running time. Nevertheless, this is a movie which will stay with me for a long time. I felt completely transfixed - almost hypnotised - by what I was watching on the screen. The film provides that combination of awe and terror which I haven't experienced since I last saw David Lynch's masterpiece, Mulholland Drive. I should also point out that sound mixing for this film is quite brilliant; the strange, discordant noises in the background create an atmosphere of dread - and are occasionally punctuated with loud, violent bursts which almost made me jump out of my seat. A word of warning, though - this isn't a film for viewers who prefer a movie in which everything can be rationalised and explained - as far as I can tell, though there are certain common recurring themes and motifs, there isn't any real rhyme or reason to much of what you see and hear; the film follows a dream logic of its own. As a pure cinematic experience though, it's hard to beat.

Rating: 9/10

The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008)

You may recall that I mentioned a few weeks back that almost every Korean film I have seen to date is incredibly dark and gruesome. Well, here we have a film (and from the maker of notable Korean horror shows I Saw the Devil and A Tale of Two Sisters, no less) that is far more upbeat and cheerful. The trappings of the Western genre are taken into the unfamiliar surroundings of 1940s Manchuria, with our three eponymous characters fighting it out over a treasure map said to lead its holder to buried treasure, left behind by the deposed Qing dynasty. The 'Good' here is the least interesting character - he's simply a sharp shooting bounty hunter looking to bring the other two characters to justice. The 'Bad' is rather more engaging - he's a well-dressed dandy with a short temper and a nasty habit of shooting any of his underlings who he perceives as having slighted him. Finally we have The 'Weird', a clumsy petty criminal and motorcycle enthusiast, who stumbles across the map by mistake but is determined to keep hold of it. As the trio race across the region, they are closely followed by a gang of bandits and the occupying Japanese army, all of whom leave behind a trail of mayhem in their wake...  All in all, it's good fun (if a bit silly) and the numerous action sequences are put together in an entertaining, hyperkinetic style by director Jeen-woo Kim. It's probably not one which is going to live long in the memory, but I enjoyed it all the same.

Rating: 7/10

Monday, 12 March 2012

That was the week that was (5 - 11 March)

A bit of a quiet week, this time around. I was up in Scotland over the weekend, so only got the chance to watch a couple of films. Thinking about it, this may be the first week of the year in which I haven't taken a trip out to the cinema - both of the movies I watched this week were on DVD.

Red State (2011)

Kevin Smith's career has taken a bit of a nosedive over the last ten years or so, with the former king of slacker comedy being responsible for quite a few poorly received films, including the likes of Jersey Girl, Cop Out and Clerks II. To be honest, I made a conscious choice not to see any of those films, based on their toxic reputation, but I did see Zack and Miri, which I can personally confirm as being truly awful. Anyway, as a fan of his earlier work, I was lured into watching this one after being told that it was something of a return to form, and to some extent, that's true. Red State sees Smith aiming his sights at both fundamentalist religious fanatics and the US government's heavy-handed tactics in suppressing them. The set-up here has three hormone addled teenage boys subjected to a bait-and-switch trap - they think they're heading for a rendezvous with an older woman, but instead, it becomes apparent that they have been lured into the clutches of a deranged, fire and brimstone preacher. This man, Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) views their kind as endemic of the collapse in moral values in America, and is intent on killing them in front of his congregation as an example to others.  At this point, however, the ATF get wind of the murderous activities of Cooper's religious sect, and descend upon the group's compound, all guns blazing. The film is a bit of a departure for Smith - although there are still comedic elements in the mix, it's more of a straight up horror/ action film than anything else. It's also a bit of a mess, with the plot moving rapidly from one story strand to the next at a breakneck pace, with little cohesion or control. Smith seems to have read a few articles in the newspapers on the activities of a certain infamous American religious group from Kansas, combined their story with that of the Waco siege tragedy, had a quick think about his views on both subjects and hoped everything would fall into place. That the film isn't a total disaster is largely down to the efforts of Michael Parks in the central role of Abin Cooper. He gives us a very interesting, unexpected take on what could have been a stock 'crazy preacher' type. He is quiet, avuncular and subtly threatening rather than being an out and out monster - which makes his character's sudden bursts of violence all the more disturbing. While this isn't exactly the return to form I was hoping for, it's far better than Zack and Miri, and with its short running time, it never has the chance to outstay its welcome.

Rating: 6/10

Event Horizon (1997)

This sci-fi/ horror hybrid sees a group of intrepid space travellers sent out to the furthest reaches of the galaxy in search of a missing vessel named the 'Event Horizon'. Numbered amongst the ship's crew are the calm, level headed Captain Miller (Laurence Fishburne), troubled scientist Dr William Weir (Sam Neill), mentally exhausted Medical Officer Peters (Kathleen Quinlan) and the amiable if sometimes hot-headed pilot, Smith (Sean Pertwee). Once the missing ship has been located, it soon becomes apparent that something terrible has happened to its former occupants - and that the crew are in grave danger of suffering the same fate...  Science fiction movies which purport to show the near future can sometimes get very dated, very quickly, but other than a statement in the opening credits that "by the year 2015, mankind will have established its first colony on the moon", this movie has aged pretty well, at least as far as the visuals are concerned. Director Paul W S Anderson has followed Ridley Scott's approach in Alien and designed his space ships so that they appear realistically grubby and weathered, as would befit a craft that has been active for an extended period of time. There is also a fairly strong cast here, with the likes of Neill, Fishburne and Pertwee making the most of some occasionally clunky dialogue. All in all, I have to say I enjoyed this one, though I did have some reservations, largely stemming from the rather weak ending. Anderson succeeds in building up the tension and paranoia that I can easily imagine would affect individuals stuck in a spacecraft drifting through space; this tension becomes even more palpable as a number of members of the crew experience harrowing and shocking visions, based on their greatest fears and neuroses. Sadly, by the time we get to the climax, and one of the members of the crew is revealed to be the villain of the piece, all subtlety goes out the window, and things come to a rather overwrought and unconvincing finish. With a few changes here and there, this could have been a minor classic. As it is, it's an entertaining, if slightly flawed, picture.

Rating: 7/10

Monday, 5 March 2012

That was the week that was (27 February - 4 March)

At this time of the year, there's generally a bit of a lull in terms of the quality of new films coming out in the UK. With the Oscars having been and gone, the Hollywood studios are now saving their more prestigious releases for next winter, and blockbuster season won't start again until Easter. Looking at what's opening over for the next few weeks, the likes of John Carter, We Bought A Zoo and Bel Ami don't exactly set my pulse racing. It's not all bad news though - even if Hollywood is using this time of year as a bit of a dumping ground, there are still plenty of interesting arthouse/ foreign films due for a UK release in the new future. In Darkness and The Kid With A Bike both look promising, and I'm eagerly anticipating Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Those movies should keep me busy until the release of the Avengers movie (which has apparently now been given the rather unwieldy name 'Marvel Avengers Assemble', in case anyone confuses it with the notorious '90s flop starring Uma Thurman and Sean Connery).

Stake Land (2010)

I find it's often much easier for me to write a review of a film which I've really loved or hated than something which I am ambivalent towards. While I can list the brilliant performances or excellent cinematography of a cinematic masterpiece, or laugh about the flaws of an embarrassing turkey, when a film is just mediocre (like Stake Land), it's hard to know what to say. Anyway, I'll try and do this one justice - it's a tale set in a dystopian future where a plague of vampires have sucked the blood out of vast swathes of the United States. We follow a tough, crude vampire hunter known as 'Mister' (Nick Damici) and his teenage companion, Martin (Connor Paolo) as they journey north through their devastated country in search of salvation in Canada. The undead aren't the only problem for our heroes - they also have to contend with a powerful and growing doomsday cult which has taken the coming of the vampires as a sign that they should seize control of the country and prepare for the apocalypse. The vampires on display in Stake Land are a million miles away from the suave, seductive Count Dracula - they are stupid, bloodthirsty, brutish creatures who have more in common with the fast moving zombies in 28 Days Later. As I've mentioned above, this film is just OK - there's nothing particularly wrong with it, but when held up against a really well made picture like The Road (which has a similarly themed plot, minus the vampires), the script, acting and production values all suffer in comparison. Though there a few impressive set pieces (such as the opening assault on Martin's family and a tense stand-off with a horde of vampires in a car park), I was never completely absorbed by this movie or invested in the fate of the lead characters.

Rating: 6/10

The Color Purple (1985)

Way back in the mid '80s, Steven Spielberg was known as a brilliant commercial director, having been responsible for massively successful blockbusters like Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. - but to date, an Academy Award for directing had eluded him. With The Color Purple, Spielberg couldn't have made a more transparent grab for a statuette than if he'd just shot himself bellowing "I want an Oscar" for two hours and posted it off to the Academy. Pretty much every element is in place for Oscar recognition here - it's the story of the life of Celie, a young black woman living in rural Georgia at the beginning of the twentieth century. Though she is poor and has to put up with raising the difficult family of her abusive and cruel husband, her budding friendship with Shug Avery, a free spirited singer, allows her to dream of better things... Sadly for Senor Spielbergo's union regulated American equivalent, it didn't come off this time, and though the film was nominated in a number of categories, it went home empty handed. Why? Well, for me, this film suffers from being overly sentimental, and, more seriously, at times it seems to shy away from delving too deeply into the misery and suffering that African American women of this period in history must have suffered. Spielberg is instead content to focus on the positive - their indomitable spirit, the simple pleasures of country life - that kind of thing.  The musical score is overused and heavy handed, deployed in an attempt to prompt the viewer to burst into tears at frequent intervals throughout the film. In terms of the way the film finishes, it reminded me a little of Wayne's World - only rather than trying out the Sad Ending and the Scooby Doo Ending, Spielberg decided that only the Mega Happy Ending was do-able - and stuck with it. I don't want to sound too harsh - despite what I've said above, I am a Spielberg fan, and the film does have quite a bit going for it. There are very good performances from Whoopi Goldberg and Margaret Avery, the film is (as ever with Spielberg) beautifully shot and there are some brilliantly directed sequences - particularly those set in the juke joint, where the whole community turns up so see Shug Avery sing. Fortunately for me (and the movie going world in general), Spielberg moved on to direct a series of films which managed to be both moving and exciting without lapsing into excessive sentimentality - and he was justly awarded the Academy Award for best director for Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan. Sadly, he seems to have relapsed somewhat with War Horse (, which had a number of similar failings to The Color Purple. Here's to hoping that Mr Spielberg will return to top form with next year's Lincoln.

Rating: 6/10

Dances With Wolves (1990)

Whatever happened to Kevin Costner? Back in the 1980s and early '90s, he was pretty much King of Hollywood, but his stock has fallen so far of late that I've heard rumours that his most recent role is working as a deck chair collector on Yarmouth Pleasure Beach (note: these rumours may have be made up by me). Anyway, in terms of awards, Dances With Wolves is one of Costner's greatest successes, winning him Best Picture and Best Director whilst also bagging him a nomination for Best Actor. After twenty odd years, does the film stand up? Well, for me, it's a solid picture, and a fine example of a modern day revisionist Western, in which the Indians are the heroes of the piece and the white settlers are wasteful, arrogant fools, taking land away from its rightful owners. The plot sees Costner as world weary civil war hero John Dunbar, who requests a post on the outer reaches of the American Frontier in an effort to find some peace and quiet. Whilst there, he encounters a tribe of Sioux Indians, and he gradually earns their respect until he is able to live amongst them as an equal. On the plus side, we get some beautifully shot footage of the American prairie, a breathtaking scene in which the Sioux hunt a herd of buffalo and an interesting romantic subplot in which Kevin falls in love with a white woman who has been adopted by the tribe as one of their own. On the negative side, at three hours long, the film feels a little bloated, and some judicious editing could have improved matters. Though it isn't really a big problem here, a failure to keep his films to a reasonable running time was one of the reasons why Costner's follow up films Waterworld and The Postman were such notorious flops. Anyway, if I see Kev collecting chairs on the Pleasure Beach, I'll let him know I liked this one.

Rating: 7/10

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

My favourite movie of the week stars Elizabeth Olsen as a young woman who has recently escaped from a Manson family style cult, and is hiding out with her sister and brother-in-law in their handsome lakeside property in upstate New York. Though her given name is Martha, she is rechristened Marcy May by her new 'friends' in the cult, and just as her identity is split between these two names, the film reflects her fractured state of mind. Flashbacks showing her indoctrination into the ways of the cult are interwoven with scenes depicting her struggles to reintegrate into normal life - and her paranoia that the remaining members of the cult are going to track her down. Two performances in the film are particularly praiseworthy: Elizabeth Olsen is fantastic in her first screen role, brilliantly portraying a young woman just barely managing to keep it together. John Hawkes is also exceptional as the leader of the cult - a superficially charismatic and charming individual who is able to manipulate those around him to his own nefarious ends. Above all, director Sean Durkin deserves a great deal of credit for the disorienting effect that the film has on the viewer - you're never quite sure whether what you're seeing is real, or just a paranoid delusion on the part of Martha. Though the ending to the film is rather abrupt and a little confusing, I didn't feel cheated by this - it's ambiguous for a reason.  The way in which you interpret it depends on whether or not you believe in the things that Martha sees.

Rating: 8/10

Straw Dogs (1971)

Sam Peckinpah's famous and controversial movie sees Dustin Hoffman star as David Sumner, a bookish American professor of mathematics who decides to leave the States behind and spend a little time in the Cornish village in which his beautiful English wife (Susan George) grew up. Of course, if Sumner thinks he's going to get away from turmoil and violence by moving to the English countryside, he's in for a surprise. From the outset, it is apparent that something is not right within the village, and what begins as taunts and jokes from the locals to the outsider in their midst becomes a campaign of intimidation. Finally, even the mild mannered Sumner is forced to resort to violence to defend his home and his family... This is a film which begins a little slowly, but the tension builds and builds until it explodes in an astonishing and powerful ending. It's also notable for a wonderfully edited sequence set at a church gathering, in which the innocent images and sounds of a party are brilliantly intercut with the shocking actions of the night before. It seems that Peckinpah's (rather cynical) theme here is that beneath a veneer of civilisation, human beings are brutish, violent creatures. Though you may be able to hide your animalistic side for a time, ultimately even the most refined person cannot help but resort to their baser instincts. I'm not sure I entirely buy into this theory myself - but the film is a landmark of '70s cinema and well worth a look all the same.

Rating: 8/10