Wednesday, 30 September 2009

District 9

Year: 2009
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Writers: Neill Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell
Starring: Sharlto Copley, John Sumner & Vanessa Haywood

Coming out at the tail end of summer, District 9 makes a refreshing change to the spate of poor blockbusters this year (bar maybe Star Trek which I quite enjoyed). An original concept and setting for a big budget movie alongside other factors push this way ahead of rubbish like Transformers 2.

District 9 introduces us (using a 'mockumentary' style) to an alternate reality where a small populace of bedraggled aliens, nicknamed 'prawns', appeared on Earth (specifically Johannesburg in South Africa) in the 1990's. Over the 20 years they have lived here the group have become marginalised and forced to live in a cordoned-off area that has degenerated into a filthy crime-ridden slum. The film begins with the prawns being forcibly evicted from this refuge to be moved to a newly constructed camp within 24 hours.

From reading the brief synopsis above and after having seen any of the film's publicity it's clear what the filmmakers are trying to get at. At the start of the film the parallel's between the aliens and real-life immigrants are really hammered home and threaten to get heavy handed, but the filmmakers keep it under control by introducing a more central narrative strand and sticking to it.

This shift however leads me into one of the few problems I had with the film. The first 20 minutes or so stick rigidly to the initial concept of a documentary format, where interviews fill in the gaps (sometimes unnecessarily so it must be said) between handheld footage following the events as they unfold for the human protagonists. Randomly within a very naturalistic sequence however we are thrown into a different format, observing a scene that would never form part of the 'documentary', and from then on the film loses the concept completely. This isn't a big problem as such, because after the initial shock the film does settle nicely into it's new skin, but it still seems an odd decision. Perhaps if the shift had occurred earlier it wouldn't have been noticeable, but it comes close to a quarter of the way through the film once you're fully involved.

Also, once the film becomes more of a film and loses it's documentary trappings, it picks up a few cliches along the way and starts to feel a little more conventional after an intriguingly fresh opening. I mean 'a little' though, as the South African setting, the cast of unknown actors and the unpredictable ending do still create a more interesting blockbuster experience. Also, although the film changes style, it still works very well. The action scenes towards the end of the film are outstanding and the special effects are mostly seamless throughout even with such a raw feel to the lighting and camerawork. The fact that one of the main characters consists completely of CGI is barely noticeable. The lead actor Sharlto Copley actually improves dramatically as the film moves on too, after getting off to a shaky, caricatured start.

District 9, despite it's inconsistencies, is a hugely entertaining film with a fair amount of brains and lets the world know that first-time director Neill Blomkamp is a a name to watch out for.


Monday, 28 September 2009


Year: 1973
Director: Sidney Lumet
Writers: Waldo Salt & Norman Wexler
Starring: Al Pacino, John Randolf, Jack Kehoe & Biff McGuire

Serpico is a police thriller from the early seventies made in the wake of the success of films like Dirty Harry and The French Connection made just two years earlier. These two films subverted the style of cop films of the past where the lines were clear between good and evil, and the real violence and depravity was generally glossed over. Serpico shares some of the rawness and gritty style of those two classics, but the protagonist is a vastly different character.

Serpico is based on the true story of Frank Serpico, a New York City cop who was an integral part in fighting police corruption in the 60's and early 70's, with his work leading to the creation of the Knapp Commission, a groundbreaking and widely publicised investigation. In the film he is portrayed as an outcast from his peers due to his hippy-like appearance and refusal to take bribes however small (at one point he frowns upon a free sandwich!). The film opens dramatically with the character struggling to stay alive in the back of a policecar after having been shot in the face. From then on the film goes back to the start of his career as a policeman and carries on from there, as he gradually realises how deep greed and corruption burrows into the policeforce. With little support from anyone, he hopelessly continues to fight for what he believes in, despite shunning his fellow officers and troubling the top brass.

Directed by the great Sidney Lumet, who made two personal favourites of mine, 12 Angry Men and Network as well as the brilliant Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico is a solid film that often impresses but fails to make as big an impact as these classics, and also falls short of the other great 70's thrillers mentioned at the start of this review. Al Pacino takes the lead in an early role settled in-between the behemoths of The Godfather Parts 1 and 2, and he's the best reason to watch the film. He delivers a powerhouse performance, especially considering his relative inexperience at the time (it was only his fourth feature). He turns what could have been a 'goodie-two-shoes' hero character into a flawed and believable man with an extremely heavy burden to carry. Yes, he lets out several of his trademark angry outbursts, but this was produced well before they became cliched.

I think one of the problems I had with the film was that it felt a bit dated. Not in terms of the fashions or filmmaking techniques, but in the subject matter. So many films and TV programmes have tackled police corruption since this was made and some have done it better. I think the main one for me is actually The Wire, which really explores every avenue, leaving no stone left unturned, with dozens of stories meticulously entwined. OK so it's totally unfair to compare the two seen as The Wire was produced 30 years later and had about 60 extra hours of viewing time to play with, but I can't deny it's a major factor in lessening the impact Serpico had on me.

Also, the film did feel a little sluggish at times. The opening sequence is brilliant, exploding onto the screen with rhythmically tense excitement, but after that the film slows down somewhat and never quite gains the momentum that drew us in at the start. It's certainly not boring by any means, but I think that first scene just sets a standard that isn't quite reached anywhere else in the film.

On the whole, it's still very good though. The warts-and-all approach to the character is refreshing for a true story, Al Pacino as I mentioned before is electrifying to watch, and there are some powerful scenes. It just didn't hit home like it should have done, and struggled to engage me as much as other classics of the genre.


Monday, 21 September 2009

The Big Boss

Year: 1971
Director: Lo Wei
Writers: Lo Wei
Starring: Bruce Lee, Maria Yi & James Tien

The Big Boss (otherwise known as Fists of Fury in the US - which is the UK title for his follow up confusingly!) was Bruce Lee's breakthrough film, turning him from TV sidekick and ex-Hong Kong child star to global megastar. It also helped kickstart the huge Kung-Fu craze in America (alongside The Chinese Boxer and King Boxer which were released a little earlier in the west). For these reasons The Big Boss has achieved a classic status among martial art movie fans. Being one myself, I can fully appreciate the impact it had and moments of the film fully justify this, but it's certainly not without it's flaws and is not Lee's best film by a long shot.

The plot is hardly worth mentioning - it involves a family working in an ice factory, that unbeknown to them is actually operating as a drug smuggling racket. Whenever anyone gets close to sniffing this out they get brutally murdered. Lee plays a friend who initially stands on the sidelines as people are bullied, bribed and murdered, due to a promise he made to his mother not to get into trouble. This promise of course is shattered into a thousand pieces as Lee vows revenge on the drug dealers and proceeds to kick seven shades of sh*t out of everyone.

Unfortunately, from an action perspective this 'promise' means that we barely see Lee lift a finger until half way through the film, and even then it's not until the last half an hour or so that he really lets rip. When it comes, you really do get to see why Bruce Lee became such a household name though. Although the choreography isn't as impressive as in some of his later efforts, this contains some of his most brutal and animalistic fight sequences, especially in the intense and bloody showdown with Ying-Chieh Han, who was actually the action choreographer on the film.

Performance wise, Lee was never going to win any Oscars for The Big Boss, but his star power and charisma is clear on screen. The moment when he first snaps and breaks his 'no violence policy' in particular is filled with an awesome ferocity and intensity. Away from the action scenes he's not given much to work with, but he still stands clearly above the rest of the cast.

Lee's charisma and a couple of strong action scenes aren't enough to make this a great film though. Fist of Fury is a much more successful effort and although martial art purists will scoff at the idea, I think Enter the Dragon, although in some aspects watered down by Hollywood, improves on films like The Big Boss with tighter pacing and more polished production.

The Big Boss has some strong moments that showed the world Bruce Lee's potential as an action superstar and still impresses in the fight scenes, but ultimately it's a cliched and cheesy film which takes too long to really get going.


* As a side note - I watched the Hong Kong Legends Platinum Edition DVD of the film and it looked amazing, especially considering it's age. It's a shame the company no longer exists, as it was a driving force in my martial arts movie addiction.

Saturday, 12 September 2009


Year: 1965
Director: Richard Lester
Writers: Marc Behm & Charles Wood
Starring: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison & Ringo Starr

Help! was the second Beatles film after A Hard Day's Night featuring songs from the album of the same name. It follows the boys attempts to escape from an evil cult and a pair of crazed scientists who want to get their hands on a sacrificial ring that Ringo can't get off his finger.

Now I'm a massive fan of The Beatles' music and I think the film's namesake album is incredible, but I must admit I really struggled with this. I hate to say it, being such a fan of the band, but I haven't actually seen this until now and I still haven't watched A Hard Day's Night. I always seem to keep my love of music and my love of film quite separate, and this helped cement that.

I didn't mind the fact that the plot was a bit of fluff to give us an excuse to see The Beatles acting the clown, but my main problem was the fact that the actual scenes seemed to be stuck on a loop. Pretty much the whole film is taken up with scenes of people trying to get the ring off Ringo, and it just felt annoyingly repetitive.

I am being quite harsh though as the film did have some strong qualities. Visually the film was great. The production design and photography were very well thought out and the world created on screen was vibrant, colourful and never dull. Audibly of course, the film was great too. As I mentioned earlier I love the album Help! and when the songs kicked in on screen it was a joy to see them performed (not live obviously though). The musical numbers were all very well shot and enjoyably playful. The title sequence with the band performing in black and white projected onto a screen as the villain threw colourful darts at them worked brilliantly for instance.

Unfortunately, the music wasn't enough to save it for me, and to be honest those scenes, although great, were poorly insterted into the narrative. I really wouldn't have minded any flaws like this if it were funny enough, but even the humour on a whole fell flat on it's face. Maybe it's just too dated now, but as silly as the film was, it never really made me laugh.

I feel a bit bad ripping into a Beatles film but I just really struggled to enjoy it as much as I'd have liked. It's worth watching for the music and for some great visuals, but the rest of it doesn't quite manage to engage or entertain any more.


Friday, 11 September 2009

Our Hospitality

Year: 1923
Director: Buster Keaton & John G Blystone
Writers: Jean C Havez, Clyde Bruckman, Joseph A Mitchell
Starring: Buster Keaton, Natalie Talmadge & Joe Roberts

Buster Keaton's second feature film after the not amazingly well-received Three Ages and a multitude of shorts, Our Hospitality is an early sign towards Keaton's genius.

The film tells the simple story of two feuding families, the Canfields and the McKays. After a family member is killed on both sides the Canfields vow revenge on the remaining members of the McKays. 20 years later, Willie McKay (played by Keaton), who had been sent away as a small child to get him away from the feud, comes back to town to claim his inheritance. On his way, he meets a beautiful young lady, who of course happens to be a Canfield, and the film follows Willie as he tries to avoid being killed by her evil father and brothers.

Being a film from 1923, it's quite dated by today's standards of course, but that doesn't stop it from being a fun, exciting and beautiful little film. The humour is very light when compared with the types of comedies we get today, but some of the little touches and nuances of Keaton's performance are so good it still holds up. The amount of effort that goes into some of the visual gags is astounding too, with some wonderful scenes concerning an early steam train having to make it's way across the wilderness. The reconstruction of this is meticulous and a lot of humour is drawn from it.

Speaking of effort, as usual with any Keaton film his acrobatic physicality is incredible and you can clearly see the inspiration he must have on performers such as Jackie Chan. OK, so Buster Keaton isn't going to roundhouse-kick anyone in the face, but his physical comedy and stuntwork is virtually unrivaled, especially for the time. The big finale where Keaton saves his sweetheart from a waterfall is stunningly well choreographed and nail-bitingly tense.

One other aspect that impressed me was how well shot and designed the film was considering the age and genre. Most studio comedies in the 20's were simply churned out with little thought to craftsmanship, whereas Our Hospitality, along with most of Keatons films, were lovingly made with some decent elements of drama alongside the gags. The opening scene for example is quite powerful and dark considering what is generally expected from a film of it's type.

In short, Our Hospitality is not a film that will have you continuously roaring with laughter and most of the stunts aren't as flashily exhilarating as in a modern action film, but considering it's over 80 years old, it's mightily impressive and still delivered enough entertainment to keep this action junkie happy for 70 minutes.


Sunday, 6 September 2009

Julie & Julia

Year: 2009
Director: Nora Ephron
Writers: Nora Ephron, Julie Powell, Julia Child & Alex Prud'homme
Starring: Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Stanley Tucci & Chris Messina

I approached this film expecting the worst. It looked and sounded like a typical 'chick-flick', an opinion not helped by the fact that it was written and directed by Norah Ephron, the genre's Queen. It also claimed to be based on 'two true stories'; one's bad enough for me as I'm of the opinion that Hollywood tackling real life rarely succeeds in awkwardly balancing truth, drama and inoffensiveness. And finally, I turned up to see the film early on a Sunday morning with a sore and uncomfortable hangover. In fact, the only reason I was going to see the film was because I got free tickets and I kind of thought this would be an excuse to really lay into something on my newly resurrected website.

Well, I'm kind of embarrassed to say that I was proved wrong. OK, it's not a brilliant film, but it was much better than I expected.

Julie & Julia sets the stories of two women side by side, one the trials of famous chef Julia Child (played by Meryl Streep) as she works to write and publish her phenomenally successful first cook-book, and the other the story of Julie Powell (Amy Adams), a hard-up office worker who decides to write a blog charting her mission to cook every recipe in Child's book (a hefty 500-odd recipes) in one year.

It doesn't sound like much of a premise for a film, but somehow it works. It's helped largely by some impressive performances. Streep is flamboyantly over the top in capturing Child's mannerisms and personality, yet avoids caricature by using these to create an incredibly likeable and surprisingly funny character. Adams on the other hand draws a warm and believable performance that is less flashy, but helps ground the film when needed.

That said, the film does have it's problems. For me, the film just didn't have enough drama to fully engage for it's two hour running time. It's an incredibly light film with conflicts you rarely feel can't be easily resolved. Everyone involved is always so nice and cheerful it often seems a little too much sometimes. Schmaltz is generally avoided as much as possible though despite the nature of the film and the sort of cringe-worthy scenes I expected never reared their ugly heads. Only one scene bothered me, a piece of character development featuring Julie's more successful friends that is painfully obvious and clumsily handled.

All in all, Julie & Julia is very likeable and gently entertaining, but far too light to be overly memorable.


In the Loop

Year: 2009
Director: Armando Iannucci
Writers: Armando Iannucci, Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Tony Roche & Ian Martin
Starring: Peter Capaldi, Tom Hollander, Gina McKee, James Gandolfini & Chris Addison

In the Loop sees the critically acclaimed TV series The Thick of It remoulded into a feature film. And what a film it is. I haven't seen British satire this biting, exhilarating or downright hilarious for a long time, at least not at the cinema. It's great to see the British sense of humour put to good use on film after suffering years of Full Monty rip-offs and other such laboured cash-ins.

Written by a group of British TV's finest comedy writers including the film's director Armando Iannucci, In the Loop follows the events that unfurl after the absent minded British Secretary of State for International Development makes an off-hand comment on national radio about the possible threat of a (fictional and undisclosed) war being 'unforeseeable'. After further slips of the tongue, he becomes 'meat' for both the US and UK governments, the leaders of which actually do want to go war. Chaos reigns as the various spin doctors and politicians use every dirty trick imaginable to get what they want and the clueless Secretary and his aide are left blowing in the wind as they make mistake after mistake.

The key factor that makes this film so good is the dialogue. The witicisms are fired out at a machine-gun pace and pretty much always hit their target. The finest of these generally come in the form of incredibly offensive yet sharply witty put-downs from the film's stand-out performer Peter Capaldi, who plays spin doctor Malcom Tucker. In my screening his scenes never failed to draw fits of laughter from the audience as he brutally tore apart everyone he met with great relish. He's a commanding presence on screen, yet the rest of the cast hold their own, adding flesh to the bones of the large selection of characters.

The quickfire dialogue alongside pseudo-documentary style camerawork help give the film a frantic and lightning-fast pace and it came as a great shock when the screening I was attending suddenly came to a halt for an interval. Everything plays through thick and fast, and although the political processes were shown to be chaotic and messy, the film never feels confusing or over-complicated. It's all very cleverly executed and only a few scenes involving one of the character's relationship issues felt a little bit misplaced for me, but not badly so.

In the Loop is a brilliant film that helped restore my faith in British cinema, which in my opinion hasn't been as strong as it used to and should be. It also goes to show that the transition from small screen to big can work if done as intelligently and entertainingly as this.


Thursday, 3 September 2009

Inglorious Bastards (1977)

Year: 1977
Director: Enzo G Castellari
Writers: Sandro Continenza, Sergio Grieco, Romano Migliorini, Laura Toscano, Franco Marotta
Starring: Bo Svenson, Fred Williamson, Peter Hooten, Michael Pergolani, Jackie Basehart

No, not Tarantino's latest self-indulgent trash homage, but the original 1977 not-quite-so-classic complete with correct spelling. It felt only right that I should review this now whilst it's namesake (it's certainly not a remake) is still out on general release.

Inglorious Bastards, otherwise known as Deadly Mission, is low budget Italian trash at it's most refined. Yes, it's as shoddily dubbed as most films of it's type and it's loaded with cliched characters and situations, but I have to admit I really enjoyed it.

The plot is a morally ambiguous twist on the old-fashioned boy's own adventure war stories, and is hardly Shakespeare, but it works. Basically a group of five disgraced soldiers heading for a court marshal (including low-budget legends Fred Williamson and Bo Svenson) get a lucky break when their truck is ambushed, and the group escape towards Switzerland. On the way however they get caught up in various sticky situations and end up accidentally roping themselves into helping the French Resistance in a suicide mission involving a heavily armed fortress and a train carrying a deadly missile.

It's clearly a rip-off of The Dirty Dozen, but what kept me interested was the pacing, the film rarely lets up and I couldn't help getting caught up in it all. Discarding the moralistic speeches and labored character development prevalent in a lot of old war movies, Bastards just sticks to what it does best, shooting Nazi's and blowing shit up. The action is hardly masterfully choreographed (think A-Team not Hard Boiled), but that's all part of it's charm. The cast all seem to be enjoying themselves and no one takes things overly seriously. One 'cowardly' character grates a bit at the start but grew on me as the film went on. Fred Williamson makes up for this by delivering his usual super-cool charasmatic performance that won't win him any oscars, but makes the film a hell of a lot more fun.

Some incredibly bad model shots threaten to push naffness a little too far at the end, and a totally random sequence involving gun-toting skinny-dippers doesn't settle well, but overall there's a lot of fun to be had here. So if you're willing to switch off your quality control and are in the mood to see Fred Williamson mowing down lines of Nazis with a cigar in his mouth, then this is well worth a watch.


Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Top 100 Films Of All Time

Here it is then, my Top 100 Films Of All Time.

I first wrote this a long time ago, so bear with me, some choices are a bit textbook, although I keep going back to tweak it now and again. A lot of the list is based on personal feeling and nostalgia rather than purely quality, which will explain some odd placements.

Please post your comments below anyway as I'm sure there will be plenty of disagreements.

  1. This is Spinal Tap
  2. Once Upon a Time in the West
  3. The Godfather
  4. Star Wars Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back
  5. Apocalypse Now
  6. Fight Club
  7. Raiders Of The Lost Ark
  8. The Godfather Part 2
  9. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds
  10. Stand By Me
  11. Chinatown
  12. Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope
  13. The Third Man
  14. Delicatessen
  15. Lord of the Rings (the Whole Trilogy)
  16. Alien
  17. Rear Window
  18. Jaws
  19. The Conversation
  20. Aliens
  21. One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest
  22. Twelve Angry Men
  23. Blade Runner
  24. Pulp Fiction
  25. Star Wars Episode 6: Return of the Jedi
  26. Monty Python’s Life of Brian
  27. Dr Strangelove
  28. Citizen Kane
  29. Casablanca
  30. Amelie
  31. The Apartment
  32. Kind Hearts and Coronets
  33. Being John Malcovich
  34. Die Hard
  35. The Shawshank Redemption
  36. Fargo
  37. Se7en
  38. Akira
  39. Network
  40. The Truman Show
  41. Lawrence Of Arabia
  42. Psycho
  43. Donnie Darko
  44. Schindler’s List
  45. Back to the Future
  46. Blue Velvet
  47. LA Confidential
  48. Terminator 2
  49. Hero (2002)
  50. Night of the Living Dead
  51. Dirty Harry
  52. Monty Python and the Holy Grail
  53. Trainspotting
  54. North by Northwest
  55. The Shining
  56. Memento
  57. Some Like it Hot
  58. Picnic at Hanging Rock
  59. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
  60. Magnolia
  61. Diner
  62. The Man Who Wasn’t There
  63. Taxi Driver
  64. Clerks
  65. Princess Mononoke
  66. The Killer
  67. Three Colours: Blue
  68. Goldfinger
  69. The Big Lebowski
  70. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
  71. Evil Dead 2
  72. King of Comedy
  73. Enter the Dragon
  74. Platoon
  75. Jurassic Park
  76. Halloween
  77. Heat
  78. Living in Oblivion
  79. The Thing
  80. Reservoir Dogs
  81. Dazed and Confused
  82. King Kong (1933)
  83. Toy Story
  84. Iron Monkey (1993)
  85. Groundhog Day
  86. American Beauty
  87. Usual Suspects
  88. Chungking Express
  89. Finding Nemo
  90. Touch of Evil
  91. Brick
  92. National Lampoon’s Animal House
  93. A Matter of Life and Death
  94. The Wild Bunch
  95. Dark Days
  96. Grosse Pointe Blank
  97. Ratatouille
  98. In the Mood For Love
  99. City of God
  100. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure


Well, it's been a while. Way back in 1999 I started a film review site (Dave's UK Film Page) and spent a good 5 or 6 years regularly reviewing every film I watched at the cinema. But somewhere down the line, around about the time I went to uni and couldn't afford to go the cinema every week or just couldn't be bothered to write about it, I just lost interest. But now, ten years later, I received an email from Geocities (who hosted the site) telling me that their free service was ending and my site would be removed. This was the kick start that I needed and I decided to bring my film review site back from the dead.

I'm going to post some of my old reviews over the coming week or two - only a choice few, as some are either poorly written or I totally disagree with the opinion after rewatching the film. After that I'll start putting in new reviews. I don't go to the cinema as often as I'd like though so I'm going to include DVD reviews too.

But to kick things off I thought I'd post my old Top 100 list from my old website - some of my favourites have changed over the years so excuse some of the entries, although I'll probably come back to this page and tweak it from time to time.

Enjoy, and keep reading!