Cinema review: Get Smart

August 26 2008 at 9:26 pm (Cinema reviews)

Remember I Spy? You know, the ‘60s American espionage comedy series with Robert Culp and Bill Cosby? No? Well, how about the 2002 big screen adaptation with Owen Wilson and Eddie Murphy? Still nothing? The reason is that the source material was so unknown (in this country at least) and generic that the adaptation had neither nostalgic value nor originality. The same is true of Get Smart.

Based on a 1960s TV series, Get Smart is the story of Maxwell Smart (Steve Carell), a hapless analyst in top secret spy agency CONTROL. Smart dreams of being a field operative and finally gets his wish when CONTROL’s headquarters are attacked by their arch-enemies KAOS. Most agents are killed leaving Smart and Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway) to find and defeat KAOS leader Siegfried (Terence Stamp).

It’s quite good throwaway fun but it’s littered with problems. First of all, the protagonist isn’t very well drawn. Maxwell Smart is too inept to be James Bond and too suave to be Frank Drebin leaving him in a kind of in-between role where his pratfalls are punctuated by moments of genius.

For a film so lightweight, it’s far too long and suffers from a formulaic plot complete with a twist so obvious that you barely even notice it happening. Despite some good jokes (especially a botched escape from a plane mid-flight and a hilarious incident with a stapler) the film is so much less than the sum of its parts.

The brilliant Steve Carell, of course, carries the film but he’s better than this. Although she kicks ass, the long-legged, big-lipped Anne Hathaway looks like a cut-price Angelina Jolie. Dwayne Johnson, now completely jettisoning his wrestling moniker, provides solid support as does the nice little appearance of Masi Oka of TV’s Heroes. Alan Arkin gets to do very little while Terence Stamp is simply rubbish.

The film plods along without knowing really where it’s going leaving a film so entirely forgettable that you start forgetting it before the credits even start rolling. There is good use of gadgets, including a shoe phone (apparently a mainstay of the original series) and a customised Swiss army knife, which are obviously inspired by 007, but they only highlight the laziness in spoofing espionage thrillers.

From Austin Powers to Johnny English, Bond spoofs have become so ubiquitous that they’re almost a genre in their own right. While Get Smart doesn’t play the parody card too hard, it’s an unremarkable copy-and-paste affair that outstays its welcome.

Rating: 2/5


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18-24 August 2008

August 22 2008 at 7:14 am (The list)

A good week last week, with three films ticked off the list:

Working Girl (1988)
It’s a shame that Melanie Griffith is billed third here since the film is all about her. Working Girl is a typically 80s rags-to-riches tale that time has not been kind to – it’s all about slick power players and big business, but today it looks dated (the shoulder pads, the makeup, the enormous hair). Still it’s great to see Sigourney Weaver in a rare villainous role as the nasty piece of work boss, and Harrison Ford show off his comedy chops to great effect.

Rating: 4/5

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
John Carpenter’s cult siege movie based on Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo is a slice of 70s exploitation cinema. Claustrophobic and taut, it actually benefits from the low budget and poor acting and makes a virtue out of Carpenter’s own ominous score.

Rating: 4/5


The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)
Widow Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney) decides to rent a seaside cottage which happens to be haunted by the ghost of sea captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison). The two build a strong relationship which is complicated when Lucy meets and falls in love with oily writer Miles Fairley (George Sanders). This surprisingly good romantic ghost story benefits from a solid script, although some of the acting is quite odd especially Rex Harrison’s dapper yet gruff sailor.

Rating: 4/5

Shame list total: 1,218

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Challenge extended

August 18 2008 at 9:43 pm (Uncategorized)

The shame list has evolved. Originally, the challenge was to see every film in the 2007 edition of the book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die by the time I was 35. But despite this book being compiled by 65 film critics, I realised that there must be other films of note that I should see that had to be omitted. So I looked for a second opinion. And a third, and a fourth, and so on.

I’ve incorporated as many film lists of note that I could find and put all the films I have yet to see in one big list. There are inevitably overlaps where a film appears in more than one list; this allows me to prioritise – the more lists that a film appears in, the more important it is that I watch it. I’ve included both critics’ lists and readers’ and viewers’ polls to give a broad spectrum from highbrow, art house stuff to films that normal people (that is, non-critics) have seen.

The lists I have used so far are:

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (ed. Steven Jay Schneider) – 762 films yet to see
The Guardian’s 1000 films to see before you die – 726
The IMDb top 250 (as at 10 August 2008) – 101
The Times top 100 films of all time – 45
AFI’s 100 years… 100 movies (10th anniversary list) – 40
BFI’s top 100 British films – 75
Channel 4’s 100 greatest films – 43
Time magazine’s all-time top 100 movies – 72
Empire’s top 100 movies (readers’ poll) – 14
Total Film’s top 100 movies (readers’ poll) – 10
Time Out centenary top 100 – 77
Time Out readers’ top 100 – 53

Taking all of that into account, I have 1,221 films left to watch at the time of writing. I think that’s comprehensive enough. Because there are now so many films, I haven’t yet decided on a new time frame. The most important film I have to watch appears in all but one of the lists which is, strangely, The Times’ list not the AFI’s list – both America and Britain are claiming Lawrence of Arabia as their own. I promise I shall watch it soon. Oh and I’m deeply shocked that my favourite film has only appeared in only one of those lists. One day, everyone will appreciate just how good The Truman Show is.

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11-17 August 2008

August 17 2008 at 8:28 pm (The list)

Just the one film from the list this week:

Bambi (1942)
Walt Disney’s favourite of his films, this tackled the theme of the circle of life long before The Lion King went there. It plods along nicely, but doesn’t really go anywhere and I found it hard to truly feel for Bambi because I knew that his mum was going to get it at some point. But it’s very cute and a nice little lesson in the facts of life for kiddiwinks.

Rating: 4/5

Shame list total: 1,219

If you’re wondering why the shame list total has gone up considerably rather than down slightly, all will be explained in an upcoming post.

I also watched:

Tell No One (2006)
Despite its overlong running time, this is a very efficient thriller that didn’t get the audience it deserved because it’s French, even though it’s based on an American novel. Because I had read the novel before, I was ready for all the twists and turns that the story took but it rises above other thrillers of its kind with some great performances (watch out for a perfect French accent from English rose Kristin Scott Thomas) and kinetic direction from Guillaume Canet.

Rating: 4/5

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4-10 August 2008

August 10 2008 at 9:42 pm (The list)

I did well last week having ticked three films off the list, although they were all very short so it was hardly challenging.

Ride Lonesome (1959)
One of the best things about the shame list is that occasionally I come across a film I’d never heard of before that impresses me. So it is with this Western, a genre I’m starting to like more and more. Randolph Scott plays bounty hunter Ben Brigade travelling to Santa Cruz with his new find killer Billy John (James Best). On the way Brigade is joined by a couple of outlaws (Pernell Roberts and James Coburn in his first screen role) and a widow (Karen Steele) to help him on his journey. But the outlaws might be more of a hindrance than a help when they plan to double cross Brigade. At a brisk 70 minutes it seems like a throwaway horse opera but is actually a well written drama with a nice satisfying ending.

Rating: 4/5

Dumbo (1941)
I thought I should tick some Disney classics off the list sooner rather than later because I’ve seen so few of the studio’s classic animations and this seemed like a good place to start. Dumbo is so cute and the music so compelling that it’s hard not to love it. The pink elephants scene is a little disturbing and I can imagine it would be deeply unsettling for a child but that’s probably true of certain scenes in most Disney cartoons. Having, of course, never seen it before, I was expecting him to fly much earlier in the film but it’s such a great triumph-over-adversity ending that I couldn’t help grinning like an idiot.

Rating: 5/5

Dracula (1931)
Dracula is such a familiar tale that it’s hard to believe that when this film was made, the novel was only 34 years old. Having read it at university (well, most of it) and seen countless Hammer versions and sequels, and Francis Ford Coppola’s liberty-taking rethink, it’s nice to return to one of the first screen outings of the tale. Bela Lugosi is an imposing presence as the creeping count, but Dwight Frye is just as good as the manic Renfield. The set design, make up and Tod Browning’s careful direction are impressive even today although the bat puppets are a bit shit.

Rating: 4/5

Shame list total: 763

I also watched:

No Country For Old Men (2007)
Having now seen the two best reviewed films of last year (this and There Will Be Blood) I can see what all the fuss is about. I can see great merit in both films (There Will Be Blood has been on my mind since I saw it last week) but I did find the Coen brothers’ modern day Western the better film. Exciting in a way that few films are these days, it doesn’t rely on music to propel the tension – there is virtually none played in the film, instead using silence to chilling effect. Javier Bardem is simply terrifying as Anton Chigurh, the killer without a conscience but with principles. Although I still don’t understand why everyone kept going on about his haircut. The film is set in 1980 when bad barnets were plenty. Although there are great performances throughout, Tommy Lee Jones as world-weary sheriff Ed Tom Bell really drives the film and personifies the key theme of a generation who can no longer understand the violence and inhumanity of the world.

Rating: 5/5

Untraceable (2008)
An enjoyable if by-numbers thriller with its fingers in the increasingly popular pies of cyber-plotting and torture porn. Diane Lane plays FBI agent Jennifer Marsh on the trail of a killer on whose website victims are killed in horrific ways. The more people watch online, the faster the victims die. A couple of decent surprises, some inventive murders and a little bit of can’t-believe-anyone-can-be-this-sick shock make it an acceptable way to pass 97 minutes if you like this kind of thing, although the abrupt ending is a little unsatisfying.

Rating: 3/5

Keeping Mum (2005)
This sweet black comedy is like a kindly old pottymouthed great aunt who cheerfully forgets your name and farts at the dinner table. The Goodfellows are a model family living in the sleepy town of Little Wallop. Father Walter (Rowan Atkinson) is a humourless revered, mother Gloria (Kristin Scott Thomas) is having an affair with her sleazy golf coach (Patrick Swayze) while the son and daughter have the usual stereotypical kid problems. Enter housekeeper Grace Hawkins (Maggie Smith) with her unique problem-solving technique: murder. It’s a bit like a violent episode of Last of the Summer Wine… only funny.

Rating: 3/5

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Cinema review: WALL•E

August 6 2008 at 9:36 pm (Cinema reviews)

There’s something otherworldly and superhuman about Pixar. Not only do they get better and better, but they do so with an effortless kind of shrug-it-off attitude that makes you think that they don’t even care. It all seems just a bit too easy for them. Despite the painstaking work that goes into them, their films arrive with little fanfare and consistently amaze audiences and critics alike making them feel almost like sleeper hits. You have to wonder whether John Lasseter and co have sold their souls to the devil.

Even more amazing is the way in which Pixar’s films are inextricably married to their studio. Nobody talks about the films of Universal or Warner Bros in the same way. The only other studios to get their films lumped together in common parlance are Disney and Dreamworks – that’s right, it’s all about animation. Pen and pixel movies seem to get segregated from the rest. They even have their own Oscar category.

The reason for this is, as Pixar stalwart Andrew Stanton himself has insisted, that animation is a technique rather than a genre. This is certainly true of Pixar’s latest – it may be a ‘cartoon’ but this covers many genres – part cutesy slapstick comedy, part bittersweet romance, part sci-fi epic.

A plot that covers all this in 90 minutes without feeling saturated has to be impressive. The humans have left the Earth because they buggered it up so badly that living on its surface became impossible. They left the clean up task to a team of robots of which only one remains: WALL•E. He goes about his business in a quiet, diligent fashion, turning piles of rubbish into neat cubes and, like the Wombles before him, making good use of the things that he finds. Then a spaceship arrives, and out pops space-age droid on a mission EVE, changing WALL•E’s lonely existence forever.

The barren, dirty Earth is beautiful to look at, and WALL•E’s life on it is a joy to watch. The animation is nothing short of perfect from the detail in WALL•E’s scuffed, mucky metalwork to the heartbreakingly sad landscapes of the empty planet. You could watch it for hours, so it’s a shame when 40 odd minutes in, we have to leave all that behind to experience what the humans have been up to, which is when the film lets itself down.

Although ambitious, WALL•E is not the silent film we were expecting. Yes, the two lead characters only say about three words throughout the course of the film (and they say those three words a lot) but of course it’s up to the chatterbox humans to break the silence. The lazy, diminutive, devolved race is certainly intended to make us look at ourselves with embarrassment and guilt, but you won’t really care. WALL•E is such a great hero that the film starts to lose its focus when we arrive at the humans’ space station. The two lead characters would have been more than enough to carry the film on their own, even if they aren’t human.

Plus, he’s sooooo cute that he makes ET look like the Terminator. The trouble is he’s too cute – watching him save the day is like having Rick Moranis cast as John McClane. Why couldn’t we have had a simple tale of a lonely, battered robot falling in love? The cautionary tale we get seems like a waste because we certainly don’t care what happens to the human race or the Earth. Plus it smacks of hypocrisy to have a film so fervently against the dangers of capitalism and have the hero advertise every electrical item under the sun.

If you can, ignore the action and focus on those lovely visuals. WALL•E is not perfect (it’s certainly not as good as Toy Story or The Incredibles), but with a hero this lovable and humble, perfection would seem wrong.

Rating: 4/5

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28 July-3 August 2008

August 5 2008 at 10:21 pm (The list)

Yes! I’m back in the game. Two films from the list last week plus another which might as well be. Incidentally, the shame list is currently undergoing some changes which will ultimately mean that I have to watch even more films than before. I’ll explain more soon. Anyway, from the list:

Shine (1996)
The trouble with biopics is that they fool you into thinking that people whose lives are worth documenting can be summed up in less than two hours with a neat character arc and heavy symbolism. The truth is that people’s lives just aren’t like that. Still, this is one of the better ones about a lesser known genius. Shine is the story of Australian piano prodigy David Helfgott, who escapes the brutality of his father (brilliantly played by Armin Mueller-Stahl) to study overseas. However, after a particularly stirring performance he suffers a breakdown and returns to Australia to spend years in an institution. Geoffrey Rush rightly won an Academy Award for his portrayal of David as an adult – it’s the kind of powerhouse performance that tends to wow critics and awards panels – but praise must also go to Noah Taylor whose portrayal of David as a younger man takes up much of the film and is just as affecting.

Rating: 4/5

Frankenstein (1931)
Having read Frankenstein at university, I understand how compelling and complex a story it is. Although not the most faithful adaptation, it is one of the best. Horror guru Kim Newman describes as ‘the single most important horror film ever made’ and he’s not wrong. Set design, makeup, performance, direction – it’s all here. Colin Clive gives an icy performance and Boris Karloff is terrifying as the monster, even though watching this for the first time in 2008 conjures up images of Herman Munster. Still, the influence of James Whale’s classic cannot be denied or ignored.

Rating: 5/5

Shame list total: 766

The last time I updated the shame list, it comprised 769 films. No I haven’t forgotten how to count down – I’ve done a bit of a recount.

There Will Be Blood (2007)
This being one of the most critically well received films of the last year, I was worried that this would suffer from the Juno factor: a film so universally adored that would never live up to the hype. Plus thanks to Empire’s classic scene from July of this year, I’ve done the cinematic equivalent of reading the last page of a book before reaching the end. The odds were stacked against my appreciation of this film. Thankfully, I found it spellbinding. The film is Daniel Plainview and Daniel Day-Lewis is a force to be reckoned with. From one-man oil magnate to big tycoon, Daniel lets nothing stand in his way. An epic character study and so much more, the film is about corruption, religion and money. It’s long but no longer than it needs to be since nothing is wasted. You simple couldn’t take anything away without losing something vital. Jonny Greenwood’s atonal music is occasionally creepy but that just adds to the film’s power. Not as accessible as Paul Thomas Anderson’s previous films, this is still compelling viewing. While perhaps not as inspired or perfect as some very vocal critics have made out, this remains a considerable achievement.

Rating: 5/5

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Cinema review: The Dark Knight

August 5 2008 at 9:54 pm (Cinema reviews)

There’s a scene in Tim Burton’s Batman in which Jack Nicholson’s Joker executes a would-be business partner in a board meeting using a customised hand buzzing ring. Nicholson literally makes a song and dance out of it and ends the scene laughing at the frazzled, charred skeleton that remains.

There is a similar scene in Christopher Nolan’s second Batman outing in which Heath Ledger’s twitchy Joker performs a magic trick with a pencil. It’s a shockingly blink-and-you’ll-miss-it piece of hilarity that illustrates the character’s insanity all the more effectively, and represents just how intense this film is.

The Dark Knight picks up where Batman Begins left off. There’s a new criminal in town, a mysterious scarred guy who wears face paint and only goes by the name The Joker. His introduction during the slick opening heist is unforgettable. But Batman (Christian Bale) has other things on his mind. There is a spate of copycat crimes by fake Batmans and he is considering leaving the crime-fighting duties to new DA Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart).

Of course, that’s just the start. This is a big movie, full of action. There are some great fight scenes (although it’s a little violent for a 12A) and a terrific chase sequence in which Batman speeds through a tunnel on the supercool batpod. There’s always a lot going on but under Nolan’s confident hand you never feel like it’s going to overflow. Despite there being more than one villain (and in fact more than one hero), it never suffers from the Spider-man 3 problem of too many baddies spoiling the broth, even if it is a little too long.

Despite what many might assume, this is not Ledger’s movie. Yes, his performance is every bit as incendiary as you hope but there is no ‘for Heath’ at the start of the credits. There is also a misconception here – there’s talk of a posthumous Oscar or at least a nomination. Despite these kinds of films often getting overlooked at awards nights, this is the kind of performance that wins big awards whether the actor is living or not. If Ledger hadn’t died, people would be talking about this performance using just the same superlatives as they are.

The truth is, though, that all the performances are powerful enough to make this something of an ensemble piece. Ledger is the quintessential Joker rewriting everything you thought you knew about this iconic character – outshining a three-time Oscar winner is no mean feat. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman are both as good as they were in Batman Begins even if they have less screen time. You cannot help but admire Aaron Eckhart for his nuanced performance as Gotham’s ‘white knight’ and Gary Oldman for beefing-up the role of Commissioner Gordon. Sadly with so many more important characters, Christian Bale feels strangely sidelined, with the focus shifting so frequently.

The tightness of the script and the visual style at times makes the film come across more like a traditional crime movie – parallels with the work of Michael Mann, Heat in particular, cited by some critics are understandable.

As already mentioned, this is a big movie, dark but ultimately optimistic, and deals with some important ideas and themes. The battle between good and evil is familiar to everyone, but here it is analysed in depth. The Joker occasionally comes across like a more sophisticated version of the Saw films’ John Kramer, plaguing Batman with moral dilemma after agonising moral dilemma, which give some brilliantly tense moments – the ‘two boats’ sequence is particularly nail-biting.

So believe the hype. It’s nice to have a film that meets its lofty expectations and then exceeds them.

Rating: 5/5

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