Category Archives: Films – 3 stars

Ladder 49

Emotional tale of a young firefighter (Joaquin Phoenix) whose life flashes before him as he lies injured in a burning building, with his colleagues frantically working to rescue him. Inevitably, it takes itself a bit too seriously.

The Magic Roundabout

Turns out I’d forgotten pretty much everything about the original Magic Roundabout TV series apart from the characters’ names. Unfortunately the film doesn’t do a great job of re-introducing them. Apart from the cliffhanger opening, the first ten minutes are muddled and uninteresting.

It does get better after that, though. The story is little more than a dressed-up video game (the heroes have to find the three magic diamonds before the villain Zeebad does), but it’s the little character touches, the cinematic in-jokes, and the subtle asides that really bring a smile to your face. Robbie Williams surprised me by being excellent as the voice of Dougal, and everyone (in Britain, at least) will love Tom Baker as Zeebad. Just forget about the TV show, and enjoy it for the silly, simple kids’ film it is.


Kevin, Rob, and Sam are a group of friends with a game they call “Foolproof”: they meticulously plan out robberies just to prove that they could pull the jobs if they wanted to. But they never go through with them–until someone steals the plans for their latest stakeout, and gets away with hundreds of thousands of dollars in diamonds. At first they hope they can just keep quiet and let the whole thing blow over, but then the mastermind behind the stolen heist approaches them with an offer they can’t refuse: help him pull an even bigger robbery, or he’ll send their original plans, along with incriminating fingerprints, to the police.

As heist capers go, this isn’t bad. The screenplay is good: it explores the dynamics within the group very nicely, and uses shifting allegiances to provide tension right to the end. The excellent Ryan Reynolds plays Kevin fairly straight, which is appropriate for the role, but kept me expecting more deadpan humour than the film is geared to deliver. David Suchet as the criminal mastermind Leo Gillette prickles with diamond-hard menace, and often threatens to overwhelm the rest of the cast. This lack of balance–the question of whether it’s going to be funny or deadly serious–keeps the film from achieving a better result. (It’s still definitely not bad, though!)

Van Wilder: Party Liaison

Van Wilder (Ryan Reynolds) is the big man around campus. The girls want to date him, and the guys want to be him. He’s been there for seven years, and he has no intention of ever leaving–until his father stops his tuition payments. Faced with the prospect of being kicked out of the comfortable home he has made for himself, Van turns himself into a party organiser, charging money for arranging good times.

As seems to be the requirement for comedies of this type, there is a love story driving the plot forward. Gwen Pearson (Tara Reid) is the campus reporter trying to write a story on the enigmatic Wilder. In doing so, the two get close, hit it off, yada yada, and Gwen has to decide between Van and her rich frat boy boyfriend. I can’t say that this apect of the film worked for me. Tara Reid is a pretty face, but she has all the charisma of a blob of silly putty. Ryan Reynolds has enough charm and grin potential to make up for a lot, but he still can’t pull the film up much beyond average. Funny, but forgettable.

Runaway Jury

I find it hard to understand how a film with so much going for it turned out so average. The cast is extraordinary: Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, John Cusack, Rachel Weisz. And as expected, they all turn in strong performances. The production values are high, the lighting is gorgeous, and the direction is particularly smooth. But for a story that is kicked off with a brutal gun crime, and which revolves around the emotive issue of responsibility for gun-related deaths, it comes across as remarkably heartless. For all its cynicism regarding the firearms manufacturers and the process of law, it fails to make any kind of point about this cynicism.

In fact, the film is all about the plot as distinct from the story: how cleverly the pawns in the game can be manipulated, and how the players strike and dodge and thwart each other at every turn. Every character and every scene is set up as part of this elaborate dance to keep the viewer on their toes. There is anger, but no tension; astonishment, but no surprise; tears, but no pain. It lacks honesty and real emotion.

Dogtown And Z-Boys

Dogtown is the area of Los Angeles where modern skateboarding was born. The Z-boys are the the members of team Zephyr, who started off as surfers, but later turned the skateboarding establishment on its head with their wholly new moves, iconoclastic style, and punk attitude. Filmmaker Stacy Peralta was one of the Z-boys, so on the one hand he knows what he’s talking about, but on the other hand there is a danger of the truth being somewhat inflated. A stylish and interesting documentary, nevertheless.

The Polar Express

I remain unconvinced about the need for photorealistic animated films. The Polar Express does, however, provide a compelling argument in favour of the form: some of the swooping, daredevil camera sequences would have been difficult and expensive (though probably not impossible) to achieve with the standard blend of live action and CGI. But although we’re probably on the way out of the Uncanny Valley, we’re not there yet, and some of the characters just look wrong. I think that full suspension of disbelief would have come more easily if the animation had been more stylised. In fact, the characters that seemed most real (to me) were the ones that were somewhat caricaturish anyway: the ghost on the train, the engineers, and the elves.

That said, it’s still a joyous film that sweeps you away on a atmospheric and magical journey to the North Pole. It’s a visual feast, with a slice of excitement in almost every scene. It forgoes emotional blackmail and strained messages of goodwill in favour of a sugared-up thrill of Christmas, and the childlike anticipation of getting presents. Kids will love it, and adults may find their hearts warmed, too.

The Manchurian Candidate (2004)

Major Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) is a veteran of the first Gulf War. On a reconnaissance mission during the war his platoon was ambushed, and they only escaped thanks to the heroic actions of Sgt Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber). Driven by his overbearing Senator mother (Meryl Streep), Shaw entered politics after the war, and he is now running for election as Vice President of the US.

After being approached by a soldier from his old platoon who has been having disturbing nightmares, Marco begins to doubt his own memories of the night of the ambush. As he tries to discover what might really have happened, he finds a murky trail that leads him to Shaw, and a conspiracy involving brainwashing, murder, and the sinister Manchurian Global corporation.

I haven’t seen the John Frankenheimer version of The Manchurian Candidate, nor have I read the original novel, so I can only judge this version on its own merits. Washington, Schreiber, and Streep all give convincingly disturbed and disturbing performances, but they are let down by a script that feels less than wholly natural. Also, even though much of the plot revolves around a political campaign, the screenplay studiously avoids any mention of party affiliation. Given the themes of corruption and manipulation, the film could hardly use either of the main US political parties as its basis; but it uses this apparent neutrality to critique both parties, and the attempt feels blunt and clumsy.

Despite this, the film does create an effective atmosphere of tension and paranoia that lasts right up to the climax. It just doesn’t do anything more.

The Royal Tenenbaums

Amusing and intricate comedy about the extremely dysfunctional Tenenbaum family. Displaced patriarch Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) is broke and about to be thrown out of his hotel. At first he tries to wheedle his way back into his family’s good graces by pretending that he is dying of cancer. By the time this deception falls apart, he realises how much he has genuinely missed them, and he makes a genuine attempt to amend his ways, and become the father he never was.

I say “amusing”, because most of the humour is a touch too off-beat and deliberately intellectual to be genuinely “funny.” Also, although the second half of the film draws all of the storylines together, the first half really is a bit of an unfocused mess. And without having some idea of where the story was going, I found it hard to properly appreciate what it was trying to say. The resolution is satisfyingly sympathetic, though.

Along Came A Spider

Renowned detective Alex Cross (Morgan Freeman) is on leave of absence following the death of his partner. He is drawn out of seclusion and into the heart of a child abduction case when the kidnapper singles him out as the only one who can appreciate his cleverness. This is a satisfyingly twisty thriller that doesn’t try to overstretch itself. It doesn’t aim for angst and psychological depth: all it wants to do is entertain, and it does so quite nicely.