Category Archives: Films – 4.5 stars

The Good Shepherd

This has been called “The Godfather of spy films”, and it’s easy to see the comparison. Even leaving aside Francis Ford Coppola’s involvement, both movies are intense, measured examinations of family, loyalty, secrecy and betrayal.

Although I love spy action films, I actually much prefer my spy stories to delve into the mechanics and politics behind the scenes. The Good Shepherd does this magnificently. Don’t expact any big explosions or hyperactive stunts. Do expect a set of awesome performances from an all-star ensemble cast. In particular, Matt Damon’s depiction of cautious, withdrawn spymaster Edward Wilson could hardly be further removed from his turn as Jason Bourne. Very highly recommended.


I had somehow got it into my head that this was a gritty spy thriller like Spy Game; it isn’t. It’s a complex economic and political drama involving some characters who are spies. George Clooney won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Bob, a hardened but frustrated operative in the Middle East. Jeffrey Wright is a Washington lawyer involved in an investigation of a massive merger between two oil companies. Matt Damon is an energy analyst who finds himself appointed economic adviser for a progressive Arabian prince (Alexander Siddig). Mazhar Munir is a young Pakistani living in an (unnamed) Middle East country, made unemployed by the merger between the oil firms, and recruited into a terrorist cell.

The four stories are tied together by oil, the greed that desires it, and the corruption this greed produces. It never attempts to portray the global tensions as anything other than unfeeling and cruel, yet it shows how these forces are set in motion by ordinary men and women with whom we feel a close bond–even the ones whose actions we may despise. It’s an uncomfortable film to watch, because in the end it leaves little room for hope. But its emotional honesty is a powerful force, and all the cast give extraordinary performances. I don’t know how the film will be seen in ten or twenty years’ time, but right now it stands out as exceptional and highly significant.


I find that kids films are subject to two tests: 1) do I enjoy seeing it the first time? 2) Do I still enjoy watching it after 30 times? Because that’s what happens to DVDs that Alex and Fiona like: they watch them again…and again…and again… (I’m not kdding when I say that we watched Madagascar at least once a day for a whole month following Christmas last year.)

Films that pass the second test include The Incredibles and Madagascar. (I will hear nothing against that film–it’s simply great.) Zathura was a film I loved when I saw it in the cinema, but I’m not sure if it’s one I’ll get on DVD. Upon watching it the first time, the plot unfolds at a concentrated yet unhurried pace, and the thrills are wonderfully tense. It’s a terrific adventure. But I’m not sure if it has enough depth to sustain enjoyment throughout repeated viewings.

One other remarkable thing about this film: it’s the first one that Fiona and I went to see on our own. Alex had expressed an interest in seeing it, but in the end he decided not to come along. Fiona was beautifully behaved throughout, but that may have had something to do with the vast quantities of chocolate she bummed off me. (I’m an easy touch.)

Lord Of War

Extraordinary portrait of an arms dealer (Nicolas Cage) as he learns his trade, and eventually surpasses all his masters. The film subtly invites you to both sympathise with the man, and hate him and all he stands for. One of Cage’s best performances in recent years.

Pieces Of April

April, the black sheep of the family, is trying to pull her life together, and has invited her family to Thanksgiving dinner in the tiny New York apartment she shares with her boyfriend. This may be her last chance to make things up with her mother, who is dying of cancer.

The film shows two stories in parallel: April’s frantic attempts to get dinner ready after her oven packs up and dies before she has cooked the turkey, and her family’s trip from their comfortable Connecticut house into the city. It’s shot in low-budget digital video, which gives it a down-to-earth, home movie feel. The characters are appropriately stressed about the whole affair, and they react with varying degrees of panic, despair, and hope. Despite the heavy emotional content, it’s is also a very funny film. The varying tone breathes life into the characters, and elevates mundane situations into life-altering interactions. Sweet, honest, and highly recommended.

Wedding Crashers

Despite the crass silliness of the trailer, this is a remarkably mature and–in places–quite subtle comedy. That’s not to say that it isn’t also roaringly funny, with plenty of absurd situations and over-the-top characters: it’s both.

Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn play two lawyers whose favourite summer activity is blagging their way into weddings and wedding receptions, and pulling women. The thing is, they are much more than just unwelcome freeloaders. While they are making the most of the free food and drink, they are also charming the guests, making conversation, and acting like entertainers (who just happen not to have been formally invited). They are fundamentally nice guys who just happen to indulge in a shallow hobby. The film is about what happens when love hits them in the face, and forces them to grow up.

Wilson and Vaughn have tremendous chemistry on screen, with Wilson’s laid back charm the perfect foil for Vaughn’s hyperactive patter. They make it all look so easy and natural, that you can’t help but love the journey they’re on, and take delight in every twist and turn along the way.

Kung Fu Hustle

After seeing the wonderful trailer, how could I not want to see this film? Gang wars, dance routines, CGI-enhanced Matrix-style kung fu, and a hefty dose of physical comedy. The question was really: could the film really pull all of this off?

The answer: yes. And then some. It starts off as a pretty brutal gangland flick, with the leaders of one gang being brutally taken down by the aptly named rivals, the Axe Gang. Then it moves to the slums of Pig Sty Lane, where people go about their business, constantly watched and kept in line by the obnoxious Landlady. Two drifters try to hustle a free haircut by pretending to be members of the Axe Gang. The residents refuse to be intimidated, and proceed to deliver a thorough kicking. Unfortunately, a real Axe member gets in the way of the altercation, and has his ass handed to him. So begins a vendetta between the slum dwellers and the criminals, which will ultimately be decided by the strength, speed, and skill of the champions that emerge from their midst.

To put it in a more Western perspective, it’s a kung fu superhero movie. The heroes reveals themselves slowly, reluctant to discard their secret identities, but ultimately ready to stand up for what is right. The visuals are amazing. Never mind the sometimes imperfect CGI–the freshness and imagination with which the effects are deployed more than makes up for any lack of quality. The fight scenes blend extreme moves with mystical abilities (superpowers) and comedy in a way you never see in Western films, which take themselves so much more seriously. The story and plot are all over the map, but in the end it’s hard to care. The sheer energy, fun, and excitement that Kung Fu Hustle delivers can hardly be bettered.