My Favourite Films #49: The Running Man

It’s always interesting watching old sci-fi movies and seeing how quickly they imagined we’d balls everything up. George Orwell thought that by 1984 we’d be living under a totalitarian regime, constantly observed. John Carpenter went for 1997 as the year by which New York had become a prison colony. Of course, some of the joy watching them now is knowing they got it wrong.

And unless Donald Trump really cocks things up, The Running Man will join that list of films set in a future time we’ve now lived through. In 1987 they thought we’d really make a hash of things and live in a dystopian hell where the vicious government keeps the populace brainwashed with violence and glamour on telly.

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I know the poster says 2019, but the opening text says 2017

The film is based on a book by Stephen King (writing under the pseudonym Richard Bachman) and with all due respect to King, is far more entertaining, mainly because it was adapted to be a vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger who was at the height of his powers. This takes the bleak and grim novel and revamps it as an ’80s action movie.

Arnie plays, Ben Richards, a police pilot framed for the killing of unarmed civilians, despite the fact he was the one who objected and refused to follow his orders. Locked up on a working prison where they convicts are forced to wear exploding collars that stop them from leaving boundaries. I saw this movie as a kid, and the exploding collars are the thing that stuck with me the most.

 

He engineers an escape with rebellion members Laughlin and Weiss (Yaphet Kotto and Marvin J. McIntyre, respectively). They want to bring down the government and expose the brainwashing, while Richards wants to get the hell out of town and go into hiding. He plans to get his brother to help him but when he gets to his apartment finds that he has been taken for “reeducation” and that a new tenant is living there, musician Amber (Maria Conchita Alonso). Richards uses her to attempt to flee the country, but she blows his cover and he is arrested.

As a result he meets Richard Dawson’s Killian, the smarmy game show host who runs The Running Man, the world’s most popular TV show. Dawson is a fantastic villain, arrogant, scheming and utterly without compassion, all hidden behind a friendly, polished public image. A game show host himself, he captures the faux sincerity and interest, before revealing a stone cold side away from the cameras.

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Also, in a brilliant moment he responds to Arnie’s trademark “I’ll be back” line with a simple “Only in a rerun”.

Killian wants Richards for the show in order to boost stagnant ratings. The show involves criminals having to run through a series of challenges, with the promise of a blissful tropical paradise should they succeed. Stopping them are the colourful, flamboyant and vicious Stalkers, who are a combination of ITV’s Gladiators and the OTT wrestling heels of the ’80s.

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The Stalkers are good value, each with their own gimmick. There’s Jim Brown wielding a flamethrower as Fireball, an electric shooting opera singer named Dynamo (Erland Van Lidth De Jeude), Sub Zero (Professor Toru Tanaka) who wields an ice hockey stick fitted with blades and chainsaw wielding Buzzsaw (Gus Rethwisch).

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Each operates in a different section and attack Richards, Weiss and Laughlin. Amber is also thrown in with them as she starts to realize that the government has lied about things and is busted snooping.

Of course, every Stalker fails and Arnie dispatches them in short order. Each time with a quip ready to go- “Here’s your Sub Zero, now plain zero” and, having cut Buzzsaw in half, “he had to split”.

Killian becomes increasingly frustrated, and the crowd after initial horror begin rooting for Richards. Killian wants to send in Captain Freedom, the retired all time champ played by Jesse “The Body” Ventura, but he refuses.

The action is fast and well orchestrated, with a simple, ’80s bloodiness reliant on practical effects which sees Arnie hack, smash and incinerate his pursuers. Arnie can do this in his sleep, but his odd, unique charisma carries him through and it’s an interesting look at how audiences can be bloodthirsty and fickle.

Arnie’s physical appearance is necessary here, his strength is why he’s chosen as a contender and against better armed enemies it’s ingenuity and brute force that hand him the wins. As a character, Richards isn’t the most developed and we’re expected to just accept him as a hero because he refuses to kill innocents, is fleetingly sad about his brother and tries to protect others, but at the same time he’s rather cold blooded, and physically violent towards Amber when they initially meet. Of course, we root for him because he’s Arnie, which is a clear example of star power.

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The ending, where the truth is revealed to the audience suggests things may be about to change. But it’s an ambiguous ending, and while Richards is free and cleared, it seems unlikely that the whole system will come crashing down.

In taking a decent premise but injecting the drama and visuals of wrestling and game shows, the filmmakers take King’s decent idea and transform it into something far more engaging and believable. This seems more like a show people would get sucked into than the idea from the book, where they merely evade capture in the real world.

By upping the cheesiness around the spectacle, they actually make it feel more real. That people will swallow and enjoy blood and mayhem if it’s packaged the right way.

One of Arnie’s best films and hugely entertaining.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

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My Favourite Films #48: Scott Pilgrim vs the World

Years ago a friend of mine recommended I check out Brian Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim comics. I was told they were fun and essentially about a Canadian version of me. I read the series and loved it, although I realised that being compared to Scott wasn’t a compliment. When Edgar Wright (Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) was announced to direct a big screen version I was pretty stoked.

Luckily the movie turned out to be a belter, not least because it bravely decided to keep the title character, played by Michael Cera, a bit of a douchebag. He’s dim, self absorbed and sort of obnoxious. It’s a nice change for Cera who while still in his geeky comfort zone at least branches out from the essentially nice guys he normally plays.

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The plot sees Scott fall for mysterious new girl in town Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) despite already dating Knives Chau (Ellen Wong). Ramona turns out to have seven evil exes, and in order to claim her hand he must defeat them. This is because despite being a geeky bass player, Scott has some mad fighting skills which helps him in the OTT, video game inspired fight sequences.

Wright shoots it brilliantly with a fast, fun pacing and visual flair, there are nods to computer games, on screen sound effects in the style of the ’66 Batman series (RIP Adam West) and a plethora of sight gags and quality one liners.

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The supporting cast is brilliant across the board, particularly Chris Evans and Brandon Routh who play two of the exes. Routh plays the douchey guy who stole Scott’s ex and boasts psychic powers due to his veganism, one of many delightfully daft touches in a movie which is seriously fun.

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The Evil Exes

There are also minor roles for Audrey Plaza, Anna Kendrick and Kieran Culkin.

Cera is fantastic, with the self absorbed Scott slowly realising where he’s gone wrong and finally standing up to the final ex, Gideon (Jason Schwartzman). The fight scene sees him lose, but in a nice touch he can cash in the “extra life” he picked up earlier in the movie, and allows him another attempt, where he realises he isn’t fighting for love but his own self respect.

And in the end he realises that he has to make amends for all the stupid, selfish things he did and become a better person.

The movie is a geeky delight, and full of charm. It also cements Wright as a seriously talented director making me regret that we never got his version of Ant Man, and looking forward to Baby Driver.

A fun filled, fast flowing film which captivates me on every rewatch.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


My Favourite Films #47: A View to a Kill

Last month saw the passing of Sir Roger Moore. I was really saddened by this news because he always seemed like a decent bloke and due to his time as James Bond was a familiar face and part of the pop culture landscape I grew up with. I’m not getting into which actor has been the best Bond, but for Moore was my first Bond, and probably my favourite. And this, his final outing as 007 is possibly my favourite in the series.

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I love Moore’s Bond because of his easy, debonair charm and the tongue in cheek nature of the films. Moore had warmth that contrasted with Connery’s cool. He might not be in line with Fleming’s character from the books, but the movies are still extremely entertaining.

For me, the key ingredients for a good Bond movie, which all the best share are simple- good song, decent villain, good straightforward plot and ideally a menacing henchman. A View to a Kill ticks all these boxes starting with the decidedly ’80s and catchy Duran Duran themesong.

The plot sees Bond investigating Max Zorin played by Christopher Walken with his usual weird charisma. Zorin is an ex-KGB agent who may have been part of a Nazi breeding programme. Walken is brilliant here as right from the get go with his blonde hair he looks dodgy and it turns out the billionaire is up to no good, planning to flood Silicon Valley in order to monopolise the microchip industry. It’s a pretty smart plan.

Walken is immensely watchable and this is an early example of him quite clearly enjoying himself and hamming it up a bit. He’s menacing and cold, but handles the bantering exchanges well and makes a good enemy for Bond.

He’s also backed up by his henchwoman May Day played by the statuesque and intimidating Grace Jones. I remember being amazed by May Day as a kid, this tall, powerhouse of a woman who is physically more than a match for Bond. What makes her work as a character is that at the end she realises that Zorin is a wrong ‘un and doesn’t care about her and so helps Bond, getting a heroic death in the process.

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This all sets up a fantastically OTT finale where Bond finds himself atop the Golden Gate Bridge as Zorin attacks from a blimp. It’s daft and ridiculous, but isn’t that the way of Bond movies?

I love this movie because the villains are interesting and the tone is just right, there’s enough peril to keep you hooked but it’s carried off with a sense of humour. The supporting cast are quite good especially Patrick Macnee who plays Bond’s aristocratic ally and who shares an easy chemistry with Moore.

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This is the perfect film for a Sunday afternoon or Bank Holiday, the sort of thing that feels familiar and safe. An old tradition, to put up your feet and watch Bond quip his way through an adventure, seducing women and using gadgets and wits to win the day.

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Tanya Roberts as the main Bond girl in the movie.

Moore was perfect for this, bringing his posh charms and humour to the role. Always cool in a crisis, ready with a quip or arched eyebrow.

Roger Moore is tied up with all those lazy afternoons I watched the Bond films, captivated by the stunts and adventure, amused by the one-liners. The seven films he made as 007 meaning that he looms large in the public consciousness, and will live on in audience’s hearts for years to come. And he’ll always have a special place for mine, having starred in a movie I’ve watched countless times and continue to love to this day.

RIP Roger Moore.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


My Favourite Films #46: The Return of the Jedi

In Clerks, Dante Hicks dismisses the third film in the Star Wars trilogy saying “All Jedi had was a bunch of muppets”. It’s a harsh assessment of the movie, but highlights a problem that some viewers have with the movie. The Ewoks.

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This alien race, who look like teddy bears, are the kind of thing that little kids love, but for older audiences appear rather cutesy and twee. Personally, I quite like the Ewoks, because their guerrilla tactics against a superior foe are surprisingly brutal and they are kinda cute. Also, they don’t look so bad after some later additions to the universe.

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While it’s not as good as Empire, I still love this movie, which continues the trilogy’s crowd pleasing, entertaining action. It brings the Darth Vader (the body of David Prowse voiced by James Earl Jones) story to an end, with him earning redemption thanks to the faith and goodness of his son Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Their final showdown where the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) attempts to get Luke to give in to the Dark Side is well done, with Luke finally realising what’s going on and stopping himself.

Vader, witnessing this mercy and then the Emperor’s attack on Luke finally rediscovers his good nature, lost years earlier. He sacrifices himself to kill the Emperor and Luke escapes before the Rebels manage to destroy the second Death Star, which they had been tricked into believing was yet to be operational.

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The Death Star, half built and hanging in space is visually striking and the revelation that the Emperor has set a trap for the good guys raises the stakes greatly and sets up the largest space battle of the series.

Meanwhile, on the planet there’s a different battle going on as Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) lead a small rebel force, and the Ewoks against the Empire’s forces to try and disable the force field that protects the Death Star. The fight, which sees the primitive Ewoks triumph through ingenuity and surprising viciousness (their cuteness distracts from the fact they are straight up murdering Stormtroopers).

Han Solo’s rescue from Jabba’s clutches is a cracker, providing some old school heroics from Luke Skywalker, and shows Leia is a badass herself, having posed as a bounty hunter she thaws out the frozen smuggler only to be kidnapped, but she gets free and kills Jabba. It’s a shame all these heroic moments have been overshadowed in the public consciousness by her golden bikini.

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Of course, the movie also includes the big reveal that Luke and Leia are twin siblings, which Luke discovers from the dying Yoda (Frank Oz). It changes the dynamic between the two, and works rather well. It also clears the way for Han and Leia’s relationship to blossom fully, and this is the heart for much of the movie, with the two’s bickering softening and Han confessing his feelings this time around.

What makes this movie work is the ending, where good triumphs and Luke makes peace with his father, and the galaxy celebrates. It’s an entirely satisfying ending to the series and while it’s since been added to, it still serves as a solid ending.

There’s heroism, resolution and some cracking intergalactic action, and just like the other two movies it continues to entertain years and many rewatches later.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


My Favourite Films #45: The Empire Strikes Back

Star Wars was a game changer in many ways, in terms of blockbusters and memorabilia but it’s the second movie in the original trilogy that’s impact is still felt. Countless film series made since has attempted to follow the Empire model with the second movie having a darker, more downbeat ending that leaves the heroes in poor shape before they rally in the third part.

But although often imitated, The Empire Strikes Back has never been matched and is still the stand out movie in the four part Star Wars saga. I fell in love with the first movie, but it paled when I saw this one, and this is where I became a lifelong fan of the series.

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Unlike a lot of movies which include a massive twist, this movie is more than just that big reveal. The moment where the villainous Darth Vader (body by David Prowse, voice by James Earl Jones) reveals that Obi Wan was telling porkies and that he is actually Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill) father is one that has slightly lost it’s impact thanks to countless rip offs and gags, but for audiences in 1980 it must have been an absolute stunner.

If I have kids I’m going to show them the Star Wars trilogy at a young age and hopefully ensure that this twist is fresh for them, as it’ll probably make more of an impact.

The reveal sets up the finale brilliantly, but it also contributes to the downbeat ending which made Empire so special. The end of the movie finds our heroes in a bad way, Luke is reeling from the news his enemy is his papa and has lost a hand, Leia (Carrie Fisher) has finally admitted that she loves Han Solo (Harrison Ford), only to see him frozen and taken prisoner.

But the ending doesn’t depress you. Luke has a robot hand and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) sets off to find Han. It leaves the audience hooked- will they be able to rescue their old friend? How will Luke and Vader’s next meeting go? And will the war with the Empire ever be over?

The defeat they suffer works because it delivers on it’s title. If a villain is always vanquished they begin to lose their edge for audiences (see the Daleks), what they got right in this series was that while the Empire had lost the first movie they win this one, and the good guys barely escape. It makes the villains all the more evil, and more of a threat, it’s a smart move.

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Of course, a solid ending isn’t enough and what makes this such a cracker is everything that builds up to it. We find the Rebels on a snowy planet and Han debating leaving as he needs to sort out the bounty hunters on his trail. His decision to leave causes an argument between him and Leia, and suggests that there is a growing attraction there.

Ford and Fisher, who we recently found out were getting it on behind the scenes, have phenomenal chemistry on screen and their bickering, flirty scenes together are among the best in film. The story splits up our group, leaving Leia, Han, Chewie and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) on the run and trying to find a safe place to hole up, while Luke travels to continue his Jedi training.

This is another aspect that would work for first time viewers, the reveal of Yoda (Frank Oz). When Luke seeks out the Jedi Master who taught Obi Wan the audience expects a great warrior and intergalactic badass, the revelation that the little green man is actually the master is a nice subversion of expectations.

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Yoda’s wisdom and training sees Luke develop his skills, and this is an interesting storyline as we see Luke get stronger and discover more about the Force.

This movie improves on the first by adding to the characters and by having a superior script, shown not only in Han and Leia’s flirtations, but throughout. And there are memorable moments throughout- the AT-ATs advancing through the snow, the trippy sequence where Luke faces his fears, the climactic fight.

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I love this movie because it’s great fun, and shows us more of the universe. It also introduces Lando Calrissian, played by Billy Dee Williams, who is pretty damn suave.

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It’s a perfect middle movie for a trilogy, which doesn’t just act as a bridge but serves to up the stakes, grow the story and ensure the audience is even more invested in the characters.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


My Favourite Films #44: Star Wars

Disclaimer: Before any fans get narked, I know that’s not the full title, but putting it all in would be awfully long and you all know which movie I mean.

I must have seen the Star Wars films as a little kid, but I can’t really remember much from those childhood viewings apart from the chase sequence in Jedi. What I do remember is the 20th anniversary special editions. I was almost twelve and they came out just as I was on the brink of geekdom, it was the perfect time for me to see them again.

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I can remember the music starting, and the opening scrawl and then that amazing opening shot with Leia’s ship emerging on the screen followed by the imposing Star Destroyer, chasing it across the stars. Even years later the sheer scale of that shot works well and on a big screen it was phenomenal.

The whole opening is done supremely well, especially the entrance of Darth Vader (David Prowse, voice by James Earl Jones).


A million lunchboxes and three dodgy prequels later, Vader has lost his edge somewhat, but on that first watch he’s a menacing presence. Striding imperiously over the bodies of the enemy, his raspy breath and dark, cloaked figure is memorable and has become understandably iconic.
The plot is known to many and quite simple, but a simple story executed well is far better than a complicated one that is bungled. Farm boy Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) dreams of adventure and the wider galaxy when he gets a hold of Princess Leia’s (Carrie Fisher) message for help.

He meets old warrior Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) who explains that he was a friend of Luke’s father before Darth Vader killed him. He begins to train Luke in the use of the Force, a cosmic energy force that flows through all things.

They recruit roguish smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his copilot Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). They head for Alderaan, Leia’s home planet but arrive after it is destroyed by the Empire’s latest weapon the Death Star.

What follows is a story of adventure and heroism as our heroes rescue Leia and deliver the plans for the base. It has a single weak spot and Luke joins the pilots in the attack as the lethal space station closes in on the Rebel base.
It’s hard to look at Star Wars without the cultural baggage that it carries now, without nostalgia and as a movie on its own merits. But this isn’t a review, its a love letter.

I love the world of the movie, I love the bustling energy of the cantina, the scruffiness of Han Solo and his ship the Millennium Falcon. It has a lived in feel that the sterile ships of other sci-fi often lack. They want everything to look cool and shiny, forgetting that people are meant to live there.

I love the characters, from Hamill’s likeable goofiness as the space bumpkin Luke to the bickering droids. I love that Princess Leia takes charge of the guys who are trying, ineptly, to rescue her.

The late, great Carrie Fisher is superb. She makes Leia a strong, confident character who rolls with the bunches and who stands defiant against the forces of the Empire. She runs rings around the swaggering Solo and is an utter delight.

But let’s face it, Han Solo is still the coolest guy in the movie. Harrison Ford brings his easy charm to the role, with a laid back swagger and sarcastic, cynical outlook. But he’s winging it the whole time, surviving on a mix of luck, skill and his comrades.


He’s the old gunslinger who tries to play like he doesn’t care about anything other than money and his own life, but when the chips are down he roars back to make the save.

The action is well done, and while the Vader vs Kenobi fight is hardly a masterpiece of fight choreography it is well performed. Guinness delivers his lines brilliantly, giving depth and power beyond the cliches. He goes into the fight seeming to know that this is the end, but goes to it with dignity, knowing that this isn’t really the end.

The effects have aged in places, but the special edition make over makes up for it, and some of the sequences still hold up. In fact the models and costumes hold up better than most CG will in years to come.

I love the rousing ending, the glorious John Williams score and the ingredients mix to make a film that still fills me with the geeky excitement and love that washed over my twelve year old self.

I love the fun vibe, the dialogue which at times is a little clunky, I love it all.

A pure, simple treat of a movie. It holds up because of the great characters, the simple story of good vs evil and the bags of charm it has. It’s a movie I return to when I want that blast of childish joy, to lose myself in a simpler world with familiar faces.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


My Favourite Films #43: The Princess and the Frog

Long time readers will know that I’ve been doing the Disney Classics films in order, but I’m going to jump ahead to include this on my list of favourite movies.

This movie was Disney returning to their roots with a fairy tale inspired story rendered in traditional animation and introducing the latest Disney Princess. And it ticks a lot of boxes, boasting a quality soundtrack, a funny script, a great villain and an involving central story. On it’s own merits it would rank high on my Disney list but what makes it a personal favourite is a sentimental attachment.

This is the first movie that MWF and I watched together, before we were a couple and just friends. We’d hung out for the day chatting and then put this on as MWF insisted I had to see it. It would be a while after this that we got together, but the movie and the day we spent together when we watched it were when I started to genuinely fancy her.

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The movie riffs on the traditional Frog Prince story, but gives it a clever twist. The old tale is retold in New Orleans, at the start by Eudora (voiced by Oprah Winfrey), a black seamstress to the daughter of her white boss and her own daughter, and the boss’ daughter dreams of meeting her prince. The seamstress’ daughter wants to run a restaurant with her father, but he reminds her that it takes hard work as well as wishing to get things done.

We then jump forward to the 1920s, and the seamstress’ daughter Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) is now a young woman, still chasing her dream of the restaurant by working two jobs and saving every penny she can. Her social life suffers and her mother worries that she is failing to enjoy her life and is working too hard. An opportunity to get the money needed for the building she wants for the restaurant arises when her old friend Charlotte (Jennifer Cody) offers her a catering job as her wealthy father is hosting a big party.

Charlotte, still obsessed with landing her prince is excited as the party is hosting Prince Naveen, a handsome, suave young man.

Naveen (Bruno Campos) is a bit of a playboy and used to having money, although his parents have now cut him off. Arriving in New Orleans with his valet Lawrence (Peter Bartlett) he wants to live the high life but Lawrence reminds him he needs to settle down and get married if he wants to get back on the gravy train.

Naveen and Lawrence meet Doctor Facilier (Keith David), a voodoo witch doctor who reads their fortune and then tricks them into a bargain. His magic transforms Lawrence into Naveen, while Naveen becomes a frog who they lock away. Facilier plans for Lawrence to marry Charlotte, after which he will kill her father Big Daddy (John Goodman) and get his fortune and influence.

Naveen escapes and at the party meets Tiana, who has just been told her bid for the building has been rejected. Inspired by the story he tells Tiana she needs to kiss him, thinking she is a princess. She is reluctant to do until he promises to give her the money for her restaurant. When they kiss, however, it is Tiana who is transformed, becoming a frog as well.

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Naveen turns on the charm

Naveen realises that Tiana, despite her costume, is not a princess and that’s why it didn’t work. She in turn learns that he is broke. Both then get lost in the swamps and must try to find their way back in order to stop Facilier’s plan and return to their human form. Along the way they are assisted by Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley) a trumpet playing alligator who dreams of playing Jazz and Ray (Jim Cummings), a cajun firefly. They are led to meet voodoo queen Mama Odie (Jennifer Lewis) who they hope can help them.

The movie works because it’s got bucketloads of charm and a host of cool characters. And unlike a lot of Disney movies the leads are among the best characters on show here, with both Tiana and Naveen being very likeable. Their dynamic works brilliantly with the strait laced Tiana clashing with the laidback, pampered Naveen. Naveen oozes suave charm throughout and his carefree approach to life is fun, although he comes to learn that some things require work and that sometimes sacrifice is needed. In the same way he helps Tiana loosen up and realise that there are more important things than work and success.

Tiana is one of the better Princess heroines, as she’s shown to be smart, tough and hard working throughout. While she may need her priorities sorting out she is still a great heroine, being very proactive and swinging into action when needs be. She’s a very modern princess and works well, telling the audience that it isn’t enough to wait for good things to happen, you have to go out and make them happen.

The supporting cast are great, particularly Ray and Louis their guides in the swamp. Louis’ stupidity is endearing and his bizarre dream works well, and Ray is just flat out brilliant. With his bayou accent and spirit he is more than just comic relief and serves to educate the leads as to what love is about.

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And Tiana’s loud, brassy friend Charlotte is a great character, full of life and chattering constantly she could easily be a simply ridiculous character, but the script gives her a chance to show greater depths of friendship, decency and kindness. All of this without diluting her over the top character.

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Charlotte- Ditzy but sweet

Of course, all the best Disney movies have a great villain and here the film scores a big win with the sneaky, smooth talking Doctor Facilier, wonderfully voiced by Keith David. During his songs and speeches he delivers funny asides and is shown to be a smart, scheming foe. Distinctly creepy at times, it also works because Facilier doesn’t have power in a real sense, having received his gifts as part of a deal with his “friends on the other side”. It means that he too is under the cosh and the dark forces are kept at the fringes although they do make menacing appearances, and his main skill is reading and exploiting people’s weaknesses.

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The plot flows well and the development works, with the relationship feeling real and the turns making sense. There’s also a gut punch in the final act which continues a Disney trend of actually sneaking in some dark moments into what people dismiss as cheesy and cheery kids films. Even as a grown man it left me with a lump in the throat.

Of course, it all ends well, and the ending is satisfying. It’s a very rewatchable flick and the music, influenced by the New Orleans setting is filled with some crackers, especially the villain song and Ray’s ode to his distant love Evangeline.

Fun, charming and well done this is one of my favourite movies and high on the list of my favourite Disney movies too.

Disney Score: 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


My Favourite Films #42: Serenity

In the early ’00s there was a horrible affliction that devastated the geek community. Like a vampire, the infected would be unable to stop themselves from passing it on and forcing others to endure their curse. And, to mix my monsters, like zombies it was often the ones you loved that you hurt. You’d resist, but finally the curse would out and you’d pass it on with one simple sentence:

“Have you seen this show, Firefly? It’s amazing!”

And you’d hand over your box set and see them fall as you had. But what’s worse than a fall?
A fall from a great height.

And so the show would raise them up, lifting them with the cool space western vibe. Higher as they embraced the charming, likeable characters and still higher through the witty, exciting writing.

BANG!

Fourteen episodes and you crash back down. Mid season. Mid story. Plot lines left dangling unfinished, questions unanswered. The most persistent nagging at you: What happens next?

Online complaining, love one and petitions alerted Fox that there was a market. DVD sales climbed.

And so Joss Whedon got a second chance. Serenity would fly again.

But would a standalone movie really satisfy the fans. Would it work? Could it avoid being a disappointment?
You bet your ass it could.

Picking up sometime after the show we find roguish smuggler Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) leading his small crew on the outer reaches of space aboard the eponymous ship. 

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The young, frazzled genius River (Summer Glau) still struggles with the effects of government experimentation and her brother Simon (Sean Maher) tries to find a way to help her and work out what they did to her.
After a close call with the savage, mindless Reavers, Simon decides it’s time for them to leave. Mal agrees despite the protestations of some of his crew, particularly Kaylee (Jewel Staite), the engineer smitten with Simon. However, their plan to drop her off is abandoned after something triggers River to become a ruthless, skilled fighter. The only clue is that she uttered the word “Miranda” before her rampage.

Meanwhile, a shadowy government Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is hunting for River who carries important secrets in her damaged mind. He seeks out Inara (Morena Baccarin), the “companion” who previously travelled aboard Serenity. He uses her to send a message to Mal and set a trap. Mal, despite knowing it to be a trap goes in anyway and they narrowly escape after a fight with the Operative.

Using the few clues they have the group set off to work out what River knows. On the way they find out more about what was done to her and discover the dark origins of the Reavers.

I remember going into this movie with nervous excitement and being reassured very early on as it nails the tone of the show. As a fan of the show I don’t know how it would play to newcomers to the world, but I think it fills in the gaps quite quickly and deftly. And I think the writing, which is sharp and witty would win people over and engage them with an involving plot.

Of course, some of it works more for fans. When two characters but the farm it’s bound to hit harder to those who’ve known them longer. One in particular, the sudden, shocking demise of slacker pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk) was a gut blow for me and several friends who had loved the show, and the character.

The death comes out of nowhere and leaves you reeling, and the impact it has on the other characters is keenly felt. In a later scene where his devastated widow Zoe (Gina Torres) rushes into battle and is injured left me with a sinking feeling we were headed for Dirty Dozen/Magnificent Seven territory where the bodies would pile up and only a couple would make it.

This last stand against the Reavers is wonderfully tense and well done, with Whedon injecting little character moments into the build up (Zoe’s devastation and loss of hope, Simon and Kaylee expressing their feelings for each other) and there’s a laugh when Zoe talks to the brutish Jayne (Adam Baldwin) about strategy.

Jayne: Can’t be thinking on revenge if we’re gonna get through this.

Zoe: Do you really think any of us are going to get through this?

Jayne: (slightly nervous)…I might.

The returning cast slip into their old roles with ease and for fans it’s a comforting and satisfying end to the story (although if they want to do more I wouldn’t complain).

It’s massively entertaining and I loved it.

And of course it gave Nathan Fillion a chance to pull on his old Browncoat again. No actor seems to have loved a project more than Fillion who complained about the cancellation and still seems sore about it. 

It’s easy to see why, Mal is a great role and a perfect fit for Fillion’s easy charisma. He gets to play the big damn hero who has a softer, less confident side underneath the swagger. Mal’s like Han Solo’s geekier little brother, someone who’s not quite as cool as they’d like to be and often caught off balance, but managing to make it through due to luck, skill and determination.

Smarter than he makes out, kinder than he wishes and quietly noble Mal is the heart of the film and a great hero. He can handle himself in a fight, but knows when to run, and keeps going against the odds to do what’s right. Fillion’s charisma, humour and enthusiasm shines through making him a supremely likeable protagonist.

Hands down one of the most entertaining sci-fi movies of the 21st century.
Gorram it, I’m gonna watch the series again.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


My Favourite Films #42: The Thing (1982)

My Dad introduced me to the films of John Carpenter, and this is one of my favourites, a tense, gripping sci-fi horror.

Set almost entirely on a remote Ameeican research base in the Arctic it deals with a group of scientists and their support team who must confront a shapeshifting alien beast that assumes the appearance and mannerisms of anything it devours.

The unease starts right at the top when a sled dog races across the icy wilderness, pursued by a helicopter. The pilot is killed in an accidental explosion and the passenger begins firing at the dog only to be shot by Garry (Donald Moffat) the commander. The dog is put in the kennels and after they ID the man as being from a Norwegian base they investigate.

Right away you have questions about what the hell is going on and why they wanted to kill that dog so badly, and then the plot thickens as they find the Norwegian base in disarray, with a burnt grotesque humanoid form outside in the ice.

It turns out the Norwegians found something in the ice and when it woke up it made short work of them and they tried stopping it. The alien being could change shape, hence the weird body, and escaped. Disguised as a dog.

At this point animal lovers might want to look away as the dog-Thing snacks on the dogs. It’s all pretty grizzly and they only stop it when one of the team blasts it with a flamethrower.

This member of the team, MacReady is played by Kurt Russell and that’s an indicator that this is going to be a good movie as the Russell and Carpenter team was dynamite (Escape from New York, Big Trouble I’m Little China). Russell is on great form here as the tough, quiet MacReady who is way out of his depth and not entirely sure how it all works, but who endures through grit and common sense.

“I want to set those people over there on fire, but I’m just not close enough to get the job done”

It’s his simple reasoning that leads to the blood test that sets up one of the film’s best sequences. Working out that every tiny part of the creature can live separately he comes up with a test. Using blood samples and a hot piece of metal he will work out who’s human and who isn’t.

The whole scene is grippingly tense with the characters eyeballing each other and the unease growing. The final jump scare still gets me out of my seat after repeated viewings and it’s this, not the gleefully gory physical effects that I remember.

Trust breaks down quickly

That’s not to say the effects aren’t great. I’m a big fan of old school effects that look like you can reach out and touch, and the grizzly creations here are very well done, especially a scene where the chest of one opens up to sever the arms of the man trying to revive him. My Dad is not a fan of this scene, possibly because he’s a doctor himself. 
The alien is gory and with no distinct shape it appears as mutant, horrifying blends of the forms it has devoured.

Dude, you fugly.

While the creature has an ick factor that holds up the film’s real success is the atmosphere of claustrophobia and paranoia that Carpenter creates. Just as the characters aren’t sure of who they can trust, the audience is never sure of who’s still human. Even MacReady’s movements can’t be accounted for.
It means you never know who is going to turn on who and it keeps you on edge for long periods.

This all builds to what I think is one of the greatest endings of all time. With the base in ruins after a massive explosion MacReady sits alone in the snow. And then Childs (Keith David) appears. Childs went missing a short while earlier and the two sit opposite each other, neither trusting the other, when asked what are they going to do MacReady delivers the last line of the movie; “Why don’t we just wait here a while? See what happens.”

It’s a remarkably bleak ending, but works extremely well and leaves lots of questions. Is the beast really dead? Is Childs human? What will happen if/when a rescue team arrives?

It’s a great movie, with solid performances from all involved this is an unsettling thriller that sticks with you and rises above the gore to be a genuinely clever thriller. And it can be rewatched over and over without losing it’s appeal.

This is the first John Carpenter movie I’ve included on my favourites list, but it won’t be the last.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


My Favourite Films #41: An American Werewolf in London

As it’s October I thought I’d write about a couple of horror movies I love, and I’m kicking off with this more comedic entry. Directed by John Landis at the height of his powers, and it’s successful as both a horror and a comedy.

The movie starts off with backpacking American students David and Jack (David Naughton and Griffin Dunne, respectively) wandering the moors. They stop off at The Slaughtered Lamb, a rural pub but after Jack makes a joke about a pentagram on the wall the mood sours and they leave, with the locals warning them to keep to the road, stay off the moors and “beware the moon”.

Should have stayed off the moors, lads

Distracted by chatting they lose the road and are attacked by a vicious beast, which mauls both of them. The beast is shot and David sees a bullet riddled naked man before he blacks out. 
Awaking three weeks later in hospital David discovers that Jack was killed and the attack is said to have been done by an escaped lunatic. His recollections of a beast are put down as shock. Shortly after Jack appears, still bearing his injuries and fills David in- they were attacked by a werewolf, and David is now infected. Jack is cursed to remain a zombie until the bloodline of the werewolf is stopped, and urges David to kill himself, not only to release him but to avoid harming others.

This is quite dark, and Jack’s increasing decay over the course of the film is done extremely well by the effects team, but it’s to the credit of all involved that the laughs keep coming, even if the humour is pretty black in places. A large part of this is Dunne and Naughton’s chemistry and the writing, which feels easy and natural, the two joking and chatting like real friends.

Jack, not looking his best

Convinced he is going nuts, David pushes it from his mind and is discharged, awaiting a flight home. He’s offered a place to stay by his nurse, Alex (Jenny Agutter), who he begins a relationship with. Every cloud…

Alex smashing through the therapeutic boundary

Jack warns him again, but David tries to block him. But when darkness falls he changes. This is the film’s most famous scene, where Rick Baker’s practical effects make the transformation a bone crunching, intense watch all soundtracked by Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising”. Watching it now it’s dated but the make up effects are still damn impressive and it seems far more “real” than. Lot of CGI which can often look utterly separate from it’s surrounding.

Here there’s a weight to it all and it has a physicality that still holds up.

What follows is a werewolf rampage, and then a flip to almost goofy comedy as a naked David wakes up in the zoo. He flees and realises that he is a danger, phoning home to say goodbye his family and contemplating killing himself. He then spots an even more decayed Jack and follows him into a porn theatre where he meets his other victims.
This is one of the blackest moments of the film as, to the background of a deliberately naff adult film, the recently dead argue over the best way to kill himself. Unfortunately they take too long and David turns as night arrive, running amok through Piccadilly Circus. This part is gleefully chaotic, even if prolonged shots of the beast highlight it’s flaws. The panic is captured well and then David is cornered, Alex tries to calm the beast but he is shot by the police, and reverts to his human form.

This for me is one of the best moments as Landis flips the downbeat ending by launching into the end credits backed by the inappropriately upbeat “Blue Moon” by The Marcels (he soundtrack features many songs about the moon). It’s such a jarring shift in tone that the first time I saw it I burst out laughing.

It’s a scruffy film in some ways, and the shifts in tone are quite big, but Landis handles them grace and it all clicks together, although David’s nightmare halfway through is genuinely disturbing, featuring monstrous Nazis and a cameo from the Muppets, and could throw the whole thing, but it pulls back.

What makes it work is that Landis puts in the time between the horror to develop the characters a little, and the leads are all likeable. Far too many horror movies don’t do this, but by making us care about David it makes this film be more effective.

The film has developed a cult following, and there’s a lot to love here. I watched it as a teen, but every time I see it I still enjoy it immensely, and of all the genres horror is the one that doesn’t usually hold up to repeat viewings.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.