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. 

Mal during a job

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.


My Favourite Films #40: Tangled

One of the (many) perks of being in a relationship with MWF is her Disney collection. As a total Disney addict she owns all of the “Classics” series, which is cool as my Disney viewing has holes in. Of course, I’ve seen most of the big ones, and most of the ’90s ones but before we started dating there was a massive gap between Mulan (1998) and Wreck-It Ralph (2012), however, this has been sorted and I’ve now actually seen almost every single film, especially from the gap. Among these is one that has quickly become one of my favourite all time Disney movies, Tangled.

tangled pos

The movie is a retelling of the Rapunzel myth but with added bits. It begins with the story of a drop of sunlight falling to Earth which creates a magic flower which an aged witch Gothel (Donna Murphy) uses for eternal youth, however, when the pregnant queen falls ill the plant is discovered and used to save her. Gothel, incensed goes to slay the newborn princess, but discovers the magic has been passed onto the girl’s hair. She then steals the princess away and imprisons her in a high tower, keeping her secret and posing as her mother. To keep her there she teaches the young girl, Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) that the world is scary and people are after her hair.

However, as she grows up Rapunzel chafes against the confines of the tower and longs to explore the world. She also wants to see the “floating lights”, lanterns which are lit annually for her by the royal couple.

Hope arrives in the form of roguish thief Flynn Rider (Zachary Quinto), who stumbles on her tower while on the run. Rapunzel takes the crown he has stolen and uses it to blackmail him into taking her to see the lights. Flynn is initially unwilling and attempts to put her off by deliberately scaring her by taking her to a rough bar, which backfires thanks to the rough patrons revealing that they also have dreams. This is by far the best music number in the movie a hilarious sequence where the thugs reveal their hobbies and passions before forcing Flynn, at sword point, to join in.

As they travel, Flynn discovers her hair’s secret and takes her to the city, however, Gothel is in pursuit and allied with Flynn’s former associates the Stabbington Brothers (both voiced by Ron Perlman). Her plan is to trick Rapunzel into thinking that Flynn has no feelings for her, thus making the heartbroken girl easier to control and contain.

The movie has two parts played by Ron Perlman, what's not to love?

The movie has two parts played by Ron Perlman, what’s not to love?

Flynn honours his promise to show her the lights and this scene, accompanied by a decent ballad is utterly beautiful, the CG creating a beautiful sequence where the lanterns take flight making it for me one of the all time highlights of any animated film.

The lantern sequence is glorious

The lantern sequence is glorious

Double crossed Flynn ends up in the custody of the guards, but escapes, racing to rescue Rapunzel.

Here’s the thing, I love this movie and a large part of that is down to Zachary Levi’s funny performance as the swaggering Flynn. Flynn is a world away from the usual Disney hero, being cocky, self-absorbed and sarcastic, in fact he’s more akin to a Han Solo or Malcolm Reynolds type. Of course, underneath this he is still a goodie and has some form of code. Flynn’s frustration at Wanted posters not capturing his face is a running gag and his vanity is one of his flaws.

Flynn Rider: Smooth criminal

Flynn Rider: Smooth criminal

The relationship between the cynical Flynn and naive, cheery Rapunzel works in an opposites attract way, and the movie should get props for the fact that Rapunzel is in charge of her own destiny and quite heroic herself. Her naivety feels realistic given her sheltered upbringing and she’s not a complete idiot. She’s wary of what happens and knows when to step up, not relying on Flynn or others.

Their relationship develops wonderfully and is paced correctly, not feeling rushed or forced. The finale where Flynn reveals that being with Rapunzel has replaced wealth as his dream is sweet, and his decision to sacrifice himself to free her is a truly emotional moment. That this is reversed with some old school fairytale endings doesn’t diminish it and the ending is strong and satisfying.

Also the supporting cast are great, the animal sidekicks are cute and funny, and in Gothel there’s a truly despicable villain. I can’t think of another kid’s film where the villain is so manipulative or a film where guilt tripping is shown so clearly. Gothel is the kind of villain you just hate and it’s because a lot of her evil isn’t magic or fantastical, it’s worryingly normal and her key weapon against Rapunzel is emotional blackmail and manipulation.

Tangled manages to combine the fairytale magic of the old Princess movies (Sleeping Beauty, Snow White) with a knowing sense of humour and more independent heroine, making it the perfect choice to be the 50th Classic. It both nods to the past and represents a change in tone for Disney, and benefits from a funny, sparkling script which plays well to all ages.

An utter gem of a movie and one I can rewatch over and over.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


My Favourite Films #39: Gremlins

News of a Gremlins remake/reboot is not good, well, at least not to me. While I appreciate that improved special effects might do a better job of bringing Gizmo and Co to life, I kinda think that misses the point and that the slightly shonky effects are actually part of the original’s charm.

gremlins poster

Also the movie belongs to a different time, the 80s when people kinda accepted that kids liked a bit of ugliness and being creeped out. The movie ends with voiceover that tells us that next time something glitches in the house it might be the horrible little beasties we’ve just seen kill and devour innocent civilians. That’s messed up.

Directed by B-movie expert Joe Dante (who at this stage had already made The Howling and Piranha) it’s definitely in his wheelhouse for dark comedy and the Christmas-set movie plays with it’s small town America setting to great effect. It’s like if Bedford Falls was besieged by monsters.

Eccentric inventor Randall Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) visits Chinatown and discovers a cute little critter called a mogwai, which he names Gizmo and buys as a gift for his son Billy (Zach Galligan).

Gizmo

Gizmo

 

The mogwai comes with rules-

  1. No bright lights, mogwai hate bright lights and sunlight is lethal.
  2. Don’t get them wet
  3. Don’t feed them after midnight.

Pretty simple, right? In short order Billy breaks rules one and two. Getting Gizmo wet makes him reproduce while feeding them after midnight turns them into decidedly less cute and more vicious gremlins. The leader of the gremlins, Stripe sets out to build up an army and they set about attacking the residents of the small town.

Stripe

Stripe

It’s now up to Billy and his love interest Kate (Phoebe Cates) to stop Stripe and the others and save the day, with Gizmo in tow.

This movie rocks because it has a magnificent dark streak, with Dante reveling in the anarchic, vicious gremlins and their trail of destruction. There are some wonderfully over-the-top deaths, most notably one involving a stair-lift, and the movie swings between creepiness and giggles as Dante weaves in daft sight gags, one liners and surrealism.

One of the best moments for me comes when Kate tells the story about why she hates Christmas, a morbidly funny sequence which pokes fun at the “tragic backstory” trope and which had my Mum and me in hysterics, although MWG wasn’t quite so amused and reckons I have a sick sense of humour, which is just as well for this movie.

Kate tells her tragic story, the Page's laugh

Kate tells her tragic story, the Page’s laugh

The whole movie is a bit of a mess in some ways but it gets by on sheer character and energy, hurtling forwards with fantastic verve. It seems to know that if it hesitates it’s lost so it keeps going until the end.

Dante knows his B-movies and plays on the traditional genre themes (disbelieving cops, nasty characters getting their just desserts etc), crafting a movie which works both as a comedy and a horror, being genuinely jumpy and unsettling in places. The effects have aged terribly in places but the puppetry ensures that the gremlins always feel realistic and have a weight that CG often lacks, that being said Gizmo remains extremely cute.

The cast do their jobs well, but it’s all about the critters, really, although you do wonder how Phoebe Cates proceeded to vanish from the screen after such a promising start to her career. It also features 80s icon Corey Feldman in a small supporting role.

It’s a nasty, funny gem of a movie and an unlikely shout for one of the best Christmas movies ever made.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


My Favourite Films #38: Taken

I don’t know who you are, I don’t know what you want. If you’re looking for ransom, I can tell you I don’t have money…but what I do have are a very particular set of skills. Skills I have acquired over a long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that will be the end of it- I will not look for you, I will not pursue you….but if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you…and I will kill you.

That speech, delivered by Liam Neeson’s ex-government agent Brian Mills over the phone to his daughter’s kidnapper is the high point of this film and one of the most badass movie speeches of all time, like the 21st century equivalent of Dirty Harry’s “Do you feel lucky?” speech.

taken

The snatching scene is an immensely powerful film, with Brian hearing his daughter scream for help and get taken. It would be effective in any film, but with Neeson rather than a traditional action hero it’s even better. As he listens his face clearly shows the fear and shock as he lives every parent’s nightmare, and then incredibly subtly his face shifts and a steely resolve is clear. Then he delivers the above speech.

taken call

The movie, written and produced by Luc Besson, the French action movie legend, follows Mills as he travels to Paris on the trail of his daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace), who’s been snatched by human traffickers. Arriving in Paris he punches, shoots and tortures his way through the Eastern European heavies to track Kim and her friend down.

Along the way he realizes that the Albanian mob has ties everywhere and even old friends can’t be trusted and he wages his one man war on the mob.

The movie exists in a post Bourne and 24 world so there’s some extremely gritty, bone crunching action along the way and Neeson’s character isn’t adverse to torturing people for information. This causes problems for some viewers, but luckily despite the gritty realism of some scenes it stays true to it’s roots by having a string of unremarkable goons for Neeson to wade through.

Pierre Morel the director and student of Luc Besson (he’d previously worked as cinematographer on Jason Statham vehicle The Transporter and directed the pretty ace District 13) is capable behind the camera and shoots the whole thing in a tight, fast paced way with plenty of in your face camera work and a real knack for capturing the seedy underbelly of Paris.

But above all else it’s Neeson’s film. Since this he’s had a string of action hero style roles, but this was the first one and it was a bit of a surprise to see an actor like him switch to doing a rather nasty exploitation movie.

Neeson in action

Neeson in action

The nastiness works in it’s favour, allowing Neeson to sink his teeth into a morally ambiguous, relentless character who seems willing to go to any lengths to get his daughter back. The rather vicious, grim tone is a large reason for the film’s success which makes the fact they cut the sequel down to a 12 all the more mindboggling and disappointing, because this movie is a well executed, solid B-movie that sticks true to it’s nasty roots but is elevated by a strong central performance from Neeson.

Mills is an engaging character. His skills are impressive, but his strongest trait is resisting telling his ex wife “I told you so” after his fears for his daughter’s safety are realized.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


My Favourite Films #37: Clerks

This is one of those movies that has appealed to me in lots of different ways over the years, but which I’ve always loved. I first saw it in my late teens as I’d already enjoyed two other Kevin Smith movies, Mallrats and Chasing Amy, and had tracked it down on VHS (dating myself there).

clerks

Initially I liked the movie because it was filled with hilarious, filthy dialogue and geeky references, and I also loved the story behind it, how Smith had racked up masses of credit card debts to get it made and that they’d shot at night at the store where he actually worked (this being the reason behind the plot point of the shutters being stuck down).

clerks quick stop

As a teen I’d made a couple of goofy short films with some mates (unfortunately the masterpieces Death of Action Man and The Skewenian Witch Project have been lost) and harboured dreams of becoming a movie and starting off with a low budget debut. Unfortunately this never got off the ground aside from a few shorts I made at uni, which have also been lost, although somewhere at my Mum’s house are probably notebooks with the beginnings of scripts in.

Smith was a hero of mine, it helped that he seemed funny and cool, and that his geeky style worked for me, but the fact that this dude could make a movie and then become a pro director was inspiring. Smith is a bit of an inspirational figure and even wrote a book where he dishes out some wonderfully positive advice and support for people trying to do stuff.

The third level of enjoyment for me, beyond it just being a funny flick and something I’d like to do, was that as recent graduate who worked behind a counter for a time it really spoke to me. While everybody wishes they could be as open and confident as the best friend Randal (Jeff Anderson), I think most of us at some time feel like Dante (Brian O’Halloran) uncertain of his future and feeling trapped in a rut.

Dante and Randal

Dante and Randal

When I was 23, around the age Dante is, I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life, or rather I did, but I was confused and afraid of how to get to them. I’m pushing 30 now and I still feel like that a lot of the time, but at 23 it spoke to me, I was young and aimless. Uni was over, and it hadn’t flowed into a career as easily as I’d hoped. I’d stalled, and I hated it. Worse, I didn’t do enough to get out of it and just whined about my lot in life, just like Dante.

Maybe I’m being too hard on the protagonist, but in a way it’s part of what I like about Smith’s movie, that front and centre he puts a character who is at times annoying. This is a dude who constantly whines, who hates where he is but is afraid to try and get out of it, and who blames others for his poor decisions. In short, Smith has crafted a realistic portrait of an early 20s slacker who thinks he’s better than many around him.

Dante isn’t all bad, he is quite funny in places and his fears and failing are believable and well done, and over the course of the film you do warm up to him, thanks in part to O’Halloran’s performance, which manages to stay just the right side of whiny for most of the movie. It’s also good as it speaks to a certain kind of person, who’s starting to fear that they’re stuck where they are, and that’s where I think a lot of us find ourselves at some point. Smith’s love triangle for Dante is infuriating, as the audience clearly knows who’s the right girl, but it’s realistic of how an ex, even a terrible one, can still hold sway over a person’s feelings.

The problem is also that Dante’s friend, Randal steals the whole show. Played with sarky verve by Jeff Anderson, Randal gets all the best lines (understandably as Smith had originally written the role for himself), constantly annoyed with customers and spouting profanity strewn rants, Randal is a comic masterpiece, firing out filthy gags, angry retorts and generally leading Dante astray.

While Anderson does a great job, the real plaudits have to be reserved for Kevin Smith himself, because his script is the film’s best asset. The acting is stilted in places and shot on cheap black-and-white stock, the movie looks awfully cheap, but the dialogue sparkles throughout. It helps that for a lot of the movie it has a realistic feel to, capturing the trivial debates and arguments you get in with your friends. The foul-mouthed dissection of pop culture are pretty on the nose, and Smith captures geek culture before it flourished online.

The plot is a bit messy, based around a single day it sees wild tangents that include hockey games on the roof, a disastrous funeral, a parade of idiotic customers and even accidental necrophilia. It’s also filled with a plethora of bizarre characters and is the introduction of Smith’s on screen alter ego Silent Bob, who along with hetero-life mate Jay (Jason Mewes) would become a recurring feature in Smith’s movies.

Jay and Silent Bob

Jay and Silent Bob

It’s a crazy movie, but it fizzes with energy and the low budget style works in it’s favour, especially as the grainy black and white actually looks like security tape in some parts. Smith’s script keeps it going and delivers a string of laughs throughout, and while the language might be a barrier for some, it works for me and you could argue that Smith’s sweary geek comedy is still evident in the work of Judd Apatow and co.

It’s a marvelous little movie, full of charm and wit, and proved a great calling card for Smith, which is a good thing as without this succeeding we wouldn’t have gotten his subsequent movies or his magnificent podcasts. Smith deserves his success, not just because he made a movie so cheaply, independently and bravely, but that he made a great movie under those circumstances, and one that still makes me laugh all these years later.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


My Favourite Films #36: Dog Soldiers

Sometimes you don’t need the effects to be amazing. Sometimes a monster movie can get by on the characters, the script and the general feeling the movie gives you. This is one of those flicks, because when the werewolves finally have their big reveal they’re a bit rubbery and clearly just blokes in a suit, but it doesn’t matter, because by then I was sold.

ds sarge

The reason this movie works for me is that it’s extremely British in a way, although maybe not the vision of Britain most foreigners have. This isn’t tea drinking poshos, this is the other end, slightly laddy and naff, if Downton Abbey is as British as high tea, then this is as British as spending all day down the local watching the football.

ds pos

The plot is simple, a bunch of British squaddies led by Sgt Wells (Sean Pertwee) are on a training mission in the Scottish hills, miles from anywhere. The men think it’s a bit of a waste of time and generally complain about the crap weather and the fact they’re missing an important England match.

However, things get a lot more interesting when they find the “enemy” who have been attacked and slaughtered, the only surviving member is Captain Ryan (Liam Cunningham), the SAS officer who passed over squad member Cooper (Kevin McKidd) because he wouldn’t shoot a dog in training. Something begins to hunt the men, who flee with the injured Ryan, and are rescued by Megan (Emma Cleasby), who’d moved to the area to study wildlife. In the process Wells is severely injured.

Holed up at a farmhouse they find themselves surrounded and cut off by the mysterious enemy who seem to be extremely clever and start to cut off any form of escape and pick off the men. As the tension mounts they have to realize that the enemy are in fact werewolves and that Ryan was using them as bait, as the night goes on Cooper starts to suspect that Megan and Ryan aren’t exactly strangers.

What I love about this movie is the humour that runs throughout, because even though there is tension, gore and action, I mainly remember laughing with this film. A lot of the humour comes from the way the characters bounce off each other, especially the squaddies, who banter and bicker like old mates. The dialogue is wonderfully observed for the most part although it does contain a couple of daft moments and one pop culture reference which cracked me up the first time.

The performances are pretty good as well, Pertwee is fantastic as the tough, gruff Sergeant who clearly cares for his men’s wellbeing and Kevin McKidd is fantastic as the resourceful, smart Cooper, the film’s hero. The Britishness extends to this as there’s no massive rousing speech or cocky swagger, just a bloke trying to get through the night, usually with a sarky comment or look of utter disbelief in response to what he faces, and the film has it’s tongue well in cheek throughout.

The other squaddies are also rather good especially the loudmouth Spoon (Darren Morfitt), who when about to go out against a werewolf delivers the fantastic last words “I hope I give you the s**ts, you f**king wimp!”. Classy it ain’t, entertaining it definitely is.

Spoon goes toe-to-toe with a werewolf

Spoon goes toe-to-toe with a werewolf

Neil Marshall directs his debut movie with great skill, building the tension nicely and given the shaky werewolves does a good job of keeping them off screen for much of the movie, just giving little glimpses until near the end. As a script writer as well he knows what’s up and the movie zips along at quite a lick meaning it never lets up and that we know just enough about the characters to care about them.

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It’s a solid B movie, with some cracking dialogue that deliver genuine laughs and is one of those movies that you can rewatch over and over again, for my money, Marshall’s never topped his opening salvo.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


My Favourite Films #35: Lethal Weapon 2

This movie means a lot to me, partly because I’ve watched it repeatedly and also because it’s one of the few movies that has made me cry as an adult.

In my defence, it was just after Valentine’s Day, I was single and I’d been drinking.

lethalweapon2

Picking up where the first movie left off with crazy Riggs (Mel Gibson) and family man Murtaugh (Danny Glover) as wisecracking partners we’re launched straight into the tone of the movie thanks to the Looney Tunes theme and then a big car crash where Riggs and Murtaugh chase a bunch of blonde crims and uncover a mass of gold coins.

The coins turn out to be South African krugerrands, which are illegal. Riggs and Murtaugh dig into it a bit more, but are warned off by the South African consul Arjen Rudd (Joss Ackland) and his heavy Vorstedt (Derrick O’Connor), and reassigned to look after Leo Getz (Joe Pesci), a loud and irritating witness. Pesci fills this role wonderfully and with the heroes forms a fast talking, quipping triangle which delivers some of the film’s big laughs.

 

Glover, Gibson and Pesci

Glover, Gibson and Pesci

Pesci’s character is annoying in places, but he should be applauded for softening as the film progresses. He gives Gibson and Glover someone extra to spark off, and fits well with the rapid fire, joke heavy dialogue. Of course, there’s plenty of this already thanks to the easy, natural feeling way that Gibson and Glover have Riggs and Murtaugh banter and bicker throughout, with the duo working together fantastically.

Leo is targeted and the duo protect him, and realize that he’s connected to the South Africans. This is apartheid era South Africa, so they also hassle Murtaugh and are instantly unlikable. I think this reason, along with growing up learning about apartheid is part of the reason I’ve had a problem with South Africa and been unable to cheer their sports teams on, although now as most of their players are post-apartheid kids it’s not quite as strong a dislike.

Riggs and Murtaugh then proceed to investigate and harass the South Africans, and Riggs woos Rudd’s secretary, Rika (Patsy Kensit), in a romantic subplot that is actually rather well done. It’s brief, but Gibson turns on the charm and his goofy, funny approach makes it easy to see why Rika might fall for him. The only problem is that during their flirting scenes Kensit’s South African accent clearly throws Gibson off and his Aussie side starts to come through a bit.

Kensit and Gibson, good onscreen chemistry

Kensit and Gibson, good onscreen chemistry

Rika and Riggs get it on, but their happiness is short lived as their attacked and captured by Vorstedt. Vorstedt reveals that they’ve known about Riggs for a while, and that when he previously got too close Vorstedt tried to take him out, causing the car accident that killed Riggs’ missus. This doubles Riggs’ desire for revenge and escaping he teams up with Roger and they both go out for justice on the dastardly racists.

Ackland is very good as the sleazy, menacing diplomat who abuses his power and diplomatic immunity to run his drug business, and the scene where a minor goon walks in to a plastic covered room is a nice touch. Ackland is the power and a hissable villain, but his right hand man Vorstedt is the physical threat and his tough one-on-one fight with Riggs near the end shows them to be evenly matched and has some bone crunching realism. It doesn’t quite match the Riggs vs Joshua smackdown of the original, but it’s pretty good.

That brings us to the ending, which is an action movie masterclass. After Riggs takes out his man he’s dramatically gunned down by Rudd. Rudd then taunts Murtaugh with his diplomatic immunity, teeing Danny Glover up to deliver one of the best action movie post-kill lines ever.

lw2 revoked

And then comes the part that made me cry. Already upset by the death of Rika, watching Murtaugh race to the fallen Riggs as “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” kicks in was all too much for me, despite knowing there were two more movies to come. This is down to the great directing of Richard Donner, who shoots it wonderfully.

Apparently at one stage Riggs did actually buy the farm, but thankfully, they decided this was too much of a bummer and an injured Riggs lives to fight and quip another day.

The impact of this scene is a sign of the movie’s major strengths, which is the way they build the relationship between Riggs and Murtaugh. They’re still very different and bicker away, but there’s definitely a sense that they know each other a bit better, sparking off each other and joking along.

Riggs and Murtaugh- Best partners ever?

Riggs and Murtaugh- Best partners ever?

 

There’s also more signs that their partnership is helping to soften Riggs’ and that he’s becoming part of the Murtaugh family, and this is one of the series major themes and biggest strengths, the redemption offered by simple human contact and interaction.

Glover is solid, dependable and likable as Murtaugh and gets the movie’s big moment, but Gibson steals the show, and is unbelievably charismatic as Riggs, a motormouth ball of energy who looks genuinely badass and crazy in places. This is one of the best examples of why Gibson was such a massive star, and he has the easy on screen charm that few stars possess, and continues to make Riggs a man crush of mine.

The next two installments might not match the first two, but they’re still entertaining movies and Gibson and Glover’s chemistry continues throughout, making Riggs and Murtaugh one of the best buddy duos around. And this stands out as one of those sequels which builds on and strengthens the first movie, getting you even more involved in the characters and their adventures.

The connection with Riggs’ wife is a bit heavy handed, and you can’t help thinking that with all their cop buddies dead along with Rika, and a threat to his partner’s family, Riggs has more than enough reason to go after the bad guys, but it still works and gives him the closure to move on in parts 3 and 4.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


My Favourite Films #34: Groundhog Day

Sometimes an idea is so simple you’re amazed nobody thought of it earlier, and this is one of those concepts. Thankfully the idea waited until 1993, which meant that it got to star Bill Murray, which is most definitely a good thing.

groundhog day

I’m a huge Bill Murray fan, and while the idea and script of this flick are wonderful, the film’s major strength is Murray doing his usual sarky, slightly sleazy schtik as Phil Connors, a TV weatherman who goes to view the groundhog day celebrations, only to find himself inexplicably reliving the same day over and over again. Phil can remember doing it all before, but when he falls asleep it all resets and he wakes up, once again at 6am to the sounds of Sonny and Cher, forced to go through it all again.

The idea of having to live the same day again and again is genius, and it’s a credit to Harold Ramis as the director that he choreographs everything that only Murray’s reactions to events around him differ. It’s also rather well done in the way that the movie handles Phil’s response to this bizarre turn of events.

At first he staggers through the day thoroughly confused, fearing that he’s going mad. Then he embraces the fact he has a life free of consequence and uses it for selfish reasons. Shortly after that he falls into a funk of depression and tries to kill himself to escape the repetition, only to always wake up at the start again. People often talk about edginess in comedy, but there are few things darker or braver to do than have your main character attempt suicide, repeatedly, halfway through a romantic comedy fantasy.

Things get kinda dark

Things get kinda dark

That’s what the movie morphs into, with Phil trying to manipulate events to woo his producer Rita, played by Andie MacDowell. He learns her likes and dislikes and repeatedly tries to build the perfect day to win her over, but something always goes wrong leading to a montage of slaps.

I’m gonna go off topic here and discuss MacDowell, who I find infuriating. She always seems to have been dubbed by another actress, and is just one of those actors who rubs me up the wrong way. Despite this, she stars in two movies I adore, this and Four Weddings and a Funeral. I can’t quite work out how an actress I dislike can still manage to crop up in two movies I genuinely love, even if she is one of the weaker elements of both movies.

She’s not terrible, it’s just, well, she’s kinda bland.

Kinda bland- Andie MacDowell as Rita, Phil's love interest.

Kinda bland- Andie MacDowell as Rita, Phil’s love interest.

After failing to win Rita over, Phil decides to try and use his knowledge of the day’s events to try and help as many people as possible. Using the opportunity to improve himself, through learning piano and working out where he has to be to help everyone.

Finally, after a perfect day he impresses Rita enough for her to bid for him at a charity auction and the two spend the night together, with Phil waking up the next day, finally free from February the 2nd.

I love this movie, because not only is it really funny, but it also has a solid message and moral core. Phil repeating the day over and over could be seen as an allegory for reincarnation, but it works in a wider sense, in that it proves what life is really about, it’s not about chasing individual happiness, but rather about trying to make life better for others, or as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it far more eloquently:

The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.

I love that this isn’t about Phil just winning Rita, or proving himself worthy of her, but rather about the selfish Phil having to realize what’s really important in life. What makes this movie even better is that it manages to avoid schmaltz and remains funny throughout, even when the moral hits in. Ramis handles the shifts in tone magnificently and captures the frustration of the same day repeating (perhaps too well, I tried to get MWG to watch this at the weekend and she got annoyed by the repetition and kept wandering off or playing on her phone, the philistine!)

But as I’ve said, the real strength is Bill Murray who is just an utter delight in the lead role. He’s great at the sarky one-liners and manages to capture Phil’s reinvention and improvement in a way that feels natural and not too cliche or saccharine. Murray has perfect comic timing and a real knack for making his slightly roguish characters remain likable, when they could easily just come across as jerks.

It’s easily one of my favourite Murray movies, and I never get tired of watching it over and over.

groundhog day bill murray

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.