Wednesday 31 July 2013

Mixed Nuts (1994)

'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house . . . . . . . . . . . . the telephone was ringing and people feeling suicidal were calling for help.

Mixed Nuts is an inferior, but ultimately enjoyable, rom-com set on Christmas Eve in a crisis hotline office. The team are about to be evicted, but only Philip (Steve Martin) knows this. He's not wanting to break the bad news to the lovely, loyal Catherine (Rita Wilson) or the crabby and bitter Mrs. Munchnik (Madeline Kahn). While dealing with a variety of calls, the team ends up in the middle of a domestic between the heavily pregnant Gracie (Juliette Lewis) and her lovable loser of a boyfriend, Felix (Anthony LaPaglia).

This is very standard stuff, especially if you're familiar with the work of Nora Ephron (who both directed this movie and also co-wrote the screenplay with her sister, Delia - not an original piece, the two tweaked and reworked the script of Le Père Noël Est Une Ordure). It's also good fun for anyone who enjoys the featured cast members.

As well as those mentioned, Adam Sandler has a fun role (although he makes use of his standard annoying vocal style and also gets to sing some stupid lyrics), Liev Schreiber is wonderful as a transgender individual named Chris, Parker Posey and Jon Stewart have small roles and Garry Shandling gets to be entertainingly unpleasant for every minute of his limited screentime.

The script may not be the sharpest, and the direction may be a bit flat, but things are improved immeasurably by all of the leads. Martin is good fun, as is Wilson, but more laughs come from the scenes featuring Lewis and LaPaglia. The most laughs, however, come from any scenes featuring Madeline Kahn, easily reminding viewers of just what a great comedic actress she is. She's one of the best, and one of the major plus points of Mixed Nuts is the fact that it lets her steal every scene that she's in.

I doubt that anyone will list this as a favourite film, but there's enough here to make it a fairly enjoyable 90 minutes.


Tuesday 30 July 2013

Grand Canyon (1991)

Directed by Lawrence Kasdan, who also co-wrote the screenplay with his wife Meg, Grand Canyon is a well-intentioned film that just doesn't really do anything. It allows one privileged white male character to help some black people, lets Steve Martin step away once more from his comedy schtick and shows a bunch of women who either need a man or a baby to be happy. Yes, it's THAT bad in places.

It's also quite good in different parts. The acting from all concerned - Martin, Kevin Kline, Danny Glover, Mary McDonnell, Mary-Louise Parker, Alfre Woodard, Tina Lifford, a very young Jeremy Sisto - is very good. Individual scenes are well done, especially a moment that sees Martin approached by a robber, but this is a movie that runs for two hours, and when I say runs I actually mean to say meanders.

What's the plot? Well, Kevin Kline and Mary McDonnell are a married, well-to-do white couple with some relationship problems. They have a son (Sisto) who is heading off to camp, which leads to the "empty nest" feeling for McDonnell. Kline decides to drive home one night through a slightly rough area in which he sticks out like a sore thumb. Thankfully, he's helped out of there in one piece by Danny Glover and the two strike up a bit of a friendship, one that allows Kline to make up for a multitude of sins by helping Glover and his family. Meanwhile, Steve Martin is a Hollywood producer who makes ultra-violent films until his own encounter with violence leads to an epiphany and Mary-Louise Parker gets herself all in a muddle after falling for the married Kline.

I enjoyed Grand Canyon when I first saw it about twenty years ago. I was a teenager and this is a simple, naive film. The fact that I enjoy it a lot less nowadays, having seen and experienced much more of the world, comes as no surprise. The fact that I still enjoy it in any way is the surprising part. I'm sure there are people who will feel almost insulted by the way the movie treats some, if not all, of its characters. It's the kind of movie written almost purely to assuage the collective guilt of white, middle class America.

Maybe that's why, as a white, middle class (*shudder* what have I become?) Brit, I don't hate it as much as I should.


Monday 29 July 2013

Taste Of Fear AKA Scream Of Fear (1961)

An interesting psychological thriller from Hammer, this film has been recommended to me a number of times and I'm glad that I finally got around to seeing it.

The plot sees young, wheelchair-bound Penny Appleby (Susan Strasberg) returning to her family home after the recent death of a friend. She wants to reconnect with her estranged father and is also willing to find out more about her new step-mother, Jane (Ann Todd). There's a friendly young man named Robert (Ronald Lewis), a concerned doctor named Pierre Gerrard (Christopher Lee) and her father. Well, her father doesn't seem to be alive when Penny sees him, but everyone else claims that he's just fine. And his body is surprisingly mobile for a dead man. What's going on?

Directed by Seth Holt, and with a script written by the talented Jimmy Sangster (who also wrote the excellent The Nanny), Taste Of Fear may have many elements in place familiar to fans of psychological thrillers, but they're all executed pretty perfectly. In fact, the big finale earns it a whole extra one or two points thanks to how entertaining and nicely constructed it is.

The cast all do a decent job, with Strasberg particularly good as the vulnerable and frayed lead. Christopher Lee puts on a slightly clumsy accent, but he does very well with a role quite unlike most of his other work for the studio, and both Todd and Lewis are fine.

With a nice feeling of unease from start to finish, some moments of genuine tension and a couple of impressive jump scares, Taste Of Fear is a superior example of this kind of film. It's a film, along with the aforementioned The Nanny, that I wish we'd seen a lot more of from a studio that made so much money from vampires, Frankenstein's monsters and other supernatural creatures.


Sunday 28 July 2013

Bringing Down The House (2003)

Written by Jason Filardi (it was his first script, or at least the first to get made into a feature anyway) and directed by Adam Shankman, Bringing Down The House is the kind of by-the-numbers comedy that nobody ever loves but everyone seems to pay to see at the cinema. Made for just over $30M, this movie ended up taking over $160M worldwide (according to That's a haul so impressive that I'm surprised we've not seen a sequel.

Steve Martin stars as Peter Sanderson, a tax attorney who spends more time working for his company than he does working out fun stuff to do for when he picks his children up from his ex-wife (Jean Smart). He does, however, make some time to chat online with a woman known as "lawyer-girl" and ends up arranging a date. When lawyer-girl (Queen Latifah) turns up she has to admit that she maybe isn't what Peter had in mind. Her name is Charlene, she's black and recently released from prison. She wants Peter to help clear her name and expunge her record. This all occurs while Peter is wooing a very important potential new client (Joan Plowright), looking after his kids and generally trying to keep his life on track. He does not want, or need, Charlene in his life. His friend, Howie Rottman (Eugene Levy), on the other hand, finds himself instantly enchanted.

Yes, you can check off the standard gags and plot developments that appear in this movie right now. Martin being unable to understand the slang used by Queen Latifah? Check. Martin later trying to use some slang and be "down" with some other African Americans? Check. Strained moments in which Martin tries to impress Plowright while keeping Latifah out of the picture? Check. The tough, streetsmart woman teaching the stiff, uptight tax attorney a thing or two? Check. The feelings still there between Martin and his ex-wife? Check.

It's fair to say that originality and suspense are not to be found here. It's also fair to say that none of the laughs are big laughs, but they are consistently good enough to build into something worth your time. Eugene Levy steals a few scenes, Missi Pyle is a lot of fun as a woman a lot tougher than she looks and the rest of the cast do just fine (including Michael Rosenbaum, who always seems to be ill-served by movies, and the ever-wonderful Betty White). It's Martin and Latifah, however, who really make this such an enjoyable hour and a half. While I've been a life-long fan of Martin, I've quickly warmed to Queen Latifah (real name = Dana Elaine Owens) and find her to be a welcome addition to any movie that she stars in. Even if the movie itself isn't all that good.

There are many people who will think that I shouldn't rate Bringing Down The House as highly as I do (even though I've gone for a score that's just above average), but I'm willing to bet that some of them enjoyed it more than they admit to. After all, that $160M worldwide total speaks for itself.


Saturday 27 July 2013

Sgt. Bilko (1996)

It's never a good idea to take a beloved comedy icon and try to put your own spin on it, but Steve Martin doesn't seem to care about the risks involved. In fact, some might say that he took an even bigger chance when he took over the role of Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther movies, but there's no denying that a LOT of people loved both the character of Sgt. Bilko and the actor who originally played him, Phil Silvers.

Master Sergeant Ernest G. Bilko (Martin) is a fast-talking, fast-thinking conman and gambler who has managed to spend years in the army without getting in trouble for any of his mad schemes and money-making operations. That looks as if it could change when he's assigned a new man to his company, Pfc. Wally Holbrook (Daryl Mitchell), just before the arrival of Major Colin Thorn (Phil Hartman) and the two people that he has brought along to perform an exhaustive audit of everything that Bilko is responsible for. If there is one item of stock missing, one dollar in the wrong place or one shred of evidence showing that he is up to mischief then Bilko will end up out on his ear, to put it mildly. He also needs to buck up his ideas and find time to marry his long-suffering fiance, Rita Robbins (Glenne Headly).

Full of ridiculous moments of near-farce, great dialogue and fun characters, Sgt. Bilko is a movie that I have always liked since first seeing it, and always felt that others didn't really give a chance. Martin is no Phil Silvers, but he's not trying to be. He's just mixing his own comedy persona with the character of Bilko, and it works.

The direction from Jonathan Lynn is unspectacular, but that's something that can be said for pretty much every film that he's ever helmed. He's competent with comedy material, and has been in charge of a couple that I really like, but the strength usually lies in the scripts that he's working from. Luckily, this one (written by Andy Breckman) is a goodie, full of energy and laugh out loud moments.

As well as Martin shining in the lead role, the likes of Headly and Hartman put in some wonderful work. Dan Aykroyd is particularly enjoyable as the Colonel who always suspects Bilko of being up to something but also likes just having him around. Daryl Mitchell may not have the best role, but he's enjoyable enough as the wide-eyed newbie learning all of Bilko's tricks from his first moment in the company. Chris Rock and Cathy Silvers are good fun as the auditors, and Max Casella, Eric Edwards (most memorable as Pvt. Doberman) and Pamela Segall are all worthy folk to be in cahoots with their scheming leader.

It would be wrong of me to assume that lots of people disliked Sgt. Bilko because it wasn't exactly as they wanted it to be and it wasn't the old Bilko, but I can't help feeling that there was certainly a bit of a cloud over this movie as soon as it was announced. And I get it, especially when a TV show or movie is updating an old, much-loved slice of classic TV. I also get that good things can come out of such developments. Some people think that in an ideal world we'd have no remakes or sequels proving the law of diminishing returns, but that ideal world would also see us missing out on some GREAT (in fact, I'll say it, CLASSIC) movies. Sgt. Bilko isn't a classic, but it's a cracking comedy for those who like the cast and enjoy their comedy with funny lines flying thick and fast through every scene.


Friday 26 July 2013

Leap Of Faith (1992)

While this isn't the first non-comedic performance from Steve Martin, Leap Of Faith was the first serious film that I saw him in and the first time that I realised there was more to the man than just his wild and crazy comedy. I was also pleasantly surprised to find that a) the film was very good and b) Martin was just as good while not mugging for the laughs.

The film is all about a fake faith healer named Jonas Nightengale (Steve Martin), who ends up having to kill time in a small town when one of his vehicles needs repaired. Always one to make the best of a bad situation, Jonas gets his people to set up the tent and start spreading the word. He knows that he can still make a fair bit of money off the locals, it might just take more effort than usual. The people aren't exactly rolling in money or good luck, as the local Sheriff (Liam Neeson) emphasises to Jonas and his colleague, Jane Larson (Debra Winger). As Jonas starts to work from his usual bag of tricks things start to happen that may prove that the trickster is being tricked or, even worse, that he's about to meet a "genuine article."

Directed by Richard Pearce and written by Janus Cercone, Leap Of Faith is solid when it comes to both the script and execution of the material, but Martin is the big draw. During the opening sequence of the film, showing his character attempting to avoid a ticket being issued (by an officer played by Troy Evans), things are not that impressive. It quickly establishes the main character and the mood of the whole thing, but Martin doesn't seem to be right for the role. That all changes, however, when he gets onto the main stage and starts working a big crowd. He slips on his role like a bright suit, dancing and shouting, responding to information being fed to him via earpiece, tricking people into thinking that he can be the person to save them from their troubles. It's grandstanding theatrics and Martin does it with the air of the assured performer that he is.

The rest of the cast give him great support, especially Winger as the number two of the operation. Meat Loaf, M. C. Gainey and Philip Seymour Hoffman have small roles as part of the crew, and do well enough, while Lolita Davidovich is a good antidote to all of the "suckers" as a local cynic just wanting to keep her crippled brother (Lukas Haas) away from anything that can grind down his spirit. Liam Neeson is sweet and swoonsome, judging by the reaction of some females, in the role of Will Braverman, the unsubtly-monikered Sheriff doing his best for the people in his town.

Leap Of Faith walks a nice path through a very grey area. It doesn't make any big assumptions about religion and people who choose to live their lives by faith, it doesn't even paint Nightengale and his crew as outright baddies. What it does is pose the interesting question: "if a fraud can make enough impact on people to create some positive change then does that mean that they're no longer a fraud, or does it even matter as long as the desired outcome is achieved?"

Jonas Nightengale admits that he's not the real deal, but he argues that he puts on a good show. A show that people can choose to pay for or not.

Leap Of Faith isn't unmissable, but it tries most of the time to put on a good show. I think it succeeds.


Thursday 25 July 2013

The Lonely Guy (1984)

Based on a book entitled 'The Lonely Guy's Book of Life' by Bruce Jay Friedman, this romantic comedy follows the main character, Larry Hubbard (played by Steve Martin), as he adjusts to his new status as a bona fide lonely guy. Thankfully, he bumps into experienced lonely guy Warren Evans (Charles Grodin) and received plenty of advice and a few rules to live by, making the loneliness a less painful experience than it can be for some people.

Although it feels like a number of sketches just thrown together with a very thin narrative strand running from beginning to end, that's not a bad thing for a comedy that has as many fun moments as this one does. Martin may not be in full-on whacky mode here, but he gets to act impressively stupid on a number of occasions, whether he's trying to deny evidence of an unfaithful girlfriend right in front of his eyes or he's just applied a can full of fake sweat to make himself look like a dedicated jogger. Charles Grodin is equally good, dispensing great advice such as the right greenery to put in your new flat and how to have a lively party atmosphere without having (m)any actual guests in attendance. Judith Ivey is lovely and funny as Iris, a woman that Larry falls for while seeming unable to keep her telephone number safe and legible, and Steve Lawrence and Robyn Douglass have fun as two people who will never be lonely.

Adapted into film form by Neil Simon, Stan Daniels and Ed Weinberger, and directed by Arthur Hiller, this is goofy and surprisingly sweet from start to finish. Everything is handled in just the right way, even the few moments that show how many lonely guys decide to end it all by jumping off the Manhattan Bridge.

Extra laughs come from great cameo roles from Merv Griffin, Joyce Brothers and Loni Anderson (all playing themselves) and, as strange as this may sound, there are also some tips in the movie that do feel genuinely helpful.

It's far from the best of Martin's 1980s output, but this is well worth seeing if you're a fan of him and/or Grodin. And also, of course, if you're wanting to remind yourself that being single isn't usually half as bad as this movie makes it out to be, thank goodness. It just feels that way at times.


Wednesday 24 July 2013

To The Devil A Daughter (1976)

Hammer returns to the material of Dennis Wheatley, this time with a markedly inferior final result and with a movie that would remain their last horror film until their 21st century resurgence (however long THAT lasts).

Richard Widmark plays occult novelist John Verney, a man placed in a very unusual position when he agrees to take in and take care of Denholm Elliott's daughter, a young nun named Catherine (played by the lovely Nastassja Kinski). What he doesn't know is that Catherine is being pursued by some . . . . . right nasty sorts (led by Christopher Lee as Father Michael Rayner) with a right nasty plan, to put it mildly.

There is nothing here of any real note except, I suppose, how far removed it is from Hammer's usual restraint and class. The script by Christopher Wicking (with help from John Peacock and an uncredited Gerald Vaughan-Hughes) is okay, if a little clumsy in it's exposition of far-out ideas. The direction by Peter Sykes is unremarkable but also inoffensive. The acting is also distinctly okay but unspectacular (featuring, as it does, those already mentioned and also the likes of Honor Blackman, Anthony Valentine and even Frances de la Tour in a small role). And I suppose that some of the black magic rituals shown at least have a ring of authenticity about them, despite the rather lame effects/editing used.

Some of the stuff on show is, for Hammer, rather shocking. Not only do we get some bizarre, gory "muppet" moments but there's also more full-frontal female nudity than I have seen in any other Hammer movie. To be fair, I have not seen every Hammer film, but I have always known them to be, for the most part, more concerned with blood than sex although the latter is often catered for with suggestive scenes/performances and the occasional flashes from buxom beauties.

P.S. On an unrelated, and rather moronic-sounding, note: this movie has the single best bridge scene I have ever seen. I just liked the mechanism on display and had to mention it.


Tuesday 23 July 2013

Parenthood (1989)

Featuring Keanu Reeves before he was best known from Bill and Ted and years before he was Neo, Joaquin Phoenix while he was still known as Leaf and Martha Plimpton . . . . . . when she was known, Parenthood is a fun '80s movie that holds up today just as well as it did when it was first released. It may run slightly overlong, but it's well paced with some big laughs in between all of the wry observations on the joys and perils of parenthood.

Steve Martin and Mary Steenburgen are the main characters, Gil and Karen Buckman, but the narrative also spends plenty of time with Dianne Wiest (playing Helen Buckman, single mother and Gil's sister), Harley Kozak and Rick Moranis (Gil's other sister and her partner), Tom Hulce (Gil's brother) and Jason Robards (Gil's father). The aforementioned Keanu Reeves and Martha Plimpton are a tempestuous, teenage couple (with Plimpton also being Weist's daughter in the film) and Phoenix is Wiest's sullen young son.

Directed by Ron Howard, the film benefits from both the ensemble cast and a fun script written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. The drama and comedy is nicely mixed together in perfect amounts, with a real little bonus for Steve Martin fans as he gets to reference his past live material in a scene that has him creating some balloon animals (yeah, maybe not worth singling out, but I've always loved that sequence more than any other part of the movie).

Everyone gets to have at least one great moment, even the wonderful Helen Shaw (playing the grandma) in the last role of her brief film career. Martin gets to have lots of fun and Steenburgen is superb, but Wiest, Plimpton, Reeves and Phoenix really end up stealing the movie by the time the end credits roll. Moranis and Kozak are both very funny as rather pushy parents, Jason Robards is as good as ever and Tom Hulce does a good job at being a bit of a selfish ass. And then there are the kids, running around and causing problems. I'm not going to say that they all give wonderful, flawless performances but they're all very good at being, well, kids. Job done.

This will definitely appeal more to those who can identify with the many unique situations that come from being a parent, but there's also plenty here to appeal to everyone else. Because we all have some kind of family, which is equally what the film is looking at for most of the runtime.


Monday 22 July 2013

Beasts Of The Southern Wild (2012)

Beasts Of The Southern Wild was well-received when released in 2012. It wasn't unanimously loved, however, and some of the backlash that appeared has never really gone away, with good reason. I enjoyed Beasts Of The Southern Wild for much of the runtime, but I enjoyed the performances and the moments of surreal dreaminess as opposed to the way in which the characters are viewed or treated. I may be wrong here, but there's just something at the heart of the material that seems very wrong. Director Benh Zeitlin, and writer Lucy Alibar (who worked with Zeitlin to adapt her play into movie form), walk a tightrope, and should have walked it with greater care, in my opinion.

There's no denying that Quvenzhane Wallis gives an extraordinary performance in the central role, as Hushpuppy, the young girl living in an area of Louisiana known as the "Bathtub" as she is raised by her father, Wink (Dwight Henry). Hushpuppy talks, in voiceover, of everything being connected and even the smallest piece needing to fit into the right place, and that sums up the movie. It's about lives connecting and it's also, in an obvious way, about ecosystems (The Bathtub is at risk of major flooding thanks to global warming, but there are also some big beasts that may end up freed from their frozen status as glaciers melt). Yet it's also about surviving, it's about having the courage to stand up and face whatever may be heading your way, and it's about poverty.

While I don't necessarily think Beasts Of The Southern Wild is a racist movie, as it's been tagged by some people, I do think that it's misguided and just a bit careless when it comes to its portrayal of the main inhabitants of The Bathtub. They look out for one another, true, but they do so in a very self-serving manner, and always seem to make time for drinking and general merriment. There are serious moments in the movie, scenes that show young Hushpuppy in immediate danger, that are then left behind and never given a second thought. The central relationship between her and her father is dubious, at best, and potentially dangerous. Yet viewers are supposed to realise that they simply love one another as they try to struggle through some difficult times. Sorry, but I ain't buying that kool-aid.

The acting is great from almost everyone onscreen, but the problems come from the script. Having not read the original play by Alibar, I am not able to say if there are problems here that were always inherent in the material. I can, however, say that the script here is more problematic than the direction from Benh Zeitlin. The dialogue and characterisations are the major flaws, the smooth and dreamy direction from Zeitlin does a lot to make up for those aspects.

Worth a watch, and very interesting for a number of reasons, but this is a difficult film to recommend to people. Opinions vary wildly on it, check it out some time and see whether you end up a fan or detractor.


Sunday 21 July 2013

Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987)

Written and directed by the fairly prolific John Hughes (he only directed about 8 movies, but wrote over 30), this road trip comedy marks a career high for the much-loved John Candy, while also providing a number of great moments for Steve Martin. Martin is, essentially, the straight man here but he's on top, tightly wound, form and works so well alongside Candy that the two individuals become one great, eminently watchable, duo.

Martin is Neal Page, a man desperately trying to get home to his wife and kids in time for Thanksgiving dinner. Unfortunately, he keeps finding his progress impeded, accidentally, by Del Griffith (Candy). When the two men eventually meet face to face, and introductions are made, things don't get any better. Del talks a lot, he has a number of annoying habits, and he seems to be a bit of a disaster at times. He also has a big heart, however, and does his best to help Neal get home. Neal, for his part, continues to get more and more irritated by Del, though it's hard to stay angry at the guy. But, despite flight delays and rental car problems and hotel rooms with only one bed, the objective remains the same - get home.

With an ending as sappy and manipulative as it is sweet and moving, John Hughes walks a fine line here between the great laughs and the emotional core that he gives the material. Thankfully, the central pairing of Martin and Candy make the material work a lot better than it would have in lesser hands. Martin oozes cynicism and, at times, loathing. Candy is a big ball of positivity, even as he bumbles his way forward while leaving a big mess in his wake. Hughes, however, writes great moments for both, treating both characters with equal favour. Candy may get a number of great lines and sweet moments, but Martin raises big laughs when his temper explodes on at least two occasions - one leading to him emphasising that not everything is an anecdote and the other leading to a classic, profanity-laden exchange with a car rental agent, played by Edie McClurg.

The cast also includes Laila Robins (playing the concerned Mrs. Page), Michael McKean in a small role as a traffic cop, Kevin Bacon in a cameo as a commuter racing for a taxi and Dylan Baker, in his first cinema feature role, as a hick with one of the most memorable lines in the entire movie.

Everything is topped off by a decent soundtrack, I've always particularly enjoyed the use of "Red River Rock" here, and paced perfectly for the 93 minute runtime. There are flaws, with the heavy-handed ending being the major one, but it's a hard movie to dislike. Especially around Thanksgiving time.


Saturday 20 July 2013

¡Three Amigos! (1986)

Steve Martin, Martin Short and Chevy Chase play The Three Amigos, actors who temporarily ruled the roost at the box office before being canned by an irate producer (Joe Mantegna). Martin is Lucky Day, Short is "Little" Ned Nederlander and Chase is Dusty Bottoms, but the three men have been together so long that they simply ARE The Three Amigos. When a young woman (Carmen, played by Patrice Martinez) sees them in action on the silver screen she doesn't realise that she is watching a work of fiction. Desperate to save her town from the evil clutches of El Guapo (Alfonso Arau), she writes to the amigos and asks for their help. So begins a (Western) comedy of errors, as the stars think that they are being asked to ride into town, put on a fun show, collect a nice sum of money and then leave.

Featuring three comedy stars, arguably, at the height of their cinematic fame and a director (John Landis) on a bit of a hot streak, ¡Three Amigos! mixes plenty of quotable lines with some great characters and moments of delightful absurdity. It also, of course, references plenty of classic Western tropes and moments, with the main premise sharing a lot of common ground with Seven Samurai (remade many times, most famously as The Magnificent Seven).

Martin, Short and Chase work brilliantly together, with each of their characters being a slightly different shade of stupid. And they're nicely in synch with one another, whether giving their special salute or singing "My Little Buttercup" to a saloon full of patrons. Patrice Martinez is a lovely damsel in distress, though not a completely helpess figure, Philip Gordon is amusing enough as young Rodrigo and there are small roles for Joe Mantegna, Jon Lovitz and Phil Hartman in the first act of the film. But the heroes are only able to step up to the mark if they have a good enough villain, so it's good that Alfonso Arau is very good in the role of El Guapo. He's equalled, and perhaps even slightly overshadowed at times, by Tony Plana (playing Jefe, the right hand man to El Guapo).

The script, written by Martin, Lorne Michaels and Randy Newman, may be relatively mild but the comedy is just as effective. It may feel slightly old-fashioned on many occasions - with the musical moments, selection of crowd-pleasing displays and the feeling that the movie is inseparable from the main characters in the way that both are happy to mug and dance around to be loved - but that's no bad thing when it's this entertaining.


Friday 19 July 2013

Roxanne (1987)

Updating the classic tale of Cyrano de Bergerac, Roxanne is a superior romantic comedy that benefits enormously from a cracking script (written by the leading man, Steve Martin). It has at least two set-pieces, in my opinion, that hold up alongside any truly great comedy moments that you could think of and the rest of the film rarely dips. Well, not too far anyway.

Martin plays Fire Chief C. D. Bales (the C stands for Charlie). C. D. is a great guy. He's selfless, intelligent and very funny. He also has a big nose. A very, very big nose. Mention it at your peril. So when the beautiful and sharp Roxanne (Daryl Hannah) moves into his small town, C. D. may find himself falling for her but also keeps remembering that nothing will happen - it's as plain as the nose on his face. Things get complicated, however, when Roxanne falls for the handsome, but pretty vacant, Chris (Rick Rossovich). The feeling is mutual, but Chris gets nervous about wooing the lovely lady. C. D. suggests a love letter, using the power of words to win over Roxanne completely, and decides to help Chris by providing the words for him. Roxanne is on cloud nine, having found what she thinks may be her ideal man - blissfully unaware that the words are coming from C.D.

I've never been a big fan of Daryl Hannah, but she's very suitable in her role here and the central "love triangle" is completely believable thanks to her solid performance and, of course, her beauty (hey, not being TOO shallow, if a film features a potential love interest appealing to a wide range of potential suitors then that person should have an obvious beauty - be it inner, outer or both). Rick Rossovich does a great job, especially in the way that he plays the comedy, and makes for a fun fly in the ointment. He's shallow and slightly dense, but he's also pretty sweet. In a way. But this is, of course, Steve Martin's show and he's written a marvellous creation for himself to play. Defined by his humour, intelligence, quirkiness and that big nose, C. D. Bales is always fun to be around and a great updated version of a classic character. The rest of the cast includes Shelley Duvall, John Kapelos, Michael J. Pollard (a favourite of mine), Damon Wayans, Edmond Rostand and Fred Willard, all doing decent work.

Director Fred Schepisi has never created anything truly great, from my knowledge of his filmography, and I would nominate this movie as his best work. There's nothing special on display, however, and everything positive comes from the script and performances. Of course, the performances are directed by . . . . . . the director, but I'm just saying that nothing else stands out. The soundtrack isn't memorable, the camerawork is fairly straightforward, there are one or two standard montage moments, nothing feels particularly fresh or stylish. The good thing is that the movie doesn't need to feel fresh or stylish. It's good enough as it is.

I don't quite love Roxanne as much as I did a decade or two ago, but I still love it enough to consider it a great one to watch, purchase and rewatch on numerous occasions.


Thursday 18 July 2013

HouseSitter (1992)

The movie that reunited director Frank Oz with star Steve Martin may not be as great as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, but that's a tough act to follow. This isn't as sharp, it's not as smart and it's just not as funny. However, I've always found HouseSitter to be an easy movie to rewatch and enjoy. It's not without charm and there are a lot of decent one-liners sprinkled throughout the script. The biggest problem is the fact that more time is given over to other people when Martin is the best asset that the film has, a problem that would crop up more and more in the years after this film.

Martin plays Newton Davis, a man who we first see presenting a house that he's just built to his girlfriend (Becky, played by Dana Delany) and then proposing to her. It doesn't go as he'd hoped. Jump forward by some time and viewers get to see Newton plodding away at his day job, as an architect, before getting a bit too drunk one evening and having a one night stand with Gwen (Goldie Hawn). It turns out that Gwen has some issues with telling the truth. When she wakes up, alone, the next morning she remembers all that Newton said about the house he built that is now standing empty in the middle of a small, welcoming community. So she goes there, moves in and soon blurts out to the locals that she is Newton's wife. By the time Newton finds out about this whopper of a lie his parents (Donald Moffat and Julie Harris) have already warmed to Gwen, Becky is obviously regretting letting him go and the whole mess looks as if it could work out for the best, as long as the web of fiction holds together long enough.

The script and direction may both be relatively safe, but that doesn't mean that it's stale. I'm sure that some people will turn on this movie and be scrambling for the remote control within ten minutes, but I am won over as soon as the opening credits roll and I know that I'm about to spend just over 90 minutes in pleasant company.

Hawn isn't the best partner that Martin has starred alongside, but she does okay and her character is a fun one (though the movie often shies away from the obvious major, psychological problems that she has). Martin is in uptight, slightly frantic mode and reacts well to every new development that puts him on the back foot. Yet, as well as the obvious humour stemming from their situation, there is also a nice development of the relationship between the two leads, often showing their fake marriage as being not entirely dissimilar to any real one.
Delany is pretty good as the old flame who, of course, complicates the whole situation, and Moffat and Harris are both delightful as loving parents who take the news of the marriage surprisingly well, eventually.
Richard B. Shull and Laurel Cronin add to the fun during an almost farcical finale, Peter MacNicol steals every scene that he's in, playing Newton's friend and a man desperate to make his way up the corporate ladder, and Roy Cooper is also very good as the big boss man who may not realise what a talented architect Newton really is.

And there's also a lovely rendition of Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral.


Wednesday 17 July 2013

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)

Yet another movie to highlight when people start ranting and raving about how all remakes are the work of the devil, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a remake of a 1964 movie, Bedtime Story. I've not yet seen Bedtime Story, so I can't say if this film is better or worse, but I can tell you that this is another great vehicle for Steve Martin, this time sparking brilliantly off Michael Caine.

The script, by Dale Launer, Stanley Shapiro and Paul Henning (the latter two being responsible for Bedtime Story), is consistently smart and witty, and the set-pieces are enough to lift the whole film into the realm of greatness.

Michael Caine plays Lawrence Jamieson, a sophisticated con-man who works on a large scale. His nose is slightly put out of joint when he encounters Freddy Benson (Martin), a small-time con artist who may cause problems. Benson may not be operating in the same league as Jamieson, but as the former puts it: "A poacher who shoots at rabbits may scare big game away."
When his attempts to get rid of Freddy keep failing, a truce is called. The experienced, sophisticated con-man will educate the talented novice. And if the two feel that the education is concluded, well, there's always the chance to compete against one another as they see who can extract the most money from Janet Colgate (Glenne Headly). The prize? Well, it's kind of a winner take all deal.

Directed by Frank Oz, who hasn't directed a bad movie in his entire film-making career (as far as I'm concerned . . . . . . and I will debate that point with anyone who cares to try), this is a warm, lively pleasure from start to finish.

It may not have all of the whackiness that Martin used to get away with in the earlier years of his movie career, but it does have sparkling banter between the leads, a sequence that introduces viewers to a very special man named Ruprecht and many other moments that make me laugh so hard I sometimes get worrying looks from people who think I am perilously close to having a seizure.

While Caine and Martin are superb in every scene (this brings out the best in both of them, I only wish they had found something else to work on together), there's plenty to praise in the performance from Glenne Headly, who holds her own alongside the gentlemen and plays up the sweetness of her character while also reacting in the best possible way to the inspired lunacy that builds and builds. Anton Rodgers and Ian McDiarmid do well enough with their small roles, and I've always been a big fan of Barbara Harris, who has a lot of fun here playing Fanny Eubanks (aka Lady Fanny of Omaha).

This may not be absolutely perfect, but it comes close enough for me (as so many Steve Martin movies from the '80s do). We can all just breathe a huge sigh of relief that the initial pairing of Mick Jagger and David Bowie didn't come to fruition. The mind boggles at how THAT film would have turned out.


Tuesday 16 July 2013

Twins Of Evil (1971)

The third of the Karnstein trilogy, loosely connected movies from Hammer based on "Carmilla" by Sheridan Le Fanu, Twins Of Evil isn't too bad. Okay, I wouldn't exactly call it good, but it's certainly made more interesting thanks to the premise and yet another sterling performance from the great Peter Cushing.

The movie presents Cushing as a kind of witchfinder general type, Gustav Weil, quick to rouse his followers into a state of fervour before leading them off to burn some young woman at the stake. While this is a regular occurrence, it doesn't really deal with the main problem in his area, the nefarious Baron Karnstein (Damien Thomas). The Baron is a bad man, an evil man, but he's also well connected. Set against this backdrop of menace and paranoia, Gustav and his wife, Katy (Kathleen Byron), find themselves taking charge of their two nieces (the twins, played by Mary and Madeleine Collinson). The two girls quickly find themselves incurring the ire of their stern uncle, and one of them decides to retaliate by indulging in some shenanigans that would definitely not meet with approval.

As you may have already been able to guess, Twins Of Evil succeeds largely because of the twins. I'm not going to pretend that I kept up with exactly who was who, but that's fine because the movie does enough to keep viewers just informed enough to enjoy the twists of the plot (with a lot of the fun coming from the fact that the twin who turns to evil can then make use of the good twin to help protect her from Gustav and his band of followers). So I may not have remembered who was Maria (played by Mary) and who was Frieda (played by Madeleine) at all times, but I knew who was evil and who was good . . . . and then who was evil but pretending to be good and who was good being made to look evil.

The script by Tudor Gates isn't too bad, and the direction by John Hough throws in some nice, surprisingly atmospheric moments of spookiness. The acting is a mixed bag, with Cushing being his usual great self while Mary and Madeleine Collinson are . . . . . . . . . . well, they're okay, but obviously chosen more for their ability to be twins than any major acting chops. David Warbeck, Dennis Price and Kathleen Byron do pretty well, Katya Wyeth has a small, but memorable, role and Damien Thomas fails to impress as the dastardly Baron.

There are a few decent moments of gore, some nudity and a number of typical Hammer moments to keep fans amused, making this a solid piece of entertainment for those who already favour the style and ethos of the studio.


Monday 15 July 2013

Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982)

Steve Martin is detective Rigby Reardon in this amusing, but respectful, slice of fun that makes great use of clips from many classic films of the 1940s (there may be a few movies that come just before or after this decade, but I couldn't say for certain). Reardon has been given a case by the beautiful Juliet Forrest (Rachel Ward), a woman who can sucket a bullet from a gunshot wound, and as he starts to make some headway he soon finds himself in more and more danger. Ain't it always the way.

This black and white outing sees the comedy star teamed up once again with director Carl Reiner, with the pair working on the script with George Gipe, so fans of that relationship will find plenty to enjoy here. There's the usual silliness, but there's also an impressive amount of smart manipulation on display. Every plot development and minor detail is carefully placed onscreen to allow the interaction between Martin and the classic movie characters to seem effortless. The fact that the scenes are often twisted into something comedically brilliant is a big plus, but noir fans may well find themselves falling in love with the "greatest hits" selection of clips put to use.

While there may not be as many moments that stand out as being downright hilarious, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid still has plenty that will stay in the memory of fans who can then go on to share those gags with other fans. The running gag about Reardon's special cup of java, the reaction from the words "cleaning woman", a number of great lines from the ongoing voiceover narration and more.

The main players all do well, including Reiner, who decided to give himself a small role rather than just stay satisfied with his directing and co-writing duties. Thankfully, the performances from people such as Bette Davis, Burt Lancaster, James Cagney, Cary Grant, Veronica Lake, Ingrid Bergman, Lana Turner and, especially, Humphrey Bogart are all as good as you may remember them being, making the film a pleasure to watch even in between the numerous laughs.

It always feels to me as if Reiner and Martin did many more movies together, but the total was only four. They just happened to be four comedies that either still rank as outright classics, or at least come very close. Don't miss this one, and don't miss any of the others either.


Sunday 14 July 2013

Bowfinger (1999)

Frank Oz directs this great little comedy that sees Steve Martin (who also wrote the screenplay) starring as the titular wannabe Hollywood player.

Robert Bowfinger has a dream and that dream is to make a major, hit movie. Impressed by the script for sci-fi actioner "Chubby Rain", he decides to get his cast and crew together and finally make something happen. It helps that his movie is going to star the hottest leading man of the moment, Kit Ramsey (played by Eddie Murphy). The big problem, however, is that Kit has no idea he is in the movie, which forces Bowfinger to . . . . . . . . . get creative.

Upon its initial release, many people hailed this as a return to comedy form for both Martin and Murphy and, somehow, I disagreed with them. Well, time has passed and now, finally, I see what everyone else saw back then. A hilarious, sharp, brilliant comedy featuring two men who would never again be quite this funny ( at least, that's my opinion as of today's date).

The script is full of great one-liners (such as my personal favourite: "let's try it one more time Slater, this time without the erection") and digs at the quagmire of modern movie-making with all that entails, including temperamental stars, young actresses doing whatever it takes to get ahead, the reach and influence of Scie . . . ummm any modern system of religious belief and the power of a beautiful lie.

Thankfully, we have a great cast delivering these points. Martin is on the same kind of hilarious, smoothly lying form that saw him entertain so much in the likes of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels while Murphy gets to show more than one side, as he usually does, without overdoing things, as he usually does. Then we have Heather Graham playing a not-so innocent . . . . innocent, Christine Baranski as a leading lady wanting her one shot at true stardom, Jamie Kennedy as a very resourceful car valet and, well, everybody else who gets screen time. The whole cast is great, even the smaller roles are filled by the likes of Terence Stamp and Robert Downey Jr.

Maybe you felt the same way as I did, that Bowfinger received far more praise than it deserved at the time, but if that's the case then I hope you revisit it some time. And I hope you also find that Bowfinger actually received just as much praise as it deserved. Because it's a fantastic comedy.


Saturday 13 July 2013

The Jerk (1979)

When viewers first meet Navin Johnson (Steve Martin) he's a bum with only two things - his friends (aka other bums in the immediate vicinity) and his Thermos. But, boy oh boy, does he have some story to tell. It all starts many years in the past, when Navin was born a poor, black child.

Essentially a series of hilarious skits thrown together, this was Steve Martin's first leading role in a feature film and remains a quintessential outing for the man who once proclaimed himself "the world's funniest white man."

Written by Martin, with Carl Gottlieb and director Carl Reiner also sharing the workload, this includes such classic moments as "the Thermos song", a look at the sordid world of cat juggling, a young man happily finding his "special purpose" and much, much more.

The leading man may be the film's biggest strength, but the supporting players shouldn't be overlooked. Bernadette Peters has been putting in great work for years, and this is one of her best, sweetest roles - a woman who ends up as the potential love of Navin's life. Jackie Mason gets great one-liner after great one-liner, playing a gas station owner who treats Navin surprisingly well while being constantly bewildered by his naivete. M. Emmet Walsh has a hilarious, memorable, role as someone who wants to kill the lead character, just because his name was picked from the phonebook, and Catlin Adams also makes quite an impression as Patty Bernstein, a stunt bike rider who takes a shine to Navin and wastes no time in getting what she wants.

It may not be as smart, or indeed sophisticated, as later collaborations between Martin and Reiner, but that doesn't mean that it's not as funny. If done well, stupid-stupid can be just as enjoyable as smart-stupid. The Jerk remains, arguably, the pinnacle of stupid and a favourite of mine.


Friday 12 July 2013

The Man With Two Brains (1983)

When asked to choose my favourite Steve Martin movie, it's a tough choice. This movie, The Jerk, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, Roxanne and so many others could be in the top spot. But people can be insistent when they ask such questions, and if they're insistent enough I usually cave in and tell them that The Man With Two Brains is my very favourite. Why? Well . . . . . . . . it just IS.

The demented storyline concerns the eminent brain surgeon, Dr. Hfuhruhurr (Martin), and the stroke of fate that puts him in the grasping claws of femme fatale, Dolores Benedict (Kathleen Turner). Dolores is a woman that we first see revelling in her evil ways, teasing an elderly husband until he can take no more. She wants him to die, she thinks that she is due to inherit everything, but things change. Just a few scenes later, Dolores is recovering in hospital and has the good doctor under her spell. But she's not the only woman to want him in her life. There is one other who appears on the scene, one with much nobler intentions and a sweeter personality. She just happens to be a brain floating in a jar in the laboratory of Dr. Alfred Necessiter (David Warner). Her name is Anne Uumellmahaye (voiced by Sissy Spaceck).

If that descriptive paragraph doesn't have enough lunacy in it for you then I feel that I should mention the subplot involving The Elevator Killer, a sobriety test that remains the best, and funniest, ever shown onscreen and a recitation of the classic poem entitled "Pointy Birds".

The madness of Steve Martin in his prime isn't for everyone, but it most certainly is for me. I've been a huge fan of the guy ever since I first saw his output from the early '80s (and I also used to own Steve Martin Live on VHS - a tape I nearly wore out because I watched it so often) and he continues to be, in my opinion, a giant of comedy. Oh, he may be far removed from the days when he could get away with the stuff on show here, but see him working a crowd, or even making people chuckle on Twitter, and you can easily be reminded of his power. Kathleen Turner had another potent kind of power, but it also shouldn't be forgotten just how great she is in this comedic role, one that uses both her sexual allure and a bravura willingness to go along with the madness. David Warner, Paul Benedict, Richard Brestoff and Randi Brooks all have their own memorable moments, while Sissy Spaceck may only be here in a vocal way but she's the sweetest brain in a jar that you could ever listen to. There's also fun to be had spotting Jeffrey Combs and James Cromwell in very small roles.

Director Carl Reiner, who helped to write the movie with Martin and George Gipe, knows how to make the most of every gag, as he would prove again and again over the years. His relationship with Martin would produce the best movies that either man would be involved in, with this being the pinnacle - two men who work brilliantly together being left to have a lot of fun at the height of their powers (comedically speaking).

It doesn't get much better than this, and if you disagree then you may be in need of some screw top, zip lock brain surgery.


Thursday 11 July 2013

Frankenfish (2004)

With a title like Frankenfish you can't really expect highbrow entertainment when the opening titles start up and, unsurprisingly, that's not what you get. Instead, this is a fun creature feature that suffers from budgetary limitations, but tries to make up for such shortcomings with energy and a sense of humour. It doesn't quite do enough to be a good film, but it does enough to avoid being something unwatchable.

Tory Kittles plays Sam Rivers and China Chow is Mary Callahan in this tale of a killer fish that has been causing some trouble in the bayou. Sam and Mary are sent to investigate the death of a fisherman and it quickly becomes clear that Sam is comfortable in the environment, having grown up there, while Mary certainly isn't. The locals living in the bayou are slightly worried, understandably, but they start to feel worse when it becomes obvious that the fish has returned. And it's hungry.

While it may be more Lake Placid than SyFy original (like . . . . . ummm . . . Lake Placid 2), Frankenfish can't quite do enough to make up for its many shortcomings. It tries very hard, thanks to the enjoyable assortment of characters and the flavour of the bayou being played up to distract from the variable SFX work, but there are just too many moments that serve to remind viewers that a lot of work has been done to raise this up to the level of b-movie.

Director Mark A. Z. Dippe doesn't do too bad, thanks to the script by Simon Barrett and Scott Clevenger, but I can't help thinking that more could have been done to reward the cast. Kittles and Chow are both okay, and the supporting cast includes the likes of K. D. Aubert and Donna Biscoe having fun while Reggie Lee and Mark Boone Junior do decent work with their small roles.

Not one to watch if you have a big pile of other movies to choose from, Frankenfish will help you kill 90 minutes whenever you're in the mood for a half-decent creature feature.


Wednesday 10 July 2013

Crescendo (1970)

Crescendo is another lesser-known Hammer movie that stands firmly in thriller territory, as opposed to the many solid horrors that they released. Funnily enough, while the movie was running I couldn't help but think of Amuck! The two have superficial similarities here and there, but the latter movie is a much more enjoyable experience.

Stefanie Powers plays Susan Roberts, a young woman who travels to the South of France to work on her thesis about a famous, deceased composer. While there, she is lucky enough to be shown a lot of hospitality by the composer's widow (Margaretta Scott) and his son (James Olson). But maybe that's not such a good thing, especially as she starts to see how strange they are.

With the addition of a creepy manservant (Joss Ackland) and a scheming maid (Jane Lapotaire), this thriller really overcooks everything in a way that could have been entertaining if the central character interactions were more fun. Sadly, they're not and the film suffers because of it.

The direction by Alan Gibson is not lively, or stylish, enough to elevate the weak script by Jimmy Sangster and Alfred Shaughnessy. Nobody involved has the courage to make things darker or sleazier, which is why a movie like Amuck! will always play better (hey, if there are many failings elsewhere in a movie then darkness and eroticism can help a lot . . . . . . . just look at the likes of Basic Instinct and anything from 20 years ago starring Shannon Tweed).

Stefanie Powers is okay in her role, as beautiful as ever and almost believably manipulated into sticking around even as things get curiouser and curiouser, while Margaretta Scott and James Olson roll their eyes and go over the top whenever possible. If you can watch Olson in the second half of the movie without thinking of one or two particular scenes from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels then you're a better man than I am. Jane Lapotaire is annoying, but Joss Ackland almost manages to counterbalance her badness, though not quite.

It remains a notch above the very worst that the studio released, but it's a close call.


Tuesday 9 July 2013

Hellraiser: Revelations (2011)

"Hello,my friends. I want to put on record that the flick out there using the word Hellraiser IS NO FUCKIN’ CHILD OF MINE! I have NOTHING to do with the fuckin’ thing. If they claim its from the mind of Clive Barker, it’s a lie. It’s not even from my butt-hole.”

That was the tweet from Clive Barker, some time ago, that gave horror fans a heads up for the latest instalment in the Hellraiser franchise. If you can somehow read that message and not figure out how Barker feels about the movie, or what he thinks the movie will offer fans, then you need to read it again, but this time with your eyes open. It's clear that the movie isn't welcomed by the man who created the original idea that would spawn a novella, a British horror movie classic, a new horror icon and much, much more.

After watching this piece of crap, I want to make it clear that it's also not welcomed by me. I'm known for my generous spirit when it comes to reviewing films. On a good day a movie like this might still be able to claw some extra points simply because the camera was pointed the right way and the actors stood where they were supposed to stand. Today is not a good day.

Hellraiser: Revelations not only fails as a horror movie, it's never scary and the gore isn't impressive, but it's also one of those rare movies that goes out of its way to insult fans. Anyone who loved any of the previous movies, even the more risible sequels, will find something to take issue with here. Ironically, anyone who does buy the DVD is in for a truly interactive experience because opening the box WILL lead to a whole lot of suffering. Even managing to run for 75 minutes, at a push, this is a trial.

The story, though I don't even care to relate it, revolves around Steven Craven (Nick Eversman) and his friend, Nico Bradley (Jay Gillespie). The two head to Mexico for some heavy drinking and even heavier debauchery and end up with a Chinese puzzle box. They then disappear. Cut to - two couples about to enjoy a meal together. They are the parents of Steven and Nico, joined at the dining table by Steven's sister, Emma (Tracey Fairaway). It's a mix of horribly unbelievable moments and bad acting until something interrupts their planned melodrama and then everything starts to get . . . . . . . . REALLY unbelievable and badly acted.

I genuinely despair for people who throw this stuff together and think that it's acceptable horror fare. The script by Gary J. Tunnicliffe is consistently awful, either laughably bad or laughably cowering in the shadow of that classic first movie that launched the series. The direction by Victor Garcia goes hand in hand with the script, helped to scrape the bottom of the barrel by the painful acting from everyone involved. Eversman and Gillespie are both bad enough, as is Fairaway, but I almost feel sorry for Stephan Smith Collins, stuck with the thankless task of portraying Pinhead (the role owned by Doug Bradley since the first film). Almost. 

I try to see the silver lining in almost every situation, I really do. In fact, the fact that I don't give this the lowest score possible shows me being kind once again. Rating it as a movie that has been made, it gets a couple of points. If I rated it as a fecal-encrusted slap in the face to all fans of the Hellraiser movies, it would definitely get a zero. It should never have been made, it doesn't deserve your money and I hope those involved have the good grace to apologise and learn from their mistakes. Or, at the very least, pack their bags and live on the streets until they regain their reputations by becoming regional finalists in the underground bum fight scene.


Monday 8 July 2013

Slither (2006)

Let's get one things clear right from the off. Despite various soundbites and hyperbole bandied about, this movie is not as funny or funnier than Shaun Of The Dead. It's not up there with the best of the horror comedies from the past (the likes of An American Werewolf In London, The Return Of The Living Dead, etc), but it does easily earn a place on the second tier just below them.

Michael Rooker plays Grant Grant, a small-town guy through and through, who has his life, and physicality, changed when he's infected by an other-worldly parasite. Hiding his changes from his wife (played by the beautiful Elizabeth Banks) and everyone else, except his victim(s), it's only when the local police (led by the immensely likable Nathan Fillion) put things together that he has to hide while the changes continue and a plan to infect the entire town develops.

Apart from those mentioned, I should also comment on Gregg Henry's brilliant and hilarious performance as beleaguered mayor, Jack MacReady. He's all cursewords and bluster and steals almost every scene he's in. While the others onscreen don't make quite the same impact they are all very good, and Tania Saulnier is a talented young actress I'd certainly like to see in more movies.

Director and writer James Gunn may not top his work on the Dawn Of TheDead remake, which benefited from his superb script, but in many ways he makes a film that's altogether more pleasing for genre fans; packed, as it is, full of references to genre works and people while also providing solid entertainment and thrills in a decent mixture of slime, gore and giggles.

Where the movie falls down slightly is in its use of juxtaposition for comedy effect. One scene in particular, a rape (some may disagree with that definition but that IS what it is) intercut with some drunken singing and revelry, fails almost completely because the contrast is just TOO jarring to take for laughs. That aside though, the sharp script and spot-on performances (along with the decent effects and more "out there" moments) help to make this a worthy entry into the modern comedy-horror subgenre.


Sunday 7 July 2013

Monty Python's The Meaning Of Life (1983)

I have a bizarre viewing relationship with this, the last, Monty Python movie. I first saw it many years ago and quite enjoyed it. I was young, there were many jokes that I didn't get, but it had enough amusing moments to keep me entertained. Just. Then I saw it as an adult and enjoyed it a lot more. I'm sure that I even thought those who criticised it were being unduly harsh. On a recent rewatch, with me still being an adult (I haven't suddenly developed some kind of Benjamin Button syndrome, despite my moments of immaturity), I have found that I fall in line with the majority. The Meaning Of Life has moments of greatness, but it's far from a great film.

Directed by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones, this film suffers from excess in a way that neither of the previous Monty Python features could have tolerated. In fact, one segment entitled "The Crimson Permanent Assurance" almost unbalances the entire thing. The fact that it was directed by Gilliam, who can't seem to align the practical aspects of controlling costs and maximising efficiency alongside the need to express his artistic vision, should come as no surprise to those who have continued to watch the ups and downs of his career.

Putting that segment aside, despite the fact that it comes along at the start of the movie and then interrupts proceedings later on, what else is on offer here? It's very hit and miss. Written and acted, as usual, by the whole troupe - Gilliam, Jones, Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle and Michael Palin - with supporting turns from Carol Cleveland, Patricia Quinn and a few others, the sketches touch on various aspects of life and humanity. Birth is covered, with the superb song "Every Sperm Is Sacred" being a highlight, war is looked at a couple of times, the significance of our lives (or lack of it) is brilliantly summed up in "The Galaxy Song" (^^^see above^^^), there's the unforgettable sight of a certain Mr. Creosote and, of course, Death makes an appearance towards the end of the movie.

Fans of the Pythons will still find enough to enjoy here. Gilliam gets to throw in some crazy imagery, everyone has at least one scene-stealing moment and the surreal "find the fish" sequence has grown from something that I simply endured to an inspired moment of brilliance that I could probably watch repeatedly without never becoming bored. There are many great lines, but they often happen to be caught amongst many distinctly average, or even unfunny, moments.

I can't say this is a BAD film, and I'd hope that any Monty Python fan would agree, but it's a big step down from the previous movie outings. The BIG laughs are few and far between, though it's important to remember that they are still there, but a lesser Monty Python film is still full of more wit and ideas than a hundred other movies released in the same year.


Saturday 6 July 2013

And Now For Something Completely Different (1971)

The first movie outing for the Pythons, this is little more than a loosely connected series of sketches taken from the first series and the, yet to be aired at the time, second series. The fact that most of the sketches are typically brilliant is what makes this film so enjoyable, even if it's a lesser outing when compared to the features that the gang would release.

All of the guys are here - Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin - and all have their usual heavy workload, sharing in the scripting duties before taking on multiple character roles to act out everything onscreen. They are joined by Carol Cleveland, Connie Booth and one or two others, but they remain front and centre, with Gilliam providing numerous bits of animated madness, as ever.

Director Ian MacNaughton doesn't really do much to move the material firmly away from TV territory. In fact, the familiarity of it all adds to the enjoyment. Any fan hearing of "the dead parrot sketch" or "the lumberjack song" will be ready to laugh and fire quotes at anyone else willing to listen. These are much-loved comedy sketches for good reason, because they're fantastic.

One of my favourite sketches sees a milkman lured into a household by a voluptuous housewife before things get absurd. It takes the easygoing attitudes of the time - typified by the "Carry On..." films and, later, the "Confessions Of..." movies - and then twists them to great comic effect. The perfect blend of clever and stupid, much like the absurd brilliance of "Hell's Grannies" and, of course, the grand finale showcasing "The Upper Class Twit Of The Year."

The Monty Python movies were never really designed to win over new fans. The group already had a sizable, loyal fanbase and rewarded them with a number of fun features. It's this first outing, however, that makes no concessions whatsoever to people new to the humour on display. Which is fine by me, especially when the result is as funny as this.

In summation - it breaks no new ground, but it sure does still tickle the funny bone.


Friday 5 July 2013

Monty Python And The Holy Grail (1975)

Monty Python And The Holy Grail is my favourite film from the Pythons. I really love Life Of Brian, but this film just has even more inspired lunacy in the mix. The big laughs here are BIGGER laughs, to me, and it's one of the most quotable movies of all time. Don't believe me? Ask any fan about it and see how long it takes to hear them reel off a full quote.

What's the story? Well, it's supposed to be all about King Arthur (Graham Chapman) assembling the Knights Of The Round Table and going on a quest for the holy grail, but it's really just a series of fantastic sketches that use the time and characters to wring the maximum comedy from every moment of screentime.

It starts off with the opening of Dentist On The Job (a gag that surely confused a number of cinema-goers back in the mid-70s), moves into a number of sequences in which those responsible for the subtitles try to further their own bizarre agenda and then, eventually, gets to the main "storyline".

Directed by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones, and written and acted by the whole gang (Chapman, John Cleese, Gilliam, Eric Idle, Jones and Michael Palin), there are also small, but memorable, roles for Connie Booth - playing a witch, with a witch nose and everything - and Carol Cleveland.

I have tried to refrain from simply listing all of my favourite scenes, but it's hard. The film is like a Greatest Hits Of Comedy album with no weak spots. There are amusing animated skits from Gilliam, some hilarious anachronisms, the Camelot Song (Knights Of The Round Table), the Black Knight, the Knights Who Say 'Ni' and much, much more.

Okay, I caved in and listed a lot of my favourite scenes, but even that doesn't begin to cover it. The only way I could fully express my love for every moment of this movie would be to just copy and paste the entire script here. It's THAT good.

I have to go now. I've been ordered to cut down a tree . . . . . with a herring.