All The President's Men
This film doesn’t need to be stuck on a DVD to be enjoyed – its substance would shine through on the lowliest VHS tape. The classic tale of Nixon’s fall from presidential grace takes place within the twin worlds of political intrigue and investigative journalism.
Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford play Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the callow newspaper men who follow a trail of corruption and cover-ups of labyrinthine complexity, which pits one newspaper against the world’s most powerful government.
The paranoid, dimly-lit ambience is lent poignancy by the fact that it is all true. This is just as well as its age limits the picture and sound quality.
While it’s a decent enough transfer, there’s no upgrading the mono soundtrack, so the other 4.1 channels will be frustrated through all those tense whispered phone calls and clandestine late night rendezvous.
Nonetheless, the heart of this story is in the dark dialogue so the stark realism might prove compromised with a 90’s soundtrack and effects.
It’s a fascinating historic insight and features a fine display of acting by the fresh-faced leads and their grizzled employers. There’s something Kafkaesque about the Washington Post’s lone fight against a sinister and shadowy ruling party whose power and reach knows no bounds. Except, of course, the good guys win.
It educates us on two fronts: how to get a story on the front page and how not to run a country. Together, it’s irresistible.
Hellbound: Hellraiser II
Horror aficionados will know Hellraiser and its sequel Hellbound: Hellraiser II came from the pen of horror master Clive Barker. It may also explain the cut-and-paste feel to much of the characterisation and plot. The ten violent seconds of the Part 1 summary did little to answer questions like: ‘Mummy, why are people skinned, trussed up with cheese wire and peppered with six-inch nails when they go to Hell?’ ‘Because they are, dear.’
No burning pools of sulphur here, no withering intestines, rusty tridents and eternity spent watching Telly Addicts.
The first Hellraiser was based on the Clive Barker book – he also wrote the screenplay. This time, Peter Atkins was commissioned for some more of the same, with no shirking on the body parts and easy on the cerebral stuff.
While inferior to the original, it still generates a genuinely fearful and barren landscape, though one which rarely had me on the edge of my seat.
The main roles are played competently enough by Ashley ‘somebody slaughtered my family like goats’ Laurence, Clare Higgins is a nastier step-mother than most, and the pin-head wanabee Kenneth Cranham is evil Dr Channard.
It’s also a little schizophrenic as a DVD. Picture performance is fairly good, without showing the format at its sparkling best. There are no major problems and the dim ambience of hell’s corridors relies more on shades of grey than fiery yellows. Still, there’s enough detail to turn your stomach, so don’t worry about that.
Audio is tremendously disappointing, with only English Dolby Surround on offer despite the usual Dolby Digital logo stamped on the back. Flesh-slashing chains, skin being sucked off like a body suit, nails hammered into skulls – all these heart-warming sounds are denied the full treatment – shame really, as it’s needed a lot more than on many films which do offer the full 5.1 digital channels.
Extras were rather more thoughtful – the backdrop to the menu screen sets the tone with a freshly ripped heart feebly beating away. Worth a look if you liked the first one – a little disorientating otherwise.
Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels
There’s a voyeuristic pleasure in watching gangster movies. We know we would never behave that badly ourselves or appear that sophisticated let alone do both at the same time. And compared to your stateside hoodlum, the great British mobster is always going to seem like an under-achiever, so a little black humour usually helps balance the psychopathic scales.
That’s what you get here – a film that does London in the same way Trainspotting did Edinburgh, with an eclectic cast including Sting, footballer-thug Vinnie Jones, the former world bare-knuckle boxing champion, and a crowd of half-familiar young actors playing an assortment of geezers, toffs, wideboys and black dudes.
The standard of acting is patchy in the case of some of the professional crims, but overall the largish cast puts in a credible performance, once you’ve accepted nobody is going to say anything in regular English which can’t be said in rhyming slang.
There are far too many twists and turns in this picaresque tale to explain here, and while the humour is black rather than ha-ha, it’s both engaging and entertaining as well as unpredictable.
While such films rarely draw on the full capabilities of the format, both video and audio are impressive. The subdued and shadowy backdrop is well rendered, as are the tense, wrinkled faces of the various geezers.
The Dolby Digital soundtrack is excellent – partly due to the film’s quirky music and partly because of all those noises peculiar to Mafioso: gunshots, clinking glasses, fingers breaking, car doors slamming on heads etc.
It’s available in both wide and full-screen versions and comes with interviews with cast and crew – which are brief and less than inspirational. Stick your daisies on your plates and get down to Blockbusters.
The Quick And the Dead
‘Think you’re quick enough?’ is the tag for this shoot ‘em up Western. And if your IQ is in double figures you’ll be quick enough. And this despite the pulling power of Sharon Stone, Gene Hackman and one Leonardo DiCaprio.
Our Sharon’s allegedly high IQ is clearly applied to her contracts rather than scripts while the corpse of Gene Hackman’s character in Unforgiven seems to have crawled out of its pool of blood onto an adjacent film set.
What he finds is truly frightening. A plot so predictable there must be a catch (there isn’t) and a child-like DiCaprio who’s not only his son, but thinks he’s a gunslinger and in with a chance of getting off with Sharon Stone.
With that baby face he won’t make king of his own backyard let alone the world. This grippingly unrealistic tale follows a gunslingers’ tournament hosted by the corrupt town honcho Hackman and a regular circus of cool-hand Lukes, Dicks and Harrys.
Shazza herself is no mean shot (an’ she sure is purty) and is out to avenge the death of her spouse at the hands of…oh you’ll never guess.
Anyway, the plot then twists and turns as much as a Roman road and a lot of gunfights later the story unravels into exactly what we thought would happen two hours earlier. Then again, I’ve read good reviews about this – there really is no accounting for taste. Picture performance showed no unexpected flaws and its Dolby Digital audio was well suited to the whistling bullets, clinking glasses and tumbleweed-rolling ambience.
Great films are often as enjoyable to watch played through a battered top-loader as they are on a high-tech source like DVD. Conversely, some truly appalling dollops of filmic tripe use the format to impressive effect for that two minutes necessary to amaze your friends.
Every now and then a disc comes along that accentuates both the positives, and Das Boot is one of them. This director’s cut from Wolfgang Petersen (Air Force One, In The Line Of Fire) adds a full hour of footage and a new soundtrack from the 1985 version, taking it to a mammoth three hours 15 minutes, divided up into 66 chapters.
It follows the crew of U-96, one of Nazi Germany’s deadly U-Boats, across the North Atlantic in search of British ships to prey on.
The length of the film is justified by the juxtaposition of long periods of inactivity and tension with unpredictable bouts of action, where the fate of the crew and their enemy hangs in the most delicate of balances.
As an anti-war film, it works for non-German viewers in highlighting the normality and suffering of ‘their boys’ and for exposing the German subs as the death tubs they undoubtedly were, with allied depth charges whizzing past their terrified ears.
Although much of the action takes place 180 metres below sea level – with no lurid sunsets to really stretch it – the picture quality was excellent. But it is the soundtrack that is most memorable.
From the eerie near-silence of the depths in which the crews’ breath is masked only by the ominous creaking of the boat’s hulls threatening to implode, to the muffled thud of underwater explosions and screaming of fighter planes tearing overhead, this is what Dolby Digital was made for. Film purists will no doubt favour the original German language soundtrack but the English one is generally dubbed to a high standard. Further extras include a a director’s commentary, featurette and trailer – all worth watching to remind yourself that this was filmed in a studio and not at the bottom of the ocean.
If you want to see a superbly made film accurately portraying the horrors of war this is for you. If you’re looking to overcome your fear of deep water and claustrophobia – go to a shrink.
John Grisham specialises in made-for-movie books. With this nicely-paced thriller, The Client, the transition from page to screen is once again smoothly made.
Directed by Joel Schumacher, of Batman and Lost Boys fame, the movie deals with familiar Grisham themes: mobsters, lawyers and moral dilemmas.
With the reassuringly professional Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones in the credits it must be worth a second glance. Our Tommy plays the local district attorney out to nail a gangster for murder. The witness is a frightened (and threatened) kid played by Brad Renfro. Jones reprises his trademark role of ‘good guy lawman not quite on your side’ a la Fugitive.
While somewhat more mature than my own friends passing out of law school, Sarandon retains her status as a thinking man’s crumpet. She plays the callow but feisty attorney who protects the boy from the myriad dangers that beset him. And all for the solitary single dollar offered by her rough-edged but big-hearted child client. No departure from reality there then.
The two grizzled (but well-preserved) thesps are backed up capably by young Renfro who, thankfully, has enough of the trailer trash in him to extinguish any Caulkinesque traits. Anyway, the resolution arrives after a few bursts of action, several significant looks, various points of order and the occasional childish tantrum.
By the end, everyone understands each other a little better and there’s a few group hugs – entirely reminiscent of our own office environment. One for a rainy Sunday afternoon.
Funny Bones begins with an American comedian’s act bombing in Vegas. This causes him to flee to the English seaside town of his childhood for new material to relaunch his flagging career. And with a strong comic cast including Jerry Lewis, Richard Griffiths, Oliver Platt and Oliver Reed in a film set between the twin towers of cheesy entertainment, Blackpool and Las Vegas, you might expect to be in for a barrel of laughs.
But as the dialogue splutters along, with lines that are never quite as savagely funny or thought-provoking as the film thinks, you are left empathising less with the performers and more as a short-changed comedy club customer. The exception to this is rising star Lee Evans who steals the show in the idiot-savant persona of Jack Parker.
Director Peter Chelsom mines the rich seam of eccentricity and postcard humour of the English seaside. The landscape is peopled by an assortment of strange characters including taciturn uncles, clever dogs and fat ladies in swimwear.
Unfortunately, it dips its toe into the comedic waters when you’d rather it took the full plunge. As the darker sides and frustrations of the characters’ pasts emerge it becomes more a film about comedians than a sidesplitting comedy. The collective parts of this film make a good yarn but somehow the whole lacks sufficient punch to make it truly memorable.
Evans has enough quirky moments to set himself up as a latter-day Norman Wisdom with a twist but you can’t help feeling he could have had a few more routines squeezed out of him. The film’s mixture of humour and pathos results in a rather diluted end-product inducing amnesia where laughter and tears were intended.
The Usual Suspects
If you missed this first-time round at the cinema, you’ve got some much needed catching up to do with director Brian Singer’s dazzling debut thriller, penned by Christopher McQuarrie.
The breath-taking pace is quickly established in an opening scene, which takes us to the burning wreck of a body-strewn cargo ship near Los Angeles. The next 100 minutes follow the frustrated efforts of FBI agent Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) to gain some idea of the cause and perpetrators of this destruction with only two survivors to help him with his enquiries. One of these is mummified in hospital, the other being Kevin Spacey’s Oscar winning Verbal Kint. Through him the story winds back to the meeting of the eponymous suspects played impressively by Stephen Baldwin, Gabriel Bryne, Kevin Pollak and Benicio Toro, the last of whom offers some comic relief with one of the more entertaining voices in movies.
The plot stays one manic step ahead of the audience throughout. Flashbacks cleverly rewrite the past in the words of whoever’s being quizzed. This means that you have to wait for the end credits before you have any certain idea of what really happened. Singer eschews Tarantino-like realism in the violence perpetrated upon much of the cast, preferring instead to use his cinematic prowess to create the mood of tension and a sense of foreboding.
The intrigue is heightened by the shadowy and semi-mythical figure of Keyser Soze, a criminal bogeyman from Hungary integral to the many false trails designed to keep you on the edge of your seat. Expected to be confused and entertained.
As Good As It Gets
Seven Oscar nominations with Best Actor and Actress nominations won by Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt suggest this is one to look out for. Ultimately, these accolades show how thin a crop of films made the Academy that year – what with a sinking bathtub picking up most of the prizes.
It is good and if you’re a fan of growling Jack, it’s one of the best examples of sustained scattershot vitriol you’re likely to find in his manifestation as writer and obsessive Melvin Udall. His scrooge-like epiphany is down to his interplay with feisty long-suffering waitress Carol (Helen Hunt) and his gay neighbour (Greg Kinnear), whose dog he befriends when its owner is hospitalised. Cuba Gooding Junior injects his customary enthusiasm into his role as an art dealer who mediates between Melvin and Simon.
At times, Nicholson’s cussing is more vicious than witty but his social surliness at least guarantees the slush factor is kept under control – this is a romantic comedy remember.
If you’re a fan of the above it’s well worth a look while the neutrals may be left wondering how the wrinkled old boy with the maniacal smile can still be getting romantic leads. The excellent picture quality exposes those physical attributes mercilessly.
My Best Friend’s Wedding
Helmed by Muriel’s Wedding director PJ Hogan, this romantic comedy apparently went down a storm in the States, hitting that Four Weddings feel-good chord. Julia Roberts plays Julianne, who realises she’s in love with her best mate around the time he’s announcing his marriage to Cameron Diaz.
Out with the old, in with the new, you might think. But man-in-the-middle Dermot Mulroney hesitates, despite the lily-white perfection of his betrothed, who contrasts starkly with the selfish machinations of his wide-mouthed pal.
Rupert Everett, who plays the handsome English charmer with relish, completes the cast list. But there’s a twist. Oh my gosh, he’s a homosexual, and what’s worse, seems to be quite happy about it. But such outrageous casting is balanced by Mulroney’s presence as a square-jawed regular guy, so the men’s men have someone to identify with too.
When he appears, it’s Everett who steals the show, but he’s a strangely peripheral figure for most the film.
Ultimately, it’s enjoyable enough, but you can’t help feeling there was a great script out there and someone decided it would be much better watered down to this. They were wrong.
George Of The Jungle
This enjoyable Walt Disney romp is a cross between The Jungle Book and Crocodile Dundee but is unlikely to repeat their box office success. It’s also a take on Tarzan, with beast-master George – played by Hollywood himbo Brendan Fraser – brought up by apes and lured to San Francisco by the requisite beautiful woman. From here, swinger George is reeled back in by the call of the wild where the rather loose and vague plot finally unravels.
There’s something very off-the-cuff about this film, as if it was done for a laugh in Disney’s Christmas break between more pretentious and expensive projects. The result is a far more likeable and heart-warming than many Disney offerings, even if totally unchallenging.
The gimmicks which bring about a smile to your face include George’s inability to swing properly, bongo-playing apes, his English-speaking ape mentor (voiced by John Cleese) and perhaps best, the elephant who thinks it’s a dog.
There’s something rather old-fashioned about the effects created by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop – more muppet than Jumanji extras but they seem appropriate for the overall fare. Extras are kept to a bare minimum, though the Dolby Digital soundstrack benefits from the jungle scenes, both concrete and verdurous. One for the kids, but you may find the odd wry smile creeping over your face.
The Big Lebowski
The award-winning Coen Brothers are known to divide the film-going fraternity with their quirky slant on movie-making and The Big Lebowski may polarise these two camps yet further.
It follows the meandering progress of Jeff Lebowski, aka the Dude, who’s seeking compensation for his soiled carpet – the result of a misdirected squeeze on his rich namesake. Though he’d rather be bowling and getting stoned, the Dude reluctantly gets dragged into a far messier affair with kidnapping, large sums of money, and exotic thugs at large. He’s supported by stereotypical ‘Nam vet (John Goodman), whose wholehearted and ill-judged commitment complicates matters further.
Also present are sterling performers such as Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi and John Turturro, all of whom offer a slice of Coenesque characterisation.
A Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is offered in both English and French and has some opportunity to shine among the crashing bowling balls and screeching cars, while picture performance is as crisp and full-blooded as we’ve come to expect from this format. Nevertheless, this is clearly one for film rather than effects fans.
Coen brother enthusiasts will enjoy the haphazard plot for going off at more wacky tangents than ever before, and creating a fuller spectrum of wild characters. While these idiosyncrasies will woo the diehards, the rest may wonder why they can’t attend to the basics. This film may be flecked by their genius like paint spotted on a blank canvas, but without the craft it’s hard to call it a masterpiece.
Is this the great snake movie the world’s been waiting on for so long? Well, no, we’ll be waiting a little longer for that. But, while unjust to say it was in any sense good, it wasn’t the unadulterated pap I’d expected.
The man versus man-eating beast relationship is one that appeals to the psychology of modern folk, bored with complete control over their environment. But where Jaws succeeded, most others have failed – including Jaws 2. And let’s face it, unless behemoths and sabre-toothed tigers spring incarnate from their fossils, it’s unlikely they’ll find anything scarier than the big rubber fish.
Like the current spate of monster movies, Anaconda has a big advantage over its ancestors, No, it’s not the plot silly, it’s the special effects. Before computers (BC) it would have been frightening how this particular beast would have looked on screen. It would probably involve an earthworm, some spraypaint, and a small dose of LSD.
Here, you’re left worrying whether these huge serpents really do move with such terrifying speed, and surely they can’t eat a man whole? Well, it seems they can, and excellent graphics and DVD quality do wonders for the wriggling reptile and the lush, verdant Amazonian backdrop.
The stars are of higher profile than the overall fare, though Oscar nominations may be on the back burner. An eclectic bunch includes a grizzled and shifty snake-hunter played by Jon Voigt and ex-NWA rapper Ice Cube with less attitude than usual. Jennifer Lopez plays the beautiful and brilliant scientist role while Eric Stolz is the leader of the expedition – an undemanding part played mainly from his sick bed.
The Dolby Digital soundtrack deals admirably with the screeching jungle sounds and all those serpentine rustlings, drips and hisses that leap out at you. Not since Eden has a snake exuded such menace, though more for what goes into his mouth than what comes out of it.
Compared to the classic man-meets-Martian epics, Contact disappoints. Good acting, a credible premise and the promise of fantastic revelations. But ultimately it’s unfulfilling. Satisfying the audience’s expectations of what lives at the end of the great unknown is a tricky task. Most fail because the unveiled creatures, in true Scooby Doo fashion, tend to be damp squibs compared to the fireworks we’d expected.
In this sense, Contact cops out by keeping you in your armchair for two hours 24 minutes and then denying you a fitting climax. The alien encounter itself is fleeting and relatively unilluminating, more of an epiphany for the heroine than a revelation for mankind and the audience.
The plot follows astronomer Ellie Arroway’s quest for alien interaction, something the life-long stargazer hopes to achieve with a pair of headphones and a large Sky dish. The lead is played by the always talented and usually tormented Jodie Foster who doesn’t let us down in either respect.
The film’s tribulations concern the premature death of her parents, which adds poignancy to the flashback of her devoted Pa giving her that magical first telescope. Remember yours? Such pathos obviously vindicates her obsessive hobby-cum-career. But I was in full sympathy with her grant-with-holding supremo (played by Tom Skerrit) who reasonably suggests she could be doing something more useful. Some people ascribe spiritual properties to gemstones, but I wouldn’t recommend massive government funding to help them develop their theories.
Contact’s second leitmotif is the unlikely marriage of science and faith. Ellie’s antithesis is embodied by the slick writer/prophet Palmer Ross (played by Matthew McConaughey) who espouses his own faith rather than that professed by any established religion.
The predictably snarling James Wood as a White House hardman completes a goodish cast along with a strikingly implausible John Hurt. Hurt plays an amoral mad bald millionaire scientist who is an occasional ally to the starry-eyed Ellie.
After 350 words of condemnation, it may seem incongruous to say it’s a fairly enjoyable romp and a decent Dolby Digital soundtrack complements the space shots – especially the one in which Ellie is literally shot into space in a device modelled on an alien bath-tub.
Being a special edition, this flipside disk is packed with feature-length commentaries and special effects constructions – thus sating the most anal of viewers. But by this time, I was on my balcony retransmitting digital TV signals to Alpha Centauri.