The Russia House (1990)

2016 #158
Fred Schepisi | 123 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Russian | 15 / R

The Russia House

Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer are on fine form in this romantic spy thriller adapted from a John le Carré novel.

Although it takes a little time to warm up, it soon reveals a typically intricate Le Carré narrative, with everyone playing everyone else as the intelligence agencies try to use Connery’s publisher to extract a Russian defector, with Pfeiffer as the go-between he begins to fall for. It all comes to a head with one of those delightful sequences where you’re not sure who’s conning who and how, and an ending that is, shall we say, pleasingly atypical for Le Carré.

The central performances are superb — I’m not sure Connery, playing against type as a washed-up ageing no-name, has ever been better. There’s a top-notch supporting cast too, including Roy Scheider as a CIA agent, James Fox as Connery’s MI6 handler, plus Michael Kitchen, Klaus Maria Brandauer, David Threlfall, and even Ken Russell. It looks fantastic as well, at least to me, in an unshowy, not over-processed, grainy, very film-y way. Thanks to digital photography, they literally don’t make them like this anymore; heck, thanks to digital grading they haven’t made them like this for about 20 years.

Is that a manuscript in your pocket or are you pleased to see me?

The Russia House is a much overlooked film, even within the small (but, recently, exponentially expanding) canon of Le Carré screen adaptations. However, with its engaging, uncommonly humane espionage story, driven by strong performances, I think it merits a degree of rediscovery.

5 out of 5

The Russia House placed 16th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)

2017 #31
Mel Brooks | 100 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA & France / English | PG / PG-13

Robin Hood: Men in Tights

Master movie spoofer Mel Brooks’ penultimate work as director was this riff on the Robin Hood legend, in particular the version seen in Prince of Thieves.

Although generally regarded as one of Brooks’ lesser movies, its deeply silly style tickles, and also means you don’t have to have seen Prince of Thieves (or remember it) to get most of the jokes. Cary Elwes is on point as the dashing hero, while Roger Rees successfully spoofs the unspoofable with a version of Alan Rickman’s villain. Instead of Nottingham he’s the Sheriff of Rottingham, a pun that indicates the film’s humour level.

3 out of 5

Ninja Scroll (1993)

aka Jūbē Ninpūchō

2017 #3
Yoshiaki Kawajiri | 92 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | Japan / English | 18

Ninja Scroll

One of the films credited with helping to popularise anime in the West in the wake of Akira (reportedly it has had a greater and more enduring impact in the US than in Japan), Ninja Scroll is a fast-paced fantastical action flick full of gratuitous swordplay, gratuitous gore, and gratuitous nudity.

The story begins with Jubei Kibagami, a roaming ninja-for-hire, who becomes embroiled in stopping the machinations of the Shogun of the Dark after he rescues Kagero (a female ninja whose team were slaughtered by the Shogun of the Dark’s minions, the Eight Devils of Kimon), an event witnessed by Dakuan, a government spy who has been sent to investigate and stop the evil Shogun.

Try not to worry about that too much, though: Ninja Scroll moves like the clappers through a plot that is at once incredibly simple and ludicrously over-complicated. On the one hand it’s an action-driven adventure, as our trio of heroes battle their way through the Eight Devils one by one. On the other, it’s got all sorts of backstory stuff about who the Devils’ leader is and how he’s connected to something Jubei did years earlier and what any of this has to do with Kagero’s clan and… so on.

Samurai snack

Similarly, the pace has its pros and its cons. It certainly keeps things lively, with new monstrous Devils turning up regularly, bringing bursts of exciting action with them; but it makes things bewildering at times, with a flurry of characters and exposition introduced throughout the first half-hour or so. Once it settles down, there’s actually some quite nice character stuff involving Jubei and Kagero, and to an extent Dakuan, who remains a tricksy and unreliable ‘hero’.

That’s not what the film is best known for, though, probably because it’s hidden after a big chunk of the other stuff: ultra-violence and a sex obsession. As to the former, men are literally ripped limb from limb, or cut in half, or quarters, with blood regularly spraying everywhere. Depending on your viewing preferences, it’s either incredibly extreme or we’ve seen the same kinda stuff more regularly since. I wasn’t as shocked as some reviews warned I would be, but it’s not for the faint-hearted.

The same goes for the sex and nudity, which embraces everything from the villains bickering about who’s sleeping with who (if they’re devils then half of them are horny ones) to Kagero being sexually assaulted by a rock monster. In the audio commentary recorded for the 20th anniversary, the writer, director, and animation director debate whether some of that content was unnecessary. One of them (it’s hard to tell which from the subtitles) asserts that there were always gratuitous sex scenes in the B-actioners that partly inspired the film, so it goes toward creating the right atmosphere. I guess individual tastes will vary — I mean, it’s not as if Kagero’s assault is presented as a good thing, but it is still presented. Or it is nowadays: on the film’s first release the BBFC cut that part out. Times certainly have changed.

Kick-ass Kagero

For all that Ninja Scroll feels kinda antiquated in this carefree presentation of repellant acts, it has stood the test of time in other ways. For the faults in what happens to her early on, Kagero emerges as a competent and assured female hero (for the most part). The animation is frequently great, with some painterly compositions inspired by traditional Japanese art, as well as dramatic action sequences. I watched the English dub, which is what it is (I’ve heard better; I’ve heard much worse), but on the aforementioned commentary track they regularly sing the praises of the Japanese voice cast, so maybe the subtitled version was the way to go.

Watching Ninja Scroll is a bit of a conflicting experience nowadays. Its story is both numbingly simple (“introduce villain, fight villain, defeat villain, repeat x8”) and insanely complicated; its sometimes balanced gender politics are offset by some gratuitous and distasteful content; its characters are initially archetypal and generally unlikable, but warm up in both regards as the film progresses. A bit like my opinion of it: I wasn’t entirely sure after my first viewing, but as I watched it back with the commentary I re-appreciated an awful lot of it. Maybe it’s a grower, then.

4 out of 5

Ninja Scroll is on Syfy UK tonight at 11:10pm.

Toy Story 2 (1999)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #93

The toys are back!

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 92 minutes
BBFC: U
MPAA: G

Original Release: 24th November 1999 (USA)
UK Release: 11th February 2000
First Seen: cinema, 2000

Stars
Tom Hanks (Apollo 13, The Da Vinci Code)
Tim Allen (Jungle 2 Jungle, Wild Hogs)
Joan Cusack (Addams Family Values, School of Rock)
Kelsey Grammer (Anastasia, X-Men: The Last Stand)

Director
John Lasseter (Toy Story, Cars 2)

Co-directors
Ash Brannon (Surf’s Up, Rock Dog)
Lee Unkrich (Finding Nemo, Toy Story 3)

Screenwriters
Andrew Stanton (Monsters, Inc., WALL·E)
Rita Hsiao (Mulan, My Little Pony: The Movie)
Doug Chamberlin (Bruno the Kid: The Animated Movie)
Chris Webb (Bruno the Kid: The Animated Movie)

Story by
John Lasseter (A Bug’s Life, Tinker Bell and the Pirate Fairy)
Pete Docter (Toy Story, Inside Out)
Ash Brannon (Surf’s Up, Rock Dog)
Andrew Stanton (Toy Story, Finding Dory)

The Story
After Woody is stolen by a nefarious toy collector, the rest of the toys set out to rescue him — but, tempted by the idea of spending eternity in a museum with friends from his TV show, does Woody want to be saved?

Our Heroes
Buzz and Woody are back, and now the best of friends. This time, Woody is confronted with his past when he meets a gang of other toys from the TV series he starred in, but will he stay with them or return to Andy? Meanwhile, Buzz sets out to rescue Woody, but has issues of his own to tackle when he comes face to face with his nemesis, Emperor Zurg.

Our Villain
Al McWhiggin, the owner of Al’s Toy Barn and serious toy collector, who steals Woody when he’s accidentally put in a yard sale box.

Best Supporting Character
Jessie, a cowgirl from Woody’s TV show. Fundamentally an excitable and chipper character, she was left distraught after being abandoned by her owner, and is now scared of being put back in storage — which will happen if Woody isn’t part of Al’s collection.

Memorable Quote
“You never forget kids like Emily, or Andy, but they forget you.” — Jessie

Memorable Scene
On their hunt for Woody, the other toys explore a giant toy emporium, in which Buzz comes across an aisle filled with fellow Buzzes. Spotting one with a new utility belt, he tries to acquire the accessory, only to awaken his double…

Making of
Toy Story 2 was originally commissioned by Disney as a direct-to-video sequel, because they did that a lot back then, and went into production without Pixar’s primary staff, who were already busy creating A Bug’s Life. When early work looked promising, Disney bumped the project’s status up to a full theatrical release. Conversely, Pixar were unhappy with the quality of what they were seeing. The main team took charge, redeveloping the film’s entire story in a single weekend, but still had to meet the release date Disney had already set. Although most Pixar films take years to produce, the production of Toy Story 2 was compressed into just nine months. The pressure got to people: at one point someone accidentally deleted 90% of the film’s files, representing two years work. Fortunately, another crew member working at home had back-ups of all but the last few days’ work.

Previously on…
The original Toy Story was the first computer-animated feature film.

Next time…
Toy Story 3 followed 11 years later, with Toy Story 4 set to come 9 years after that. Also shorts, TV specials, and the Buzz Lightyear spin-off (see last time).

Awards
1 Oscar nomination (Song)
7 Annie Awards (Animated Feature, Directing, Writing, Female Voice Acting (Joan Cusack), Male Voice Acting (Tim Allen), Music, Storyboarding)
2 Annie Awards nominations (Character Animation, Production Design)
2 Saturn nominations (Fantasy Film, Music)
1 Teen Choice Awards nomination (Choice Hissy Fit)

What the Critics Said
Toy Story 2 is a brilliant example of that rarest of Hollywood phenomena — a sequel to a major hit film that’s as good, if not better, than the original. This is mainly the result of a perfect mixture of two essential elements. First, there’s an excellent script by Andrew Stanton and his team of writers […] Second, there’s the remarkable technology developed by Pixar for the film A Bug’s Life. It’s this approach they’ve now taken to even greater heights […] These filmmakers have taken the 1995 characters and given them more depth, creating a new story that lets the toys interact in a larger world. It all comes down to amazing visuals and basic storytelling — and this is one heck of a good tale.” — Paul Clinton, CNN

Score: 100%

What the Public Say
Toy Story 2 is considered, by most, to be a perfect film. The characters are amazing. The stakes are higher than the first film. And the emotional beats hit harder than before. With two successes under their belt, it’s hard to believe that Pixar could not only be consistent with that quality, but somehow also manage to pull off something even more amazing than we thought possible. Expanding the mythology of this world and really making us feel for the toys that we forgot as children, Toy Story 2 is, in the words of Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way.” — Jaysen Headley, Jaysen Headley Writes

Verdict

Sequels are notorious for not being as good as their progenitor. I feel like this is a trend that is increasingly being bucked — with everything Hollywood makes designed to be a franchise, Film 1 is often about setup and Film 2 is where the makers are allowed to do what they really wanted to do in the first place. But when you strike gold first time out, it’s still hard to do it justice second time round. Pixar do that and more here, with a sequel that is slicker, funnier, more exciting, and more emotional than its forebear. Even if it’s happening more often now, good sequels are still hard to do — trust Pixar to have got there ahead of the pack.

#94 will be… transportive.

Toy Story (1995)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #92

The toys are back in town.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 81 minutes
BBFC: PG
MPAA: G

Original Release: 22nd November 1995 (USA)
UK Release: 22nd March 1996
First Seen: cinema, 1996

Stars
Tom Hanks (Sleepless in Seattle, Catch Me If You Can)
Tim Allen (Galaxy Quest, The Shaggy Dog)

Director
John Lasseter (A Bug’s Life, Cars)

Screenwriters
Joss Whedon (Alien Resurrection, Avengers: Age of Ultron)
Andrew Stanton (A Bug’s Life, John Carter)
Joel Cohen (Cheaper by the Dozen, Garfield)
Alec Sokolow (Cheaper by the Dozen, Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties)

Story by
John Lasseter (Toy Story 2, Planes)
Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc., Up)
Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, Toy Story 3)
Joe Ranft (Beauty and the Beast, Cars)

The Story
In a world where toys come to life when humans aren’t around, Woody is six-year-old Andy’s favourite doll… until he gets Buzz Lightyear, a space ranger action figure, for his birthday. An upset Woody clashes with Buzz, but when the bickering pair are left behind during a house move they must work together to get back to their kid.

Our Heroes
Woody is a cowboy doll, the favourite of his kid, Andy, and consequently the leader of all Andy’s toys. That is until Andy gets a shiny new Buzz Lightyear action figure, whose newness ingratiates him with all the other toys. Plus, to Woody’s continued annoyance, Buzz believes he really is a space ranger and has no idea he’s just a toy.

Our Villain
Sid, Andy’s nasty neighbour kid who does terrible, terrible things to toys…

Best Supporting Character
Mr Potato Head, whose various body parts are slotted on and therefore removable and interchangeable. Hilarity ensues. Also has a nice line in snarky comments.

Memorable Quote
“To infinity, and beyond!” — Buzz Lightyear

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“You are a sad, strange little man, and you have my pity.” — Buzz Lightyear

Memorable Scene
One of Buzz’s claims as a real space ranger is that he can fly, so Woody challenges him to prove it. Buzz closes his eyes, dives off the bed… and, through a series of flukes, bounces and coasts his way around the room, landing back on the bed. “That wasn’t flying,” cries Woody, “that was falling with style!”

Memorable Song
The film’s themes are perfectly reflected in Randy Newman’s Oscar-nominated and endlessly catchy song, You’ve Got a Friend in Me. Both Toy Story sequels have tried to emulate it, with… less success.

Technical Wizardry
Only the whole movie — it was the first feature-length wholly-computer-generated animated film. As such, we have it to thank/blame for the current entire state of popular Western animation.

Making of
The animators perfected the movement of the toy soldiers by nailing a pair of shoes to a wooden plank and trying to walk around in them.

Previously on…
Toy Story was the first feature-length computer-animated film — there is, in that sense, literally nothing before it.

Next time…
Two feature film sequels, both of which are at least as artistically successful as this first, with a fourth set to follow in 2018. Also, three short films and two TV specials to date, plus direct-to-video spin-off movie Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins and the TV series that follows it. You could also argue the entirety of Pixar’s highly-praised output is a follow-up to the success of Toy Story, as well as American feature animation’s almost entire conversion from traditional cel animation to 3D CGI.

Awards
1 Special Achievement Oscar to John Lasseter for “the development and inspired application of techniques that have made possible the first feature-length computer-animated film.”
3 Oscar nominations (Original Screenplay, Song, Musical or Comedy Score)
1 BAFTA nomination (Visual Effects)
8 Annie Awards (Animated Feature, Directing, Writing, Producing, Music, Production Design, Animation, Technical Achievement)
1 Annie Awards nomination (Voice Acting (Tom Hanks))
2 Saturn nominations (Fantasy Film, Writing)
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation

What the Critics Said
“Far from just a technological breakthrough, this hellzapoppin fairy tale […] is a magically witty and humane entertainment. It has the purity, the ecstatic freedom of imagination, that’s the hallmark of the greatest children’s films. It also has the kind of spring-loaded allusive prankishness that, at times, will tickle adults even more than it does kids. The moment Mr. Potato Head arranges his snap-on features into a Cubist mash and says, ”I’m Picasso,” it’s clear that director John Lasseter and his team of writer-technicians have taken their most anarchic impulses and run with them. […] In its techno-cool photo-realist way, though, this movie, too, invites you to gaze upon the textures of the physical world with new eyes. What Bambi and Snow White did for nature, Toy Story, amazingly, does for plastic — for the synthetic gizmo culture of the modern mall brat. The film’s wit (and resonance) is that it brings toys to life exactly the way children do in their heads. It molds plastic into pure imagination.” — Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly

Score: 100%

What the Public Say
“The Animation is superb. Given that this was one of the first ever feature length computer animated movies, those guys at Pixar really hit the nail on the head. The colours are vibrant and the characters are dynamic. An excellent use of Blues, Yellows and Reds really accentuate the ‘children’ and ‘toys’ feel. There are also beautiful realistic elements such as a scene where Woody and Buzz find themselves under a lorry in a petrol station. With this, I was simply amazed at the attention to detail with the stones, tarmac and oil stains on the textures. It really looks like you are close-up to the ground and I love it!” — Alexander Potter, Pottercraft’s Pictures

Verdict

Just because something’s the first to do something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s any good, but Pixar didn’t strike gold with Toy Story just because computer animation was New. It’s the likeable characters, how they develop and learn, the amusing situations they’re put in, plus some heartwarming messages about friendship. There’s more emotion and character development in these wooden-and-plastic toys generated with pixels in a computer than many a film can achieve with real human beings, and that’s why Pixar came to revolutionise and dominate the Western animation genre.

Some would say “the original is still the best”, and it is up there, but on Sunday I will beg to differ…

#93 will be… a superior sequel.

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #91

Yesterday is a memory. Today is history.
Tomorrow is in the hands of one man.
Bond. You know the rest.

Country: UK & USA
Language: English, German, Danish, Mandarin & Cantonese
Runtime: 119 minutes
BBFC: 12 (cut, 1997) | 12 (cut more, 1998) | 15 (uncut, 2006) | 12 (uncut, 2012)
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 12th December 1997 (UK)
US Release: 19th December 1997
First Seen: cinema, December 1997

Stars
Pierce Brosnan (Dante’s Peak, The Ghost)
Jonathan Pryce (Brazil, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl)
Michelle Yeoh (Supercop, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)
Teri Hatcher (Tango & Cash, Coraline)
Judi Dench (Mrs Brown, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel)

Director
Roger Spottiswoode (Turner & Hooch, A Street Cat Named Bob)

Screenwriter
Bruce Feirstein (GoldenEye, The World Is Not Enough)

Based on
James Bond, a character created by Ian Fleming.

The Story
Secret agent James Bond is deployed to investigate a media baron who is plotting to ignite a war between the UK and China to further his business empire.

Our Hero
The name’s Bond, James Bond. In his second outing as agent 007, Pierce Brosnan has settled comfortably into his interpretation of the hero, a mix of Roger Moore’s eyebrow-raising levity with some of Sean Connery’s slightly harder, man-of-action edge.

Our Villain
Elliot Carver is a megalomaniac media mogul — the owner of the newspaper Tomorrow, who intends to secretly provoke a war in order to boost sales and ratings. James Bond does satire? Kinda.

Best Supporting Character
Wai Lin, a spy who’s investigating Carver for the Chinese. A skilled martial artist, she kicks all kinds of ass. Despite initial mistrust, she and Bond ultimately team up. Lin is arguably one of the first Bond girls who can genuinely claim to be a competent character in her own right. Still ends up sleeping with Bond, though.

Memorable Quote
Admiral Roebuck: “With all due respect, M, sometimes I don’t think you have the balls for this job.”
M: “Perhaps. But the advantage is I don’t have to think with them all the time.”

Memorable Scene
Remote control car, James Bond style: Bond lies in the backseat of his BMW, driving it around a multi-storey car park with his mobile phone, deploying its weapons against a gang of attackers. It was a fun concept back in ’97, but I imagine you could do it yourself with an app now. Apart from the weapons. And the legal implications. So maybe not.

Memorable Music
After the disastrous ‘modern’ score for GoldenEye, music duties were here handed to David Arnold. At the time he had composed the scores for Stargate and Independence Day, but, even more pertinently, he had produced Shaken and Stirred, an album of contemporary-styled covers of great Bond themes. The album was heard by iconic Bond composer John Barry, who then recommended Arnold to producer Barbara Broccoli. Arnold’s score is much more in-keeping with classic Bond music, but given a modern (well, ’90s) flavour. Backseat Driver, the soundtrack to my Memorable Scene pick, is a particularly great action cue. Arnold would become the series’ composer for the next four films, until Sam Mendes chose to use his regular collaborator Thomas Newman for Skyfall and Spectre. With Mendes moving on, perhaps Arnold will be back for Bond 25…

Write the Theme Tune…
Arnold wanted to have a hand in writing the title song and integrate it into his soundtrack, like the great Bond composers of old. To that end he wrote a theme sung by k.d. lang… which plays over the end credits and is titled Surrender, though has a tellingly prominent use of the phrase “tomorrow never dies” in its lyrics.

Sing the Theme Tune…
The producers went with a more marketable proposition for the final opening credits song, however, in the shape of Sheryl Crow, famous for her pop-rock-y hits like All I Wanna Do, A Change Would Do You Good, and Everyday is a Winding Road. In the pantheon of Bond title themes, her Tomorrow Never Dies sits firmly in the middle — it’s not a GoldenEye, but it’s not a Die Another Day either.

Making of
The film was originally called Tomorrow Never Lies, referencing Carver’s newspaper, Tomorrow. Some kind of production mix-up (a typo, a smudged fax — pick your story) led to it being misread as Tomorrow Never Dies, and the new, less meaningful title stuck.

This Category Sponsored By BMW
Apparently Tomorrow Never Dies was the first movie in history to have its entire budget covered by product placement endorsements — that’s over $100 million in advertising. Featured companies include BMW, L’Oréal, Heineken, Dunhill, Ericsson, Omega, Smirnoff, Brioni, Bollinger, and Avis, plus a tie-in game from Electronic Arts.

Previously on…
17 previous Bond films (which are all technically in the same continuity). The previous one, GoldenEye, was the first to star Pierce Brosnan and relaunched the series to mass popularity after a fallow period.

Next time…
Two more Brosnan Bonds, before he was unceremoniously dumped to reboot the series for the first time. With a 25th film now in the works, the series is set to continue indefinitely.

Awards
1 Saturn Award (Best Actor (Pierce Brosnan))
3 Saturn nominations (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film, Supporting Actress (Teri Hatcher), Music)
2 MTV Movie Awards nominations (Action Sequence for the motorcycle/helicopter chase (somehow it lost to Face/Off), Best Fight for “the fight between Michelle Yeoh and some ‘bad guys’.”)

What the Critics Said
“East meets West, yin meets yang and chop-socky meets kiss-kiss bang-bang in Tomorrow Never Dies, a zippy 007 romp that draws as heavily from the Asian action genre as from the formula that has served the series so well for 35 years. Goldeneye and Pierce Brosnan’s debonair Bond resuscitated the creaky franchise in 1995, but […] Tomorrow, jazzier, wittier and more costly than its predecessor, also comes closer to catching up with ’90s style and politics. […] Hong Kong kung-pow chick Michelle Yeoh, as the cool-headed Chinese agent Wai Lin, proves 007’s equal at kicking post-Cold War butt. The two take on craven communications baron Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce), a deliciously exaggerated — or is it? — composite of Ted Turner, Rupert Murdoch and the late Robert Maxwell. Carver’s not only the most plausible Bond nemesis ever but the perfect one for the current global villain shortage.” — Rita Kempley, The Washington Post

Score: 57%

What the Public Say
TND is somewhat underrated. Jonathan Pryce plays a villain who is essentially Rupert Murdoch smooshed together with Ted Turner. His plan isn’t to take over the world so much as it is getting rich by starting a war and then covering it on his news outlets. This just may be the most plausible Bond villain scheme of all times – which admittedly isn’t saying much. […] TND may not be among the best Bonds, but it’s got more going for it than I think it gets credit for.” — Lebeau, Lebeau’s Le Blog

Verdict

I know some of you will be thinking, “how can you leave out Goldfinger / Thunderball / The Spy Who Loved Me / For Your Eyes Only / The Living Daylights / Licence to Kill [delete according to personal preference] but include Tomorrow Never Dies?!” It’s true, TND is far from the most popular Bond film, but it was the first I saw on the big screen, and that gives me a certain soft spot for it. It’s not just that, though.

Here’s a thing: one of the criticisms levelled at the film is that it’s just an action movie, lacking the peculiarly Bondian thrills a Bond adventure should have. But if it is “just an action movie” then it’s the best action movie in the Bond series. The pre-titles gunfight at the arms meet, the ‘backseat driver’ sequence, and the motorbike-vs-helicopter chase are three of the finest action scenes in the entire franchise, and that’s without even touching on Michelle Yeoh kicking ass. Couple that with Brosnan still new and confident in the lead role, and Jonathan Pryce nibbling the scenery as a lightly satirical villain, and I think you have a Bond film that is pretty entertaining, even if it’s mainly on an adrenaline-pumping level.

#92 has… a friend in me.

Three Kings (1999)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #90

They’re deserters, rebels and thieves.
But in the nicest possible way.

Country: USA
Language: English & Arabic
Runtime: 115 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 1st October 1999 (USA)
UK Release: 3rd March 2000
First Seen: DVD, c.2001

Stars
George Clooney (Batman & Robin, Ocean’s Eleven)
Mark Wahlberg (Boogie Nights, The Fighter)
Ice Cube (Boyz n the Hood, Ride Along)
Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Where the Wild Things Are)

Director
David O. Russell (Flirting with Disaster, Silver Linings Playbook)

Screenwriter
David O. Russell (Spanking the Monkey, American Hustle)

Story by
John Ridley (U Turn, 12 Years a Slave)

The Story
After ceasefire is called in the Gulf War, a group of American soldiers discover a map to a stash of gold stolen by Saddam Hussein’s forces. Setting out to steal it for themselves, the soldiers encounter a group of rebels who need their help and find their priorities changing.

Our Heroes
Army reservist Sergeant Troy Barlow and his friend, the comically naïve Private Conrad Vig, are the first to discover the map, which they take to Staff Sergeant Chief Elgin to translate. Then self-serving, disillusioned Special Forces Major Archie Gates turns up and convinces them to follow it to the gold. (Yes, despite the title, there are four of them.)

Our Villains
The war may officially be over, but the Iraqi Republican Guard are still the enemy.

Best Supporting Character
I know I mentioned him in the heroes bit, but Conrad is the de facto “fourth king”, so… He gets the lion’s share of either the best lines or the lines that set up the best lines.

Memorable Quote
Chief: “I don’t want to hear ‘dune coon’ or ‘sand nigger’ from him or anybody else.”
Conrad: “Captain uses those terms.”
Troy: “That’s not the point, Conrad. The point is that ‘towelhead’ and ‘camel jockey’ are perfectly good substitutes.”

Memorable Scene
Archie explains what actually happens when you get shot in the gut, complete with an explanatory cross-section of the human body, and bile.

Making of
The stories of behind-the-scenes conflict between director David O. Russell — still a relative newcomer, making his biggest movie so far — and George Clooney — dividing his time between E.R. three days a week and the film on the other four — are legendary. If you want a lengthy-ish full account, check out this trivia entry on IMDb.

Awards
1 Blockbuster Entertainment Award (Favourite Action Team — it beat Will Smith and Kevin Kline from Wild Wild West, and those were all the nominees)
1 Political Film Society Award (Peace)
2 Political Film Society Award nominations (Democracy, Exposé)

What the Critics Said
“[an] emotionally and politically responsible movie set in Iraq during the immediate aftermath of the gulf war — a damning yet idealistic satire about the motives behind U.S. foreign policy. The visuals are wild, the sound track has the audacity to underscore the subtext instead of just echoing the obvious, the comedy is irreverent and occasionally slapstick, and the metaphorical details are consistently strong. The movie even examines the conventions of star-studded actioners without stripping the leads of the charisma and apparent immortality of full-blown action heroes.” — Lisa Alspector, Chicago Reader

Score: 94%

What the Public Say
Three Kings, at its core, deals with serious themes and serious subject matter surrounding the end of the first Gulf War, and is therefore a war narrative before anything else. That being said, it’s refreshing how Three Kings doesn’t drown in its cynicism, isn’t exploitative in terms of gore or shocking violence, and isn’t hitting its audience over the head with either jingoistic propaganda or hamfisted pacifist social commentary. Moreover, Three Kings is funny enough often enough to be qualified as a comedy in its own right. It’s the humanist, dare I say, heartfelt combination of the two, that makes it a bonafide winner.” — The Celtic Predator, Express Elevator to Hell

Verdict

Writer-director David O. Russell may have become increasingly acclaimed this decade with Oscar-nominated movies like The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle, but for me this is still his best work. It mixes laugh-out-loud comedy with serious points about war and an ultimately emotional storyline, created with a filmmaking verve that is frequently exciting and inventive — something I’d argue is less present in Russell’s more widely-acknowledged work.

#91 never… lies dies.

Cool World (1992)

2016 #70
Ralph Bakshi | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / PG-13

Cool WorldSometime recently, I said I was making more of an effort to avoid watching movies I know are going to be bad — when there’s so much good stuff to see, why knowingly waste time on bad stuff? But then sometimes something just catches your attention and you have to see for yourself. It sounds as if no one had anything good to say about Cool World when it came out back in 1992, and no one’s had anything good to say about it since either, but after spotting it on Netflix (I’m not sure I’d even heard of it before that) my curiosity was piqued.

Directed by Ralph Bakshi, who’s probably best known for the animated Lord of the Rings, it’s the story of cartoonist Jack Deebs (Gabriel Byrne) who’s created the zany, surreal ‘Cool World’. But Cool World is actually a real place (a real cartoon place, as it were), which Jack ends up getting transported to. He meets femme fatale Holli Would (voiced by Kim Basinger) who wants to escape to the real world, but is being prevented from doing so by Frank (Brad Pitt), another real human who was transported to Cool World decades earlier.

If this all sounds a bit of a mess, it is. It’s not a fundamentally bad story at a conceptual level, but its execution is a jumble, and the twisted Cool World is an unpleasant place to have to spend time. The darkness of the story is actually toned down from Bakshi’s original concept (which had an underground cartoonist fathering a half-real / half-cartoon daughter who tries to kill him), but only so much: it’s still full of sex, references to sex, Holli Would, and she willand general depraved behaviour. It’s clear it got caught in the crossfire between a creator/director who wanted to make a hard-R adults-only animated/live-action movie, and a star and producer who wanted to make something they could show to sick kiddies in hospital. The end result surely satisfies neither, because it pulls some punches to not get that R, but there’s no way this is kid-friendly.

It came out a few years after Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and suffers from the comparison. It’s not just that Cool World is a less successful riff on the same concept, or that its storytelling is more muddled, but it’s less technically proficient too. The animation and live-action elements never gel as well as in Roger Rabbit, with plenty of lazy eye-lines and actions not quite lining up. This probably explains why Byrne and Pitt both give lacklustre performances, not that Basinger fares any better.

There’s some interesting stuff in Cool World, which is why I haven’t sunk it to the irredeemable depths of a single star, but the merits are slight and not worth the effort. Apparently it does have something of a cult following, though, so the adventurous may still feel it’s worth a visit.

2 out of 5

Cool World featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2016, which can be read in full here.

The Sixth Sense (1999)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #85

Not every gift is a blessing.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 107 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 6th August 1999 (USA)
UK Release: 5th November 1999
First Seen: DVD, c.2000

Stars
Bruce Willis (Pulp Fiction, Sin City)
Haley Joel Osment (Bogus, A.I. Artificial Intelligence)
Toni Collette (Muriel’s Wedding, Little Miss Sunshine)
Olivia Williams (Rushmore, The Ghost)

Director
M. Night Shyamalan (Unbreakable, Signs)

Screenwriter
M. Night Shyamalan (Wide Awake, The Village)

The Story
Child psychiatrist Dr Malcolm Crowe tries to help a new patient, Cole Sear, who claims he can see ghosts.

Our Heroes
Dr Malcolm Crowe doubts his abilities to help people after a former patient shot him before committing suicide, an event which has also left him distanced from his wife. But he may be the only person who’ll believe young Cole Sear, a reclusive child who’s struggling with delusions of seeing dead people… unless they’re not delusions…

Our Villains
Are the dead dangerous, or do they just need help?

Best Supporting Character
Cole’s mom, Lynn, who loves him a great deal and worries about him just as much, but has no idea what’s really wrong or how to help her son.

Memorable Quote
“I see dead people… Walking around like regular people. They don’t see each other. They only see what they want to see. They don’t know they’re dead.” — Cole

Memorable Scene
Stuck in traffic, Cole reveals his ability to his mother for the first time — that there’s been an accident ahead and someone died, which he knows because they’re stood at his window. Naturally Lynn doesn’t believe her son, but then he begins to talk about his grandmother…

Technical Wizardry
The twist ending is immaculately constructed. There are clues throughout the film, but, like all the best twist-ending clues, the vast majority of viewers will completely miss them first time through, even though they seem almost blatant when revisited.

Making of
The colour red is used only to indicate times and items where the worlds of the living and the dead have connected; if something red was present in a scene where this wasn’t relevant, Shyamalan had it changed. There’s a massive list of these moments here, but if you somehow haven’t seen The Sixth Sense yet, do beware of spoilers.

Next time…
There are no actual sequels to The Sixth Sense, but it kicked off M. Night Shyamalan as a kind of one-man genre, making supernatural thrillers with a twist ending — and decreasing critical acclaim with each new movie. It seemed to end with The Happening and he transitioned to be a director-for-hire, but he’s coming back somewhat with The Visit and next year’s Split.

Awards
6 Oscar nominations (Picture, Supporting Actor (Haley Joel Osment), Supporting Actress (Toni Collette), Director, Original Screenplay, Editing)
4 BAFTA nominations (Film, Director, Original Screenplay, Editing)
2 Saturn Awards (Horror Film, Performance by a Younger Actor/Actress (Haley Joel Osment))
2 Saturn nominations (Actor (Bruce Willis), Writer)
2 Teen Choice Awards (Choice Drama, Choice Breakout Performance (Haley Joel Osment))
1 Teen Choice nomination (Choice Sleazebag (Trevor Morgan))
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation

What the Critics Said
“the film eventually abandons the heroic-therapist model and ventures toward other ground, ever so gently tightening its squeeze. It seems really to achieve something that Stanley Kubrick was possibly groping after in Eyes Wide Shut, or that Nicolas Roeg achieved in Don’t Look Now, which might be called an extreme sense of the bizarre, not as invented by special-effects wizards with unlimited space on the hard drive but in the subtler ways of film craftsmanship. […] The movie is a maximum creep-out. It’s invasive. It’s like an enema to the soul as it probes the ways of death – some especially grotesque in a family setting. You leave slightly asquirm. You know it will linger. It becomes a clammy, chilly movie building toward a revelation that you cannot predict. As I say: I cannot tell you. You’d hate me if I did. I can only say, don’t look now, but look sometime.” — Stephen Hunter, Washington Post

Score: 85%

What the Public Say
“The film is rich in symbolism, and colour plays a large part in signifying spirits invading the real world. This is what makes The Sixth Sense so captivating. Watching the film for the first time, you don’t expect the ending, and so the shock of it tends to overshadow the subtlety of the beginning. It is only once you have re-watched the film, that you begin to notice little suggestions of what is to come. A success from start to end, this is at once an exercise in potent suspense, and a carefully crafted tale of child psychology.” — Cat Barnard, Screen Muse

Verdict

M. Night Shyamalan gets such a bad rep these days, it’s easy to forget how great his breakthrough movie was. It flew completely under the radar back in 1999: the guy at Disney who bought the screenplay was fired for doing so without permission; Bruce Willis starred in it because he owed Disney two films, and was paid half his normal salary; Entertainment Weekly’s extensive summer preview detailed over 140 films, but The Sixth Sense wasn’t even mentioned. By coming out of the blue, and in an era before the internet was dominant (these days there’d be plot dissections and spoiler-filled director interviews online by the Monday after release, wouldn’t there?), the film obviously had surprise on its side, which is particularly effective when it has such a memorable twist. But even before that ending, it manages to mix plausible emotional drama with scenes of chilling everyday horror, crafting something that is undoubtedly a genre movie but also not out of place in a list of Best Picture nominees.

The Sixth Sense is on Film4 tomorrow night at 1am.

#86 will do… whatever a spider can.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #83

Fear can hold you prisoner.
Hope can set you free.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 142 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 23rd September 1994 (USA)
UK Release: 17th February 1995
First Seen: TV, c.1999

Stars
Tim Robbins (Jacob’s Ladder, Mystic River)
Morgan Freeman (Driving Miss Daisy, Invictus)
Bob Gunton (Demolition Man, Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls)

Director
Frank Darabont (The Green Mile, The Mist)

Screenwriter
Frank Darabont (A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, The Green Mile)

Based on
Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, a short story by Stephen King.

The Story
When Andy Dufrense is incarcerated in Shawshank State Penitentiary, he soon finds himself helping the corrupt warden money-launder his bribes. With a measure of protection from the guards, Andy’s common decency leads him to try to improve life for his fellow inmates, all the while thriving on the hope he’ll one day get out.

Our Heroes
Andy Dufrense is an intelligent fella, who earns himself protection and privileges by helping with the guards’ finances, and befriends fellow inmates by overhauling the prison library. He’s serving two consecutive life sentences for murdering his wife and her lover, despite claiming he’s innocent — like everyone else in Shawshank. Conversely, his new best friend, Red — the film’s narrator — is the only guilty man in Shawshank. He’s the guy you go to if you want anything smuggled in, like, say, a rock hammer…

Our Villains
Warden Samuel Norton is outwardly a good Christian and forward-thinking prison governor, but is actually a corrupt and vicious sonuvabitch, only too happy to use Andy’s skills to fiddle the books — and punish him harshly for any signs of dissent. His right-hand-man is the captain of the guards, Hadley, who’s not above giving a wayward prisoner a life-altering beating, or worse…

Best Supporting Character
The prison’s librarian, Brooks, who’s been locked up for almost 50 years. The old chap gets paroled, but the outside world has become a very different place by 1954, and he has a heartbreaking fate.

Memorable Quote
“The funny thing is, on the outside I was an honest man, straight as an arrow. I had to come to prison to be a crook.” — Andy Dufresne

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“Get busy living or get busy dying.”

Memorable Scene
Left alone in the warden’s office, Andy comes across a record. He puts it on the turntable, locks the door, and switches on the PA system, broadcasting opera to the entire prison. Guards and prisoners alike stop where they stand to listen. Meanwhile, the warden bangs on the door and demands Andy turn the music off. He leans toward the record player… and turns it up. The insubordination will cost him, but, for a few minutes, the beautiful music makes the prisoners feel free.

Making of
The American Humane Association monitored filming that involved Brooks’ pet crow. During a scene where it’s fed a maggot, the AHA objected — because it was cruel to the maggot. They demanded the filmmakers use one that had died from natural causes, which was duly found.

Awards
7 Oscar nominations (Picture, Actor (Morgan Freeman), Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Score, Sound)
2 Saturn nominations (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film, Writing)

What the Critics Said
“The mood swings rigorously through every emotion as the cranky, wiseguy and downright crazed array of criminals bare the brunt of the turbulent life within the doomy Shawshank catacomb. […] If you’re miserable enough to look for gripes then, yes, it does drift on too long and who needs prison buggery again? Yet the ending has such poetic completeness you’re too busy contentedly chuckling to worry about sore behinds. This may have confounded American audiences — it flopped big-time on planet Yank — but a more divine movie experience you will not find this side of Oscardom. […] If you don’t love Shawshank, chances are you’re beyond redemption.” — Ian Nathan, Empire

Score: 91%

What the Public Say
“it has these amazing feel good moments yet it doesn’t feel contrived. Most of us film lovers can see right through that. If Shawshank was guilty of that, it wouldn’t have stayed in the number one spot for all these years. […] I think there are a lot of things that make The Shawshank Redemption such a widely loved film and the movie just gets so many things “right” that they all combine to give us something spectacular: Feel good moments like the beer & opera scenes (which never fail to move me no matter how many times I watch this movie). Andy & Red’s friendship. The lesser characters such as Brooks & Heywood (and the heartbreakingly beautiful “Brooks Was Here” theme from Thomas Newman). Seeing the posters on the wall change, showing the passage of time. Alexandre Dumbass. The pet bird. Rita Hayworth. And, of course, the overall message of hope. More than anything, though, I think it’s Stephen King’s story and Darabont’s ability to give us scenes of pure beauty in a movie based someplace as awful as a prison” — table9mutant, Cinema Parrot Disco

Verdict

The Godfather sat seemingly unassailable atop IMDb’s Top 250 for nine years, until The Dark Knight kicked it off, not everyone agreed, and when the dust settled Shawshank was the new #1, a position it’s now held for eight years. Naturally that means there’s been a backlash in some circles. It’s a particularly snooty kind of reaction in general, I find, probably because Shawshank is exactly the kind of movie primed to emerge as a consensus favourite: it has drama and darkness, but also humour and optimism, and elicits emotions across the spectrum — it’s neither too grim to depress people into not enjoying it, nor too sentimental to make them do that mock “throwing up” noise some people do when things get really schmaltzy.

I wager some people confuse the notion of “consensus favourite” with “produced by committee”, which sound similar — a large group of people coming to agree on something — but are actually very different. The latter typically produces bland work that no one loves; something that wouldn’t curry favour with the former. Is The Shawshank Redemption the greatest movie ever made? Not in my opinion. I’d wager not in the opinion of most of the people who’ve given it a score on IMDb that’s contributed to it being #1. But it is a very good film indeed — and, clearly, most of us can agree on that.

#84 will be… not a fucking Merlot.