Cop Car (2015)

2016 #102
Jon Watts | 84 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Cop CarThe director of minor horror Clown and (more significantly to the history of cinema, maybe) next year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, Jon Watts drew the attention that landed him the latter job with this festival-hit thriller.

Two runaway boys (James Freedson-Jackson, Hays Wellford) come across an abandoned police cruiser and take it for a joyride. Unfortunately for them, it belongs to corrupt officer Kevin Bacon, who’s left something in the boot he desperately wants back…

Freedson-Jackson and Wellford are strikingly naturalistic, while Bacon hits a difficult mix of menacing and pathetically incompetent. A darkly comic tone helps create an arresting little thriller.

4 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Clown is on the Horror Channel tonight at 10:45pm.

Apollo 13 (1995)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #4

“Houston, we have a problem.”

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 140 minutes
BBFC: PG
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 30th June 1995 (USA)
UK Release: 22nd September 1995
First Seen: cinema, 1995

Stars
Tom Hanks (Philadelphia, Saving Private Ryan)
Bill Paxton (Tombstone, Twister)
Kevin Bacon (Footloose, The Woodsman)
Gary Sinise (Forrest Gump, Snake Eyes)
Ed Harris (The Right Stuff, The Truman Show)

Director
Ron Howard (Willow, A Beautiful Mind)

Screenwriter
William Broyles Jr. (Cast Away, Flags of Our Fathers)
Al Reinert (For All Mankind, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within)

Based on
Lost Moon, a true-story book by Jim Lovell & Jeffrey Kluger.

The Story
The third manned mission to land on the Moon launches to little public interest… but that all changes when an accident cripples the spacecraft. Not only will the three astronauts on board not be landing on the Moon, but they might not be able to make it back to Earth…

Our Hero
Everybody — from the three men who may die in space, to the spurned astronaut who locks himself in the simulator to find a solution, to the dozens of mission commanders and tech guys who work round the clock to keep the astronauts alive and bring them home.

Best Supporting Character
The whole cast are pretty great, but Ed Harris really earnt his Oscar nomination as the commander in Mission Control, Gene Kranz. (See also: memorable quote, below.)

Memorable Quote
NASA Director: “This could be the worst disaster NASA’s ever faced.”
Gene Kranz: “With all due respect, sir, I believe this is gonna be our finest hour.”

Memorable Scene
After surviving days in space on dwindling power, slingshotting the craft round the moon, and adjusting course last-minute to actually aim at Earth, the crippled remains of Apollo 13 enter the atmosphere. There will be three minutes of radio silence before they know if the astronauts have survived reentry. Everyone watches and waits. Silence. Three minutes is reached. Silence. Three minutes thirty seconds passes… In the command center, at the astronauts’ home, at Jay Lovell’s school, everyone waits. Four minutes passes… Goodness, it’s shamelessly manipulative filmmaking, but if your hair isn’t on end and you aren’t practically on your feet cheering with everyone else, you truly are immune.

Technical Wizardry
Gravity used a shedload of groundbreaking tech and computer graphics to simulate zero-G. 20 years earlier, Apollo 13 wasn’t so lucky, so how did they do it? In part, for real. Sets were built inside NASA’s (in)famous ‘Vomit Comet’, an airplane that flies in parabolic arcs to give astronauts an experience of zero-G, but only for 23 seconds at a time. With such a small window, shots to be achieved were carefully planned out, and cast and crew endured over 500 arcs in 13 days to film the necessary footage.

Truly Special Effect
The lift-off sequence, a combination of models and CGI without a single frame of stock footage, is iconic. For me, at least, the shot tracking down the side of the craft as the supports pull away is as indelible an image of an Apollo launch as any documentary footage.

Letting the Side Down
Two decades on, some of the CG effects (especially on Earth) are beginning to show their age. (The model work still looks grand, though.)

Making of
According to Ron Howard in a 20th anniversary interview, Tom Hanks was cast because they thought he was the actor the world would most want to save.

Next time…
The film was followed by 12-part HBO series From the Earth to the Moon, which tells the entire story of the US’s quest to put a man on the moon, from the creation of NASA to the end of the Apollo programme. It’s really good.

Awards
2 Oscars (Sound, Film Editing)
7 Oscar nominations (Picture, Supporting Actor (Ed Harris), Supporting Actress (Kathleen Quinlan), Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Visual Effects, Original Score)
2 BAFTAs (Special Effects, Production Design)
3 BAFTA nominations (Cinematography, Editing, Sound)
1 Saturn nomination (Action/Adventure Film)
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation.

What the Critics Said
“In the end, this failed mission seems like the most impressive achievement of the entire space program: a triumph not of planning but of inspired improvisation.” — Terrence Rafferty, The New Yorker

Score: 95%

What the Public Say
“filmmakers combined elements most go to the movies for — drama, comedy, suspense, thrills, and tug of the heart. After reading Lost Moon I’ve come to appreciate the William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert screenplay the more. Given the archival detail Lovell and Kluger documented, getting a good portion of it into a 140-minute movie was its own remarkable feat.” — le0pard13, It Rains… You Get Wet

Verdict

What could have been one of the US space program’s greatest tragedies turned out to be one of its greatest successes, a sensation that is conveyed by Ron Howard’s thrilling rendition of events. The film is too emotionally manipulative for some palates, but by and large it works magnificently for me. Bonus points are earnt for rejecting sycophancy in favour of depicting the people involved as human beings who endured and triumphed in extraordinary circumstances.

#5 will be… reached at 88mph.

X-Men: First Class (2011)

2011 #60
Matthew Vaughn | 132 mins | cinema/Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

Superhero films have been a significant regular part of the summer movie season for over a decade now, but this year really looks like it’s going to take the biscuit: The Avengers obliterated box office records Stateside last weekend, and has spent most of the week knocking down more worldwide; there’s a Batman sequel/finale to look forward to, which everyone has been expecting to do the same; and sandwiched somewhere between the two is a Spider-Man reboot that, provided it doesn’t get dwarfed by the other two and/or poor reviews, is likely to make a pretty penny. (If I recall correctly, the initial Raimi Spidey film was the first movie ever to make over $100m in its opening weekend; and now, 10 years later, The Avengers is the first to beat $200m — how neat.)

But that’s all still to come (I haven’t even seen The Avengers yet myself, and I won’t now until at least sometime next week, for various reasons. Grr.) Instead, here’s a review of my personal favourite from last year’s crop of comic book adaptations — indeed, I ranked it the second best film I saw all year.

I made sure to see First Class soon after its cinema release back in June 2011 — an increasingly-rare cinema trip for me (previous one before this was Inception in July 2010), and even rarer to go so quickly, but it earnt it as probably my most anticipated movie of the summer. I’ve been a fan of the X-Men since the ’90s animated series was a defining part of my childhood; Matthew Vaughn has become one of my favourite filmmakers thanks to Stardust and Kick-Ass, both of which earnt 5 stars and spots on my end-of-year top 10s (and Layer Cake was 4-star-ly entertaining too); and the idea of doing a superhero film that was definitively set in a specific point in the past (namely the early ’60s), rather than the perpetual Now of every other entry in the sub-genre, is the kind of thing creative fans long for but risk-averse studios rarely greenlight. Plus the trailers looked brilliant.

So my long-held high anticipation (unlike many whingy comic-continuity-obsessed inexplicably-Vaughn-dubious internet fanboys, who needed the trailer to even consider thinking the film might be good) led me to the cinema quickly. Why so long to post a review, then? Because I’ve been waiting for Blu-ray to see it properly.*

As “Film fans”, rather than “movie consumers”, we’re supposed to believe 35mm cinema projection is the best way to view a film, rather than the cold hard digital realm that’s taking over, or the home cinema that is increasingly the viewing location of choice as people seek to avoid inflated ticket prices and noisy crowds, and gain a huge degree of convenience in the process. Well, sod that. I saw X-Men on 35mm. It was blurry, the sound was muffly. I saw a clip in a summer movies trailer just a few days later when I saw Pirates 4 in 3D (i.e. digitally projected), and had a genuine moment of, “oh, that’s how it’s meant to look”. So thank God for Blu-ray — never mind prices, crowds or watching when I want, the real advantage is seeing it as sharp as a pin and being able to hear everything the characters are saying. I can enjoy the cinema experience, but at the end of the day it’s about the film, and if the only way to see, hear and appreciate it properly is to watch it 5+ months later on a much smaller screen from a digital source, so be it. The fact that it’s usually cheaper to buy the Blu-ray to own forever than take two people to see it just once doesn’t hurt either.

But I digress massively. X-Men: First Class takes us back to the origins of the X-Men (at least, the movie-universe X-Men): it’s the 1960s, mutants aren’t widely known about yet, Charles Xavier is uncovering some interesting ideas at Oxford, and Erik Lehnsherr is travelling the world taking revenge for Nazi atrocities. But when some Evil People are plotting to do Something Nasty, the US government winds up bringing them together, and the road to establishing the X-Men begins…

I should give up on plot summaries again, I never write good ones. There’s so much more to First Class than that might suggest. Firstly, it’s very much a prequel to the other X-Men films, rather than a reboot. So no Cyclops and co in the original team-up, which really annoys some fanboys, but pfft, it doesn’t matter. It’s fair to say the characters who make up the eventual first X-Men team aren’t as iconic or memorable, but that’s fine because here they’re just supporting characters. This is the story of two other young men, Xavier and Lehnsherr, aka Professor X and Magneto.

You need some pretty fine talent to replace two of our greatest actors — Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, of course — and in Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy you certainly have that. Fassbender carries much of the emotional weight of the film, and certainly received much of the praise from critics, but it’s thanks to McAvoy’s support that the film is lifted to a higher level. He provides calm, humour and fundamental decency to balance Fassbender’s rage and emotion. What’s fascinating about them as characters is that they are half-formed people. That is to say, while they are Wise Old Men by the time of X-Men, here they are still flawed and finding their way; witness Charles’ insensitivity toward Raven, for instance. That’s quite aside from all the little character-building touches. It all builds to the fantastic, heartbreaking climax on the beach. I’d also say it adds weight to the relationship between McKellen and Stewart in the original X films. Not significantly, perhaps, because those films are about other things, but I think you can feel their shared history more keenly.

The rest of the cast is suitably well equipped. There’s 2011 Best Actress Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence as Raven, aka Mystique. Little more than a henchman designed to bring sex appeal in the trilogy, here she’s given a significant degree of backstory that makes her an important piece of the overall series. Indeed, she comes across as woefully underused if you watch X-Men after this — the flipside to the Xavier-Lehnsherr relationship working better, if you will. There’s also Kevin Bacon, playing his second superhero villain in as many years, who does sterling work as a former Nazi seeking world domination — remember the ’60s, when world domination was a valid aim for a villain? There’s more than a little Bond in the mix here.

Rounding out, we have the likes of Vaughn regular and perpetual “I’m only doing it for the money”-er Jason Flemyng, in an almost dialogue-free part that, while visually striking, doesn’t fare much better than his Kick-Ass ‘cameo’ in terms of screen time. There’s also a very flat (in every way apart from her frequently highlighted chest) turn from January Jones as a villainous sidekick, feeling every bit like the last-minute casting she was (after various other actresses walked away — considering the small size of both the role and costume, I can see why). Plus Rose Byrne, who’s always worth mentioning.

Much was made in some circles of a rushed production schedule leading to some of the film’s flaws. I think that’s only an issue because people know it could be one, because (on second viewing especially) I noted no such problems. The earlier parts are probably the film’s best — with Lehnsherr and Moira being all Bond-y, and Kevin Bacon’s Shaw being very much a Bond villain, making it feel more like a big ’60s spy thriller than a superhero movie in many ways — and when it tries to introduce an X-Men team made up of second-string leftover characters it loses its way slightly. But balance is everything with ensemble casts like this, and watching the film again gives a better perspective on its pace and its actual balance. First time through these things are distorted because you don’t know how far through the story you are, how long’s left, how long each scene will last, and so on; a second time, with an idea of where it’s going and so forth, you can better appreciate how it’s all actually weighed up, and I think First Class achieves a balance better than most have given it credit for.

Also worthy of a mention is Henry Jackman’s score. He gives us brilliant driving, menacing action themes, alongside some evocative ’60s stuff too, especially when they’re on the hunt for mutants for instance. I love a good blockbuster movie score, and this is definitely one of those.

Perhaps the thing that most impressed me about First Class, however, was its genuine sense of spectacle. The climax features master-of-magnetism Magneto hoisting a submarine out of the ocean with his powers. That’s not a spoiler, it’s in the trailers — so we’d all seen it going in. And we’re in an era of anything-goes CGI — nothing looks impressive any more because we know not only that it can be done, but how it was done too (greenscreen and pixels, essentially). But that’s not what happens, at least for me, especially on the big screen.

Between Vaughn’s direction, Jackman’s score, Fassbender and McAvoy’s performances, plus those of other supporting cast members, and sterling work by the visual effects team(s), the moment when that submarine floats dripping into the sky is hair-raising. It played to me as a moment of genuine cinematic spectacle; the kind of thing you used to get when big stunts had to be done for real somehow. It’s not a feeling I expected to get from a new film ever again.

I’ve mentioned a couple of times how it ties in to the earlier (set later) films in the series, and how some complained about it messing up X-Men comics lore. But this is an adaptation — it’s not beholden to what’s established in the comics. And it’s working around fitting into the world of the later films, so of course they’re not going to have Cyclops in a ’60s X-team, and so on. It’s a complete non-issue for non-fans, and the same for any open-minded fans who realise they’re not trying to faithfully bring the X-Men canon to the big screen. Earlier films should already have shattered that illusion anyway.

As to the former, it largely fits well with the earlier films. There might be some questions about ages and events not lining up precisely (especially with the flashbacks in The Last Stand), but these are minor points that I think we can overlook for the overall quality of the film. Largely, a use of certain effects, call-forwards, cameos and little touches here and there really tie it in to the existing films. You don’t need to have seen them to get this — indeed, I imagine the ultimate way to experience it would be with no foreknowledge whatsoever of where Charles & Erik’s relationship is going — but for all those of us who have, it works very nicely.

Yet despite these links, and the 40(-ish)-year gap between the end of this story and the start of X-Men, if First Class never received a follow-up it would work perfectly as a standalone ’60s X-Men film. But I’m ever so glad we’re getting more, because I want to see this crew and this cast tell us more stories of the X-Men.

After seeing First Class in the cinema I thought to myself that, while I would dearly love to give it a full five stars, in all good conscience I couldn’t; for whatever reason, it didn’t quite come together enough. Watching it again on Blu-ray, however, I’ve completely changed my mind: I wouldn’t change a thing. All my anticipation is more than paid off — I love this movie.

5 out of 5

X-Men: First Class placed 2nd on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2011, which can be read in full here.

* That was released back in October 2011, I know. The rest is general tardiness. ^

Super (2010)

2011 #71
James Gunn | 96 mins* | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

SuperIf Kick-Ass was the fantasy version of “ordinary man becomes superhero” then Super is the hard-hitting, suitably-silly, ‘real’ version. And it’s not often you get to describe a film in which God rips the roof off a house, reaches down with anime-inspired tentacles, slices open a man’s head and plants an idea in his mind — literally — as “hard-hitting” and “real”.

It stars The Office’s Rainn Wilson as odd diner cook Frank, whose wife (Liv Tyler) leaves him for a local drug dealer (Kevin Bacon). Inspired by a cheap TV show starring Christian superhero the Holy Avenger (Nathan Fillion) — and the aforementioned finger of God — Frank sets out to fight crime as costumed hero the Crimson Bolt. Researching power-less heroes at the local comic shop, Frank meets Libby (Ellen Page), whose equal weirdness leads to her helping him and becoming his sidekick.

Super seems ready-made for cult status. Not in the self-conscious way of something like Snakes on a Plane, but in the genuine way of a film that’s quirky and different. It’s a comedy, but one with brutally realistic violence and visions of demons and faces in vomit. Unlike Kick-Ass (the blatantly obvious point of comparison, not least because they were made and released around the same time), He's in your hoodwhich moves fairly swiftly into the fantasy of being a successful superhero, Super stays quite grounded. The ending allows itself to be a little more triumphantly heroic, but not far beyond the bounds of realism (unlike Kick-Ass).

It emphasises the likely real-life difficulties of being a ‘superhero’. Frank has to get out books on sewing to make his awkward patchwork costume; he goes out on patrol, only to find no crime whatsoever; when he finds out where the drug dealers are, he gets beaten up; other crime he fights include “butting in line” (or, as we’d call it on this side of the Atlantic, queue jumping) or car-keying; and half the people recognise Frank despite his mask. No mob-level gangsters played by Mark Strong here.

Realism is the overriding principle throughout, from characters to dialogue to acting to fighting to direction. Obviously Frank’s visions (the tentacles, the demons, the vomit-face) are extremely not-real, but as representations of his mental delusions thy get a pass. Gunn’s direction has a rough, ultra-low-budget feel, yet can be quite stylishly put together when it needs to be, suggesting he’s made a choice rather than isn’t capable of something slicker. It’s even more effective at making the film seem real-world than the usual Hollywood handheld-and-grainy schtick that passes for realism.

Gunn says that his film is “about the deconstruction of the superhero myth. Who is Spider-Man or Batman? We assume that they are heroic characters but, Messed-up heroesreally, they are deciding something is right and something else is wrong”. The psychology of superheroes has been a factor to one degree or another for decades now, not least the Batman films making the parallel between the hero and his villains, but the difference in Super is it’s not a parallel — it’s primarily the heroes who are messed up. The villains are criminals and quite nasty at times, but they’re mostly quite normal. They may deserve their comeuppance, but wisely — and interestingly — they’re not over-written or over-played to heighten them to the level of the psycho-hero. The Crimson Bolt is a sledgehammer to crack a nut, even more so than Batman in Begins or (of course) Kick-Ass. Those two are at least going up against the top of big organised crime; Crimson Bolt just faces a local drug dealer.

The heroes are disturbed even outside their chosen vocation: Frank has weird visions, odd catchphrases, extreme reactions to relatively trivial things; Libby is secretly ultra-violent, gets off on their costumes, etc. Gunn says the film asks if it’s “psychotic for someone to put on a mask and a cape and go out and battle what they perceive as being ‘evil’?”, but I don’t think it sets out to specifically psychoanalyse these people. Still, it makes clear how barmy you’d have to be to give the superhero thing a go yourself. That said, Gunn argues that “I don’t think [Frank] necessarily is crazy.Boltie Super is about a troubled human being and his relationship with faith, morality and what he perceives as his calling… I think that is part of why we gave him Ellen Page as a sidekick — because her character, Boltie, actually is insane. The Crimson Bolt is not doing what he does because he enjoys hurting people but Boltie is and that is the difference between the two of them. It starts to become a concern when you enjoy the violence.”

A great cast brings these factors out with ease. Wilson does deranged hero well, not overplaying the comedy side of it. Page is suitably hyper as Libby, capturing a particular facet of The Youth of Today perfectly (again). Bacon is a fantastic villain, not so much menacing or psychopathic as just… I don’t know. That’s almost why it’s so good: it’s hard to say where he’s gone with it. Also worth singling out is Michael Rooker, playing Bacon’s top henchman, Abe. It could have been quite a basic henchman part, but he makes it more with expressions and line delivery (certainly more that than the lines themselves). He’s the only one on the villain’s side who realises the Crimson Bolt might actually be a threat. You kind of want him to cone through in the end, to turn good and live; but he does his job, which is probably truer.

All-action climaxFor all its grounded reality, Super lets loose in the final fifteen minutes, creating a punch-packing sequence that’s the rival of any comic book movie. It’s emotionally-charged action, all the more powerful for its semi-amateur-ness and realistic brutality. It climaxes in a face-to-face between our hero and the villain which is as good as any you’ll find in such a film. Is it revelling in the extremity of its violence? You might argue it is, but I don’t think it’s celebrating its gore so much as the triumph of its hero. And that’s followed by a neat epilogue, which I won’t reveal details of but is a kind of ending I’ve been wanting to see for a while.

Between the comedy, the ultra-violence, the rough edges, the slick climax, the characters’ silly catchphrases, the well-worded climactic face-off, you could argue Super has an uneven tone. I would disagree, as would Gunn: “I agree that the structure and tone of this film is very atypical… I enjoy films that surprise me and which are not formulaic and take twists and turns that I do not see coming. My life doesn’t roll along to just one ‘tone’ — one day it might be a comedy and the next a tragedy”. I’ve said in the past and I’m sure I’ll say it again: I wish more po-faced dramas would realise this.

All the technical elements come together to support the film’s main thrust. There’s a great soundtrack, mixing some choice bits of score by Tyler Bates, finding the appropriate quirky tone generally but adjusting to an action vibe for the climax, with an obscure selection of songs that seem well-chosen but not too heavy-handed. As an example, it includes Good eggsa decade-old track by Sweden’s 2007 Eurovision entry (they came 18th of 24. Don’t laugh — we were joint 22nd). And, despite the low budget, there’s great special effects. The tentacles are the rival of any big-budget movie; the blood and guts are all gruesomely realistic, not filmicly censored or reduced or cheaply fake; handdrawn-style Batman “kapow”s (etc) are very effective. The title sequence, in a similar style as the latter, but with a dance routine, is also a ton of fun.

So, to the big question: is Super better than Kick-Ass? I’m not sure. Personally, I loved them both. Some people will hate both, perhaps for different reasons. Gunn acknowledges there’s a definite connection: “I understand why people keep mentioning Kick-Ass… but let me clear this up. I wrote the script to Super in 2003 and worked on it for a long time… I think that the similarities are apparent, but I still wanted to get this story out there. I think what works in our favour is that people think it looks like Kick-Ass on the outside but when they see it they realise that we are less cartoonish and maybe a little more unpredictable.”

I certainly agree that it’s to Super’s advantage that it’s quite different to a regular film; more uniquely styled than Kick-Ass’s mainstream aims. Indeed, as Gunn also says,Fight! “I think that so many movies today try to be everything to all people and I’m a little sick of it. Super is not for everyone. It is for some people.” And for the people it’s for, I think it’s exceptional. If you were to compile a list of the greatest superhero movies, I believe Super’s unique style and perspective — plus its excellent climax — would earn itself a place right near the top.

5 out of 5

Super is on Sky Movies Premiere from tonight at 12:15am, continuing all week.

Super placed 5th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2011, which can be read in full here.

All quotes taken from an article by Calum Waddell in Judge Dredd Megazine #313.

* I first watched Super on the UK Blu-ray, where it runs 92 minutes thanks to PAL speed-up. The US BD (my second viewing) runs the correct 96. Image quality was better too, I thought, though if you’re considering a purchase do note it’s Region A locked. ^

Diner (1982)

2011 #93
Barry Levinson | 105 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

DinerBaltimore, the week between Christmas and New Year, 1959: the lives of six friends in the run-up to one of them getting married, during which period they spend surprisingly little time at the titular establishment.

The first feature from writer-director Levinson (Young Sherlock Holmes, Good Morning Vietnam, Rain Man, etc), Diner stars a pre-Angel Heart Mickey Rourke, pre-Footloose Kevin Bacon, pre-Police Academy Steve Guttenberg, and a few others who, let’s be honest, probably aren’t recognisable enough (to me anyway) to be pre-anything (including amongst the main friends Home Alone’s Daniel Stern and Superman: The Animated Series’s Superman, Tim Daly). That doesn’t really shed any light on what the film is like, but in retrospect it looks like an All-Star Cast.

What Diner is like is a series of vignettes. There’s a loose plot holding it all together — the aforementioned wedding — but it all plays like a series of connected subplots. It’s a “slice of life” kind of film, rather than a “big story” kinda film. That works for some viewers and not for others. For me, I enjoyed some of it and some of the amusing moments, but it all felt ultimately empty.

A rare scene in the dinerThere are no big turning points or revelations or developments for any of these characters. One is in trouble thanks to deep gambling debts, but there’s the equivalent of a magic wand that wipes them all out; another is permanently drunk with serious family issues, but neither of those go anywhere; another pines for a girl he barely sees and has never been with — well, except for one significant night — but by the end I’m not sure if they were going to get together or leave it be or… what. Similar things could be said for all the others.

Do we need to see big life-defining turning points for all these guys, or even any of them? It’s not plausible they’d all happen in the same week anyway, except on the rare occasion there’s a period of time that’s significant for everyone — y’know, leaving school, or a major world-changing incident; those things that can automatically define the life of everyone involved, if only for a while. Here, you might say it’s marriage, but it isn’t — the fact we never see the bride’s face is probably symbolic of her ultimate unimportance to the guys’ friendship.

A rare woman in DinerLike I said, this kind of storytelling works for some viewers and not for others. If it hadn’t been for the pat ending of that gambling debt plot, or the non-development of some other promising threads, maybe I would have liked it more. As it stands, Diner certainly has its moments, but maybe not enough of them for me.

3 out of 5

A Few Good Men (1992)

2009 #38
Rob Reiner | 138 mins | download | 15 / R

A Few Good MenSometimes you have to wonder where it all went wrong. I can only imagine how good things looked for Rob Reiner at the start of the ’90s, when he’d had an almost-interrupted near-decade-long run of acclaimed movies in the director’s chair: This is Spinal Tap, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, Misery, and finally this. ‘Finally’ being the operative word however, as it all seems to have gone down hill from there, to the extent that I actually felt the need to look him up on IMDb to check if he was still working/alive. (He’s both, having recently directed The Bucket List, a bit of a hit if I recall correctly.) Reiner is a recognisable name, and if he’d stopped making films after A Few Good Men perhaps he’d find himself bandied about on lists of Great Directors (at least in certain circles/magazines), but the fact I had to check what he’s been up to (and had forgotten how many acclaimed films he’d made in the first place) shows what a 15-year run of nothingy films can do for your reputation. Even the career of Spinal Tap themselves seems to be in better condition.

All that said, A Few Good Men isn’t really Reiner’s show. It’s not that he does a bad job — far from it — but courtroom dramas primarily depend on two things, even more so than most films: the quality of the writing and the quality of the performances. When you have scene after scene in which a handful of people battle with words alone, often in one-on-one confrontations, then those two elements are virtually all you’ve got. Of course camerawork, editing, music and the rest still have their part to play, but without the underpinning of good writing and good performances the technical attributes are merely fighting to cover for significant shortcomings. Fortunately, A Few Good Men has those underpinnings.

In this case the screenplay is by Aaron Sorkin, adapting from his own play, who would go on to create and write a great deal of The West Wing (which, incidentally, was inspired by leftover ideas from a later Sorkin/Reiner collaboration, The American President). The seeds of that show’s influential style are in evidence here, although the sheer pace and famous ‘Walk and Talk’ scenes aren’t yet part of the formula. As in The West Wing, Sorkin’s writing is both intelligent and witty, a hallmark of high-quality writing that’s able to rise above the shackles of “it’s not real drama unless it’s all grimly serious”. His characters and their personal story arcs may be straight from the stock pile — Tom Cruise is the hot-shot young lawyer who’s actually trying to live up to his daddy (and comes through in the end); Demi Moore is the goody-two-shoes woman trying to make it in a man’s world (who learns to work with her colleagues); and so on — but the plotting of the central case remains undiminished, and Sorkin thankfully avoids such obvious subplots as a romance between Cruise and Moore’s initially-mismatched-but-ultimately-mutually-respectful good guys. Nonetheless, the occasional lapses into extreme, often patriotic, sentiment that would later mar the odd episode of The West Wing are also on show here, most notably at the climax, though they fail to do any serious damage.

It’s in the all-important court scenes that Sorkin’s writing really shines. Dialogue flies back and forth like bullets, full of protocol and technical jargon — like in The West Wing — that we either understand or, when we don’t, get enough of the gist to follow the key plot points — like in The West Wing. The biggie is the final confrontation between Lt. Kaffee and Col. Jessep, an interview that’s the courtroom equivalent of a high noon showdown. It’s true that Tom Cruise plays Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson plays Jack Nicholson, just as they almost always do, but it makes for a grand act-off. It’s fair to say that Nicholson comes out the victor, gifted with material that guides him from cocksure commanding officer to angry thug in just a few minutes, but it’s the bravado of Cruise’s questioning — undercut with uncertainty and genuine surprise when he pulls it off — that pushes Jessep there.

There are plenty of other good performances — typically competent work from Kevin Pollak doing the best friend thing and Kevin Bacon doing the friend-turned-rival thing, while Kiefer Sutherland’s ‘head bully’ role is memorable and Demi Moore holds her own better than the rest of her career might suggest — but this is undoubtedly a showcase for Nicholson and Cruise, and through them Sorkin’s writing. Not to mention that there are some nice directorial flourishes from Reiner. I wonder what happened to him?

4 out of 5

A Few Good Men is showing on Five tonight at 10pm.

The Woodsman (2004)

2007 #65
Nicole Kassell | 84 mins | DVD | 15 / R

The WoodsmanKevin Bacon stars in this compelling drama.

If anyone saw Channel 4’s recent Secret Life, this treads very similar ground — recently released paedophile struggles to fit back into the world and avoid recommitting former crimes. But whereas C4’s drama was issue-driven this is character-based; it doesn’t necessarily make it better, but it does make it different. Bacon manages the tricky task of eliciting sympathy and understanding as the paedophile (though perhaps not as much as Matthew Macfadyen did).

A relatively intelligent look at what is usually a mindlessly treated subject.

4 out of 5