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The Time of Our Lives (2013–2014)
Quality is never out of fashion
21 July 2013
If you look at the premise of this series - one more examination of the daily lives of a bunch of suburban characters, most of them somehow related, chronicling their triumphs and disappointments - one could be forgiven for thinking that it's just another soap. After all, the line between upmarket soap opera and quality drama can be confusingly thin at times.

For mine, this definitely falls into the latter category. It's true that the story lines fall into the usual run of spousal tensions, generational issues, affairs, blended families and how the kids are affected, with associated logistical problems. But then, that's life, innit? You don't need to be in a train-wreck to have at least one phase of your life that resembles one.

The trick in making such well-worn stories worth watching anew is in providing moments of genuine drama, with authentic emotional reactions and dialogue that rings true for each character, with sufficient nuance to let us feel that we are they, and we know exactly what they're going through. Yes, perhaps some of the situations here are a bit familiar and obvious, but at least they don't all say the bleedin' obvious.

In the end, the main differentiator between the two genres is a well-wrought script coupled with an ensemble cast that's capable of doing justice to it. Not to mention having the restraint to avoid a closing shot of a character staring into the middle distance with the expression of a stunned mullet. And resisting the temptation to include an explosion or inferno to ramp up the stakes a bit.

On that basis, this is a fine effort. Good, thoughtful scripts, and excellent performances all round.
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You've got something most of us like
21 February 2004
Romantic comedies are not everyone's cup of tea; after all, who would want to watch unrealistic stories about ordinary people 'coupling' when we are offered such wonderful everyday experiences as ten car pileups, hordes of people being slaughtered in a hail of bullets while shopping, goblins, explosions, vampires and intergalactic spaceships?

But the majority of women, and many of those men who do not see themselves as the Governor of California will surely find much to like in this charming eye-moistener.

Tales of this ilk can easily be mawkish, but this one largely avoids the trap, thanks to an intelligent script, the believability of the lead pair (as well as the supporting cast) and good pacing that leaves the denouement until the closing shot.
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The Mexican (2001)
More money than sense
16 February 2004
You know how with some movies, you wonder why and how they ever got made? This little stinker epitomises that question.

What a formula. Take two of the hottest (and most expensive) stars of the era and immerse them in a thin plot. Write a screenplay that beats the wispy plot into something that no one could believe in, least of all the actors (and it shows), while ensuring that there are no opportunities for them to use their skills. Dare to portray Mexicans as a bunch of bumbling hicks, and add some commonly used south-of-the border spices - superstition and miracle. Throw in three small chuckles and call it a comedy (King Lear has more). Make sure there is none of the romance that fans of your big stars crave, and would be happy to pay to watch time and time again. Oh, and make it unnecessarily long - if you're boring your audience you might as well bore them rigid.

For this film to be made at all, someone had to be returning a serious favour or sleeping with someone. If they'd filmed that, it would possibly have made better entertainment. The sleeping, that is.
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Simple pleasure
9 February 2004
While this is not Romeo and Juliet, neither is anything else, except for Romeo and Juliet. (And, if I dare speak the heresy, it seems to me that even with that august work, for those of us who are not English Lit graduates the enjoyment would be enhanced if 'twere rendered into more accessible English, without losing the rhythm).

Finally, an Australian filmmaker has (largely) resisted the temptation to portray rural Australians as cardboard Bruces and Sheilas that say 'fair dinkum' and call each other 'cobber' with thick, fabricated accents, a too-common tendency that has held the otherwise sophisticated local film industry back for years.

This is a simple enough romantic tale of boy/girl finding each other - after the catalyst of being thrown together through circumstance lets them break through the barrier of friendship - and it is a movie that is hard not to like. If it does not move you greatly, it should at least cheer you up.
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Shrek (2001)
A comedy's comedy
17 June 2001
What a remarkable piece of work is Shrek! Stunning fairy tale fantasy conception and animation bring to life a new story that has all of the elements of the old ones (with terrific cameo appearances) plus a few of its own.

The scenes, characters and voices almost make us forget that we are not watching flesh and blood, and materialize a world that our dreams sometimes visit.

Many comedies are poorly classified as such, since so few deliver more than an occasional titter. But this multi-level effort delivers plenty of sustained laughs for all ages.

Mike Myers as the lead voice, the ogre Shrek, affects for some reason a Scottish accent, which left me thinking of him as a slightly larger and somewhat greener Robbie Coltrane - but he builds a believable character nonetheless. Eddie Murphy's Donkey is very mouthy, as one might expect, but still pleases rather than irritates.

If you like to laugh and enjoy being taken to another world this is a movie not to miss.
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Chocolat (2000)
What women like......
27 February 2001
Chocolat is a well chosen title for this smooth, creamy, bittersweet production, that will surely rank as one of the favourite women's movies of all time, with perhaps a little less enthusiasm from men.

Set in provincial France in 1960, it is a fascinating study of the conflict between stuffy small-town conservatism with its deep religious roots of suffering for its own sake, and the new freedom of spirit that characterises our modern age. Few films have illustrated so well this transitional time. Perhaps it is a little obviously sentimental and overly simplistic in setting up the adversaries to manipulate our sympathies, but I think it is churlish to call it sickly.

Rarely does a film evoke such a sense of place, with all of the action taking place in an ancient hilltop town by a lazy river - emphasised beautifully by the opening shot zooming in on it, and the closing shot zooming back out. We are transported sensually and emotionally to this town and its inhabitants, and involved totally in the ensuing events. There are fine performances from a well chosen cast, whose French accents speaking English work well in setting the scene. And Johnny Depp even makes a plausible Irishman rover.

Sure, it's a fable, and the mystical aspects of the lead character's motivations and wanderings may leave one feeling that more flashback scenes may have added credibility, but I think it is a shame to nitpick over what is a very pleasing, feelgood flick that will give many hankies a workout.
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Sense with Sensitivity
6 August 2000
This is a feast of British film-making at its best. Jane Austen's novels are gems of societal observation, and although limited to the goings-on among the privileged classes of the time (early 19th century) they capture the essence and texture of their lives beautifully.

In adapting works for the screen and a modern audience it must be tempting for the screenwriter and director to try to appeal to current sensibilities in the interests of the box office, but I think to do so with Austen's work would be to miss the point.

The considered politeness, emotional restraint and carefully embroidered speech must seem quaint indeed to those brought up on a diet of murder, destruction and tawdry social mores, but portraying those qualities faithfully is surely the whole reason for making a film like this.

Emma Thompson's screenplay is therefore a tour de force in retaining the feel and relevance of the piece and presenting us with a charming movie with large-as-life characters you can care about, taking only a few liberties to enhance playability and dramatic effect.

The awkward balance between love, honour and financial pragmatism that affected both sexes at the time is finely drawn and acted so that we can empathise with the plight of the major characters and recognise the echoes of their dilemmas today.

A first class cast, beautiful authentic surroundings and excellent cinematography demonstrate once again that for period-pieces the Poms are supreme. Those who like the genre will want to watch this time and time again.
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Stories from Suburbia
17 February 2000
The most remarkable thing about this movie is its success, considering that is not a particularly remarkable film. Very capably scripted, acted and directed I found it to be compelling viewing that entertains and, up to a point, illuminates in its examination of a regular family in the 'burbs.

But the 'great' movies as measured by box office success or critical acclaim are generally characterised by more extreme situations and characters than we find here. So what is it about this piece that has struck a chord with cinemagoers and critics alike?

Perhaps it is the very ordinariness of the characters, who would be almost caricature stereotypes of people we recognise if they were not so well drawn? Maybe the rutted tracks of domestic life, love, work and parenthood are too poignantly familiar not to make us squirm inwardly, but with pleasure? Could it be because the main protagonists all manage a form of escape from their lives of quiet desperation - even central character Lester Burnham (superbly played by Kevin Spacey) appears to have cheated death by speaking to us from the grave, no mean feat even by 21st century standards.

Overall, I suspect a major factor in its success is that audiences are finally ready for mainstream releases with simpler, well-told and portrayed stories that help place us. From the beginning, movies have been seen as vehicles to take us out of ourselves by showing us a bigger, more exciting and dangerous world beyond our neighbourhood. It is possible that we are now ready to confront the truth about ourselves closer to home.
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A singularity
17 February 2000
It is always refreshing to see surreal concepts explored in mainstream cinema, particularly when they include players of the stature of John Malkovich to add a certain gravitas.

It is helpful for any actor's career to be involved in the cast of a successful movie, but to be part of the title as well is a chance for immortality that no-one with even a normal quota of humility could resist. And what a fine casting choice is Malkovich, who clearly has fun in this.

On some levels, as a movie this bizarrely conceived and executed plot does deliver many supreme moments of humour and other-worldliness, but the suspension of disbelief required to absorb one completely for a full length feature will be a tough ask for many. I certainly found my mind wandering at several points and wondered if I should have smoked something before seeing it to get the full effect.

The puppetry scenes are superbly haunting, and it's almost worth seeing the film for these alone.
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Plastic Man (1999 TV Movie)
Nothing plastic about this plot
10 December 1999
The mini-series is a popular format these days, since the length makes it possible for complex and interwoven plots to unfold, with enough time for detailed character development. And the separation of episodes is designed to give us the pleasure of anticipating the denouement.

It is a shame that so many efforts in the genre disappoint, but 'Plastic Man' gives us everything we need.

This is an intelligently scripted and crafted piece with almost flawless performances by the substantial cast of significant characters. So many of the situations and dilemmas of modern life are illustrated here that it is an almost uncomfortable parade of insights into the human condition.

We get the full gamut of marital and family complications - power and respectability, an affair, death of a loved one, expectation, disillusion and disappointment, boredom with the familiar, betrayal, enlightened lust, the wilful outcast, insecurity, uncertainty, the bold but fearful step in a new direction, acceptance, forgiveness - enough for a whole season of soap episodes, but delivered here in a 3 hour package. But unlike the tawdry amateur dramatics of most soaps, the tightness of script and plausibility of the characters gives us a satisfying snapshot of many of the issues confronting two whole generations and reminds us of the near-impossibility of living a fulfilling but uncomplicated life. It is always illuminating (if slightly disappointing) to see that no-one should be envied for apparently 'having it all'.
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Beware the scorn of the heartless
27 November 1999
As a teenager in the swingin' 60's, this movie was, to myself and every male contemporary, an object of derision, a sickly piece of confection for soppy girls and their mothers who had an unofficial competition running to find who had seen it the most times and consumed the most tissues.

I finally came to it many years later in a moment of weakness, watching it alone, gratefully, as it was still suspect for a chap to have moist cheeks in a movie.

The borderline between true sweetness and mawkish sentimentality in film is very hard to draw, but repeat viewings confirm that this is not a marginal case. The portrayal of that increasingly-scarce commodity, genuine innocence, is so finely played by the first-class cast that one can only marvel at how well they pull it off. This was a role that could have been made for showcasing the talents of Julie Andrews, and like most peak-of-career performances it is impossible to imagine anyone else in the part.

The music of Rodgers and Hammerstein has been condemned for being below the standards of their contemporaries (Gershwins, Berlin, Bernstein et al), and although that is arguable, it is also incontrovertible that the majority of their musical offerings have withstood the test of time for the sheer rightness of time and place of the songs that assist the dramatic flow rather than stopping it in its tracks. And their innate 'hummability' continues to sustain both the amateur and professional musical theatre in countless revivals. Most modern musicals consistently fail to attract widespread support because while the writing may be more 'clever' in an often self-indulgent way, they lack the memorability of a single simple tune.

I have just watched this film again with my daughters, 10 and 7, and while they have been unavoidably exposed to some of the harshness and cynicism of the 90's I was pleased to see that they accepted and enjoyed the film for what it is, an honest, highly agreeable telling of a story in words and music, that speaks of essential goodness amidst both bright and dark moments. This is the never-ending-story which will delight all those of cheerful heart for as long as films are shown.
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49th Parallel (1941)
Propaganda in a road movie?
16 November 1999
All art has its time and place, and given the turmoil of the early years of WWII it is not surprising that the filmmaker's craft was turned to the serious business of propaganda.

The clumsier attempts to give the folks back home a cause to believe in must have felt very obvious at the time even to a sympathetic audience. But this movie is very effective in delivering the basic good-versus-evil message without being too heavy-handed. Viewing it so many years later we could be forgiven for finding it a little trite, but such feelings are overwhelmed by the pure satisfaction of a well-executed road movie. The thrill of the chase is always there in the diverse scenes in which the fleeing German sailors find themselves in their race across the big country, and we cannot help but delight in the rugged grandeur of the Canadian settings.

We are treated once more to the spectacle of Laurence Olivier hamming it up, in this case as a French Canadian. He has often been accused of overacting, but nowhere is it more evident than when he is called upon to speak English with a foreign accent, to the point of creating almost caricature figures.

Leslie Howard plays, again, most effectively an effete character with a hidden steely core. That's the stuff to keep the home fires burning!
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Alastair strikes again
12 November 1999
The British film industry has had a chequered history, but was arguably at its finest in the 40's and 50's when it produced little gems like this.

Straightforwardly plotted convergent mysteries of this genre, with or without a major twist, never fail to give simple satisfaction when acted by such a cast of stalwarts and regular journeypersons as we find here. Some may find the stiff upper lips and well modulated tones of the middle classes a little grating for modern tastes, where nurses all speak naicely and ordinary folk are played by caricature cockneys. Speaking of stiff upper lips, their very personification Trevor Howard is, of course, in it, playing a surgeon with a cloud over his career. Which is why the whole is leavened by the unique figure of Alastair Sim.

No matter how serious the role he must play, his lugubrious features invariably betray an innate whimsicality, that essence of grown-up-naughty-schoolboy that we find so universally engaging, and which is the world's view of Britishness at its best. He makes it possible to insert a pratfall or quip to lighten the atmosphere without losing it.

Films like this were very easy and cheap to make - minimal locations, scenery munching, explosions or car wrecks. Current film makers might take note of their bang-per-buck in an era when nostalgic baby boomers are making their cinema presence felt again. But where will they find another Alastair Sim?
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The very model of a super spy
4 October 1999
The impact of James Bond, 007, on 20th century popular culture is such that we deserve to know something of his creator. The details of the character and the situations into which he is thrust suggest that it would be beyond anyone's imagination to conjure up in a vacuum. Clearly Bond must have been based on a model, and this film leaves us in doubt that Fleming's own life forms at least part of the myth.

The film is of course a hokey collection of picaresque adventures that strain the credulity of the 90's viewer (unlike the 60's spectator who was only too ready to accept the then-novel portrayal of romance and derring-do of our nations' finest), but it is strangely satisfying in at least giving us some insight into the shadowy world of the spy and his typical background.

The choice of Jason Connery as the eponymous hero was certainly an exercise in the bleeding obvious, and transparently the casting decision of a cynical producer seeking a large audience of the curious; but Connery was arguably the perfect actor for the role. No doubt his looks owe more to the young Bond than the young Fleming, but he makes a plausible philandering wastrel from the British upper classes, the victim of a well-connected domineering mother struggling to find something useful for him to do that might engage his attention long enough for him to become respectable and self-sufficient. Unlike so many of that breed whose very existence repulses the less favoured, his larrikin spirit is engaging and sympathetic and we cannot help ourselves from wishing him well.

A good supporting cast, with Patricia Hodge as his mother and Kristin Scott-Thomas as Leda St Gabriel, the initially cool and eventually hot colleague and love interest help to suspend the disbelief - and there are OK performances by David Warner as his boss, presumably the model for 'M'; and Julian Firth's college chum Quincey leaves us in no doubt that he was the basis for the eccentric inventor 'Q' of the Bond films.

If there is a grain of truth in the events portrayed we have an insight into the genesis of the 007 phenomenon, and while we are spared the interminable periods of inactivity and boredom that probably are the lot of the average 'spy', we have a sense of the influences that make it possible for some to dare to take on the enemy alone.
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