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The Golden Compass (2007)
Tries too hard to be Lord of the Rings
The Golden Compass seems to be a missed opportunity of a movie. The film company were obviously hoping to start a new fantasy franchise like LoTR and Harry Potter without showing any real understanding of how they worked. While the acting quality was almost uniformly high (unlike Harry Potter) the story telling was disjointed and uninvolving and the script almost painfully bad in places. It appears that the makers looked at the spectacular special effects of LoTR, in particular, and forgot that what made that series work was not the visuals (although they were necessary to tell the story) but the characters and story, which everything else was intended to serve. Here the story is made to serve the effects rather than the other way around.
The striving to be LoTR is particularly noticeable in the casting of Ian McKellan and Christopher Lee. However the movie did not do either actor any favours, with Lee having only one line and McKellan delivering lines that looked like a parody of his role as Gandalf. When the bear played by McKellan yells to the heroine to run on from a thin crumbling bridge that he cannot cross, my whole family burst into laughter - which did not seem to be the effect striven for.
The CGI was mostly of a high quality, but was uneven in places, with McKellan's character again being poorly served, moving from realistic to cartoonish and back again several times.
I am sure that the series by Philip Pullman could have made a good series of movies, but this was not the script or director to launch one.
Possibly the best comic book movie to date.
I am a little cautious about the comment above, as I have not seen Batman begins, but this movie certainly beat all of the earlier super-hero movies I have seen, and several that came after. The success of this movie came from the focus on human relationships and in particular on the story of Rogue as she comes to terms with her, rather scary, power, her place in society and her relationships with others. Because Singer took the time to build up our rapport for Rogue, the later events, where she comes into danger and the rest of the team come together to support her, have much more emotional resonance than I found in any of the Superman/Spiderman movies.
Of course it also delivers all of the action and effects that we expect in a superhero movie, along with an engaging villain or two, and a devious plot that only becomes clear as the movie progresses.
A very solid opening round for the X-Men franchise, that unfortunately was not followed up on with the same flair.
More of the same (Minor spoilers)
I might be more enthusiastic about this movie if I had not seen the previous ones first. Indeed it might have come across as the best yet if viewed in isolation. However, the fact is that most people watching this movie have already seen its predecessors. The cinematic magic of Hogwarts has been extensively explored by three other movies, so another long sequence of Harry flying around the castle pursued by a dragon quickly palls. Also, as a previous reviewer noted, the movie skips over some areas so fast that you need to have read the book to know what is going on (the romance between Krum and Hermione, for example) while lingering over special effects that add little to the story.
On the positive side, the acting of the young protagonists has greatly improved over the movies series, and the darker scenery of Voldemort's abode was well realised.
The Killing Fields (1984)
The Killing fields takes the great tragedy of Cambodia and America's involvement in its fall all the more harrowing and comprehensible by centering its story telling on two men, one American and one Cambodian. The American is a journalist for (if I recall correctly) the New York Times, while the Cambodian is a local colleague name Dith Pran (played by a real-life escapee from the killing fields). The early stages noisily illustrate the collapse of Cambodia under the strain of American interference aimed at supporting the South Vietnamese government climaxing in the chaotic scenes at the American embassy as the American journalist tries and fails to get his colleague onto the helicopters to safety.
The emotional heart of the movie is, however, the quieter second half as Pranh faces the deadly "re-education camps" and finally escapes to freedom.
The Oscar winning cinematography is excellent but the film just fails to make it into the "great" category due to a slightly stilted script and (despite nominations for both leads - and a win for Haing Ngor as supporting actor, when he was actually lead) acting.
Well worth your time and money, especially if you can see and hear it on the big screen.
A Missed Opportunity
As everyone no doubt already knows, Star Wars Ep 3 is the one where we see Anakin Skywalker's descent to becoming Darth Vader (cue evil music), and the Republic's change into the empire. The movie is fitfully successful in tracking these changes, but it is hampered by two main flaws. The first of these is longstanding, but did not prevent the first movie becoming a classic - George Lucas often has a tin ear for dialogue. This leads to some really dire moments (especially in the Jedi Council), but does not, of itself, stop the movie from working.
What did detract more seriously is the weakness for action scene upon action scene. Lucas has a lot of ground to cover in this movie. We have to believe in Anakin's transformation in the face of the revelation of Chancellor Palpatine's identity (which should come as no surprise to movie goers, but does to him) and in the republic's willing acquiescence in Palpatine's constitutional coup. The number and length of the various action (especially lightsaber combat) scenes was, to me at least, so bombastic and time-consuming as to prevent the film from fully meeting the needs of these transformations. I suspect that a few more quiet moments of introspection/dialogue covering the two major transformations would have made the action scenes more effective when they came.
In the end I enjoyed the movie (much better than episode 1 say) but would feel hard put to it to give more than a Luke-warm recommendation of the movie to people who do not belong to the gung ho fan club.
Limited by the staging
This direct to video film is a re-staging of Andrew Lloyd-Webber's second great musical. The word "re-staging" is very appropriate here, for the movie is confined to the stage sets and effects. This approach limited the movie impact of some scenes (especially the entry into Jerusalem and Jesus' flogging).
The story is that of Jesus' last days as seen (chiefly) through the eyes of Judas Iscariot and Mary Magdalene. It is also, as other reviews have noted, a secularised version of these days. The musical plays up Jesus' hesitation at Gethsemane to the point of suggesting that he no longer had faith in his mission, and plays down the miraculous. It finishes with the crucifixion rather than the resurrection and shows a crowd hungering for healing but no actual healings.
In contrast to the 1973 movie version, which was set in Biblical Judea, the setting for this film is a modern fascist/totalitarian state with graffiti and machine guns. While this kind of reimagining has been used successfully to keep other familiar stories fresh, the limitations of the stagy production prevented this version from soaring to the level that might have been expected given the strong musical performances.
The Pink Panther (1963)
A slow start to a classic series
The story line of The Pink Panther concerns, mostly, the efforts of various parties to steal a large and extremely valuable diamond from the deposed princess of an un-named Asian mini-state. A smaller part is played by the efforts of bumbling Inspector Clouseau to capture "The Phantom" - one of those attempting the theft.
Unfortunately the plot-line which takes up most time is far less interesting than the Inspector Clouseau line, leaving several sections of the movie with a feeling of marking time. The action (and comedy) only really begin to pick up until the party when the actual burglary is expected to take place and Clouseau and the Phantom are brought together.
Peter Sellers is priceless, as usual, but he is underused and the film as a whole suffers. Watch one of the later films where Sellers/Clouseau play a larger role, especially if you enjoy quality slapstick and visual humour.
Shrek 2 (2004)
The original Shrek was just that - original. While I didn't rave about it the way that many others have I admired the producers for doing something different and taking a risk. Shrek 2 was, by comparison, flat and unadventurous.
The basic story of the film has Shrek and Fiona returning to Far Faraway to meet Fiona's parents who are upset that their daughter has married an ogre rather than the planned Prince Charming. The King, under the influence of a scheming fairy godmother, tries various schemes to separate the two ogres and for a while seems successful, but at the last minute...
There were some good allusions to other movies and "real life Hollywood" but these did not outweigh the predictability of the story line or the unexpected flatness of the music choices (with the exception of the fairy godmother's "I need a hero" in the climactic set piece).
Overall a disappointing 6 out of 10
The Notebook (2004)
Sloppy, sentimental and manipulative - I loved it
I went into this movie with mixed emotions about my likely responses. On the one hand it had good reviews (on the whole) and responses from people who had seen it. On the other hand it had been castigated by others as shallow and manipulative.
Having seen the film, I think I can understand the contrasting responses.
On the one hand I would have to agree that the movie is fairly shallow and manipulative, but it is done with such panache that it carries you along.
The film is framed by an old man reading to a woman with alzheimers the story of a young man from the lumber works and a young woman from a rich family falling in love, being separated and then meeting again years later when she is engaged to marry another. The relationship of the two older characters is explored as the story from the notebook progresses.
With the "notebook" story, the film-makers and actors make it easy to understand why Ally fell in love with Noah. They are not as successful in capturing the contrary aspect (other than her beauty, which was not sufficient to explain the degree of obsession shown).
What is well established is the dilemma she faces when she discovers that Noah still loves her but she also loves her fiancé.
This is a movie that I recommend seeing with someone you love - but probably only once, because further watching may bring some of the flaws into clearer view.
Super Size Me (2004)
Effective but gross
Super size me details one man's experiment in eating only McDonalds meals for 30 days. During those 30 days he has to try every item on the menu and supersize any meals where the staff ask him.
In between detailing the dire effects on his health, Spurlock includes a series of more detailed studies of aspects of fast food culture, including talking about addiction, "heavy users" and "super-heavy users" (McDonalds' terminology apparently), children's meals, branding, the lobbying power of the food industry, legal issues...
I would rate the movie as a must see - but only once. Some scenes (especially his first supersized meal and the surgery to staple one person's stomach) were (deliberately) pretty gross, but would lose impact over time.
Brave effort, but some problems.
Eternal Sunshine... deals with big themes using interesting structures, but falls short of its potential due to unnecessary flaws. The film is based around the separate decisions of two lovers to have the memories of each other erased (the main character, played by Carrey, does so only on discovering that the Winslet character has already done so). The memory removal process involves replaying memories of the other party before erasure. The majority of the movie takes place in Carrey's mind as memories are triggered and he changes his mind and tries to find a way of holding onto at least some of the memories.
In the meantime, we see the agenda of the memory erasure company being played out around him as he sleeps and has his memory removed (for example one of the workers has been using his journal as a tool for courting the Winslet character).
These private agendas eventually lead to the memory erasure people's processes being sabotaged. In the meantime, the two leads have found a way of getting back together, although they do not remember the first time around. They receive records showing that they have previously separated and erased each other but decide that it is better to love and lose than not to love at all.
Although this is a basically highly romantic film in conception, the delivery is anything but romantic. Particularly grating for this reviewer was the very high level of offensive language. The cinematography and editing were also jarring at times.
I appreciated the serious efforts that the writer and director had taken to challenge their viewers, but felt that, in the end, the film fell a little short of the mark.
The Fifth Element (1997)
Moderately diverting, but silly movie
The fifth element tries to combine action, science fiction and humour in a single stylish package. Unfortunately it is not equally successful in all of its endeavours. The plot (about an attempt to reunite four missing stones representing the four elements of earth, air fire and water with a mysterious person representing the fifth element) is full of B-Grade science fiction cliches and frequently strays into the implausible. The action sequences are more successful and occasionally become involving.
The idea of leavening the mix with humour was appealing in concept but, in execution dissolved into stupidity on too many occasions (especially with respect to a very camp talk show host), and jarred with the rest of the movie.
Overall, an average movie, although fans of Bruce Willis may rate it slightly higher.
Above average fish out of water/odd couple type comedy
This is a quietly amusing film which I enjoyed more than I expected.
While Schwarzenegger is the "star" of the movie, this is really de Vito's film. He dominates every scene he is in, and maintains a manic character who actually shows some change as the film progresses without losing the basic energy of his persona.
While the plot is a little tenuous at times and there are only one or two real belly laughs I enjoyed the film, even on the small screen. Worth watching, but probably not worth buying.
The Net (1995)
Enjoyable but disposable
Sandra Bullock stars in a film which felt like it could have been much better.
The premise, a trojan horse "security" product allowing the villains to alter data held on computers around the world and gain control through computer manipulation was interesting and the action set pieces successful, but the film was insufficiently engaging to make one really care about the outcome.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)
Slowed too much by the music
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is almost two movies, one good, the other awful. The main story - the car, the attempt to kidnap the inventor, and the rescue is actually quite good, but it is almost entirely ruined by a series of songs that add nothing to the story and are not even much good as songs. In particularly the long sequences where Dick van Dyke attempts to raise enough money to purchase the carcass of the car were dreadful - long, slow, boring "spectacles" that felt entirely out of place.
Get it on video or DVD and skip the musical sequences.
Improved, but still some questions
Harry Potter 2 is a definite improvement on its predecessor. The writers and director have had the confidence to stray further from the text of the book, omitting more of the material which works well on the page but slowed the pace of the first movie to a crawl. They have also shown more judgement about the excisions, with none of the omissions from this movie being as vital as the lack of a sense of Harry's alienation in the first movie.
However the child stars still alternate between "wooden" and "ham". Radcliffe (in the role of Harry) is particularly prone to the former and Grint (Ron Weasley) to the latter.
With the voices of both boys breaking they are starting to seem a little older than the 12 year olds they are playing.
While the pace is definitely better in this movie, I personally found that some of the set pieces were over-extended a little and the final wrap-up could definitely have been accelerated.
Fantasia 2000 (1999)
Technically superb but flawed
Disney had always intended to follow up the artistic success of the original Fantasia, but the commercial realities meant that it did not happen in his lifetime. Finally Disney artists returned to the dream with this film.
The Disney hallmark of superb quality animation is combined with the other hallmark of a syrupy feeling at times and (mostly) fine music. However the sequences did not, on the whole, produce the same memorability as the technically less accomplished 1940 predecessor. Even with this factor I would have rated it as not far behind if it had not been for the decision to have "stars" comment on each piece, breaking the feel of the work and looking wooden and unconvincing, as well as telling us things we didn't need to know.
When Brendan Met Trudy (2000)
To clever for its own good
This movie has some good features. Some of the film references and dialogue are spot on, and the final scenes outlining what happens to the characters after the movie are priceless.
However ultimately the movie is too wrapped up in its obscure references and too amorally cold to be satisfying.
I mostly enjoyed the film while I watched it, but I wouldn't bother seeing it again, even if it came up on TV.