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Twelve Monkeys (1995)
Almost but not quite
Like most of Terry Gilliam's works, this has the air of a great film not quite being made. His baroque vision of the future is wonderful. Civilisation underground after the plague is a hellish dystopia saturated by the same incompetent control-freakery he portrayed in Brazil. Some of the images are spectacular, particularly the wild animals running loose in an American city. Gilliam's narrative playfulness, throwing Bruce Willis back and forth through time before the story really starts, almost rescues the plot from clichés. Not entirely though. This was designed as a blockbuster thriller and is only original by those dreadful standards. But the chief problem is the cast. Willis, while being less annoying than normal, is a monosyllabic grunter. Madeline Stowe only really does a job as the usual beautiful scientist-cum-love interest Meanwhile Brad Pitt is allowed to give us the full scope of his non-existent talents. An evil genius hammy even by Gary Oldman standards, he is virtually unwatchable.
It's Hip To Be A Motorbike Riding Zombie
Nicky Henson leads a bike gang called The Living Dead. Cool! His mum Beryl Reid (yes, Beryl Reid) dabbles in the black arts. Groovy! Henson uses her powers to resurrect himself and his gang from the grave. Happening! But his girlfriend doesn't want to follow him into the afterlife. Square! Supposedly a horror film but as my oh-so-subtle comments imply it's far too eager to appeal to a hip and swinging early 70's audience to be at all frightening. Some bits are fun; all the bike chases, Henson revving his machine out of a grave, the series of suicides set to funky music. I'm also immensely glad that people make this kind of picture. But I think I prefer writing 'zombie biker film' more than I do actually watching the things. So: zombie biker film. I'm done.
The ideal middle of a trilogy
"The Force is with you, young Skywalker, but you are not a Jedi yet." Everything the middle section of a trilogy should be: quirky, incomplete, downbeat. The ending is famously glum; Luke missing a hand, Han Solo frozen in carbon. The beginning isn't much cheerier either. The rebels are on the run, probably wondering why they bothered blowing up that Death Star in the first place. After a scrambled retreat from the ice world of Hoth, the story forks in two. Luke visits swamp planet Dagobar to learn more about the Force from Yoda, a master of garbled syntax. Much more enjoyable are the attempts by Han, Leia and the rest to escape the Imperial star fleet. The very endearing plot device here is that the Millennium Falcon is old, crap and keeps breaking down. This is rightly regarded by Star Wars fans as the best of the lot. Irvin Keshner's handling is a great improvement on George Lucas' clunking efforts, the actors have grown into their characters and give performances which are at least competent. The special effects are wonderful once more and create a host of unforgettable images. My pick from a very strong batch: the At-At Walkers pounding across the snow and Luke clinging to the underside of the Bespin Cloud City.
A classic anti-war film
A faithful and inspired adaptation of the classic pacifist novel. Set in the First World War and made in 1930, when Europe was starting to slide towards the Second it follows a group of German schoolboys inspired to enlist by their zealous teacher. Their own patriotism is quickly crushed by the brutal reality of war. As their leader Lew Ayres puts it: "We live in the trenches and we fight. We try not to be killed. That is all." Though veteran soldier Louis Wolheim takes them under his protection, the seeds of eventual tragedy are sown right from the start. The film, lavish for its day, doesn't always work. Some scenes are clumsy and Ayres gives a slightly strange performance. But the innovative camera work of director Lewis Milestone is generally impressive, especially during the battle scenes. The blood and guts of later war films may be lacking but he invokes a pervasive, unforgettable mood of horror.
The Passion of Darkly Noon (1995)
A Finely Crafted Nightmare
The weirdly named Darkly Noon (Brendan Frasier) is the sole survivor of a Waco-style massacre and a religious fanatic. He is taken in by Ashley Judd, who lives in a isolated cabin in a huge forest. The first set of tensions come when Noon's strong attraction towards Judd clash with his religious beliefs. The second arise when Judd's mute boyfriend Viggo Mortensen returns. And then hermit Grace Zabriskie befriends Noon and tells him Judd is a witch.
This is pretty impressive stuff from writer and director Philip Ridley. He's not afraid to risk being pretentious and, in truth, he is at times. Mostly, though, he creates an unsettling, powerful piece with the texture of a nightmare. Surreal at times (a giant, glittering boot floating down a river?) it conveys the powerful and enigmatic nature of both human emotions and the unexplored forest. It's clear that things are going to end bloody but, crucially, you can't guess for who; because at times it seems the coquettish Judd might be a witch.
Empire Records (1995)
I'm Cool, Honest!
Well get this, kids. Hip indie record story is threatened by The Man (i.e. a proposed take-over by a big, and therefore evil, music chain). The manager isn't helped by on of his employees gambling away his buyout funds, the rest of them spending most of their time pratting about or the visit of a superannuated rock star. But, after a few predictable bouts of teenage angst, everything somehow ends happily in a big party.
It's actually quite hard putting down a film which so desperately wants to be liked, and which features some of Hollywood's brighter young things (Angeline Joly etc.) There are also a couple of good moments and a smattering of fine lines. Unfortunately it shares the common Hollywood misconception that record shop employees are impossibly cool and they and their customers keeping breaking out into spontaneous dance. And most of the scenes not irritating are soppy. And for such a supposedly happening film, its soundtrack is frankly lame. (No Nirvana or Pixies but plenty of Meatloaf and, for Christ's sake, Dire Straits). And all along you are wishing Kevin Smith had scripted it so the annoying bits would be replaced by, well, funny ones.
Barb Wire (1996)
Oh, for heaven's sake
Remember Pamela Anderson, that icon of the 1990's? The woman who, thanks to constant cosmetic surgery, became a creature of long blond hair and massive lips and massive breasts and not much else? All men were supposed to lust after her but really she was as sexless as a piece of plastic; which was what she largely was, after all. Well, this was her attempt to launch a movie career. She plays an in-your-face bar owner in one of those post-apocalypse wasteland deals. That was the by-line at least. Actually, it's just Casablanca. Not at first, admittedly; the transformation only happens gradually. Half-way through you start thinking "Hang on, this is a mite familiar," and by the end it only lacks Dooley Wilson tinkling away on the piano. All told, even her porno film with Tommy Lee would probably be more appealing. And thus ended Pamela Anderson's movie career.
Life Is Sweet (1990)
A sublime slice of ordinary life from Mike Leigh
A sublime slice of ordinary life from Mike Leigh. He takes us through 5 days in the life of a London family: Jim Broadbent, Alison Steadman and their twin daughters Claire Skinner and Jane Horrox. What follows is by turns touching, hilarious and unsettling. Leigh is often compared to Ken Loach, but Loach deals with unspeakably grim and often melodramatic scenarios. The far more impressive gift of Leigh is to make tales from the apparently unremarkable. So many touches run true here; Steadman doing a little dance to herself alone in the kitchen, Broadbent and Stephen Rea drunkenly reciting the Spurs Double side, Skinner describing an arthritic old woman met on her plumbing round. And the tragedy of the film is also unveiled naturally and feels horribly believable.
The performances are also astonishing. Broadbent and Steadman, both distinctive actors, can descend into parody but here are just hugely enjoyable. Skinner is nicely deadpan but the star is Horrox, playing a twitching wreck of a girl who mainly communicates in one word insults. Little wonder she's been given so many chances to prove her talents subsequently, just a shame she's never taken them. The only false note is Tim Spall as a manic chef. Perhaps that's because he's simply put in for comic value (he was far better in Leigh's 'Secrets and Lies'), his character given none of the depth which lights up the rest of the film.
Blood Simple (1984)
The Coens launch themselves at an unwary world
And with this savage, darkly comical film noire the brilliant mavericks the Coen Brothers launched themselves at an unwary world. Set in Texas - and as the introduction warns, "down here, you're on your own" - it begins with bar-owners wife Frances McDormand sleeping with one of his barmen John Getz. Unbeknown to them a private detective (M Emmet Walsh) hired by her husband Dan Hedaya is spying on them; and after brooding on the situation Hedaya hires Walsh again, this time to take revenge on the adulterous couple. And unbeknown to Hedaya, Walsh has plans of his own.
So matters descend until each character is stuck in a fractured, perilous bubble, nobody knowing everything and nobody trusting anyone. Their personalities are drawn skilfully but also rather perfunctorily. The real concern of the film is psychological tension and bravura camera work and both are managed superbly. Yet what is surprising, especially given the Coens' later excesses, is the quietness of the tone throughout. Together with the haunting little theme tune (a cousin of John Carpenter's in Halloween) this only emphasises the overall brutality. McDormand gives the first in a long line of brilliant performances but the most memorable is Walsh, one of the seediest and strangest villains ever seen. The whole project was apparently made for $1.5 million and looks like it cost many times that.