Monthly Archives: June 2017

Dark City

WFTB Score: 14/20

The Plot: John Murdoch wakes up in a dingy bathroom, oblivious of his surroundings. He quickly discovers he is suspected of the murder of several prostitutes, but does not know if he has committed them, whether he can trust the wife who says she loves him, or the identity of the tall, mysterious strangers who, like the police, seem intent on hunting him down.

It seems like a horrible combination: a crime drama set in the 50s with a grizzly, accordion-playing detective, smashed together with a science-fiction tale of bald, telekinetic aliens whose existence depends on finding out what makes the human soul tick. Dark City is precisely this: and it works.

When John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) wakes up in his grotty bath, he is as clueless about his identity as the viewer, and we learn about him as he learns about himself. The journey is a satisfying one as we worry about his capacity for murder, then for his relationship, and then – in a bizarre but well-handled leap – we discover that he can manipulate or ‘tune’ the world around him, just like the Strangers, aliens who stalk the streets and appear to control the city.

The symbol of the spiral is a constant throughout the film, and the plot’s secrets are unravelled expertly until the central discovery is reached: the city is re-arranged every night and the lives of its citizens are fake, an experiment to make discoveries about human nature. John Murdoch is merely a lab rat, framed for murder to see how he and his wife, nightclub-singer Emma (Jennifer Connelly) react. Conducting the murder investigation, Inspector Bumstead (William Hurt) is equally oblivious to the fact that nothing is quite what it seems. Kiefer Sutherland, as Dr Schreber, is more clued up, however; he provides the link between aliens and humans, helping the Strangers to imprint new memories in return for being able to retain his own.

Proyas’ ability to keep a handle on both the 50s period setting and the Strangers’ landscape-transforming machines is impressive. The first sequence of mass ‘tuning’ is particularly good, new buildings twisting into place and a hard-pressed working-class family in a tenement suddenly becoming well-to-do employers in a mansion. The special effects throughout are good, if recognisably not as sophisticated as contemporary efforts.

‘Hang on,’ I hear you say, ‘this sounds just like The Matrix.’ Well, yes and no. Whilst it’s true that one film finds strong echoes in the other, there are equally a great number of differences (not least in the truth of the ‘Real’ world); and remember that despite being much the lesser-known title, Dark City was released a year before the Wachowski brothers’ movie.

In addition to the accomplished set design (appropriately, the movie feels like a film noir thriller) the acting is fine, Rufus Sewell in particular projecting the right mixture of bewilderment and potency. Hurt, too, is effective at portraying weary doggedness. Connelly is quietly sympathetic as Emma, although her singing voice is not the best, whilst all the Strangers are as creepy as they should be. Only Sutherland – prior to his 24 revival – feels fake, hamming it up as Dr Schreber, affecting a strange accent and speaking in breathy, halting phrases, a mannerism that quickly becomes annoying.

As is the case with most science fiction, the plot of Dark City is not watertight: in a slightly saggy middle act, John seems to forget he can tune when it would be most useful to him. We are also never completely sure of why or how humans can save the Strangers or, more to the point, the squid-like things that inhabit them. However, these are minor complaints: Dark City is compelling and visually striking stuff which you should make an effort to watch, if you can get hold of it.

NOTES: This review is based on the Director’s Cut of the film. Any comments to be made in respect of the original theatrical version will be added when I have time to watch it.


Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey

WFTB Score: 8/20

The plot: Despite securing a totally excellent future, would-be legends Bill and Ted still find the path to rock glory a tricky one. Their job is made no easier by robot versions of themselves, sent from the 27th Century and programmed to bump off their real counterparts, changing the future to the liking of their evil creator, Chuck De Nomolos; but Bill and Ted discover that death is only the beginning of the journey.

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure hung around the studio vaults for a while before getting released, so its subsequent success may have come as a surprise to executives. What should surprise nobody is that with the first film making money, a sequel should appear while the names of Bill and Ted were still fresh and their fans still young enough to appreciate them. And speed seems to have been of the essence: despite sharing the same writers as the original (Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon), Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey feels like a hastily cobbled-together piece, taking ideas from one or more idling scripts and reworking them to fit into Bill and Ted’s world. I am only surmising here, but if that is what happened then excuses can be made for the film‘s disjointed plot. If the script was freshly written, then the directions it takes are strange indeed.

So, what is that plot? Bogus Journey begins in the idyllic world of 27th Century San Dimas California, where everyone walks round in ugly foam clothing and Rufus (George Carlin) continues to bring historical personages from the past to enlighten students. Crashing noisily into the scenario, evil former gym teacher De Nomolos (Joss Ackland), backed up by a black-clad army, explains that he is sending robotic versions of Bill and Ted to the late 20th Century to kill the ‘real them’ and disrupt the Battle of the Bands competition that the boys’ band Wild Stallyns have entered.

Even without this threat hanging over them, things are not going well for Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) in the present day: they have no money, still cannot play their guitars, and Ted still has the threat of military academy hanging over him. On the plus side, their 15th Century princess girlfriends do agree to marry them. Unfortunately, not long after the proposals, the robots arrive and dispatch our heroes into the hands of the Grim Reaper, who follows the fleeing pair through Hell and condemns them to the eternal afterlife – unless they challenge and defeat him in a game of their choosing.

Bogus Journey is to be congratulated for doing something different from its predecessor, as so many sequels are content to slavishly follow what came before. However, whilst ditching nearly all of the time travel, the filmmakers have also ditched the dumb but exuberant sense of fun that Excellent Adventure brought to the screen. Even if it is only temporary and doesn’t stop Bill and Ted going about their business, killing off the leads does put something of a downer on the film, especially as Robot Bill and Ted are more convincingly nasty than funny.

Likewise, when the pair are trapped in their personal Hells, the figures of Bill’s slavering Granny and Ted’s Easter Bunny are disturbing rather than amusing. And I don’t ‘get’ the Star Trek joke, if that’s what it is. Is the use of the same bit of rock that William Shatner once ran up amusing? I don’t know, but I do get the feeling that somewhere on the journey, the comedy got lost.

An honourable exception to this is the figure of Death, played by William Sadler. Ashen-faced and imposing, once bested in his challenges* (Battleships, Cluedo, Twister and so on) he follows Bill and Ted like a meek child as they seek help to rescue the Princesses and their futures. Whether in the foreground or background, Sadler is always funny when he is on-screen, easily outshining Winter and Reeves who may well have considered themselves rather old for this sort of thing by 1991. There are other good moments, such as the longest fall in movie history and Kiss’s cover of the catchy God Gave Rock and Roll to You II, but in general the good is outweighed by the odd, and when God (yes!) leads Bill and Ted to the Martian scientist(s) Station to create ‘good robot uses’ the viewer is fully entitled to ask ‘Where the hell has that come from?’ It should also be said that whilst most of the film’s effects are okay – the robots and Station are convincing enough – some of the ones where Bill and Ted communicate from the ‘Other Side’ are pretty ropey.

Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey takes the pleasant stupidity of Excellent Adventure and tries to create something more significant; whilst it touches base with the phrases and mannerisms of the first film – the air guitar riffs are overused – the journey is a much darker affair. Lacking the original’s light touch, it also lacks its charm, momentum and coherence. And while there is entertainment to be had, the Grim Reaper in particular proving less than grim, you occasionally wish that Bill and Ted would just get on with it, a feeling you never got with the pair’s debut. Not completely bogus, then, but a bit non-non heinous all the same.

NOTES: Evidently a nod to Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, and Heaven looks quite a lot like it does in A Matter of Life and Death. Clever, yes, but even if you get the allusions, it doesn’t make them all that enjoyable.

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

WFTB Score: 16/20

The plot: Two aspiring guitarists seem destined to failure at school and separation, until the intervention of the mysterious Rufus and his time-travelling phone box. Will their race against time see them present their all-important history report and thereby secure the future happiness of the entire planet?

Some films, without even knowing it at the time, capture and shape a moment brilliantly. For the benefit of those who weren’t there or weren’t listening, for a number of years in the late 80s and beyond films such as Bill and Ted’s… and Wayne’s World shaped the vocabulary of English-speaking youngsters with phrases such as ‘Excellent!’ and ‘Party on!’ Not having seen the original Saturday Night Live sketches, I am unable to say whether Bill and Ted or Wayne and Garth first brought these ubiquitous slacker phrases to the world’s attention, but I would like to think the honour lies with this film’s pairing.

The similarities between Wayne’s World and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure go beyond vocabulary, as both feature the protagonists as aspiring musicians, creating videos and an awful racket in their parents’ basement/garage. However, unlike the later film, Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves (as Bill and Ted respectively) at least look the same age as the characters they portray; and unlike the later film’s concentration on Myers’ mugging to the camera, Bill and Ted actually have a story to tell.

More concerned with forming a rock band than studying, Ted is threatened with being sent to a military academy in Alaska unless he achieves an extremely unlikely A+ in his and Bill’s history presentation. Unbeknownst to them, the happiness of 27th Century San Dimas, California relies on the success of Wild Stallyns (sic), so a cool dude called Rufus (the late George Carlin) is dispatched to make sure the assignment is a knockout. The boys bag a host of historical figures to give their impressions of present-day San Dimas, impeded by the unreliability of their phone booth, the threat of execution in medieval England, and the meddling of Ted’s uptight father.

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure has much more to offer than the dumb amiability of its title characters, though this is a good part of its charm (Reeves in particular is uncommonly cheerful). The script makes good use of the double incongruity the plot device offers, getting comedy out of the pair plucking figures such as Socrates, Napoleon, Beethoven and Freud out of history, as well as the historical figures’ reactions to modern day California. The mall scene and Napoleon at the water park are standouts, but there is always something going on in the film that, at a trim 83 or so minutes, never does anything simply to beef up the running time.

It also has fun with its sci-fi elements, the choice of phone box/booth being, presumably, a nod to Dr Who’s TARDIS; and while you can drive yourself mad with the paradox that Rufus would not visit them unless they ultimately succeeded which wouldn’t happen unless Rufus visited them (if you follow me), the film knows and revels in this with the Eddie Van Halen conundrum and the business with Ted’s Dad’s keys. Speaking of Van Halen, the noodly riffs accompanying Bill and Ted’s air guitar movements are also cute.

If I have to gripe, the cursory introduction of the princesses as love interest is so brief as to be almost totally redundant, and Beethoven’s keyboard masterpiece in the shopping mall contains no keyboard whatsoever, as far as I can tell. But the film is full of so much charm, playfulness and invention that you hardly notice flaws, and are left totally inspired by Abraham Lincoln’s exhortation to ‘Be excellent to each other’ during Bill and Ted’s exciting (and educational!) history concert. In an age where comedy is pitched at the level of getting laid, naked or drunk for laughs, to watch a film that entertains by doing none of these things is indeed – how best to put it – most excellent. Bodacious, even.

Blade Runner

WFTB Score: 16/20

The plot: 2019: Alarmed by a massacre on an off-world shuttle, the police order ‘Blade Runner’ Rick Deckard to seek out and destroy the latest generation of Replicants, robots virtually indistinguishable from humans. His deadly game of hide and seek is complicated by his relationship with Rachel: beautiful, intelligent, and one of the Replicants he is assigned to ‘retire.’

Based on the Philip K Dick story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Ridley Scott’s second future-based film (the first being Alien) was infamously messed about with by nervous studio bosses concerned at the ambiguity of the film’s denouement. This review is of the 1992 director’s cut which restores most of Scott’s vision.

And what a vision it is. Calling on the services of 2001 effects maestro and Silent Running director Douglas Trumbull, Blade Runner presents a vision of the future that is both credible and convincing, Los Angeles presented as a perpetually dark city where neon tubes provide the main source of light and adverts are projected onto buildings, where hovering police cars patrol the poor, immigrant-filled quarters of town. It’s not a unique vision, but only because the style has been copied in endless films, games, and television shows since (Total Recall – based on another Dick story – perhaps unsurprisingly springs to mind).

Rising high above the poverty are glittering buildings such as that belonging to the Tyrell Corporation, the makers of the ‘more human than human’ Nexus 6 Replicants that Deckard (Harrison Ford) has been assigned to kill, or rather ‘retire’. Such care has been taken in the set design of this building (inside and out) and others, and in the costumes for Deckard, elderly ‘Creator’ Dr Tyrell (Joe Turkel) and his special project Rachel (Sean Young, looking like a film noir femme fatale), it is hard to tell when the film was made.

Of course, clues are given in details like the CRT televisions and primitive computer graphics, and the age of the actors is fairly obvious; but by and large Blade Runner succeeds because it projects a view of the future which does not have 1982 stamped all over it. This is also true of Vangelis’ sparse, spacey score which adds greatly to the atmosphere.

The story itself is a very simple game of hide and seek. The Replicants are led by Roy (Rutger Hauer), who with the help of Pris (Daryl Hannah) gains access to genetic engineer J F Sebastian (William Sanderson) and via him, their ‘Maker’ Tyrell. Deckard must find and retire the Replicants, but he is distracted by Rachel, who does not know she is a Replicant until Deckard conducts tests on her.

Aside from a chase which sees the other Replicants killed – exotic dancer Zhora and disturbed manual worker Leon – there is little action other than the final hunt in the creepy building where Sebastian lives. Again, atmosphere is key here, and the scene where Deckard searches for Pris among Sebastian’s weird toys is nothing short of brilliant.

As with the special effects, the film’s script thrives on attention to detail. The provoking questions of the test used to expose Replicants and Rachel’s vivid childhood memories that blind her to her artificiality are just two examples of the film’s intelligence, which creates atmosphere in the absence of action and raises significant questions. If the Replicants are virtually human, do ‘humans’ have the right to enslave or destroy them? What, in fact, constitutes being human? Not to give the game away, but Roy’s last speech is a thing of beauty, as is the ‘proper’ ending to the film that the director’s cut restores.

However, you can understand why studio bosses may have wobbled. In the era of The Empire Strikes Back and E.T., this is a science fiction film with no laser gun duels or spacecraft battles, few laughs, zero merchandising opportunities and an ambiguous ending. Blade Runner is undoubtedly serious stuff and there are only so many times you can use the words ‘intelligent’ and ‘atmospheric’ when the word you really want to use is ‘slow.’ Blade Runner excites the mind rather than the heart, but it should be seen: as the director intended, and on as big a screen as possible.

Hello (again) and thanks!

Evening all. It’s been a little while now since I posted anything that wasn’t a film review, and I’m conscious that there are quite a few people following my sporadic postings as and when I get half an hour to spare (there is a bunch of other, non-film, stuff too – but all in good time).

So I just wanted to thank everyone who has followed me since I started posting to the site and I hope you continue to enjoy reading my thoughts. If I say anything that you know to be factually incorrect, or just want to kick off about an opinion you don’t like, please do let me know and I’ll

a) update the content accordingly or

b) tell you in no uncertain terms how wrong you are.

Best wishes y’all,


A Mighty Wind

WFTB Score: 16/20

The plot: Following the death of folk music impresario Irving Steinbloom, his family work to bring together the acts he made famous for a tribute concert in New York’s Town Hall. Trouble is, there are only two weeks to organise the concert and not all the acts are in the best of mental states to perform at the live, televised concert.

A Mighty Wind is Guest’s third documentary-style film, following on from Waiting For Guffman and Best in Show. All three films were created in the same fashion: Guest wrote the story together with co-star Eugene Levy, but all the dialogue is improvised by the actors. Although the overall effect here is not quite as successful as the grand-daddy of mockumentaries, This is Spinal Tap, this is arguably Guest’s best entry in the genre.

One reason for the success of the film is the familiarity of the cast with each other’s temperaments. The ensemble cast is headed up by Bob Balaban as nervous organiser Jonathan Steinbloom, but it is in the bands that the chemistry really shows: The Folksmen – Guest, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean – have the sort of rapport you would expect from their incarnation as Spinal Tap, but they do not play their characters as Tap grown old so much as what the rock band’s fathers would have been like. It is good to see them riffing off each other, in all senses of the word.

The (New) Main Street Singers, most notably John Michael Higgins, Jane Lynch and Parker Posey, are all good fun, but the stars of the show are unquestionably Mitch and Mickey. Their reunion provides the film with a strong emotional centre and some of the film’s best scenes; Levy’s spaced-out performance as Mitch is balanced superbly by Catherine O’Hara as world-weary Mickey, reliving an almost forgotten dream. In turn, she is balanced by Jim Piddock as dull husband and catheter salesman Leonard.

Mitch and Mickey’s story also provides an anchor to the film; although A Mighty Wind is consistently funny, the actors’ enthusiasm tips some of the gentle humour into silliness, whilst other jokes float by unnoticed. The best lines are delivered by Fred “Wha’ happened?” Willard (excellent as the New Main St Singers’ manager) and Ed Begley Jr as the Public Broadcast Network producer whose Yiddish is as good as his Swedish. Not all the performances work – Jennifer Coolidge makes do with a funny voice for laughs – and, as usual with Guest, the ‘What happened afterwards’ ending is hit-and-miss. Even here, though, I liked Shearer’s transformation from a bald, bearded bass player into a far more glamorous one.

Musically, Mitch and Mickey are given the most memorable tunes; but all the music, most evident in the concert itself, sounds like authentic folk, albeit with a comic leaning, and adds to the warmth of the film. To say that A Mighty Wind is a ‘nice’ film sounds patronising, but this is exactly what it is: an affectionate comedy with uplifting songs and, a bit of headboard-banging aside, nothing to alarm the children. No violence, no malice, just a love for gags and music. It may not change your life, but it will certainly brighten up a wet weekend – and have you humming for weeks.

My Best Friend’s Wedding

WFTB Score: 6/20

The plot: Longtime friends Jules and Mike have an arrangement to marry if they’re still single by the time they turn 28; and when the plan’s ruined by Mike’s engagement to wealthy young Kimmy, Jules realises that she should be the one he’s taking up the aisle. Her initial plans failing to put Mike off, Jules ups the ante by interfering in his career plans – with disastrous results.

To look at Julianne Potter (Julia Roberts), you’d imagine she was pretty content with her life. As a New York food critic she strikes fear into chefs, and her editor George (Rupert Everett) is a wonderfully waspish companion. She also has a long-standing agreement with old flame Mike (Dermot Mulroney) that they’ll marry each other if they haven’t found soulmates by the time they’re 28, which doesn’t trouble Jules until Mike calls to say he’s marrying student Kimmy (Cameron Diaz) in four days’ time.

Suddenly realising she’s in love with Mike herself, Jules rushes to Chicago – where Kimmy’s family just happen to own the White Sox – intent on breaking the lovebirds apart. However, the plan backfires when she becomes both Kimmy’s maid of honour and Mike’s best (wo)man, and neither the fiancée’s awful singing, nor her innocent intervention – at Jules’ bidding – in Mike’s work life, nor Jules’ unlikely claim to be wildly in love with George, distract the groom-to-be.

In desperation, and ignoring George’s advice to simply tell Mike how she feels, Jules sends a headhunting email to his employer in the guise of Kimmy’s father. It has the desired effect, to the extent that Mike calls off the wedding; though little of what happens next gives Jules much cause for celebration, optimism, or pride.

It’s easy to deconstruct My Best Friend’s Wedding, an entirely unromantically assembled rom-com which rides on the trains of contemporary weddingy films such as Four…and a Funeral, using the star power of Roberts and the subversive influence of Australian director P.J. Hogan (director, of course, of Muriel’s…) to draw the punters in. But whereas Hugh Grant’s Charles was a sweet bumbler, and Muriel – for all her deceptions – was a complicated, funny and ultimately optimistic character in Collette’s capable hands, Jules is, for want of a better word, a psycho, lying constantly to get her way and refusing to tell the truth until it’s (nearly) too late.

Jules says of herself, ‘I’ve done nothing but underhanded, despicable, not even terribly imaginative things since I got here’, and she gives the viewer absolutely no cause to disagree; so why are we meant to feel anything but disgust for her?

The answer, apparently, is because she’s played by Julia Roberts, which would be fine if the actress were stretched by a witty or blackly comic script; but neither writer Ronald Bass nor Hogan get her to do much bar smile her dazzling smile and look vaguely troubled whilst talking to Paul Giamatti’s inexplicably wise valet. Even Jules’ daily life is annoying, her high-flying, low-stress job allowing her to disappear for days on end without the slightest consequence. There are also at least four instances of Jules or one of her cohorts falling over, a slapstick device which viewers of TV’s Miranda will recognise as a useful alternative to jokes that arise organically out of the plot.

It’s not only Jules who doesn’t satisfy. Mulroney’s a big dumb lump of conflicted emotions, exhibiting little that would logically send either Jules or Kimmy gaga; and Diaz is very pretty but an archetypal spoilt rich girl. Rachel Griffiths and Carrie Preston enjoy larking around as Kimmy’s friends, but they don’t feel like real people, and like the rest of the cast don’t inhabit anything resembling a real world.

Okay, so it’s a film, and in the fantasy of film a bar can be won over by Kimmy’s abysmal karaoke and a whole table, nay restaurant, can be word-perfect performing I Say a Little Prayer*; but My Best Friend’s Wedding skims so relentlessly on the surface of its set-up (aren’t rich people’s nuptials fabulous?) that asking us to do anything so involving as empathise with selfish old Jules feels like a rotten cheek.

Thank the Lord, then, for Rupert Everett. The Englishman takes what could have been a wretched part, the queeny best friend, and brilliantly makes George the movie’s leading man. Whether through acting genius or sheer luck, Everett finds exactly the right camp tone between fantasist fluff and Jules’ selfish strops, playing his part with wit and gay abandon when asked to play her fiancé. The energy dips whenever he’s not on screen – which is quite a lot – but Everett has so much fun with George (at Julia’s expense – watch his busy hands in the taxi!) that he single-handedly makes the movie worth sticking with. Little wonder that when all the mundane wedding business is over and done with, it’s George who proves to be Jules’ knight in shining armour.

Everett isn’t all there is to recommend about My Best Friend’s Wedding, but he’s just about the only thing about it that’s memorable apart from Jules, played with skill by Julia Roberts but memorable for all the wrong reasons. If you’re absolutely desperate for a romantic comedy and this is the only thing to hand, this goes through the motions in mechanical fashion: but in all honesty, why settle for such blandness, such mediocrity, if you can enjoy When Harry Met Sally or Annie Hall instead?

NOTES: You’re well served if you like Bacharach and David songs, but Dionne over Aretha? You’ve got to be kidding.