Video Review – Exotica, A Study In Terror, Harry Enfield and Chums, Blackadder

Writhing Performers

(Originally published in L:Scene magazine, November 1995)

In a club as exotic as its title, a schoolgirl lapdancer oozes for a client with hang ups. Meanwhile a pet shop owner deliberately gives away tickets to the opera. All the while, people are striding across a burnished landscape, line abreast. They, like the audience, are looking for something.

Exotica (Fox Video – Rental) tries hard to be meaningless at first. People’s lives flit by seemingly at random and are unwilling to reveal anything about themselves. But director Atom Egoyan’s camera carefully reveals these people’s methods, reasons and, most of all, their perversions. Bruce Greenwood’s love for the lapdancer goes far beyond mere lust. Elias Koteas’s constant introduction of her (“What is it about a schoolgirl?”) reveals more about himself. And Don McKellar’s pet shop boy has only himself to blame when he gets mixed up in their world.

For once, here is a so-called art house film that isn’t afraid to go beyond its small remit. The club and its writhing performers are necessary to the story and not a frame is wasted on unimportant subtext. The climax is like an orgasm – at once fulfilling and inevitable, as well as untenable and surprising. I’m sure no Atom Egoyan film could ever be described as predictable. On the spine, Exotica describes itself as an ‘erotic thriller’, one of the most overused and shite-indicating terms used in films. Exotica isn’t an erotica thriller.

Ever since the death of dear old Arthur Conan Doyle people have been pondering inane fanfic questions such as “What if Sherlock Holmes had met…?” Everyone from Sigmund Freud to Lord Haw Haw have been on the receiving end of the great detective’s impossible smart-assedness and in A Study In Terror (A Taste of Fear – £10.99) we get the inevitable: Jack the Ripper.

“Hold!” I hear you cry, “Wasn’t that film called Murder By Decree starring Christopher Plummer and James Mason?” Well, yes it was and unfortunately this film turns out to be, with apologies to Gene Wilder, Sherlock Holmes’s less smarter brother.

This film was made earlier than Murder By Decree and unfortunately has ‘Hammer Horror’ stamped all over it in exploitative red ink. You almost know what to expect when you see Barbara Windsor’s annoying and indecently young visage getting slit up a treat early on.

But somehow it manages to rise above all this Dale Winton-like tackiness. John Neville as Holmes (no, I’d never heard of him before The Adventures of Baron Munchausen either) and Donald Houston as Watson are interesting without being overly flashy, driving a narrative which actually makes some serious points about homelessness and poverty. Edwardian monarchs, however, are not implicated.

A mildly diverting hour and a half then, and strangely interesting for the fact that Frank Finlay plays Inspector Lestrade, a role he recreated a few years later for… you guessed it, Murder By Decree.

Harry Enfield goes mainstream in his latest Harry Enfield and Chums (BBC Video – £10.99) video. But then it’s hard to disprove he wasn’t in the first place. By his own admission ‘a bit Dick Emery’ Enfield’s first show on BBC1 wasn’t all that different from his BBC2 or Channel 4 shows. The man has a gift for knowing what a large proportion of the population will laugh at.

Take the Self-Righteous Brothers, two of the characters debuted here. They only needed to appear once, going on about the relative merits of ‘Edmonds’, for everybody in this fair land of ours to go “Oi, Edmonds, no!” at annoyingly high volume.

The only difference here seems to be a high proportion of famous guest stars (“Oi, Hill, no!”). Whereas the idea of ‘Benny Elton’ wandering around parks at double speed clothing scantily-clad bimbos is immensely risible (it’s a wonder he never thought of it himself), Naomi Campbell as the lover of Wayne Slob was one of those ‘what ifs’ that should have remained so.

It would have been better to have left the acting to Enfield and his chums, Paul Whitehouse and, especially, Kathy Burke. Burke has long been on the sidelines of British comedy acting, probably because she doesn’t look like Emma Thompson. With the evidence here of one of the randy old ladies (“You look like a young Harry Belafonte”), Waynetta Slob and Perry, the (male) mate of Kevin the Teenager, she should be winning Oscars by the end of the decade.

The BBC gets its act together elsewhere with the realisation that there is such a thing as a three hour videotape and has produced a wallet-friendly release of all four Blackadder (BBC Video – £10.99 each) series on a tape each.

The Black Adder was a high budget romp through the dark age of a mythical Richard IV. Written by Rowan Atkinson and Richard Curtis it introduced us to the king’s repellent son Edmund, an oily scheming git with a deformed haircut who referred to himself as the Black Adder. With actorly guest stars including the alliterative Brian Blessed and Frank Finlay, the series was a small success but lacked the requisite factor of actually making you laugh more than twice an episode. Only episode four, The Queen of Spain’s Beard starring Miriam Margolyes as a lascivious Spanish princess and Jim Broadbent as her cheerful interpreter, managed to achieve something that was more than the sum of its parts. Adjudged an expensive failure at the time, a second series looked unlikely.

Thankfully, someone at the BBC thought otherwise. For Blackadder II is one of the greatest sitcoms of all time. With a scaled-down production and Ben Elton replacing Atkinson on script duties the Black Adder took on a new lease of life. This time he is Lord Edmund Blackadder, court lackey to the non-fictional Queen Elizabeth I and total bastard.

The genius of Elton and Curtis’s script was to make Blackadder less smarmy and more sympathetic – even when he’s kicking Lord Percy in the nuts. The only other characters to survive from the first series – Baldrick, Blackadder’s mucky servant and Lord Percy, “a total git who I don’t seem to be able to shake off” – were developed into two genuinely funny sidekicks. The actorly element was still there in the presence of Tim McInnerny and Miranda Richardson as the frighteningly immature Queen, but now they had funny lines to deliver. It’s hard to single out one episode out as the best but Beer, wherein Edmund has to deal with a visit from his puritan aunt (Margolyes again) whilst hosting a drunken party is a masterpiece of frantic farce. The explanation of “great booze up” has to be seen to be believed.

With a now winning formula, Blackadder the Third and Blackadder Goes Forth couldn’t go wrong. Tim McInnerny was afraid of being typecast so Percy had to go, although he returned as the petty Captain Darling in the fo(u)rth series. Baldrick had to get thicker to replace him, to diminishing returns. But Hugh Laurie made an exceptionally insane Prince of Wales and Stephen Fry has never been better. His tall demeanour and deep voice brought the violent Duke of Wellington in series three and blood-lusting General Melchett is series four to vivid life.

All these tapes are well worth your money, with first choice going to the truly exceptional second series. One of the greatest British sitcoms at good value. Can’t be bad.


Video Review: Wild Wild West, The Blair Witch Project, Go, Ravenous, Gormenghast

10 Minutes Too Long

(Originally published in TVS magazine, March 2000)

Last year may well be the turning point in the history of movies. With the exception of the over-hyped blot of the landscape that was The Phantom Menace, all the big films under-performed whilst crowds flocked to see low budget works of originality and quality, two things which resolutely can’t be produced on a studio executive’s PowerBook. As these films get their video releases, hindsight can provide a fascinating glimpse into what went right and wrong last year. Let’s start with the latter.

Wild Wild West (Warners, Rental) is awful, we all know that. But its awfulness is inherently fascinating. How did a summer blockbuster made by two people of proven record (Will Smith and director Barry Sonnenfeld) manage to crash and burn so spectacularly? It should have worked a treat: Western meets steampunk with shit loads of special effects, yet it is at turns uncomfortable, embarrassing, unfunny, daft and incoherent. And it could so easily have been great with very little tweaking indeed.

Like in Men in Black, Will Smith is an agent working for a secret government organisation that investigates strange goings on that are beyond his scientific ken. The idea of a black man in such a position at this time is, surprisingly, not shied away from, and the N word almost gets a mention until Smith silences the mentioner with a tasty right cross. This may be questionable but there’s so much else going on that is literally beyond belief.

Plausibility, even for movies set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, is all important. When sidekick Kevin Kline lashes up a flying machine, some years before the Wright Brothers hit on the idea, you can’t even shake your head, as the whole movie is a giant girder of anachronistic ridiculousness. This is one of those high budget monstrosities that got away from its maker; every scene has seemingly been told to do it again but make it bigger. Sonnenfeld was once an endearingly economic filmmaker who was quoted as saying that no film should be longer than 90 minutes. Wild Wild West is over 100.

It is a symbol of all that is bloated and downright shite about big budget Hollywood, especially in the light of last year’s successes. The Blair Witch Project (Fox Pathe, Rental) has already received more than enough coverage in this very organ, so it would be best just to dwell on the nature of its success. It was one of a number of films that reflected the public’s re-awakened interest in the ‘real’ – represented on TV by things like Police, Camera, Action and You’ve Been Framed – over the artifice of eye-popping yet hollow spectacles. There is a strong feeling of admiration, amongst public and critics alike, for films that have the confidence just to plonk the camera down and concentrate on things like acting and script. Go (Columbia Tristar, Rental) is a perfect example of one of last year’s trends; a subversive teenage film that actually contrives to be any good.

Unlike things like American Pie, Ten Things I Hate About You, Rushmore and Election, Go is not entirely original, being, as it is, a sort of junior Pulp Fiction. Three stories, all starting from a conversation in a supermarket, are played out in parallel, with Sarah Polley’s amateur drug dealing games followed by Desmond Askew (billed on the sleeve as ‘from TV’s Grange Hill’) having merry escapades in Las Vegas followed by gay actors Scott Wolf and Jay Mohr being forced into a bit of drug entrapment by very weird cop William Fichtner. As its title suggests, Go barely pauses for a second – not in a stunt-a-second way but in how much more inventive it can possibly get. Shorn of Tarantino’s longueurs it makes for a genuinely breathless ride of cinematic creativity.

What does all this mean for the future? As the Oscar nominations attest, there is a greater variety of films around at the moment with the major studios adopting the independent’s practice of quality as well as quantity. The British, as a result, are having their thunder stolen and being somewhat left behind. Ravenous (Fox Pathe, Rental), a tale of cannibalism starring Robert Carlyle, tries hard to be different but ultimately winds up ludicrous. Still, the British can always rely on TV. Gormenghast (BBC Video, Retail) is released this month in a splendid double video pack, and remains a risky but almost entirely successful attempt by the BBC do to something a bit different. One lesson they must learn, though: there is such a thing as over-publicising something.

Video Review – Gods and Monsters, Doctor Who: The Curse of Fatal Death, Yellow Submarine, A Night at the Roxbury, Payback

Monster Mash

(Originally published in TVS Magazine, September 1999)

Gods and Monsters (Fox, Rental) concerns James Whale. Fortunately, this proves to the director of the original Frankenstein and not any bearded Talk Radio DJs. Ian McKellen portrays him in his final years and the artfully muscled Brendan Fraser is the alluring bit of beefcake masquerading as a gardener that he coaxes into ‘sitting for him’. Whale likes his ‘architectural skull’ but makes it clear that “I have no interest in your body”, clearly lying through his dentures.

Gods and Monsters follows the subsequent friendship between camp-as-a-row-of-tents Whale and virtually homophobic Fraser, and at first it looks like an indulgent character studies of one of the founders of modern horror – one of the executive producers is Clive Barker. The condition that Whale suffers from – a sort of mental hyperactivity that renders him unable to close his eyes without his brain going a mile a minute – is used for all manner of flashbacks, from the set of The bride of Frankenstein to the more serious horrors of the First World War.

But as the film goes on, a more thoughtful study of the characters is revealed. The two leads slowly reveal their more mundane, but no less frightening, demons. McKellen is spot-on throughout, portraying a man much older than himself and infusing his every movement with pain-wracked numbness. He never lets you forget that underneath all his gay jollity he is a man in serious pain. Meanwhile, lunk-headed Brendan Fraser is a revelation, embodying an intensity that goes beyond his appearance. The fact that he made this between George of the Jungle and The Mummy proves that he’s not afraid of taking the daft with the profound.

Milking The Cash Cow award of the week goes to the video release of Doctor Who – The Curse of Fatal Death (BBC Video, £11.99), the Comic Relief special that was shown earlier this year during all the usual malarkey. Obviously intended to ensnare the averagely obsessed Doctor Who fan – rather than any politely interested Comic Relief fans – the sketch, starring Rowan Atkinson as the titular Time Lord, is entertaining enough, although you may need to to have a working knowledge of a show which has been off our screens and out of our consciences for 10 years to get the jokes. But it barely lasts 15 minutes, and the rest of the hour-long tape is given over to the sort of filler material that regularly occupies Unauthorised Biography videos for members of the cast of Friends. So we get a pretty piss-poor Making Of documentary, which features some of the big names involved being either somewhat vague on what Doctor Who is all about (step forward Richard E. Grant) or desperately trying to get across the Good Cause-iness of the whole thing by wittering on to unfortunate lengths (Richard’s brother, Hugh). Of the star, Mr. Atkinson is nowhere to be seen.

A runner up for the Milking The Cash Cow award is Yellow Submarine (MGM, £14.99), which has been re-released with the sort of attendant publicity usually reserved for Royal Engagements. It’s been peculiar to see professional miserable bastard George Harrison cheerfully throwing himself into the PR machine along with everyone else, particularly as – or maybe because – his contribution to the film was virtually zero.

30 years on, it’s still a bit of a hoot. A genuinely great kids film, despite the obvious fact that it’s Eddie Yeats doing the voice of Paul McCartney, rather than Paul McCartney. The songs sound great, of course, particularly George’s feedback-crazy It’s All Too Much and John’s piano-rockin’ Hey Bulldog, but you’ve more than likely got them on record somewhere anyway. Like the Beatles Anthology there’s more than a feeling of money for distressed string here.

It would be best to pass over A Night At The Roxbury (CIC, Rental), a film which strives to be even stupider than Dumb and Dumber and succeeds without ever once being funny, and move straight on to the rather spiffing Payback (Warners, Rental) which was unfairly overlooked on cinema release but should make perfect home viewing.

A remake of the Lee Marvin film Point Blank, Payback is a rare beast in that it actually stands up to the original. The essential plot is the same: Mel Gibson is the hero, a criminal who’s been screwed out of the proceeds of a heist and is determined to get back his share of the loot, no matter how many people he has to kill of how high (or should that be low) in the underworld he has to go. Possessing a relentlessly driven performance from Gibson, who can usually be relied upon in these sort of things, it’s a gangster film which thankfully touches upon none of the modern classics (Pulp Fiction, GoodFellas) yet is a resolutely contemporary work. An original remake. Who’s have thunk?

DVD Review – Kill Bill Volume 2, The Fog of War, Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed, Rain Man

Shiny Wonders

(Originally published in Inform Magazine, September 2004)

As a way of inaugurating this all-new DVD column, can we just immediately express our love for the shiny discs with the huge capacities? It took us a while because our reaction to anything new is generally ‘oh another fad to get the brain-dead-with-too-much-money masses happy.’ It always takes us a while to be converted to anything new but converted we have been, as sure as any selfish bastard who takes lots of drugs will eventually be an incredibly annoying and especially evangelical born-again Christian.

Even the DVD charts are wonderful. Gone are the days when whatever movie that had been released six months ago would dominate; they’re still there but leavened by classics that have had some care taken over their DVD release, as well as the finest TV box sets and compilations. As I’m writing this the especially rubbish Halle Berry film Gothika is number one, but the new 24 box set is number two and the awesome Simpson series four box set is number six, with the new revamped version of Pulp Fiction still up there.

There’s also the phenomenon of the commentary, which we’ve got a lot of time for. Whether it be Paul Merton and Ian Hislop gleefully pointing out the startling amount of times Angus Deayton has ever mentioned drugs or prostitutes during the history of Have I Got News For You (rather a lot as it happens), or Peter Jackson lustily pondering on how he could have made the Lord of the Rings gorier, to the disgust of his co-writers Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens. You probably regard commentaries in the same stand-offish, ‘it’s too nerdy’ way as I but, be honest, you’ve probably also listened to them just as much as the ‘proper’ film. And secretly prayed for Steven Spielberg or Quentin Tarantino to finally do at least one.

Speaking of which, let’s get to what we’re supposed to be doing here with the release of the Quentin meister’s second installment of Kill Bill. Despite Tarantino budgets being something less than stellar – as well as his aversion to computer effects – his films tend to belong on the big and wide screen rather than home viewing. That said, it’s doubtful there’s any other filmmaker whose works are so beloved on the small screen after a night out and a takeaway.

Kill Bill Volume 2 is not quite as great viewing on the small screen as it’s predecessor, however. If we’re going to cheerfully ignore the fact that they’re just two parts of the same film and therefore eminently watchable consecutively, then Vol 1 scores way more than Vol 2, being a virtually plotless gorefest of Uma Thurman in a skintight yellow jumpsuit killing everyone she meets. Vol 2 merely features a hell of a lot of talking as Tarantino tries to justify the events of the first half. The extras on the disc steer clear of the commentary but do feature a making-of featurette with Tarantino enlivening the normally dull proceedings with his sheer exuberance about everything and anything. There’s also a deleted scene with David Carradine in a swordfight with a supposed cockney assassin whose accent is closer to Sydney the city than Sydney James.

The point of this column is to avoid films that might be very worthy object in themselves but don’t really exploit the DVD format. So The Fog of War, whilst being a splendid documentary, isn’t really our thing. Even though the DVD release contains 7 additional scenes which, whilst watchable, don’t really add much to this study of post-war American politics and interventionism.

What we’re here for is relative rubbish like Scooby Doo 2: Monster’s Unleashed. The film is the not really very good follow up to the original which tried it’s best to be likeable with the presence of both Rowan Atkinson and the Scrappy Doo as the villain. The best jokes having been used in the first film, Scooby Doo 2 suffers from Austin Powers syndrome in that it all looks a little tired.

On the DVD there’s plenty of extras but they’re not terribly interesting to anyone who isn’t a fan of the film. Most of the behind the scenes featurettes focuses on how the CGI Scooby was created, which is akin to watching computer generated paint dry. There’s also the unavoidable point that Scoob is clearly no Gollum when it comes to believability. Of greater interest is an interactive game in which you have to find Shaggy’s pants, but only marginally. I suppose kids like DVDs too.

But I prefer stuff like the new Rain Man special edition DVD. Almost 20 years on and the film still hasn’t redeemed itself from shameless sentimental pap, but this release does feature some especially entertaining audio commentaries from two of the (many) writers and director Barry Levinson, in which we discover that even dumb films like this seem to go through millions of rewrites and bruise more writer’s egos than a particularly brutal Booker Prize jury.

Video Review – Summer of Sam, Bringing Out the Dead, The Limey, Sleepy Hollow, The Larry Sanders Show, The Muse

Summer of Hate

(Originally published in TVS Magazine, September 2000)

There’s a distinct stench of quality about the latest vid releases. It’s enough to make you worry about the death of the big screen.

First up is Spike Lee’s best film yet, Summer of Sam (Rental/DVD), in which the David Berkowitz-referencing title is merely to introduce a sweat-drenched (s)welter of stories centred around a paranoid Italian-American New York community. Similar to his portrayal of the tension-fuelled neighbourhood of Do the Right Thing, Lee adds an epic sweep, meandering around the city and gazing on its deficiencies with both a dispassionate and confrontational eye.

Bringing Out the Dead (Warners, Rental/DVD) is similar fare also redolent of its maker. New York City is again the location; paranoia and death the themes. Martin Scorcese can do this sort of thing in his sleep and its unfortunate that the vista of misery encountered by Nicholas Cage is so unrelentingly downbeat. Working the ambulance graveyard shift probably is a heap of utter misery but it’s strange that someone like Scorcese doesn’t seem to realise that this doesn’t necessarily make for a great movie. Whereas Spike Lee has talking dogs and a wacky take of British punk, all Scorcese has is death and miserable death. The student could teach the mentor a few tricks.

The Limey (Rental/DVD) is another slice of quality from Steven Soderbergh, who is now seemingly down with showing Quentin Tarantino how to adapt Elmore Leonard and is now drawing up iconic treatises on sixties stars. In the red corner we have Terrance Stamp, just out of Parkhurst and coming to America with some cheekily flashbacked baggage and more rhyming slang than you can shake a spotted dick at. In the blue corner there is Peter Fonda, as laid back as only Californian drug-dealers can be. A splendid film of parallels and themes, it would be almost churlish to suggest that there isn’t that much of a plot and Stamp seems to be mis-cast in a part he was born to play.

I seem to cause offence whenever I say this but I’ve never quite got a grip on what Tim Burton’s all about. You can’t fault his uniqueness or singularity of vision but his films always seem to be the equivalent of the Spanish football team: the talent’s there but you always end up disappointed. Try asking anyone why they like Ed Wood so much and watch them grapple around for words like Richard and Judy when the autocue breaks down. Sleepy Hollow (Rental/DVD) is more of the same: an almost great picture that will nevertheless have you puzzling over why someone decided to do a high-budget American version of an Hammer Horror film. It will pass an evening agreeably enough but you will ultimately find yourself digging out those guilty copies of Robocop or Die Hard afterwards.

The L:arry Sanders Show: The Best Episodes (Columbia Tristar, Retail) is a slightly worrying title as it precludes any other releases of this incredible sitcom. How can they release any more batches without calling them something like, ‘The Not Quite As Good As That Last Lot of Episodes’? Still, we may as well enjoy what we’ve got, curling up with such moments as the time Larry went on a get-away-from-it-all holiday with hundreds of videotapes of himself for company, or Janeane Garofolo getting down and dirty with Brett Butler. And let’s not forget Sideshow Hank’s porn tape…

Garry Shandling, as his latest film What Planet Are You From? proves, is one of those actors who can’t help doing Woody Allen impressions in their movies. Albert Brooks is another with a curiously familiar line in nerdy repartee. But just because it works for Woody doesn’t mean it’s going to work for you. The Muse (Rental/DVD) is another self-obsessed and self-indulgent pile of neuroses masquerading as a movie, with Brooks getting all obsessed by Sharon Stone for nearly two hours. They really should put a stop to this crap.

Video Review – Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, The Virgin Suicides

Teenage Kicks

(Originally published in TVS Magazine, April 2001)

“Last time on Buffy the Vampire Slayer…” Well, it seems that Buffy has a sister who is something altogether more bizarre, her boyfriend is going to a vampire club to get deliberately bitten, Spike is having erotic dreams about Buffy (despite being a vampire himself) and a Goddess is regularly beating her up whilst worrying which shoes to wear with her dress.

Welcome to the world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off Angel. The latest release is a box set comprising the first half of Series 5 of Buffy and Series 2 of Angel (both retail, £34.99). This was my first introduction to all this stuff so I wasn’t quite prepared for how plain good it all is. No wonder there’s been a huge bidding war in the US over who gets to show it there.

In Buffy, action is centred around her Scooby Gang: post-modern irony ahoy! This consists of Buffy – the ‘chosen one’ who gets to kick demon ass with pummelling regularity (as played by an actress and several hundred wig-wearing stand ins), Rupert Giles, her mentor and the one who does all the exposition – played with non-threatening gawkiness by non other than coffee borrowing Anthony Head, Xander, who is basically a junior version of Chandler from Friends with endearingly Clunes-like ears, and Willow, a lesbian Witch geek who gets all the best lines and is played by the best young actress since Sara Gilbert from Roseanne. We also get a supporting cast of supernatural types including a bottle blond punk vampire called Spike, who sports the same sort of mid-Atlantic accent that Billy Idol sports these days.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is silly and knows it. You can see how it would appeal to the sci-fi nerds but its great strength is subverting horror movies cliches with far more adroitness than the over-rated Scream trilogy. It has smart dialogue, cool fights and quirky characters filling up every inch of video tape. It’s not exactly art yet it’s more than that. It’s putting wit and intelligence to the service of creating something almost absurdly enjoyable.

Angel is from the same stable and is the purposely grown-up sibling of Buffy. Whereas Buffy is all proms and high schools Angel is all angst and murky Los Angeles. It deliberately plays up the gore – to its detriment – and its Dante-esque obsession with hell and sin can get wearying. That said it is almost as good as Buffy, mostly as a result of the main characters: Angel, played by a solid block of wood and all the funnier because of that, his valley girl ‘secretary’ Cordelia, who like Willow gets all the best lines, and Wesley, the exposition character with an even worse English accent than Spike – although none can compare with Angel’s ‘oirish’ one in flashbacks.

Best of all is to watch the two series together. In particular is a flashback sequence common to both series but which reveals wonderful subtleties depending on which one you’re watching. At 35 quid these box sets can be pricey but you get good value with four episodes a tape. Maybe you too will end up sympathising with vampire Spike’s awful attempts to impress vampire slayer Buffy. Adolescence on a grand scale.

Which is also the theme of The Virgin Suicides (Pathe, £12.99) along with being an extraordinary study of self-possession. In a David Lynch-like suburb every boy’s raging hormones are directed at the five Lisbon sisters. The trouble is they can’t be defined, especially when the start killing themselves. While it is presented as average Hollywood fare, populated with big-ish stars like James Woods and Kathleen Turner, it is a beautifully off-kilter study of unsettling behaviour. That the usually manic Woods gives a fascinatingly subtle performance as the girls’ dad is the icing on this highly seductive and dark cake.

Video Review – Apt Pupil, Saving Private Ryan, Forces of Nature, Entrapment, The Fast Show

The Great Dictator

(Originally published in TVS Magazine, December 1999)

Apt Pupil is the film we’ve all been waiting for. You didn’t know you’d been waiting for it? What if I told you that this is Bryan Singer’s long-awaited follow-up to The Usual Suspects? Well, I was waiting for it, and here it is, straight to video.

Sicko weirdo Brad Renfro (or is it Jared Leto?) is the school kid of the title and a right little horror he is too. He recognises Ian McKellen on a bus. Rather than go up and congratulate him on his performance in Gods And Monsters, Renfro/Leto blackmails him, for McKellen is really a Nazi war criminal in hiding and Leto/Renfro is strangely fascinated by him. You can tell nobody is going to come out of this well, not least the formerly esteemed director.

Apt Pupil is one of the ‘other ones’’ of the quartet of short stories that Stephen King published and which have had great success as movies (Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption are the most well-known). This one didn’t fare so well, not least because it is draped in controversy and not just because of its subject matter. It spent a long time in the courts after allegations were made about a shower scene featuring some underage boys. The fact that it didn’t occur to Singer that some people might have objections to this sort of thing sums up this film, wherein a director hot off the back of a modern classic feels he can do anything.

How else can you explain a film centred around two of the most unsympathetic characters in film history? Even the friendly appearance of an actor from Friends – especially chosen to be friendsome, it seems, although it doesn’t matter which one it is – can’t lighten the weight of thorough dislikability that Apt Pupil exudes. Singer must be congratulated for presenting an uncompromising vision but even the most sympathetic viewer will leave this film with a taste of ‘ick’.

Still, if you really want to lose your lunch in the privacy of your own home, Saving Private Ryan is now available to purchase. One of the greatest modern films certainly, and an unforgettable slice of pure ‘impact’ cinema, but how many people are going to be reliving this one again and again?

In contrast to all this bleakness you can either have Ben Affleck and Sandra Bullock canoodling in Forces of Nature, or Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones palling up in Entrapment to cheer you up. Both films hark back ti an earlier, more innocent age – long before Spielberg started cutting up bodies on the Normandy beaches or Singer thought he could encourage sympathy for Nazis.

Forces of Nature tries to capture the feel of the early Screwball comedies, notably Bringing Up Baby, with ditzy Bullock causing all manner of mayhem for exasperated Affleck. That this is actually entertaining is one of the surprises of the year and the two leads are just sugar-free enough to keep you watching without having to resort to hefting bricks at the screen. Entrapment is less successful – mostly because of bad casting – but as a virtual remake of The Thomas Crown Affair it is perfect video fluff. Connery is gruff, Zeta-Jones is sexy as hell and all’s right with the world.

The usual torrent of stuff from the BBC in anticipation of Christmas is upon us. The Fast Show – You Ain’t Seen All of These… Right? is a box set comprising the last series of the catchphrase-friendly comedy plus, seemingly sneaked on, that recently broadcast show of stuff that was rejected. For the most part you can see why some of these alleged pieces of comedy were never shown but why on earth wasn’t Simon Day’s sadistic king (“cut his bollocks off!”) not included in the original series? Other stuff emanating from the BBC includes box sets for Jonathan Creek, Only Fools and Horses and, weirdly, Are You Being Served. Now you know what to get that hated cousin for Christmas.

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