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Straw Dogs (Peckinpah, 1971) January 5, 2010

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : Uncategorized, 1970s, Film reviews , add a comment

“I don’t know my way home,” says simpleton Henry Niles to a dishevelled David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) at the end of Sam Peckinpah’s masterpiece “Straw Dogs”. David, with one lens of his spectacles broken and cuts and bruises to his face, smiles and calmly replies: “That’s okay, I don’t either.” The two men drive towards the little Cornish village nearby, their futures uncertain. It’s a poetic and fitting climax to David’s story – a man who arrived in the little, unassuming English village timid and withdrawn, concerned more with his work than his restless, lascivious wife, and who leaves having found a bravery, or indeed an anger, he did not know he possessed. What he does with it now is up to him, but his life may have taken on a momentous change, one that will govern his future self. [Read full review HERE]

Top 10 Charlie Chaplin Films November 13, 2009

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : Comedy, 1940s, 1950s, Drama, Top 10s, Film reviews, Short Film , add a comment

In my latest Top 10 list I look at Charlie Chaplin’s best films from his early short silent work to the longer feature-length “talkies”.

Charlie Chaplin was not just a silent movie actor, he was an icon of early cinema. Chaplin was a writer, director, performer, producer, as well as composer, and the co-founder of revolutionary studio United Artists.

He learnt his knack for comedy working in travelling vaudeville shows, performing with musicians, magicians, dancers, comedians, and even animals. His live material would be honed directly for the cinema when he started making films for Keystone Studios in the early 1910s. Early two-reel films, which Chaplin wrote and directed such as “The Tramp” and “Easy Street”, showed plenty of potential in the man who had yet to see his thirtieth birthday. His films were based on slapstick routines that were very carefully orchestrated and performed. His unique talent had a richness of character and a rebellious yet caring heart. Read More

Top 10 Science-Fiction Horror Movies November 5, 2009

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : Horror , add a comment

Science-fiction and horror seem to go hand in hand. Sci-fi usually involves futuristic foreboding or fear of the unknown, and this works well with the frightening realisation of the darkest depths of the human mind that define the horror genre. Science-fiction horror is also notable for producing some of the best examples of science-fiction regardless of sub-context, as well as some of the worst. And yet, when films such as Norman J. Warren’s awful “Inseminoid”, or the Alien/Aliens clones “Split Second” and “The Dark Side Of The Moon” hit our television screens during late-night repeats, we’re still sucked in to these strange but wonderful fantasies no matter how poor the execution. Indeed, while I can’t claim “Inseminoid” has any redeeming features, Tony Maylam and Ian Sharp’s violent, post-apocalyptic murder-mystery that sees a chiselled Rutger Hauer tracking… [MORE]

Click here for the Top 10 Sci-fi Horror Movies

Just in time for Halloween: Scariest Movie Scenes October 30, 2009

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : Uncategorized, Horror, Artfully Deranged, Genre , add a comment

The horror genre produces some of the most iconic movies to grace cinema as well as some of the most derided. It might have been dismissed as low-grade entertainment, satisfying the darkest fetishes of society’s social outcasts and degrading our youth, but horror gives audiences the sort of frenzied adrenaline rush other forms of cinema cannot achieve. In effect, fictional entertainment should take you out of yourself and into the satisfying and gratifying world of the make-believe. Horror achieves this like no other genre because it breaks down those inherent defence mechanisms by focusing on our primal instincts. Read on here.

Top 10 Tom Hanks Movies of the 1980s October 26, 2009

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : Comedy, 1980s, Top 10s, Film reviews, Artfully Deranged, Genre , add a comment

From 1984 to 1989 Tom Hanks solidified himself as one of the Hollywood elite. Aside from a couple of more restrained dramas in the middle of the period showing his diversity and pre-cursing his later work, predominantly the films of the middle to late eighties highlighted Hanks’ natural gift for comedy. His characters were always loveable yet flawed creations that pulled at the heart strings while playing relentlessly on the funny bone.

For many, Tom Hanks’ body of comedic work during the 1980s was the actor’s finest and most enduring. Because of this Top10Films.co.uk presents the best Tom Hanks films between 1984 and 1989. Click HERE for the Top 10
Please visit my new site www.top10films.co.uk for other Top 10 lists

I Am Legend (Lawrence, USA, 2007) April 7, 2009

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : 2000s, Drama, Film reviews, Action/Adventure, Sci-fi/Fantasy , add a comment

I Am Legend (Lawrence, USA, 2007)

Dir. Francis Lawrence; starring Will Smith, Alice Braga

It’s surprising to see such a restrained, mannered big-budget Hollywood film delivered by music video director Francis Lawrence. Lawrence failed to ignite much devotion from casual comic book fans with his muddled adaptation Constantine, so it’s refreshing to see a young director, bred on the quick-fix conventions of recent blockbusters, produce such an interesting, and at times, powerful film.

I Am Legend sees Will Smith’s military scientist Robert Neville stuck in a post-apocalyptic New York City alone when a cancer cure turns the populace into flesh-eating, genetically-mutated zombies. He is entirely alone apart from loyal pet dog Sam. Lawrence mixes some beautifully haunting images of a desolate city with flashbacks of an earlier period when the virus began to spread. In present day, Neville travels by daylight, broadcasting everyday on radio in the hope of finding more survivors. By night, when the mutated humans come out to feed, he works in his fortress-like laboratory desperately trying to find a cure.

The film may be littered with plot holes but this doesn’t detract from Neville’s story. This is indeed a character study of an obsessed but decaying man, dealing with a loss of lives he feels responsible for, and who, imprisoned in the endless expanse of an empty city, begins to mentally and physically breakdown. Although immune to the virus, he is not immune to its destructive affect on the modern, thriving society he can only remember in dreams. Now he only has his work and the dog for company. Finding a cure is as much a delusion as it is a compulsion. It’s the only thing he has left to live for.

Will Smith portrays Neville as a brilliant mind on the brink of insanity. His daily jaunts to the local video store see him talking to the mannequins as if they were real patrons, and he even believes one of them is flirting with him. Seeing this very logical scientist lose all sense of reality is as much tragic as it is heartfelt. When he does finally meet a survivor he can’t deal with them being in his life, in his space. He has become so overwhelmed with a single goal, and so accustomed to a life without interaction with any other human being, he’s almost unwilling to accept he’s not alone.

Lawrence doesn’t confuse the issue with too much exposition. Much of the background story is left unnourished - we don’t know why Neville and his dog are immune to the virus, or why the mutations are harmed by sunlight (apart from it being a generic part of a Vampire’s make-up). Lawrence, on the other hand, forces us to focus on Neville’s adaptation to this new world - the pseudo-caveman with all the mod-con gadgets in the world but no one to share them with. But, the film could have done without the poor execution of special-effects for the mutations themselves. There isn’t the sense of authenticity shown in the likes of 28 Days Later as the zombies in I Am Legend look like something cut and pasted from Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy.

While Lawrence resorts to convention at the end, the climax is not without its considerable surprises. As Bob Marley’s Redemption Song plays over the credits, I Am Legend leaves you with a sense of the human spirit, and the strength of that spirit when faced with even the most impossible situation. It’s hardly a perfect film but with Lawrence’s assured direction and Will Smith’s captivating one-man show, I Am Legend deserves an audience.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Juno (Reitman, USA/Canada, 2007) March 31, 2009

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : Comedy, 2000s, Drama, Film reviews , 1 comment so far

Dir. Jason Reitman; written by Diablo Cody; starring Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Allison Janney, J.K. Simmons, Olivia Thirlby, Eileen Pedde, Rainn[sic] Wilson, Emily Perkins

It’s obvious why Juno has been lavished with praise from critics and filmgoers alike. There’s a brilliant central performance from Ellen Page (who, while looking the sixteen years of her character, is a relative veteran of film and television having being in the business for more than ten years when Juno started shooting), and a terrifically idiosyncratic and perceptive screenplay from debut writer Diablo Cody. Cody’s script is defiantly gendered but that’s part of its charm: an intelligent, witty film of high school pregnancy that seeks to draw light on an under-nourished and important issue from the female perspective. And it works particularly well because Page is so beautifully immersed in the character of Juno – the girl who gets pregnant and decides instead of abortion she will allow a couple who can’t have children adopt her baby.

And that’s the central conceit of the story. Juno is an atypical sixteen year old teenager with her own oddball characteristics. She’s trying to find her own identity (Cody’s script never resorts to the sort cliche that gives the character all the answers by the closing credits) and her best friend Bleeker (Michael Cera) is trying to find his own too. One evening they decide to have sex and Juno gets pregnant. At first believing abortion is the only option, she gives up on the idea when she realises she can help a couple who cannot have children get their wish. That brings her to the attention of Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) and Mark (Jason Bateman), a successful suburban couple who desperately want children but can’t get pregnant. During the pregnancy Juno gets closer to the couple on an individual basis. She sees in Vanessa a love of children and of life, something she herself could not comprehend when contemplating abortion; while Mark is the sort of man Juno can relate to on a personal level, each having a love of music, horror movies, and pop-culture. And inevitably, Juno begins to come round to the idea pregnancy isn’t the life-destroying burden she thought it was.

It’s apparent in the film that no matter how you govern teenage sex, relationships - whether they be between a pair of sixteen year olds losing their virginity or a thirty-something married couple - don’t always work the way you’d like them to. That, in itself, isn’t very profound, but Cody stylishly places it in the same bracket as the vilification of abortion and teenager sex and the inherent hypocrisy in conservative ideology on the subject. The film treats young people with a lot of respect, as it does the single parent, in that because an adult couple may have financial security, they may not have security in their relationship. Juno breaks down those sugar-coated ideals of the perfect American family and lays them bare for a young audience to interpret them as they see fit.

There’s a great dynamic between Juno and Mark in that they appear more compatible as a couple than he and Vanessa. They share the same taste in music and films, and Juno is fascinated by Mark’s job as a songwriter. It’s obvious that Mark sees in Juno the youthful exuberance he once had. He feels the baby may stifle his own creative desires, and the thought of impending responsibility frightens him. Indeed, it’s interesting how Cody sees the man as the most perturbed over the whole adoption, even more so than expectant mother Juno. Director Jason Reitman brilliantly displays Juno and Mark’s relationship, hinting at physical attraction, but above all showing the fragile nature of so-called love and marriage. In a way, it’s the insecurity of security.

But the film works so well because of the performance of Ellen Page. She’s irresistibly good – it’s the sort of standout performance akin to Jon Heder in Napoleon Dynamite that places a young actor on the proverbial map. Aside from both films being named after their teenager title characters, Juno shares a lot in common with Jared Hess’ high school nerd Napoleon. These characters are ostracized by their peers, and have become disillusioned with the monotony of their lives. And, both films celebrate the idea of the individual over socially acceptable clique. No less importantly, they both also feature fantastic alternative rock soundtracks. Page embodies Juno’s idiosyncrasies as if she had lived the character in a previous life – she’s tenacious, cool, smart and quick-thinking, but she’s also troubled, mindful of her own responsibility but proactive in her mistakes. Page has the look of a young actress but the quality and command of an experienced one.

Juno is a measured, thoughtful, and insightful commentary on modern teenager life, relationships, sex, and pregnancy. Diablo Cody’s brilliant script is funny and tragic, drawing on a very authentic representation of its characters with the sumptuous Juno at its centre. With Ellen Page’s commanding yet beautifully mannered performance, Juno is destined to become one of the most talked about teen comedy-dramas of the decade.

Rating: 5 out of 5

Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg, UK/Canada, 2007)

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : 2000s, Drama, Film reviews, Crime , add a comment

Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg, UK/Canada, 2007)
Dir. David Cronenberg; starring Naomi Watts, Viggo Mortensen

Eastern Promises starts in typical Cronenberg fashion. As a Russian Mafiosi is getting his hair cut in a small salon, a mentally disabled man walks in and starts talking to the hairdresser. The three men are the only people in the salon. The hairdresser asks the man to shave the customer. He hands him the razor blade. Suddenly the man bursts into rage, taking the razor to the customer’s throat and, in true Cronenberg style, slicing it from ear to ear with blood gushing, breathless detail. This is our introduction to the Russian criminal underworld in London.

To read my full review - Click HERE

The Heartbreak Kid (Farrelly/Farrelly, USA, 2007) March 30, 2009

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : Comedy, 2000s, Film reviews, Romance , add a comment

I wouldn’t begin to entertain the idea the team of Farrelly and Farrelly needed a hit: they’ve given us some of the finest slapstick comedies of the 1990s, but The Heartbreak Kid arrives at time when the Farrelly product has lost some of its shine.

Give the comedy writer-director-producer duo some credit. They helped launch the careers of Jim Carrey and Ben Stiller, released one of the most successful comedies of the 1990s in There’s Something About Mary, and one of the decades finest in Dumb and Dumber. But their brand of humour, based on the most simple and obvious elements of social and cultural dysfunction was wearing thin even before the 90s came to an end. If Me, Myself and Irene’s split-personality Jim Carrey could be forgiven because it held at its core an endearing romantic relationship thanks to Renee Zellweger’s love interest, it was ultimately, a Carrey cash-in. When… [MORE]

Stalag 17 (Wilder, USA, 1953) March 26, 2009

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : Comedy, 1950s, Drama, Film reviews , add a comment

Stalag 17 (Wilder, USA, 1953) Dir. Billy Wilder; starring William Holden, Don Taylor, Otto Preminger, Robert Strauss, Harvey Lembeck, Richard Erdman, Peter Graves, Neville Brand, Sig Ruman, Michael Moore, Peter Baldwin

Stalag 17 arrived only a couple of years after writer-director Billy Wilder saw his social commentary Ace In The Hole receive a muted reception from critics and filmgoers alike. It was a daring project to undertake - the remnants of world war were still very evident in 1953, and the setting for a comedic drama in a German prison camp could easily be misconstrued as insensitive or even naive. But Stalag 17 is neither. Wilder, who was deeply affected by the war (born in what is now Poland, he lived in Berlin for a time before fleeing Germany after the rise of Adolf Hitler. His mother, stepfather, and grandmother were all killed at the Auschwitz concentration camp) sees these American prisoners in a unique and entertaining light - as racketeers and petty mischief’s. They make the best of a bad situation, while their escape attempts and clandestine bureaucracy give them a sense of hope; that they can still contribute to the war effort where their participation in the battle is almost certainly at an end.

What may have become cliche later - with the popular appeal of Steve McQueen-fronted The Great Escape, and the iconic stars of Escape To Victory - Stalag 17 was a fresh-faced, uniquely written, and assuredly directed film about life in a prison-of-war camp. Wilder may overlook some of the darker attributes of Nazi occupation, but the cynicism he portrays through William Holden’s Sefton is a perfect indictment of the human condition when basic liberties are rescinded.

Sefton is the sort of love-hate character that instantly draws your attention and maintains it - some of his actions are repugnant but at the same time you can, perhaps begrudgingly, relate to the motivation. The film begins with the escape attempt of two sergeants. Sefton takes bets on their survival, putting his own money (or cigarettes in this case) on them failing. When the sirens begin to sound and gunshots are heard the fate of the two prisoners is obvious. Sefton wins the bet. Believing there’s a “stoolie” in their ranks, since the German’s always seem to be one step ahead of their plans, Sefton becomes the prime suspect. He is far too complacent when betting against the escape attempt, and his constant trading with the guards for extra privileges is held in contempt by hisfellow inmates because he only benefits himself.

Holden, who actually pleaded with Wilder during principle photography to make Sefton more likeable, was rightly awarded the Oscar for best actor in 1954. Holden didn’t get his way with the character however, seeing Sefton’s selfish ego betray the trust of his fellow prisoners. But Wilder wants you to despise Sefton - whether for his lack of patriotism or his disregard for others - because it’s in this that his character becomes totally captivating. Again, it goes back to the idea that you don’t have to like someone to understand their motivation. When Sefton is beaten up because the rest of the camp believe he’s the bad guy, he’s forced to find the real culprit the only way he knows how: through self preservation. Wilder allows Sefton to achieve vindication but his actions throughout remain conceited and self aware. And that’s the beauty of Stalag 17 - how it takes your conception of conventional morality and asks you to become complicit in its subversion.

But Stalag 17 is more than just a film about Sefton. Wilder combines the talents of an excellent ensemble of actors to create a real sense camaraderie and friendship amongst the inmates. They even have a playful relationship with the guards (where Wilder doesn’t resort to the sort of Spielberg Manichean mentality that sees all German soldiers as uncompromisingly evil purveyors of Hitler’s every whim) and Sig Ruman’s portrayal of Col. Von Scherbach provides some of the films funniest moments. However, Wilder does allow Robert Strauss as prison idiot Stanislas “Animal” Kasava to go over the top with his neurotic shenanigans and obsession with the female inmates of a nearby women’s prison camp. I found Marko the Mailman’s high-pitched “At ease, at ease” statement before every sentence far funnier.

Stalag 17 isn’t Wilder’s best film nor is it his most authentic. But then again sub-par Wilder is better than most. Most importantly, the film is hugely entertaining, funny, and tragic: that perfect blend of attributes Wilder seamlessly finds in every story he points his camera at.

Rating: 4 out of 5

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