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Rounders (John Dahl, 1998, USA) February 18, 2008

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : Comedy, 1990s, Drama, Film reviews, Crime, Sports , 3 comments

Dir. John Dahl; screenplay by David Levien and Brian Koppelman; starring Matt Damon, Edward Norton, John Malkovich, John Turturro, Gretchen Mol, Famke Janssen

Rounders, a film about Poker culture and the people who are involved (directly and indirectly) with the highs and lows of the game, could be a definitive Hollywood expose on the game’s new-age popularity if it wasn’t let down by wayward characterizations and poor plotting.

Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) is a great player who lost all his money and quit the game. When his best friend Worm (Edward Norton) gets out of prison owing money to the wrong sorts of people, Mike is forced back into the game he loves but at the cost of putting both his friendship, and his relationship to girlfriend Jo (Gretchen Mol), on the line.

The film is blessed with good performances – certainly from Norton (as usual) and Damon – but also from the excellent supporting cast including John Malkovich, Martin Landau, and John Turturro. Director John Dahl, who has given us such enjoyable films as Joy Ride, also gets the poker action spot-on, not just providing us with Texas Hold ‘Em but other forms of the game too. For people not versed in the game’s rules, etiquette, and slang, he throws in a whistle stop lesson, seamlessly interspersed in the action so as to not lose part of the audience. Indeed, when Rounders is concentrating on the game, it’s a winning formula of tension and ballsy attitude built on smoke-filled, sweat-drenched bluffs and high stakes.

Yet, Dahl’s control of the supporting characters lets the film down with both Mike’s relationship to his long-term girlfriend and, more importantly, his friendship with Edward Norton’s Worm, allowed to drift into the ether with no sense of closure. In fact, Norton simply disappears with twenty minutes remaining, his character becoming simply a passing mention in the film’s closing moments.

Yet, Rounders, despite its flaws, is an enjoyable, fast-paced sports-drama that will entice new fans to the game and make established Poker players salivating for their next big win.

Rating: 3 out of 5

Shallow Grave (Danny Boyle, 1994, UK) April 17, 2007

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : 1990s, Drama, Film reviews, Thriller/Suspense, Crime , add a comment

Dir. Danny Boyle; screenplay by John Hodge; starring Ewan McGregor, Christopher Ecclestone, Kerry Fox, Ken Stott, Keith Allen

Shallow Grave, British director Danny Boyle’s debut feature film, is about the disintegration of friendship under the strain of greed. It’s also a bleak social study of three bright but blinded intellectuals who’ve allowed callous opportunism defeat any moral grounding. It’s certainly a daring, hard-edged low-budget thriller that paints a dark, almost dangerous view, of the young, middle-class characters it portrays. But it’s also a very astute investigation of the primal forces that drive human beings. Indeed, the three main characters display the primitive form of Freud’s theory of personality development when they allow their moral judgment to be governed by the pleasure of having lots and lots of money.

Shallow Grave concerns the lives of three friends who live in the same flat, David (Christopher Ecclestone), Kelly (Juliet Miller), and Alex (Ewan McGregor). When they advertise for a new flatmate, the mysterious Hugo arrives and shuts himself in his room. When they try to tempt Hugo out of his slumber they find him lying on his bed dead. Instead of calling the police they search his belongings finding a large suitcase full of money. Putting all decency aside, they chop up the body, mash up his teeth, bury him in a secluded wood, and throw his car over a cliff. Of course, nothing is easy. David, whose job it was to do the chopping of limbs and smashing of jaws, begins to succumb to the madness of the situation as the reality of what he did takes its toll. Meanwhile, Hugo obviously didn’t come by the money through any sort of legitimate way, and some of his old ‘friends’ are closing in on the loot.

You can see where the buoyancy of youth and lack of big-budget constraints helped director Boyle create this very tightly-paced thriller. He shows some lovely directorial flourishes, whether it’s in the way he moves his camera around the flat, or how he lights the burial scenes, you know you are watching a man who is so passionate about his film. That passion is definitely something that comes off the screen, with Boyle having the smug-confidence to show off the film’s concluding twist, not with words, but with a sweeping track beneath the floorboards. You’ve also got to give him credit for presenting us with such obnoxious characters; it’s a definite trait of a director either free of studio shackles or with the determination to demand he do it his own way. He doesn’t take the obvious route in presenting us with people we must care about to feel any emotion in their story, he simply shows us a decision they make which questions any decent fundamental moral standing. In doing this, the audience is drawn into the film through how their own ideals reflect the situation. In other words, it leads back to that age-old tale of finding a twenty pound note and asking yourself: do you keep it, or hand it into the police. In this case the stakes are intensified but the underlying issue remains the same. The beauty of the film is its ability to question the audience’s values by suggesting that everyone, for at least a second, thinks they would take the money and find some way to dispose of the body.

It works so well because as the characters pretensions begin to collapse they become, dare I even say it, endearing. It’s obviously a very dark appeal they possess but as the disdain for their peers starts to crack, and the friendship becomes detracted, there’s a very realistically identifiable paranoia that is easy to relate to given the circumstances. As Alex starts to write his ‘facts that should be known in case of my untimely death’, Kelly’s probable escape to Rio, and David’s continuing internal destruction, we see a fabulous dynamic between these people that were at the beginning of the film, over-critical, over-indulgent, and most certainly over-confident. It’s a rather cynical appreciation of the film as the audience feeds off these undesirable’s murky fall from grace, as they get what they deserve. In effect, it’s like watching the school bully get stoned by all the little kids who’ve had their dinner money stolen from them. By presenting us with characters that were difficult to like at the beginning of the film, we find a more powerful resonance from their disintegration as things begin to go wrong.

The film isn’t perfect however (Boyle would go on to make a better film with Trainspotting two years later), largely because some liberties are taken to keep the pace up. Kelly, Alex, and David make the decision to chop up the body too quickly (Charles Manson might make the decision so quickly but not these intelligent, professional people with everything to lose) which is certainly an indication of Boyle’s intention to get to the second part of the story more quickly. It works in the sense that the tension can be cranked up ten minutes earlier, but perhaps a greater deal of development in this area would have helped. Yet, you can’t take much away from Boyle, his cast, or his production crew (who create a great main location in the flat), as it’s a very mature debut film with excellent central performances. Certainly, you can look at Shallow Grave and Trainspotting - Danny Boyle’s first two feature films – as his greatest achievements.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Heat (Michael Mann, 1995, USA) March 29, 2007

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : 1990s, Drama, Film reviews, Action/Adventure, Thriller/Suspense, Crime , add a comment

There’s a sense while watching Michael Mann’s Heat that you’re watching two movies at the same time. The length – at nearly three hours – suggests just as much, but as the story unfolds we are thrust into the lives of two not-too dissimilar men. One, Al Pacino, is a cop driven by his job to stop criminals beating the system while his home life is left in near-tatters. The other, Robert De Niro, is a master criminal who cannot afford the constraints of a wife and child but who, as he nears his ‘retirement’, begins to think about a future that does not involve him being alone. It’s uniquely crafted by Michael Mann near the top of his game, who masterfully weaves a tale that is as much a character study as an action film.

It’s easy to dismiss Heat as an overlong crime thriller that doesn’t have enough action, but you’ve got to give Mann credit for focusing on the characters and not the easy-marketability of car chases and shootouts. The film’s pivotal bank robbery has so much more power because it is the only moment the director ‘lets loose’ as Pacino tracks De Niro and his gang through the city streets with guns blazing. What the film lacks in grandiose thrills it makes up for with near-perfect pacing and that is the main reason why the long running time doesn’t detract.

Reliably, Pacino and De Niro produce powerhouse performances and they are ably supported by the other standouts Val Kilmer and Jon Voight.

Ed Wood (Tim Burton, USA, 1994) September 2, 2006

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : Comedy, 1990s, Drama, Film reviews , 3 comments

Dir. Ed Wood; screenplay by Scott Alexander; starring Johnny Depp, Martin Landau, Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette, Jeffrey Jones, Bill Murray

Tim Burton’s brilliant 1994 film follows the life of the ‘worst’ film director of all time – Ed Wood, played perfectly by Johnny Depp. Aside from Depp (the best American actor working today) being on top form, Burton lets his stylish flare and superb production design paint a delightful picture of the old Hollywood studio system, while he neatly delves into the mad-world and odd-ball characters of Ed Wood and his acquaintances.

Rating: 5 out of 5

Cadillac Man (Roger Donaldson, USA, 1990) August 20, 2006

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : Comedy, 1990s, Film reviews, Crime , add a comment

Dir. Roger Donaldson; screenplay by Ken Freidman; starring Robin Williams, Tim Robbins

‘Cadillac Man’ is one of Robin Williams’ most underrated films. It’s about car salesman Joey O’Brien (Williams) who likes to make a sale at any time (he attempts to sell a car to a grieving widow at a funeral), whilst maintaining the loving eye of several mistresses. One day, Larry (Robbins) bursts into the showroom with a gun and takes everyone hostage, demanding to know who has been sleeping with his wife. Of course, attention turns to Joey, and as a large police presence congregates outside, and the media gets involved, Joey and Larry find themselves in a rather difficult situation.

Think Glengarry Glen Ross meets Airheads meets Used Cars. ‘Cadillac Man’ is a funny portrayal of relationships and what happens when things don’t go to plan. Williams and Robbins are great in their roles.

Secrets and Lies (Mike Leigh, UK, 1996) August 19, 2006

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : Comedy, 1990s, Drama, Film reviews, Romance , add a comment

Dir. Mike Leigh; screenplay by Mike Leigh; starring Brenda Blethyn, Timothy Spall, Phyllis Logan, Claire Rushbrook, Marianne Jean-Baptiste

Mike Leigh’s somewhat wayward 1996 film is, nevertheless, a powerful but subtle examination of family and class. Whilst it all comes together at the end, the first part of the film is a little unfocused making it difficult for the viewer to fully immerse themselves in the narrative drive of the film. However, the excellent performances are what brings ‘Secrets and Lies’ to life. Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Timothy Spall are both excellent, but it is Brenda Blethyn (who was nominated for an Academy Award for her role) who captivates, drawing the audience into a world of working class heartache and family divisions.

Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, UK, 1996) August 17, 2006

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : Comedy, 1990s, Drama, Film reviews, Crime , add a comment

Dir. Danny Boyle; screenplay by John Hodge; starring Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Kevin McKidd, Robert Carlyle, Kelly Macdonald

Danny Boyle’s psychedelic journey into the anti-establishment drug-culture of Edinburgh’s youth is seen through the hedonistic excess of Ewan McGregor’s drug-obsessed Renton. It’s a brilliant portrayal of the underbelly of working class society, hinged on Renton’s disillusioned contempt for life.

The soundtrack score works in perfect harmony with Boyle’s examination of drugs and their affect on users. Some have criticised the film for glamorising drugs but I can hardly see how Renton’s harrowing rehabilitation and the baby’s death in the drug’s den, can be seen as pro-heroin. The director’s point is that these complacent people should not be pitied - they got themselves into this situation and only they can get themselves out of it. The film doesn’t glamorise drugs, it simply chooses to not judge the people who use them.

This is Boyle’s best film to date. It is technically superb – the direction and editing are stylishly energetic, with Brian Tufano’s hallucinogenic photography drawing the viewer into this world of needles, heroin and Lou Reed’s ‘Perfect Day’. The acting is also excellent with Ewan McGregor turning in, what remains, the best performance of his career. He’s ably supported by the psychotic but brilliant Robert Carlyle (again, arguably the best performance of his career), the child-in-a-man’s-body Ewen Bremner, and the clean-turned-addict Kevin McKidd.

Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, USA, 1993) August 13, 2006

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : 1990s, Film reviews, Action/Adventure, Thriller/Suspense, Sci-fi/Fantasy , add a comment

Dir. Steven Spielberg; screenplay by Michael Crichton, David Koepp; starring Sam Niell, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough

Having not seen the film for many years what struck me most was the postmodernist and self-reflexive attitude of the film, almost parodying the ‘event’ movie that Spielberg had helped create in the first place. The character of Hammond, constantly alluding to the fact no expense was spared could be the mantra of Jurassic Park’s producers and Spielberg himself, but couple this with the film’s blatant product placement and the idea of a theme park ride (Jurassic Park clothing, lunch boxes, t-shirts, etc., were readily available to the public when the film was released; the theme park ride would come a little later), and you discover a rather interesting aside to the film. Spielberg’s left-wing critics would argue he was cashing in on total commercialism through audience manipulation, whilst others might argue he was wryly satirising mainstream, big-budget blockbusters - the phenomenon he’d help create.

Nevertheless, Jurassic Park is a crowd-pleaser that set a benchmark for special-effects in 1993. The performances could have been better (evidenced with the sequel’s much better acting), but the film’s sense of humour, some excellent set-pieces, and terrific production values, make for a frequently entertaining adventure story.

Brassed Off (Mark Herman, UK, 1996)

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : Comedy, 1990s, Drama, Film reviews , add a comment

Dir. Mark Herman; screenplay by Mark Herman; starring Pete Postlethwaite, Tara Fitzgerald, Ewan McGregor, Stephen Tomkinson

There’s very little to criticise about Mark Herman’s 1996 film, which deals with the coal mining closures and their effect on the communities that depend on them. The problems caused by the reality of losing their jobs is brilliantly underpinned by the brass band’s music – serving as a sort of escapist delight – but it never overshadows the societal and familial backdrop that binds them.

The film is both funny and sincere, never relying on sentimentalism to draw its audience in. The scene where the band plays below Pete Postlethwaite’s hospital window is powerful and moving, displaying hope in the midst of lost glory quite beautifully in Stephen Tomkinson’s teary-eyed trombone player.

Wag The Dog (Barry Levinson, USA, 1997) August 11, 2006

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : Comedy, 1990s, Drama, Film reviews, Crime , add a comment

Dir. Barry Levinson; screenplay by David Mamet; starring Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Anne Heche, Dennis Leary, William H. Macy

One of the great things about Wag The Dog is seeing Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro working together. The other great thing is that neither disappoint.

Levinson’s film nicely looks at top-level American corruption as spin-doctor De Niro attempts to take heat off a presidential scandal during the lead up to possible re-election. However, it’s the film’s satire of the media that is the most intriguing – Mamet and Levinson displaying just how powerful a tool it actually is.

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