Big Trouble in Little China

What on Earth is this film doing on the list? It seems enough people voted for it to become the 430th greatest film of all time in Empire’s 2008 poll, but it has nothing going for it. The plot is sketchy, full of holes and relies too much on coincidence, the sets are shoddy and in danger of falling over, the effects are terrible and the script even worse (“Are you ready, Jack?” “I was born ready.”)
The story, as much as there is one, concerns opinionated but dumb brute Jack Burton (Kurt Russell), truck driver of the Pork Chop Express. After meeting up with an old friend in San Francisco’s Chinatown district, he loses his truck and his friend’s fiancé is kidnapped by a mysterious, yet ridiculous, magical Chinese cult.  Burton is, unquestionably, a bit of a dick, only helping to look for her in the hope of finding his truck, and getting the money his friend owes him. They spend the rest of the film looking for her, with the help of Kim Cattrall’s friendly neighbourhood lawyer, who just happens to be in league with a reporter writing an article about the magic. The mythology is inconsistent (as are the characters’ fighting abilities from one scene to the next) and bizarre, and the bad guys look too ridiculous to be taken seriously, flying through the air shooting lightning from their hands, wearing giant comedy lampshades on their heads.
The final confrontation is disappointingly brief, and the freaky ball of floating eyes and Chewbacca/orang-utan/rejected muppet hybrid are unsettling, not to mention almost entirely superfluous to the plot. Maybe, after enough alcohol and a dangerously undercooked kebab this could slip into so-bad-it’s-good territory, but otherwise avoid at all costs.
Choose life 2/10
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Muriel’s Wedding

Muriel’s Wedding seems unsure of what it wants to be. At times it follows standard rom-com tropes; an eccentric family, a first date going awry involving a burst bean bag, a pet bird thrown through a window and an unexpected trip to the hospital. At other times it seems to want to be a character piece, with Toni Colette’s compulsive liar and Abba obsessed Muriel setting her sights on getting married, regardless of who the groom is and how she feels about him, running away from her ashamed domineering family to start a new life (with a new name; Mariel) after a chance encounter with an old school friend (Rachel Nichols), whilst elsewhere it could be described as a tragedy, as Mariel becomes more and more desperate to fulfil her dream, whilst seeming to bring bad luck to all she comes into contact with.
Colette fully loses herself within the overweight, unfashionable, possibly mentally ill Muriel, in her first major role, but the too frequent switches in tone, from light comedy to tragedy, are too jarring, the characters too thin and the comic situations not entertaining enough to make this worthwhile.
Choose life 4/10

Avatar

So, you’ve created a new way to make films; filling a large indoor space (dubbed The Volume) with cameras, covering your actors’ bodies with hundreds of motion capturing dots, films a scene then changing the actors to aliens and the warehouse to a jungle afterward on a computer, but you can’t think of a decent story to set it round. So what do you do? If you’re James Cameron, director of such cinematic milestones as Terminator 1 & 2, Aliens and Titanic, then you steal. From everything. There isn’t an original moment in Avatar, with Platoon, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Halo, Cameron’s own Aliens and, most notably, Dances with Wolves all receiving enough ‘loving homage’ to keep copyright lawyers in business for years to come. In the hands of a lesser director, or without the shiny new technology and 3D CGI gimmickry available this film would have been lost amid the also-ran film flotilla of 2009, but effects overcame plotting to elevate the film above its rightful place.
Sam Worthington plays Jake Sully, a US marine (with Worthington’s trademark unshakeable Australian accent) paralysed from the waist down, who volunteers to take the place of his recently deceased scientist brother in a mission to infiltrate the alien race of the Na’vi, 9ft tall lanky blue cat people with 4ft long rope-like tails and long black ponytails with USBs on the end. Jake is able to control a scientifically grown ‘avatar’ that responds to his body when wired up in a big plastic pod.
The maguffin of the plot is that the Na’vi live in a giant tree, under which is a vast source of a precious fuel known as unobtainium. You get the feeling they were supposed to rename that at some point but forgot, or Cameron came up with it and no-one had the guts to tell him it sounded stupid. Stephen Lang’s scarred Colonel Quaritch and Giovanni Ribisi’s corporate suit Parker want Jake to get the aliens to move, whilst Sigourney Weaver’s scientist and fellow avatar occupier Dr. Grace Augustine wants to learn more about the Na’vi way of life. When Jake is accepted into the alien tribe, he is torn between these two warring factions, as well as his own developing feelings for tribe member Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), and a simpler way of life that greatly appeals to him.
Breaking us into the sci-fi world gently, first showing us men, soldiers, scientists, then the avatars floating in their booths, 3D holograms and a few active avatars, we are then transplanted to the fully realised, completely created yet seamless and immersive fantasy world of Na’vi home planet Pandora, with vibrant, unusually active foliage and a wide variety of lifeforms perhaps a little too familiar to be believable as entirely alien. With 6-limbed bat-lemurs, giant hammerhead rhinos, vicious panther/dilophosaurus, wild oil-black dogs, helicopter lizards and of course giant freaking dragons, it’s not just the Earth film back catalogue from which Cameron has borrowed.
There was uproar when Saldana’s Neytiri wasn’t considered for an Oscar due to it being hidden behind a computer generated mask (yet Al Pacino was nominated for his latex-obscured turn in Dick Tracy, and John Hurt won for his in the Elephant Man), but there is no doubt she should have been considered for her fiery, animalistic turn as the fierce warrioress, her initial aggression towards Jake’s ‘dreamwalker’ gradually melting to pride, friendship and affection, ultimately leading to some freaky blue alien sex that was traumatising and completely unnecessary. As ever Worthington puts in a blank canvas of a role, although this is arguably what is required of his jarhead moron, leaving him ready to be imprinted upon by Quaritch, Augustine of Neytiri.
For those concerned with a new spin on Titanic’s across the tracks romance dominating the film fear not, as there is more than just romance breaking through language barriers and a less-than-subtle environmental message. The final half hour battle between the soldiers and the Na’vi, including aerial assaults and a reversal of Aliens’ giant mech battle, rivals any war film, and is worth the entry fee alone. Be sure to stop watching before Leona Lewis’ ear-gougingly awful credits song though.
Choose film 6/10

Kick-Ass

Just as Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) cannot understand why no-one has tried to become a superhero in Matthew Vaughn’s first American film (after Layer Cake and Stardust in the UK, before X-Men First Class), so too it is difficult to understand why no-one has made a film about someone trying to become a superhero. It’s such a forehead-slappingly simple premise that you assume someone else must have already done it. Of course, since then the likes of Defendor (starring Woody Harrelson) and Super (with Rainn Wilson) have put their spin on the idea, and received less critical acclaim and box office revenue in return, as they have failed to match the level of absurdity, shock or brilliance of Kick-Ass, based on Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.’s excellent graphic novel. And, they don’t have a 10-year old girl calling a room full of drug dealers cunts and being shot in the chest by her doting father.
Using a scuba suit, rubber gloves, self-taught nunchuck skills and the inability to pain and a partially metal skeleton gained from wildly overestimating his ability to take down some thugs, Dave transforms into Kick-Ass, soon becoming an Internet sensation after being caught on a cameraphone helping a victim of a gang crime.
Meanwhile, Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage, channelling original Batman Adam West with a kiddy-fiddler moustache) and daughter Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz) already exist as superheroes, albeit far more covertly than Kick-Ass, and are trying to take down crime kingpin Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong), whose nerdy son Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) goes to school with Dave, and thinks he can help his Dad by becoming Kick-Ass’ sidekick, Red Mist.
Whilst very much an origin story, this neatly sidesteps being bogged down in exposition and training montages with the already established Big Daddy, whose backstory is succinctly covered in a well-played comic book style. The standout though is Moretz, clearly having clocked some serious training in both combat and knife skills, despatching the aforementioned gang of hoodlums with all manner of weaponry; stabbing, shooting and dismembering as though an everyday occurrence, although there’s a fair chance that for her it actually is. There is some truly amazing music to kill people to as well, with Joan Jett’s Bad Reputation being a particular favourite.
Choose film 7/10

Wallace and Gromit: the Curse of the Were-Rabbit

I’ve mentioned before in the review for Chicken Run that British animation company Aardman do enjoy filling their films with parodies, puns and homages, with this picture proving no exception. From faithful pooch Gromit having a degree from Dogwarts university, power tools made by Botch and scenes stolen from the likes of King Kong and An American Werewolf in London, the gags come thick and fast, unashamedly crowbarring in references to other rabbit-related movies (a shop called Harvey’s, Bright Eyes playing on the radio).
However, endless jokes are not enough, as the predictable (if enjoyably surreal) story of a man (Wallace, voiced as ever by the dependable Peter Sallis) and a rabbit swapping physicalities and personality traits after a bout of brainwashing goes wrong leaves too many loose ends and plays plot points signposted in neon letters as twists and shock reveals. A game British cast (Helena Bonham Carter as vegetable mimicking Lady Tottington, Ralph Fiennes as the blunderbuss wielding diminutive Victor) are solid, but not quite enough to warrant repeat viewings.
Choose life 5/10

Dirty Harry

Would this film have had such a cultural impact without Clint Eastwood’s performance as the eponymous San Francisco detective ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan? Probably not, as Eastwood’s depiction of one of cinema’s most legendary and hardest badasses is the only thing worth watching in this picture. After the infamous early scene, where Harry foils a robbery using only a .44 Magnum and one of the most quoted lines in the history of people saying something someone else said first, the action peters out, leaving a fairly standard, character driven police procedural, as Callahan attempts to solve the case of the Scorpio killer, loosely based on the real life Zodiac killer recently seen in David Fincher’s film of the same name.
The film rises a little when it detracts from the central plot – the dealing with an attempted suicide is a particular highlight, but is Eastwood’s performance and a decent script enough to watch this movie? Will I choose life, or film? Can’t tell myself in all this excitement.
Choose life 5/10

Shaun of the Dead/Hot Fuzz

How does one create two of the best loved British comedies of recent years? Initially it seemed purely to involve director Edgar Wright and stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, but recently Wright’s foray across the pond, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, was well reviewed but barely seen, whereas the Pegg/Frost scripted Paul drew huge crowds but lacklustre reviews. No, the secret it would seem is to keep this trio together, with Wright and Pegg on scripting duties, Pegg in the lead role and Frost as his incompetent sidekick. Pepper the rest of the cast with the cream of British acting and comedy, including Jim Broadbent, Timothy Dalton, Peter Serafinowicz and Dylan Moran, with Bill Nighy and Martin Freeman appearing in both films. Also, there must be cameos you can miss even without blinking – in Hot Fuzz, Cate Blanchett plays Pegg’s ex-girlfriend behind a decontamination mask and Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson is the Santa who stabs him through the hand- but crucially, the film must remain thoroughly British.
For this is the true secret of these films. Whereas other great British filmmakers seem to shy away from their country of origin (Danny Boyle, Ridley Scott, Alfred Hitchcock) opting instead to embrace the more commercial stylings of Hollywood, Wright and co. make sure that if you cut the film in half, it reads Made in England all the way through. From the settings – the zombie-infested streets of London or the sleepy rural village of Sandford, to the cast, sense of humour and the solution to any problem (“I dunno… pub?”) there have never been comedies this British since Kind Hearts and Coronets.
 It is also difficult to pin down what kind of a comedy the films are, as they feature equal quantities of character driven sitcom (Shaun’s vying affections for girlfriend Liz and best mate Ed), genre pastiche (there are more references in both films than could ever be listed), social commentary (upon discovering a zombie, Ed and Shaun first assume she is drunk), outlandish set pieces (battering a zombie with pool cues to Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now) and subtle farce (The foam housing of twin pistols either side of a thermos in a pensioners bag). This cornucopia of comedic styles means that, if you didn’t like the last joke, it’s OK as another will be along shortly.
The most important aspect though seems to be to make sure there are repeated, quotable lines, whose meanings change throughout the course of the film (“He’s not my Dad,” “You’ve got red on you.”) or off-hand or unintentional predictions that inevitably come true. Of the two films, Fuzz rates a little lower due to a bout of Return of the King syndrome, with more explosive endings than are strictly necessary. Shaun also offers more rewarding repeat viewings, with many lines not landing their full impact without prior knowledge of the rest of the film.
Shaun of the Dead Choose film 9/10
Hot Fuzz Choose film 8/10