About This Blog

A place to find my reviews not featured on epinions.com or horror-asylum.com, as well as opinions and lists on everything from movies to TV to music. It's all about me! Send hate mail to vegie18th@hotmail.com or just leave a comment beneath the posts. Review grading system assumes C+ is somewhere in the vicinity of a Passing grade or minor fail.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Review: Mud


Set in small-town Arkansas, 14 year-old Tye Sheridan and his pal Jacob Lofland come across a boat hanging in a tree. They find out that the boat is the current abode of a dirty-looking stranger (Matthew McConaughey), who goes by the name Mud. They get to talking, and before long they are friends, with the boys even bringing food for the man, who appears to be hiding from authorities. The details only slowly reveal themselves, but involve a murder (justifiable homicide, so says Mud), and a somewhat trashy local girl (Reese Witherspoon), whom Mud claims is his girlfriend, and whom he is waiting for. Meanwhile, Sheridan’s mother (Sarah Paulson) and embittered father (Ray McKinnon) are experiencing turbulent times, whilst Lofland’s laidback uncle (Michael Shannon) starts to wonder what the kids are up to. Joe Don Baker and Paul Sparks play the mean-spirited father and slimy brother of the man McConaughey killed, and are looking for revenge/justice/retribution. Sam Shepard has a small part as a taciturn, elderly local with ties to McConaughey and Witherspoon that he’d rather remain in the past.

 

Writer/director Jeff Nichols hit it out of the park in 2011 with “Take Shelter”, but this 2013 mixture of coming of age tale and broken romance story is much less interesting. Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon are perfectly cast, and Ray McKinnon offers an excellent supporting performance, too as a sour but well-meaning father. Witherspoon is particularly fine in the most layered character, allowing her to show a sweetness but also a darker edge that is more indicative of her earlier work. One of the best performances actually comes from an actor who is completely unfamiliar to me, Paul Sparks, who is really quite creepy in a nasty supporting role.

 

Unfortunately, child actors Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland are dull, and the former is sadly the film’s lead protagonist. The kids just aren’t interesting or appealing enough to carry so much of the film. The story doesn’t always go where you expect it to, but that doesn’t mean it’s not clichéd either, and boy is it ever clichéd. However, the kids for me were the bigger problem. You can get into a familiar story if the characters are easy to latch onto. That’s not what happens here.

 

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the film is the scenery captured by cinematographer Adam Stone (“Take Shelter”). Stone really won the mother lode here, as the scenery and sunlight do the bulk of the work. Some really nice shots of fog-laced, backwoods lakes in particular. Me likey a lot.

 

It’s a watchable film, but something is definitely missing, and I think the McConaughey and Witherspoon characters should’ve been about 5-10 years younger. It’s pretty overrated if you ask me, and it’s a huge waste of Sarah Paulson, Michael Shannon (though he shows versatility by playing a nice, normal guy), and Joe Don Baker. Maybe if it were more “Sling Blade” or “Frailty” than “Huckleberry Finn”, it might’ve had more appeal to me.

 

Rating: C+

Friday, July 11, 2014

Review: Killing Season


Robert De Niro plays a retired American military man who has secluded himself up in the Appalachian mountains, resisting his son Milo Ventimiglia’s invitation to his own grandson’s christening. John Travolta (who needs to quit with the goofy, tacked-on facial hair obsession already) plays a former Serbian paramilitary dude who has travelled to the US supposedly to go hunting in the mountains. We know pretty early on, however, that Travolta has a personal beef with De Niro that goes back to the Bosnian-Serbian conflict in the mid-90s. Travolta claims to be Bosnian, and De Niro doesn’t immediately recognise him. Unfortunately, before he has time to, this hunting enthusiast is about to become the hunted, as old wounds are re-opened, as well as a few fresh wounds. However, don’t think shrapnel-embedded, psychologically scarred old De Niro is gonna be easy pickings, there’s still life in him yet.

 

Beware any film featuring Robert De Niro and John Travolta that you’ve never heard of. When that film comes from Millennium Films, the modern day Cannon…run away. Directed by Mark Steven Johnson (who previously directed the underrated “Simon Birch”, the watchable “Ghost Rider”, and the not terribly memorable “Daredevil”) from a tired and clichéd screenplay by Evan Daugherty (“Snow White and the Huntsman”), this 2013 direct-to-DVD effort (with the requisite 69 billion producers from Millennium) goes nowhere slowly. The scenery is nice, but this is a waste of time and talent, playing like a script Millennium had lying around from a Steven Seagal or Dolph Lundgren film that never got off the ground. Travolta’s never been the best judge of quality but what the fuck did De Niro see in this?

 

The film mixes “Deadly Pursuit”-esque mountain-set thriller with a dose of Serbian torture porn (and mere lip service at best to themes of war and genocide), but none of it is remotely entertaining, especially with a hokey, unconvincingly accented Travolta dragging it down. He’s ridiculous and stupid, whilst De Niro is just OK to be charitable. Despite my suspicions of its script’s origins, apparently it was originally conceived as a “Face/Off” reunion for Travolta and Nic Cage, to be directed by John McTiernan (“Predator”, “Die Hard”). I wasn’t a fan of the original John Woo nonsense, but it still probably would’ve been better than this, with a reliable hand of the action genre like McTiernan at the helm. As is? Nothing to see here, move along. It’s not bad enough nor good enough to warrant any more attention.

 

Rating: D+

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Review: The Way Way Back


Nerdy, introverted 14 year-old Liam James is on vacation with his mother (Toni Collette) and her arrogant douchebag boyfriend (Steve Carell), and it looks like it’s going to be a hellish time at Carell’s beach home. That’s until James ventures to the local water park and meets owner Sam Rockwell, who gives him a summer job, and kinda mentors the kid, though mostly just trying to get the sullen teen to break out of his shell and have some damn fun. He also strikes up a relationship with AnnaSophia Robb, the teen daughter of trashy divorcee neighbour Alison Janney. Meanwhile, Amanda Peet and Rob Corddry play acquaintances, the former of whom Carell has a wandering eye for. A pregnant Maya Rudolph plays a water park employee, alongside a depressed Jim Rash and laidback Nat Faxon.

 

Take a little bit of “Meatballs”, add a dash of “The Descendants”, and a sprinkling of “Little Miss Sunshine”, and you get this disappointingly clichéd, derivative film from writer-director Jim Rash. I had heard good things about the film, but aside from terrific performances by Sam Rockwell and Alison Janney, this is all pretty ‘meh’.

 

Toni Collette is especially disappointing in a frankly nothing role that is borderline invisible when not somewhat unsympathetic, and Steve Carell playing Greg Kinnear in “Little Miss Sunshine” just goes to show how well-cast he and Kinnear were in that film. In this role he’s not miscast, he’s just not particularly interesting. I did, however like his character calling Liam James a ‘3’. I mean, it’s easy to be a prick and call him a zero, but the fact that he chose the number 3 shows that he actually put some thought into it and is an even bigger prick for it. I mean, that’s just bloody cruel.

 

Worst of all, though is lead actor Liam James in a singularly uninteresting performance in a crucial role. The dorkiness and sullenness are overdone to an unappealing degree. He’s such a drip that he doesn’t notice that the lovely AnnaSophia Robb (who can be quite pretty when not miscast as the younger Sarah Jessica Parker on TV. Seriously, their faces are the exact opposite of one another) clearly wants to get with him. He’s rather pathetic, a bit too put-upon socially awkward to believe, and uncomfortable to watch. Whilst I loathed Carell’s treatment of him, and no kid deserves to feel like nothing, there is absolutely nothing in James’ performance or character to really make you care about him. Other people treating him poorly isn’t enough.

 

Although Alison Janney pretty much plays the same character on TV now, she’s instantly hilarious and trashy here. I personally don’t think the kid is worth a damn, but nonetheless Sam Rockwell is typically fun here as James’ employer and pretty much lone friend. Actually, all the other borderline depressed pool employees (including those played by the writers themselves) are amusing too, in a film that desperately needs the humour.

 

Writers Rash and Nat Faxon have improved slightly on the overrated “The Descendants” with this film, but they owe almost all the credit to the performances by Alison Janney and Sam Rockwell. Otherwise, this is pretty underwhelming and tired. And sorry guys, but that final scene doesn’t redeem the frankly unlikeable Collette character at all. I understand what was going on there, but it’s never right to behave the way she does, true to life or not.

 

Rating: C+

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Review: Monty Python and the Holy Grail


As the title suggests, this 1975 comedy from directors Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam (the latter of whom would go on to direct “Time Bandits” and “The Fisher King”, whilst the former helmed subsequent Python films “The Life of Brian” and “The Meaning of Life”), is the irreverent British comedy troupe’s interpretation of the story of King Arthur (Played by Graham Chapman as a noble but pompous and irritable sort), and his Knights of the Round Table, in their quest for the holiest of grails. The performers play several roles each (Michael Palin playing the most at 12), with the main characters being Arthur and his Knights. John Cleese is the heroic, but recklessly violent Lancelot the Brave, who could learn a thing or two about subtlety. Michael Palin is Sir Galahad the Chaste, whose virtue is tested by the buxom women of the Castle Anthrax. Eric Idle plays Sir Robin the Not Quite So Brave as Sir Lancelot, whose unfortunate exploits are joyously retold by his band of minstrel followers (Chiefly Neil Innes, who’s a riot). Terry Jones plays Sir Bedevere the Wise, who despite his title, is a moron, and seems to be just making up the numbers really. Oh, and we’re also told of a so-called Sir Not Appearing in This Film. Along the way our would-be heroes encounter everyone from God himself (actually a Terry Gilliam animation based on a cut-out of legendary 19th Century cricketer W.G. Grace), who can’t stand sycophants or apologists, the Black Knight (John Cleese, at his best) who is an aggressive and ridiculously persistent but hopeless would-be warrior, to the bizarre Tim the Enchanter (Cleese again, seemingly with Billy Connolly’s eyebrows and accent) who warns the Knights of a ‘a creature so foul, so cruel that no man yet has fought with it and lived’. Other indescribable characters include the annoying and petty Knights Who Say ‘Ni!’, Roger the Shrubber (Idle), and the ugly Gatekeeper of the Bridge of Death, who will only allow to cross those who correctly answer his three questions of varying difficulty (though, part of the hilarity comes from one of the Knights’ inability to answer even the easiest of questions).

 

This is my second favourite film comedy of all-time, just behind “The Blues Brothers”, so this review comes from the point of view of someone familiar with, and an admirer of (to the point of quoting lines quite frequently), the Monty Python style of comedy, which for the uninitiated can be a little hard to pin down. I mean these guys employ crude animation, political satire and anti-establishment humour, buffoonish slapstick, and comedic cross-dressing. You name it, they do it, and this film is full of it. Python humour is also an acquired taste (as are the comedy stylings of Woody Allen, Benny Hill, Richard Pryor, Jerry Lewis), so I have no way of knowing whether this film is going to be compatible with your sense of humour. The best I can do is outline why I personally find the film brilliant, and give examples without actually spoiling the potential fun for anyone who has yet to experience this comedic masterpiece (That is, I’ll try not to use too many actual quotes from the film, spoiling the gags, but I will indulge in a few here and there).

 

Before I get on to the comedic aspects of the film, let me tell you something you’re unlikely to read anywhere else. As someone who is interested in the story of the Knights of the Round Table, my two favourite things about this film are its look and the heroic theme music that accompanies King Arthur, a most underrated aspect to the film. Whilst being brilliantly funny, the film actually gives us a surprisingly effective, muddy and depressing look at life in the Middle Ages, without getting too gloomy (ala “Excalibur”). The film goes out of its way to make everything look, for lack of a better description, like shit. And this is in keeping with Python’s comedic take on the class system, which has always been a favourite topic of theirs. The film has a truly side-splitting scene where Arthur encounters Palin as a disgruntled peasant named Dennis (though he only learns the chap’s name after first mistaking him for an old woman) who wants to rant and rave about being repressed by an ‘outdated Imperialist dogma’ that exploits the workers etc. His scoffing at the tales of the Sword in the Stone and the Lady in the Lake are just superb, and Chapman (going through personal, alcoholic hell at the time) is perfect as the pompous and mildly annoyed Arthur. The infamous ‘Bring out ‘yer dead!’ scene involving the removal of corpses (These were hard times, remember!) has a classic exchange where one person asks another how he can tell Arthur is a King. The response, unspoiled here, is classic stuff.

 

But Python weren’t just into political comedy. This is a film that also makes much fun out of Arthur and the Knights’ riding horses, which in actuality, are their trusty companions (Concorde, for Lancelot, and Patsy for Arthur) banging two coconut shells together to make clip-clop sounds. It’s stupid and very, very funny. The film takes this silly concept and takes it in an even more absurd direction when Arthur has a discussion with someone over the use of coconuts to simulate horse riding, and the logical impossibility of said coconuts being found in England at that time. Not to mention the discussion about swallows and migration. Arthur’s encounter with the Black Knight (played by Cleese) is in yet another comedic category. This segment, featuring a boastful, but incompetent swordsman who simply won’t give in, no matter how many limbs are lopped off or blood is lost, is gory black comedy mixed with sheer stupidity. My favourite exchange?; Black Knight: ‘I’m invincible!’ Arthur: ‘You’re a loony!’. Some might compare the scene to the grotesque (but hysterically funny) Mr. Creosote from “Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life”, but the comic blood here isn’t even remotely offensive, and is just silly. Like the film itself, it won’t appeal to everyone, but it’s their loss (the scene is also the first in a running gag of characters never quite dying, even when you think it’s impossible that they’re still alive). There’s even a bit of musical comedy, for those inclined. I’m not much into the song-and-dance ‘Knights of the Round Table’ (though the Lego version on the Special Edition DVD is priceless), but Neil Innes, as Sir Robin’s travelling minstrel is side-splittingly funny as the film makes a mockery of Medieval heroism and chivalry.

 

There’s also a bit of fourth wall-breaking at various points when characters from different scenes comment on the action, usually to tell everyone to ‘Get on with it!’. The opening credits are also clever and some of the funniest material in the film, as a silly credit designer starts giving faux Swedish subtitles, and yammering on about fjords, llamas, and moose-related humour before they are sacked, and it just goes on and on, getting absurdly funnier by the second. It’s far and away the best indicator of whether this film’s humour will be compatible with you or not. Gilliam, aside from the occasional subsidiary character and his co-director gig (which he apparently quit from about midway through out of frustration) is mostly on hand (no pun intended) to provide quirky and irreverent animations and transitions, the best of which is the title card for The Quest for the Holy Grail, in which trumpets get blown from disembodied derrieres. Completely insane, juvenile, and very funny. Speaking of juvenile, and it’s another very Gilliam moment, there’s the dreaded Knights Who Say ‘Ni!’, a bunch of infantile, yammering fools with patently ridiculous demands, and then they go and change their name, seemingly on a whim. Visually, they don’t look too far removed from what Gilliam would later create for his Medieval/fantasy scenes in “The Fisher King”, but the humour is definitely indicative of the entire troupe. One of the more quotable encounters in the film for fan geeks such as myself comes with the Knights’ encounters with a castle inhabited by silly French soldiers (AKA the French Taunters) with outrageous accents. Cleese is in a class of his own here as the most prominent of the Frenchmen, hurling all manner of hilariously juvenile insults at Arthur who just wants to know if they’ve seen the Holy Grail. There’s so many insults used here that I can probably provide you with one without ruining the fun (Read with your worst, exaggerated French accent); ‘Go and burn your bottoms you sons of a silly person!’.

 

Terry Jones gets some of his best moments in Python history in this film. Sir Bedevere’s only genuinely funny moment involves a very Pythonesque spin on the old Trojan Horse story, that also features a line you’ll hear many a Python fan quoting; ‘Run away! Run away!’. Palin, meanwhile is a scream as the rather mincy (but definitely not gay!) Sir Galahad whose tale is a real hoot, turning the Quest for the Holy Grail into some kind of weird wet dream. The best moment for both Palin and Jones is a scene they both share, as a father and son. Jones is the effeminate Prince Herbert, whose dad (Palin, with a very funny gruff voice), in addition to never remembering his son’s name, is trying to arrange a marriage that Herbert has absolutely no interest in. In fact, he’d much rather...sing! But no, macho dad will have none of that, leading to an hilarious exchange between Palin and two numbskull guards (one, an hysterically rubber-faced Idle), Herbert sending a call for help that leads to one of the funniest lines in the film (I won’t spoil it, but it would make a great sound file for incoming emails), and a rescue attempt by Sir Lancelot that in addition to turning a wedding into a massacre (Talk about a Red Wedding!), doesn’t end up being the kind of happy ending Sir Lancelot was thinking of. I just love how the Python gang have subversively depicted the well-loved Knights of the Round Table; Arthur is pompous, Bedevere is stupid, Lancelot is sociopathic, Galahad is horny, and Sir Robin (was he ever a part of the legend? I’m pretty well-schooled on the subject and don’t think he was) is a coward.

 

Cleese’s Tim the Enchanter is one of my all-time favourite comedy characters, and I wish he were in the film more. Whether it’s the positively other-worldly

locations, the cheesy thunderbolts/explosions he creates, or Cleese’s side-splitting, literally frothing at the mouth performance delivering lines that I still quote to this day. And just wait until you see the foul creature Tim is forebodingly warning about. You’re gonna love that. Another great Palin character in the film is during the Holy Hand-Grenade scene, where he explains the rules for using it. I have no idea how Idle, standing next to him, managed to keep a straight face. The climactic Bridge of Death scene is a true classic (featuring very Python-esque questions from the Gatekeeper), with Idle’s Sir Robin and Palin’s Sir Galahad getting the best moments in the scene.

 

Obviously this is a film very near and dear to my heart, and as I said, my second favourite film comedy. It does, however, come with flaws. Firstly, a Special Edition DVD quibble; It’s a cute gag, but having the film start with a few minutes of an old British comedy “Dentists on the Job” before the mistake is corrected, is annoying to have to sit through every single time. I did, however, find it funny that the DVD packaging lists a bunch of other comedies to enjoy; “Jabberwocky”, “Gandhi”, and “Lawrence of Arabia”. I also think the modern intrusions into the film are unnecessary and not funny, especially the ending that screams ‘We ran out of money’. But these are just minor quibbles in a truly hilarious film, for me, the best-ever Python film (I’m not a “Life of Brian” fan, but “The Meaning of Life” contained some of their best work), despite the apparent hell it was to film it (Gilliam’s frustration, Chapman’s severe alcoholism, and several other problems on set). If you’ve made it this far into the review and haven’t yet seen the film, you might want to give it a try. I have probably neglected to touch on many other wonderful moments in the film, but perhaps that is for the best. Better you should experience the film for yourself, if you haven’t done so already.

 

Rating: A+

Monday, July 7, 2014

Review: The Power of One


Set in South Africa during the 30s and 40s, this is the story of orphaned P.K. (played as an adult by Stephen Dorff) picked on by the other boys at boarding school for being an English South African amidst a bunch of Nationalistic Afrikaners. He is mentored through life by three people; German pacifist Doc (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who teaches him about life and plants. Geel Pete (Morgan Freeman) a black slave who teaches P.K. how to box, which will lead P.K. to become a driving force for an attempt at social change among the races in South Africa. Finally there is the Headmaster (Sir John Gielgud), the chief academic influence in P.K.’s life, and the inspiration for P.K. to teach literacy to blacks (which is illegal at the time). Fay Masterson plays the daughter of the Afrikaner Nationalist President, whom P.K. romances, to her father’s obvious disapproval. Daniel Craig plays a childhood tormentor of P.K.’s, grown up.

 

Let’s forget about Bryce Courtenay’s novel and whether this 1992 film is inferior to it or not, just for a second. At the end of the day, this adaptation from director John G. Avildsen (“Rocky”, “The Karate Kid”) and writer Robert Mark Kamen (“The Karate Kid”, the underrated boxing movie “Gladiator”) is a powerful and well-made film in its own right bolstered by several excellent performances. There’s something for everyone here; apartheid story, Nazis, Rudyard Kipling vibes, boxing movie- all in one. And I don’t think the boxing aspect trivialises a damn thing. This is just one (fictionalised) account of this time and place in history, and at the very least it’s a great film for high school students to be introduced to some of this stuff (indeed, that’s when I first encountered it), and maybe they’ll then go and read the book too.

 

I think the fact that this was made by the “Rocky” and “Karate Kid” guy got up some people’s noses, and they had a bias against it from the get go, because the boxing really isn’t that much of a big deal in the film (and I believe it’s a part of the book anyway). If the rivalry between Stephen Dorff and Daniel Craig culminated in a boxing match, then it might border on being offensive or at least corny. But that does not happen here, because it’s not a damn boxing movie. It’s really a coming of age film, a rock-solid account of one boy’s journey into adulthood as he comes out the other side of some really troubling personal/geopolitical circumstances.

 

Stephen Dorff never quite happened as an actor/movie star, did he? I’m not quite sure why that is, but he’s effective here in the lead. His Seth Effriken accent, by the way, is spot-on to my Australian ears. He’s certainly a more talented actor than his contemporaries like Ethan Hawke and Keanu Reeves. Fay Masterson isn’t nearly as effective as his wan love interest, but her Seth Effriken accent is certainly fine.

 

But this film really gets a boost from its trio of elder statesmen; Armin Mueller-Stahl, Morgan Freeman, and Sir John Gielgud. It’s a little disconcerting at first to see Mueller-Stahl playing a kindly pacifist, but he’s more than capable of it. Morgan Freeman, meanwhile, is so good you almost forget he’s playing an African Mr. Miyagi. If you ask me, he deserved an Oscar for his work here, it’s one of his best performances. As for Sir John, he is quite simply one of the greatest actors to have ever lived, and any film with his presence is very, very lucky to have been so blessed.

 

Not everything here comes up roses, however. I found the tactic of having a child narrate the film at first before moving on to Dorff’s narration far too gimmicky and distracting without the merit to excuse it. I also think the African coffee commercial soundtrack was a bit twee. I felt like I was watching “The Lion King” somewhat, and a little of it went a long, long way.

 

This is a strong, well-acted, and unpleasant film, with a rushed ending that hurts it a tad. But the performances from an excellent cast and some compelling themes combine to make this somewhat underrated in my view.

 

Rating: B

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Review: Oliver and Company


Set in New York, Oliver (voiced by Joey ‘Woah’ Lawrence) is an orphaned orange pussy who finds himself hooking up with a bunch of stray pooches, led by streetwise Dodger (voiced by Billy Joel), and who work (i.e. steal) for human Fagin (voiced by Dom DeLuise). Poor Fagin is in financial dire straits, in debt to nasty mobster Sykes (voiced by Robert Loggia). Cheech Marin (as excitable Chihuahua Tito), Roscoe Lee Browne (as melodramatic bulldog Francis), Sheryl Lee Ralph (as sassy Afghan hound Rita), and Richard Mulligan (as the ironically named Einstein, a somewhat thick Great Dane) voice the other pooches, with Bette Midler voicing Georgette, a spoiled diva poodle Oliver runs into when unwittingly adopted by a rich (but lonely) young girl.

 

Disney animation was not churning out masterpieces in the 80s the way it used to in the 40s and 50s, but this 1988 film from director George Scribner (a former animator in the only feature-length directorial gig of his career) is quite enjoyable. Scripted by Jim Cox (“The Rescuers Down Under”, “Ferngully: The Last Rainforest”) & Timothy J. Disney (The Great-Nephew of God), it’s an Americanised loose update of “Oliver Twist” with mostly animals, and it comes off better than you’d think. 80s New York is a nice setting for the story, and the voice cast is mostly excellent. Singer Billy Joel makes for an effective canine Artful Dodger substitute, and the film features scene-stealing vocal work by Cheech Marin, Bette Midler, and especially Roscoe Lee Browne. Cheech is perfect casting as a Chihuahua (possibly a bit of a racial stereotype, though) and his character serves as the comic relief sidekick used so often in Disney animated films subsequently. Like Cheech, The Divine Miss M can be an acquired taste, but as a pampered, high strung diva poodle, she’s spot-on casting. Her entrance alone is very funny, and she gets the film’s best song too. Theatre veteran Roscoe Lee Browne, however is in another league entirely. His melodramatic, Shakespeare-loving bulldog has most of the film’s best moments. Sheryl Lee Ralph and Taurean Blaque (voicing probably the only villainous animal character) are rock-solid too.

 

The title character voiced by an unrecognisable Joey Lawrence is a bit forgettable, unfortunately, and that’s true of the animation too. I love cute widdle putty tats, but Oliver is boring and overshadowed by everyone else. Disney animation during this period really didn’t stand out at all. It’s the human characters, however, that are the real problem as this Disney interpretation of “Oliver Twist” messes around with one of literature’s most important characters, Fagin. Dom DeLuise apparently enjoyed working on this film, but this version of the character is boring and toothless. He’s been re-written as a pathetic loser, and that is underwhelming. Robert Loggia fares better voicing gangster Sykes, and is well-cast, but the character isn’t especially interesting.

 

The songs are a mixed bag, though to an extent I dug the film’s 80s musical/cultural vibe, at least in theory. The opening number by Huey Lewis isn’t bad, though it could’ve been used as the theme of an 80s TV show. Aside from Midler (whose song was written by Barry Manilow of all people), the best song comes from Ruth Pointer singing for Ms. Ralph. The real surprise is iconic New Yorker Billy Joel, one of my favourite singers, who fares better in the voice acting department here. His ‘Why Should I Worry?’ is hard to get out of your head, but is somewhat disjointed melodically and far from his best work. Apparently Joel didn’t like this experience of working for Disney, and he didn’t write the song himself, but I still expected a lot better from him.

 

This is no great Disney effort, but it’s fun, and certainly unworthy of its reputation (It did OK box-office at the time, but has largely been forgotten). The voice cast alone makes it worth seeing at least once. I just wish Disney didn’t whitewash one of literature’s most well-known characters.

 

Rating: B-

Review: The Emperor’s Club


Told largely in flashback from the POV of a long-serving ancient history teacher (Kevin Kline) at a posh school about to have a 25 year reunion commemorating and recreating the school’s infamous history quiz (which makes school seem like a warm up for an appearance on “Jeopardy”, but never mind). We see the early days of his tenure as he tries to impart not only knowledge to his students, but also a sense of honour, integrity, and character. Enter troublemaker Emile Hirsch, a non-conformist smart-arse who clearly has the smarts, and Kline feels he shows genuine promise. But does he have the quality of character? Fellow students are played by Paul Dano and Jesse Eisenberg, whilst Rob Morrow and Edward Herrmann are among the faculty. Stephen Culp and Patrick Dempsey play the middle-aged versions of Paul Dano and Jesse Eisenberg, respectively, whilst Harris Yulin is Hirsch’s unfeeling politician father, and Embeth Davidtz is the woman Kline loves but can’t have.

 

Based on a short story by Ethan Canin, this 2002 drama from directed by Michael Hoffman (“Soapdish”, “Game 6”) has a sting in its tail, but is otherwise a hoary old mixture of previous ‘inspirational teacher’ stories like “Goodbye Mr. Chips”, “To Sir With Love”, and “Dead Poet’s Society”. Harris Yulin’s cold-hearted, disapproving dad, for instance is straight out of “Dead Poet’s Society”, as is the title, frankly. The rather bitter finale is disarming, but easily the most original thing in the damn film.

 

Thankfully the cast is a winner, with Kevin Kline and Emile Hirsch perfectly cast, and a young Paul Dano stealing the show in a nervy, nerdy part. I could’ve done without the obvious Steve McQueen reference with Hirsch and the baseball throwing. We get it, he’s a taciturn non-conformist, that’s what acting is for. Bit of a waste of the talented and lovely Embeth Davidtz, though…something I’ve typed way too many times if you ask me. Nonetheless her part is one of the most horribly neglected, underwritten characters I’ve ever come across. The film would’ve been better if the character were dispensed with entirely. It’s a real shame, the actors have turned up ready for work, but it’s at the service of a story that has mostly been done to death and a few times in zombified state too. Screenwriter Neil Tolkin (whose “Licence to Drive” and “Jury Duty” are even more dubious endeavours) lets them-and the audience- down. Or perhaps the original (LOL) story wasn’t up to snuff to begin with.

 

It took a few more years, but Hirsch (who also gives the film some- admittedly clichéd- rebellious spirit), Jesse Eisenberg (who, if the actor playing him as a mature adult is any indication, will become a hunky TV personality in his early 40s), and Paul Dano (who looks so incredibly young here) would move on to better careers and projects after this, and were probably just happy to be working at the time in something outside of the teeny bopper realm or bloated big budget bombs.

 

It’s kinda watchable, but only because of the efforts of the cast. “The Wonder Years” did this kind of material (minus the cynicism) back in the early 90s, and in under 30 minutes.

 

Rating: C+