Rating: The Good – 76.8 Genre: Action, Black Comedy Duration: 103 mins Director: Shane Black Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Val Kilmer, Michelle Monaghan
A playful action comedy with an ability to shift towards darker gears is what we got when seminal action writer Shane Black stepped behind the camera to resurrect the careers of two of Hollywood’s most interesting would-be leads. Robert Downey Jr. stars as a New York thief hiding out in Hollywood who gets caught up in a noir style mystery involving his former high school crush (Michelle Monaghan) and Val Kilmer’s gay private detective.
As much as this film’s curiosity and success rests on its novel story, riff-abundant script, and fairytale like narration, the three leads are in smashing form. A natural chemistry among the cast is a gift for any action director because it can breathe additional layers of life into the necessary action set pieces and Black found himself triply blessed here as Downey Jr., Kilmer, and Monaghan reflect the best trio since Gibson, Glover, and Pesci. The story is a purposeful mash up of those that the great detective noirs served up replete with converging subplots and dark subject matters. Ever in cheeky mode though, Black spins the character archetypes on their head and none more so than Downey’s central hero who is more Jack Burton than Mike Hammer. This or course only adds to his charm as the movie’s narrator and, for his part, Downey is in commanding form and perfectly self-deprecating – in line with where his career was at the time.
If anything, Kilmer is better as the sarcastic detective batting for the other team. Though his character’s sexuality is the basis for most of his jokes, Black occasionally shows a subtler touch when he uses it to merely inform the comedy background. Purposefully avoiding one character stereotype only to unwittingly embrace another is the definition of self-defeating but thankfully, Kilmer’s impeccable timing and natural presence compensates and he gives us one of the better characters Hollywood has offered up in recent years – an original and interesting good guy and wickedly funny to boot. Far from being eclipsed by any male double act, Monaghan is just as quirky and even more charming. Moreover, by virtue of the story’s construction, it’s usually up to her to carry the story forward and she combined her dual roles with an effortless vibrance.
Black’s direction deserves some comment given it was his first time taking the reigns and though he allows the self-referential narration to ironically interfere with the narrative rather than aid its progression, the visual profile of the movie is flush with personality. Aaron Osbourne’s production design combined with Michael Barrett’s photography gives L.A. a modern fairytale quality in keeping with the themes of the story. The action sequences too are well handled thanks to some innovative ideas and deft editing. However, the most impressive feature of Black’s helmsmanship is perhaps his ability to change the tone of the movie without warning. There’s a moment when Downey confronts a heartless hitman – who had previously pulled off his recently sewn on finger in a nihilistically amusing episode – and it chills to the bone. It adds gravitas to the overall experience and enriches the film’s homage to the great noir. And in doing so, it rounds off this little gem in admirable style.
Rating: The Good – 90.8 Genre: Action Duration: 131 mins Director: John McTiernen Stars: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia
The Daddy of all action films, Die Hard has it all. An everyman hero, boo-hissable villains, a fantastic plot, and a scintillating script. Add in some sublime action choreography captured by the top action director (John McTiernen) and cinematographer (Jan DeBont) in the business, give Bruce Willis the lead, and the result is the cleverest, wittiest, and most satisfying action film ever made.
Willis plays John McClane, a New York cop who goes to toe to toe with a group of German terrorists when they take over his estranged wife’s corporate headquarters during their Christmas party. Despite his meticulous planning, the terrorist leader (played with relish by Alan Rickman in his first screen appearance) finds McClane and his abrasive personality to be a consistent pain in the ass as all his plans are systematically foiled by the cop.
Though the action sequences have become the stuff of movie legend, the film’s standout strengths were the charisma of its two leads, either on their own or while sparring with each other and of course, the script which facilitated that charisma. Willis in particular, excels like no action hero before him or since in both charm and grittiness and with the greatest hero dialogue ever written to chew on, he immortalised his character. Rickman, for his part, devours his equally brilliant lines with gargantuan amounts of gusto and, in truth, we’ve never seen a more vigorous or better portrayal of a movie villain. Supported by an array of perfectly rounded characters played by a host of top actors, Willis and Rickman give the film its substance, rendering the action sequences all the more enjoyable.
Of course, given the pedigree of Die Hard’s director and cinematographer, it should come as no surprise that the intelligence and wit demonstrated in front of the camera is matched by that behind it as McTiernen and DeBont produce a tour de force. No other sequence demonstrates this more than when McClane brings patrolman Powell into the fold with a bang – as Arglye the limo driver chills in the parking garage below oblivious to the mayhem going on behind him. “Welcome to the party pal!”
Rating: The Good – 79.2 Genre: Comedy Duration: 97 mins Director: Jeremiah S. Chechik Stars: Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Juliette Lewis
The Griswold’s finest hour is guaranteed to get you in the Christmas spirit as Clark attempts to create the perfect Christmas for his extended family. Of course, nothing goes as planned particularly as it appears that he isn’t going to get the Christmas bonus he’s depended on. Throw a few house fires, explosions, electrocutions, and his layabout cousin Eddie into the mix and you get one of the all time funniest Christmas movies. Chevy Chase and Beverly DiAngelo are as good as ever while Randy Quaid’s cousin Eddie is the icing on the cake. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is absolutely required Holiday viewing.
Rating: The Good – 77 Genre: Comedy Duration: 101 mins Director: Richard Donner Stars: Bill Murray, Karen Allen, John Forsythe
Richard Donner’s take on the old Dickens’ fable is one of the great Christmas comedies and has Bill Murray is in blistering form as the cynical and uncaring TV executive Frank Cross who gets visited by three ghosts….well you know the rest. Murray’s roles are typically a lot less restrictive in terms of personality requirements allowing the comedy maestro to have a field day with improvisation. However, even though a modern day Scrooge is inevitably a more prescriptive role, Murray still manages to improvise a whole raft of playful mannerisms and idiosyncratic personality dimensions that remain perfectly in line with the bad-ass Frank Cross. There isn’t a facial expression or eye-movement on Murray’s part that’s unintentional and the film is much the richer for it. The ghosts of Christmas past (David Johansen) and present (Carol Kane) are a riot while Karen Allen is great value as Cross’ old squeeze. Scrooged is one of the few comedies that doesn’t fade as it heads towards the end. Instead, it changes tack and becomes really quite uplifting – especially if you watch it on Christmas Eve!
Rating: The Bad – 39.4 Genre: Comedy Duration: 91 mins Director: Terry Zwigoff Stars: Billy Bob Thornton, Bernie Mac, Lauren Graham
There’s no point wasting much time on the plot to this one because a quick scratch to the surface reveals it to be the empty suit of pseudo black comedy that it most certainly is. The jokes are stale, derivative, and as a result completely predictable. The laziest of ‘anti-pc’ devices are rolled out from a drunk Santa (Billy Bob Thornton) debasing himself in all manner of predictably unpredictable ways (this was all done before in Trading Places) to the writers’ “cheeky” use of a little person (sigh!) in the form of Tony Cox. Let’s just be clear: the jokes here are 1) a guy dressed up as someone we associate with a child’s innocence wets himself in front of those same children and 2) his partner is little and he uses bad language. This is not writing! These are nothing more than coarse unrefined concepts dropped into the movie like a lead weight. To illustrate, when Dan Aykroyd hits rock bottom dressed as a miserable self-soiled Santa in Trading Place, the contrast between what his suit symbolises and his personal state is not the joke. The joke is the transition from where he started to where he is now and the debasing Santa contrast is merely added to accentuate that transition. It’s the sauce. Bad Santa is all sauce – no meat and potatoes!
With such a low premium being placed on the writing in this film, the “story” takes on a very unreal feel as the writers attempt to jerry-rig a bunch of crude devices to generate laughs and emotion. The ultimate example of this is “the kid” (“played by” Brett Kelly). This is arguably the most artificial and contrived character *ever* written. There is nothing real or substantial about this child. He exists solely to tie all the crude ideas the writers had in mind together at one source – to create the semblance of structure. The result is this strange avatar moving throughout the picture completely devoid of human quality who at any one time is either coarsely and obviously reflecting the writers’ desires to shock the audience or coarsely and obviously reflecting their desire to prompt a cheap emotional response. So bizarre a construction is this kid that one wonders if the writers themselves are human. It seems logical to assume that at some point, Hollywood will be using software to churn this type of crap out so maybe they’ve already got there?
Bad Santa (like The Hangover) is the perfect example of Hollywood trying desperately and pathetically to imitate the more independent comedy film-makers but failing miserably because the spirit and commitment to the story just isn’t there. Black comedy and satire are among the more sophisticated forms of comedy not because of the dark humour but because of its implications for the wider story. Thus, writers of such comedy are not trying to be dark for the sake of it. They merely don’t mind going dark if the story calls for it. They don’t let morality get in the way of the story. Pseudo-black comedy arises out of a misinterpretation that black comedy is nothing more than gross out jokes and ‘anti-pc’ humour simply for the sake of it. If ever there was a clear-cut example of this, it is Bad Santa.
Rating: The Good – 72.2 Genre: Comedy, Horror Duration: 106mins Director: Joe Dante Stars: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Hoyt Axton
Terrific seasonal comedy horror by Joe Dante about a town that becomes besieged by an army of mischievous gremlins on Christmas Eve. Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates are good as the leads but this is the gremlins’ movie as they entertain the audience in a number of hilariously memorable set-pieces. The animatronics and creature design were spot on and the gremlins look great even to this day. Dante brings his usual array of both delicate and heavy touches to the film and the (post-Howling) mentoring of Spielberg is clearly evident as in the early scenes he introduces us to the town and it’s inhabitants in as inspired a way as Spielberg did in Jaws. As is typical for a Dante film there are movie references littered throughout which unlike most modern films are cleverly incorporated into the story. Overall, Gremlins is just cracking great fun and a perfect treat whether it be Halloween or Christmas.
Rating: The Good – 67.5 Genre: Fantasy, Horror Duration: 84mins Director: Jalmari Helander Stars: Jorma Tommila, Peeter Jakobi, Onni Tommila
As original a spin on the Santa Claus fairytale as you can get, Rare Exports is a wild and crazy Finish movie where a bunch of miners find the real Santa trapped in a block of ice. Soon kids start disappearing & the local inhabitants discover that Santa is far from the jolly old St Nick legend and more a demonic punisher of bad children. However, after catching one of his creepy elves, one of the children and his father attempt to stop this evil Kris Kringle.
Rare Exports has a great premise and the first 45 minutes are fascinating as we attempt to figure our what’s going on while continually suppressing our expectations. The pacing of the first two acts is wonderful as is the photography and, in particular, the editing. Unfortunately, they kind of run out ideas in the last act and save for its deliciously quirky close, it fails to live up to its early promise. It’s still worth a watch though if only to appreciate the ambition of the whole thing but be warned – this one ain’t for the kids!