A Fish Called Wanda Review

This past weekend, in one of my Monty Python reviews, I offhandedly mentioned the Pythons’ film careers after their work in the troupe, and it may surprise you to know that I haven’t actually seen much post-Python work from most of them.

Aside from Fawlty Towers, there isn’t any Python-heavy property I’ve seen a lot of, apart from a few of Terry Gilliam’s films and Cleese’s appearances in big franchises, I thought it might be time that I indulged some of their later work, and as I have this film sat on my shelf, and I’ve never heard anything but praise for it, so I was hoping it wouldn’t compromise the image of those involved that I’d built up.

I’m very pleased to say that it didn’t, in fact, it might have enhanced my perception of them.

A comedy really only has to be one thing to be successful: funny. It can have a terrible plot and characters, but with enough laughs it can work; A Fish Called Wanda is not only incredibly funny, but also extremely well thought-out; using a classic bank robbery run-around to wrong-foot us at every turn, leaving its characters in the most awkward, and hilarious, of situations.

There are not many films that can make me laugh until I feel faint, A Fish Called Wanda is one such film. I laughed until my sides hurt, then just when I thought I knew what was going on and I was safe, it made me laugh some more.

It makes for an incredibly engaging film all around, making the most of what it has at its disposal, mainly its characters, there’s a few memorable turns here, John Cleese as the buttoned-up English barrister, a role he was seemingly born to play, Kevin Kline as a murderous psychopath, who also happens to be a complete oddball, and the stuttering animal lover Ken, played by Michael Palin, who I feel should be singled out as a special mention for his incredibly believable stutter. As a stutterer myself, I had resigned myself to people overplaying it over the years, but Palin delivers a performance that utilises the afflictions comedic values, without ever feeling exploitive.

As can be expected from Cleese, the timing of everything is perfect, as is the often rapier-sharp script. It serves up a new hilarious turn at just the right time, when we’re least expecting it, but at the time when something needs to happen, it’s all spaced out and paced so well that there’s a new showpiece scene with almost clockwork regularity, which helps the film from slowing to a crawl.

Between these showpieces there’s a fairly involved plot going on too, a classic crime caper that keeps you on your toes as to who to really believe, there’s a planned double cross in there, a seduction of a barrister, and a few dogs get killed, all the classic stuff really.

Everyone within the film seem to be perfectly suited to the role they’re playing, and look like they’re having tremendous fun at the same time. Cleese probably gives his best performance here, as does Kline, who remarkably picked up an Oscar for his part in this film, a rare feat indeed for a comedy film. Jamie Lee Curtis is charming, yet devious, and Michael Palin plays the put-upon accomplice with great aplomb.

It’s a film with a tremendous amount of perfectly working parts, like a pristine grandfather clock, each component serves to help the next one work as much as it does itself; everything complements each other, there are wonderful parallels drawn between Archie’s (Cleese) life with his wife, and Otto’s (Kline) with Wanda (Curtis). One that sets in motion a course of events that trickle right down to the films conclusion, a satisfying cherry on top of this wonderful trifle of a film.

Was it what I was expecting? No, I can’t say it was, although in retrospect, I don’t know why. I should have known that any comedy written by Cleese would have more than a touch of the madcap, and Wanda is very madcap, but with a grounding in gritty reality that makes the film that more believable, and the characters that more likeable.

Since a comedy can only really be judged on how much it makes you laugh, I guess I better judge this as being great, because it made me laugh so much that at one point I thought I might actually pass out, I was so light-headed. A delightful romp that is excellently paced, and expertly acted. A true comedy classic.

John Wick Chapter 2 Review

In my last book, I reviewed the first John Wick, and earlier in this book, I reviewed the third chapter, so here I am closing the circle.

The John Wick series is a classic example of a franchise growing in scale with each instalment. The first film was one man looking for revenge after his dog was killed, by the time of the third instalment, that same man is travelling the world, fending off would-be assassins everywhere he goes.

But we get ahead of ourselves; the first film could well have been a self-contained singular story, but after its surprising success, it is no surprise a sequel was commissioned, so how does it up the stake, and does it match the same lofty heights?

Story

John Wick’s re-emergence hasn’t gone unnoticed by the criminal underworld, he’s soon accosted by someone to whom he owes a debt and must take up arms once more.

Verdict

Not only have the films stake naturally escalated between films, but the films visuals and stunt work has too.

Bathed in neon for most of the film, John Wick 2 has a dazzling noir style, not afraid to make itself more colourful than its predecessor, as well as more amorphous.

During the globe-trotting adventure, John Wick will partake in some incredible action sequences, including a scene in a hall of mirrors that might genuinely be an all-time great action scene, surrounded by squishy mortals to be used merely for target practise, Wick floats effortlessly through these scenes looking more and more invincible with each passing scene.

The story does suffer natural with being a ‘middle story’ situated in the midst of the flourishing franchise, it cannot help but feel anticlimactic in its build up to its sequel, this becomes more obvious as the film wears on and it becomes obvious that this film isn’t going to be the end for John Wick.

Keanu Reeves is a strange enigma of a man. Someone who possesses truly little natural acting talent yet continues to be both popular and watchable. Even if he doesn’t have the greatest range, he knows how to utilise his strengths, that’s why The Matrix worked so well for him, and why this franchise fits him like a glove too. He knows that the less he’s called upon to actually act, the better, and John Wick mainly grimaces, so we’re onto a winner.

I’d say that the franchise truly found its feet with its second film, sure the first established the character, but the second expanded, added to the mythos and made this world he inhabits so shrouded in mystery. The world of John Wick is one that seems familiar, but the more you look, the more alien it becomes.

All in all then, an excellent ramping up of the stakes from the first film, filling the gap between first and third and setting the course for the series as a whole. Keanu is at his best here and he’s surrounded by more capable, dynamic actors that flesh out the world. It would take a braver man than I to tarnish the name of John Wick.

John Wick Review

This is one of those films that gets more interesting the more you learn about it. I was reading an article on the upcoming third instalment of this franchise recently, and it detailed the origins of John Wick as a film, and it made for very interesting reading.

The apparent aim was to make a film where ‘Keanu Reeves kills 84 people’ why this figure is so precise I don’t know, and it wasn’t always written with Keanu in mind, as backwards as that seems, but eventually it was pitched as Keanu’s big action comeback, after a recent career slump, and it gave his career the shot in the arm it sorely needed.

Shot on a small budget, and only just managing to get a distributor, it’s a miracle it was such as success that it spawned further sequels, and a proposed spin-off. But is it as good as people remember?

Story

Retired mob hitman John Wick is in mourning after losing his wife, when he receives a package from his late wife that instantly turns his life around: a puppy. After a confrontation with a mob boss’ son, John finds himself the victim of a robbery, and his dog is murdered, setting him on a bloody revenge mission.

Verdict

Every once in a while, an action film comes along and takes everyone by surprise, a decade ago it was Taken, but Taken was never this cathartic or stylish.

Keanu Reeves has never been blessed with mastery of dramatic acting, what he can do is cold anti-hero’s, the directors of this saw this and made advantage of what they had, and made Keanu into a stone-cold killer with a sharp suit, and even sharper fighting style, with a swift pace and classic revenge tale, John Wick is a winner on almost every conceivable level.

What it adds to the time-tested archetypes it makes frequent use of is an undercurrent of noir stylishness, bathing scenes in bright neon, as if they were in Blade Runner, as opposed to a relatively low-budget action flick. It adds a crease of originality that spices up an otherwise run-of-the-mill action film.

It also stands out by making use of a wide range of fight scene, from frantic and claustrophobic hand-to-hand duels to fast and frantic gun battles, John Wick mixes its styles and tips its hat to many films that came before it, in a way that doesn’t pander to any particular style.

As mentioned earlier, Keanu Reeves is hardly going to be in Oscars contention any time soon, but he flourishes in the kind of environment that plays to his strengths, and I believe John Wick to be the best character for demonstrating Reeves’ skills. Neo in The Matrix was a bit of a blank slate, onto which Keanu’s limited charisma was projected, here he seems motivated and focused on bringing this character to life.

He is helped by the writing of the character, not only his characters, but those that surround him; Alfie Allen plays the perfect over-confident, easily hateable antagonist, he makes him so easily detestable that you can’t wait to see him meet his fate. Also, honourable mentions must go to experienced hands Willem Dafoe and Ian McShane, whose characters gives us a glimpse into the wider world this film created, and one that was elaborated upon in the sequel.

In conclusion, John Wick is not just an enjoyable time, it’s stylish and vibrant enough to make it a worthwhile artistic statement, rather than just another popcorn film. It sets out its stall and leaves ample opportunity for the world to be expanded, which it duly was in Chapter Two, but that’s another review, for another time.

Little Shop of Horrors Review

There might not be a more highly-regarded composer and songwriter in modern Hollywood than Alan Menken. For many people my age, his songs in Disney films were the soundtrack to our childhoods, and the late-80’s revival of Disney’s fortunes owes a lot of its success to Menken’s songwriting.

Of course, he didn’t do this alone, for the early period of his career he worked with lyricist Howard Ashman, and the duos second project together was the off-off-Broadway production from which this film takes its name: Little Shop of Horrors.

A musical adaptation of the 1960 film of the same name, the show was such a success that it caught the attention of puppet-master, and the man behind Yoda, Frank Oz, who took the show, and put it back on the big-screen for this adaptation.

This turned out to be the best possible choice to direct, as Oz’s experience with puppets lent itself excellently to the creation of Audrey II, the on-screen man-eating plant, in doing so creating an iconic screen villain, still as impressive in its practical implantation as it ever was.

The film is a loving spoof of many things, chief among them B-movies, especially creature features; but it achieves that most rare thing of not only being a successful parody, but also a successful adaptation of what it is parodying. It works as both a B-movie creature feature, and a parody of the very same, it all depends on how the viewer interprets it in their own mind.

For the record, the version I watched for this review was the Director’s Cut, which I believe to be the most faithful adaptation of the source material, and the intended original experience, that doesn’t mean the theatrical cut isn’t good, just that this particular ending makes more sense with the rest of the film.

Menken and Ashman’s knack for a catchy tune can definitely be heard here, you can really hear the genesis of their later style in their Disney work, based around the kind of tunes that stick in your head, and lyrics that are perfect complements to the tune, by being memorable, and at times emotional.

It seems that their two main strengths are sweeping ballads (songs such as ‘Suddenly Seymour’ or ‘Somewhere That’s Green’ here, and later examples including ‘A Whole New World’ to just name a few) and triumphant upbeat tunes, like the titular song here or ‘Be Our Guest’. They’re also very skilled in conveying character through song, just look at the song ‘Dentist’ for a rather on-the-nose example; but all of these combined skills come together to make a memorable score, for nothing can kill a musical like an underwhelming score.

The most perfect marriage that this film finds is one I’ve already mentioned, it’s that of the film and its director, Frank Oz, who pools all his resources from his years of puppeteering experiences (as well as a few friends to help puppeteer) in bringing Audrey II to life.

this was the first time in many years that I’d watched this film, and I was astounded at how well Audrey II still works to modern eyes. It falls just on that side of practicality that doesn’t seem to age, some puppet use can age a film very badly in hindsight, but used well, it’s a timeless look and by using a practical puppet that can seemingly react to the actors around it, it helps foster a much more intimidating atmosphere around the creature, making itself frighteningly feasible by just being present, rather than if it were a special effect.

It’s put to even better use in the films finale (just to reiterate, that’s the Director’s Cut finale) when multiple plants seemingly wreak havoc around the world, again it’s all a tremendous example of practical effects in film-making, made to look lifelike and intimidating, while still retaining that comical cartoonish energy of seeing a killer plant take over the world.

The film is well-aware of its camp appeal, leaning into its future status as a ‘cult film’ with great gusto, its use of a Greek chorus in costumes that wildly differ from their surroundings is one such way that the film uses its appeal to stand out (as if the giant plant puppet weren’t enough).

The films parody energy is best felt amongst its supporting cast, a revolving door of weird characters surrounding the main characters, who seem so much more like archetypes because of it. This is most egregious when it comes to Audrey (the female lead, not the plant) whose nasally voice wears out its welcome pretty fast.

To balance that out though is a very likeable turn from the endlessly lovable Rick Moranis, who retains his title as Hollywood’s favourite nerd, as well as a delightfully sadistic Steve Martin playing a gleefully cruel dentist, and a one-scene show-stealer from one Bill Murray. All of the wackier characters are brought into sharper focus alongside the more straight-laced Seymour character, almost like he’s playing the ‘straight man’ for the rest of the world, and it works because Moranis radiates this energy of likeability, the same charm that made his character in Ghostbusters more palatable, he has an every-man earnestness that really works for this character, and his image as a whole.

As I say, I hadn’t seen this film in quite some time prior to a re-watch, and hadn’t seen the extended version at all, so it was quite refreshing to see a film that could be so dark, yet so much fun. Its soundtrack is packed with winners, which shouldn’t be a surprise given who wrote it, and the characters and settings all come together to produce a film that actively seems to laugh at its own subject matter, but does it with such gusto and vigour that it becomes endearing. It gives us a man-eating plant with the voice of The Four Tops, and we beg for more. A wonderful slice of campy B-movie cult cinema, that I think deserves more plaudits than it gets.

It’s definitely silly, but it’s also definitely a lot of fun.

Titanic Review

There are very few things in this life that I hate. Inequality, violence, and talking in the cinemas rank highly in the very short list, but sitting atop the list, like an eviction notice written on a pile of cow dung on the welcome mat of my life, is Titanic.

Now, I get that this may seem extreme, it is not, after all the worst film in execution, it at least looks nice some ties and makes sense, but it is not that which makes me hate it, it’s what it represents.

To me, Titanic is a representation of everything wrong with cinema. An emphasis on visual effects over story, cardboard cut-out characters, and a marketing budget roughly equivalent to the GDP of Belgium. It astounds me that this film was ever the highest-grossing film of all time, but I shall save my frustration for the main bulk of the review, let’s get the over with.

Story

On the doomed maiden voyage of HMS Titanic, an unlikely romance blossoms between Rose (Kate Winslet) a first-class passenger, and Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) a third-class passenger. Will their forbidden love take flight before the comparisons to Romeo and Juliet can be established, or more likely when the boat finally, and mercifully, sinks?

Verdict

In case you couldn’t tell by that incredibly sarcastic synopsis, I find this whole film incredibly tedious.

The story of the Titanic is interesting enough in and of itself, it’s a perfect example of the ‘Icarus flight’ someone with high ambitions comes crashing down, and there’s plenty of mileage in that, but no, let’s go for the D-grade romance novel instead, shall we?

I don’t know what’s more annoying, the fact that they wheeled out this tired cliché, or the fact that it worked, and millions of people paid their hard-earned money to see people with the depth of a teaspoon and charismas of a balloon with a smiley face drawn on it try and fail to stay alive long enough to be compared to Romeo and Juliet.

It’s so aggressively dull that when the ship finally gets around to sinking, I couldn’t care less. Hell, I want it to sink just so I don’t have to watch this film anymore, I find myself cackling with glee as people fall into the propellers, and I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the intended reaction. But when all of your deaths are like the ‘what happens next’ freeze frame on You’ve Been Framed, then you’ve definitely done something wrong.

So, let’s get ‘round to the characters, shall we? There’s Jack and Rose, who only count as characters if a shop-window dummy counts as a supermodel, there’s Rose’s mum, who’s a walking cliché of ‘rich Victorian-era woman’ right down to the ridiculously large hat, and Rose’s fiancé, who is such a massive twat that the Eiffel Tower could use him as a sex aid. These characters all have explosive chemistry, in the way that I badly want to see them all dissolved in acid.

I’m pretty sure I’m right in saying that we all went to see the story of the ship, not the story of two emotionless automatons learning what love is. Yet it takes so long to get to that it’s hardly worth bothering, when I would much rather be watching a boat sinking, rather than sit through another minute of your predictable romance plot, I’d say some re-evaluation was needed.

How about direction? Well, I say direction, I really mean animation, as most of the film isn’t really there. Jim Cameron has a knack for this, and I feel sorry for his actors. All the years of training to emotionally connect with their characters and others, and now they have to go pretend to be on a boat in front of a green screen. Aside from that though, the sets they do use can be quite nice, so good job there.

Also, to stop this review from basically being a tirade against the film, I should probably note some positives. You have to admire the dedication put into making the Titanic look as authentic as possible at least, Cameron actually led expeditions down to the boat itself, an angle which was used in the final film, and I find looking at the wreck on the ocean floor much more interesting than the low grade Mills and Boon romance plot.

In the end though, dedication will only get you so far, yes Cameron re-created a pretty damn spot-on re-creation of the Titanic, but he also created a phenomenally tedious film, with characters straight out of the oldest cliché book in the business, and plot lifted wholesale from the works of Catherine Cookson, it’s a film I wish would join its namesake at the bottom of the ocean for all eternity.

Monty Python’s Life of Brian Review

Like a lot of people, I love Monty Python. Despite them being several decades before my time, I still discovered them in my mid-teens when my sense of humour was taking shape (dark, surreal and musical for me, please and thank you) and Python was a revelation to me.

I couldn’t believe the things these six guys came up with; yes, it’s immensely silly at times, but that’s the charm, it’s one of those things that don’t need explanation in order to be funny, it just is. Everyone has their personal favourite sketches from the TV show, and for the record mine are: Dead Parrot, Four Yorkshireman and Mr Smokestoomuch.

The troupe themselves were an example of six individual talents coming together and making a special product through their combined genius. Each on their own, they have incredible legacies.

John Cleese went on to create Fawlty Towers (one of the best British sitcoms of all time) as well as starring in several highly-successful films, Michael Palin would become a cherished presence on TV through his travel series, Terry Gilliam became and acclaimed film director, Eric Idle wrote a very commercially successful musical based off the Holy Grail, Terry Jones was also a successful director, and Graham Chapman… well, Graham died tragically young (he’s bereft of life, he rests in peace etc etc…) but, he maintained a level of reverence amongst his peers for his writing and performing.

So, Life of Brian then; it’s the Python’s second full-length film (third if you count And Now For Something Completely Different, which I personally don’t) and follows the life of… well, Brian. An unfortunate man who just happened to be born in the shed next door to Jesus, and later in life would luck his way into having a group of gormless followers, praising him as the Messiah.

As you can imagine, Life of Brian was greeted by the inevitable controversy when it first released back in 1979, it was banned in several countries and cities with an obvious deficiency in their sense of humour, and the usual boring debates commenced about whether spoofing religion was acceptable (it definitely is).

The thing about these controversies though, is that they very rarely stop people seeing the film, game or TV show that people have collectively got their knickers in a twist about. In fact, it brings the product into sharper focus in the public eye, giving it the kind of exposure advertising executives can only dream of, and you’d think someone would have realised this by now, but alas, no. People still lack the requisite self-awareness.

Truthfully, Life of Brian is ABOUT Jesus about as much as it’s about halibut. They both appear tangentially in one scene and have no bearing on the plot at all. The real victims of the Pythons ire is those who blindly follow, so maybe that’s why people got so touchy about it, it wasn’t a case of: ‘these people are mocking our God’ but more: ‘these people are mocking US’.

The film doesn’t need the controversy to be successful at what it sets out to do; its skewering of organised followers is rapier-sharp, and not just on one front either, look at the Judean People’s Front (‘splitter!’) they are an organised group against the oppression of the Romans, yet they’re shown to be just as witless as those who blindly follow Brian.

This broad approach to satirising is a very smart move, nimbly side-stepping accusations of being anti-Christian by having something they can point to as proof that they’re not just picking one one group.

The JPF supply some of the most reliable laughs in the film, but don’t think the Python’s are taking this subject seriously, as mots of the jokes rely on their usual irreverent humour, ask any Python fan and they’ll quote one for you, beyond that there’s even subtler irreverence that makes me laugh just as much, such as the centurion who corrects Brian’s grammar, or the very casual jailer checking off those about to be crucified, they might have been afterthoughts, but they really add to the air of effortlessness about the film, making it seem like a product of talents at their peak.

As well as being at their peak in terms of writing, they were prime performers at this time too. Chapman shoulder the greatest burden, being the lead character, while everyone else in his orbit makes even their smallest parts memorable; each Python has at least one character that will stick with you, and all of them are swinging for the fences in performance terms.

Special mentions must go to Eric Idle for his his chirpy ‘Mr Cheeky’ who finds himself crucified with Brian, and Michael Palin for keeping a straight face as Pontius Pilate.

The film was directed by Jones, who also has one of the films most memorable turns as Brian’s mother, anyone who can direct themselves to a positive performance has my respect, and while Jones is no Clint Eastwood, he manages to wring every drop of humour from his shrill matriarch while keeping a firm hand on the films direction and pace.

The influence of Gilliam can be felt later in the film with an inexplicable left-turn into sci-fi, in a turn of events that only the Python’s can truly get away with.

I regard this and The Holy Grail as the absolute pinnacle of cinematic comedy. Comedy is perhaps the hardest genre to pull of successfully, nothing in film is more excruciating than a comedy that falls flat, so to turn out two all-time greats is yet another indication of the Python’s brilliance.

There are faults with it cinematically, granted. the cinematography has undoubtedly aged, but you’ll be too busy laughing and having fun to notice that, and that’s what the Pythons bread and butter is: fun. Silly fun, yes. But no less worthy an entertainment as something more ‘high-brow’ but if that’s a problem for you, that’s your loss, no-one else’s, because Brian is wall-to-wall entertainment.

All together now: ‘He’s not the messiah… he’s a very naughty boy!’

Monty Python and the Holy Grail Review

Many people have one film they can watch over and over again, without getting bored of it. For many people, this will be the film they watch when they’re feeling down or had a difficult day, and for me that is The Holy Grail.

Now, I’m a massive Python fan, even though they’re much before my time, I find their surreal brand of humour right up my street, and truth be told, I can watch any of their films over and over and never get bored, but for me, Holy Grail is their best work, by the slightest of margins.

I shall try and remain impartial as possible when reviewing this, but please bear in mind that I love it very dearly, and when cornered, I will randomly quote a line from the film, like a strange Monty Python skunk, you have been warned.

Story

King Arthur (Chapman) sets out on a (very silly) odyssey to gather knights in a quest to find the Holy Grail. Along the way, they’ll be side-tracked by many distractions, and face great peril.

Verdict

More than most genres, comedy is extremely subjective, what might be funny to one person might not be funny to someone else, and many people claim to not understand what makes Monty Python so funny, and these people are no fun to have around at parties.

The Holy Grail is so densely packed with memorable scenes and lines that it’s impossible to pick a favourite, is it the Knights Who Say Ni? Or the Witch Trial? Maybe it’s the Black Knight, who knows? All I know is even after so many years, this film still makes me laugh until my sides hurt.

The story of this films journey to the big screen is almost as interesting as the film itself, being setback by budget issues from the very beginning, and having to be bankrolled by some of their most famous fans; even the legendary ending is a consequence of the tight budget, they literally could not afford to film anything else, so they just stopped, ending the film completely out of left field in a way that only the Pythons can get away with.

So, what of the Pythons then? Well, all of them play several characters in this film, and each member has at least one memorable one, John Cleese even manages to have two, the lucky boy, but like any of their ventures, it’s clearly a team effort; they have a special kind of chemistry that has never been replicated anywhere else, I can only imagine how the script came about, they seem to spontaneously produce mirth like the brewing process produces Marmite.

This also serves as a nice genesis point for Terry Gilliam’s career as a director, setting the stage for all the surrealism he will produce in the future, one can argue that his entire career as a Python led him directly to his career behind the camera, but this is where his potential is realised.

It is rare for a comedy to have the cultural impact that Holy Grail has, they are rarely held in esteem in the same way as their more serious counterpoints, it’s impossible to predict what formula will work, but when it does work, it needs no explanation. They would find the right formula again for Life of Brian, which I find almost impossible to separate quality-wise from this, some days its my favourite, then this is. So maybe this rag-tag gang of very silly boys knew the secret to unlocking classic comedy, because they wouldn’t stop there.

The legacy of the troupe can be felt in sketch shows to this very day, their fingerprints have been all over sketch comedy for the past fifty years, they would bring the curtain down on their time together permanently in 2015, following a sell-out run at London’s O2 Arena, their place as all-time greats firmly set in stone.

Of The Holy Grail, it can be said that it is a true triumph over diversity, overcoming its monetary restraints and on-set mishaps to become one of the best-regarded comedy films of all-time, and it sits firmly in a list of my personal all-time favourites. There will never be another group quite like them, nor another film like The Holy Grail.