Old School Reviews: Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)

I think what I love about British crime movies is that they have no issue with building their film around a cast of good honest villains. Career criminals who don’t feel the need to lament their lot in life or the cycles of poverty, abuse and violence that led them to a life of crime, who don’t need to show guilt over their violent, thieving ways, to be likeable. American gangsters are relatable and empathetic. British crims, proper British crooks, are entertaining.

Case in point we have Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Guy Ritchie’s 1998 classic (I’m pretty sure it made it into 1001 Movies to See Before you Die) about four mates, a crooked card game, violent loan sharks, drug dealers, the guys who rob drug dealers, and a pair of antique shotguns. Y’know, guns that fire shot.

Now, I don’t think at any point do any of the characters show any real remorse for the life they’d lived. Well, not ’til it all goes to shit at least. Even then, as the threads come together and the bodies start dropping no one blames ‘the life.’ For our four central characters this isn’t one final score that goes horribly wrong. This was a chance at the big leagues that goes horribly wrong, and you know they’re going to go straight back into scamming and thieving as soon as they’re out of the Barney Rubble. Heh, cockney rhyming slang.

Real funny thing though is that the points that in a Yank film would lead to a heel-face-turn (my family/friends/only people I care about are in danger!) and cause the career criminal to make a determined effort to get out the life (go legit, go to the cops, fake their own death) don’t even register. Shit, Big Chris (Vinnie Jones) takes his son out debt collecting with him, despite the danger this can and does lead to. At the end of the film though, the kid’s still coming along, even if the business has changed slightly.

Guy Ritchie has long set himself up as a solid (even if not always necessarily brilliant) director and writer, and his feature length debut will always be remembered as one of his best. He gets great performances out of the actors, most notably debuts Vinnie Jones as Big Chris and Jason Statham as Bacon (both of whom are now staple British hard men), and the script is tight and unapologetic of its origins. It starts with Statham rattling off a sale pitch for stolen jewelry (“It’s not stolen, it just hasn’t been paid for!” and according to the legend part of Statham’s audition) and in one notable scene preferring to use subtitles over dumbing down the language. Shit mate, that scene right there is how you do a character introduction. Forces you to pay attention, then reveals cunning, creativity and a predilection towards violence. Everyone’s solid though, sometimes a little stilted on occasion but they carry the emotional parts well. Then of course there’s the soundtrack. Guy Ritchie knows how to pick a song for a scene, switching through jazz, funk and rock’n’roll to pull you into a and a mood, and when to not bother with any noise at all.

But it all works out in the end. Except for the people who died, of course, but most of them deserved it. Not that anyone really judges, it’s just part of the life. The only lesson really learned for our luckless antiheroes is to pick their battles better.

So you should watch this film. It’s fun, a little absurdist, Sting tells someone to fuck off, and you get to watch some villains being villains. And then there’s a girl named Gloria with a Bren gun. Even if the rest of the movie was shit, it’s worth is for Gloria with a Bren gun.

Old school reviews: Young Frankenstein (1974)

Not long before I left Australia the family gathered around and slid our copy of Mel Brook’s 1974 monster movie satire, Young Frankenstein, into the player. Early in the film, Frederick Frankenstein, is giving a lecture to a group of medical students only to have one of them stand up and begin asking questions about the work of his late grandfather, the famous Victor Frankenstein. The scene goes on, poor Mr Hilltop gets kneed in the balls (“give him an extra dollar”) and irritating medical student becomes even more irritating. And then, at some point as he brings up Dr Frunk-en-shteen‘s heritage, my dad points out that “He looks like Kevin Rudd!”

We all watch the scene, and the actor a little closer. “Oh my god,” I think it was my mum then said, “he even talks like Kevin Rudd!” The whole family cracked up laughing. Then cracked up again when Gene Wilder stabbed himself with a scalpel.

There’s no point to this anecdote really, beyond saying that loving this film has always been a family affair. Y’see, this is my dad’s favourite film. It’s not all that hard to make my dad laugh, but when he really loves a bit of comedy, when he’s really enjoying himself, well, let’s just say it’s fucking infectious. As a result Young Frankenstein became something of a family meme. I’ve talked about how my best mates and I are able to talk almost entirely in movie and Simpsons quotes, but amongst my family the go-to was always something from this movie.

Goddamn, especially that scene where he’s dreaming in bed. “DESTINY! DESTINY! NO ESCAPING THAT FOR ME!”

I think that a great film, a really great film, always has this communal aspect. That ability to fit the jokes into other situations, or simply cause a chuckle by invoking memories. Group reverence rather than individual reverence.

This is also the mark of a great actor. It’s an amazing thing that even, what, twenty years after he was last in a cinema, Gene Wilder’s death has marked so many people so deeply. He had and still has such a profound influence on the popular consciousness. I mean shit, every actor that plays the role of Willy Wonka from now until forever will be compared to the Gene Wilder version, a role that has become subject to some of the longest running memes I’ve seen on the constantly evolving internet.

A true entertainer and clown, and I say that in the best way possible. Watching him be hilarious seemed like the best tribute I could think of. Watching with my family will be one of the first things I do when I get home.

Old school movie reviews: The Three Musketeers (1993)

Way back in the tail end of the nineties and beginning of the aughts there was a bunch of movies that would be played (it seemed) every few months during the ‘family’ slots on the commercial free-to-air stations, basically 7:30 on a saturday evening. For a good few years one of these films was the 1993 version of Alexandre Dumas’ swashbuckling epic, The Three Musketeers.

I can’t in good conscious call this film epic. It’s not big enough, not grand enough. Too localised, too personal. But it is swashbuckling good fun, and that is all it needs to be.

The acting, while nothing I would call Oscar worthy, is cheerful and entertaining. Kiefer Sutherland broods appropriately as Athos and Charlie Sheen plays the relaxed, smooth-talking Aramis fantastically straight. A much younger Chris O’Donnell plays a rosy cheeked and curly-haired D’Artagnan that is endearing instead of annoying (which often seems a challenge for the generally much younger, less experienced actors required to play a brash, naive and often foolish character). Rebecca De Mornay hits the correct notes as Milady De Winter and Gabrielle Anwar does a decent job with Queen Anne, both of whom are badly underused characters. The three that I really enjoyed, however, were Tim Curry, Michael Wincott and Oliver Platt as, respectively, Cardinal Richelieu, Captain Rochefort and Porthos. Lotta commas in that last sentence. I am not rewriting it though. Anyway, Tim Curry as always brings his wonderful voice, sense of timing, flair for the dramatic and smug smile to the maniacal villain. He’s always a joy to watch and he looks fantastic in red. Michael Wincott is fantastically menacing, an appropriate foil for the fast-talking musketeers and has such an excellent voice for villainous roles as well. And Oliver Platt gets Porthos so right. I don’t know if I should be surprised that the talented character actor is able to bring such a larger-than-life persona to, well, life, but he does. Someone who revels in battle and destruction, the one who laughs in the face of danger and jokes around death, so that you never actually believe them to be in danger in the first place.

The plot is a little nonsensical but it hits the right notes (D’Artagnan pissing off and planning to duel the musketeers, Cardinal bad, possible war with England and the Duke of Buckingham, Queen Anne may or may not want to fuck someone other than the king, D’Artagnan finally becomes musketeer), but a film like this doesn’t need to be perfectly accurate to either history or its source material. You don’t expect it to, and at least it doesn’t have any fucking moronic flying warships. The fights are entertaining. Generally on a smaller scale than what we tend to expect in out swashbucklers these days, but that makes them more intimate, allowing us to see more of the characters in each fight.

It’s definitely not perfect, of course. My biggest gripe is that Milady De Winter, Queen Anne and Constance, three excellent female characters, are largely delegated to the sidelines. We’re told that Milady is dangerous, but we don’t actually see her being particularly dangerous. Queen Anne spends most of her time being threatened and terrified by Cardinal Richelieu or complaining about how long it’s been since she last got some. Constance appears, I dunno four times? Once to tell D’Artagnan her name, once to tell the queen how bad she wants in her bloomers, once to pass D’Artagnan a sword and then at the very end for him to kiss her. Not exactly a compelling character, aye?

But yeah, I enjoyed watching this movie. It’s a little dated but not horribly so, and the characters are, for the most part, wonderful fun to watch hamming about on screen.

Reviewing the Old School: Ocean’s Eleven (2001)

When I was young, real young, I watched the original Ocean’s 11. The one with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr and a dozen other of the biggest names in film and music at the time. I don’t remember much about the film (I was like fucking eight years old), just that I was a bit of a fan of Sinatra at the time and the guy who put the film on, a former neighbour who was still a close friend of the family, was always more of Dean Martin fan. Or at least he was quicker to sing Dean Martin songs. Love that guy. This anecdote has nothing to do with what I think of the 2001 remake. I just like to mention when I’ve seen the original.

Directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring George Clooney as the titular Danny Ocean, Brad Pitt as his best friend Rusty Ryan, Andy Garcia as the “smart as he is ruthless” Terry Benedict, Julia Roberts as Danny’s estranged wife Tess, and nine other fantastic actors playing fantastic roles, Ocean’s Eleven is a movie about a bunch of professional crooks robbing three casinos. Impossible, we are told at the beginning of the film. A suicide mission. Can’t be done. Danny and Rusty must be nuts. Must be. And yet they seem so delightfully sane.

I wanna take a moment to praise director Soderberg and, just as importantly, editor Stephen Mirrione. This movie is beautifully directed and, just as importantly, expertly cut. The shots are intimate but inclusive of large parts of the cast (without revealing the plot), fast without ever being confusing, with perfectly timed reactions and dialogue from the characters, and it’s all put together masterfully, never breaking flow even as it cuts back and forth between time and perspectives at the end. It’s a slow burn heist film that never feels slow. And it doesn’t treat you like an idiot. When they reveal how the heist works you feel like you’re being let in on a big secret, previous lines of dialogue and focus shots suddenly make sense, like a magician revealing how they pulled off a particularly entertaining trick.

This is one of those movies that occupies a particularly nostalgic piece of my heart, as do the two sequels. It was one of those films that my best mates and I all watched and watched again, not as quoted as movies like Troy or Gladiator but still formative. On the one hand the characters in this film are the epitome of cool. Even the losers in the group – the Malloy brothers (Casey Affleck and Scott Caan), Livingstone (Eddie Jemison) and Linus (Matt Damon) – have their own sense of style and intelligence that they own. For all their quirks and bad accents (I don’t care Don Cheadle, I love Basher anyway) these people are the best at what they do. Proper villains. And you love them for it. Even Terry Benedict, the antagonist of the piece, is fucking awesome. He’s got this soft monotone, constantly cool and calm even when the shit is hitting the fan and he’s obviously seething with rage. Andy Garcia is a bad-arse. Not necessarily a great antagonist – he doesn’t seem to hinder Danny and Rusty’s plans at all – but a great character.

More importantly is the relationship between the characters. There’s a bond between them all that is just a joy to watch. Squad goals and all that. Y’see Danny and Rusty don’t finish each other’s sentences, they answer them. Knowing someone so well you can talk to someone without needing to talk? That’s a friendship right there. As it is with all the others. The Malloy brothers, constantly irritating each other yet still obviously close remind me of two of my other mates. Livingstone is that guy or gal that everyone else is constantly trying to push out of their comfort zone, watching from a distance, knowing they’ll do it but never being quite sure. Same with Linus, though they’re less sure and are planning on telling him everything he did wrong in as loving a way as is possible after their massive fuck-up. Not sure who the Amazing Yen (Shaobo Qin) is in my circle of friends. Wait, yeah I do. Don’t worry, you don’t know him. Someone who’ll occasionally voice an opinion and only one other person will have any idea what he’s saying. Shit, that might actually be me as well. Then there’s Frank C (Bernie Mac), a good guy who’s able to turn a discussion about moisturiser into a threat with a firm handshake. Quietly confident, but also the guy who knows what everyone else is up to.

I love this film.

It’s funny how it’s overtaken the memory of the original, y’know? I mean, this sort of happened at the same time as a couple of other remakes from the sixties like The Italian Job and Get Carter. I actually don’t mind the remakes all that much, genuinely enjoyed The Italian Job, but it doesn’t change the fact that they’re remakes. The originals are still the classics in everyone’s minds, while the remakes were just throwaways. That could be because of Michael Caine. It’s probably because of Michael Caine. Doesn’t change the fact that Ocean’s Eleven surpassed Ocean’s 11 in the cultural mindset. I bet there are kids right now who have no idea that there even was a 1960s original. I bet there are grown-arse adults who have no idea. And I don’t mind. ‘Cause I love this film.

Reviewing the Old School: Down Periscope (1996)

There was this period in the eighties and nineties where films about groups of ragtag misfits in the US military are able to achieve seemingly impossible success thanks to the unorthodox efforts of the misfit-in-chief. This era of screwball military comedies probably started with Private Benjamin (1980) and Stripes (1981) but saw a real renaissance through the nineties with Renaissance Man (1994), In the Army Now (1994), Major Payne (1995) and – that great Steve Martin vehicle – Sgt. Bilko (1996) just off the top of my head. Not always great films, but usually enjoyable enough.

Down Periscope – released in 1996, directed by David S. Ward – stars Kelsey Grammer as Tom Dodge, a navy veteran with two decades of experience and a tattoo on his penis. Yep. As you might expect from such a person, he’s known for his lack of discipline and relaxed leadership style. Having been prevented from taking command of his own submarine for years by a vindictive commanding officer, Admiral Graham (played by Bruce Dern), he’s finally given an opportunity by Admiral Winslow (Rip Torn) with an impossible task: sneak a diesel sub (a recommissioned museum piece) into two heavily guarded US Navy bases, launch flares and blow up some dummy warships. He’s given a handpicked crew of the submarine fleet’s losers, washouts, dropouts and special cases and the wargames begin. Hijinks ensue.

I don’t know. It’s sort of like if Tom Clancy wrote comedies. I mean, it probably doesn’t have the same sort of accuracy that Mr Clancy put into every detail of his books, but the jargon, the tension, the obstacles at times remind me of The Hunt for Red October except, y’know, funner. The ruses are clever and not completely unbelievable. You believe that, as outrageous as it seems at the time, Dodge has always got a plan, one that relies on both research (keeping an eye on the schedules for civilian traffic for example), experience (he knows how his fellow commanders think) and instinct (adapting on the fly). Looking at it, Dodge is a remarkably sympathetic character. He’s someone who cares about the wellbeing of his crew, and tries to get the best out of them by listening and encouraging them as individuals with individual strengths and weaknesses. He acts the father figure and it works well. You want him and his misfits to win.

The acting is good. Kelsey Grammer is the standout, but everyone brings a level of enthusiasm to their roles that makes them a delight to cheer for. Or cheer against. It’s not perfect. Far from it. Too many stereotypes and typecasts. Rob Schneider is playing exactly the kind of character you’d expect Rob Schneider to play in this film. He doesn’t do it badly per se, it’s why they kept on giving him these roles. But it breaks the suspension a little bit, if you take my meaning. Same with a few other characters but he’s the obvious example. Nothing movie breaking, but perhaps some a little better casting would have been in order.

And then there’s the ultimate question we have to ask about any comedy: Is it funny? Yeah. Yeah, it’s alright. Nothing gut-busting, I didn’t even really laugh out loud. But most of the jokes land right and I enjoyed it all the way through. A few lines fall flat, but nothing I’d write home about. Plenty of screwball and a bit of dry wit. Good stuff.

So yeah, go watch it. Remind yourself of a time when we made military comedies. We don’t really seem to make them any more, do we? Well, Hollywood doesn’t at least. I mean, it’s pretty understandable. America’s basically been in a state of war for the past fifteen years (and it ain’t ending anytime soon). The number of dead and wounded, veterans languishing in bureaucratic nightmares and unable to make the transition to civilian life has skyrocketed. The films being made, movies and series like Hurt LockerJarhead and Generation Kill kinda reflect that. Maybe that’s not a good thing. Maybe we need to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all sometimes. Maybe we need to have a look at the military films of the nineties. Maybe I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about.

Ah well, have some fun with Down Periscope at least. The Village People sing at the end.

Reviewing the Old School: Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)

So the story I heard was that way back when, by which I mean the late nineties-early naughts after their second renaissance (which began with The Little Mermaid), Disney was in the process of shifting all their animation towards CG-3D. They’d bought Pixar but weren’t completely done with the odd bit of 2D fair. So they told their Florida animation studio, whose job had been support up until that point, to go for their life. What we got out of that are some of the most unique animated films to have come out of the House of Mouse, and a real shame that it took them years to get back on the saddle (with Wreck-it Ralph) after they shut that studio in favour of strict 3D animation. One of those films was, as you might have guessed, Atlantis: The Lost Empire.

What made this film so unique? A combination of things. Something you’ve got to remember about Disney’s renaissance in the nineties was that even their weirdest stuff was still pretty cliche (I’m using the word loosely here, bear with me). The Little Mermaid and Sleeping Beauty were based on classic and well known fairy-tales (admittedly with much happier endings) and even The Lion King just takes the skeleton of Hamlet and goes, “but what if… LIONS!” and adds a soundtrack by Elton John. I mean, it’s all good shit, but they’re very basic, very old, very proven stories.

What Atlantis does is take the well-known legend of Plato’s fictionalised city (highly advanced city, destroyed in a day, sunk below the waves, possibly around the Straits of Gibraltar) but ignores the fictional tropes that the rest of us lowly mortals use when making up stories about the place. No, seriously, think about other stories regarding Atlantis. We think of mermaids floating around a still thriving kingdom or a crumbling city beneath the waves of the Atlantic. We don’t normally come up with a living community that is both sophisticated and primitive, intelligent but illiterate, with a culture that is both familiar and strange at the same time. We certainly don’t think about flying tuna fish.

Then there’s the rest of the aesthetic of the film. It’s set in 1914 and everything that the outsiders brings to the city reflects that. The trucks are recognisable for the era, the dress and digger are appropriately steampunk, as is the submarine. Bolt action rifles, belt-fed machines guns, British-style helmets and paper flying machines add a level of class to the action that actually keeps things grounded. And as I said the design of the city and clothes of the Atlanteans is excellent. A good mix of primitive but alien. You don’t have trouble believing this is where our culture came from.

The characters are excellent, both their designs and voices. I love Helga, Kida and Audrey (played by Claudia Christian, Cree Summer and Jacqueline Obradors respectively). Their designs are different to each other (shit, all the speaking characters have got a unique silhouette) and you never have trouble imagining that they were capable of fighting or working an engine. Helga is traditionally attractive but broad shouldered and speaks with an authoritative and deep voice. Audrey dresses practically and looks her age. Even Kida, the most traditionally designed since she’s the heroine and princess of the tale, has a long, triangular face that is both individual and expressive. Amongst the guys Sweet and Mole (Phil Morris and Corey Burton) are fun in different ways. Dr Sweet is both oblivious and empathetic, the Mole is just, well, the Mole. Milo Thatch, our hero excellently played by Michael J Fox, is excellent. He’s skinny and bookish, but not unfit. He’s brave when he has to be, stands up for his principles and his relationship with Kida is fantastic. They fall into friendship instead of falling in love right away (we never see them kiss, which is excellent), making it one of the healthiest romances in Disney as far as I can tell. As for Commander Rourke (James Garner)? Well, that would be spoiling it. My favourite by far would be Vinny, voiced by Don Novello. The flower shop owner turned demolitions expert. He has such a fantastic delivery of his lines and some of the most relaxed and conversational dialogue in the film. Love the guy.

The music is strong and memorable. The lines are great.

So yeah, great movie. Unique and interesting. Different to other fairy-tale fair. If you haven’t, grab someone younger and watch it. It’s good fun.

Reviewing the Old School: Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)

I said hey!

Hey!

I said hey!

Hey!

I said trust Mel Brooks to make the best Robin Hood film since Errol Flynn donned the tights, strung his bow and swashbuckled his way through Prince John’s lackeys. Did you know that guy was born in Tasmania? Errol Flynn I mean. I’ve got an aunt who lives a couple of streets from where he went to school. Seriously, fucking Tasmania. I bet a lot of people don’t know where the bloody hell I’m talking about. Anyway. Robin Hood: Men in Tights. First released in 1993, produced by Brooksfilms. Directed by Mel Brooks who also shares the writing credit. Best Robin Hood film since Errol Flynn. Well, except maybe Disney’s Robin Hood. The one with the fox.

Men in Tights is a parody through and through, taking the traditional story of Robin Hood (Robin of Loxley comes back from the Crusades, discovers that Prince John has really gone to town on the peasantry while King Richard is away, so forms a merry gang of merry men to fight back against the prince and his henchman the Sherriff of Nottingham – also, he falls in love with Maid Marian) and takes the piss out of it (well, not the story so much as formulaic way the story is usually told) in typical Brooksian fashion (ironically enough following a formula).

The main lead and his sidekick (Cary Elwes as the titular Robin of Loxley and Dave Chappelle as Ahchoo) take turns playing the role of straight man, breaking the fourth wall often enough wink at the audience but not so often as to get annoying, while the rest of the cast is allowed to over-act to their hearts content. Dave Chappelle has some of the best line delivery in the film and Amy Yasbeck swoons around delicately in her iron undies. On the villainous side of things Richard Lewis over-reacts to bad news and offers snide comments from the sidelines as the cowardly Prince John, and Tracey Ullman twitches and growls as the hideous Latrine (whose family changed their name a few centuries back from ‘Shithouse’). The rest of the cast (Mark Blankfield as Blinkin, Eric Allan Kramer as Little John, Matthew Porretta as Will Scarlet O’hara, Megan Cavanagh as Broomhilde) are excellent, with particular props going to Mark Blankfield as the blind manservant.

Where the casting really shines is with its protagonist and antagonist, Cary Elwes and Roger Rees (the Sheriff of Rottingham) respectively. Elwes aims for a spot between ridiculous and self-aware and absolutely nails it. On the one hand he plays the swashbuckling and bombastic hero with believable earnestness, smiling his way through sword fights and laughing at comically defeated enemies. On the other hand he can clearly see stupidity and is unafraid to point it out with a clever retort, comment or brilliant facial expression. He also does a great Winston Churchill impression. Roger Rees (who I remember best as the eccentric but surprisingly competent UK ambassador in The West Wing) just seems to be having a great time as the campy, mincing Sheriff of Rottingham. He plays the role straighter than Elwes, all slimy, smarmy charm, cowardly but never snivelling, completely unthreatening. The perfect parody of the bloodless ‘bad for the sake of being bad’ antagonists that you get in adventure films up ’til the ’60s (the kind who made a comeback in the family films of the ’90s).

Obviously I enjoyed the film, but I’m a fan of Mel Brooks and his sense of humour. I admit not everybody is. It’s crass and simple and follows a formula, which might put some people off (fuckin’ snobs), but it’s great for what it is. The jokes hit their targets as accurately as one of Robin’s, such as how traditional musical serenades in classic films often involve the bloke bellowing in the bird’s face, or that the best attempts of the male cast members can’t stop a pervasive feeling of “it’s all a bit gay, ain’t it?” (more importantly, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I mean, just look at this excellent choreography, especially Little John guiding Blinkin around), and of course the casual references to Kevin Costner’s American accented Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

What surprised me on the rewatch was how well it holds up, even compared with some of Brooks other films. Ask me what my favourite Brooks film is and I’ll tell you truthfully it’s Young FrankensteinMen in Tights is a close second though. A film that I didn’t enjoy as much on a recent rewatch was Blazing Saddles. A great film with some classic moments, but just not as funny as when I first watched it as a kid. If I ever do one of these reviews of Blazing Saddles I’ll go into it more, but I’m starting to come to the conclusion that the Westerns might not be as ripe for parody as adventure films or horror movies. Cultural differences maybe? Not sure. Worth further consideration in the future.

Anyway, classic comedy with a great cast. If you like Mel Brooks, you’ll like this. And who doesn’t like Mel Brooks? Fuckin’ snobs, that’s who.