Dead Poets Society (1989)

Director: Peter Weir Cast: Robin Williams and a load of nondescript teenage boys

A new English teacher arrives at an exclusive boys’ boarding school and introduces a new way of learning that’s a break from their usual stuffy academia. However, his unusual style doesn’t go down well with everyone.

So after a conversation with a friend in which I stated I thought I’d seen most Robin Williams films, and then proceeded to be corrected when my friend listed off all the ones I haven’t seen, I’m trying to work through his full repertoire. To be honest it probably just feels like I’ve seen all his films as I’ve watched Hook about 3 billion times- but I don’t think I’ll be watching Dead Poets Society quite as many times.

Call me uncultured but I just thought this film was so unbearably dull. I came for the Robin Williams, but I felt like he was barely in it. The scarce bits he was in were enjoyable (funny, but he also does serious very well), but they were interspersed with excruciating scenes about tedious teenage boys, none of whose name I can remember or identify because they all look the same and have no outstanding traits of note, apart for possibly the main two. Even those main two I just didn’t care about- it’s not that they were unlikeable, I just didn’t find them interesting or compelling characters.

I won’t spoil the main climax of the movie, but I thought it was out of place and, to be honest, unrealistic. It was just so over-the-top as a reaction to something that was really not that bad, and I just couldn’t help but think “get over it, you overprivileged nob head”. But, you know, maybe I’m just missing something as the film was an Oscar winner after all (Best Screenplay).

I didn’t like this film (can you tell?) but not because it’s badly made or anything, it just didn’t float my boat. I feel like it’s the sort of film my mum would watch while she’s doing the ironing. Just meh.

2.5 stars 

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Risky Business (1983)

Director: Paul Brickman Cast: Tom Cruise, Rebecca De Mornay, Bronson Pinchot, Curtis Armstrong, Joe Pantoliano

When his parents leave him home alone, high school student Joel takes his friend’s advice and decides to make the most of it. However, he gets into some trouble with a call girl and things start to spiral out of control.

So going in I thought this movie was a comedy- and to be fair, most things I’ve read say that it is. Over-confident teenager is left with the house to himself and gets into some silly japes with his friends, while managing to get everything back in order just in time for his parents get back. While that generally is the list of the film, it didn’t quite pan out how I’d imagined. The film starts off innocently enough- teenage boy doesn’t know how to make a microwave dinner, ho ho ho- but then all of a sudden he decides to invite a prostitute round like it’s no big deal- what?! Where did that come from?? Is that regular behaviour for high school students in America or something?! So yeah, that happens and then he gets “involved” with her and they end up running a brothel from his house.

The whole thing just felt totally unrealistic and, well, stupid. It escalates and gets kind of dark pretty suddenly and is just plain weird. I feel like it would have made more sense if it was more clearly defined as a comedy, but it’s really not and the fact that it’s so serious is a little disturbing. What certainly doesn’t help is the weird soundtrack, composed by Tangerine Dream- the ambience is more Bladerunner than Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. While it’s an 80s movie, it doesn’t really seem to fit with all those other Golden Age classics. Basically, it would sit better with me if it was just funnier.

Did I like this film? I mean, I sat through it and didn’t hate it, but I probably wouldn’t watch it again. In terms of the actual quality of the film-making, there’s not really much to complain about but the vibe feels off. There are some messages in there such as obsession with making money and moving from high school into the real world, but it’s not an enjoyable watch at times. It’s the movie that launched Tom Cruise but I prefer him in other stuff.

Risky Business isn’t family viewing and I wouldn’t want to watch it with my parents. I’m not sure I would go out of my way to recommend it to anyone I know, but if you’re intrigued I would say give it a go and see what you make of it.

2.5 stars

Deck the Halls (2006)

Director: John Whitesell Cast: Matthew Broderick, Danny DeVito, Kristen Chenoweth, Kristin Davis

Popular local figure Steve becomes frustrated when a new neighbour, Buddy, moves in across the street and rivals him for the title of the town’s “Christmas guy”. Buddy is determined that his house is so lit up with Christmas lights that it can be seen from space, however Steve won’t let that happen.

While Deck the Halls will never quite become a Christmas classic, it’s an enjoyable if perhaps low-quality watch. Overall it’s a pretty rubbish film by usual standards, but I did enjoy it and I certainly felt Christmassy watching it. I laughed out loud a few times, and while much of the comedy is basic slapstick it’s not too over-the-top. The plot is a classic Christmas movie setup, with the two main characters learning some life lessons and everything ending up right in the end.

There are certainly better Christmas films out there but this is worth a watch, and I would probably watch it again (although it won’t be an annual feature of my Christmas viewing list). It’s lightweight and family friendly, so good for a cosy December evening in.

2.5 stars

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999)

Director: George Lucas Cast: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Ian McDiarmid, Frank Oz, Samuel L Jackson

The first of the notorious Star Wars prequels, The Phantom Menace kicks off Anakin Skywalker’s storyline that sets him on the path to becoming a Jedi, and ultimately a Sith. After a chance encounter with two Jedis on Tatooine, Anakin is taken to start training as a Jedi himself.  Meanwhile, Senator Palpatine plots to take over the Republic by provoking (and this is the really thrilling bit) trade disputes.

When I first saw this at the cinema as a kid, I loved this movie. Obviously now, however, my cinema palate has matured and I can see that it’s actually pretty rubbish, but to be honest I have to give it credit for giving me the same enjoyment that I had when I first watched the originals. The plot and particularly acting (with a couple of exceptions- more on that later) is pants but generally speaking the film does embody classic Star Wars elements- the sound effects, the screen wipes, the aliens, and it’s actually cool to see Yoda et al before the events of A New Hope.

I’ll start with the bad points to get them out of the way. My main issue is that I just can’t find it believable that the Anakin from The Phantom Menace goes on to be Darth Vader. Obviously there are two more movies before he finally gets there, but there’s just no hint at all of his susceptibility to the dark side, or to be honest even his Jedi skills. Qui-Gon just “senses” that Anakin is really powerful- but as a viewer I just can’t join the two together. Sure he’s a good pilot, but so is Han Solo and I don’t think his flying reflexes are evidence enough of his so-called powers. It makes the leap into the next instalment, Attack of the Clones, unconvincing as he’s basically had a total personality transplant. Darth Vader is such an iconic character and the whole point of the Star Wars saga is effectively the rise, fall and redemption of Anakin Skywalker, but this movie just doesn’t build him up enough to become the badass but ultimately heroic character that we see by Return of the Jedi. It’s hard to tell if it’s the script or the acting that makes it not work (probably a combination of both), but either way Anakin is a let-down.

Other minor problems include the cringe-inducing script- the original trilogy is full of excellent lines that have become iconic in cinema, but can anyone remember anything from this? There’s also Jar Jar Binks- arguably the most universally hated Star Wars character but aside from his general grating personality, he doesn’t bring anything to the plot really so is surplus to requirements. There are a couple of casual racist stereotypes too, in the form of the trade federation reps and the Gungans. Finally, just the bad acting in general: too much stilted and unconvincing delivery, and I think the abundance of characters put quantity over quality.

The other main issue people have with this movie is the plot. Yes, it’s pretty dull but actually as a Star Wars fan I do think the events of this film are important. It paves the way to how we end up with the Rebel Alliance and the events of the original trilogy, and given what I’ve said above about the Anakin story-arc, the Senator Palpatine/Emperor story-arc actually works well in the prequel trilogy and is one of the trilogy’s overall redeeming features. As a kid I had very little idea of what was actually going on, but now as an adult I watch it thinking “ah, so that’s how that happened”. Perhaps it’s fair to say the key points are there but the execution fell short of the mark.

To end on a high note, the positives. Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan are super cool and it was good to have some context for Obi-Wan’s and Darth Vader’s relationship. While the script is terrible, both Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor manage to salvage their characters and they’re easily the highlight of the movie. (Mace Windu- Samuel L Jackson- is in this, but he doesn’t really get going yet until the next episode.) Darth Maul is also awesome, and while he only gets about three spoken lines (probably best given the rest of the script) he has some seriously cool moves in the final fight scene.

This isn’t the worst of the prequels but also I’d say not the best. In terms of storyline it’s good for Star Wars nerds for the general context/history of the Republic and the Empire, but for those who are lukewarm towards the originals I would say probably best not to bother as it won’t add anything for them.

2 stars