Boys, toys and talk

Thirteen Days

"This is not a blockade," Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Dylan Baker) screams at an Admiral who’s defending his adherence to the so-called rules of engagement. "This is a language, a language that the President is trying to speak with Khruschev." This statement encapsulates the essence of this cerebral political thriller: when diplomatic channels aren’t used, the moves towards war and the signals conveyed between countries become the talk instead.

And there’s a lot of hard-hitting talk in this film based on the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, ably directed by Roger Donaldson. America’s President John F Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood) is trying to come to a decision about what to do when American spy planes photograph Soviet nuclear missiles under construction in Cuba. The missiles could be functional in mere weeks, giving the Soviet Union a first strike capability, and the ability to kill up to 80 million Americans in a matter of minutes. With the assistance of his brother and the Attorney General Bobby Kennedy (Steven Culp), and political advisor Kenneth O’Donnell (Kevin Costner), JFK tries to make a decision that means they won’t be on an unstoppable path to nuclear war. This is game theory – and human nature – in action.

If the Americans sit tight, the Soviets might make use of that capability. If they approach the Russions directly, they’ll find out that the Americans know and the sites could become operational while negotiations drag on. If they attack by stealth, the Soviets are likely to retaliate in Berlin, dragging the US into war under its NATO obligations. If they offer to make a deal by pulling their missiles out of Turkey, they’ll look like they think US security is more important than that of its allies.

The world knows what happened: JFK instituted a naval blockade and at the eleventh hour the USSR backed down, averting what could have been a catastrophic war. As always with films of this type, the major challenge is to keep the audience interested in how the known outcome is reached. At nearly two and a half hours, this is a serious challenge, particularly given only a sprinkling of action scenes outside the White House and Pentagon, which strictly serve the story, rather than vice versa. Furthermore, Khrushchev and the Russians (except for one) are never seen; it’s a risky move, but one that successfully avoids stereotyping them.

Refreshingly, Thirteen Days respects its audience by presuming them to be intelligent enough to follow the complex manoevrings as the military hawks push for war and the Kennedys and O’Donnelly insist on maintaining peace. This is unconventional enough for a mainstream film, and if at times it slips into being a little tiresome by taking itself too seriously, it is at least a sincere effort to convey the real tension and infallibility of the humans who had the world in their hands for those few days. This is an almost timeless portrait of men – literally, as this is as boys-own as American history itself – under diplomatic fire.

The casting for the most part is excellent, and this is important given the emphasis on character at the expense of action. As JFK, Bruce Greenwood is complex rather than simply wonderful. He demonstrates a quiet integrity and humility but shows that he knows he can make mistakes too. The world is bigger than JFK, Bruce Greenwood’s JFK knows this, taking a backseat to the events that surround him. Steve Culp as Bobby Kennedy is very believable too.

The film’s major problem is Kevin Costner, who is too recognizable to be a sidekick to the lesser known actors playing the Kennedy brothers. His role is at once too small (he’s a mere political advisor) and too big (as a mere political advisor, it’s unlikely he’d really have had the influence he does in this film). Not only does Costner throw the narrative off balance; his prominent role in Oliver Stone’s JFK simply makes it odd that he has turned up here as the President’s advisor.

The subplot of Kenneth’s family is thin and hardly a welcome diversion from the tense moments in the office; and the arbitrary occasional shifts to black and white film are superfluous. But there are few gimmicks in this drama, which makes for a satisfying film that, while conventional, conveys a moment in history with suitable aplomb. As the military’s moves were Kennedy’s language, so this film is the language of an era.

Trifle with delicious sauce

Chocolat

In an age when mainstream films like Family Man are promoting staid conservative family values, Chocolat is as deliciously naughty, sweet and magical as, well, chocolate. Sensuous, whimsical and just a little bit subversive, Chocolat will lift you up and make you see the world from a different angle; it will make you rethink your prejudices and feel a bit less guilty about the pleasures you might occasionally indulge in. It’s a crowd-pleasing pseudo-arthouse film that won’t overly challenge the intellect – but that shouldn’t detract from its other merits. Director Lasse Hallstrom (The Cider House Rules, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, My Life as a Dog)has created an escapist fantasy that believes in itself, and pulls it off masterfully.

The tale – for despite its poke at traditionalism, this is a fairy tale in the traditional sense – begins with Vianne (Juliette Binoche) arriving in a small and very Catholic French village in the late 1950s. You need to believe that people speak English with French accents (as they do with German accents in Schindler’s List) but rise above your realist demands and you’ll find it’s worth taking the ride.

Vianne and her daughter Anouk (Victoire Thivisol) breeze into town with their secret Latin recipe of hot chocolate laced with chili pepper; it’s an elixir that elicits emotions and feelings from people, and helps Vianne make at least a few friends when she opens her chocolate shop during Lent.

Which is important, because she’s soon the town pariah. Her chief critic is the sanctimonious mayor, Comte De Reynaud (played wonderfully by Alfred Molina) who oversees both the political and moral health of the village. He even has the local priest, P?re Henri (Hugh O’Conor) under the thumb and practically writes his sermons, which makes for some amusing scenes.

The radiant Vianne provides the perfect model for him of evil in a human form. She’s a proudly single mother, wears irresistably colorful clothes, and doesn’t attend church or even pretend to believe in God. People and their problems are more important to her, and she hopes to spice up their lives with her assortment of chocolate goodies and some fun. "I have a knack for picking people’s favorites," she likes to tell the townspeople who are brave enough to stop by her wicked haven of pleasure.

Except for the favorite of blow-in gypsy Roux (Johnny Depp), one of the "river rats" who arrive in town on their houseboat and must, by their nature, be spreading crime and immorality among the people. Vianne shows them kindness of course, and encourages some of the townspeople to trust them too.

Chocolat is full of likeable characters who are just waiting to be released from the tedium of morality that they have imposed on themselves, with the Mayor as the frightening gatekeeper. Julie Dench grounds the film with her perfomance as Vianne’s grouchy landlady Armande Voizinwith, who melts under Vianne’s insistent good nature. Josephine (Lena Olin), whom Vianne rescues from a violent husband and befriends, evolves into a complete person once she is shown some tenderness. The only character who seems miscast is Johnny Depp, who’s so bohemian and hip for the times that he’s difficult to take seriously. He also seems too immature to play the love interest of the maternal, voluptuous Juliet Binoche.

Connect with people, Chocolat tells its audience; live a little, and what could go wrong? If we were in a town where real arthouse films competed for attention, Chocolat’s syrupy sweetness might not stand out as favourably; but for Bangkok, Chocolat is something special. Treat yourself.

xxxxxxx

Blokey but brilliant

Snatch

This is a bloke’s film through and through, but if you can get past the tired old fact that no decent role goes to a woman, this is a sharp piece of film-making that will leave you gasping for breath.

Strike two is the fact that Snatch is unashamedly a recycled version of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, but two facts diminish that criticism: a) this film wasn’t given a cinema release in Bangkok and b) it’s still very, very funny and just as clever as its predecessor.

There’s no strike three. Snatch is slick and stylish without being overproduced, it’s quick without being too smart for its own good and entertaining without being utterly gratuitous. Guy Ritchie is still the UK’s answer to Quentin Tarantino, only he’s much funnier.

The film kicks off with narrator Turkish (Jason Statham) telling us he’s involved in the illegal boxing world but has somehow become mixed up with a diamond over the past week. Cut to a week ago when Turkish orders his right hand man Tommy (Stephen Graham) to go buy a new caravan, a catalyst for a series of crisscrossing events that make up the film’s complicated plot.

At a local gypsy caravan park where the caravan awaits them, Tommy and a thug meet middle-man Mickey (Brad Pitt in Fight Club mode), who sells them a dud that doesn’t make it back to the main road. Mickey incapacitates the thug, who’s due to play in an illegal fight, and in a roundabout way he ends up in the fight himself.

At the same time, a gang has stolen an 84-carat diamond from a high-security facility in Antwerp. Franky Four Fingers (Del Toro – if we’re going to have a bloke’s flick, why can’t they all be this good looking?) is in charge of getting the diamond back to London and sold, but phone calls all around mean there are plenty of others who want that diamond. Let the race begin.

And just try keeping up with the competitors. There’s Cousin Avi (Dennis Farina), the sole Yank who pulls the least laughs, his Brit cousin Doug the Head (Mike Reid), Uzbekhistanian Boris the Blade aka Boris the Bullet Dodger (Rade Serbedzija), serious gangster Brick Top (Alan Ford), and a pawn shop owner and his mates who are in way over their heads but whose dog becomes integral to the film’s outcome.

It’s a tight plot and it all dovetails very, very nicely at the end. The dialogue is punchy, unpredictable and hilarious in a way that only British films can be, while the jump cuts and gimmicky editing is limited enough for it to remain a pleasing diversion. Is this what Hollywood films might be like if there weren’t so many people trying to fiddle with scripts?

The casting is exceptional, with the film’s harsh lighting lending an intriguing look to even the ugliest of faces – and there are plenty of those to go around here. It’s unfair to pick favorites, but most noteworthy are Alan Ford, who has some great lines and delivers them with frightening verve, and Del Toro, who looks as if he’s going to evolve into an important character but doesn’t quite get the chance.

Those born in the late sixties to early seventies will probably love the soundtrack, which is catchy but still exists to serve the film rather than the other way around. Keep an eye out for Ritchie’s complement to Madonna – Vinnie Jone’s character says outright that he loves "Lucky Star".

This may well be Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels II, but Ritchie did provide a uniquely special twist to Tarantino-ism that was certainly asking to be milked for at least more than one film. The big question might be: how far he can sustain his style with variations as good as Snatch?

Doin’ the time warp

What Women Want

What Women Want is premised on two flawed assumptions. Firstly, that women don’t already tell men what they want. And secondly, that men aren’t already listening. By managing to insult the intelligence of both sexes early on, it doesn’t give itself much of a chance.

Mel Gibson plays Nick Marshall, a proudly misogynistic and divorced advertising man who is so sexist and unattractive that he seems like an utter anachronism on the big screen – and for a mainstream film today, that’s saying something. His character is just awful, and the film’s essential problem is that he’s so unlikable you don’t even want to see him transformed into someone a little bit nice.

Nick has been pipped at the post by Darcy Maguire (Helen Hunt) for the position of creative director at one of Chicago’s biggest ad agencies. Boss Alan Alda (with his mellifluous voice, one of the few pleasures to be heard here) has decided that the agency needs to move with the times and – gasp – sell things to women. Never mind that most ad agencies would have made this shift in the 70s – it’s Hollywood that’s been remarkably slow in trying to catch up with feeble-minded movies like this one.

Darcy gives the staff a box full of the feminine items that the market is currently seeking advertisers for. Nick heads home, has a drink or two, and after a truly excruciating scene where he sings along to Frank Sinatra, decides to try to "think like a broad". This kind of film may have worked in the 50s, but it falls flat and hard in the 21st century.

To do such an outrageous thing, Nick decides to try all of the products in the box: he paints his nails, puts on lippy, blow dries his hair and slips on some pantihose. He’s just about to slip on a bra when daughter Alex (Ashley Johnson), who is staying with him temporarily and already has a healthy low opinion of him, arrives home with her boyfriend and springs him.

After they leave in horror, Nick keeps playing around and ends up tripping and falling into the bathtub while holding a blowdryer. He gives himself an electric shock and a special gift: the ability to hear women’s thoughts. Unlikely, but an interesting and promising concept.

So Nick starts to learn what it’s like to be a woman. As he hears what the women at work think of him, he realizes what a prat he’s been, and gradually modifies his behavior – although at the same time he uses his newfound knowledge to his sexual advantage and to get a few steps ahead of Darcy. The problem here is that it’s difficult to believe that a guy like this wouldn’t have already had plenty of straight-talking women – and men – tell him what an utter loser he is.

Very little redeems this unrealistic and backwards-looking film. There are moments of minor amusement, particularly as Nick seduces a woman he’s had his eye on for some time (Marisa Tomei, who is very good – her line "Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr Nick Marshall" is memorable) and turns into a much nicer dad to Alex. But the outcome is predictable: that Nick learns it’s not a bad idea to listen to women, and that Darcy – independent and intelligent, but full of insecurities as the movie deems any woman so savvy must be – was just waiting to be swept off her feet by him.

What do women want? Films that give their characters some complexity and toughness, for a start. Women will need to be treated to a little more sophistication before being fooled into thinking that there’s finally a Hollywood release that takes them seriously.

Love (of dancing) in the time of striking

Billy Elliot

The underdog overcoming great adversity, David cutting Goliath down to size, the weakling showing courageous strength – great films are made when they celebrate such victories (Erin Brokovich, Muriel’s Wedding, The Full Monty), but many a weak film has failed when it hasn’t done justice to or has over-sentimentalized these wins.

Billy Elliot, a refreshing and gritty story of beating the odds, firmly belongs in the former category, despite a few shortcomings. Not unlike The Full Monty, Billy Elliot takes economic difficulty, combines it with a bit of social commentary, throws in some very likeable characters and comedy, and turns out a crowd-pleasing result.

The year is 1984, and growing up in the desolation of the miner’s strike in northeastern England under Thatcher, eleven-year-old Billy Elliot (Jamie Bell) has a passion for dancing. When he slips into a ballet class one day while he’s supposed to be practicing boxing, the teacher Mrs Wilkinson (Julie Walters) notices his aptitude. Smartly enough, she very offhandedly encourages him to come back, and soon he’s coming regularly despite various taunts about his sex – even from the ballet class’s pianist.

Billy’s miner father Jackie (Gary Lewis), however, is horrified when he discovers his son has been learning how to dance. In a scene demonstrating a mixture of both the innocence and intelligence of youth, Billy demands that his father explain precisely why it is he can’t keep learning. "You know," is all that Billy’s inarticulate father can say. Billy’s mother is dead, the miner’s strike has them on the poverty line – for Billy’s father, this is the last thing he needs to deal with.

But Mrs Wilkinson pushes Billy on to audition for the Royal Ballet School. Can Billy exchange an impending bleak life in the mines for a life in the capital his father has never even been to? What comes next is quite predictable, but enjoyable nevertheless.

This is a coming of age story as much as anything else, one that recognizes children know far more than adults ever suspect. "They sleep in separate beds because they don’t have sex. My dad did it with a woman at work but they don’t think I know," says Mrs Wilkinson’s daughter Debbie to Billy, at the same time revealing more about Mrs Wilkinson’s disappointing life than she’s prepared to tell herself.

Billy’s relationship with the effeminate Michael (Stuart Wells) allows first time director Stephen Daldry to make the superfluous point that Billy is not gay; but in doing so he is also arguing that what one is passionate about is not related to sexuality.

The success of the film rests largely on the shoulders – or the feet – of newcomer Jamie Bell, whose ebullient dancing splashes vitality onto the screen and whose acting is also finely wrought. The only problem is that most of his scenes show him tap-dancing – and he’s supposedly been learning ballet. Julie Walters is great as the weary, chain-smoking ballet teacher, but sadly seems to disappear without explanation towards the end of the film. Gary Lewis has the presence of a steaming volcano, and it’s a pleasure to watch his transformation as he begins – predictably enough – to believe he really does have a talented son. He’s at his best during his and Billy’s pivotal trip to London, where his humility hurts to watch as he’s made to feel his place in English society perhaps like never before.

So this is also a film about British class; the miner’s strike is a constant throughout the film and infuses a hopelessness to the future if Billy doesn’t make it into ballet school. In one scene Debbie is walking home, dragging a stick along fences, and she doesn’t skip a beat as the fences change into police wearing full riot gear – she just runs the stick along their shields instead.

The icing on the cake is the film’s uplifting soundtrack, which represents some of the best of British class rebellion, including the Jam’s a "Town Called Malice" and the Clash’s "London Calling". Just try coming out of the cinema after watching Billy Elliot without smiling and tapping your fingers to one of the tunes stuck in your head.

Korean thriller, Hollywood style

Shiri

A blockbuster in the best (or worst) of Hollywood traditions, Shiri is a fast-paced thriller with plenty of style, intrigue and explosions. While the plot is at best erratic and at worst occasionally indecipherable, there are enough solid scenes and emotional drama to maintain a momentum of tension and air of mystery.

The film kicks off in gruesome fashion, with scenes from a North Korean elite military training camp in 1992. Whether they are true North Korean militants, or an independent hardline group working towards their own agenda at this stage is unclear. Prisoners are murdered as part of the soldiers’ brutal training programme – the brutality seems especially highlighted while snow falls softly around the troops.

Star student Hee, who shoots with incredible precision, is sent to the South where her mission seems simply to be to kill South Korean agents. Cut to 1998 and enter hero and special agent, Ryu (Han Suckyu) who along with his partner Lee attempts to foil a new operation that suggests Hee is back in action. Eventually the audience learns that Hee is from a group frustrated by the slow pace of reunification. Led by Park (Choi Minsk), Ryu’s old nemesis from a failed hijacking attempt, the group is attempting to provoke a war between the two sides in order to hasten reunification (never mind the logic there).

To do this, they get hold of ten capsules of CTX, a nitroglycerin-like substance that self-detonates when exposed to both heat and light (just like the nitroglycerine in Vertical Limit – sigh – seen it all before), killing all within a massive radius. But attempts to foil the group by Ryu and Lee keep going wrong, until it becomes obvious there is a leak among the special agents. At the same time, Ryu has decided to marry his girlfriend Hyun, an aquarium and fish shop owner with a former alcohol problem. The fish theme persists throughout the film, and allows for some nice scenes, such as the agents’ office filled with calming tanks.

Despite the political undertones (that those in the North are starving while the South is enjoying hamburgers, cheese and coke), Shiri makes clear that it is much more a study of love, friendship and trust under circumstances that make allegiences necessary but fraught. It’s disappointing that the boundaries are pushed through situations rather than any semblance of sophisticated dialogue. Allowances could be made that something is lost in the translation as the English subtitles are startlingly poor, but even that seems unlikely.

The main actors are faced with a challenging script and put in very competent performances, pushing emotions that aren’t often seen done well in this genre. Lee’s devastation is beautifully portrayed as he finds out who the leak is, while Hyun shows versatility and grace in her role. The scenes with these two together sparkle – but they are quickly overshadowed by heavy-handed action scenes.

There are too many holes and convenient plot devices to start listing – particularly without giving the ending away – so if you’re planning on catching Korea’s most expensive and financially successful film ever, be prepared to seriously suspend your disbelief. (But to name just one: Except for providing a poignant ending, what’s the point of the character who lives in care by the sea? Oh, and just one more: It was Lee who gave Hyun the CD, right? So how could Hyun have been the one keen on him? Too fluky!)

In reward (or not) you’ll walk out knowing that when it comes to making a thriller, Korean film-makers are certainly on par with the best from Hollywood, while being able to maintain a style that’s quirky and individual.

Eyes half-closed look at yesteryear

The Legend of Bagger Vance

Director Robert Redford has created a cinematic oil painting with The Legend of Bagger Vance. Reminiscent of Redford’s previous film The Horse Whisperer in terms of style – and unfortunately, vacuous content – the lush film attempts to portray an inspirational if obvious message that transcends golf: that every person has an authentic swing to find.

It’s a simple message to convey, but perhaps too fortune-cookie like for a feature-length film. The film is an adaptation of Steven Pressfield’s novel The Legend of Bagger Vance, a novel centring on Hindu spiritual thought (Bagger Vance represented the Baghavad Gita). It was always going to be an ambitious step to translate the spiritual book onto the screen, and the results of Redford’s efforts are disappointingly questionable.

For the message itself may be timeless, but the method of telling it in 2001 shows a Hollywood mindset still stuck in Savannah, Georgia 1931, the place and year in which most of the film is set.

The film is narrated by Hardy Greaves (Jack Lemmon as an adult, J Michael Moncrief as a child), who is just eight years old when Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon) returns from World War I, a spiritually-broken man who was once the star golf-player of the South, but is now more likely to be found drinking and gambling with the town’s blacks – now there’s a downfall! – than swinging a club on any green.

He left behind girlfriend Adele (Charlize Theron), to whom he did not even correspond with while away and has not sought out since his quiet return. But in his absence, Adele’s father has committed suicide and she has sought to fulfill his dream of having the best golf course in the south. When his creditors appear likely to thwart that dream, she responds by organising a golf tournament with $10,000 between Bobby Jones (Joel Gretsch) and Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill).

The local townspeople demand that a local be included in the match, and young Hardy suggests Junuh, whom he has idolised from an even younger age. Hardy races off to find and ask him, closely followed by various townsfolk and Adele, but he is not persuaded. That’s until the mysterious Bagger Vance (Will Smith) turns up delivering homespun truths while Junuh is out practising his swing.

Even putting aside the problematic stereotype of black Americans existing to enlighten less spiritual whites (even if they might be an angel – we must assume Bagger Vance is one, as little else about him is deemed worth explaining), the film embraces an era of racism without questioning it directly or indirectly. And Adele, although feisty and strong-willed, eventually crumbles into Junuh’s arms despite there being little shown in the characters of either to suggest why they should be attracted to the other.

While performances are as solid as the light script allows – even Will Smith is believable as somebody serious – it’s the young J Michael Moncrief who really steals the show with an earnest portrayal of Hardy Greaves.

This tale of redemption seems to lack real challenge and truly thoughtful wisdom. Junuh is hardly shown to be in true crisis, particularly compared to Savannah’s black population at the time, of whom few are seen, and the lines of advice offered might give audiences a warm and fuzzy feeling, but they’re nothing one doesn’t read in a basic self-help book. The lack of sophistication in the story is not reflected, however, in the fine cinematography that still makes this a very watchable, if soon-to-be-forgotten, film.

Subtle, not profound

Castaway

It’s ambitious and daring by Hollywood standards, but Castaway doesn’t push itself too far beyond what you would expect from a film featuring mainstream stars Tom Hanks and Helen Hunt.

Chuck Noland (Hanks) is a troubleshooter for FedEx, and his life is run almost desperately by the clock. It’s high-pressure, day-in, day-out, as he flits from city to city, improving the speed of moving parcels from A to B. Even his Christmas is ruined by a call leading him to the airport, with his girlfriend, Kelly Frears (Hunt) in tow. They exchange presents in the car; she gives him her grandfather’s pocket watch, while she doesn’t have time to open his before he’s off to the next drama. It turns out that he’s been so wrapped up in his own busy life that he hasn’t even found out that his good friend’s wife is dying.

Chuck’s freight plane hits trouble somewhere over the Pacific, and is spectacularly brought down. It’s a graphic depiction of a plane crash, and be warned: you may have flashbacks next time you’re handing a flight attendant your boarding pass.

Chuck manages to escape the broken plane, and holding on to a rubber dinghy he floats off in the storm, luckily hitting land before morning. But it’s a deserted and reasonably inhospitable tropical island. Besides a small beach with sufficient numbers of coconuts and a single cave for shelter, harsh rock restricts any hope of serious exploration.

And so Chuck’s personal odyssey begins, as he works out a way to collect water, catch food, find shelter and make fire.

So if you could choose any 12 FedEx parcels to take with you on a deserted island, what would they be? Chuck doesn’t get to choose, but almost that many are washed to his feet over the next few days. While at first the items seem laughably superfluous – a designer netted dress, a pair of ice skates, a volleyball – they all soon find their uses. Another lesson, perhaps: things aren’t always what they seem if you can manage to think laterally, and you’re in desperate circumstances. The netted dress turns into a fishing net, the ice skates manage to assist in the extraction of an abscessed tooth, and the volleyball is given a face and turns into Dr Wilson, a companion for Chuck to conveniently chat with.

The trailer gave the ending pretty much away; so if you haven’t seen the trailer, you may not want to read on any further.

But if you have, you’d be correct in presuming that eventually, Chuck makes it back to the real world. What the trailer doesn’t reveal is how he adjusts to real life again.

Problematically, neither does the film. The question of whether Kelly has waited or not for him is quickly answered, but beyond that Chuck doesn’t have anything eloquent to say about what four years alone – struggling, man against nature! – has done to him.

While there’s a newfound appreciation for items Chuck once took for granted, such as cooked crab and fire available at the click of a gas gun, there’s nothing sophisticated in Chuck’s analysis of what has happened to him. So much for time alone being a catalyst for philosophizing. On the other hand, perhaps that would have been too predictable and heavy-handed.

The messages of the film are subtler than a few reflective lines, but they’re not profound, nor do they push any boundaries. Although there is a disappointing lack of complexity in Hank’s character, he puts in a typically solid performance. His weight loss and transformation into a blonde-dreadlocked athlete is quite remarkable (although he does seems to grow more sinewy over the last few months of his stay on the island than the first four years). Hunt, too, is pleasing to watch and enigmatic during the climax.

Castaway is enjoyable and entertaining, but it fails to offer any challenges. It may prompt some thought about how you live your life, and if for that reason only, makes it worth spending two hour of your precious time watching.

The horror of sequels

Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2

Of course it’s going to be difficult to follow up with something as good as the original $30,000 Blair Witch Project, but it must have been even harder to consciously make it this bad. Were other forces at work?

The $10 million sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, at least opens with some gusto. Various interviews with the citizens of Burkittsville about the havoc Blair Witch has caused their town are as unsettling as the first film. Are these real citizens? Has the town really been inundated with badly-dressed Marilyn Manson fans?

Cut to the camouflaged Blair Witch Hunt van, where Jeff (Jeffrey Donovan – so is this like, really Jeff?!) is taking his first tourist group on a camping tripout to the site where the original Blair Witch tapes were found. Flashbacks reveal Jeff thrashing about in a padded cell during a stint at a psychiatric hospital. There’s Stephen (Stephen Barker Turner) and his pregnant girlfriend Tristen (Tristen Skyler), who are researching a book called Blair Witch Project: Hysteria or History?, Erica (Erica Leerhsen), who practises Wicca, and intuitive goth Kim (Kim Director) who "just thought the original movie was cool".

Things get a little eerie when Jeff is convinced an old tree has materialized where previously there was nothing. The others think he’s just trying to scare them, and set up camp for a night of drinking and smoking things they shouldn’t be. Another tourist group arrives, but the original gang pretend they’ve seen something scary at Coffin Rock, so the new group heads off there instead.

Next thing it’s morning, the cameras are gone, and all of Stephen and Tristan’s notes are strewn across the campsite – but the tapes are mysteriously buried, intact. Tristan miscarries her baby during the shock of finding things in such a mess – or is there another force at work? – and they all trundle off to hospital while she gets treated.

Then they head back to Jeff’s place, an old factory that is only reached by an unstable bridge that spans a deep gorge below, to watch the tapes. They discover there’s a missing five hours on the tapes, and in the mean time, things are getting strange. Hallucinations and strange dreams keep everyone on edge, and the flash forwards to the group being interviewed by a really annoying sheriff (Lany Flaherty) prompt the question: What is it that they’ve done? They’ve had an orgy, for a start, but to see that the tapes have to be played in reverseā€¦

The motif of cameras and film, kicked off in the original in a much simpler and classier way by the use of hand-held cameras, is sustained in the sequel, but it’s all a bit forced. Hey, everyone’s got a handycam! Hey, Jeff’s set up a stack of cameras so they can see if anything is really going to happen while they’re not looking! Hey, Jeff’s got cameras in his house! Hey, "video tells the truth but film lies"! The film’s ending makes the utterer want to eat those words, but was that all the film was about? Apparently yes.

Director Joe Berlinger, the brains behind a much nobler effort, the documentary My Brother’s Keeper, should have known better. He also should have said "Cut!" a lot more frequently and demanded that his cast actually try to act. There are some really bad lines in this film; so bad, in fact, that it’s worth seeing just to see how horrifically Hollywood can stuff up in making sequels. That’s where the real horror of this film lies.

Chan puts the moves into movies

The Accidental Spy

There’s just something about Jackie Chan’s graceful moves that make any movie of his worth watching. The balletic kicks, the perfectly-executed somersaults and the inventive use of the most mundane of things – from medical equipment to doorways to straw brooms – are simply breathtaking. These are action scenes worth watching. Jackie Chan action scenes are the only ones I don’t use as an opportunity to dash to the loo.

In The Accidental Spy, Chan has excelled again at both choreographing and performing his own scenes and stunts. In interviews, Chan has explained that although many of the stunts in Hong Kong’s most expensive film ever could have been done using special effects, it was cheaper just to do them properly.

And much, much more effective. There’s no digital gauze between the audience and what’s happening on the screen, making the crane that smashes into a skyscraper look devastating, the collapse of a wharf frightening, and even the car chases interesting. (Did I just say I enjoyed a car chase scene?!!) This is real action by real actors. It’s the strong point of the film.

The plot, however, is far-fetched and fanciful. Chan plays Hong Konger Buck, an exercise equipment salesman who’s very good at somersaults and dreams of a more exciting life. He has his chance one day when he’s caught up in a bank robbery that he helps to foil, and gets his name in the papers. This leads him to Liu (Eric Tsang), a private investigator who is searching for an orphan born in 1958 – Buck fits the criteria.

Liu convinces Buck that he’s the son of a Korean bad-guy, one Mr Park, who’s been involved in the development of a powerful chemical weapon known as (don’t laugh) Anthrax II but is now dying of cancer in Seoul. Buck heads to Seoul to see Park, who on his death bed challenges him to a little game of hide and seek.

Buck follows Park’s trail and finds a stash of cash in an Istanbul bank – but it’s not game over yet. Someone thinks Buck has found more ("the thing" everyone keeps calling it, "the thing"), and they’re out to get either it or him. This leads to the film’s most hilarious scene: Buck running down a crowded Turkish market in the nude. It’s a complicated procedure to protect one’s modesty while also knocking out oh, around a dozen or so Bad Guys, but Buck pulls through with masterful aplomb.

It turns out that another Korean big man, Mr Zen (Wu Hsing Kuo), had negotiated with Park to get the Anthrax II for some French buyers, and now he thinks Buck has it. There’s also CIA interest, and if you can follow the plot any further, good on you.

Chan’s performance is undoubtedly what holds this movie together, and Tsang plays a close second. The two female stars, undercover CIA agent Carmen (Kim Ming Cheong) and the heroin-addicted but sweet-faced Yong (Vivian Hsu) are stilted and unnatural actors, but even their mediocre attempts pale in comparison to the male CIA agent who – in just a few lines – manages to steal the prize for the film’s most truly appalling acting.

The thrill of this movie is not the climax of the overall story, but in the individual scenes and snatches of humor. A burning petrol tanker driving at full speed through the streets of Istanbul for a good ten or fifteen minutes without slowing down might be a bit unbelievable and utterly tangential to the plot, but it makes for a gripping ten or fifteen minutes. And it culminates in one of the most impressive on-screen explosions for quite some time. Just sit back and let it wash over you.

Don’t dash out before the end, either. Even though the lights in the cinema will probably be blazing – when will the light turners-on in Bangkok learn? – the series of bloopers from the film at the end are stomach-painfully funny, and demonstrate that sometimes, even the master stuffs up.