"This is where we fight! This is where they die!". I'll admit it, after repeatedly witnessing the bombastic, guitar crunchingly deafening trailer littered with such one dimensional sound bites, I wasn't expecting much from the latest Frank Miller adaptation. Two hours later though, and this stylish take on the historic Battle of Thermopylae had done everything a slice of pop culture movie making should do.

480BC and king Xerxes the Great descends upon Greece with the massed hordes of his Persian military. Dispatching messengers across the land, asking only for the Greek city states to subjugate themselves to his rule, the self proclaimed god hadn't reckoned on the response of Spartan king Leonidas. Born into a warrior culture, Leonidas chooses (not unsurprisingly) that it would be tactically advantageous (and a whole heap more fun) to have a bit of rumble with the Persian invaders. Without the backing of his Spartan officials, he nevertheless takes a selection of his finest men to meet Xerxes head on, and the 300 of legend are born.

Visually flawless, 300's artistic superiority to previous Frank Miller adaptation Sin City is so complete, the comparison seems deeply unfair. Perfectly composed, the lush colour palette and pin sharp CGI blend in a sumptuous visual feast. At times erotically pleasing (the overtly perky breasts on lithe female bodies, not the blokes you bummers), but more often viscerally satisfying in it's portrayal of ancient violence. Staying close to the graphic novel has once again reaped enormous rewards, and shown how gifted an artist Miller is. It's also the first movie I've seen digitally projected, and the benefit from this technological jiggery-pokery was impressive.

Depth and subtlety are commodities in short supply on the story front, but 300 never pretends to offer them. Instead characters are drawn with broad strokes of the storytelling brush; detailed enough for us to care about their fate, and to give flesh to the underlying themes of honour, duty, and the simple pleasure of kicking arse. The surprising thing is how well this works in the movie's favour. It really does feel like a myth, an embellished legend being told round the campfire.

This broad and simple framework also brings forth solid acting from all those involved. A tangible bond forms between the Spartan soldiers, held together by the strong presence of Leonidas. He also gets some excellent and memorable one liners, giving us moments of genuine humour that slot seamlessly into the bloody situation. Even the "story back in Sparta", unfolding during the brief breaks in battle allows for strong characters to develop. Queen Gorgo arguably gets the best scene in the whole movie, when she has her revenge on a scheming politician.

If you can stomach the comic book gore, live with the simple story and occasionally clunky dialogue, then 300 is an immensely entertaining movie. It's also a hell of a lot better than I expected.


Caught by the Fuzz

Top London police officer Nicholas Angel (Pegg) is making his colleagues in the force (sorry, service) look bad. With a string of awards and an arrest record 400% higher than anybody else, his superiors decided to take action. Transferred to the sleepy village of Sandford, Angel is paired up with PC Danny Butterman (Frost), a man more interested in cop movie fantasy than real police work. Despairing at the lack of criminal activity in his new beat, Angel soon believes he has uncovered something sinister as a series of brutal "accidents" occur.

There is so much to love about Hot Fuzz. As a parody of action movies it is spot on in it's piss-takery. Film geeks playing "spot the reference" will drool at the myriad little details crammed in there. Finally fans of the Pegg/Frost comedy pairing will not be disappointed in this latest offering. Oh and it also casts Timothy Dalton as a sinister Supermarche owner; clearly his best role since Prince Barin in Flash Gordon. How cool is that?

Aside from Dalton, the movie features a host of British talent as the supporting cast. Bill Bailey and Olivia Colman provide some of the best laughs as Angel's colleagues at Sandford police station -the latter having some priceless innuendo laden one liners. Jim Broadbent is also perfectly cast as the well meaning station chief, concerned with the greater good of the village. Humour runs the range from parody, neat one liners, perfectly timed swearing (usually from Frost), to some subtle sight gags (look out for the spit roast at the village fete). There are also a number of visual cues and set piece camera work during some of the most improbable action scenes that perfectly ape Hollywood.

Comparisons to Shaun of the Dead are inevitable, and if I'm being completely honest Hot Fuzz comes up a little short. Whereas Shaun was a tightly paced and focused parody cum homage of the Zombie flick, Fuzz runs too long and is unsure what it is trying to be at times. The sidestep into horror during the movies second hour doesn't work nearly as well as the scenes taking the piss out of the action movie genre, and as a result the humour is pretty sparse. Thankfully the script finds itself for the last twenty minutes, providing a string of absurd gun fighting and over the top climaxes worthy of any Hollywood blockbuster.

Hot Fuzz was well worth the wait, proving the partnership of Pegg, Frost, and Wright is still a strong force in British comedy. How funny you find the movie will depend on the number of bad action movies you've seen in your time; as someone who has Point Break (though thankfully not Bad Boys 2) proudly displayed on his DVD shelf, I found it great fun.


Blood Diamond

"Then I look around and I realise... God left this place a long time ago". After witnessing the brutal lengths to which man will go to satiate his greed, you'll be inclined to agree with South African smuggler Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio). Set during the Sierra Leone civil war of the 1990's, Blood Diamond is both a gripping action adventure, and unflinching look at the realities of the diamond trade.

A rare "pink" diamond buried in the Sierra Leone wilderness, is responsible for drawing the lives of three very different people together. Local fisherman Solomon Vandy (Dijmon Hounsou), separated from his family during a savage attack on his village by the RUF, knows the diamond's location but cares only for finding his family. Archer, a South African smuggler and ex-soldier, determined to buy his way out of the god forsaken continent by finding the hidden gem. Finally Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly), an American reporter who wants to expose the hypocrisy and complicity of a western diamond company secretly trading in conflict diamonds.

Despite a straightforward action adventure plot, Blood Diamond thankfully transcends the typical Hollywood take on world history. Director Edward Zwick uses broad strokes to explore the many aspects surrounding the exploitation of a country and it's people. The brutality of RUF militia is shown in graphic and shocking detail. Chief amongst these images are those of child soldiers, cruelly taken from their families, drugged, and forced to kill in the name of liberating the people. He also crafts a
memorably hellish cinematic landscape, in the shape of a burning war torn capital city in the aftermath of a fierce clash between RUF and government troops.

Performances from everyone are excellent, with Hounsou getting the lion's share of the emotionally charged dialogue as he struggles to reunite his family. Connelly gives a convincing turn as the reporter sick of Western apathy, desperate to expose the blood on the diamond industry's hands. But I have to save the greatest praise for DiCaprio's stunningly good portrayal of Archer. A bit of bastard at first, he brings much needed depth to what could so easily have been a cliched role. The authentic accent and colloquialisms also go a long way to strengthening the realism of the character. Between this and The Departed, I'm a convert to his considerable acting talent.

Given that the movie does an excellent job in exploring it's complex subject matter, the ending feels far too neat and tidy. It is in keeping with the movies tone so doesn't conspire to dull the impact of the previous two hours, but some may still find it a little jarring. Regardless, you will walk out feeling entertained and educated; a rare combination for a movie from Hollywood.

Blood Diamond is a thought provoking thriller, beautifully filmed, that doesn't shy from portraying the brutal consequences of man's greed.


Rocky! Rocky! Rocky!

Friday night, the screen packed to capacity with fans eager to see the final comeback of the greatest underdog in cinema history. Rocky Balboa, the inconceivable sixth outing for the boxing movie series, marks the final chapter in a story that began thirty years ago. And boy, is it a knockout piece of entertainment!

Stallone has written and directed an excellent send off for the lovable underdog. Strongly influenced by the first (and best) Rocky film, the structure and pace make for a very character driven movie. Long since retired, we find the former champ at a vulnerable time in his life. Struggling to come to terms with the death of his wife Adrian, trying to bridge the gap between himself and his estranged son, and not quite being able to let go of past glory. All this makes for a slow, thoughtful build up to the inevitable showdown; a process made all the better for Stallone's superb performance.

This wouldn't be a Rocky movie though, unless some quirk of fortune gave the guy one last shot at the big time. The premise is absurd: a computer fight simulation on a sports TV show pitches Rocky -The Italian Stallion- against current world champ (and generally cocky, arrogant little shit) Mason "The Line" Dixon. Rocky wins. So the fans and everybody else is wondering, what would happen for real? Thankfully the clunky plot device doesn't get in the way of enjoying the story.

Instead it opens the floodgates for a barrage of inspirational Balboa monologues. Keep pushing, strive to make the most of yourself, and when life hits you hard you get back up... and keep moving forward. That last one is a big theme throughout the movie. Whilst this could all come across as cheesy and a little hackneyed, from the mouth of Rocky it sounds genuine and sincere; the hard won philosophy of a simple guy.

It's a long time before the inevitable training montage kicks in, and not all the threads in the meantime work. Rocky's relationship with "Little Marie" and her son is engaging, but some of the scenes feel underdeveloped. Mason Dixon rarely feels more than two dimensional, but does have one good scene with his previous trainer. Conversely, watching Rocky struggle with the loss of his wife makes for some of the most touching, sad, yet beautiful moments in the whole movie.

An unexpectedly emotional journey, but don't worry as it ends with one hell of a fight! Capturing all the bombastic, overblown extravagance of modern boxing, it is a gruelling and often brutal showdown. Mixing what looks like high def digital camera with flashes of black and white, it's a visceral and visually satisfying finish.

As an end to the series you could wish for nothing finer. Cliched, cheesy, emotional, inspirational, and even uplifting. If you don't feel an overwhelming urge to rise from your cinema seat to chant "Rocky!" by time the credits roll, there's something wrong on the inside.


The Last King of Scotland

Told through the eyes of his personal doctor, The Last King of Scotland is an unusual yet chilling portrait of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker). What starts out as light hearted adventure, gradually plunges you into the dark heart of a complex man.

Newly graduated Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) leaves his parent's home for a remote mission in Uganda. Determined to make a difference over there, it is not long before his youthful spirit for adventure sees his path cross with that of the newly elected leader. After being invited to the capital, he is made an offer that will irrevocably alter his time in Uganda. Taking the role of personal physician, Garrigan becomes the vantage point from which we observe Amin -man of the people- change into a cruel, ruthless, and paranoid killer.

Whitaker's performance as Idi Amin is astonishing, and it's his scenes that make the movie so memorable. The hulking bear-like presence is genuinely intimidating, often terrifying. Whitaker portrays each facet of the man in such startlingly believable fashion, you dread the moment he appears. Which element will be on show: charming buffoon, idealistic man of the people, murderous dictator? Idi is all these things, yet despite the fear his appearance invokes there is a strong magnetism to the man drawing you in. It is genuinely chilling to watch someone so unpredictably brutal, yet also humorous and charming.

Sadly the same praise can not be passed on to other aspects of the film. The towering performance of Whitaker makes the average quality of the screenplay all the more obvious. As a device to portray Idi the story is at best functional. Supporting characters are not as fleshed out as they should be. An important sub plot involving the British foreign office is also minimally developed; all the more puzzling given it's relevance in the final reel.

It doesn't take much to read Garrigan as symbolic of Western foray in to African political affairs. A man seeing only what he wants to see, carrying himself with a mix of arrogance and ignorance. But watching the Doctor drink whiskey, sleep with married women, and blunder through horrific turmoil with complete naivety is often trying. Ultimately eliciting little sympathy, I found myself greeting his fate with indifference.

The Last King of Scotland is a good movie by virtue of one performance. As political comment it moves too swiftly over many details, but as an indirect portrait of Idi Amin it is compelling viewing.


2006 (pt1)

As the brash and unruly cinematic beast that is 2007 plays out it's opening act, it would seem prudent to take a moment and reflect on it's strange predecessor. Scarred by a soulless Summer season and some high profile disappointments, was 2006 a good year for movies?

A small disclaimer: Despite best efforts I still managed to populate a list headed "stuff I missed but wished I hadn't". Prime amongst them indie darling Little Miss Sunshine, garnering high praise from pretty much everyone. Stranger Than Fiction, Will Farrell does his Truman Show and proves he's a good actor as well as a leading comic. Also the Al Gore fronted documentary An Inconvenient Truth, Luc Besson's Angel-A, and Marie Antoinette (come on, it has New Order on the soundtrack!). Still, I guess that's what DVD rental is for.

Twelve months on and it's easy to forget how strongly 2006 opened. Politically minded movie making was back on the bill, challenging audiences on a number of issues. Lord of War took on the small arms trade, highlighting the hypocrisy of Western government policy. (It also features a brilliant performance from Nicolas Cage, a morally empty yet strangely compelling arms dealing protagonist.) Next was a black and white slice of near perfection Good Night, And Good Luck. Directed by George Clooney, this look back at one of the high profile media clashes of the McCarthy era was eerily identifiable with our own troubled climate. Clooney cropped up again not long after in Syriana, a complex weaving of storylines revolving around the oil industry and it's inexorable link to the troubled Middle East. As if that wasn't enough, Steven Speilberg (of all people) then gave a thoroughly gripping account of Mossad retaliation for the Black September incident in Munich. Phew, it was shaping up to be a memorable year.

But it all went strangely wrong. In the run up to the Summer blockbuster season, several smaller projects disappointed. V for Vendetta was a pale shadow of it's source material, and proved once and for all the Wachowski brothers screw up every film they touch by tacking on a "redemptive power of love" ending. Underworld Evolution had it's moments of mindless fun, but ultimately proved underwhelming. Things then proceeded to get even worse with the frankly appalling Silent Hill; disturbingly atmospheric visuals, but little in the way of narrative or acting ability.

The big guns were on the horizon though, and Tom Crusie vehicle Mission Impossible 3 was first on the scene. Despite the lukewarm reaction, this turned out to be a first rate popcorn action flick. Skillfully tackled by J. J. Abrams, it would be the only major flick that delivered during those long sun drenched months. Slick, entertaining, and oh so enjoyable to watch. Which is more than can be said for the superhero outings that followed it. X-Men 3: The Last Stand was a disappointing end to the series. A convoluted mash of poorly realised ideas, and far too many characters for anyone but the fanboys to care. If only Brian Singer had stayed on as director, it may have been so much more; or would it? Jumping ship as he did to helm Superman Returns, which sadly proved a little underwhelming. Plenty of introspective character brooding and questioning the need for a hero, let down by being overly long and the fact Superman is just a little too invincible.

So leave it to Johnny Depp and his piratey chums to prevent the cinema audiences from leaving for good. With the second longest title of the year, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest was good old fashioned swashbuckling family entertainment. It was a good forty minutes too long, but after the dire outings that preceded it I wasn't going to complain too loudly.

A tumultuous ride thus far, where we on the verge of an up turn in cinematic fortunes?