Review: “Speed” (Film)

Well, since “Speed” happened to be on TV the night before I prepared this review, I thought that I’d set up the DVR.

Although I’d vaguely thought about looking at this film during my “1990s films” review series a month or two ago, I decided against it at the time (partly due to the cost of second-hand DVD copies and partly due to the film’s running time).

Plus, since it’s a film that I haven’t seen since I watched it on VHS sometimes during the early-mid 2000s, I thought that it was about time that I took another look at it. Yes, everyone’s probably already seen this film at least once. But, well, nostalgia.

So, let’s take a look at “Speed”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

“Speed” is an action/thriller film from 1994 starring Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock. It begins in an office building in California, where a criminal (played by Dennis Hopper) threatens to crash a sabotaged lift full of people if he isn’t paid $3 million.

When the police arrive, bomb squad officers Jack (Keanu Reeves) and Harry (Jeff Daniels) decide to attempt a daring rescue. However, after eventually managing to free the passengers from the lift before it plummets into oblivion, Jack realises that the criminal must still be in the building. In fact, he’s in the lift beside the one he sabotaged.

With a shotgun too! The fiend!

After a tense stand-off, in which Harry is wounded, the criminal manages to get away. But, given that the passengers were saved, the cops decide to call it a day and celebrate.

Well, that was a short film. Huh? There’s more…

The next morning, Jack is nursing a hangover and getting ready to go back to work when a nearby bus explodes in a spectacular fashion. After realising that he can’t save the driver, he notices that a nearby payphone is ringing. Picking it up, he suddenly realises that he’s talking to the criminal from the office – who is absolutely furious that he didn’t get his three million dollars.

Yay! Payphones! This is wonderfully ’90s 🙂

The criminal tells Jack that he’s planted another bomb on the 2525 bus and that, once the bus goes above 50mph, the mechanism will be activated. However, if the bus then goes less than 50mph, it will detonate. Needless to say, Jack has to find that bus….

I mean, it’d be a pretty short, dull and depressing film if he didn’t

One of the first things that I will say about this film is that it is a textbook example of an action thriller movie done right. This film is like a carefully-orchestrated symphony, with a defined three-act structure (involving a lift, a bus and a train) and expertly-controlled suspense.

Every few minutes, something will happen that helps to ramp up the tension. For example, the bus’s fuel tank will spring a leak, there will be a traffic jam etc… Seriously, this film is a testament to the power of creativity and inventiveness. Not only is the premise of keeping a bus travelling more than 50mph a fairly inventive one, but the fact that the film is able to keep what is essentially a one-hour bus journey thrillingly suspenseful is quite an achievement.

Yes, the film actually manages to make THIS thrilling!

The film’s three-act structure is also handled really well too. The first segment of the film, involving a lift, helps to introduce the premise of the film in a thrilling way. The second act, set on the bus, is pretty much a self-contained thriller film in it’s own right. Then the final segment of the film, set on a train, allows for a dramatic resolution to the few plot points that were left unresolved in the second act.

Yes, the remaining plot points are resolved… with a vengeance!

In addition to making the film seem like “three films in one”, this structure also helps to counterbalance the film’s relatively long (by 1990s standards) running time. Although I was initially wary about the fact that the film is nearly two hours long, it never feels bloated. If anything, it almost feels like they’ve managed to cram three hours worth of storytelling into those two hours. In other words, this is a rare example of a relatively long film that actually justifies it’s length.

Another inventive thing about this film is that, for a thriller movie, it is relatively non-violent.

Yes, there are a few explosions and several scenes involving guns. But, the main “action” in the film revolves around the film’s main characters using both teamwork and their brains in order to save lives and outwit the criminal. Although Jack is the film’s main “hero”, he’s nothing without other characters such as Harry, a passenger called Annie (played by Sandra Bullock) and the other police officers.

This focus on teamwork helps to add a small amount of “realism” to the film too.

This focus on realistic teamwork and intelligent fast-paced problem-solving also helps to lend the film a warm “feel-good” emotional tone that you don’t really get in “lone hero” action movies or more modern superhero-based action movies. This focus on teamwork in the thriller genre is something from the 1990s (which can also be seen in movies like “Broken Arrow” and games like the original “Resident Evil) which you don’t really see quite as often today. And, well, I really miss when films used to be like this.

In addition to this, the film also contains a small amount of social commentary too. The main motivation behind the villain’s actions (apart from extreme greed) is the fact that he’s a retired man with a meagre pension and a feeling that there’s no purpose to his life.

Likewise, the rear end of the bus has a sarcastic advertising poster that reads “Money isn’t everything (yeah, right.)“. Given that the film’s villain is obsessed with money, to the point of being willing to kill for it, this small detail really adds something to the film.

The film’s special effects and action sequences still stand up extremely well to this day. Since the film uses timeless practical effects and has a fairly large budget, the effects still look pretty spectacular. These include everything from lots of extremely well-choreographed vehicle stunts, a couple of relatively understated combat scenes to a number of melodramatic explosions.

Like this one.

Plus, although the film is mostly set during the day and within bright, summery locations- there is at least a small amount of the kind of really cool ultra-gloomy lighting and inventive set design that is so characteristic of films from the 1980s/1990s (which can mostly be found within the final third of the film):

Such as this mildly futuristic-looking underground train track.

Or this vaguely “Blade Runner”-esque train station concourse.

Or this wonderfully gloomy lighting in the villain’s secret lair.

The film’s acting and characterisation is fairly good too. Although Keanu Reeves plays the kind of stoic character that you would expect him to play, he is contrasted brilliantly by Sandra Bullock’s expert performance as a more reluctant hero. Her character’s courage is emphasised by the fact that she reacts to a lot of the film’s events in a more realistic way (eg: shock, sarcasm, nervousness etc..). Seriously, this is one of Bullock’s best performances.

Plus, she also gets many of the best lines in the film too.

In addition to this, Dennis Hopper’s performance as the film’s villain is really good too. Whilst he comes across as slightly maniacal, he tends to be a slightly more understated evil character who bears a grudge and is willing to sink to any sociopathic depth in order to get the money he feels is owed to him.

The only slight flaw in the film is probably the dialogue. Since the emphasis is on the thrilling and suspenseful events of the film, the dialogue often tends to take a back seat. Yes, there are some fairly good lines of dialogue in the film but most of the dialogue is just “functional” realistic dialogue that fits in well with the events of the film. It’s ok, but nothing spectacular.

All in all, this is the kind of fun, thrilling “feel-good” popcorn movie that shows why the cinema of the 1990s is still highly-regarded to this day. It has an inventive premise, a well-designed structure, almost constant suspense and an emphasis on both teamwork and intelligent problem-solving. There’s a good reason why this film is regarded as a classic. It’s a timeless example of a well-made thriller movie.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would just about get five.

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Review: “While You Were Sleeping” (Film)

Well, after a brief hiatus, my “1990s Films” review series is back! And, for today, I thought that I’d take a look at a Christmas-themed romantic comedy from 1995 called “While You Were Sleeping”. Surprisingly, I hadn’t even heard of this film until I happened to notice it when browsing online a few days before watching it.

But since it was a “1990s American Christmas” film and since it seemed to have some positive reviews online, it seemed like it could be worth watching. So, I decided to get a second-hand DVD of it and see for myself.

So, let’s take a look at “While You Were Sleeping”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS. Then again, it’s a romantic comedy and… well….

The DVD cover itself is a massive spoiler!

“While You Were Sleeping” begins with a character called Lucy (played by Sandra Bullock) reminiscing about her childhood and some of the inspirational things that her father said to her.

However, after his death, she has ended up working as a ticket booth clerk in a railway station in Chicago. She also leads a wonderfully peaceful and solitudinous life too (which is somehow a “bad” thing, because it’s a Hollywood movie).

Of course, this is presented as “lonely” rather than relaxing. Because, well, Hollywood.

But, she has a crush on a handsome businessman called Peter (played by Peter Gallagher) who passes through the station every day. Yet, she can’t quite bring herself to ask him out.

However, on Christmas Eve, some hooligans approach him on the train platform and, after a brief scuffle, push him onto the tracks. Witnessing this, Lucy rushes to the train tracks and finds that he’s unconscious. Luckily, she manages to pull him out of the way before he is run over by a train.

Pictured: Peter scuffling with some hooligans.

Later, she decides to visit him in hospital. However, the doctor will only allow family members to see him. So, after a bit of confusion, one of the nurses tells the doctor that Lucy is Peter’s fiancee. When Lucy arrives in the room, Peter is in a coma. She stays and talks to him for a while but, before she can leave, Peter’s family show up and are surprised to hear that he has a fiancee. Feeling awkward about the situation, Lucy decides to play along.

Meh. What’s the worst that can happen?

But, as she gets to know Peter’s family better, she suddenly realises that there’s something developing between her and Peter’s brother Jack (played by Bill Pullman). Then, on New Year’s Day, Peter awakens from his coma…

Hey, where are all of the zombies? Ooops! Wrong movie.

One of the first things that I will say about this film is that it is very much a “feel good” movie. Although I was worried that the film’s premise would be cringe-worthily awkward to watch, there’s thankfully very little “suspense” in the film. All of the film’s potentially awkward situations are handled with a warmth and humour that helps to prevent the film from becoming nerve-wrackingly stressful to watch.

As for the film’s comedy elements, they’re reasonably good. Although there is a small amount of slapstick humour and some slight gross-out humour (eg: a character with a builder’s bum, a hilarious scene involving a story about a pencil etc..) most of the humour is more subtle and character-based, and it works really well.

Although there are some amusing lines of dialogue, many of the funniest moments of the film are when Lucy reacts to various events. The slightly farcical premise of the film is also a fairly good source of humour too. But, the comedy in this film is more of the subtle and light-hearted variety than the “laugh out loud” variety.

Seriously, I cannot praise Sandra Bullock’s acting in this film highly enough, particularly during the film’s subtle comedic moments.

Still, given that this is meant to be a “feel-good” Christmas-themed romantic comedy, this more subtle humour works really well. Not to mention that, due to the premise of the film, it is actually somewhat more of a comedy than a romance.

Yes, there is (sort of) a love triangle and the obligatory happy ending. But, for the most part, the film is more like a “feel good” comedy drama with some romantic elements, rather than a romance with comedy elements. Even so, the romantic elements of this film work fairly well.

And, yes, this scene is surprisingly heartwarming, even if it’s somewhat predictable.

Although some elements of the film’s story are a little bit predictable, there’s still a mild level of uncertainty about how the film is going to end whilst you are watching it. Not only that, the amusing misunderstandings between the characters and the film’s character-based drama also helps to keep the story compelling too.

As I mentioned earlier, this film’s story thankfully avoids nail-biting suspense or extreme awkwardness. This is achieved via some clever narrative devices – such as having two other characters (Lucy’s boss and Peter’s godfather) learn of the misunderstanding and either offer advice or, for various benevolent reasons, help Lucy to keep the pretence.

This scene where Peter’s Godfather tells Lucy to keep up the pretence is surprisingly heartwarming. Not to mention that it provides the set-up for several comedic moments later in the film too.

Likewise, one vaguely suspenseful part about Peter’s ex-fiancee Ashley (played by Ally Walker) showing up ends up being played more for laughs than for drama too.

Despite the vague suspense earlier in the film, Ashley’s main appearence is in this hilarious argument scene (and in an amusing scene later in the film).

Likewise, almost all of the characters in this film are friendly, funny and/or likeable in some way, which really helps to give the film a “feel good” kind of atmosphere. The stand-out character is, of course, Lucy – who manages to be somewhat shy and introverted, whilst also being fairly adept at dealing with the amusingly chaotic events of the film. Likewise, as I mentioned earlier, a fair amount of the film’s comedy comes from the subtle ways that Lucy reacts to various events.

Like in this scene involving some “spontaneous” redecorating.

Although the Christmas-related elements of this film are a little bit more understated than I expected, the film still manages to include a cosy, retro “1990s American Christmas” atmosphere that is an absolute joy to experience. Seriously, “cosy” would be a really good word to describe the atmosphere of this film.

In terms of lighting and set design, this film does fairly well. Although most of the set design is fairly “realistic” and looks a lot like something from a large-mid budget TV show, there are some absolutely beautiful shots of Chicago at night and of Christmas-themed locations too.

Such as this beautifully festive cityscape.

Or the wonderfully wintery exterior scenes in some parts of the film.

Or the awesome lighting in this short scene.

Musically, the film’s soundtrack is really good and it complements both the emotional tone of the film well. Whether it is the cheerful rendition of Natalie Cole’s “This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)” early in the film or the slightly older Christmas music that plays during several scenes, the film’s soundtrack really goes well with the story.

All in all, this is a fun, cosy “feel good” movie that is just a joy to watch. Whilst it might not be “laugh out loud” funny that often, it’s the kind of light-hearted movie that will leave you feeling more cheerful than you were when you started watching it. Although the romantic elements of the film are at least mildly predictable, the film does at least offer a mildly interesting variation on a typical “love triangle” plot and all of the film’s romantic elements work fairly well too.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least four.

Review: “Practical Magic” (Film)

Given that I’m absolutely fascinated by the 1990s and that comedy horror is one of my favourite genres, I’m genuinely surprised that it took me as long as it did to discover a film from 1998 called “Practical Magic”.

But, after finding a vaguely sensibly-priced secondhand DVD of it online, I thought that I’d check it out. And, surprisingly, it was a very different type of film to what I had initially expected.

So, let’s take a look at “Practical Magic”. Needless to say, this review will contain SPOILERS.

“Practical Magic” is a romantic comedy, with horror and dark comedy elements, that focuses on two sisters called Sally and Gillian Owens (played by Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman) who come from a family of witches and live with their two eccentric aunts, Frances and Jet (played by Stockard Channing and Diane West), in an old mansion.

Needless to say, Gillian is more of an extrovert and Sally is more of an introvert.

However, due to the tragic history of one of their distant ancestors, their family is also cursed too. The ancient curse claims the life of anyone that a member of the family truly falls in love with. Although Sally tried to protect herself from falling in love by casting a spell when she was younger, she eventually ends up starting a family with a fairly ordinary guy called Michael. Gillian, on the other hand, leaves town and ends up with a stunningly handsome and intriguingly mysterious guy called Jimmy.

Of course, things start to go wrong for both sisters after a while. After narrowly avoiding being run over by a swarm of cyclists whilst crossing the road, Michael is promptly hit by a truck. Stricken by grief, Sally returns to her aunts and begs them to bring him back from the grave. But, they refuse, claiming that such things don’t usually end well. Eventually, she decides to settle in her ancestral home and open a shop in the nearby town.

A while later, Gillian breaks up with Jimmy after he becomes violent towards her. When Sally goes to pick Gillian up from a motel, Jimmy shows up and kidnaps them. However, a while later, Sally accidentally ends up poisoning him. Panicked, the sisters attempt a resurrection spell.

With whipped cream, no less!

Jimmy suddenly returns to life as a zombie and, after a brief fight, Sally ends up killing him again with a frying pan. The sisters bury him in the garden and decide to keep the whole matter secret from their aunts. But, a few days later, a detective arrives in town looking for Jimmy….

I have very mixed views about this film. One the first things that I will say is that it is both more depressing and more uplifting than I’d originally expected. Although the film certainly contains some brilliantly comedic moments, it really isn’t as much of a comedy as I had expected. Likewise, the film’s horror elements are somewhat creepier and more “serious” than I’d originally expected too. In addition to this, at least one of the film’s romances is both predictable and implausible at the same time.

I don’t know, the film foreshadows this part of the plot, but their romance progresses in a somewhat random way.

Yet, it was a film that really had an emotional impact on me after I’d finished watching it. Although the actual story of the film is a somewhat strange mixture of tragedy, comedy, joy, tedium, creepy horror and emotional drama – this film is much more than the sum of it’s parts. Thanks to the characters, acting, settings and general “atmosphere” of the film, it is the kind of film that will linger in your imagination long after the credits roll.

What initially seems to be one of the film’s main weaknesses – the slightly slow pacing and occasional lack of narrative focus – actually helps the film quite a bit. This is mostly because it allows the film to focus more on the characters, the “atmosphere” and the settings. And this is where this film absolutely excels!

Both the acting and characterisation in this film are absolutely brilliant, with the friendly- but somewhat complicated- dynamics of the Owens family being a central part of the film.

And they even have random late night cocktail parties too.

All of the main characters are really interesting too – whether it’s Sally’s somewhat introverted personality and conflicted attitude towards her magical powers (and towards teaching her daughters magic), or Gillian’s more extroverted (and somewhat paranoid) personality, or Frances and Jet’s brilliantly sarcastic and relaxed attitude towards life, the characters in this film are absolutely excellent.

In addition to this, the film also creates an atmosphere of community through the adversity that the witches face. Whether it is the family curse, the business with Jimmy or the fact that everyone in the nearby town seems to be somewhat suspicious of them, the main characters often have to rely on each other a lot. This feeling of community is another emotional element that will probably linger with you once the credits roll.

However, there is a somewhat implausible (but incredibly uplifting) plot twist later in the film when a lot of people from the town suddenly rally around the witches in their hour of need, despite despising them earlier in the film. This sudden shift is a little bewildering, but it carries a surprising amount of emotional power. It also seems to carry a very slight amount of LGBT subtext too, with Sally’s mention of her own powers being likened to coming out.

Yes, the film tries to explain why some of the townspeople suddenly help out the witches by showing some of them mentioning vaguely intuitive/paranormal experiences in their own lives. Even so, their change in attitude is somewhat sudden/random – even if it works really well in emotional terms.

Likewise, the set design, lighting and effects in this film are astonishingly good too. The film’s locations often have a wonderfully interesting “olde worlde” look to them that is also very distinctively “90s” too. The old wooden mansion that a lot of the film takes place in is almost a character in and of itself, and it’s the kind of place that will linger warmly in your imagination after the film finishes.

The lighting in this film is, in a word, spectacular. As I’ve probably said before, people in the 1980s and 1990s certainly knew how to use lighting well and this film is no exception! Not only are many scenes filled with beautifully gothic gloom, but there are also some absolutely beautiful exterior shots of the mansion at night and even a really cool montage scene when Gillian drives a car.

Seriously, the lighting alone in this scene is brilliant, not to mention the cool time-lapse effects too.

And, wow! Just wow! This scene is a work of art!

And just check out the lighting here too. As I said, filmmakers certainly knew how to use lighting during the 1990s!

The film’s special effects are also really good too, mostly because – for a film about magic – they are surprisingly understated. Since they aren’t the main focus of the film, they often just seem like an organic part of the film rather than a “special effect”.

Although the film probably uses some CGI effects in a couple of scenes, these don’t really stand out as “old CGI” due to the fact that the audience’s attention is drawn towards the events that are happening, rather than the effects themselves.

For example, I’m not entirely certain whether the dust effects in this scene are CGI or not. Since this film’s effects are a bit more understated, it avoids the pitfall of “old CGI” that other films from the time can experience when viewed these days.

Likewise, if you’re a fan of the 1990s, then this film is crammed with 90s nostalgia. Whether it’s the fact that Faith Hill’s “This Kiss” plays during one scene, or the gloriously retro costume design in the film, or the optimistic parts of the ending, or the total lack of mobile phones, or the set design etc…. this film is very much from the 90s.

All in all, this is a film that is worth watching for everything except the story. The characters, the atmosphere, the set design, the lighting, the 1990s nostalgia, the comedic moments, the positive emotional moments and the horror elements are all absolutely brilliant. The story, on the other hand, is somewhat unevenly-paced, somewhat unfocused, occasionally implausible and occasionally rather depressing though.

Even so, as I mentioned earlier, this is one of those films which may not seem that impressive when you’re actually watching it but will linger in your imagination after you’ve finished watching.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least three and a half.