Thursday, 5 March 2015

TV MOVIE: Sabrina Goes to Rome (1998)

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Sabrina Goes to Rome (USA, 1998)
Directed by Tibor Takács
Starring Melissa Joan Hart, Eddie Mills, Tara Charendoff, James Field

Most films borne out of TV series are used as a means to bookend their characters. The Inbetweeners Movie and a host of lesser British offerings stake their entire appeal on the characters stepping out of their comfort zones into what may be their last adventure. It's a tactic that regularly backfires, with audiences being sold short with the plot and constantly bothered by the televisual nature of the script and visuals.
 
But alongside this group of films is another, smaller camp of offerings which tend to be more successful, or at least more bearable. These are the films which are made in the middle of a series' run, either as a necessary slice of canon, or as a compression of past plot points to pull in new audiences after the show becomes successful. Sabrina Goes to Rome is not as successful in this regard as, say, The X-Files, but it is reasonably good fun given its made-for-TV status.
 
The first thing to say about Sabrina Goes to Rome is that it is not designed to pull in any new fans. If you're already a fan of the series (as I was growing up), you'll recognise almost everything that made it so much fun and adjust to the few details that are different, such as the European setting. If, on the other hand, you are coming to Sabrina for the first time, you may get something out of it, but chances are you'll enjoy it less than if you'd seen a couple of episodes.
 
That said, there's very little about this film which makes it a vital part of the Sabrina canon. Unlike the Doctor Who TV movie, which attempted to reinvent the show's main character, the plot of Sabrina Goes to Rome is almost completely inconsequential. It doesn't have any influential bearing on the arcs of individual seasons of the show, nor does it run roughshod over the canon like many of the Doctor Who specials. It is, to use a motoring term, nothing more than an optional extra for the fans.
 
The second thing to say about this film is that it just avoids the trap of so many American films set in Europe, namely resorting to national stereotypes to make its main characters either stand out or seem superior. The film does lean on stereotypical notions of Italian food, and it can't resist throwing in plenty of shots of the Colliseum or people on scooters. But it's not quite in the same league as Sex and the City 2, whose vulgar tastelessness was as baffling as its utter lack of self-awareness.
 
Because the film was made primarily for US audiences who were already fans of the show, it doesn't feel the need to pander too greatly to British or European expectations of what the show should be like. Despite the immensely cliched depiction of its British character (more on her later), it's still very much the same tone as the TV series. There's still the odd but irresistable balance between the loopy, offbeat 1960s appeal of Bewitched and a more modern sensibility driven by 1990s pop culture and a mainstream version of teenage angst.
 
But while the TV series had the ability to be dark (or at least mysterious) every once in a while, Sabrina Goes to Rome is as light and frothy as a cappucino. While there is a mystery element to the plot, the film is predominantly a comedy with romantic elements, and even when the characters change into animals or go back in time, it's handled in a very Austin Powers, brain-at-the-door manner.
 
Rather than demonstrate the breadth and depth of its characters, like The X-Files film did, Sabrina Goes to Rome is an extended episode with a lot of the stakes removed. Not only is the plot self-contained, but the stakes are along the lines of a half-hour episode, and the jokes are broadly similar. The only noticeable difference lies in how the moral of the story is conveyed, with neither of Sabrina's aunts being present to guide her on her travels.
 
In my review of Conspiracy, I talked a lot about how the production values of TV movies today are on a par with the top-end offerings of Hollywood and Europe. We no longer live in an age when you can guess where a piece of footage was intended to be shown by looking at its aspect ratio (TV is traditionally square, while film is widescreen). But while this is great for new offerings, it does have the affect of making TV films that were once visually acceptable look very dated.
 
For its day, Sabrina Goes to Rome looks okay. Director Tibor Takács is an unremarkable but competent TV director, having helmed several episodes of the revived series of The Outer Limits. But even by the standards of the later series, the visuals are uninspiring; the colours feel washed-out and the lighting is substandard in places. The most noticeable problem is the special effects; they were fine in the TV series, but on the big screen they look really cheap and unconvincing.
 
When it comes to the characters, the film is much of a muchness. On the one hand, it suffers greatly from the absence of many of the series regulars; the conflict between Sabrina's aunts was always one of the highlights of episodes, and none of the mortals react quite so well to Sabrina's evasive behaviour as Harvey did. In this vacuum, Tara Chanderoff (later Strong) is unconvincing as the incompetent Gwen, and Eddie Mills is largely unmemorable as Paul. That only leaves Salem, who is reduced here from a witty source of one-liners to having a one-dimensional obsession with food.
 
On the other hand, the film does feature Melissa Joan Hart in her prime, managing to lend credibility to the most ridiculous of situations - or at least doing so for just long enough before things move on. She's clearly having a lot of fun, particularly in the period drama scenes, and her natural charisma prevents the whole plot from collapsing into a feeble mess. While her performance isn't enough to completely redeem the film, it is the aspect which most makes it watchable.
 
The only other characteristic to note about Sabrina Goes to Rome is that its story is driven primarily by women. This was true of the series too, but series driven by women who are actually written as women are disappointingly rare. For all its shortcomings, the film does give us a strong female lead who is intelligent and resourceful enough to drive the plot forward under her own steam. Sabrina's romance with Paul is almost incidental, which both makes the plot more innocuous and prevents the film from being just another romantic comedy in which the woman takes a passive role.
 
Sabrina Goes to Rome is an innocuous TV movie which is watchable by virtue of being so similar to the series that inspired it. The fact that it is so inconsequential in relation to the wider arc of the series might lead one to conclude that it is actually pointless, but Hart's performance is ultimately enough to make the experience worthwhile. While it falls short of the heights reached by individual episodes, there are many worse ways to wile away one's time.

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NEXT REVIEW: Accepted (2006)

Monday, 2 March 2015

RIP Leonard Nimoy

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It can hardly have escaped your attention that Leonard Nimoy, he of the pointy ears and raised eyebrows, has passed away at the age of 83. Tributes have been paid by his Star Trek colleagues, others in the acting community and even by President Obama. And now that Spock has been laid to rest, on a planet other than Genesis, I figured I would give my two cents on Nimoy's passing.
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I'll say from the outset that I have a very mixed relationship with all things Star Trek. I admire much of the spirit under which the original series was made, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is a very fine offering. But even as an ardent sci-fi fan, there's something about Star Trek which has always seemed horribly po-faced and naff, and like Doctor Who its limitations are nearly always as prominent as its successes. My earliest memories of 'Trek were watching re-runs on BBC2 with my Dad, laughing at the plastic rocks, the monsters made out of pipe cleaners, and William Shatner's total inability to act.
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As such, while I do accord Spock his rightful place in Nimoy's filmography, it's not the performance for which I'll remember him most fondly. At the sillier end of the scale, his work on the Mission: Impossible series is really enjoyable, and has stood the test of time just as well as any of the most lauded 'Trek episodes. At the other extreme, there's his Saturn-nominated role in Philip Kaufman's Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, which still has one of the scariest and bleakest endings in horror cinema. And let's not forget that he was also a decent director, helming two of the better 'Trek films and Three Men and a Baby.
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Some of Nimoy's best work, at least in his later career, came when he completely took the piss out of himself. His two appearances in The Simpsons, 'Marge vs. the Monorail' and 'The Springfield Files', are among the finest celebrity cameos that the show has enjoyed. His later appearances in Futurama and The Big Bang Theory follow the same pattern. And unlike Shatner, who has embraced self-parody as a means to keep himself in the limelight, Nimoy always seemed at ease with himself and his level of fame. That and he's the only person ever to make Bruno Mars' music sound cool.
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If you want to pay tribute to Nimoy and you don't fancy a 'Trek marathon, I would recommend either a marathon of Mission: Impossible, a late-night screening of Invasion of the Body-Snatchers or a Simpsons double bill. If you're still in need of 'Trek, click here for a Letter of Note between the series' creator Gene Roddenberry and sci-fi master Isaac Asimov about Spock overshadowing Kirk. Failing that, listen to this poignant snippet from I Am Spock, in which Nimoy recalls the filming of Spock's death scene in The Wrath of Khan. RIP.
Daniel

Friday, 20 February 2015

KIDS' STUFF: Ella Enchanted (2004)

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Ella Enchanted (Ireland/ UK/ USA, 2004)
Directed by Tommy O'Haver
Starring Anne Hathaway, Hugh Darcy, Cary Elwes, Steve Coogan

British films often have a reputation for being creaky, twee and altogether more modest than their American counterparts. Ken Russell's mother used "a British picture" as shorthand for any film that was drab and dreary, in contrast to the glossy Stateside offering available when she made those comments in the 1930s. Sometimes critics on this side of the pond attempt to embrace, defend or reappropriate this creakiness, usually as a defensive criticism of Hollywood. We defend films that don't quite work on the grounds that at least they're not as sanitised, manicured and anodyne as American fare. 
 
Ella Enchanted is a classic case in point where our common sense, objective reaction comes face to face with this apologetic tendency. There is a lot about Tommy O'Haver's film which is creaky, or half-cocked, or just a little bit twee. It feels like a film out of another time, before the goalposts for fantasy and fairy tale cinema were irreversibly shifted by Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. But in spite of all its flaws, the film is ultimately a passable affair which does have one or two surprises in store.
 
The most natural point of comparison within the fantasy genre would be Stardust, another British (or part-British) film in which the somewhat second-rate production values are ultimately trumped by our empathy for the characters. Purely on a cast level, Ella Enchanted boasts a slightly more A-list roster, with future Oscar winner Anne Hathaway in the lead and fantasy veteran Cary Elwes as our villain. But Stardust is drawing from the well of fantasy tropes more deeply and affectionately, while Ella Enchanted is essentially a romantic comedy in a period frock, with magic.
 
Both Stardust and Ella Enchanted are aimed very consciously at more of a family audience than The Lord of the Rings. While the films achieved similar certificates from the BBFC, Peter Jackson's trilogy is darker, more multi-layered, and altogether more ambitious. It's not just that he has a bigger budget to play with, or that J. R. R. Tolkien's books are longer and more complex: it's that his ambitions for the characters and what they represent are greater and more fully realised. Stardust and Ella Enchanted are much flimsier affairs, whose appeal comes from whimsy and escapist enjoyment rather than anything more profound or visceral.
 
Don't presume, however, Ella Enchanted is a film with nothing between its ears. Strip away the fantasy trappings and you discover a film about women taking charge of their own destinies. Our heroine goes through her entire life being at the mercy of other people, most of whom exploit her for their cruel, near-sadistic satisfaction. She obeys because she has no choice, her gift (or should that be curse) reflecting a world in which women are often denied the agency or independence they deserve.
 
Considering that the film is at its heart a frothy romantic comedy (with big dollops of pantomime), the way in which it approaches this idea is surprisingly sophisticated. A lot has been written about how misogyny is caused as much by women shaming other women as it is by the actions of men, something which is reflected in the film. Many of Ella's tormentors are other women, who pick on her because they are jealous of her, insecure about themselves or too lazy to improve their lot in life. And unlike some of Hathaway's subsequent rom-com run-ins (for instance, Bride Wars), the film avoids just degenerating into one long catfight, in which all the women are fighting amongst themselves and all the men are completely innocent or oblivious.
 
When doing publicity for this film, Hathaway said that one of the reasons she liked it was the way in which it "makes fun of itself for being a fairy tale". It's certainly the case that the film is attempting to poke fun at many fairy tale tropes, including the lack of agency in some of the roles accorded to women. Ella's sisters are clearly inspired by the ugly stepsisters in Cinderella, and there are vague nods to Snow White and Sleeping Beauty when the lovers first meet. But the film doesn't act too deferentially towards these elements, putting a sense of fun over any form of fidelity.
 
Unfortunately, this tactic of sending up the fairy tale trappings has the side effect of bringing the film's creakiness to the fore. There are some nice visual touches along the way, such as the escalator in the mall which is made of wood and cranked by hand. But the film lacks the edge or energy of Shrek both in its vague desire to be satirical and the strength of its relationships outside of this. Much like The Princess Bride, it ends up wanting to have its cake and eat it, and it isn't as funny or as well made as Rob Reiner's film.
 
A great deal of Ella Enchanted plays out like a ramshackle pantomime. I've spoken before about the shared roots between pantomimes and fairy tales, and so this is not entirely a surprise. But unlike Sleeping Beauty, the pantomime spirit here comes out in how shakily the film is assembled, both aesthetically and narratively. Pantomime is driven by characters reacting to events rather than acting in spite of them, but many of the obstacles our characters face are shoddily executed.
 
The scene with the giants is a very good example of this. The sequence puts us in familiar fairy tale territory (Jack and the Beanstalk and all that), and we have a romantic element to drive the plot forward. There are some good, fun moments, the best being Hathaway's spirited and convincing rendition of Queen's 'Somebody To Love' (like Les Miserables, it's all her own singing). But we also have to deal with the bad forced perspective and the ropey CG effects which make the film look like it was made in the 1950s.
 
Many of the scenes with Cary Elwes fall into the same camp. Elwes is a versatile actor, and he does do lip-curling antagonists rather convincingly. But everything about his character is made a little bit more ridiculous than it needs to be, right down to the laughable size of his massive staff. While Elwes works hard to make it look like he's not telegraphing the plot to the audience (which, of course, he is), you're always left wondering whether his appearance is a sly joke or simply a poor piece of design.
 
Much of the blame for this lies with the director. Tommy O'Haver is at best a nuts-and-bolts filmmaker: he's well-meaning, and can make a plot move for a certain amount of time, but his visual decisions are unconvincing and often derivative. In this case he is ill-equipped to create an absorbing fantasy universe, in which every piece has a logic behind it or represents a compelling idea. In his hands the fantasy world feels like a parade of half-finished concepts, endless sidekicks and poor special effects.
 
As far as the performances are concerned, O'Haver does fare a little better. As with his previous film, Get Over It, he does give his female lead the room she needs to express herself; like Kirsten Dunst, Hathway's presence gradually grows and her comedic potential increases as the film goes on. It's not exactly a career-making performance, nor is she playing against type in her Princess Diaries period of roles. But she's charming and capable, and does manage to carry the story on her own.
 
Much like Get Over It, however, many of the supporting cast don't get the same amount of flexibility. Lucy Punch has gradually carved out a niche for herself in Hollywood comedies, but here she's largely one-note and regularly over-eggs it in an annoying way. Joanna Lumley is the ideal choice for the wicked stepmother figure, but she's less convincingly wicked here than she was in James and the Giant Peach. Jimi Mistry doesn't get as much screen time as his work on East is East would lead us to expect, and Eric Idle's narration is as flat and superfluous as his Stardust counterpart.
 
Ella Enchanted is a passable romcom in a fantasy outfit which will entertain young viewers quite happily over its running time. While aspects of its characterisation are sophisticated and it is sporadically good fun, it is far too creakily mounted and limiting in places to be given a clean bill of health. Stardust remains the superior family fantasy, but for a quite afternoon in with the grandchildren, there are worse things you could throw at them.

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NEXT REVIEW: Sabrina Goes to Rome (1998)

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

KIDS' STUFF: Shrek the Third (2007)

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Shrek the Third (USA, 2007)
Directed by Raman Hui & Chris Miller
Starring Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, Antonio Banderas

One of the most disappointing things that can happen to a film series is when commercial pressures begin to dictate the creative shape of sequels. While many film series begin life as cash cows (including many modern comic book adaptations), most series start to lose whatever edge they originally had as they become more successful. The second something becomes a commercial hit, any follow-up tends to play it safe to protect the brand and the dozens of people who are working on it.
 
When Shrek was released, it was a big gamble for a studio that was still finding its feet in a marketplace that was still in its infancy. Shrek 2 built on the phenomenal success of the first film while generally retaining its spirit. But after that film became Dreamworks' biggest hit (which it remains to this day), Jeffrey Katzenberg and his cohorts sought to eke out the series, providing more money at the expense of allowing genuine creativity to flourish. Through a combination of playing it safe and being short of ideas, Shrek the Third is desperately mediocre.
 
Defenders of Shrek the Third (yes, they do exist) would argue its worth in one of two ways. The first and less substantial angle is that it's not as bad as it could have been, given the general quality of threequels and animated sequels in general. But while it's true that this is not as much of a mess as, for instance, Evil Dead 3: Army of Darkness, it misunderstands and waters down its central character every bit as much as, say, Superman III. In the hands of Raman Hui and Chris Miller, the title character is reduced from his substantial beginnings to a hollow and wearisome pastiche.
 
The second school of apologists will argue that the film's ideas are very much in keeping with the first two instalments. The plot is still based on a subversion of fairy tale tropes, in this case with the bad guys defying narrative convention and wanting their 'happily ever after'. And the execution of these ideas, at least at first glance, appears tp be very similar, with plenty of action scenes set to popular music and our villain having a misplaced sense of ambition and moral outrage.
 
There is some truth in this, and it is possible that these ideas could have been executed in a better-written, more fulfilling way. But neither Hui nor Miller are able to carry through the ideas to their spirited, natural conclusions, either because they were constrained by decrees from on high or because they lacked the talent in themselves. Neither has gone on to demonstrate any real potential outside of this series, with Miller participating in the seemingly endless Madagascar franchise and Hui doing little outside of short films based off already successful features.
 
If there is a single word that can sum up Shrek the Third, it is weak. The script is particularly weak, being more concerned with moving from one joke to the next via predictable plot points than it is about developing the characters and moving our fantasy world on a little bit. It's easy to forget, as I stated in my review, how well-written the first Shrek was, both as a deconstruction of Disney tropes and a genuinely insightful love story. Shrek the Third, by contrast, goes for the obvious and predictable route in all its developments, and often feels like it has forgotten what it is and where it came from in the first place.
 
Many of the narrative touches in Shrek the Third have been done better elsewhere. The Sword in the Stone painted Arthur as a reluctant weed more than forty years earlier, and for all the baggage that Wolfgang Reitherman brings with him, it is a much better film. The Princess Bride toyed with the idea of the prince being a completely pompous slimeball, and while Rob Reiner's film has issues, Prince Humperdinck has more of a motivation than Prince Charming.
 
Not only is the plot less original than the first two films, but it feels far more inconsequential and innoucuous - it feels, in other words, like an awful lot of padding. While there are moments of humour, the film doesn't take the characters forward from where we left them in Shrek 2, feeling more like the next instalment of an episodic TV series than a genuinely worthwhile sequel. Most of the plot points are distractions to get Shrek out of the picture, because if he was in the same place as Prince Charming for too long, it would all fall apart.
 
This brings us on to Charming himself.. As enjoyable a presence as he was in Shrek 2, the fact is that he can't hold his own as a villain. While his motivation is perfectly okay, his modus operandi is altogether flimsy and pathetic. Farquaad and the Fairy Godmother were compelling villains because they had threatening goals, namely driving out fairy tale creatures and gaining control of a kingdom. Charming's plan, to cathartically kill Shrek as part of an overly elaborate stage show, is devoid of ambition or common sense, and its execution is laboured to the point of being tedious.
 
The cast of Shrek the Third sound laboured too, with most of the main performers doing just enough to hold our attention. Mike Myers seems less at ease with the character; he plays the part like he's doing an impression of his earlier performances, and there's less of a spring in his step. Eddie Murphy and Cameron Diaz are both passable but unmemorable, and even Antonio Banderas is reduced as Puss in Boots.
 
The supporting cast are equally disappointing. Justin Timberlake would later prove his worth in The Social Network, but his casting here seems entirely motivated by brand name recognition; he's in the film because he's a hearthrob that will bring in teenagers, not because he can act. Likewise Eric Idle makes the very least of his role as Merlin, which is surprising given his previous dabblings in Grail lore, but entirely unsurprising given his status as a complete sell-out.
 
The comedy in Shrek the Third is much more laboured than before. It's not just that the writing is weaker, it's that the franchise is trying too hard to be cool when its strength always lay in being edgy - the cool factor came as a result of being willing to take a risk. Hearing Shrek trying to talk street to Artie is downright painful, and even Pinocchio's verbal acrobatics, which should be funny, takes an age to unfold.
 
In spite of all these massive problems, there are brief passages in which Shrek the Third hits its mark and remembers how good it can be. The sight gags at the start are funny, whether it's Shrek sinking the ship he's meant to be launching or causing a chain reaction which leads to a massive fire. There are some nicer sadder moments too, with Damien Rice's soundtrack contribution being a stand-out.
 
The two highlights of the film come at complete opposite ends of the spectrum. One is Harold's death scene, with John Cleese wringing out every last ounce he can: he plays up the laughs while understanding its serious underpinning, something that Cleese has always done well. The other is Shrek's nightmare, in which he becomes swamped by a sea of ogre babies. If you're a horror fan, you'll simply be impressed that anyone could reference Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist and The Brood in less than a minute.
 
Shrek the Third is a mediocre third instalment and represents the low point of the Shrek series. It's not completely terrible, possessing small pockets of visual humour and occasionally hitting the emotional marks of its predecessors. But for the most part it's a poorly-told pale imitation, with its eyes firmly on the audience's wallets rather than their heads and hearts.

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NEXT REVIEW: Ella Enchanted (2004)

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Series Tracker

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Back in October, I announced a number of changes to the amount of features that would be appearing on Mumby at the Movies, including the abandonment of Blog Spot and a curtain of future WhatCulture! contributions. Those of you with good memories may also recollect that I retired my IMDb Top 250 updates due to lack of progress, with the last such update occuring in June last year.

I've not been able as yet to delieve on a number of the promises I made in my 'Forthcoming Attractions' video on YouTube, as far as reviewing certain film series go. So to keep you informed and me motivation, I'm launching a new section called 'Series Tracker'.

In essence, I'll be doing a post here once a month, showing how far I've got in different film series. In each case I'll list the films in question and either link to their corresponding reviews or state that they are forthcoming. I will add series as we go along depending on my viewing habits. Please note I won't be including series which only have two films in them, such as Despicable Me and Percy Jackson, but if further films in those series come along then they will be include at a later date.

So, here's where we stand at this given date and time. Take the time to check out my reviews as they are, and hopefully by next month the list will have a lot more links in it. Enjoy!

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Alien
Alien - review
Aliens - review
Alien 3 - review
Alien Resurrection - review
Prometheus - review

Batman
Batman - review
Batman Returns - review
Batman Forever - review
Batman and Robin - review
Batman Begins - review
The Dark Knight - review
The Dark Knight Rises - review

Beverly Hills Cop
Beverly Hills Cop - review
Beverly Hills Cop II - review
Beverly Hills Cop III - review

Evil Dead Trilogy
The Evil Dead - review
Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn - review
Evil Dead 3: Army of Darkness - review

Harry Potter
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone - review
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets - review
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - forthcoming
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire - forthcoming
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix - forthcoming
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - forthcoming
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 - forthcoming
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 - forthcoming

Indiana Jones
Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark - review
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom - review 
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade - review
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - review

Living Dead Trilogy
Night of the Living Dead - review - podcast
Dawn of the Dead - review
Day of the Dead - review

Mick Travis Trilogy
If.... - review - podcast 
O Lucky Man! - review - podcast
Britannia Hospital - review - podcast

Shrek
Shrek - review
Shrek 2 - review
Shrek the Third - forthcoming
Shrek Forever After - forthcoming

Star Wars
 
Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace - review
Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones - review
Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith - review
Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope - review
Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back - review
Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi - review

Step Up
Step Up - review
Step Up 2: The Streets - review 
Step Up 3 - review
Step Up 4: Miami Heat - review
Step Up 5: All In - forthcoming   

The Lord of the Rings
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring - review
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers - review 
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King - review


The Hobbit
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - review
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug - review
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies - forthcoming

Three Colours Trilogy
Three Colours Blue - review
Three Colours White - review
Three Colours Red - review not available

Daniel